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We thought that Milan children’s museum (Museo dei bambini – MUBA) would be a good place to visit as a change of pace from more conventional museums we’ve been to in the past couple of weeks.

The MUBA is a neat place. The building itself stands in the middle of a garden, enclosed by a hexagonal baroque colonnade, Rotonda della Besana, which used to be a cemetery. It has multiple gates, but only one of them was open, so the inner courtyard was like a quiet oasis in the middle of a busy neighbourhood. Groups of teenagers were sitting on the steps of the colonnade, listening to music, hanging around, chatting, doing nothing. There was also a playground for small kids, but no-one was there, so our daughter had it all for herself, until she became cold, and we moved on.

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I realized that we’ve been pre-conditioned by our North American lifestyle to view teenagers hanging around as kind of delinquents by default – “Don’t they have anything better to do?” If there would be a bunch of 5-year-olds running around the playground, this would be another story – they would be playing, and playing is what 5-year-olds do. It is their job. They learn about the world through play.

I think this is not fair to the teens, though. Actually, hanging around in groups is what teenagers are supposed to do too. This is social networking in the best sense of the word. Teen years is when people learn to interact within the social groups, so hanging around together is, in fact, the best thing those guys and girls could do with their time. They were also learning about the world.

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The MUBA concept itself reminded me of Montessori system of education – the kids get to touch, scratch, push, kick everything, and through all this get some sort of educational input. The show, if it is the right term, that we went to was called “Forbidden not to touch”. It was design to showcase the ideas of tactile and kinesthetic learning developed by Bruno Minari, an artist and inventor, who was a native of Milan.

The museum website implied that it would be well suited to English speakers, but it turned out to be almost entirely in Italian. That was not a problem, though. The nature of the activities the kids were doing and the body language of the group leader were so self-explanatory that our daughter had no trouble following along with the group. That in itself was an impressive illustration of Munari’s concept with its departure from the conventional instructional mode.

Initially, our daughter was missing the group leader’s feedback. In fact, the leader was encouraging the kids to share their impressions after exploring each station. At that point, she did realized that our daughter did not understand Italian and switched to English with her.

To be fair, the crawling-touching-rubbing nature of the activities gave plenty of tactile feedback. It was certainly fun to watch, photograph and videotape (does anyone actually use tape anymore?). Incidentally, each child has to accompanied by an adult in these shows and vice versa – an adult is admitted only with a child.

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One serious drawback of this hands-on group activity is that it is a very efficient way for kids to contract and spread viruses. In fact, our daughter came down with a nasty stomach bug the next day after the visit to the museum. We even had to call a doctor for her. A home visit from a pediatrician is a luxury that doesn’t exist in Canada, so we were pleasantly surprised by how smooth and ‘human’ this experience had been.

It does put things in perspective when I think about he quality of life in Europe and Canada.

There is no way to say which place is better for living in the most general sense. The dottoressa, who treated our daughter was very nice and caring (and did I mention she came to our home right away?!)

That is all very nice, but the doctor said that the winter is not a good time for kids in Milan. The pollution is so high, that she said she always suggests leaving the city and going to the lakes “to breathe fresh air” at every opportunity. There is certainly a nasty flu going around the city. The doctor said the things would improve by March, when the weather changes. There is no ignoring the fact that we now live in a large, noisy, crowded, polluted city. The contrast with Victoria is particularly striking. Over there, we take the cleanliness of the air and the streets for granted.

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Drinking water is another thing that is very different here. A waitress asked us after learning that we were from Canada: “Is it true that the water in BC is so delicious that you can drink it right from the tap?” Yes, you actually can. Here in Milan, this is an impossibility. No restaurant serves tap water, and people use enormous numbers of plastic. Empty plastic bottles is the main material that children use for DIY projects in our daughter’s school.

It is a curious disbalance: the European lifestyle is distinctly more progressive, socially responsible, cultured and sustainable than the North American one in some respects, while distinctly backward in others. Some of the details that make up the country’s way of life are impossible to notice during a short visit. It takes living here over a substantial time period to start interacting with the place in more meaningful ways: finding were to buy good food, how to get plain point A to point B efficiently, how to call a doctor and where to go with a child on a rainy weekend.