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The Italy Chronicles II – Milan

March 23, 2008

Well, as could be expected, I didn’t keep up with that plan.

I’m back in Japan now, and really sorry for the delay. I’m having crazy computer problems, which are holding me up alot…. and also mean I can’t give you photos JUST yet. (Photos are up!) But let me tell you about the next part of my trip 🙂

I’m going to paraphrase my diary from now, because…. it’s just too long!

Customs at Milan airport was pretty strange. When I left Italy, I tried looking for my Italian stamp in my passport, and couldn’t find it. Then I remembered that was because I never got one. I arrived and headed to the exit, and was suddenly stopped by some short guy brandishing a silver badge hanging around his neck. “Hey. Where you come from?” He was doing that tough-guy thing of sort of looking over and behind my head as he was talking to me, and sort of sauntering even though he was standing still. I don’t remember if he was actually chewing gum or not, but I have the impression that he was. “What, just now?” “Yeah.” “Japan.” The guy thought for a while. “Where you stop over?” “Helsinki”. The guy chewed a bit more. “Why Japan?” I thought this was a pretty stupid question, but I answered anyway, though my tone of voice may have let him know what I thought, “I live there.” The guy thought and chewed for a bit longer, then walked off. I figured that meant I could enter the country. So I did. And that was all the security I came across.

Then I tried to catch the train, and got my first taste of how much I had overestimated the English language. My girlfriend is studying Italian, and prepared me a list of basics which I studied on the flight, but it really wasn’t enough. After hunting around for a place that looked like it might have sold tickets, I realised I had no idea how to order. I tried to ask for a ticket to my destination – I was staying at a guy’s place for my couple of nights in Milan who I had met on the internet for the express purpose of staying at his place, and I knew his station. The woman didn’t like it. “No. Cadorna, then subway”. OK. I got a ticket to Cadorna.

At Cadorna, I tried to find the subway station. There was absolutely zero English signage. I found it, and it looked like a horror movie. It was dirty and covered in graffiti and rubbish all over the brick and steel walls. The lights kept flickering. Considering I couldn’t speak much more than a word of the language, as was obviously a tourist, with my bags, it was pretty intimidating. Especially since I was tired and it was Saturday night, with loud drunk Italians everywhere. My girlfriend had told me Italy is big for robbery. I tried to look confident as I searched for my subway line. I was pretty confident that I found the right one, when I realised I had no idea how to get tickets. I found what looked like a subway map, and possibly a ticket vending machine, but there was no fare chart, and no indication of how the machine worked, just a touch screen covered in Italian. I watched a few people use it, navigating through a complex system of menus in Italian, before inserting money and getting a ticket. I had no chance. A group of not-overly-aggressive teenagers bought tickets, so I approached them. “Scusi”, I said, which got their attention, then I realized I had exhausted my Italian vocab. “Can anybody speak English?” Turns out one of them could, so he helped me buy a ticket. Turns out, wherever you’re going, one ticket is one euro. Hence no fare chart. It was really confusing. The guy whose place I stayed at later showed me how to change the interface to English, but it requires such a convoluted path that nobody other than an Italian speaker could do it in the first place.

I got on the subway, which was my first subway experience outside Japan – NZ doesn’t have them. It was horrible. I didn’t want to touch anything for fear of contracting something. As it turns out, I leant on a pole once, and my jacket got a weird black sticky substance all down it. Every time the train started or stopped, everyone standing stumbled a few steps through the sheer roughness of it. The doors looked like they closed with enough force to kill a man.

At my transfer point, I got off and started looking for the new line. After some searching, and completely misunderstood directions, I seemed to find the line I was looking for. I wanted the direction heading to Maciachini, but every time I navigated the catacombs in a way I thought was heading there, I kept seeing signs pointing to Uscita. I didn’t want to go to Uscita. So I had to backtrack a hundred times until I finally found the platform to Maciachini. I later realized Uscita means Exit.

I got to my host’s house, and he was on his way out to a party. I was in no mood to party, as it was about 7 or 8 am my time. I can’t sleep on planes. So he threw me the keys and headed out. I went to sleep.

The next morning, after admiring some classic Italian house fittings, such as the bidet, I headed out. I had no idea where anything in Milan was, or even really where I was – I had intended to ask my host, but he had got back late and was still sleeping. On the basic map in the phone directory, there seemed to be something near Cadorna, so I headed back there.

I have decided that Italian people have no shame about being openly affectionate in public. Many times, I saw young couples really going for it in public places – especially in the dirty subway, of all places – I guess they’re either bored or it’s just a really romantic spot. Especially after coming from Japan, where people won’t even hold hands without a prior written arrangement, it was kind of a shock. I was also enjoying how stereotypically Italian everybody looked, with their big eyes and big triangular noses that don’t even dip in between the eyes, but just come marching straight out from their foreheads – they’re a very strong and proud looking race. The guys all have curly black hair, and a lot of them are fat with huge hands. Just like being in Helsinki felt like a Bond movie, being in Italy felt like the Sopranos.

Near Cadorna station is a castle. It was my first piece of real, old Italian architecture, and I thought it was beautiful. Apparently it’s the place where the guy who used to own Milan lived. It’s a bit ruined now, but I did see big walls and portcullises (portculli?), towers, windows, crests, and statues. The weather was getting worse, going from overcast to drizzly, but I could see an interesting-looking arch in the distance, so I went to check it out. Apparently, this was built by Napoleon during his time here, and is a smaller version of the one in Paris. Old Napoleon didn’t seem to be big on imagination, and built the same thing everywhere he went. Unfortunately, this arch, like lots of places in Milan, and it turned out, Italy, was getting the Dunedin treatment, and had a good section covered in scaffolding.

One thing that’s a shame about traveling by yourself is that it’s tricky to get photos of yourself in places. You can probably ask some passerby to help by taking a photo of you, but what I’ve found in my travels is that almost every passerby is a crap photographer. I almost don’t bother to ask anymore because it’s almost certain that I’m going to end up either silhouetted, or too small to be seen, or too big to see the background, or the horizon’s going to be horribly skewed, there’ll be a big finger in one corner of the frame, the actual attraction in the background is going to be partly or wholly removed from the picture, the whole photo’s going to be blurry and shaky, or any other number of things, or combination of the above. And of course, you can never ask the person to do it again, you just say thanks, that’s great, and move on.

After the arch, I moved back down through the streets, past the Arena (where some kind of soccer expo was happening, and the kids, full of soccer fever, were playing games or entering kicking competitions), back past the castle and out the other side into what looked like Milan’s main street.

Youngest Player EverMilano StreetGalleriaArt University!

Most of Milan was shut on a Sunday, but this one street was still doing its best, with stores open, people about, and even a couple of street performers – including a guy churning out merry tunes on his accordion, which gave the place a very Little Italy feel (though I don’t imagine there is one in this country), and a couple of Peruvian natives in full tribal regalia and feathered headdresses doing a rendition of The Sound of Silence on traditional wooden flutes and a traditional electronic drum machine – which wasn’t quite so in theme with the area, but was also very nice.

Further down I emerged into Duomo Piazza (Plaza), with the Galleria on my left, and Duomo Cathedral – Italy’s biggest, and the world’s third biggest cathedral (I later saw the biggest) – straight ahead. It was giant, beautiful and ornate. The square in the front was filled with pigeons, tourists, and hawkers. Some guy forced a bracelet onto my arm despite my saying I didn’t want it, then looked all pissed when I didn’t give him a donation.

Duomo Interior
Paying Respects

The inside of the church was beautiful and, amazingly, free. After the cathedral (on the top of which, at night, glows a golden Madonna), I had a late lunch at McDonald’s. I know it’s a waste, but I was to be meeting my friend the next day and figured all the rest of my meals would be expensive Italiana. And besides, I like to see how McDs varies in each country. In Italy, the chips are spirals. Madness.

I finally met up with my host and his (girl?)friend (who greeted me with “Oh my God, you’re so white!” – apparently a compliment), who showed me around a bit and gave me some info on the city, and Italy. We went to Santa Maria delle Grazie, where The Last Supper is held. But that takes about three months’ advance booking for a 15 minute viewing, so we just stood outside for a while. Apparently Milan has the most churches in Italy (Europe?) – around 400. I did not know that. He also showed me some Art University, bursting at the seams with plaster statues. I’d love to study art there….

The two of them cooked dinner for me, and I went to bed to get some sleep before heading to Venice the next day.

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