In which I give my airport city its turn
I have flown into Milan three times now, and the third time I stayed.
Granted, all of four days. But four days that went quite a ways toward a sense of the spirit of the city and the people who spend any kind of time there. Which are a lot of different people and a lot of different perspectives on time.
Milan is a city of 1.4 million, with the larger metropolitan area encompassing about 3.3 million. It felt both smaller and larger than this to me, with ristoranti and bars that clearly felt like cherished neighborhood spots as well as sprawling piazze swarming with visitors, some of whom were probably just trying to cross town home to their families. The weather was gorgeous, and the high season officially being over didn’t stop the crowds. If anything, there was more for them to glom onto since the summer holidays had passed and most shops and attractions (though not all) were open once again.
Wading through the tourism-heavy districts—la Brera, Navigli, and the area dominated by the Duomo—I came to conclude that there were more Italian tourists in Milan than I had seen German tourists in Berlin or British tourists in London. People evidently ventured from nearby regions like Emilia-Romagna and far-flung southern places to see the sights, stroll along the canal, and even attend conferences (hi there). That being said, I found it unexpectedly hard to interact with locals in Italian because they were so accustomed to tourists. English was more widely spoken than I had anticipated. Probably shouldn’t have been a surprise, in retrospect, for the fashion and business capital of Europe.
I assume to a degree that I would have blended in more as a solo traveler. This assumption may well be inaccurate, given that my current days of language immersion are in German, not Italian, and in no way can the grammar rules of one be grafted onto the other. (Though I did speak German with a woman who seemed more comfortable giving directions in it.) And anyway, I was with my dad, whose presentation of a paper at a Sinatra conference was the whole reason for any of our family to be there; and our roots being what they are, it meant much more to explore the city with him.
The Duomo was nice. What do I realistically have to add about another cathedral around which an old European city center sprang up? Its sheer size is undeniable. It felt more like an events space than a house of worship, if only because it basically is an event unto itself, an edifice to be roamed through and observed. En route to it, we found a smaller basilica, San Marco, in which I certainly felt closer to God. Due to the architecture, the chapels, the accessible structure of the altar, the noontime lighting. Also, in no small part, to the fact that it was nearly empty.
There’s a showmanship to the city, like a stage set for anyone from anywhere to collide. One night at dinner I made an overture to the young woman at the table next to ours and ended up in one of those lovely long-and-winding-summer-night conversations. We zipped around on the metro, which seemed to me impressively efficient. I had the best Chianti I’ve possibly ever had, with which we toasted my recently late paternal grandmother. The wine would have made her proud. On my last morning in the city, we took the train out to the more residential Dergano, whose small-town-style main street and apartment buildings comforted me with their mundanity. We even stumbled upon the Via Rosa Luxemburg, a figure after whom we in Berlin have also named a ‘Platz.’
Over those few days I realized that I want to spend more time in Italy. In a way, however removed, it’s my country, and they’re my people. The little Italian my grandmother spoke throughout her life is not the Italian I have studied and spoken. That era, sadly, ends with her. But another era is beginning, and I see no reason not to take the opportunity to develop a closer relationship with my ancestral country, especially while I’m able to live in Europe. If not for my own sake, then for hers.
Grazie a Milano! Ritorno a presto.
Dedicated to my dad, Gilbert; to our new friend, Ariane; and to the memory of Angela Rose Marie Antoinette Virginia Carella Gigliotti, 29 September 1932-20 August 2023.
Image: Basilica di San Marco, nella Brera