Love and Loathing in Milan
The Importance of Good Impressions…
I dragged my dog’s (Bonnie) travel box – tied onto a wheeled duffel bag with a web of red rope across the train platform in Milan dodging running train passengers and lumbering luggage carts. Milan is our last stop in Italy before heading north to Frankfurt for our flight back to the US. I navigated my cumbersome luggage nimbly through the crowd that filled Milan’s train station – a landmark in its own right. A woman in a uniform waved me toward a moving sidewalk ramp. ‘Grazie!’ I thanked her – grateful to not have to confront the impressive (and crowded) staircase to street level.
When I reached the ramp, my way was bared by two posts – presumably designed to prevent luggage carts from using the ramp and just narrow enough to prevent Bonnie’s travel crate from using the service as well.
I went in search of a lift instead, but when I found it, discovered it was out of service, as was the one at the other end of the station. I growled some hyperbole about Milan being the ‘least accessible station on the planet’ (seriously – both elevators out of service?) and went to face the staircase.
When at last I emerged from the grand arches of the station, I was taken aback by the sight that greeted me. Hundreds of people were camped out on the lawn in front of the station. People slept on a single blanket or chatted in small groups and couple of boys passed a football in the pathway as travelers pulling wheeled luggage and carrying briefcases crisscrossed the area to and from the station. Europeans will understand that this is just the tip of the iceberg in the wave of immigration flowing through Italy and Greece. Immigrants – having survived the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and desperate to make their way north to the securities and services provided by countries like Germany and Denmark – wait in Milan for their chance to move northward. When people are so desperate that they will risk everything – even life itself, for the remote possibility of something else – the human heart breaks. It is like being in a life boat watching people in the water around you struggle to survive, but with no means to help them onto your boat.
A short walk brought Bonnie and I (dog box in-tow) to our hotel. This hotel could barely qualify as one-star. My room was impressive in its dinginess. I’m not sure I’ve ever stayed in a dingier place. Loose plaster crumbled from the ceiling and in one corner. A dirty curtain was tacked around the door to a unfinished cement closet – presumably in the process of being converted into a bathroom. The room was hot with the stuffy heat of a Milan summer and there was no air conditioner and no screens on the windows. Unfortunately, in Milan, no screens meant a nightly battle with the hordes of mosquitoes that call that low-lying city home. Down the hall and up some stairs, I found the single bathroom with a seat-less toilet that served the entire floor…possibly even the entire hotel.
…and how first impressions are not always the strongest
After settling in, Bonnie and I went for an evening stroll. We found our way to the nearby Indro Montanelli Public Gardens – an enchanting park with a network of walking paths, two ponds, and several off-leash areas for dogs where Bonnie enjoyed a good, long romp. Even as I swatted away loathsome mosquitoes in the gardens I found myself in love with the park and even beginning to fall for this hot, modern city.
The next day, Bonnie and I set out for a more thorough explore. We met a group of young theater students outside of Teatro alla Scalla who gave Bonnie an enthusiastic pet, explored the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and chased pigeons in front of the Duomo di Milano before heading over to the Sforzesco Castle and the Parco Sempione.
On one hand, Milan is a lot like London, or New York, or Madrid – a large city with busy streets, uniform sidewalks, and preoccupied city dwellers intermingled with flag waving tour groups. On the other hand, Milan is nothing like those cities. A definite “Italian-ness” permeated every part of the city’s fabric. Even on the surface, the pretty Baroque facades, old trolleys and new trams passing through stone gates that are more than 1000 years old, the city itself seemed to relish its history – to be in no hurry to modernize or move on.
‘This is what I was, what I am, and what I will be,’ the proud city seemed to say on every street corner. It is hard not to love something that loves itself and owns itself and Bonnie and I soon found ourselves in love with Milan in spite of her loathsome mosquitoes, my crummy hotel, and the inaccessible train station.