Someone asked me recently to write about the sounds to which I wake up in the morning, living here in Italy.
Perhaps in more romantic italian cities the sounds are more, yes, romantic. Milano though is a not a quaint little village nor is it even anything like Rome. Milan is not Florence or Naples or Venice.
Milan is a metropolis full of loads of people wearing lots of black, striding across cobblestones in 6 inch stilettos the way New Yorkers might power walk the flat sidewalks of Manhattan in ever-so-slightly more sensible footwear. If you want to either compliment or enrage a Milanese person, tell them Milan reminds you of Switzerland or Germany. It’s hard to find someone in this city who doesn’t either secretly believe or fervently wish their city embodied more of the tidy bureaucratic organization of Italy’s two neighbors to the north.
Milan is a big city and one that, so long there is no paperwork involved, mostly works. Street cars rattle and screech down 19th century tracks from 5am onwards. When the trams aren’t on strike, they are mostly on time.
Twice a week, I hear the garbage trucks rumbling up just before dawn. No one sleeps through the shrieking, shattering sound of wine bottles crashing into the recycling trucks before sunrise. But regular garbage pick-up is noisily reassuring. For both better and worse, Milan will never be Naples.
Dogs bark, car doors slam, motorbikes rev, neighbors pull open their shutters. I could be living anywhere with antiquated street cars and garbage pick-up.
Ok so maybe not anywhere, but once we make it down to the street, out into the hazy early morning light, that’s when we know where we are. For all of the big city bustle, Milan is still a deeply Italian city.
Every morning I say “Buongiorno” to no fewer than 6 portanaio (doorman/woman) on our block and another half a dozen waiters and waitresses and barmen coming and going along the route between our house and Will’s nursery school. The vendors whom I always buy vegetables from at the market shout “Buongiorno!” to me as they whiz past on their delivery bikes, half a mile away from the market at which we usually see one another. There are the nonnas who stop to greet the kids and even the very sweet one who tries to carry my bags of market produce up to our apartment whenever she sees me.
These aren’t the “Americans are so friendly!” greetings we do in the States which are indeed genuinely friendly but often generically and anonymously so (the everyone’s special so no one is special paradox of America). In Italy these greetings may also be perfunctory but rarely are they anonymous. If you don’t know someone in Milan, you don’t bother saying hi to them. That would be insane, only something a crazy American lady would do.
But, once you DO know someone, once you can recognize them on sight no matter what time of day or what they are wearing, then there is an obligation to say hello and to say hello like you mean it. These are Italian social greetings in which the actual feelings you may harbor towards the other person are never as relevant as the fact that you have a relationship, however superficial, that requires acknowledgement.
It’s not that everyone is chatty, it’s not that I don’t hear semi-awkward getaway attempts from parties all around (just overheard a few hours ago: “Your bags of [paper towel] look heavy, I’ll let you get going!”). It’s simply that in Italian culture, you use your voice and your eyes to acknowledge the fact that you’ve been buying your newspaper from the exact same man for ten years straight in a way that feels very different than the same transaction might in the United States. Here, if someone is familiar to you, whether colleague or barmen or cheesemonger, you greet them that way: warmly, personally, maybe even teasingly. Even the woman who begs outside our nearest grocery store receives a regular warm “Buongiorno” and eye contact from many of the people in the neighborhood.
My husband postulates that the greetings and “acknowledgement of relationship” may not be an Italian thing so much as a “people who live in the same neighborhood for generations” thing and he might be right. Likewise, some of it is personality. For instance, my Dad is a fantastic not-one-drop-of-Italian-blood Italian. By the time he left our house after a two week visit, he was a regular at our local cafe and my favorite vegetable vendor was buying his coffee. But, like everywhere in the world, there are also quiet, private and introverted people in Italy who may never say hello to anybody.
Still, I know I am not imagining things. It’s hard to break into an Italian neighborhood. Before the portanaios started smiling at us on our way to school every morning, before the waiters at the cafes, the barmen, the cook at the pizza place started to say ciao whether in uniform or out with their families, before all of that, I used to feel so lonely walking around our neighborhood. I’d watch people, watching me pass in silence, an awkward interlude between the hearty exchanges happening just ahead of and behind me.
The day I knew I had truly “made it” in our neighborhood? I ran into our local express market with the kids after having not shopped there in over a month. The cashier lit up, asking me genuinely how we were doing, where we had been. She exclaimed over Shiloh getting bigger and Will saying “Ciao.” She helped me bag my groceries (in Europe, bagging is almost exclusively a DIY affair). We waved good-bye and as we headed for the exit, I turned just in time to see her checking out another woman with two young kids in a stroller whom I’d never seen in our neighborhood before. In the space between our two double strollers, the cashier’s featured transformed from long-lost best friend to stone-cold “bitch face.” The transaction was near silent. I felt a quick stab of pity for the stranger but deep inside I admit, I cheered for myself.
When we were in Venice last weekend I took an early morning walk through the quiet residential neighborhoods of Canaregio. At one point, I turned a corner to find two woman chatting animatedly. One was sweeping the cobblestones in front of her restaurant. The other was leaning out between white window curtains trimmed in lace, two stories up on the opposite side of their narrow alley. For 15 seconds, the scene in front of me embodied every single Italian cultural stereotype I’d ever held, and then some.
I don’t live in Venice, but I don’t really mind. We have some very nice people in our Milano neighborhood…and here the garbage trucks and trams almost always run on time.
My old Minolta, purchased for about $30 in a dark alley of Old Delhi, stopped working soon after we arrived in Milan. Going back to shooting all digital bummed me out way more than I realized it would but, with all of the expenses that come with moving across the world and setting up house in one of the world’s most expensive cities, I didn’t feel like I could justify spending more money on what is, mostly, a hobby for me.
But I’m married to an incredibly kind and thoughtful man. For Christmas he did his homework and went out and bought me a used Leica R4 with a Leica 50mm lens. He knows me well. He didn’t buy me a camera so expensive that I’d demand he take it back to the store and put the money back in our savings account, but the Leica is a big step up from my Minolta and the let’s-keep-it-together-with-duct-tape aesthetic it had going on.
It took almost a month to get the camera fixed up and functioning and a few more weeks to happen upon a little Kodak shop that develops and scans for only €12 a roll. But finally I’m shooting film again and slowly getting the hang of this new camera.
The thing we are coming to love best about Milan is the ability to get out of town and get away so easily.
Even with two kids who are quirky in all the usual toddler ways–and then some–it’s often easier than we realized it could be. We wake up, we make our pancakes, we look up a destination in a book, or on Google. We rush around the house finding jackets, finding pacifiers, taking a casual peek into our
backpack diaper bag to make sure there’s at least one diaper in there to justify the label. And then we leave, usually not before 10:30am.
We drive, we get lost, or we take the train. Either way, we look for the mountains on the way out of town. We haven’t tired yet of seeing them in the distance as we leave the smog of Milan behind in our review mirror. It doesn’t take long to get somewhere new and interesting in Northern Italy–it’s rarely more than 90 minutes to get where we’re going.
We don’t make plans or set agendas for these day trips. We try to content ourselves with a walk and a very casual, quick meal. Anything else we can interest/cajole/con our little ones into is a bonus. We are usually home by dinnertime. We could push the kids to stay out longer but most times we don’t. We can get out of town more weekends than not if we don’t make every single trip into a grueling marathon for the kids. We can always go back if there is more we want to see. There always is and we often do.
A few weeks ago, we headed to Lago Maggiore. We were trying to get to Stresa but, owing to my excellent grasp of Google Maps, we ended up somewhere entirely different. We drove through a tiny town, the name of which I honestly don’t remember (though someone on Instagram saw the photo below and says it’s from Laveno-Mombello). It was touristy, there were expensive boats. I ordered something called “polenta e zola” from the only restaurant open at noon, (not necessarily a good thing in Italy) not realizing that zola is blue cheese, and in this case, a slice of it the size of my face.
But the memorable part of the trip was not the touristy town where I had rubbery polenta and an astonishingly large portion of blue cheese, where Will skipped rocks into the lake and where we drank macchati and eavesdropped on the cafe’s Chinese owners as they debated painting the cafe a brighter shade of red.
The memorable part was the windy, rocky coastline where we pulled off into the first parking lot we could find and found ourselves surrounded by two dozen scuba divers in thick winter-weather diving suits. The scuba masks scared our kids and they were hungry anyway, but before we had to high-tail it back into town for lunch, I looked down into the water and saw clear to the bottom. Divers used to come to dive down to a rare Bugatti car that a frustrated customs official pushed into the lake in 1936. I don’t know why they dive there now, but if the view underwater is even half as good as the view from above, it must be worth it.
Another day, when we were feeling indecisive, we drove to San Pellegrino–yes that San Pellegrino. We drove right past the factory on our way into town, passing giant red trucks heading the opposite direction, all carrying the famous water. We ate at a restaurant called Tirolese and this time, we picked well. The food was good, perhaps touristy still but no less authentic for being so. I tried pizzoccheri and, on a cold day, overlooking the river that fills millions of those green glass bottles across the world, it was filling and wonderful.
We walked a short ways up a hiking trail and fulfilled our promise to Will that we’d take him somewhere with enough snow to build a snowman this winter. Our snowman stood only 6 inches tall but Will seemed satisfied. There were so many hiking trails we wished we would have been more warmly dressed for. We will go back though. We hear there’s a great spot on the river too for kids to splash around.
We’ve been to Bergamo three times now which means I’ve taken enough pictures there now to justify writing an entire blog post about it and hopefully I will. We still haven’t gotten to any of the many art museums and galleries there or even any of the historical sites, but we’re hoping maybe the fourth (or fifth!) trip will be the charm.
One of the trips we took to Bergamo was just me and the kids by ourselves on the train. It went better than I thought it would and gave me some hope that maybe it’s something we can do more often when Will is out of school.
I’ve finally learned how to park our car in our teeny, tiny little box. There are only about 2 inches of clearance on either side of the car and I haven’t driven much in the last seven years so it’s been an intimidating project for me, but I can do it! Now I just have to figure out how to get the kids in and out of the car through the driver’s seat (the parking spot is that tiny) and then I’ll be able to take them out in the car all by myself. Here’s to warming spring weather and more new adventures in the coming weeks!