Traveling at 200km/h through the Italian countryside, on railways that feel as smooth as melted butter, wearing my ten euro sunglasses, and having just had my bank account sucker punched by the exchange rate on a cash machine purporting to be an ATM, I’m perfectly happy to quietly pass two hours watching the terra cotta roofs that dot the countryside come into view, sparkle in the early afternoon sun, and then disappear behind me.
Milan was the perfect city to begin our trip, and we began it in the perfect way: dragging our luggage through a medieval castle because it was a shortcut to our apartment. Fucking castles - always in the way.
We had three days in Milan, and each one was spent walking, getting lost, and finding our way back - rarely with a destination other than “let’s see what’s over here” or the desire to explore and sink into a particular neighborhood. We drank a couple dozen small coffees, and took in the city with all our senses, learning bit by bit how to eat, drink, move, and speak in ways that let us slowly stick out a little less every time (but admittedly never quite passing as more than educated tourists.)
Leaving Milan, I’m struck by three thoughts:
- It is impossible to be overdressed in Milan. The city is so stylish, and does it with an appearance of such effortlessness, that I’m curious whether every citizen is given a monthly fashion guide and a stipend from the travel bureau to maintain the image.
- In Milan there are, almost impossibly, more scooters than people - the scooters having grown in such numbers that I’d not be shocked to learn they were able to organize a suffrage movement and now vote for the crunchier of the left wing parties. But the narrow streets and laissez-faire adherence to traffic laws mean cars are inherently inferior to something that can more easily drive on the sidewalk if you’re late getting from one coffee to the next.
- In three days wandering around the city, covering (according to my pocket supercomputer) more than 27 miles by foot, across nearly every prominent section of the city center (and some less so) I didn’t see a single gym; lending credence to my theory that the Milanese don’t require exercise, but are somehow able to maintain their staggering general attractiveness by consuming almost nothing but tiny coffees, cured meat, cigarettes, and wine. I’ll agree that it’s an appealing diet.
Milan is, I think, what Italians picture as their ideal - everything and everyone is beautiful, stylish, and charming. Even the architecture understands color blocking, with yellows backed up against blues and reds, and sleek black urban apartments directly across from dirty white edifices several times older than the country I was born into. And what wonderful architecture it is - I took nearly 500 photographs of the city and its “old meets ultramodern” aesthetic (only once embarrassing a young woman who changed her walk to a strut under the presumption that she was my subject, before bowing her head a bit and refusing to meet my eyes when we both realized what had just happened.)
Milan is a city where the day feels like just a pretense to the night. The city wakes up around ten am, stretches a bit in bed, and promptly turns over to give it another hour before grudgingly opening its doors at eleven. Even some coffee shops have personal standards that prevent them from getting too cozy with the morning lest it become habit. The counterpoint is that as dinner approaches eleven, the proper and expected response is to debate where to have a post-dinner drink.
Milan is stiletto heels walking effortlessly over cobblestones, and scarves worn dashingly no matter the weather. It’s jeans if you have to, but a perfectly tailored suit and minidress would be preferred. It’s crowding around a pop-up craft brewery cart alongside the canals at 10pm. It’s understanding in your blood which are the exact right shoes for the occasion, and having that blood be a minimum of .05% alcohol at all times. Milan is riding a bicycle past a cathedral with a thousand spires and a hundred carved depictions of dead saints, and still taking a moment to marvel at what six hundred years of labor can create.
Back on the train, we now head out to sea, knowing that Genoa will be the opposite: a town built by fishermen and ship builders far before the Italian Riviera meant vacations, and when its industry was a proximity and convenience to open water. Genoa is old; and like most old things, it changes slowly and grudgingly. Milan and Genoa will be two sides the same Lira, but I expect both speak to something inherent to Italy and her people.
I look forward to finding out what the city has to say.
Look for the next update after we leave Genoa. Photos are on Snapchat for those interested in following along in real-time.