Underdressed in Milan

No, make that severely underdressed.

On our way out of Italy, we decided to make a day of it in Milan. We planned to take the 7:45 bus to Cuneo, then a 9:00 train, which would leave us in Milan around 12:30. However, for some reason Raj woke up at 4:45 in the morning. He lay in bed, quietly humming to himself with his eyes wide open, for the next half hour. Finally, we decided to get up and leave on the 6:10 bus and get there an hour and a half earlier.

So we madly packed up the clothes that hadn’t been quite dry the day before, did our last-minute cleaning, and finally got the children up. Now it was time to try our carefully planned luggage strategy. I had Raj on the front in the snuggle backpack and his carseat on my back like a backpack. I was rolling Axa’s pink suitcase (with Tony’s laptop slung over it) and my mid-sized suitcase. Tony had Axa on the front and her carseat on his back. He was rolling our last-minute check-in with all the heavy electronics and his large bag with a rolling carry-on attached.

As usual, I went ahead, to make sure we didn’t miss the bus (we have a chronic habit of running up just as the bus pulls up. Luckily, all the bus drivers know us and take pity on us. They have more than once stopped down the street from the bus stop as we puffed up carrying children and bags). Sure enough, it arrived at the stop just as I did. I looked back to see Tony coming toward me, more at a lumber than a run. We loaded it all up, and heaved a sigh of relief as we plopped into our seats.

We managed to bundle ourselves and all our belongings into the antique elevator at the train station (all at once!) and proceeded to our platform. When the train arrived, I boarded with Axa and Raj, while Tony began loading bag after bag onto it. I lost sight of him as we found a seat, and was horrified when a short time later the train began to move–with no sign of Tony. Luckily, he appeared a few minutes later, out of breath and shaken. As he was running back for the last load, a train employee had told the train to leave without him. But a kind passerby helped him, yelling for the train to stop.

By the time we were over our scare, we were at the Torino train station, with a bare ten minutes to change trains. We’d had to rearrange to move faster, and Axa was consigned to her own two feet (by this time she was awake enough to move). She ran like a champion, and we made it to the train with three minutes to spare.

The Milano train station is an experience in itself. Our guidebook mentions that it impressed Frank Lloyd Wright. As always, the beauty is in the details. The lovely tiled floor has been partially removed to make space for a people-mover. But where the mosaic design was interrupted, they had preserved a butterfly-wing that would otherwise have been lost, and gracefully placed it at right angles to the rest of the butterfly.

Once in Milano, Tony and I confessed to each other that we didn’t really feel much like sightseeing. But, what could we do? One doesn’t end up with time to kill in a world-class European city every day. Although we couldn’t check into our hotel at 11:00 in the morning, they did consent to let us leave our bags. So we set off to explore. In a nation of well-dressed people, the Milanese are notorious for their fashion sense. It’s true. You could tell the tourists because they were wearing colors other than black, and tennis shoes rather than tall stylish boots.

We started off in the fashion district, a fantastic winding street lined with shop-windows. Only these shops are Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, and Armani. The ones we would normally only see on billboards (or fashion magazines, if we read them). Unlike the normal Milanese, mannequins in windows are permitted to wear colors, as long as the styles are sufficiently outlandish. We saw one that looked like bride of frankenstein in hoop-skirts, and another that looked like a moth-eaten bear. Little-known fact: the mannequins in Milano are even thinner than normal mannequins. Otherwise they would look fat next to the runway models.

The country mice were dazed and confused, and they had headaches from getting up too early. They began to miss small-town Italy. The effect was further heightened by some bad food (in Italy? yes, in Italy), and the dawning realization that all these restaurants advertising great Italian food were, alas, set up to trap unwitting tourists. After all, good restaurants in Italy do not advertise that their food is Italian. Of course it is Italian. Italians prefer Italian food. As we read before we came, “The Italians are the first victims of the charm of Italy.” Good restaurants don’t really need the patronage of tourists. Their main clientele is always local.

Next stop: La Scala. Teatro alla Scala. We didn’t plan far enough ahead (when do we ever?) to see an opera or a ballet, but we did go inside the museum. It is full of portraits, mostly of singers and actors, but with odd composer or choreographer. Normally a gallery full of portraits might seem tedious, but these were all portraits of artists, and most were indicative of dramatic lives. There was quite a collection of Verdi memorabilia, up to and including a series of sketches of his last moments, and his death mask.

But the thing we really wanted to see was the theatre. We stepped out of the museum into a sumptuous reception hall and walked through the corridor to where some of the theatre boxes were open. The theatre is incredible–all red velvet and gilded lamps. There are normal chairs on the floor, but most of the seating must be in the boxes all around, in perhaps a dozen levels. As luck would have it, the singers were rehearsing for an opera that evening. We had a pleasant little moment picturing our next visit to La Scala, for Axa’s sixth birthday (children under six are not admitted to performances).

We made it out eventually into the huge covered outdoor shopping area, and then through Vittorio Emmanuel’s arch into the Piazza del Duomo. The Duomo rises up out of the plaza like an impossible fairytale, its dazzling marble carved in thousands of spires and figures, melting into each other dreamlike gothic splendor. The Piazza was full of people, gazing at it, resting, eating gelato, drawn to the city’s heart by some inscrutable magnetism (or just by their guidebooks, like us).

We filed past security guards inside the Duomo. Although it was begun in the 13th century, it was only finished after Napoleon had crowned himself king of Italy. The stained glass windows were of various styles, some dark, ancient glass in geometric shapes, others fanciful scenes from Catholic legend. The figures’ clothes changed with the centuries, giving a glimpse into the lives of the many generations who must have had a hand in building it.

After the Duomo, we decided to walk to the Castle. On our way, we stopped for our last gelato in Italy. The gelateria was incredibly photogenic, and the gelato was good, but not quite as good as our favorite little gelateria in Cuneo. The Castle is a gigantic version of the typical solid, practical castles of Piedmont. It had what must have once been a very impressive moat. It was large enough inside to hold an entire Medieval town in times of siege.

We made our way back to our hotel eventually. In the morning, we dragged all our bags back to the train station and boarded a bus to Malpensa airport. Happily, the Italian border control board barely glanced at our passports, gave us our all-important stamp, and sent us on our way, free to return to Italy in three months for another chance at perfect legality.

We had not realized that our airline, AirOne, is Italian-run. The stewardess was under the impression that safety seats are dangerous for children in an airplane. She forbade us to install them. Tony first feigned ignorance of Italian, so she repeated it in English, and then retreated for reinforcements. She came back, having spoken with the captain. “Does he know that the seats are approved by the government,” Tony asked her. She replied, “He knows everything,” and informed us that the captain had said we could use the seats, but not during takeoff and landing, or when the fasten seatbelts sign was on.

She brought us the seats after takeoff, and Tony installed them, luckily just in time for lunch. As anyone knows who has traveled with small children, airplane meals with a lap-child are a cross between a juggling act and a food-fight. I’ll never forget a certain fourteen hour flight in my pajamas, because my baby spilled tomato juice on me one half hour after takeoff. Just as we were eating, the stewardess sent someone to tell us there was turbulence and we needed to take the children out of their seats. We nodded politely, and left them in. The airplane staff gave up the battle, and the children slept nicely for hours. Of course, near the end of the flight, they ended up rolling on the floor and popping up unexpectedly in front of other passengers.

All in all, we considered the flight a great success, as there were no large spills, prolonged screaming, or unusual irateness on the part of fellow passengers. We arrived in Chicago, rearranged our luggage, and prepared to navigate the wilds of O’Hare. Since we were international, we had to pick up our checked-in baggage and go through customs. We were not detained, despite admitting to numerous encounters with farm animals, including being licked by cows. We discovered next that United airlines puts international arrivals in some back terminal, so we boarded the airport tram to reach our connecting gate.

Unfortunately, upon arriving, we discovered that our flight had not only been delayed, but also moved to an entirely different terminal. Dispirited, we decided to get some dinner. (Although our flight from Italy was nearly ten hours long, we had only been served lunch and a snack. We had left Italy right at lunch time, and arrived in Chicago before any self-respecting Italian would have had dinner, so the airline had not seen fit to serve it. I believe the majority of passengers were American, however, and there was some hungry grumbling by the end of the flight. Luckily, in my efforts to maintain our health in the face of airline food, I had packed two bags of peaches, a half-dozen apples, some carrots, and my own healthy cracked-wheat granola, so we didn’t starve.)

Revived, we pressed on. United had a special little bus service to the other terminal, so it didn’t take long to get there. However, we soon learned that our plane was circling the airport in queue because of heavy fog. The landing time (and therefore takeoff time) kept getting pushed back fifteen minutes here, fifteen minutes there. By this time our biological clocks were registering somewhere around one in the morning, although it was only 5:30 p.m. in Chicago.

Our children received a sudden burst of adrenaline. Raj began running back and forth between Tony and the window, shrieking in delight. Axa began a long, one-sided conversation with another passenger. When the person finally stopped looking up from her book, Axa began rolling on the floor, sometimes rolling into the person’s foot. Then she got up and said, “You know what?” “What?” “I can jump!” She spent the next thirty seconds jumping up and down. Where were Axa’s parents, you ask? Well, we were doing our best. Sometimes it is difficult to resist the temptation to practice the fine art of letting other people entertain your children.

The plane did finally appear, and we did get on it. The American stewardess made no remark as Tony installed the car seats. Perhaps she was unaware that safety seats are terribly unsafe for children in airplanes. The children zonked immediately, and Tony and I were not far behind. We touched down in Salt Lake a little after 9:30 and deplaned, at least Raj and I did, with as much hand baggage as I could manage (it is a little depressing when you need two airplane carts for just your carry-on luggage). We waited outside the gate until the airline had announced boarding for the next flight. Finally, I heard the sound of an angry, jet-lagged child, and Tony eventually appeared with Axa, kicking and screaming.

Once she was installed in the snuggle backpack, she fell asleep. Samuel picked us up at the airport, and we were in bed before eleven. Although it was broad daylight in Italy, we were so tired we managed to sleep until the reasonable hour of 5:00, after which we had to wait an hour and twenty minutes before we emerged at the front desk of the hotel, in the dark, ready for breakfast.

So here we are in the United States, trying not to think about doing it all again in three months.

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