6: Milan, Italy
How Jorge Saved A City
Ciao from Milan, Ernie and Hads, my first stop since my several-week love affair with France. You can both relax, this isn’t going to be some gross rebound story, as maybe you can tell by the (sic) title. Don’t get me wrong, Milan was fine. I liked it, I liked it fine. But if I’m being honest, it was Jorge Zaccaro, a 32-year-old Colombian in Milan studying Italian that I’ll remember most.
Per usual, I’d chosen to walk from the train station to my lodging, the Meininger Hostel. This was a longer than usual walk, but they always seem a bit shorter when you’re taking in the sights, scenes and smells of a new city for the first time, and it’s the best way to get a more honest feel for any new town.
My first impressions of Milan itself would be the same as my final ones. It’s a pretty city, as well as a gritty one. Neoclassical architecture mixed with modern businesses, restaurants, shops, and “city life,” where you can buy weed from street vending machines and some buildings are so covered with graffiti that you might not even notice the decorative statues, mosaic tile designs, and the stoneworked balconies on the ones next door.
I’d spent longer than planned in France, about which you are both likely very tired of hearing, but I’ll reference their people here as a point of comparison.
Smoking, for example. The French made smoking look artsy, fashionable, sexy even, and not the least bit poisonous or blackening to their forever perfectly beautiful healthy lungs. The Italians, on the other hand, seem to smoke with furiously angry intent, as if the cigarette itself had just insulted their mother.
The French drank cups of espresso as if it were a sedative, a smooth glass of cognac to be sipped as a nightcap before a sound night’s sleep. The Italians seem to drink it for that furious energy needed to angrily smoke the rest of that pack of those aforementioned mother-insulting cancer sticks.
The French can make ordering a gas station burrito at 2AM sound like a masterclass in romantic seduction, while happily flirtatious Italian couples out enjoying a date night sound like they’re on the verge of a slapfight.
I think you’d fall on the French side of things, Erns, a tiny little black beret to match that birthday suit of yours, and a pace more suited to your laissez-faire, gastronomic lifestyle. Hads, however, you definitely have a little of that hot Italian blood coursing through your veins. In fact, it’s possible you’ve been speaking to me in Italian since the day we met.
Speaking of cats…unlike France, there were none to speak of in the café doorways or windows here, and with the bustling traffic of Milan, I’d guess you’d both tear through your allotment of lives at a pretty feverish pace.
I’m also not a natural foodie, as you both know – as more often than not food for me has a very specific, singular purpose to serve – but Milan is where I would begin to take the advice of our mutual famous author friend, Jeff Hull (Pale Morning Done, Broken Field and more – look for the lovable character of Pud!), and begin to try local dishes, like La Cappelletta’s Maccheroni Al Grano Duro Con Pesce Spada Cipolle E Pomodorini, which is a typically Italian way of saying “pasta with fish,” and the Rigatoni Alla Norma, from Antica Focacceria S. Francesco, the latter of which means, as best I can tell, “Free Day-Old-Bread Café.” Not surprisingly, but no less disappointing, when I shared my news with Jeff he simply asked if I’d eaten pizza yet.
Jeff got a new animal by the way. Coco. A fucking dog. You don’t even need to reply to that.
During my couple of days in Milan I did see the amazing Duomo, and climb to its terraces (okay, fine, I paid the extra 4 euro to take the elevator, but I’ve walked more than enough and 321 steps was asking a bit much to get closer to some spires I could see from the street). I’d walk around La Rinascante Shopping Center, the Galleria Vittorio, the La Scala Opera House. I’d visit their fort and learn its history, and fail at trying to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper – tickets sell out two months in advance, and unlike at home, there aren’t any sketchy guys milling about outside with little cardboard signs with “Have 2/Need 2” scrawled in marker. Which was fine in the end, as there is very little remaining of da Vinci’s hand in this masterpiece, the vast majority of what’s on display being made up of repairs painted by nameless artists lost to history. I would download the BikeMi app and pedal back to my hostel – my first personal mode of transportation since The Faroes. It was an injury-free event, and has given me the confidence I need to take a terrible cycling digger in some third world country in future weeks.
But in truth, guys, I was just going through the motions here. Maybe I was tired. I was. My legs. My feet. My back. My brain. But a too-late reply from an AirBnB host in Munich, my next stop, would require I stay an extra night, and in the end it was the best thing that could have happened. I had an entirely free day. I got out for a while in the early part of it, but also returned early. I did laundry. I rested. I wrote. I organized. I learned a lot about the value of an “extra” day to better manage my time – and my health – going forward. It’s a constant process of subtle corrections and little reminders, but I’m getting there.
And best of all, I hung out at the Meininger and got to talk more with my roommate, Jorge, as up to that point we’d had enjoyable but short interactions, only in passing, as he attends classes each day, and I had my touring to do.
Our dorm room had four beds, but we were the only two in the unit, despite the hostel being exceptionally busy. From several large student groups to older couples and professionals, the Meininger is another of those hostels that’s redefining the term. A beautiful lobby, a nice bar, a lounge area, patio, breakfast café, laundry room, shared kitchen and more. It was exceptionally clean and had a fantastic, well-traveled, multi-lingual staff.
Jorge is staying at the Meininger for a full semester, studying Italian in an effort to further his and his brother’s plans to create a language learning app that more closely resembles the manner in which human beings learn best. Without saying too much, they’re simply trying to apply a more human element to the process, which is anything but simple.
Jorge and I enjoyed some fun and fascinating conversations about the process of human learning, from world history to politics, movies, home-schooling, China (where he studied awhile), Korea, and so much more. He’s bright, well-read, endlessly positive, and a great conversationalist. I treated him to some wine while we talked in the lobby lounge. He treated me to freshly ground Colombian espresso before I left for Munich the next morning. The best parts of our conversations happened during my unplanned stay, which made the inconvenience of an extra day in Milan anything but. I didn’t get a picture with Jorge, because I’m an idiot, but it was another reminder, as world-travel-mentor Phil Hess told me when sharing stories of his own journey twenty years ago, that oftentimes it’s the people you meet that you’ll remember most.
So all in all, Ernie and Hads, I enjoyed Milan, but would I go back? Meh. I wouldn’t avoid it, but I wouldn’t make a special trip, unless of course I’m asked by a budding billionaire entrepreneur to be a guinea pig for some newfangled Italian language learning app. I’ll get a picture then. And of course, I’ll bring you both along. After all, I’m pretty sure Italian runs in Hadley’s blood.