Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

May 29, 2004 In transit.

So, last night I got on an airplane and now I’m in Milan. What ever am I doing in Italy? Well, I’m in transit en route to Cairo, of course, but that’s not what I mean. When I was younger I thought it would be very nice if we could wish ourselves places, in no time at all. Then - poof! - wish myself to Paris to have dinner with Rebecca. Or live in Hong Kong and - poof! - wish myself to Washington to go to work in the morning. There were some logistical difficulties – time zones, for example – but it seemed like a fine idea. The impact it would have on the world, though! What would become of cultural differences? Languages? What would it mean to live in Europe rather than Mali or Singapore, if we could all go wherever we liked whenever we liked in no time at all?

Photo from exploitz.com/images.
Being in Milan for the afternoon feels a bit like wishing myself someplace. I got on a plane in New Jersey and - poof! - I’m in Milan, baking in the streaming sunshine. Instead of walking down Raritan Avenue in Highland Park I’m walking across the Piazza Duomo, a vast cobbled plaza teeming with tourists. In its center is a massive fountain with a stepped pedestal in the middle, a bronze rider on horseback on top, and, more amusing, two life-sized stone lions reclining languidly on the steps. The cathedral on the piazza is towering and impressive, a bit cooler inside than out, though nothing is air conditioned here. A sign at the entrance calls for silence, but there’s a constant echoing hum of the soft talk of hundreds of tourists strolling through, peering at the massive stone columns and the brilliant light of the stained glass.

Photo ©David Pirmann.
Milan is a real, proper, business-like city, with sidewalks and streets and trolleys running on tracks and business people in suits and dresses at dozens of sidewalk cafés lunching on salads and pizzas, discussing plans and chattering into their cellphones. The buildings are heavy stone affairs, carved with elaborate animals and vines and fishes. Five or six stories high, with interior courtyards. A lot like Paris, actually. The streets are crowded with working people and tourists, groups of teenagers, a mother and her daughter shopping, a couple by a fountain, her head on his lap. Everyone is eating brilliantly colored dripping ice cream cones, rich dark chocolatey brown, bright pink strawberry with real berries, deep purplish magenta of currant flavor, pistachio green, and a hot orange that might be mango or passion fruit. Clearly my kind of place. I bought a cone and strolled on.

Oh - poof! - a priest just stepped up to an elaborate lectern here in the cathedral, and he’s begun to speak. His microphone echoes horribly in the cavernous space. He’s speaking in Italian, of course, but it’s easy to understand. “Gloria al padre e al filio e al spirito sancto.” Or is that Latin? He’s stepped down now. Maybe it was just a just a quick prayer to remind us that this is a place of worship, not just a stop on the tour bus and a place to write in journals?

Milan is all full of bookstores, from little ones in stalls on the streets selling used books, to big ones filling the basement of a shopping mall whose ground floor was devoted solely to fast food - an “autostall,” I think it was called. I don’t speak Italian, of course, but I can read enough to be intrigued by the titles and pick out some of the descriptions on the back covers. I love browsing in bookstores when I travel, for what they say about the interests of the people who live here and the possibilities of what I might read if I stayed a little longer, learned the language, and got to know the place. I picked up a collection of essays about exceptional women all over the globe who were working from scratch to change their communities. From Mozambique to Spain, Ghana to England. A book about the US vs. Europe, why they are more efficient and more equal than we are. Or maybe less efficient and less equal? My Italian fails me.

I wandered through a splendid gallery - a Galleria they call it, maybe we would call it an arcade? Two cross streets, four massive stone buildings with an arching glass roof spanning the streets from building to building, a soaring glass dome at the intersection. It was outdoors – pigeons flying in to roost on the stone balconies – but indoors at the same time, shaded from the sun, and in other seasons from rain and snow. Half a dozen cafés spread their tables into the street inside, the passers-by checking out the menus and each other. Everywhere tourists were photographing the arcade – I, alas, checked my camera through in my suitcase! At one end a storefront announced itself to be the “Urban Center Milano.” A large placard in the window announced in Italian and English that this was a center for investors, designers, scholars and tourists to learn about Milan’s urbanism and architecture – and, I suppose, to get a sales pitch about why they should build, start a business, or spend their euros here. An exhibition on the second floor told of the reconstruction of the city after the “periodo dopobellico” – easy to figure out that that means the post-war period. Sixteenth century palaces, changed over time, bombed to a shell in the war, then the facades finally restored with modern constructions behind them. The Galleria where we were, built in the 19th century, its glass roof destroyed in one of the worst bombing raids of the war, at least if my Italian is correct. Then rebuilt to function as it had before, but with modern glass and building technology.
Photo from exploitz.com/images.

Then time ran out on me. Heading back to the airport on the Malpensa express, I felt like I’d been in Italy for weeks. It was hard to imagine that the suitcase I'd packed in Highland Park just the day before was in transit at the airport. I’d been somehow outside of time, living in the present without past or future. Sometimes the shortest stops are the most interesting. You look at everything, because any of it might be the only thing you have time to see. There’s no going back for a second look, so you’d better really see it while you are there.

Continue to the next entry.

Return home.

Unless otherwise indicated all text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht.