Last weekend, as you probably recall, we embarked on the last voyage of my semester. Other people will continue to run around Europe through early January, but I am now comfortably ensconced in Aix until my flight takes off for home.
Oh herro, Milano.
Complex city, this one. A bit grey, and not just because we came on a particularly foggy December weekend; there’s a somberness of coloring in the architecture that provides a constant underscoring contrast to the real business of the city: glitz. Because Milan isn’t just the self-proclaimed fashion capital of the world. It’s also the economic centre of Italy, and Italy is Europe’s third-largest economy, so, they are really into selling you stuff. The same upscale stores proliferate in multiple districts, the sharp prism lights of diamonds and the luxurious drape of designer gowns echoed in the extravagant Christmas decorations which festoon the city. But it must be said that the people dress well, especially older men. One begins to understand why George Clooney feels at home here – he wouldn’t even stand out. Well. Not much.
On Friday, caught by surprise in the viscous, dreamy fog (not a lot like our unseasonably warm Mediterranean base of operations), we made a lackadaisical attempt at the tourist circuit that seemed to be more about getting to the coffee and conversation at the end of it than the sights themselves. The Duomo (which just means “cathedral” in Italian, that’s why there are a million of them) was stunning in its enormity, the echoing gravity of its vaulted interior, the Gothic complexity of its imposing façade. But we have lost some of our provincial awe of vast old cathedrals, I think; after a while, no matter how many mental exercises you employ to keep your sense of wonder fighting fit, it’s just difficult to get excited about churches. But we did meander over to Castello Sforzesco, which besides boasting some of the most beautiful frescoed ceilings I’ve even seen, also houses Michelangelo’s last Pietà, from the period of his career when he was making figures grow out of stone blocks with an organic, visceral, expressionist energy. I love this phase of his work, so it was cool to see this one in person. Also cool to compare it to his first Pietà, which I’ve never actually seen (having never been to Rome), but which we discovered a perfect replica of in the chapel of a basilica in Chicago on a choir tour freshman year. They are a bit different.
Not particularly interested in spending another entire day in the city, we took our friendly Asian hostel owner up on his suggestion (injunction, really) that if we had only two days in Lombardy, we must spend one in Milan and the other at Lake Como, about forty minutes north by train. Best idea anyone had all weekend. The little city of Como was a bit more our speed, big enough to boast bookstores, restaurants, and gift shops in multiples but small enough to find your way through without difficulty.
The fog followed us in from Milan, but we didn’t mind; it gave the whole day a floaty and unearthly quality, like we had at least one foot in another, quieter reality. We hung out around the lake, ate a picnic pizza lunch, wandered around the city, and then decided to strike out for the castle on our map – our map which did not effectively articulate topographical features of the landscape. So, we climbed a mountain. (Watch out for my retrospective blog post in a couple weeks about all the best things I did this semester, which all involved climbing up stuff.) We couldn’t go all the way up the watchtower when we finally reached it, but c’était pas grave. It was fun just to be up there, and take a ridiculous photo shoot in a picturesquely crumbling archway. And then we hopped a train back to Milan, and commenced to eat, and drink, and laugh, and drive our Italian waiter crazy for the rest of the night. Except maybe he actually liked us – he did give us free cookies and limoncello shots.
Though Milan isn’t necessary on my list of favorite cities, this trip did confirm something I’ve always suspected: gastronomically speaking, I am 100% pure Italian. If I didn’t like English so much, this might be linguistically true as well. The words are in my bones, you know? They sing in my vocal chords. It’s Roma, Venezia, and Palermo, foccace and ciabatta, pugliese, arrabbiata, insalata caprese, romano, mozzarella, parmigiana, bellissima and grazie. If I insist on studying a language on the B-list of usefulness, this is the language I should be studying. Even the words are tasty.
It’s a funny thing – in Ireland they told me with approval that Molly is a “good Irish name.” Abbattista is a consummately Italian one. And these are the two countries I have felt most connected to, mind and heart, brain and body. Coincidence? Almost definitely. The incredible ability of disconnected facts to settle into patterns. But I like to think it’s part of a larger order of things, and that I’ll go back someday to wander the streets of Dublin, and tip my face to the Tuscan sun.