Milano, Italia, Milan, Italy

Comings & Goings in the Fashion Capital of the World

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Milano è tragico .” When four residents of Milan find their city tragic and choose to share this information with my husband, Paul, and me in the same afternoon, it's a safe bet something untoward is going on.

Visitors appear to love the place, though, and tend to hang around endlessly if room occupancy is any indication. Every time we've passed through, rooms have been at such a premium that we've spent the majority of our time casing the streets one by one looking for a place to lie horizontally for the night. It's true we limited our search significantly by refusing to pay more than 75 euros, which sounds extreme when the current exchange rate is taken into consideration. The sum then hovers close to the hundred dollar mark which seems, at least to me, mighty excessive for just a simple bed and a bath.

The Hotel Sir Edward's entrance (left) is inviting but the 199 euro average price is well out of our budget.

My inquiry into the Hotel Florida (right) resulted in nil since they were "complet" (didn't matter since they also were over our budget) but I was able to provide the translation for the Italian phrase "meno male" (Thank goodness!), something that I doubt will get us a discount on future visits.

As any number of people have told us, “Milan” and “reasonable” have never been synonymous. Several of these rock bottom rooms were also popular with couples sans luggage showing how everything is more expensive in Milan . Like they say, “Tragico”.

As we headed out our hotel one morning, I heard the receptionist say, “Enjoy your shopping.” This comment stopped me in my tracks. Duh. Of course, this is the reason people come to Milan . Even residents get caught up in the buying frenzy. We once saw a local guy coming out of a very pricey locale with a tiny bag, the handles of which he slipped over the handlebars of his bike. He looked around satisfied and peddled away, probably leaving behind a day's wages for whatever fit in the tiny bag and for the name of the store so boldly emblazoned on the side of the sack.

The couple next to us one evening at dinner were on one of the several buying trips they've made each year for over 20 years, outfitting a number of fancy boutiques in Bogotá. They told us orders have to be placed in 100 unit lots per item which means a heck of a lot of clothes. This revelation dumbfounded me as much as our spontaneous conversation in Spanish surprised the Italians dining around us. In southern Italy , such a scenario would have raised nary an eyebrow but this was sophisticated Milan and our behavior met with frowns. Somehow, enjoying an animated dinner conversation with strangers does not “make a beautiful figure.” Fare una bella figura is important all over Italy but it is especially the rage in Milan .

If a beautiful figure is to be made in Milan , the area around the Duomo ( Milan's showplace cathedral) is the place to do it. Whether a person is walking or sitting, this is the spot for prime people watching. Since Paul and I both loathe shopping, we do a lot of walking, sitting and people watching.

 

After meandering about aimlessly around the square for more than an hour, we decided all our exercise was justification enough to spend the seven euros for a beer at a Duomo café. The spot was excellent for gawking. Perhaps the woman who sat down near us was simply not as interested in the scene as we were since she made a point of choosing a chair so she would not have to look at the tourists with their cameras, the hungry scrounging in the refuse bins and the visor-wearing masses led by a guide with a tireless right arm holding aloft the tour group's stanchion.

The Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele to the side of the Duomo looks a tad different in its pristine state as opposed to when the masses of tourists take up the interior.

The interior, as opposed to the outside cafes had the look and the prices to warrant being preferred as a more prestigious place to go and many of Milan's beautiful people can be seen sitting at the more select courtyard restaurants.

 

My guess was, however, she was Milanese. Even Italians who in general simply know instinctively from birth how to dress have a difficult time achieving the fashion sense of the Milanese. This was one woman who knew how to fare una bella figura . An excellent haircut, carefully applied make-up and a trim figure belied her age, probably knocking well over a decade off the actual calendar years.

I couldn't help thinking she would reply to a compliment about her outfit with the comment, “Oh, it's just something I threw on,” and realized that even if I had devoted a lifetime of attention to my appearance and spent a year getting myself ready for this one day, I could not have achieved even a fraction of her panache.

Why she wanted to mingle in the milieu of plebeians such as ourselves escaped me but I figured she had her reasons and amused myself by wondering why the sign admonishing patrons of the café not to feed the pigeons was written in Italian.

Except for the one Milanese, no Italians were in sight and certainly no Italian was overheard in the crowd. This was a spot designed for tourists. The seven euro beer represented the price of admission to the cheap seats around the Duomo , not a place to go to see and be seen.

Perhaps the sign worked since there was little in the way of crumbled food on the pavement. The few pigeons around were either not versed in sign-reading or simply more aggressive since they made a number of assertive forays toward those sitting at the tables under the awning. One, I noticed, was bold enough to jump right up on a table to peer around a German guidebook to see what was on the tourist's plate hidden by the open pages.

My attention was again drawn to the table with the Milanese. Her order of coffee, a slice of fruit-topped torte and water had arrived. What drew my attention to her was how flustered she was when she tried to pay for the order with a five euro bill. Around the Duomo , the slice of lemon in the flute for her bottle of Perrier could cost five euros. A few cracks appeared in the image she projected to the world. Not only that but the pricey torte was long on looks and short on moisture so to prevent each forkful from falling in crumbles on her expensive outfit she had to hold the plate under her chin with each mouthful. Not cool.

 

I had to feel sorry for the woman even though she was the type of person I generally find very annoying. Obviously, looking good was important to her and the day, despite all her careful preparation, was not going as planned. Her gaze became distant as she picked at the crumbly cake in a distracted fashion and tried to concentrate on her newspaper.

At this point, another of the panzer pigeons took to hopping around and under her table in a bit of a scouting maneuver. Suddenly, there it was on the adjoining chair. Then, it hopped up on the table and began to pick at the remnants of the woman's cigarette in a glass ashtray. She seemed oblivious to the fact that this large bird was bouncing about on her table, almost directly under the “Do not feed the pigeons” sign, lost in her own thoughts.

In one decisive movement, the pigeon leaped boldly unto her plate. The woman jumped giving a simultaneous gasp, the Perrier bottle toppled over, the plate went crashing to the pavement, the unfinished torte bounced to the side to be attacked by the scout and its rather extended family.

The woman made exasperated but futile gestures to the nearby waiter who ignored her entirely. She was forced to cope on her own, juggling coffee cup, water glass, purse, newspaper and jacket to a new table, all of which definitely did not classify as making the famous bella figura .

 

Here I was thinking that Milan had it in just for me after having the audacity to set foot on its hallowed pavements that first time in 2002 in white tennis shoes and complicating matters further on subsequent visits by not going into a shopping frenzy. We were even thinking we should take special pains in the future to arrive and depart from any other airport than Milan's Malpensa. Now I understand. If the Milanese woman's experience at the Duomo is any indication, this city has it in for everyone. Such a democratic attitude I can handle. I'll be back. The pigeons convinced me.

 

 

 

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