I can’t be sure if it’s the spring time, the daylight or the fact that I have not been visiting other European cities for the last six months and over-saturated myself, but I am finding that I like Milan a lot better the second time around. The first time I was here, it was January 2015 and The Boyfriend and I spent just a few hours one dark evening in the Piazza del Duomo and surrounding streets. I wasn’t expecting much, and left without much of an impression, headed toward grand sunsets over the Dolomites, extravagant Venician bridges and the rolling hills of Tuscany.
For a while now, in fact, I’ve felt pretty meh about Milan, without being entirely sure why. Probably the amount of Italians and other travelers shrugging when mentioning the industrial and fashion powerhouse in the flat, fertile flat lands below the Alps has damped my expectations. And it’s true, Milan doesn’t have the picturesque, colorful houses, the seasides, the vineyards, the hilltop charms most people jump to when they think of Italy. When I think about moving here in August, I’ve been reminding myself of how central to the rest of Europe the city is, how comparatively easy it is to fly into from the states. I think about the multi-national nature of the city, the large University and the language schools which will provide me a place to begin looking for a community. I’ve been optimistic, though cautiously so.
But it would be hard not to find delight in any city within the first weeks of spring, especially coming off a Minnesotan Winter, which drags it’s heals and throws last fistfuls of snow at you throughout March and April. And spending the last two weeks roaming around the different parts of the historic center of Milan has proven to be much more fruitful than expected.
I can’t put a pin into what makes Milan Milano yet, in the way other cities’ essences have planted themselves immediately into my consciousness. It stands apart from all the other spectacular Italian villages and cities I’ve wandered through in the last year, feels foreign and outside of my experiences in this country. At one moment I feel as though I’m in New York City, then Madrid, then London. Then I turn another corner and of course I’m in Italy: look at the scooters, look at the laundry and flowers hanging from balconies, smell the espresso!
There is, of course, the spectacular Gothic Duomo, the fifth largest cathedral in the world, dripping upwards with hundreds of spires holding saints who peer down, and more than 3,000 statues along the naves and every level of the church to admire. There is the Castello Sforzesco, an impressive fortress which is perhaps the closest thing to the image I had of a castle before I came to Europe. There is the fashion district, which houses all of the stores you imagine it does, has tuxedo-wearing doormen and possibly too-artsy window displays (shoes and handbags in a fake crate of raw fish, Dolce and Gabbana? Really?). Given a few more days to take my time in the city, I’ve appreciated more and more details of Milan. Wandering through the many grey, slightly grungy metropolitan side streets, suddenly one find’s herself upon an elegant, tree-lined boulevard, filled with cafes flowing out onto the sidewalks, flower shops and newsstands. In the distance, you can see the sun glinting off the sleek skyscrapers rising above the historic old town. As you pass under the slightly parted curtains of luxurious flats, suddenly you get a glimpse through an opened garage door into a spectacular garden, tucked within the courtyard of one of these finely detailed buildings. Here are ancient canals, certainly no Venice, but surrounded by bars and buzzing with night life. And hidden behind the most bland exteriors are spectacularly painted churches, chapels made with the bones of pauper graves and Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, if you know where to look.
Milan is a city of smells, but not the typical, deeply human stenches of other major cities. No, Milan is scented in the most spectacularly fabricated way: everyone who walks by you is wearing their own perfume or cologne, while cigarette and cigar smoke floats from every corner and doorway. It’s not exactly a food haven, like so many other Italian regions, but you can’t go wrong with risotto, and, heck: it’s still Italy.
Maybe the reason I cannot put a finger on the essence of Milan is that it is so different than my assumptions and predictions. Just like the first time I showed up on Hollywood Boulevard, wandering the streets of this metropolis did not turn out to be the overwhelmingly glamorous, opulent stroll through gold and diamond encrusted streets (in a manner of speaking) that I imagined would make me feel exposed as a kitschy, silly Midwestern American girl. Rather, it is a city, like any other, with normal cement side walks, stupendously fancy Italians and everyday people going about their lives, dodging tourists with selfie sticks. At the same time, it is robustly elegant, glamours and perhaps in need of a good wash down in some corners. It doesn’t have all of the sorts of charms one expects from Italy, but entirely it’s own.
Like Los Angeles, Milan is one of the last places in the world I ever thought I would be living – even visiting. But that last twist in the road I thought I was walking lead to three of the best years of my life in Southern California, and I am optimistic about the way home will continue to shift and change as I settle in here.
And luckily, by the looks of things, I have a lot of time to try to nail this city down.