Friday, October 31, 2008

Milanese Three-Way

It's not what you'd think.

It seems public internet access is controled tightly by the neo-fascist party in charge of Italy: I haven't seen a single place with Wi-Fi, not even McDonald's, and the janky, slow internet cafe I'm currently using requires that they scan your passport according to anti-terrorism laws. Thanks very much to The War Against Terror. (TWAT) I feel safe, don't you?

So here you go, three posts rolled into one, which I'm copying by hand from my laptop, because I can't even use my USB key.

Greasy Italian
Thursday, 9:30 am

I just dropped my MacBook on the laminate floor of my hotel room. My grip slipped and "SMACK!" there was the sound of plastic and metal and whatever else is inside these contraptions hitting the floor.

It's not that I'm careless. It's just that after one night and only one "light" meal in Milan, every pore of my body is seeping grease.

Luckily, my trusty laptop is OK, and so far, so am I.

A little puzzled, but OK.

We (that'd be me, the wife, my mom who is visiting from the US, and my two aunts visiting from Japan) arrived from Paris by train yesterday afternoon. You'd think rolling across the continent by train with a gaggle of ladies is glamourous, but really, itàs filled with knitting, iPod Italian lessons, Japanese picnic food, and teaching little French girls origami. The latter involves my aunt explaining her technique, my mom explaining it to me in English, and me trying to explain it all to a bemused family in French. (Long story, never mind...)

Back to being puzzled.

After resting up, we decided to roam the streets of Milan, sans guidebook or map. This strategy usually works for me, as I'm pretty good at sniffing out cool neighborhoods and finding nice holes in the wall to invade. Unfortunately, the Italians seem to have jammed my radar. All but the most wannabe upscale café/bars (i.e. with big gaudy displays of Belvedere vodka and Moet champagne) were open. My aunts wanted to eat, but nary a restaurant was open save for the same nasty kebab shops and faux Japanese joints that are all over Paris. Don't Italians like to eat???

We eventually located what seemed like a tourist trap bar/café/restaurant near the central business district. I had no desire to eat at such a place, but I figured since the aunties were hungry, Alannah and I could have something light to hold us over until the real restaurants open later. Oh well, at least the prices were cheap!

So we ordered a round of simple pizzas, spaghetti (no, really, my aunt ordered spaghetti!), and what appeared to be the lightest item on the paltry menu: A caprese type salad of mozarella, tomatoes, and some Parma ham. The elder ladies could load up on their stereotypical carbs, whlie Alannah and I would share a light pizza and salad before taking on the true Milanese cuisine.

Now, I've often heard from fellow American travelers that they like the food in Italy best. Me, I'm partial to the miserly-portioned richness of French chuisine, or the utter simplicity and variety of Spanish food. But now I see the appeal of eating in Italy. In fast food terms, Italian food is the Super-Sized Extra Value Meal of European eating. And - hey - we Americans love to buy in bulk.

What I thought would be a light holdover snack turned out to be a virtual Costco run on cheese, bread, and cured meats. There was an orgy of whole balls of mozarella di buffala, baskets of tomatoes, kilo servings of ham... and that was just my plate! Hell, the plates were so heavy, the waiter had to make four trips to our table to serve us.

Needless to say, I didnàt need any further dinner afterward.

But I did want a drink. or several. After mom and the aunties retired for the night, the lady and I decided to go out on the town. Maybe get ourselves some gelato, and definitely start quaffing some wine.

One problem. Still, nothing was open. Again, a few of the upscale restaurants near hotels, and one or two horrendously well-lit bars (i.e. creepy fluorescent lights), and otherwise... nothing!

"Well, it is a Catholic country and they have Wednesday night mass," Alannah explained.

She's always been the smart one, so her explanation made sense. After all, if our crazy huge dinner was composed of what people consider starters here, people are going to need more than just Sunday to confess for their sins. And that's just taking Glutton yinto account.

Speaking of which, as I write this entry (and hopefully find an Internet café to send it in...) Alannah has run off to a nearby bakery. She'll hopefully come back with an armload of zeppele.

Going to Extremes
Thursday, 8:21 pm

We just got back to the hotel aftr downing a couple of birre and a glass of vino rosso at one of the overly well-lit neighborhood bars. Grand total? 5€50. That's what I'd pay for one drink in Paris. I'm starting to see the pull of Italy. If Milan is one of its most expensive cities, I can't wait to see the drink prices further south.

And I'm going to need the drinks.

I've mentioned time and again how I don't particularly enjoy traveling in groups. When it's my mom and her sisters, that goes tenfold. Not that they're not nice, very gracious and often very entertaining people. But group decision-making is at its absolute worst with this bunch. Deciding when and where to eat goes from being a thrice-daily decision that should take no more than a few minutes to a dramatic production that'd be too big for even the famous La Scala theatre. Which we saw, by the way, and for such a famous place, it's tiny.

On the other hand, the Duomo - Milan's biggest tourist attraction - is huge. Enormous. Bigger than the Milanese misplaced sense of fashion. It's ironic that all around one of the most stunningly beautiful cathedrals I've laid eyes upon are some of the worst dressed people in the world.

I'm not talking about the tourists here. North Face jackets and Keen sandals are functionally unfashionable, but somewhat understandable. What I don't get is this supposed fashion capital's penchant for piling on the brand names. Patent leather stilettos are paired with neon green leggings, then further "matched" with a Louis Vuitton belt, Diesel shirt, trendy all-over print hoodie, and a Prada shoulder bag.

And that's just the men.

If you think Italian cars are conspicuous, the fashion makes "bling bling" sound like an understatement. I can't walk five minutes down a Milan street without the term "ghetto fabulous" coming to mind.

And the noise. I suppose growing up in giant Catholic families, you compete for attention. So not only do you pile on clashing colors and sparkly bits and baubles, but you have to speak at volumes generally reserved for guitar amps and emergency vehicles. Riding the metro or standing in front of a café is an exercise in restraint, largely with me gritting my teeth and praying I don't act upon my urges to sock the mouth of each person that feels it appropriate to hold their conversations at 140 decibels.

But not all blanket generalizations are as harsh as that. And this is where I'll hurl a complement. The local penchant for overdoing it also applies to the friendliness and warmth of every waiter, every barman, and - well - every person you might converse with. Not once have I been tut-tutted or tisk-tisked for my m angling of the Italian language. In fact, no one seems put out by the fact that I always try to learn a new vocabulary word with each transaction. My Italian lessons have been helpful, but entirely too formal. So it's been up to my waiters and bartenders to tell me the normal way to ask for the bill, or how the locals ask for another beer.

And another complement: The food. Sure, the portions are enough to kill me with my now Frenchified appetite, but I can't fault the quality. It seems the simpler a food item gets, the better and more "real" it tastes. From my strippe ddown eggplant panino to the slow food chocolate gelato to last night's ridiculously huge ball of mozarella di bufala, everything has benefited from being stripped down to the simplest recipe. Each and every espresso has been "one of the best espressos I've ever had" you even if it was purchased right in front of some hideously crowded tourist attraction.

But I can see why all the tourists flock here. In fact, as much as I love my new home in Paris - and vastly prefer it - so far I think I'm going to have to hop the train to Italy more often. Just not to do any clothes shopping. I'll stick to Parisian all black, grazie.

Sleep When I'm Dead
Friday, 9:49 am

I had that new Cure song on my mind when stepping out last night. Alannah and I were going out on the town (or trying, again=, and sleep was not a priority. The plan: Eat a ginormous multi-course Italian meal full of local specialties, then bar hop our way through a good chunk of Milan. We'd rest when the eventual food/wine coma set in.

Well, at least the first half of the plan worked.

We ate at a restaurant near our hotel, consuming ridiculous portions of fried zucchini flowers wrapped in ham, saffron-infused risotto, napalm-hot lasagne, amazingly tender osso bucco, and a sublime veal milanese. It was all washed down with a a bottle each of local minearl water and red wine. So far, so good.

Now that wead eaten Milan out (har har), it was time to drink her dry.

Only one problem: Even more bars were closed last night than the night before. WTF!?

So it was toward the Stazione Centrale, where I knew for sure - with the glut of big hotels - that at least one bar would be open. And there was - go figure - only one. The wannabe-swanky champagne-and-Belvedere joint we had previously passed up was open for business. So in we went to the very chain-looking, yuppie-magnet Metropolis.

And despite being as hopelessly superficial as feared - down to the not-hot-enough-to-be-such-a-bitch cashier - it was pretty nice. The friendly bartender was more than happy to pour what would be the most enormous glasses of rum I've seen at a retail establishment, and it was my beloved Brugal rum from the Dominican Republic - a treat very rarely found back home in San Francisco, and never found in Paris. Sure, it may have been 10€ a pop, but considering we got poured nearly a quarter bottle each, I wasn't about to complain. Except about the cashier's unwarranted bitchiness.

With each sip of the rum, the douche-yness of the contemporary-urban-fashionista bar melted away, and by the time we got to the bottom of our respective glasses, we were ready to call it a night.

This morning, feeling well rested, we're going to do our pub crawl by day. Only we're going to hit up cafés and drink espressos and eat pastries in a serial fashion. And, ok, maybe some wine... and Fernet... and more wine.

Something's gotta help warm us up in this nonstop rain.

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