Monday, November 03, 2008

Italy: Post Mortem

Post mortem. That's Latin for "after death," commonly used - as you probably know - as a term for a debriefing, whether after a disastrous medical procedure gone wrong or a business project. Which are, in the end, often one in the same.

The original Latin might be more appropriate for me, as I woke up sore and stiff this morning and really dreaded getting up. My body was battered and beaten, my feet barely able to stand the cold kitchen tile, my back starting to look like Quasimodo's.

But the sun was shining, the Parisian streets seemed cheery and welcoming, and my office surprisingly warm. One normally doesn't relish coming home to Paris in months ending with "-ember," but trust me, it felt like summer after putting up with this:

Granted, that's Milan which – I found out after consulting the Lonely Planet we picked up three days into the trip – is considered "the London of Italy" when it comes to weather.

I wouldn't rank this trip at the top of my travel experience. Not because of the weather, but because the extent of study I did before the trip was limited to booking trains and hotels. That and trying to learn basic Italian in 10 days. I normally study the hell out of a place and its language before I go, but I've been a little preoccupied with adjusting to a new job, new wife, new country - hell, a new life altogether - for months. If anything, I hoped not planning anything would make for a great escape, a willy-nilly adventure into the unknown.

It turned out to be part family gathering. Part necessary escape from Paris. Part honeymoon. (Alannah and I never had a proper honeymoon, so we now consider every trip a mini-honeymoon in perpetuity.) As such, this trip was appropriately manic, with highs and lows. The lows all came from the rigors of travel: Delayed trains, lost bags, inclement weather, getting lost... The highs all came from people, whether spending time with loved ones or laughing it up with strangers. Sightseeing just happens to be a little bonus on the side.

The ladies are still in Italy, currently soaking up the proverbial Tuscan sun, which I'm assuming is hiding out... I mean, beyond the fact that it's night time at this moment. So this rundown covers my five days.

In five days, I had four journeys by train spanning a total of 19 hours. All four were delayed. Three journeys by bus. Six journeys by metro. Countless hours walking. Many of those in pouring rain. Three of those rain-soaked hours while hopelessly lost. While in transit, I lost a Bialetti espresso maker, a wheel of peccorino alla zafferona cheese, a box of Baci, a package of Kinder happy hippos, and half a bag of rosmarina crackers. I have in my jacket pocket the soggy remains of: one two-day metro pass for Milan, two Portofino area bus tickets, what used to be my US passport (currently an unidentified hunk of blue with ink-smeared pages), and a stack of crumpled receipts. One of those receipts proves that I bought myself some cock in Milan, at 10€ a go...

When not cursing the weather or the lateness of trains, I enjoyed a full ball of mozarella di buffala (and then some), at least a kilo of cured meats, five varieties of pasta, four kinds of pizza, the most fantastic cheese ever (said peccorino from Peck), the most godawful cheese ever (a slice of white Kraft singles from one of my aunts' oddball supermarket runs), McDonald's espresso, kopi luwak, prawns straight of the Ligurian sea, McDonald's fried prawns, some strange riff on taco salad, a tako salad (that'd be Japanese for "octopus"), and enough hazelnut and chocolate in bar/pastry/gelato form to choke a horse or two. All with a side of mostly crappy, spongey, bread, with a notable exception at establishments that baked their own. On top of all that, add enough zucchini flowers to turn my tummy into its own garden, a steak big enough to ensure that I'll never be regular again, and enough cuts of veal to make PETA freaks get naked to protest me. (Which is my goal in life...) And the best street food? Roasted chestnuts.

I took exactly 888 photos with my camera. Alannah took 312. 310 of which are from her newfound favorite "from-the-ground" perspective, which I love.

Yes, we even disgust ourselves sometimes.

Along the way, we saw tens of thousands of hideously dressed Milanese. (Two of 'em shown here!) Upon returning to Paris last night, I was reminded of the Parisian flair for dressing subtly, yet so well that even the homely can look dead sexy. The four-stop metro ride home reminded me of that over and over. Inversely, in Milan, metro rides remind you that even the hottest Italian bombshell stacked like a brick house will look like a Jersey girl when dressed like one. Unfortunately, there's no escaping the eye-searingly bad mode of dress. Flipping on the hotel TV puts more of it on display, in the form of variety shows...

I never cared much for Italian wine because - like French wine - only a limited selection is imported to the US, and other than high-priced luxury choices, most of it is crap. Having access to a wide variety of the stuff gave me a far better appreciation for Italian wines, and now I won't be so quick to judge.

In fact, after just a short time there, I found that to be the case with much of Italy for me. As a land of passionate people that pour said passion into everything they do, just about everything falls into the love-it-or-hate-it category. There's no middle ground. So while it seems there were a lot of things I complained about while in Italy, there was plenty to really love.

Which is why I vow to go back. Not because I haven't yet gotten to see amazing works like David or the Pietà or the Last Supper - stuff I studied and drew inspiration from as a student and still long to see in the flesh (or marble or plaster, as it would be...). Not because I need to pick up another wheel of that crazy opulent cheese. It's because of the manic, bipolar, crazy duality of the place. It rains, but you want to splash through the piazza. Your train is late, but that gives you time for another espresso. There are pickpockets everywhere, but you can enjoy the fact that they will have the living shit beat out of them. The fashion is jarring, but the forward-thinking design means you can find the occasional unforgettable gem that nobody back home will ever have.

Most of all, it's just a beautiful place, with gorgeous scenery and welcoming people as varied as can be for such a relatively small mass of land.

Thinking back to the last five days, I can see what it is about the country that inspires so much amore. The wife and I will definitely have to have another mini-honeymoon there, perhaps when the weather is nicer.

But in the meantime, I'm happiest knowing that being there put such a smile on these people's faces:

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