When we are reintroduced some twelve years later, we are little more than acquaintances. Proud and distinguished, like an elderly woman born into luxury and predisposed to a particular standard of life, Milan greets me in her finest display of fashion prominence and financial power as I step off the train. Amidst the briskly moving passengers and chattering families, I pause to admire the stunning magnificence of Milano Centrale. However, I cannot linger long in Milan’s principle train station. I have a date with this Italian beauty, and our day is just beginning.
I step under the folds of her elegant gown and proceed to move through the underground railway. Unfazed by my intimate intrusion, Milan shows a complete lack of interest in tidying up the grungy interior world of screeching trains and grimy tunnels, all covered by carefully laid brick and stone. Once I exit from the ruffles of her skirt, Milan then giddily flaunts one of her most prized accessories. Directly in front of me, the Duomo di Milano rises up in spiraling glory, its façade dripping with statues and fine masonry detail that would turn any sand castle pink with jealousy. In the plaza surrounding the massive cathedral, hundreds of people mill about like lazy ants, wandering hither and thither.
Famished after a morning of travel, I push my way through the crowd in search of a Milanese treasure that does not sparkle, nor cost a fortune. A line fifty deep snakes out the door of a local bakery: Panificio Luini. Undeterred by the delay, I take my place in the narrow street and wait for my turn. Eventually, I squeeze my way inside the cramped pastry shop, and I recite my order to the young woman behind the glass counter, the only barrier between me and the overflowing trays of baked goodies. With swift and deliberate movements, she grabs, wraps, and bags each item upon my request. Eyes wide with excitement to taste my spoils, I pass by the dozens waiting for their own delicacies, find a free spot on a nearby curb, and tuck into my Italian treats.
I take one bite out of each panzerotti, my assortment of turnover pastries. Like a mini-calzone, the baked panzerotti filled with tomato and mozzarella is soft and doughy, simple and satisfying. The fried turnover reminds me of a donut, until the creamy filling of ricotta and spinach gushes from its crisp casing. The third panzerotti is a sweet pastry with a shortbread-like crust containing a chocolate and ricotta filling. I promptly devour my two savory snacks but decide to save my dessert for later.
Dusting the crumbs off my lap, I take one last gulp of my San Pellegrino and rise from the curb to continue the day with my hostess. I step into the river of people flooding the streets, and I come face to face with another signature staple in Milan’s expansive wardrobe – the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The neoclassical super structure is the epitome of 19th century elegance. The glass ceilings of the arcade usher in the afternoon sunlight, highlighting the meticulously arranged window displays of world-renowned luxury brands like Armani, Versace, Prada, and Louis Vuitton.
Standing on the colorful tiled floors of this shopping center for the affluent, I watch one well-dressed person after another maneuver through this busy intersection of Milan. Men in precisely tailored suits, carrying leather bags that match leather shoes and leather belts (most likely all Italian-made), stride across the thoroughfare. Immaculately dressed women parade along slowly, their makeup flawlessly accentuating their facial features. Milan tells me that her people care about the quality of appearance. Also, she states rather matter-of-factly, it is not enough to mimic the fashion trend of the week. Rather, it is paramount to be the one to set the style for the entire season.
In this setting, I feel acutely aware of my unkempt hair, faded jeans and knock-off purse. Yet, Milan does not ask me to fall in line with the upper tier of her fashion-conscious society – either because she understands that shopping is not my priority (true) or because she assumes that designer brands are not within my budget (also true). Instead, she leads me to a very different scene in another sector of the city to reveal more of her sundry personality.
As the sun drops below the graffiti-covered buildings, Milan lets her hair down from its perfectly coiffed bun, and she welcomes me to the Navigli District. Here she exhibits the rough edges of life for the ordinary, a place where beauty meets an everyday reality. I walk alongside manmade canals, created in part by the brilliant mind of Leonardo Da Vinci centuries ago, where bars and restaurants line the paved streets. I choose a table with a view of the waterway and the lively nighttime atmosphere. Milan offers me her classic cocktail, the Aperol Spritz, and I accept the drink, which has a strong bitter taste following the first sip of sweetness. Then I revel in the accompanying aperitivo platter of hors d’oeuvres, a northern Italian tradition that I enjoy immensely, and I observe passersby from my wooden table and chair.
I sip and nibble away my time, and I reflect on my day with Milan. I am surprised by the turn of events, by her change in attitude and attire. Along the Navigli canals, I see a new cadence in Milan’s strut; it’s slower, less rigid, more accepting. I don’t feel awkward or second-class, even as I sit alone. I wonder if this is the start of a new friendship, one of deeper understanding and appreciation for each other. Perhaps Milan and I will never be the best of friends, but after this date, we are certainly more than acquaintances.
Ciao a tutti! Have you ever visited this fashion capital of the world? What were your first impressions of Milan? Has a city ever surprised you with a change in attitude and atmosphere within your first day?