At Home in Milan

Italy: A visitor to the city of Verdi discovers memories of her Baltimore youth - an a new daughter

April 16, 2000|By Alice Steinbach

Editor's note: In this excerpt from her new book, "Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman," Baltimore Alice Steinbach describes her first visit to Milan, Italy. As is her custom while traveling, she wrote postcards to herself and sent them home as reminders of her expereinces abroad.

Dear Alice,

Milan seems like home to me. It's one of the big surprises of my trip. Today, sitting in the sun in the Piazza la Scala, an elderly man asked if he could sit next to me. I nodded. The man, who looked down on his luck, opened a magazine of crossword puzzles, which he completed by copying the answers from the back of the book. Later when he saw me consulting a map, he asked in near-perfect English: "May I be of help to you?" It's a friendly -- and surprising -- town.

Love, Alice

An hour after arriving at the hotel in Milan I had unpacked and was ready to hit the streets. I needed a destination and had picked Milan's most famous attraction: the Duomo, a huge wedding cake of a cathedral, with 135 spires and over 3,100 statues. I marked on the map the location of my hotel; then the loca-tion of the Duomo. I drew a red arrow between the two. Maybe I'd get there and maybe I wouldn't; that was beside the point. What mattered was that when I stepped out of my hotel I knew which way to turn. Once I did that, the flow of the city would carry me along. Perhaps even to the Duomo.

Outside, the rain had stopped and the sun was struggling to break through the clouds. The busy street that ran past the hotel was not very inviting; its gray buildings, mostly offices with a few banks and dreary coffee shops scattered between, depressed me. But I continued to walk, turning one corner and then another and then another. At the last turn I found the Milan that spoke my name.

Before me, at the center of four tree-lined streets, was a small green park, where two young women were walking, pushing babies in their strollers. An old man sat reading the newspaper. Children ran up and down the paths, their high-pitched voices shrieking in delight. A woman sold gelato from a stand, filling the cups with pale green pistachio ice. I bought some.

It was then that I heard it; the sound of a train rumbling around the corner, its clang clang clang as familiar to me as Grandmother's voice calling me to supper. It was the sound I grew up hearing in Baltimore, where trolleys plied the streets like pleasure boats, ready to take you wherever you wanted to go. They're gone, now -- the streetcars of my youth -- but here and there, some of the metal tracks still gleam above the asphalt surface.

I stood at the Piazza Quattro Novembre and watched the tram approach. It looked exactly like the Number 8 streetcar that Mother and I took downtown to see the newest MGM movies at the Century Theatre. So strong in my mind was this connection that when the tram stopped to let off passengers, I jumped on without a second thought. What did it matter where it was going? I thought. Getting lost was not a consideration. I was already lost -- if lost means not having the slightest idea of where you are.

The interior of the tram was charming. I settled back into one of the polished wooden seats next to an Art Deco lamp and looked through the window. As the streets and shops and neighhborhoods slid by -- streets and shops and neighborhoods I'd never seen before but recognized anyway -- the dislocation I felt dissolved. Odd, I thought, how the past makes its presence known no matter where we travel.

I spent most of the afternoon riding on trams, hopping off whenever I saw something interesting: a neighborhood, a church, a piazza, a street. By this time I was in love with Milan.

I was particularly drawn to a neighborhood called the Brera. Once the center of Milan's bohemian life, the Brera now combined an art-student ambience with unique shops and galleries catering to the upscale shopper. Book shops, bars, boutiques and restaurants of every kind and price dotted its meandering cobblestone streets. After stopping to study the menus posted outside several of the restaurants, I decided to come back to the Brera for dinner that night.

Before returning to the hotel, I walked back through the Brera to La Scala. Although musical performances did not begin until December, guided tours through the beautiful opera house and its museum of operatic memorabilia were offered. I found the museum particularly fascinating. Verdi seemed to be the star here, with more than half the museum space devoted to his career. I studied his scores, in awe of the man who marked down these black notations that expressed so much in such small strokes.

A man's voice, that of an Italian speaking English, suddenly broke the silence. "He was a wonderful man, a great man, our Verdi." I looked up and saw an elderly man standing next to me, studying the scores. He was dressed in a dark suit, one that had turned shiny from too much cleaning and pressing, and a white shirt frayed at the collar.

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