Friday, August 05, 2022

In Italy, the streets are my lab

OK let's back up a moment. I've told you that I want to buy everything in Italy -- even maybe the air. I've tempted you with some of the dishes I've been scarfing up. Now I want to return to the first sensations of my trip, once the long flight was over and I was reunited with Italy.

The first morning in Milan (which is to say the first morning of the trip), I wake at 6:50a and head out subito (immediately) on foot while Leo and Mike sleep. 

Left out of the hotel, left onto Via Turati (where Mike is delighted to discover the San Carlo potato chip HQ is) to find the perfect caffe/coffee bar for a cappuccino & una ciambellina. I did OK – a small corner job, workman-like but some of the paste (pastries) I bought were still hot! And fancy isn't always the ticket.

I begin collecting information immediately because in Italy, the street is part of my lab -- language lab, culture lab, architecture lab. The coffee bars, too, and any surface that contains Italian writing. They are my beat.

So I notice the massive macchinetta for the coffee is giving the barista trouble and the building that houses the American embassy is also home to Radio Monte Carlo (the station name, when I read or say it quietly to myself, is broadcast in my head in the original Italian that you would hear on the radio).

I also notice, much to my chagrin, that English is everywhere – everywhere. But for different audiences. In some cases, it's there to communicate to people born speaking English. In other cases, it's an absurd flourish (or whatever the opposite of flourish is) to an otherwise Italian-only public service message or advertisement (Trenitalia, I am looking at you!).

Morning #2, I go to Il Chiosco Manin, an outdoor coffee counter in Milan, just to the left of an entrance to the public gardens. A customer beside me ordered, “Un caffe per cortesia.” (‘A coffee, please,’ except that he used the form of please that includes the word ‘courtesy’ – and the order feels extra courtly. Also, for those of you playing along at home, un caffe = an espresso. If you want a cappuccino -- and I do -- you have to say cappuccino).

Another man bikes up to get his coffee. “Ciao Salvatore,” he says to the barman.

While I have my cappuccino at the tiny bancone that sits on the street, the radio is on, and it’s perfection.

Another woman arrives at Il Chiosco and the barista says, “Ciao Lorena.” It's like I'm gatecrashing a party where everyone else knows each other, but no one minds I am there.

I eye the oranges that are used for smoothies – tempting. Meanwhile someone calls out, “Buon di!” And then the garbage truck arrives – and the sanitation workers get out of the truck to have their coffees, too.

I am observing. And when I am done observing while standing still, I say my goodbyes to the barista and begin walking again to observe some more. I feel like I could walk all day and only then would I be sated, happy, fully on vacation. 

Vacation for Jeanne = walking in Italy (while someone speaks behind me, next to me, near me in Italian).

Now I am walking through a stone gate that’s part of the old walls of the city – next to the fancy shopping street Via della Spiga – and the sidewalk ducks under a portico (do we have porticos in America? We should). 

Courtyards abound in Milan and the portoni (front doors/main entrances of buildings) to them reveal oases of greenery and sometimes sculpture.

I’ve struggled to find an open giornalaio in Milan – even the concierge at our hotel shrugged his shoulders. Victims of the pandemic, which is heartbreaking because newsstands are Italian mom-and-pop stores that double as mini-piazzas. A place for an exchange. (They also sell Pokemon cards! Ask me how I know!)

But Mike manages to buy for me at Milano Centrale:

-La Settimana Enigmistica (weekly puzzle magazine)

-Bell’Italia (most beautiful travel magazine you've ever seen)

-La Cucina Italiana (food mag)

Doing the frontpage crossword in the puzzle mag ('Settimana Enigmistica' -- you can see the word 'enigma' in there), I learn, or re-learn, that 'musicare' is a verb (clue: “Musicò Tosca.”)

I am collecting information about 1,000 tiny moments, 1,000 tiny encounters between myself and Italy. Later in Rome, I trip over myself to snap a photo of the perfect graffiti spotted as we entered the Villa Borghese from Piazza del Popolo: ‘Sei bella come Roma’ = You're as beautiful as Rome. Not sure there is a way to top that, other than -- maybe -- you're as beautiful as the Taj Mahal or a hologram of your face should be beamed permanently from the sky.

Everything that has words draws my attention (as I may have, ahem, mentioned). I walk the streets each morning silently repeating phrases from ads, billboards, shop windows (Idraulico, giorno e notte = Plumber available all hours; Traslochi/sgomberi = relocations, junk removal; Saldi = sales).  I am shopping a lot but mainly my kind of acquisti, like anything sold at the giornalaio (newsstand). Yesterday I bought La Gazzetta dello Sport just so Leo could see Italy’s pink sports newspaper (he marveled that there seemed to be 35 pages about soccer and 1 page about car racing and maybe 1 page about volleyball and that’s it). I told him that anywhere in Italy, when you see someone across the bar or piazza holding a pink newspaper, you know at a glance he or she (OR HE!) is reading the national sports newspaper.

What I bought so far:

Il Corriere della Sera (2X)

L’Espresso (magazine)

Panorama (magazine)

A new red Moka coffee pot from Bialetti (yes I now have probably 10 Mokas of various sizes)

La Gazzetta dello Sport (see above)

A lightweight plastic basketball for Leo (dal giornalaio!)

A kitchen towel

A place mat with the “definition” of Spaghetti

A bare midriff shirt (ma sei matta? Am shopping around now for a new lifestyle so I can actually wear it)

A green wool sweater from Benetton like the brown one I've had for more years than I care to admit

10 or so books (including two by Edith Bruck; when Leo saw another copy of Andremo in Città, he said, ‘Mommy you have that one already!’ I suppose seeing it around the house for a few years will do that.)


I am no different than all the other tourists snapping photos. Except I snap photos of the 'Missing dog' flyers on utility poles and the tree stumps some cracker jack street artist has transformed into sculpture, not to mention compelling graffiti and street signs of particular relevance (I will always take photo of  the sign for Via della Vigna Vecchia anytime I visit Florence -- it was once my home).

We are taking trams in Milan and some of them are “antiques.” The #1 tram line that we took to Castello Sforzesco is just such a model. Wooden bench seats line the walls of the tram. There’s a shimmy and shake to its accelerations. Like a museum that allows a step back in time in addition to a method of transportation.

One of the major streets in Milan is Via Alessandro Manzoni and that tickles me for some reason. Like, where in New York is the F. Scott Fitzgerald Boulevard?!

Italy is basically just one big Tickle-me Elmo doll. Every damn thing -- good or bad -- intrigues me.

That's all for now from Il Belpaese!



  1. Love, love, love! When we landed in Florence in 2019, my first trip there with the boys and first visit to Italy in about 15 years, I burst into tears. I cried again when we left. In between, we made a million wonderful memories, just as you are doing. Maybe we should pool our money and buy a pied-a-terre over there? XOXo

  2. Let's start pooling! And thanks for the kind words. Fact is, any visit is bittersweet. It's going to end so that's always a problem. And unlike other trips, I'm not vacationing in Florence -- I'm back to living my old life. I am sure it's the same for you.


Thanks for reading the blog!