Monday, June 6, 2011

June 6: Kicking Around Milan

This morning was a lazy morning. After yesterday's excitement we could barely stand to get ourselves up and out by noon. That doesn't mean we weren't awake, however: Benny woke us all up very early after he had an alarming dream where I turned into a monster and tried to kill him. Gosh, as a parent, I can't even describe how wonderful it is when kids have this type of dream. It just fills my little heart with satisfaction when I learn that my child's nightmares are populated by deviant versions of ME. Sigh.

At this bed & breakfast, we have our own fridge and I have permission to use the kitchen when I need to, but it still very much feels like we're living in someone else's house: not quite guests but not quite customers... it's very odd. IF it were an overnight, it would be perfect, but in terms of living here for a week, I'm not sure how we're going to get through it. Dan has a horror of visiting people because he worries so constantly about inconveniencing them, disturbing their routine, causing them trouble, messing up their house, etc. I think that this week might feel a lot like that to Dan, and put him on an edge that is already finely sharpened.

The lady who lives here and runs the B&B is very sweet though. And she and I are communicating pretty well considering she speaks very little English and I speak very little Italian. I like her, so that helps. Maybe she likes me too, but probably not as my doppelganger in dreamworld is a monster who kills children. Ok, the situation is making me a little testy as well.

So at about noon or shortly thereafter, we headed out to adventure in Milan. Dan has a rest day today because of his exertions yesterday, so no bicycle, but we did need things for the bicycle, so our first stop was the bicycle shop around the corner, which was closed. Many things here in Italy are closed from about 1 to about 3, we are finally learning. So we turned the car toward downtown Milan.

Milan is a modern town, a friend told me before we came here. There aren't that many things to do. And it is. In many ways it reminds me of Chicago. It's not like Rome and it's certainly not like Florence or Venice. However, Milan's sophistication is sort of charming -- the cafe capitol of Italy, the panini capitol, and most enticingly the gelato capitol? I could get used to this kind of modern. Though there are skyscrapers and a lot of construction, which is actually really nice to see (progress good, paralysis around exhibiting artifacts bad), there is a historic "core" to Milan that we were attempting to find.

My plan was to start with the cemetery. We love cemeteries and this one was supposed to be a majestic example of exorbitant markers, spendy statues, etc. However, it was wreathed in construction and then when we finally did figure out how to get near the gates, it was closed. A cemetery closed on a Monday? I guess yes. Our parking spot was so perfect, however, that we decided to just ditch the car and walk down to the Sforza Castle, which we found to be huge, medieval, daunting, and on the other side of a lovely green park which the children enjoyed.

DaVinci lived in Sforza Castle for years, but while we appreciate any connection to DaVinci, we did not subject the children to any museums. Instead we marched on bravely toward Il Duomo, and on the way stopped for paninis for us, hot dogs for the children.

Sadie is driving us mildly crazy with her eating issues on this trip. She ranges from very very brave and adventurous, for example the grilled chicken the other night, to completely picky and ridiculous, like today when she first refused to eat any of the bread of her hot dog and then refused to eat what were basically cheetos, just because they were white! In Italy they don't use lashings of artificial colors all over the place. We explained this to her at length (again) and also the fact that the color orange, in cheese itself, is actually *also* an artificial color, and that white is the color of milk and therefore cheese, etc. etc. to no avail. Luckily Dan and I seem to alternate getting frustrated on this, so that there's always someone sympathetic to her issues. Sort of. When we get home she's going on a steady diet of brussel sprouts and cottage cheese.

After eating, we pressed on to the Duomo, which is a huge, staggering, monumentally gothic thing, laced with decor on top of decor. Like one of those drip castles you make with wet sand. This was not my favorite cathedral. Inside it reminded me of the austere gothic architecture of, for example, Notre Dame, without any of the attendant sentiment. The space, inside, felt cold and forbidding. The cool part of this cathedral, however, is definitely, definitely the roof! You can go up stairs or an elevator and explore almost the entire roof on multiple levels -- it was so cool! The best thing about it was that there were stairways, doorways, walkways and openings that showed the designers/builders had created these spaces on purpose to be used for people to go up and stand on the roof -- which was just so awesome. Loved that. I also did love one of the windows inside -- picturing a white horse and angels fighting a dragon and demons. It was beautiful and completely riveting.

After the Duomo we fed pigeons. These were by far the best pigeons we have found in Italy thus far -- they were very friendly, had no problem working with our crushed pretzels as food, and made Sadie and Benny very very happy. After pretzels were gone, we went to this very lovely, very old covered mall where we saw the Prada flagship store, a Louis Vuitton store, and other pricey hovels, as well as a McDonalds and a store selling sports jerseys and caps. But no Chipotle! Hahaha. Sadie and I have plans to embark on some sort of colossal Milanese shopping excursion, but for today we were just window shopping. We window-shopped back down to the Castle Sforza, stopping for gelato on the way, and then to the car and the bike shop, which was now open.

We now understand that parking in Italian cities means finding any spot into which you can jam your car and jamming it in. However, when Dan jammed our car into a "passe carribile" doorway, someone came and shouted at me and honked for me to move it. I did move it, but good grief. People double park, park on sidewalks, park in other people's exhaust pipes, and commit all manner of violations, and the only remedy for any of it seems to be shouting. When we got back to our place there were no available spots on our street, so we parked on the sidewalk on the next street over. When I say on the sidewalk I mean there was a FOOT HIGH CURB that Dan had to get the car up onto without scraping up the undercarriage. Which he managed, of course, being Dan, but again, good grief.

We ate dinner which I awkwardly cooked, and then I immediately washed up all the dishes which is completely unheard of for me, as my friends and family can attest. There is no reason for me to feel awkward around this nice lady -- she's been nothing but helpful and kind to us, but I think I just feel observed and maybe critiqued. Probably the language barrier, she seems immune to my charms. Or maybe she's enslaved to my charms -- who can tell? I'll find out tonight when I turn into a monster and assault her in her dreams.


Milan duomo

Sunday, June 5, 2011

June 5: An American at the Milan San Remo Gran Fondo

This morning came early. Dan’s iPhone alarm cheerfully sang out in the dark, and he got up and lurched downstairs to feed his machine. I rolled out a bit later, and when I got downstairs he was in his kit, sitting in the glass patio, eating breakfast. There was a pot of coffee waiting for us which was sort of tepid – we wondered if it had been made the night before. I am uncertain about operating stuff in the kitchen, what I’m allowed to do and what I’m not, so we drank what we had and made do. The children had gone to bed in today’s clothes so that they could hustle out to the car immediately on waking, and I tumbled them out of bed and into their shoes, and into the car, and Dan packed up the bike and his stuff and we were off to the NH Hotel for the start of the Milan-San Remo Gran Fondo.

It was cold. About halfway there, the rain started.

Dan and 1000 other guys were applying embrocation to their legs, donning rain coats and gloves, and preparing for the ride. The Gran Fondo is an amateur event that traverses the same course as the pro event that happens each year in the spring – basically a point-to-point road race between the city of Milan and the seaside resort San Remo. A two-hundred-mile race, the longest single-day event in pro cycling, I believe. So of course for amateurs it's a proving ground! When we got to the hotel we crammed our car into an available spot and Dan commenced embrocating and gloving himself. The children were mostly asleep in the back seat and the rain was misting down. "Are you serious?" I asked Dan. Not only was he going to be riding 200 miles to San Remo in the rain but he was also going to then have to sit in San Remo in his kit waiting for the shuttle bus to bring him back. Sit and wait for like 4 hours while regular people finished up the race in a slower, more sedate fashion. And he took nothing with him except the gels and bars he could fit in his jersey pockets. In the parking lot at the start, we ran into not one single other person that even spoke English. The thought of setting out on such a trek with so little support was just insane to me, but that's the man I married. No one else is like him.

Off they went, and I got into the car and drove us back to our house, miraculously finding a parking space. On this street, there are parking spaces. There are also parking spaces on the sidewalk. You can access the sidewalk parking by driving up onto the house side of the sidewalk and scootching along until you reach the space, then shunting into it. It is perilous at best, and yet this is how they park. So there are actually three available parking spaces at any point in the street -- one on each side of the street and one beyond that on the sidewalk. I was hoping to find a street one and I did. I could not have managed the alternative.

The kids and I went back to sleep for a bit, then got up and ate breakfast. The rain continued. I obsessively checked the weather for every city between here and San Remo: rain. I kept my phone in my hand, sent Dan a message that said I would come and get him if necessary, not that he didn't know, but still. A guy has to try and gut it out, right? And yet... 9 hours of riding in the rain? Could there be worse torture? I wrung my hands on Facebook, waiting for someone to tell me to go get him, but no one came forward with that definitive advice, and since going to get him would have meant wandering around uncertainly in the rain, I decided to stick with the plan, and pick him up back at the hotel at 10:30pm.

Meanwhile the kids practiced their violins and Benny played the beautiful antique piano in the parlor. Looking around at the photos and art in the house, I determined that our hostess' husband was Roberto Negri, an Italian composer and a rather famous pianist. I am not entirely sure but I believe his ashes or at least a shrine to him occupies a table at the front window of the house, beside the piano. He died in 2006, his Italian wikipedia page tells me. I suspect his wife was an opera singer, perhaps someone he met as an accompanist. While we are downstairs practicing instruments, she is upstairs cleaning our rooms. I am fighting the embarrassment of having someone make my bed who is maybe a fellow musician and artist, having someone straighten the children's shoes who is a widow of a respected composer -- it feels very odd. But I had no idea she was going to do it, I thought we would just have our rooms to ourselves for the week. However, when I went up, everything was reorganized, even our suitcases, and I guess that's just how she wants to do it. Tomorrow I will pick up the children's socks though!

At last the rain stopped, and I stuffed down my anxiety enough to take the children for a walk around the neighborhood. Just before we left, Dan called to say he had made it to San Remo, so that was a huge relief! We found some cool streets to wander down, a very interesting gelato store that had some bizarro flavors (like licorice and FISH), and then a playground with live actual children that my children were able to play with and have fun. That was definitely the highlight of the kids' day, gelato notwithstanding. And Benny ran into a woman who spoke French and he was so excited to speak French with her. Listening to him I realized we know a lot more French than we know Italian. I think this is because the Italian people are nicer about trying to help us when we speak English, so we don't have to use our Italian as much. Maybe a good thing, maybe a bad thing, but certainly a more comfortable thing!

We returned just in time to avoid the renewed rain, ate some dinner, and then went to pick up Dan at the hotel at 10:30. We parked in what appeared to be a very dark and deserted parking lot, although it was full of bike-ish looking vehicles -- larger ones than you normally see tooling around here in Italy. So I knew we could expect to see some cyclists. About 11:00 a van pulled in and some guys jumped out and started unloading bikes. I went to ask them if they knew anything about the bus, and they reported terrible traffic around Genova, told me to expect the bus to be very late. It was pretty late, but at midnight it finally rolled in. Dan showed us his trophy for being in the top five in his age group -- very impressive! He was also extremely tired and sore, more than a little stinky, and very ready to shower and go to bed. A great day for Dan, a worrying day for me, an ice cream and play day for the children, and now Dan's first Milan-San Remo is in the bag. Yay for Dan!

Up the marble staircase and into our roman appartment

This is my favorite place to stay. It is big, has a good supply of food, and has WI-FI!!!!! My favorite part is the cusions on the backs of the beds that you can lean on when you're sitting down.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

June 4: From Rome to Milan

Woke up in digestive distress over the upcoming move to Milan, with all its parking complications and timing issues. Dan said, "It's going to go off without a hitch," and that made me feel better. He went on a bike ride while I packed up the kids and the kitchen, then we all threw everything together into bags and began toting it down the 110 steps to the front door. That was some major toting, be aware. At 9-ish the guy came to check us out, and we checked out without incident and without further parking tickets. Because my irrational desire was to find a cappuccino cup for our neighbors that was in the shape of a coliseum, we ended up driving around historic Rome for a while looking for one of those sprawling, amorphous tourist shops with coliseums in baskets and endless knick knacks. Ironically, having practically fallen over them all week, we couldn't find one to save our lives. The one we finally found was in a pedestrian-only zone, so we probably got a few thousand more electronic tickets in getting me to and from this shop, only to find there was no such thing as a coliseum-shaped cappuccino cup to be had. Well, balls.

From Rome we headed north on Via Flaminia, an ancient Roman road, looking for Calcata, an ancient medieval hill town. This is the hill town I had been reading about during our stay in Levico Terme -- so being so close we just had to visit. We found it as it was described in the book -- overrun with hippie artists and groovy cats, beautiful in the extreme, quaint beyond measure. Little alleys, stairways clinging to the sides of stone buildings, tiny terraces tucked away behind little cafes blaring The Doors and operated by cool dudes. Calcata was condemned and due to be demolished by the government, part of a series of hill towns that were deemed unsafe after an earthquake collapsed one and killed a whole bunch of people. The ancient inhabitants were moved to a safer, more modern town that was built for them, but before the government got around to demolishing the medieval village, a bunch of artists and hippies moved in and fixed it up enough that it was pronounced habitable again. We wandered around for a bit, took in some stunning views of the valley, slurped up a cappuccino in a scenic terrace, bought some jewelry, peeped in at the church that for years and years housed the Holy Prepuce as an official relic, and then somehow peeled our car out of the strange, crowded little parking lot at the bottom of the hill and continued north.

Entering Milan, we immediately needed to find the NH Hotel so Dan could pick up his race packet. I have been trying not to compare Italy to France too much, since I compare them in my mind constantly and I imagine that would make for a pretty boring blog, with most paragraphs starting with "Whereas last year in France..." However, this day was so much like our day coming into Pau for L'Etape last year -- including the sky being overcast, the city being strangely modern, and our urgent time crush, I can't help but compare. After we'd gotten the race packet, we saw a Carrefour and decided to stop for groceries. Little did we know that this Carrefour was a titan among grocery stores, and stretched the entire length of Milanofiori, a giant shopping mall.

We parked, and I "ran in" to pick up a few things. I emerged over an hour later: haggard, despairing, having seen things no human should see. For example, a soccer game set up in the middle of the grocery store, where you could kick balls at some soccer pro. Swimming pools fully set up and on sale. A fish market that took up an acre. Yogurt for miles. Ruinously gigantic piles of baguettes. Just finding everything on my list took most of my soul and all of my energy. When I emerged, having had to cry my way into the cashier accepting my credit card without ID, I was a wreck of a person. But I had breakfast for Dan.

GPS brought us to our apartment through modern Milan, which is a fine enough city but remarkably graffiti-ridden. Everything here is tagged either by a gang or by an activist of some sort. Our hostess opened the door, showed us our elaborately baroque rooms, explained how we have our own fridge and how to turn on the stove, and then pointed to the other room on the second floor and said, "There is a boy sleeping in there, but he won't bother you." The boy turned out to be a middle aged man. Having a middle aged man sleeping in the next room from my two children, when there are no solid locks on the door and we are all sharing a bathroom... this was a little disconcerting.

We went out to eat at a restaurant that seemed friendly and was close. Dan ordered piles of pasta and I ordered actual bonafied Chinese food. As it turns out, Milan has a sizable Asian population and there are tons of "Ital-Cinese" restaurants around where you can get tortellini, hot and sour soup (zuppa agropiccante) all at the same time. I ordered the zuppa agropiccante without hesitation and it was awesome. They brought Dan heaping plates of pasta and meat which helped him stoke his fire for the big race, and Sadie actually tried grilled chicken with lemon and ate most of what they brought her.

We went home, fell into bed, and slept.

Gttting set