I have the weirdest relationship with Italy. My trips there have been bizarre amalgams of touristy train trips and punk rock squat-hopping. I’ve seen dead bodies and pizzerias packed with families. I’ve gone up and down the country but never set foot in Rome. Italy and I don’t know quite how to handle each other. But I will say two things about my favorite Italian city, Milan, that should sell anyone on a trip there immediately. It has the most gorgeous people in the world, and it has food that is as near perfection as food can get. That’s enough reason to go, right?
In 1999-2000, I stayed in some punk rock squats in Milan, and I quickly had to flee those for my sanity. Italian punks are lovely, and intense, and bring out some of the worst traits in myself. I knew that unless my Italian trip was destined to end with flinging Molotov cocktails at the chain restaurants I needed to change my locale. I decided on some dingy bed and breakfasts in the city center. They were a slight step up in terms of hygiene, but a large step up in not-going-to-jail. This was pre-EU Italy, and it was fantastically Italian. No English, few franchises… Italy.
The best part of the little B and Bs clustered in Milan was that it was like a language school and cultural exchange program all rolled into a fantastic package. I stayed at once place that had a little kid, maybe four years old, who was desperate to talk to me. It was perfect for both of us- he had an adult to tell his story to, I had a person whose Italian was about on my level.
I haven’t been to Italy since 2000. I moved back to Japan in 2001 and never went back to Europe. I wonder what the changes to Italy have meant for travel around Milan. I generally dislike nostalgia in any form, and I’m especially bothered by nostalgia for a place that I didn’t really know beyond a few short trips. But I can’t help but be curious by Milan in 2015. It has to feel different. The little squats may still be there. The abandoned train cars filled with gutter punks may still be there, serving cold food and being drunk at 9am. I have no idea. But Milan probably isn’t the same.
It doesn’t matter that the city is 2500 years old, it really goes away and reappears every few decades as an entirely new town. Every city does that- it’s reinvented by new generations, new technology. Milan just strikes me more than most because that illusion of age makes you feel like you’re walking Roman streets. The oven fired pizza makes you think you’re eating in Fellini’s Italy. You can’t really do that, though. The places move on, they change. This is necessary and important, of course. I’m not so blinded by historical interest or my own experience to pretend otherwise for even a moment. But it is interesting, and it explains a lot about the world to me. We love or hate change, we fear or embrace it, but we can’t deny the impact it has. I look at Milan and see ancient columns that attract me, old piazzas that evoke a different era. I ride on scooters from the Italian “economic miracle” days and wonder what it was like to follow old stone paths in the wake of the devastation of WWII. It isn’t nostalgia, exactly- I don’t pine for it- but it is a kind of passionate curiosity. It’s a desire to imagine vividly the place I am, what it has gone through, and what may be to come. And it doesn’t happen everywhere I go, certainly. But it’s powerful and constant when I’m in Milan.