My feet carried me towards the Milan city center, where my little map dotted a hundred sites to see. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. The Duomo maybe? With all its spires and sculpting? Seemed neat. More than anything I loved the central streets, the big veins that sprouted from the round piazzas, lined with tall trees. The car lanes sucked in while the sidewalks grew out twice the size, reserved just for walkers, cafe seating, and scooter parking. Like each main street was its own park. Little clusters of people gathered to stand and sit and nibble and chat. A city, a country, designed for socializing. I walked past couples making out casually against walls, unashamed in their affection. I sighed longingly. Now wouldn’t that be nice.
I noticed a side street with just walkers, purely pedestrian. Spiga said the little plaque punched into the side of a building. I veered off and found myself in a canyon of glass windows. Gaunt mannequins hunched and contorted and wore all sorts of edgy, odd, colorful amalgamations of accessories, fabrics, jewelry and shoes. Each store had classy lettering etched right into the glass. A whole store was just gowns, with a second story of glass windows and more dolled up figures. I stood gawking at sleek sparkling astronaut costumes, and wandered a little further to see boxy bright glasses and watches. It wasn’t until one window stated in bold white lettering DOLCE & GABBANA, that I put it all together. The high fashion district of Milan!
In itself an exotic wonder for me. I walked and gawked, wondering if I’d even be allowed in the door of these stores. The flow of pedestrians around me were all dressed like they shopped there, matching suits, shined shoes, heals, scarves. I caught sight of myself in a window. My typical “day-around-town” outfit. Skirt over leggings, bulky vest over sun shirt over worn out tank top. Practical. Nothing that couldn’t be added or subtracted depending on the temperature of the day. My hair lay flat and a little butchered by my behind-the-back, self-cut attempts. I grinned at the contrast. Had I known I’d make an appearance on the fashion runway I would have worn my new black jeggings.
And those poor mannequins, warped figures, knees knocked in and out of alignment, chests sunken as if the wind was knocked out of them, shoulders rolled. Why does fashion favor such disfigurement. Don’t they know that posture informs mood? No wonder we live in a world where enthusiasm is out of style. I stepped back, standing straight, my feet slightly pigeon-toed in my flat-as-earth sneakers, and snapped a picture of my reflection next to the figures.
Then continued, on down the alley and out the other end of the fashion canyon, into a plaza the size of a city block, framed by pedestrian streets and walls of official mansions. A picket of spires poked above the buildings and I rounded the corner to face the impressive Duomo, a mountain of giant marble crosses shooting to the sky like arrows. I walked right up, through the crowds and cameras, excited to climb to the top of the tallest tower, when I found the most unexpected of things. A line.
Oh yeah, a national monument. Just another thing I hadn’t researched. And it would be E25 please. I almost went for it, but closing time decided for me. I would never make it to the top of the tallest tower.
And that is how I almost saw the inside of the famous Duomo.
I wandered back, around the plaza, around the grand fountain with thousands of pigeons creating their white shit street art, asking only crumbs in exchange. I was content to take some pictures. Try out different angles, you know. Get low, get the sun glinting. Aim high, above all the heads, make it seem like I’m the only one in this plaza, the only person at the Duomo, the only person in all of Italy.
Except for that one guy. He just kept walking into the frame. I danced to the side a little. There he was, even closer. C’mon man. Then I realized he was walking right towards me, looking at me, heading for me. I lowered my phone to greet him.
He was handsome, well dressed, in a sharp gray suit and those pointy kind of leather shoes that look terribly uncomfortable unless your toes can stop in the wide part three inches before the end. He had tastefully slicked walnut colored hair (I awkwardly push my straggly strands behind my ear), big brown eyes, and a wide smile, enthusiastic bordering on fanatic as the strain of it seems to nudge out a vein in his neck.
He stopped before me and offered, in Italian, which I seemed to understand because it was really pretty much the same as Spanish, “Would you like me to take your picture for you?”
To which my immediate response was a pleasant, “Oh, no thank you.” Because, naturally, as one would, I assumed that he was trying to steal my phone.
That sounds terrible, I know. But I had just that day heard a story, exactly the same. Someone comes to take you photo, and dashes with the camera. That or someone asks for change for E20, only for you to find out later that the 20 they gave you is counterfeit. I was on top alert. So I kindly declined, and he didn’t protest, but he did linger, asking me where I was from. It was obvious he wanted to hang out.
I didn’t really mind. I felt flattered, and excited to practice my Italian. It was going terribly. My brain cramped as I sputtered out incoherent phrases, but he just smiled and laughed, helping me a little. He said he was an architect, but no work today, as there were strikes so he had plenty of time to walk me around. I sensed that he had just then decided that he had no work, or maybe he dressed in a snappy suit everywhere he went. Either way, I told him where I was headed, and he agreed to show me the way. His name was Maximilian, of course.
I wanted to see the castle, because it was called a castle and had a lot of green around it on the map. I didn’t really know what it was. An old government building, maybe. “Ah, this way,” he beamed, leading me down one edge of the crowded plaza. He babbled on and asked me questions, which I would strain to answer, as he would laugh at my attempts, squeezing an arm around my shoulder. Then he’d ask another question, and again I’d work myself into a frustrated frenzy, and again he would laugh, this time squeezing my hand. But not letting go.
I allowed it. I was tense, but brushed it off to cozy Italian affection. It was not so bad to walk hand in hand through Milan. We left the crowded plaza and turned into a side street, much more quiet. I tensed for a moment, looking around and taking my bearings. Were we still headed for the castle? A moment of concern that maybe I had stumbled into a sticky situation. Not fear really, as I was still safe in a city full of people. But a moment of feeling like an idiot, and a dread that I might have to be assertive and make a scene.
Until we popped back out onto a crowded plaza, tourists and landmarks, with the castle on the other side. Hand in hand we walked through the gates into the big center courtyard.
We’d reached the limits of our conversation. Or, we’d reached the limits of my conversation. We walked the grounds in an awkward silence and stopped at a bench, and he dove in for a kiss.
I was thrown off guard. I don’t know why I was thrown off guard, I should have expected it, but I stepped back, a gentle push on his chest.
“Um, I don’t really do that kind of thing,” I tried to explain in Italian. He backed off smiling and we walked in silence. I was starting to consider my departure option, kind of in that stunned, pressured place of indecision. Did I want to keep walking around with this guy?
Part of me did. You know the part. But the smarter part knew there was only one way down that rabbit hole. We’d already run out of things to talk about.
We came to a low wall and leaned against it to rest. He nuzzled up and a wave of cologne hit me, sucking me in and warning me away at the same time, like a venus flytrap. I wasn’t quite at the point of making out in a castle courtyard with a handsome Italian stranger (as crazy as I sound), but I wasn’t quite at the point of walking away.
I tried to explain this to him, certain that a random suitor who had found me in the Plaza de Duomo would respond well to some heartfelt communication. Like telling the mugger, ‘Listen, I just can’t give you my money now, I’m really trying to save up for some new shoes.’
I worked myself into a language tantrum trying to explain my morals and boundaries, and he kept chuckling and squeezing my hand, which frustrated me more. Now even the passion part of me was getting fed up. ‘See, I told you,’ said the smart part.
“Where are you staying,” he asked. I gave a vague answer, sure now that I’d be making a subtle departure. “Come stay with me tonight,” he crooned, in the way only a latin man can. “Give my your number.”
“I, uh…don’t have phone service,” I half lied, grateful for the first time for phone delinquencies. “I’ll take yours, I’ll call you if I decide to come stay.” This seemed to convince him and I said it was time for me to head back. I had wanted to walk back through Milan, but it would be harder to make a soft escape walking down a street. I pulled out my little paper map and looked for the subway. He looked too, his chin on my shoulder.
“I will walk you there,” he said, standing with my hand. Still his smile didn’t falter. Still I wasn’t sure if he’d keep following. I could get tough if I needed to, but I wasn’t at that point yet. And in the end I was grateful he walked me to the station, and helped figure out the ticket machine.
Just one ticket, to my relief. Even if he did hug up behind me as we waited for it to print, and gently kiss the back of my neck, much more tenderly than I had expected from such a pushy latin man. Even if my adventurous part did a second take, asking my smart part, ‘But..are you sure? That is prrrrretty nice.’
Even if at the very last second, he pulled me around one more time to face him and I finally surrendered to the tension, to his cologne and relentless smile and charm (had it been just one notch less pushy), and stood there kissing at the turnstile, his hand on the side of my face, me the self conscious, obvious tourist hunted and caught by an Italian paramour, melting a little in his hold, and no one caring, because, after all, we were in Italy. Until I pushed him away with an elbow in his sternum.
“Call me,” he smiled down to my face. I nodded, turned and walked away, wondering if I just might.
I got off the train at the next stop. I had wanted to walk, and now I needed to walk. Whew, walk that one off.
‘What the hell was that?!’ said my brain.
‘Whaaat?’ said my passion, innocently.
‘Give me that phone number!’
‘No! I waaaaant it,’ whined the passion.
But the brain talked sense. As I wandered I replayed the events, and as the tingles died down the picture cleared up. I remembered the frustration, the violation of boundaries.
‘Dude!’ I thought. ‘Just be cool.‘ He had a lot going for him, kinda cute… dressed well…Italian. Had he played it right…just maybe. A little subtlety goes a long way, pushiness…well, pushes away. (Thank God he hadn’t played it right.)
The night was getting dark, but I stayed to big streets and felt safe. Outside a parking garage, a thin woman with died red hair asked to trade a twenty for two tens. I patted my pocket symbolically, where I had two tens stashed and said, “No, me despiace.” No more scams for one day.
I returned to the hostel and climbed to my top bunk. I thought I wanted some intrigue. Some travel romance, some Italian affection. I thought some attention would feel good, exciting, but I just felt exhausted, confused. I could still smell his cologne on my neck. Ugh! I probably caught mono or meningitis.
I rolled over and scribbled furiously in my journal, trying to sort out the pieces, until yet another cute Itialian walked in. Sergio from the bunk next to me, in his casual skinny sweatpants and sneakers. We had met the night before. He greeted me and smiled sweet and asked about my day, and then listened intently from his bunk, hands folded behind his head, responding compassionately when appropriate. Then, when it was time for him to go, he gave me the gentle kiss on each cheek and left, left me smiling.
‘Hmph! That’s more like it,’ said my brain.
‘Maybe we can make out with him!’ said my passion.