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Doru's Italian Notebook - Summer 2002 (Lakes, Venice, Tuscany, Milan)

Doru

100+ Posts
Milano

Saturday, September 28, 2002 A busy day ahead; some of it exciting, such as going in the evening to La Scala’s temporary stage to watch/listen to Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, but some of it sad, such as packing because tomorrow we leave.

After breakfast, we start the day with a walk through quiet back streets over to the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. As we arrive, we are disappointed to learn that the Library cannot be visited. We were hoping to see some of the extraordinary manuscripts and incunabula copies of books printed before 1500 AD stored in the Library. Alas, it ain’t gonna be and we take the stairs into the Pinacoteca where we console ourselves with Tizian, Boticelli, Ghirlandaio, Brueghel, Da Vinci’s “Musico”, Caravaggio’s “Canestra di frutta” which, I believe, is considered the first still life in Italian painting, and Rafael’s famous drawings for his fresco “Scuola di Atene” kept under low light to avoid their further deterioration, a copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper, hall after hall of wonderful works. Some of Leonardo's technical drawings are exposed under glass, complete with the text famously encrypted by writing in a mirror reflection. And to think that the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is not even the prime art museum in Milano; this claim belongs to Pinacoteca di Brera!

Later on we meet Renato for lunch. He advises us with great disappointment that there are no remarkable restaurants open for lunch in Milano on a Saturday and he ended up having to ask his niece if she knows on some place to recommend. Thus we end up at “Alla Vecchia Latteria di Via Unione”, predictably on Via dell’Unione, a busy shopping street at this time on a Saturday. This is no Montenapoleone for sure, but it is quite interesting to see how and where the locals shop and then to draw a comparison with the lineups early in the morning, before it even opens, at the “Prada” in the Galleria, with groups of Japanese tourists converging towards the boutique or already lined up in front of the still locked door. Well, there is no comparison!

The Latteria is an experience! Through a narrow door, we step into a very narrow and long space, about 6-7 meters long. On both sides of a narrow path there are tables: on the right tables for two, on the left tables for four. In front of us a bunch of people stand, already waiting. Renato seems a bit surprised; obviously, this is a first for him too and this is not what he expected. A short dialogue with a lady who appears from a backroom and with the cashier who dominates the little restaurant from a podium at the far end. It turns out, in fact, that this is not really the far end, since the lady gestures to us to come forward and we discover a larger, square-like room in the back. There, there are two seats available at a communal table for six, but we add a chair at one end (the other is against the wall) and there is now room for the three of us.

This is a great spot! (It reminds me of a Toronto Chinese restaurant, now long gone, where one would order great food and portions by number and then sit at large round tables for 10 wherever one could find a seat, next to total strangers, quite unusual intimacy with the unknown for Toronto of that time, not an issue anymore nowadays. But I digress!) There are real people at all the tables, people of Milano out for shopping with their children and mothers and mothers-in-law, aunts and grandparents. The place is totally crammed. People sit with their elbows drawn back to make more room, but nobody seems to be bothered by this. The kids are well behaved, unlike the North-American kids who must be entertained with pencils and colours and drawings before they eat a little piece of hog dog. These kids do not eat hot dogs: they eat what their parents eat and evidently relish it, sign that they are taught to relish simple and wholesome food and how to behave in public from an early age. The question is: what do they eat? There is no menu; evidently, all customers know what to order and do it in apparent great detail, but it all escapes me. Renato goes into a lengthy negotiation with the lady, who is also the waiter here in the back, it turns out. He then explains to us that we are going to get a sampling of a variety of vegetarian antipasti and that the main courses will be combinations of two or three small portions of the specialties of the house. I get my quartino di rosso and observe this place so full of life, mostly young families with kids and elders in tow. The kids are hugged and loved and their parents, aunties and grandparents make sure the kids are also well fed.

Our plates arrive and the waitress explains to Renato what we got and then Renato explains to us, but much is lost in the din of the place and we dig into delightful morsels of this and that. By the end of the meal all tastes dissolve into a harmony of spices and textures, but I am no wiser as to what we had in any great detail. There is no way I could write down the menu here the way I did it at Da Giulio's or at La Torre!

On the way out, Renato stops to pay. He tells the cashier, who turns out to be Sr. Giorgio Notari, the owner, that we are guests from Canada and Giorgio introduces himself, and we talk a few minutes about his trips to Canada and how he plans to return soon. We tell him how to find us if he will happen to be in Toronto, shake hands and we're back out on Via dell'Unione. In all the time we've been in the restaurant, the lineup never got shorter. This is a popular place, no doubt, but not for people who don't like kids or sitting too tight against a total stranger. On the other hand, you can exchange smiles and courteous nods with the locals.

Now, Renato proposes to come for a short visit to his apartment and on the way to stop at the famous Casa di Riposo per Musicisti Giuseppe Verdi. And so we find ourselves, after a quick metro ride, in front of the retirement home for musicians which was founded and funded by Verdi himself and considered by him "l'opera mia più bella". Located in Piazza Buonarotti, the Casa Verdi houses 100 retired musicians, 40 women and 60 men (don't ask me why this proportion…). A few years ago we watched a very moving documentary on the life in Casa Verdi, with the old musicians and singers still trying their talents and sharing from their memories and collected posters, photographs and other keepsakes. Now we are here, and as we admire the façade, a very old woman with a cane, well bowed by age and osteoporosis, emerges from the building and takes to the street for a walk, I assume.

The building forms a square and inside the square there is a charming garden and the funerary monument and crypt where rest the remains of Giuseppe Verdi and of his second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, while a plaque retains the memory of Verdi's first wife, Margherita Barezzi.

We spend a few minutes in the crypt and on the way out we stop to view the marble plaques honouring the donors to the Casa, since the endowment left by Verdi has long since run out of money and the home is now maintained from generous donations. The plaques are full with names of famous musicians and artists, from Wanda Toscanini Horowitz and Vladimir Horowitz, to composers such as Arrigo Boito, Francesco Cilea and Umberto Giordano, singers such as Beniamino Gigli, The Metropolitan Opera, Teatro alla Scala, banks, etc.

A few steps from the Casa Verdi is Renato's apartment. We spend there a short time, admiring the souvenirs collected by Renato and presents received during his prodigious and well travelled career of almost 50 years. Thus we get the sad news that Renato's cleaning lady has dropped the statuette we gave him some 10 years ago, and that the poor totem has lost its nose. Oh well, we suggest he try to polish a bit whatever is left of the nose and we also take the opportunity to deliver to him another work by the same artist, to stand side by side with the now nose-challenged piece. But it is time to go. While Josette goes back to the hotel to pack, Renato and I opt for sandwiches and drinks at a nearby café. Times passes quickly as we reminisce about colleagues, and projects, and meetings, and other trips. The big moment approaches and even I, the self-proclaimed cool guy, get really excited: we pick up Josette and the three of us head out to the Opera!

There is a story to the tickets! Since the beginning of August we have been lurking over the La Scala Web site, trying to get tickets for a show, any show, while we're in Milano. The idea was to buy three tickets and invite Renato to share the event with us. Night after night, we tried to get into the site, got as far as identifying what tickets are available, even the prices, but failing when trying to proceed to the actual purchase. We were miffed, since we managed to buy tickets over the Internet for just about any event and at any venue we wanted. Finally, we had to give up at least on the idea of surprising Renato with the invitation and sent him an e-mail. Two days later, the answer came and I paraphrase: "The virtual La Scala is on line, but the brick and mortar one is closed for the month of August. Next chance is on September the 2nd, when I will be promptly at the door to buy tickets". We discussed numbers and price ranges and hoped, since on the 8th of September we will be already on our way to Italy. The night of September 1st, we sneaked into the La Scala Web site again and, with hearts fluttering, discovered that in the entire over 3,000 seats capacity, only TWO TICKETS, were left to be sold, in the penultimate row of the Seconda Galleria. Oh, we said, will try again in a future trip. But first thing on September 2nd the first message on our e-mail box was from Renato! "Victory!", he said, "we have two tickets in the penultimate row of the Seconda Galleria! I was the first in line and these were the only tickets put on sale. But there is still hope for a third ticket, since on September 9th another block of non-honoured reservations will go on sale!." And so, we left Toronto on the 8th without knowing whether the third ticket has materialised…

But materialise it did, as were to find out two days later during a telephone conversation with Renato from Menaggio and so here we are, the three of us going to La Scala, or more precisely to Teatro dei Arcimboldi, in the Biccoca area in the north of Milano, where La Scala has its temporary home. Renato knows that specially provided buses will be available for the spectators in front of La Scala and so we go there. Looking at the narrow streets around La Scala and observing that traffic is re-directed from Via Manzoni, I express privately to Josette some doubt as to buses being able even to get into the area, while Renato goes to talk to the policemen redirecting the traffic. Indeed, tonight is the closing of the Fashion Week events and there is no access by car or bus to Via Manzoni. I suggest we should either take a taxi or look for the buses in the Piazza di Duomo and finally, after a lot of wandering around, Renato discovers the buses as they stop in the taxi area of the Piazza. There is a big lineup of spectators waiting for the buses, and by the time we make it on the bus, seats have long been gone. With two artificial hips I generally avoid urban buses because of the incessant stop and go which throws me from one side to the other. But we have no other option and I hope for a short bus ride.

It wasn't to be. As the bus rounds behind the Duomo and onto Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a big demonstration takes place in front of the St. Babila Church. Traffic is abnormally chaotic even for central Milano, because of all the traffic diverted from Via Manzoni all the way to Piazza Cavour. Add the normally congested downtown Milano on Saturday night and you don't even begin to imagine the result. We advance spurt by spurt, three lanes of traffic, and at least I know it wouldn't have made any difference if we would have taken a taxi; we would have been stuck in the crawl of vehicles just the same. As time passes, it gets more and more uncomfortable to stand, although I hang by both hands. I try to sit on the edge of a seat and providence makes an appearance in the guise of a young Japanese man, who gets up and offers to… Josette a seat. He becomes thoroughly bewildered when Josette gives me the seat. As I sit down, I try to thank him and also to explain and this becomes an animated conversation with the young man, his fiance who is also Japanese and myself. We talk about the bus trip and La Scala and find out that they both study in Milano, her being an aspiring soprano studying at the conservatory, while he studies business. We arrive at Teatro dei Arcimboldi in the nick of time. It is 8 sharp, as Josette takes her seat in the Galleria 1, while Renato and I take exactly the seats I have seen on Internet as available for sale: Galleria 2, Fila 53, no. 14 and 15! Over the Public Address system an announcement is made: the start of the show is delayed by 15 minutes, to allow latecomers who were caught in heavy traffic in Milano centre to take their seats. I feel great: I was part of the problem, real life participation in the event!

The curtain rises and all is forgotten, for in front of us magic happens. Tonight's show is Lucrezia Borgia, by Donizetti, an opera we've never heard before. The tenor we know reasonably well: it is Marcelo Alvarez, whom we have heard on PBS just the week before leaving for Italy, in Rigoletto. His chunky self appears live even a bit chunkier but the voice opens and then he is Gennaro. Lucrezia Borgia's role is sung beautifully by Mariella Devia and the entire cast is excellent. Although we are just one row from the end of the Teatro, the sound is faultless. It carries purely and clearly. The orchestra is first class, the staging and costumes are slightly modernised but not intrusively so. I am happy we went the La Scala museum because we have from there a real life perception of the how accurate and rich the costumes are. Around us, particularly in the Gallerias where the "Claquers" used to take cover, enthusiastic choruses of "Bravo!" and "Bravi!" explode after each aria or group singing. We are in Opera Heaven!

In the intermission I run into some trouble with the Cardinals who are everywhere at La Scala, disguised as ushers and usherettes: I am not allowed to take pictures, not even in the foyer. I go one level lower to arrange with Josette where and how we will meet at the end and return to my seat for the rest of the spectacle. At the end, the cries of the spectators go on for a few minutes and, not in character at all, I take revenge on the Cardinals as I sneak a couple of picture of the performers coming to the front of the stage to bow to the ardent public. Wow!

The bus ride back is a lot better. The three of us have seats, the traffic is lighter since much of Milano has retired to sleep, the demonstration broke out and the models and the fashion purchasers are spread in bars and hotels all over the centre of Milano celebrating their own end of the show.

With a pang, we realise that our Italian 2002 show is also about to end. Over late night drinks, we say farewell and thanks to Renato and vow to meet again next year, probably in Venezia since Renato may be away on a business trip by the time we may be in Milano next year, September 2003… We hug and crowd into a taxi, which first drops us off at the hotel. Renato continues to his apartment, where the travel bag is all ready for his trip tomorrow, to Geneva.
 

Doru

100+ Posts
Milano - Toronto

Sunday, September 29, 2002 Milano-Toronto and the case of the missing (suit)case We manage to get some very early breakfast before going down where the taxi for Malpensa waits. It is a quick ride to the airport, with a very pleasant driver who asks many questions about Canada,, Toronto, Montreal, winter. He seems to be well informed. A prospective immigrant? €80 plus a nice tip later, we are at Malpensa. All is well. We meet Judy and Davis, whom we've last seen in the Campo of Siena. They are on the same Alitalia flight. The flight itself is uneventful, but at arrival we wait by the baggage conveyer, and wait, and wait… Finally, one of the two suitcases appears, but not the second. The one missing contains all Josette's stuff and many of the purchases and presents. Tired and dejected, we go to report the missing luggage. To our surprise, the Air Canada agent finds immediately the location of the suitcase and exclaims hopefully: "We've got it: it is in Dublin!". We don't share his enthusiasm but he says that all will be fine; it would have been worse if the suitcase couldn’t be located!

We are given a copy of the report with a reference number which will allow us to check the progression of the suitcase towards Toronto and are told that we will be advised as soon as it arrives and that it will then be delivered promptly to our house. There remains the small matter of clearing customs, which is an obligatory stop, we find out, for anybody whose luggage arrives separately. By then, we really don't care and wait until an agent asks us very nicely what happened and what was in the delayed suitcase. We give an approximate inventory and, once released, treat ourselves to a limo ride home.

A first call to my 93 years old Dad, then we drive to pick up Frasier, and slowly life return to routine. Over the next few days we will find that the suitcase was repatriated from Dublin to Rome by Alitalia and was subsequently directed to Toronto. We check daily the Air Canada web site in search of the suitcase. By the 4th day it is located in Boston and freezes there. We kind of give up and I try to console Josette, but what can one expect these days with an unaccompanied piece of luggage in Boston or anywhere in the States. We establish a beautiful relationship over the telephone with the ever polite and supportive Air Canada agents, who assure us all is well and they will call us when (not if!) the suitcase arrives.

Monday, October 7, 2002 The doorbell rings. Frasier goes totally bonkers, which is par for the course for him every time the doorbell rings. As he tries to climb over the door (he is an otherwise sweet and peaceful dog, but this does not apply to postmen and doorbells…), I open to a Purolator messenger who delivers the missing suitcase. We thank him and fall over the suitcase to see if everything is in place. First, we discover the lock is gone. Then, as we open the suitcase, all seems to be fine but not quite the same way Josette has packed the stuff. But at first glance nothing seems to be missing and at a second glance everything was re-packed extremely well. Under the second layer of clothes, we notice a blue paper: " In accordance with the U.S. Code of Federal regulations, Title 19, Part 148, Section 7 and 21, in your absence, your baggage was opened by your airline representative and presented to U.S. Customs for inspection. Any damage….".
 

Doru

100+ Posts
Special thanks: To the SlowTrav web site, Message Board, moderators and member contributors. They helped us make choices, plan ahead, plan better. The SlowTrav Trip Reports gave us insights into places and opportunities which otherwise would not have been available to us. We carried with us faithfully printouts which we called "Tips from SlowTrav" and we used them everywhere we went. We can't think of a better bunch of friends, people we've never met but with whom we share this passion and curiosity essential to travellers.

This concludes our "Notebook, Italy-September 2002", a trip by Josette and Doron (Doru) Midroni, Toronto, Canada. We have already started collecting "Tips from SlowTrav" and making reservations for the 2003 trip to Italy...
 

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