Duomo di Milano
I had three loves in Milan; The City itself, the incomparable food, and its people. Particularly Andrea (italian for Andrew), who taught me I could be loved and touched tenderly in body and soul.
Milan was by far my first true love. The Duomo, the city’s Cathedral and home to the Madonina – a golden statue of The Blessed Virgin at the highest point of the cathedral’s spires - was the heart of the city. Italians called out to her. There were songs written about her. The Duomo became my True North on my internal map of the city. In the months and hears ahead, it would become a meeting point for social gatherings and the place I would go to light a candle, say a prayer and ask questions of God and the Universe. Sitting atop its many spires were thousands of Saints, full size, standing proudly looking over the city in every direction. They seemed to stand in ceremony, protecting – nay, hailing – the Madonina who stands high above, guiding and sanctifying all she sees in her crowned, golden splendor. And on a quiet morning, before it is filled with the contrast of the graffitied taparelli and the urine stained walls of cobblestone side streets, the magnificence of the rising sun’s pink and orange glow on The Duomo’s white marbled exterior could not be obscured. I never got tired of that vision. Oh yes, I fell in love with Milan.
Those first few weeks in MIlan were not wasted on me. I knew what was happening to me – traveling to another country, landing an exciting new job, and physically leaving behind the dark, fear-filled days I had with my ex-husband – was a rebirth. I was literally given a second chance at life. I knew if I had stayed with Tommy I would have eventually died at his hands. But that was all behind me now and I was literally taking small steps down Milanese streets with my eyes wide open and breathing new air. By the time I landed in Milan, it had been five years since I saw his face. I will admit, there was a moment every now and again, when I thought he might somehow find me in Italy and finish what he started. I would get a chill and have to verbally remind myself that I was in fact beginning a new life in Italy. And I had no plans to return to The States.
The first month of school was the same as it is in any school. There was lots of buzz, and excitement and the butterflies invaded my stomach again as they did every September. There were new faces of students and colleagues and parents. There were new books and pencils to be sharpened and markers to be put out. Though that year, the notebooks and paper were a different size. The pencils even looked different. Instead of American markers like Crayola, we had Giotto markers. My classroom overlooked the only golf course in the area, and just beyond I could see the riso, or rice fields, instead of the 52nd Precinct on Webster Avenue. My students had Italian, French, Spanish and Arabic accents instead of Hispanic/Bronx accents. When they returned from the weekends, my students in Milan would tell me of day trips they took to Lugano, Switzerland, Venice, or Lake Cuomo. A stark contrast from my Bronx kids who visited their fathers in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossening, NY, or stayed in the house playing video games. My colleagues and students from The Bronx never left my thoughts as I prepared my Italian classroom and I questioned my decision to take this job in Italy. Was I a sell-out? Would these kids need me the way my Bronx kids did? Would my colleagues in Italy even come close to comparing with my teammates and friends from P.S. 20? Those were questions I would reflect on often. It took years before I came to peaceful terms with myself on this. The truth is, I made a connection in Milan that was completely intangible.
I was very well supported in those early days by colleagues who also left their homes and friends and schools to join in this new professional and life opportunity. We were expatriates now. Expats, for short. For many of my colleagues, Milan was one in a string of places they had moved to, knowing it would not be the last. Their journeys originated from small towns and cities all over the U.S. like Los Angeles, St. Paul, Portland, Lancaster County, PA, Wilmington S.C., and Chicago. We all wound up in the same city, in the same school for very different reasons. But the one thing we had in common is that we all left something behind us in exchange for the mysterious something coming ahead of us. People, places and things. Some of us were seeking new experiences. Some of us running from old ones. Some of us somewhere in the middle. I think I was one of those. The interesting thing is that none of us had regrets about doing it. It seems that the more I got to know expats, the more I realized we were the ones living our lives with the volume turned all the way up.
And so it went. Our school’s staff had a yearly tradition. After the first paycheck, and in Europe workers get paid once a month instead of weekly or bi-weekly, everyone goes out for dinner for a really nice meal. This sounded like a great way to celebrate the first month of school and get to know more of the various staff members. When the evening finally arrived, we carpooled with those who had been living in Milan long enough to battle the bureaucracy and get cars and Italian drivers licenses – no small task I can assure you. We drove down a series of narrow two lane roads until we turned down a long dirt road, arriving at a cascina, or farmhouse, which my American eyes thought looked dilapidated on the outside. We got out of the car, walked into the pitch black night along the dirt path and entered the cascina. As soon as the heavy wooden doors opened, the soft glow of lit candles and sounds of clinking glasses and laughter poured out. I could smell the butter-heavy smells of grilling meat. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the flames from the brick oven readying itself for pizzas. We were led to a private room, to our table, which was really a series of long wooden tables forming a U-shape, covered in crisp white linens and already set with flatware, wine, water and prosecco glasses that glowed in the golden candlelight. As we made our way to our seats, one of our servers was making his way over to begin pouring a glass of prosecco. When all nineteen of us were seated, we made a collective toast to the new year, “Cin-cin!” (pronounced chin-chin). It was all very festive and being Americans we all began chatting politely and began the process of getting to know each other with the common first questions: So, how’s your class going? Are you feeling overwhelmed? Are you homesick? Where are you from? Will your family and friends come visit you? Where are you living now? How ‘s your Italian coming along? and on like this. Without noticing it, thee was suddenly large serving platters of grilled red peppers, impossibly paper-thin grilled zucchini and eggplant, artichokes and olives all gleaming with olive oil. There were also plates of sliced salumi, and prosciutto ham and some small slices of bread to mop up the olive oil. This was the antipasti. I put a slice of eggplant on my fork. When it touched my lips, I remember thinking this didn’t taste like any eggplant I’d ever tasted before. It was completely tender and practically melted in my mouth. Not salty or tough. Delicious! There were many more little dishes that suddenly appeared before us. The servers keeping our wine glasses filled with impeccable red wine. At one point I looked around the room and time stood still. The Cascina‘s walls were exposed red and white brick, mostly white, which glowed golden in the candlelight. Everyone around the table – teachers, school secretaries, administrators – looked so shiny and beautiful to me. It might have been the wine skewing my perspective but I was in love with everyone in the room at that moment. I had only been making casual conversation, small talk really, with some of the people around me up to that point. And then came out the small dishes of risotto al formaggio. This Northern Italian classic, just a dollop on a small white dish, was placed before me. The aroma of the rice, indistinguishable from the intermixing of a buttery mix of melted gorgonzola and other cheeses was so fresh, so delicate it practically walked off the plate and onto my fork. I savored the aroma for a moment and with eyes closed, I gently pressed a forkful into my mouth. My tastebuds danced. I had never tasted anything like it in my life. I turned to look at the girl sitting next to me, her name was April, and she was having the same reaction as I. Tears welled up in my eyes at the same moment they did in hers. She grabbed my hand under the table and we both spoke about how it was so delicious and how beautiful and special this night was. It was that moment that our friendship was born. It sounds silly and made up but that’s exactly how it happened. I was overwhelmed. Everyone looked so beautiful, the table, the china, the flatware, the food… the glow of the candlelight, the brick walls covered with antique farm equipment. It was all overwhelming. I was living in Italy. Not there for a visit, but this was my home. Home. And it wasn’t the risotto, but it was the risotto. There was more to eat that night: fresh hand made ravioli stuffed with ricotta and herbs and slathered with butter, grilled meats and sausage, fish, and for dessert pana cotta. That was the beginning of never having a bad meal again. Not as long as I lived in Italy, anyway. A year later, an eighty year old woman would teach me the secrets of making risotto. That was a lesson I would carry with me always.
So you see, I was surrounded by and falling very deeply with Milano, and the food of Italy. There was one more thing I fell in love with. Most surprisingly. Completely. Not a thing at all. A person. And here’s how that happened.
There was a girl just a few years younger than me who had been at the school for a year or two. Her name was Melodi. She had a naturally friendly and bubbly personality. She had the uncanny ability to make a connection to anyone she spoke with. She was funny and people loved being around her. The second weekend of October is a national holiday in Milan so everyone is traveling for the long weekend. A bunch of people went to Prague for the four day weekend. I was not particularly close enough to anyone so I was not invited to come along. I was also low on cash, having come to Italy with almost no money at all and was conserving my Euros. Melodi, being nice and not wanting to see anyone feel lonely, invited me out for a pizza. I was touched that she would, and met her at a place called Yummy Yummy. It was a small out of the way place near her apartment in the Porta Romana section of the city. It seemed strangely funny because it was a pizza place run by a Chinese family who immigrated to Italy to open, of all things, a pizza place. It would become one of my favorites because the pizzas were incredible. Anyway, we ate pizza and started telling our stories and got along so well, that Melodi said, she wasn’t sure if I’d be interested but there was an Irish Pub down the block if I wanted to grab a beer. Of course I did! From her description it sounded like a small cramped Irish pub, which reminded me a bit of New York. So when the pizzas were done, we headed over to Pogue Mahone’s which was at the end of that block. We bellied up to two prime stools at the center of the bar and I ordered my Guinness and she her Blonde and began talking. I loved seeing the Irish flag and pictures of Irish “stuff” all around. By the time we ordered our second beer, I noticed the two guys sitting next two us were looking in our direction. It seemed obvious to me that they were checking out Melodi being the bubbly blonde hair blue eyed girl from South Carolina with the southern accent that she was. And one of them was in fact interested in her. Giuseppe, or Beppe, which is what his friend was calling him. I looked at the friend and noticed he was extremely good looking – way out of my league. But while Beppe was talking to Melodi, Andrea leaned over and started talking to me. In Italian. I don’t know why or how, but I understood him. He introduced himself and I responded. In Italian! I could not believe what was happening. I told him (in Italian) that I did not speak Italian well. He told me I had a beautiful smile and laugh, which made me blush a little. He asked where I was from and when I told him New York, his eyes lit up. I had already noticed that telling people I was from New York (which was the truth) carried with it a certain cool factor. Italians love New York – well, Europeans do- and the questions almost always followed, Why would you move to Milano when everyone in Milano wants to live in New York!? Anyway, Andrea was so handsome, and he smelled like… well I can’t describe that. It was his natural odor that I was responding too. He smelled clean but like clean skin. Clean hair. I would find out later that he was a rock climber, so his body was fit. He was Milanese, so he was shorter than an American man, but still taller than me. As was the fashion, his hair was buzzed short, almost bald, which I found extremely sexy. We spoke for a bit and there was another beer, and another and I found myself wanting to kiss him. He offered to drive me home, as I lived just on the outskirts of the city, whereas Meodi lived just a few blocks away. I turned to Melodi who was roughing it with Beppe and announced Andrea was driving me home. She pulled me aside and said, “Oh no he’s not! Same rules apply here, my dear, you cannot go home with a stranger! You can give him your number but you don’t know if he’s crazy!”. This was very disappointing news to me. So I told him no, but he kept insisting. I said no, and he asked for my number. I think maybe I did not have a cell phone connected yet, so I gave him my email address, and I took his. We said goodnight, there was no kissing, but the next day I remember thinking how completely gorgeous he was – and how torturous it was that I had to wait to get to work before I could check for his email. Sure enough, in very broken English, his email was there. It was adorably written. Very polite. He said how nice it was to meet me, how he kept thinking about my laugh and smile and how he would love to show me all his favorite laces in Italy…. Florence, Venice, Melegnano where he lives…. and did I want to go out for an a
perativo with him? So I wrote back saying yes, and we made arrangements.
I was so nervous on our first date. I thought maybe he was drunk at the Pub and maybe would not be interested in me. I was worried about communicating with him because of our language barrier. I remembered he tried to say a few things in English, but it was clear that my very limited Italian was much better than his English. Anyway, he picked me up in his navy blue VW Beetle. We went into Milan for drinks and food. We talked and there was a lot of drawing on napkins and acting things out to communicate! It was so much fun that first night. One thing was undeniable, we were very attracted to each other, because there was lots of smiling and flirting too. When we got back into the car so he could drive me home, I had trouble pulling the safety belt over my shoulder. He leaned over to help me and that’s when it happened. He surprised me with a kiss that lasted quite some time. We sat in the car, making out like teenagers. At one point I had to stop and remind myself where I was – I was living in Italy and this beautiful man starting talking to me in a bar and now we’ve just had a date and I’m kissing him. I wanted to scream, it was all so exciting.
After that date, he emailed me again to tell me how much fun he had and how he wanted me to go to Portofino with him the following weekend. Portofino? for the weekend? With a man I’d only been out with once? That was too crazy, even for me! I consulted with the girls at work, and one older woman said to me, “Maria, you’re 35 years old, living in Italy and a handsome Italian man has offered to take you to romantic Portofino for the weekend. Are you crazy, of COURSE you should GO!” But I said, “What if he’s crazy and chops me up in little pieces?” And she said, “You’ll be chopped up in little pieces in Portofino… just GO!”
And so I did.