Sunday, September 29, 2013

Venice: The Wisconsin Dells of Italy

Let me begin by saying that Venice is absolutely gorgeous. Jaw-droppingly breathtaking, you might say.

Clear blue canals and narrow winding alleys are the city's streets and sidewalks. The buildings are charming, colorful, and take you back to another time.

You could wander for hours without a map, turning whichever way looks most inviting, and each square you stumble into would be more beautiful than the last. 

Yes, Venice is stunning. It's also one of the most popular destinations in Italy, and therefore burdened with visitors from all over the world for over half the year. Venice is the most touristy place I have experienced to date, and considering I spent a summer in London during the Olympics, I think that's saying something. 

Masses of people make it difficult to maneuver those narrow, charming streets. The large squares are occupied by tents and tables selling fake Gucci, Prada, and Chanel accessories - often nearby actual Gucci, Prada, or Chanel stores - "original" paintings of Venice scenes, and thousands of carnivale masks. 

Countess restaurants, hotels, and gondolas line the canals, luring tourists in with their "Ciao, bella!" remarks, promising an authentic Italian experience if you eat their food, sleep in their rooms, or take a ride in their boats. Yet, 90% of the menus I saw were overpriced compared to Milan standards, and many of them offered a hilarious array of 'international meals' like tacos, hamburgers, and beef pot pie. Hotel prices were ridiculously high, and a gondola ride would have costed me more than I paid to get to Venice.

I'm left feeling very divided about my opinion of Venice. As I wandered around, I was easily charmed by the sights, the quaint little shops, and the ever so complimentary Italians who work there. I enjoyed each bite of expensive spaghetti and photographed every picturesque, postcard worthy scene. I shamelessly acted the part of every other tourist around me, and it was a carefree, magical day. But in hindsight, the whole experience felt very manufactured. I was reminded alot of Wisconsin Dells; an amazingly scenic area of northern Wisconsin in which tourism has gradually eclipsed the natural beauty -and purpose- of the place. Venice seems to be the place to go if you want to experience every stereotypical aspect of Italian culture - for a price. 

In Venice's defense, I was only there for one day during the height of tourism season, and more importantly, I didn't plan my visit at all. Historically speaking, Venice is enthralling, and there are plenty of amazing buildings and sites scattered about to prove it. Yet I failed to research what the real Venice - the Venice that has seen hundreds of years of wars, kings, political strife, and yes, even tourists - has to offer. I didn't bother to ask the waiter at the restaurant or man selling paintings what they loved about Venice and what makes it special to the people who call it their home. There is always more than what meets the eye, and I think this is especially true of Venice. 

With all of this said, I will return to Venice. You can't judge a book by its cover, and I don't think my brief afternoon spent among thousands of frenzied tourists is a fair representation of the city. I'll come back on a quieter day with a goal to discover Venice's history and secrets - and hopefully a restaurant where spaghetti doesn't cost upwards of a million euros.

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A Religious Experience

The last eight hours have been rather...unusual. In fact, I'm unsure as to how I should preface this story. I think it's best to just jump right in.

I met a friend around 9:00 last night for a beer. We shared London Ales and lovely conversation for a few hours, followed by a walk around Brera, a part of Milan frequented less by tourists and more by locals. We stopped in this great ice cream shop where you could get a Magnum bar hand dipped and covered with your choice of toppings (which included dried raspberries, rose petals, and miniature meringue puffs, among other whimsical choices). I opted for white chocolate coating, coconut, brownie pieces, and the meringue. As an avid fan of Magnum ice cream, I was in heaven. 

The evening concluded at the reasonable hour of midnight, and I was back to the apartment by 12:25 or so. The walk home had been chilly, and I couldn't wait to get my pajamas on and snuggle into bed. With this lovely thought in mind, I unlocked the double doors to the apartment as quietly as I possibly could so as not to wake the others. The door creaked open, but where I could usually just walk on in, there was now another door closed in front of me. This second door usually remained open, but tonight it was not only closed, but locked. Locked - with a key that I knew did not reside on my keychain. 


I tried in vain to force open the door, thinking that perhaps it wasn't locked but simply jammed shut. No luck. It was now 12:35ish. I knew everyone was asleep, but clearly I had to have someone let me in. 

"So sorry to wake you, but that second door is locked and I don't have a key. Could you open it?" I wrote, thinking a text was more polite than a blaring ringtone going off at 12:30pm. Ten minutes response. I would have to call. A bitchy robot woman answered. "Siamo spiacenti, sembra aver esaurito minuti. Si prega di acquistare più minuti." My Italian was sharp enough to get the gist of that statement; my cheapo phone had run out of minutes.

Again, great.

Suddenly, I was struck with the kind of brilliant idea that can only come during a moment of desperation, fueled by the buzz I had from cheap London Ale and 1,000 grams of sugar from the ice cream bar. I'll pick the lock! I thought. I dug around in my purse, found a hairpin, and proceeded to attempt to pick the old Victorian lock for the next twenty minutes. 

Needles to say, I was unsuccessful. Between 1:00am and 1:59am, I alternated between failed phone calls to the bitchy Vodaphone lady and failed breaking and entering attempts with a flimsy hairpin. At 2:00am, I admitted defeat. I had no choice but to wait it out in the chilly stone foyer of the apartment building. So I waited. And waited. And waited.

Time went surprisingly fast. I came up with creative ways to sit and/or lay so as not to completely numb any one part of my body. I chatted with friends on Facebook - it was early evening back home, after all. I thought about upcoming trips I wanted to take. I wished my sister a happy birthday two days late. I was really getting some things checked off my to-do list! Eventually, I dozed off. 

I woke up around 3:00am and tried to pick the lock again out of sleep deprived insanity. I was in the midst of this when I heard something behind me. "Scusi, ma cosa stai facendo?" (Excuse me, but what are you doing?) I whirled around and saw the middle aged man who collects garbage from the apartment to be taken outside.

"Oh! Ah, I'm... mi dispiace, ma non parlo Italiano bene." (I'm sorry, but I don't speak Italian well.) And he didn't speak English. After lots of attempts at explaining my situation, he finally understood that I was locked out. So naturally, I was invited back to stay the night at his home. That IS the typical solution to this sort of situation, isn't it?


"Grazie, ma non lo farai. Avere un bella notte." (Thank you, but I won't be doing that. Have a nice night.) Some of the grammar was undoubtedly incorrect, but a forceful, rude tone and a death glare is a universal language. Maybe he was just being nice, and maybe I was a little mean. All I knew was that was 3am and I was NOT going to accompany the garbage man home. 

Following this, I remained vigilant. I sat upright on the steps and counted to 500. I tried to pick the lock AGAIN. I Googled the Emmy results on my phone (Bryan Cranston didn't win for Breaking Bad? Really?) I walked around the tiny foyer smashing mosquitoes and spiders lest they band together and eat me alive. I did pushups (seven of them, to be precise). I picked out names for my future children, decided what they will look like, and created a fictional man in my head so as to acquire said children. Around 5:15am, a Backstreet Boys song randomly popped into my head, and I spent the rest of that hour wondering why I never wanna hear you say "I want it that way." 

At 6:00am, my iPhone died. So did a little part of myself. 

At 7:15am, an elderly woman in the apartment next door stepped outside and noticed me sitting on the steps, rocking back and forth humming bad 90's tunes to myself. She promptly stepped back inside with a look of what can only be described as terror. It was time for me to go.

I knew everyone would wake up around 8 or so, but I didn't really want to be languishing at the door when they did. The sun was out, there was life on the streets again, and I almost forgot I had spent the last 6 hours in an upright position when I stepped outside. But it was chilly, I was tired, and I needed somewhere to just sit for another hour or so. I came across the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie and my prayers were answered. 

The church was warm, contained padded chairs, and was full of enough frescoed walls and ceilings to keep me entertained for hours. I sat there for a few minutes, truly enjoying the art and the warmth, when I realized that I had company. No, it wasn't the garbage man. It was at least twenty other people who had all filed in quietly while I was busy regarding the Deposition of Christ by Caravaggio. I scarcely had time to register this before I - rather, we - were summoned to our feet. 

"In nomine Patris, et Filli, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen." I don't think I need to translate that one for you. I had wandered right into a Monday morning Latin mass. Well, when in Rome Milan...

For the next hour, I stood, sat, and kneeled with the rest of the churchgoers. I mumbled along with them in my makeshift Latin and received the body and blood of Christ from the 243 year old priest with as much sincerity as I could muster. I stayed from beginning to end despite the distasteful glances I felt from both the old women in the congregation and the countless Jesus sculptures that cropped up around the church as if they were weeds in a garden. I did this all while clad in my outfit from the night before with mascara smudging down my face like the tears on the Virgin Mary. To top it off, the alarm on my crappy Vodaphone cell began to blare just as the final "Amen" echoed through the nave. As I left the church and began to walk home to my bed, a toilet, and food, I couldn't help but wonder if this impromptu mass marked the end of the night from hell or the beginning of a blessed day. 

I think it was the former. 

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Thursday, September 26, 2013

The 5 Commandments of Visiting Cathedrals

Despite the lack of historical sites in Milan, there's still alot to be amazed by if you grew up in a midwestern American cornfield. Or, anywhere in the United States, for that matter. Our oldest architecture is only around 200 years old and even those buildings tend to lack the dramatic presence of, say, a European cathedral. Even in a city like Milan where the majority of the buildings were renovated or built anew in the early 1900's, you can count on a smattering of glorious cathedrals to be in awe of. However, there is a certain "cathedral protocol" you must be aware of. Just a few small, harmless rules that can be the difference between enjoying a gilded altarpiece in peace - and getting kicked out of the church by an angry Italian nun. Take it from me... I seem to have broken them all.

1. You can't enter a cathedral unless you're wearing a blanket that covers everything except for your pupils and one nostril for breathing purposes.
Okay, obviously that's not true, but you do have to be modestly attired. On one of my first days here, I headed straight for il Duomo. It was warm out, and I was wearing shorts (the infamous PINK SHORTS), a tank top, and a scarf. Since the Duomo is such a major attraction, you have to pass through a minor security check before entering. This consists of having your purse or bag looked at and then having yourself looked at by a grouchy old man.  He is equipped with an image similar to the one below. If you're in violation of the dress code, he simply points and waves you away. Needless to say, my scandalous shoulders and knees were not allowed inside Duomo that day. 

2. Some cathedrals open for a few hours in the morning, randomly close in the afternoon, and open again in the evening. You can't wander in when it's closed.
I've adopted a sort of aimless wandering exploration technique, so I never know what I'm going to stumble upon. When I find a church I haven't seen yet, going inside is one of my favorite parts. Most cathedrals here are domed, which for the inside means frescoes, frescoes, frescoes (usually). Anyway, the flaw in my aimless wandering plan is that I never really know if these places are open to the public or not. I sort of just... try to walk in. Nine times out of ten this is fine; the church is open and it's just me, a few other tourists, and a security/guide/nun/priest/person sitting at a table with informational brochures/etc person. Except for the time I tried to enter the Basilica di San Carlo a Corso. Excited by finding the place (in the middle of an extremely busy shopping center, of all places!) I just strolled up to the front door and walked on in. In hindsight, I should have paid attention to the sign that said the cathedral was closed to the public between 2pm and 5pm for afternoon masses. As the door shut behind me with a bang and thirty or so heads whirled around to see who was making such a racket, I said a quick little prayer to a Jesus statue on my left that showing up uninvited to mass wasn't going to become a habit for me. 

3. The devil priest wears Prada Armani.
Many churches have a place where you can donate money. This isn't uncommon. What's uncommon is a church having a priest who takes advantage of your lack of Italian, lures you into his office under the guise of showing you a really cool painting or sculpture because all you know how to say is "Ho studiato la storia dell'arte" (I studied art history), and then demands money from you. And yet, this very thing happened to me. 
I entered Santa Maria della Scala in San Fedele thinking I was prepared; I was modestly clothed and made sure to read all signs before creaking open the old wooden doors. The inside was gorgeous (it will likely get its own post later on), and I was lost in a dark, eerie pieta sculpture when a priest of the cathedral approached me. 

"Parli Italiano?" He asked.

"Si, ma solo un poco," I replied. "Only a little" didn't seem to register; the priest smiled and began rattling off the history of the church at a mile a minute. I understood quite a bit - enough to tell him a little of what I knew about the artists from my art history classes in college. He talked for ten minutes or so, showing me each chapel individually and explaining what I'm sure were interesting historical tidbits. 

"Ora, io vi mostrerò una parte speical e importante della nostra amata Chiesa," (Now, I will show you a special and important part of our beloved church). What could this be? A painting undergoing restoration? A medieval statue dug up in the yard? AN ORIGINAL MICHAELANGELO? (Michaelangelo didn't even have patrons in Milan. Come on, Emily). 

None of the above. It was the priest's office; a modest room save for the Armani jacket flung over a chair. "Così quanto si può donare alla nostra chiesa oggi?" How much can I donate to the church today, he asked. I would have replied with a polite "Niente," and promptly walked out, but he did give me such an educational tour... plus, he was slightly blocking the door, which would have made for an awkward escape. I fumbled around in my purse - clearly, I was going to give him something - yet he proceeded to thrust his palm at me and shake it. 

"Dai donare! Dai donare!" Donate! Donate! 

I gave him a 50 cent coin, made the sign of the cross, and left before I ended up buying him a scarf to go with the jacket. 

4. God is always watching.
There is always so much more than what meets the eye in cathedrals. Or rather, so much more than what the public is allowed to see. Most churches allow access to the main part of the interior; this includes the nave (central aisle) and the open chapels that line each side. But cathedrals also have baptistries, treasuries, cloisters, sometimes courtyards, administrative offices, and plenty of other hidden rooms and things to not be allowed to see. 
Sometimes, you're lucky enough to enter an empty church. No other tourists to get in your photos, no locals trying to pray and making you feel a little guilty with each click of your camera. Most importantly, no security/guide/priest/nun/whatever person hovering in a corner, making sure you don't touch anything you're not supposed to. I found myself in this scenario the other day inside the Basilica of San Lorenzo. I was the only soul in sight - or so I thought.

I was taking my time wandering the nave and the chapels when I noticed a door slightly ajar. So, I walked right in. I barely had time to figure out what the room was when I heard a harsh shout. A short, ancient man had been immaculately conceived behind me and was snapping at me to get out. Either he was just a very angry man by nature, or the room held a relic of the cross, because I was certain I was about to be burned at the stake from the way he reacted.

I had a second altercation with the invisible man in San Lorenzo a bit later. He disappeared back to wherever he came from (probably the depths of hell) and I was back to exploring the body of the church. Inevitably, I encountered one of my pet peeves about cathedrals; the altars are always off limits. Admittedly, this is necessary. Most altars in these old churches are massive, intricate pieces of art and could be easily damaged. But certainly not by me! I was dying to see the altarpiece in San Lorenzo up close. So I hopped over the barrier.

I'm sure you can guess what happened next. The invisible man reappeared before I even had one foot over the barrier and this time, I didn't push my luck. I left the church with this mediocre shot of the altar.

5. Jokes aside, be respectful. 
Admittedly, I shouldn't have tried to get up close to the altar in San Lorenzo. But the other mistakes I've made are simply novice errors, and now I know better. The bottom line is, these cathedrals are sacred places to alot of people, whether they're there to worship God or to worship the artists that bring the church to life. Dress appropriately, read the signs, stay out of off-limits areas... but keep an eye out for that greedy priest. 

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Expectations vs. Reality

Before coming to Milan, I read and was told that it's "more modern than other Italian cities," "doesn't have too much history" (in terms of historic sites, buildings, etc.), and of course, that it's "the fashion capital of Europe." I had expectations of towering buildings and modern architecture looming over its ultra-fashionable population. These expectations were questioned a bit as my plane began to land; as we flew over the city, I noticed there were no skyscrapers in sight.

In fact, the majority of the city is made up of smaller buildings, save for a slowly growing area in the north of businesses taking up residence in newly built skyscrapers. For the most part, Milan has a more casual feel to it; colorful apartments complete with balconies on every window, large stone government buildings on piazzas, random churches here and there, and quaint restaurants and shops filling in the gaps.

I was right about the lack of history, however. Though Milan was the seat of power on the Italian peninsula for quite awhile back in the day, very little remains of its former glory. A few remnants of the Roman walls still dot the city, various cathedrals and basilicas are tucked away among apartments and shops, and of course, there is il Duomo. However, Milan lacks the awe-inspiring glory of monumental historic sites found in other Italian cities; the Colosseum in Rome, or Brunelleschi's Duomo* in Florence, for example. 

As a foreigner living in Milan with a strong interest in history, I consider this a blessing and a curse. Sure, I'd love to have a massive list of places to visit and study right at my doorstep. But because Milan lacks these structures, it doesn't attract as many tourists as the other more historical cities do. What it does have can often be enjoyed in relative peace and quiet, especially in the off-season.

*Duomo just means 'cathedral,' by the way

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Monday, September 16, 2013

Il Duomo: An Introduction

Arguably the most recognizable and popular Milan attraction is il Duomo and the surrounding area, Piazza del Duomo. Located in the heart of the city, it's easily accessible by metro or the tram - or if you don't mind a bit of walking, by foot. I chose the latter, fueled by a miniscule teacup of strong espresso and armed with a few Euros and my camera. I strolled down Via Magenta, window shopped my way down Via Dante, and little by little, the statues and spires of il Duomo di Milano came into view.

Even from a distance, il Duomo is an impressive sight. Made entirely of marble, the church transforms over the course of the day, shifting with the sun and shadows from grey and blue hues to soft oranges and yellows. Hundreds of spires extend from the roof and just below them, flying buttresses, intricately carved with gargoyles, saints, and delicate gothic patterns.

Construction for il Duomo began in the late 14th century under Archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo. The original engineer, Simone da Orsenigo, had plans to build in the Lombard Gothic style, a cathedral trend popular in Northern Europe and characterized by the use of dark red brick. A portion of the Duomo is in fact built in this style with red brick. However, Archbishop Saluzzo's cousin, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, had other ideas for the look of the church. He appointed another architect, the French born Nicolas de Bonaventure. Bonaventure paneled the existing brick structure in the light marble that is seen today and carried out the rest of the design in Rayonnant Gothic, a style popular in France but unseen in Italy until il Duomo's construction.

Nearly half of the structure was completed by 1400, but by the late sixteenth century, French Gothic was considered out of date. New plans to design the facade in the Renaissance style to emphasize its Italian-ness, so to speak, were approved, but never carried out. The facade seen today does indeed follow the original French Gothic style and was completed in the late 17th century. Things like stained glass windows, chapel art, and statues were added intermittently over the next few hundred years, with the last piece of il Duomo added in 1965, marking its official completion.

Nothing can prepare you for seeing il Duomo up close. The facade is not only absurdly tall, but wider than most Gothic facades, as it extends out to the left and the right in front of the flying buttresses that line the body of the church. Visitors enter and exit through the left and right portals, but it's the main door that you don't want to miss. 

Reaching nearly thirty feet in height, the center portal can only be described as a massive slab of delicately carved bronze. 28 rectangles and two quadrifoils depict the life and death of Christ - a bit difficult to follow if you're a human of average height, however. At 5'7", I found myself about even with the bit of gold on the left (one of a few areas tarnished by repetitive touching; perhaps where the doors were frequently grasped in order to open). 

The best part of il Duomo's exterior cannot be seen from the ground. If you have ten Euros to spare, walk down to the left side of the church and buy a ticket. Climb 250 winding, stone steps and you will find yourself....

...on the roof. 

You'll be face to face with gargoyles, lost in a maze of latticework and intricately carved flying buttresses. If you can make your way through, you'll be rewarded with spectacular views of the Piazza and Milan's skyline.

I wonder what those statues think about Milan's modern additions to the skyline?

There's so much more to see at il Duomo; a fabulous interior, the baptistry, and the treasury, just to name a few - all of which will be addressed in future posts. Since il Duomo has been described by one critic as (to sum up), multiple pieces from multiple styles crammed into one,  I think I'll steer clear of writing about it in the same fashion. 

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emilan: September 2013