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Conceptual Irregularities

The modern composer refuses to die – Edgar Varese

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Milan

Milan 3: Serendipity

From Tony:

Serendipity. Friday night Harry bought a nice book on the sights of Milan. While having coffee outside and people watching on Saturday morning I find an entry in the book about a cool luthier shop, so we add it to our increasingly long list of possibilities. We head out on our walk, through the Brera art school district, La Scala opera house, the fancy stores in the Galleria, and the cathedral, all close to each other and all stuff we had planned for the day before the Zappa concert on Sunday. It starts to rain to so we give up on going up to the roof of the cathedral, and find a place for lunch (and shelter). The lunch is so good, and leisurely, that by the time we’re done, I realize the luthier shop (“liuteria”) is now closed. We decide to head out anyway and at least look through the windows. It also gives us a chance to hop a tram, which Harry was hoping to do, and the place is near the canal district (Navigli) of Milan which is supposed to be pretty cool, in a bohemian sort of way.

Indeed, it is. The liuteria is amazing, even just through the windows. We walk along one side of the main canal and check out a loooong flea market on the other side. Around 5:00 we sit outside at a wine bar for aperitivi (and to rest—we’re old). More people watching and at long last a break in the clouds and a great sunset over the canal. It turns out our waiter is Italo-Argentine. Harry’s dad in Anglo-Argentine, so Harry and the waiter chat a little about Buenos Aires.

Harry goes online and finds a tiny jazz club nearby. I know just enough Italian that I see that this place suggests making a reservation online, but not enough Italian to figure out how the reservation system works. We have about 4 hours until showtime so we decide to stroll over and see if we can make one. We find the place, set in a residential neighborhood off the beaten path, but it is closed up. We go looking for a restaurant but end up sitting at the bar of one because, again, no reservation. The bartender is Italian but he lived in Australia so we can speak in English. Harry asks him to make his (the bartender‘s) favorite drink, and this guy blows us away. I now “get” the whole cocktail culture thing.

The club

We try again at the jazz club. It’s not quite open yet, but Harry walks in and sweet talks the barmaid to reserve us a couple of seats. We can’t see the band (a gypsy jazz trio—bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar) but they sound great and we order a platter of mixed meats and cheeses and breads and soak it all in.

Our seats, the 2 cubes between the sofa and the table…

Finally, a tram ride and a short walk and we’re back at our hotel, once again hanging out on the sidewalk and people watching (but now at midnight)—just like the dozens of Milanesi around us.

Tram!

From Harry:

That was such a good day. I felt lucky to be able to sit by the canal with Tony, watching people, sunsets and dachshunds. When we started our day, we were sitting at the coffee shop downstairs, drinking cappucini and smoking. I bought a little 5 pack of small cigars at the tabacchi. A tabacchi is more than just a tobacco store. It’s like a general store where you can get everything from bus tickets to Kleenex. Ours even had a counter where you could get coffee or a nosh. Very convenient, as were the 5 small cigars. I could smoke 1/2 of one while Tony smoked one cigarette. The Milanese are much more civilized about smoking than we are in the States. While you still don’t smoke inside (which is fine), many more people smoke and you can sit in sidewalk cafes and so forth and nobody gets bent out of shape.

As we started on our journey, I saw an interesting passage off to the right and veered off that way. Tony noted how comfortable I was in going off the beaten path. But, really, it’s a city. You’re not going to get that lost. This got us over toward La Scala, the opera house and the statue of Leonardo in front of it. I had Tony take a picture of me with Leonardo standing on my shoulder. Nyuk, Nyuk… Nancy Doyle has some connection with La Scala through the Marlboro Music Festival so we were hoping to go to its museum but never did.

Standing on the shoulders of giants….

While I would have liked the museum, I’m sure, when you’re in a city for 2 days, you can’t do everything. I find that I really like spending time wandering around a city, just drinking it in without any particular cultural touchpoints in mind. You see how the city moves and breathes, what its colors are and I’m sure if I could smell, what its smells are.

Between La Scala and Il Duomo there is a Galeria mall from 1877 with all kind of fancy shops like Prada and Rizzoli. There was a little tiny art book store, Libreria Bocca, which had this great floor made of these tiles which were glass boxes with little dioramas or objects d’art in them. There was a very nice Mark Rothko book there which was on sale. I wanted to get it for my brother Desmond but felt it was too big for my carry on plus I was too cheap. Are we noticing a pattern here?

Libreria Bocca and its beautiful copper door

The Old Fashioned that the bartender made me was exquisite for a number of reasons. My first reaction was, really? An Old Fashioned? I’m giving you carte blanche here and you’re going with that old war horse? But what a horse it was. First he put a sugar cube on a black napkin draped on top of the glass. He then used an eye dropper to infuse the cube with two different kinds of bitters. I never asked what they were. I wanted to keep some mystery to his creation. He then dropped the cube in the glass and muddled it with a teaspoon of water. Then he filled it up with Michter’s rye and Bob’s your uncle. No muddled orange and no muddled cherry. But an exquisite Old Fashioned.

But then he asks me which hand I drink with. I’m flummoxed for a moment, partly because I have no idea why it matters but also because I always have trouble telling my right from my left. I look at my hands, make a drinking motion and tell him, “The right”.

He says, “OK, put out your hand.”

I do. He says “Turn it over.”

I face the palm down. He produces a little spritzer bottle and sprays something onto the back of my hand. It is an Alloro cocktail finish. You just smell a hint of laurel when you lift the glass up to your mouth. It is a sublime experience.

The Old Fashioned

This guy was so much fun. It was great to sit at the bar and watch him and his team get ready for the night. I feel like we were shepherded through this trip by various kind and wise waiters and waitresses. Tipping isn’t a thing in Milan, so I guess they get paid well enough to live. I kept leaving tips anyway.

Milan 2: The New City

I’m generally a pretty nervous guy, so I don’t really know how I manage to travel alone in a foreign country. But I did it. I’m usually flummoxed by the language. But now that we have Google translate, that should be easier. The last time I was in Italy it was for Tony’s wedding in 2001 and I was with Tami and a bunch of other people. That was a lot of fun and I could rely on other people to talk for me. This time I’m counting on Tony talking for me.

I have to get from the airport, Linate, to the Hotel Ritter. Google makes it look pretty easy. But the bus from the airport drops me at the Stazione Milano Centrale, and I have trouble finding the subway and buying a ticket. Eventually once I find the subway (not to be confused with Trenitalia which goes all over the country) a guy helps me figure out the ticketing and I pay him €5. He’s an entrepreneurial street guy. He hangs out in the metro station, sees tourists struggling with the bigliette machine and goes over and helps them, shows them where they have to go. He explicitly asks to get paid. He doesn’t say how much but just says, “Prego, I helped you, could you help me out with a little something?” Relying on the kindness of strangers does not a business model make. He speaks English and is clean, fairly well dressed and professional. Saved my ass, frankly. He points me in the right direction and I get to the hotel.

Tony is coming in a couple hours after me. He has already spent about a week at Cinque Terre, a coastal region where he goes every few years. So he is taking a train in from there. I figure while he’s not there, I’ll sample some of the local Japanese food. Because, in Columbia County, we have only one Japanese restaurant. Hell, in Melrose, we had 2. There is a Japanese restaurant in the building with the hotel, so I go and order a Chirashi and an Asahi.

I check in to my room and go to sleep for a couple of hours to stave off the jet lag.

The hotel is simple but adorned with semi historical prints on the walls and a comfortable lobby. It is priced well (or else you wouldn’t find Tony and me there.). The room is small, about ten by ten, with a similarly sized bathroom with a bidet! There are balconies in all the rooms. It has 7 floors with 6 rooms on each floor. There aren’t a lot of frills in the place, but it’s not a Days Inn, either. They have a very good breakfast in the morning with scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage and various little pastries and fruit and these coffee machines which can make like 20 different kinds of coffee. Very clever.

When I wake up, I meet Tony and we go out and see where we are. We walk down Corso Garibaldi, the semi-closed-to-traffic street that the hotel is on, checking out the shops and cafes. We stop in at RED (Read, Eat, Dream), a bistrot Libreria. It is a bookstore with food and drink. I want to try the different Amari available in Italy. An amaro is a sort of bitter liqueur or aperitif made with various herbs that comes from various little towns in Italy. I use them at home to make Manhattans. I have a few at home but there are others here that I’ve never seen in the States. Our waiter recommends Amaro Da Capo, which is made in his hometown in Calabria which is down by the toe of the boot which is Italy. He’s a great guy who has some English and we all muddle through and wind up understanding each other and having a great time.

Signore Savoie enjoying an aperitif in the bookstore.

After that, we walk farther down Corso Garibaldi and wind up in a plaza in front of an old church. We eat outside at Al Carmine under an awning. We can smoke there. It is so much more civilized here.

After dinner in the church courtyard

After dinner, we head back, going up some back streets and come to a place that has live music. Down in the basement, a man and woman are on a little stage. He is playing keyboard and has a laptop and she has a laptop and is singing. They are doing covers. They did Stand By Me and everyone started singing. They did a few Italian pop hits as well, which I didn’t know but was glad to hear. Everybody would sing and sway to them, too. After a little bit, we took off and headed back to the Hotel Ritter. It was a fun night. The music was a little cheesy, but it was honestly and enthusiastically performed so that counts for a lot.

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