Paint the town Louis Vuitton Brown

You can’t go anywhere in Milan without seeing the distinctive pattern of brown and gold.  It’s on everything from women’s purses, to men’s belts, to the European purses shoulder-bags of which Italian men are so fond.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a fanny-pack version somewhere in the city.  Ray-Ban glasses are de rigueur, all the suits tailored, and girls even dress up in short skirts and high heels for a meal at Burger King before a night out on the town.  Milan is all about appearances and luxury.

Unlike so many of Italy’s cities, Milan does not have the grand history that entices visitors to the country.  Its existence is firmly rooted in the present, and it is a testament to an Italy still capable of extreme elegance and glamour.  One need only take a few days in the city to see why this is the birthplace of a new Italy.  First of all, unlike Rome and Florence, this is an Italian spot that doesn’t make you feel like you’re in Disney World when you come to visit.  At times, it can seem like these “Disney” places are not real cities where real people live, but instead are amusement park exhibits, like Epcott, where miraculous treasures are kept for tour groups to visit in their march across the country.

While seeing all of the sights from Italy’s great past is a large part of why people become enthralled with the place, once you’ve been here a while, you start to crave a bit more of “the real thing” —not just what you can see from riding on a tour bus.

I’m not saying that the more real parts of Rome and Florence don’t exist at all, but it’s certainly not just their reputations as tourist hotspots that make them more difficult to find.  Take Siena as an instance of this lack of a more authentic experience.  I lived in the town for about a month-and-a-half last summer, and even after all that time, even inhabiting a house with native Sienese, I’m not sure I got much of a sense of a living, breathing town of the present.  Part of the problem is that Siena is stuck in the past, perpetually living out its period of dominance between its victory over Florence in the battle of Montaperti in 1260, and its ultimate subjugation by the Tuscan power under the Medici in the 16th Century.  This is not merely a mindset for the benefit of the tourists who pace through the Piazza del Campo all summer long; it’s actually the way real Sienese think.  The bi-annual Palio and the historical parade that precedes it are testaments to this attitude.  The contrade that make up the town’s different neighborhoods lost their practical purpose long ago, but they still form the social fabric of the community—especially during Palio season when they compete against each other in the famous horse race.  Even when the tourists are gone, these distinctions still drive social interaction in Siena.  Marriages between people from different contrade are truly viewed as “mixed,” and each newborn Sienese child is baptized into his or her own contrada before becoming a member of Christendom as a whole.  If this is all a ruse to increase the tourist industry, it is quite an elaborate one.  The simpler explanation is that Siena, like many other places in Italy, is stuck in the past.

Milan does not suffer this same fate, and its relatively clean, extensive, and functional system of public transportation—about the only feature the city shares with Disney World—serves to illustrate its freedom from historical entrenchment.  The trains, trolleys, and buses of Milan are meant to get people around efficiently, and they do just that.  Not once did I experience a delay on the many occasions I had to use public transport—although Milan, like all places in Italy, does suffer from the Italian need to shut down a bit on weekends, especially on Sunday.  Nevertheless, I could get to anywhere across the broad metropolitan area with relative ease and quickness—something I can’t say for other locales.

Like other functioning, modern cities Milan plays host to more than a few grocery stores that keep reasonable hours—something surprisingly hard to find in many places across Italy.  Even if you can’t find an open grocery store, you don’t need to fear starvation after dark in Milan because there are plenty of restaurants on the streets that are open late enough to suit most everyone’s dining schedule.  You’ll also find a variety of foods—not just pasta and pizza like most towns offer.  In the neighborhood of my hotel, you could get fried chicken, sushi, tex-mex, or the ever-popular-in-Europe Döner Kebab.  The variety of food offerings speaks to Milan’s extraordinary diversity and mix of cultures.  In my neighborhood, there were clear Middle Eastern influences, as well as Honduran and Guatemalan flags posted in a bar window on the night of a soccer match between those two countries.  The owner of my hotel was Asian, and there’s a large African population too.  Women in full burqas walk by the Duomo as casually as any Catholic, indicating that Milan boasts a thorough mix of peoples from all over the world—something many Italian cities have yet to achieve.

The Milanese Duomo also serves as a symbol of the city’s relatively modern outlook.  The building is elaborate and ornate, resplendent with white marble statues of all sorts of figures.  It’s clean and bright, with fresh ads covering the scaffolding on its North side, indicating Milan’s business savvy.  The intricacy here may only be properly matched by the incredible Duomo of Siena, but even that is different from this Milanese structure.  The Siena Duomo, built upon the site of pagan temple ruins, harkens back to that ancient period, with its inclusion of animals and other pagan symbols in its architecture.  One could be confused as to what the function of Siena’s Duomo really is, but not so in Milan.  The focus here is on people.  All the detail that is poured into Sienese figures is in Milan centered on the human form, which adorns nearly every inch of the cathedral’s surface.   The piazza is flanked on one side by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a long archway of shops dedicated to the leader who unified Italy 150 years ago.  This date of unification is about as far back as Milan looks to the past.  It is not interested in the time of emperors or the age of warring city-states; its interest is in the Italy of today, one which can move ahead in Europe as a source of the sort of elegance and beauty so often associated with the Italy of the past.  The focus in Milan is on fashion—always moving forward and changing—not pieces of art which hang in a museum unchanged—or on pieces restored to how they once were, centuries ago.

Milan seems to be the only place in Italy that acknowledges that while one can take inspiration from the past, it should not be clung to as the country’s last hope for glory.  In Milan, the true Renaissance spirit lives on today, in which the achievements of the past are but stepping stones for the future—a place from which to begin building something even greater and new.  If Italy is to pull itself out of the mire of its recent history, the process will start here in Milan—in the present—not in Florence or Rome.

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~ by pminnig on September 15, 2011.

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