One of the best things about living abroad is the freedom for weekend adventure. Having been to Italy several times already, it’s usually one of two things: chilling in one spot, or bouncing around tourist sites at a frenzied pace. Living here allows me to soak in the culture as well as the sea, let the beautiful language wash over me as I try to grasp it, and stare at a map and train schedule each weekend, imagining the possibilities. I don’t have to just worry about the greatest hits. I can pick random locations and explore.
This Saturday, I slept in and chilled for half the day after a busy yet good workweek. I thought about staying in town, but I got that travel itch, where I knew I would not be content to stay in one place. I also feel most homesick on Saturday mornings, when I have time to think and chill. Saturday mornings, I usually spend with family, or if I’m in the city, I just had a great night and am probably just relaxing before going out again or to NJ for dinner. I knew it was time to explore. Originally, I was planning on hitting Florence to buy some leather products. Though Liguria is not that far away, there is just not the selection or value in leather goods as I’d see in Florence. I’d like a purse and a couple of other items. Also, Florence has a magical beauty, especially when it is not peak tourist season. Yet, by the time I got myself up and going, there was not enough time for the 3.5 hour train ride each way.
I thought about Torino, but in my laziness, even that option waned. Ahh, Vernazza called me, the quintessential town in the Cinque Terre. I saw touristy Monterosso last week, gorgeous with its beach, but I wanted to see something a bit more laid back and charming. But for some reason, Milan kept calling to me. Only 1.5 hours from the city center, I could arrive in Milan at 5:30 and still enjoy the evening before heading back. See, all I wanted to do was gaze at scenery from a train window, to feel like I’m going somewhere, to nap in motion and wake up somewhere else with Exploration as the only item on the agenda. I planned to stroll, window shop, take some photos, and head back.
When I lived in Oxfordshire, England — the beautiful countryside of the Cottswolds, I frequently went to London for weekend trips, and sometimes an evening event. It was about the same distance away, door to door, and it quenched my homesickness a bit, with its cosmopolitan flair. Milan is my new London, my new New York.
I’m surprised I was gravitating to Milan already. I popped into Milan many times before, usually in transit on a plane or train. But the city seemed soulless, frenzied, and boring. Waiting for hours, stuck at the train station because a train was “ritardo” didn’t help my feelings. But . . . things change. They gave the once sooty and seedy train station a face lift. Where bums used to nap, there is now a Sephora, Geox, and a chain of shops. Grimy platform signs are replaced by panels. The ticket area, bright and welcoming, even though the lines are still long. The marble, polished, the ceiling restored, and the station once again seems like a glamorous welcome to a fashionable city.
Milan is glamorous. I finally went underground to the metro, my key to the rest of the city and noticed how clean it was compared to the NYC subway, how the design of the cars was open, so you could easily walk from one end to the other. I looked at the hair, makeup, clothing and shoes people wore, and I was clearly not in Genoa anymore. The vague familiarity, the hint of New York soothed me. I was alone, yet unlike my travels in Tokyo, it was not an isolated Lost in Translation feeling. It was a content to be here, observing like a camera. “I am a Camera,” just like the Christopher Isherwood book of the same title.
I was finally going to a new part of the city. As I googled what to do in Milan on my iphone, I saw a very interesting article from . . . TIME OUT NEW YORK, of all places. They recommended the spa TERMEMILANO, explaining the location and services. Woah, for just over 30 euros, I could go to a spa for hours and soak in therepeutic and relaxing thermal waters. Just what I needed. On my way to the spa, I was on a line that stopped at the Duomo. The Duomo is perhaps the one iconic image of Milan, other than a catwalk, of course. I had seen it in travel brochures and in the National Geographic Traveler magazine, which did a spread on Milan last summer, almost changing my mind about my decision never to visit. Since I had a day pass (for only 5 euros, what a bargain), I could use the metro as much as I wished. I popped out at the Duomo for a quick photo and to check out the scene.
As I walked up the steps, there it was, bathed in the golden sublime late afternoon light, the kind of light photographers seek for swimsuit photo shoots, the kind of light that puts a natural filter of oooh on everything with a splash of ahh. After all my years of travels, after all the churches and castles, mountains and oceans . . . I was so surprised by this sight that I felt giddy. I saw the spires peaking out from atop the subway and I bounded up the rest of the steps like a child thinking in my head, “Yes, yes, yes!” A surprise moment of sublime. This is why I’m here, why I travel.
I snapped photos, but I made sure to just watch. To absorb this moment and to just be here. To carpe diem. So many times in life, I experience special events through a camera lens or distracted by tweeting or instragramming. I was zen for a bit.
Then I hit up instagram . . . because, I’m not really alone as I bound around Europe. Social Networking sights have allowed me to stretch the heartstrings of close friendships and acquaintances across the globe. In a way, I was able to bring folks with me, sharing in that sublime moment of joy, unaffected by distance and time differences.
I wandered around the area, amazed by the chic architecture and design of the shops, the magical allure. Part of me wished I was living in this city, but I reminded myself why I came to Genoa, why I chose somewhere so beautiful and so different from NYC – – for the exact reason that it wasn’t NYC, for the same reason why I chose the Cottswolds instead of a uni in London. At the same time, it’s nice to know I have this, too.
Eventually, back to the metro after a brioche marmelatta (croissant with marmalade — I don’t know why it’s called another French word here). I got out at Porta Romana, checked my iPhone for the map location and wondered how I traveled all those years without this handy device, and found the spa in minutes.
I LOVE European spa culture. I crave it at home, try to recreate it, but it’s never the same. And also, except for Saratoga’s iron rich baths, there aren’t really springs around. Here, they have hot springs filled with all kinds of fizzy good stuff. I went in, tried to navigate the language barrier and eventually had to ask for help. It was a chic oasis of calm and glamour. In minutes, I was in the locker room, changing into my swimsuit (Oh, no nudity issues as in Germany, which I kind of liked but it takes a while to get that free). Then into a soft robe where I went searching for spas and services. I paid about 40 euros for everything included including light fare.
I walked into that light fare on my way to the pools. Tables and tables of snacks: celery, yogurt, cereal, nutella, jams, fruits and veggies, juices, herbal tea infusions, and . . . even wine and champagne! WOAH! I snacked and sipped a bit, and felt so absolutely elated that I worried I might have seriously died. Nobody is allowed to experience this much bliss, right? Then I went outside. The late summer evening air was turning cool, yet I dipped my toes into the warm bubbly spa water and sank into peaceful ahh. The stars winked at me in the inky night sky. Here I was in central Milan, in this bubbly oasis, surrounded by friends and couples having their weekend aperitivo. Again, not jealous, not lost, just enjoying.
I went back in and saw they had added even more snacks, skewers with mozzarella and roasted red peppers, hummus dips, bruschetta, foccaccia, and all kinds of little snacks to delight. I nibbled a bit more before heading downstairs to the “Wellness Course,” so similar to what I had seen in German spas. Hot tubs, cold plunge pools, hot saunas, steamy hammams, fizzy water benches, footbaths and bicarbonate scrubs, and even a table where you lie down under a gentle shower that changes temperatures gradually from warm to cold to very warm.
Here in the spa on a Saturday night, I couldn’t ignore the slight pang of loneliness where I saw the fit, happy couples smooching in the pools. Would I meet a guy here in Italy? Do I even want to? And I started to feel the distance, watching the girls all model fit in their bikinis and super happy, many of them in groups for a girls’ night out, laughing and joking. I wished my girls were with me. Later, I saw groups of friends on the metro for a night out in the city, the Milan versions of me and my girls . . . and I felt another pang. I felt like Carrie when she was in Paris with Alexandr Petrovsky, watching a group of friends chat in a cafe, lonely outside the window. Carrie painfully missed her girls in New York and knew she couldn’t stay in Paris (Sex and the City of course). Such a unique pendulum swing from pure elation to heartache at what I have left behind. I knew at that moment that I couldn’t be dead because pure heavenly bliss would be having it all, not missing a thing.
More on Milan later . . . this post is getting quite long. 🙂