*(I wrote this some time back, but never posted it anywhere)
**(It’s a tad on the long side, so grab something to drink)
A Whole New Year
12-31-06 (Japan time)
Somewhere over China en route to Milano, Italy with Ackie and his best friend Hide. Ackie is my friend/roommate/guardian in Japan. I’ve known him for about two years now and he has really altered my experience here for the better.
Ackie sprung the trip proposal on me about a week ago and here we are. If nothing else, he is a man of action; have to respect that. We should be arriving at 6:30pm, Italy time. We are planning on going to Milan’s famous church “Doumo” for the New Year countdown; should be fun. I’m really thrilled to be leaving Japan for a few days. Don’t get me wrong, I like the place, but you can grow tired of just about anything if you don’t take a break periodically. Son of a…. They just turned the lights off on me. Ciao for now!
Don’t know what time it is? We’re still in the air. I just watched “Devil Wears Prada” (Ackie’s recommendation). What can I say? It was cute I guess, but nothing to write home about. According to the new Atari’esqe GPS screens on airlines these days, it appears we are flying over Russia. Could that be? I didn’t realize it was that close to Japan? I’d like to check out Russian sometime. I’ll have to look up what tickets run.
Cindy Lauper’s “Girls just want to have fun” is playing on my Air Italia issued headphones. I actually like this song, which makes me uneasy. Just has that happy vibe about it. Joe just wants to have fun too!
I have got to remember to keep hydrated. These f’n airplanes will dry you out something fierce. Ah! “Killer,” by Seal is on. Wonder if he’s still playing music? Only 4115 more miles until Milano. Milano…..I really have no expectations. I went to Italy on a blur of a trip 6 years ago and loved it. Wow, it’s already been 6 years!? Incredible.
I was given a choice in picking the location. The other ideas were various Asian countries, but I felt like I could use a dose of ‘western culture’; a familiar face if you will. I met a really nice flight attendant. Her name was Rafaella and she’s actually from Milano. I asked her about it and she kind of hesitated a bit before telling me that…she’s living in Switzerland now. Like I said, I really don’t have any expectations. Just under 8 hours to go; can’t wait to get off this plane.
What a day/nite yesterday turned out to be. We got in around 7pm and took a bus from Malpensa International to Central Station in downtown Milano, where our five star hotel awaited us. My first impression about Milano? Cold! Colder than Japan. Cold and wet, but really, does it matter? I’m in Milano for New Years!
Anyway, we get off the bus and as everyone was unloading their luggage from the storage department, Ackie was hand wrestling an older, well dressed Italian guy for his suitcase. The guy was just kind of staring at Ackie and wouldn’t let go of the suitcase. It didn’t take long for Ackie to get control of it, but I thought the whole thing was a bit odd, because the guy didn’t say a word and if I were to think of one adjective to describe Italians, quiet would definitely not be my first choice. Jet lag and being in a totally new environment blinded me.
As we made our way to the hotel, located around the corner from the bus stop, Ackie noticed something; his wallet had been magically separated from his man bag…Tadah! That dirty greaseball had actually been half a two man scam. It was his job to distract Ackie while his partner lifted the wallet. Terrible. He had about 2,000 dollars worth of Euro in there, not to mention a load of credit and bank cards. I felt so bad for the guy. Here he is, on his vacation in Italy, on New Years Eve, and he has 2,000 dollars taken from him and has to spend over an hour on the phone with companies back in Japan, in order to cancel his cards. What a way to start a holiday. People suck sometimes.
When we got set up in “Hotel Gallia”, which had been cloaked with some sort of half-ass construction project on the exterior, we had the pleasure of listening to a free concert going on in the town square. The “concert,” upon first glance, looked more like a riot. It was a pretty rough bunch and there was one odd point I couldn’t quite wrap my head around……I didn’t see any Italians? Had the pilot miscalculated our coordinates, sending us instead to Morocco perhaps? And, if so, why was it so damn cold!?
Once the dust settled, we all got cleaned up and went out in search of some local cuisine. 11pm on New Year’s Eve probably wasn’t the best time to go looking for food, but we did the best we could and found a very busy, three storied building that was still serving meals. This place was factory efficient and overpriced, but we were desperate. Our waiter looked as though he just rolled of the set of “Interview with a Vampire.”
At one point, ‘Count Dracula’ swooped in and removed Ackie’s plate of seafood salad…….while he was still eating it! Too funny. I tried hard to conceal my laughter. What a shitty nite for him. Did I mention the M80s (1/4 sticks of dynamite) going off outside throughout dinner? They made for a really relaxing atmosphere. Take cover….BOOM!
We wound up eating right through the countdown, but I figure it was probably safer than being out amongst explosives. After we finished up we checked out club ‘Hollywood’ across the road. I was told by Rafaella, my flight attendant on the way over, that there were a bunch of models that frequented the place and that it was one of the top nite spots in Milano. As advertised, there were many model looking types, but it was way too expensive (about 100 US) and I thought it was kind of crazy to spend so much on a packed club. Ackie looked a little disappointed.
Fortunately we found another place, which was actually nicer looking than Hollywood. It was called ‘Old Fashioned Café’ and was “only” 50 Euros. Drinks were a real bargain too; 10 euro for any one drink, even water. Who could refuse such an offer!? I digress. After I got past the idea of spending so much money to stuff myself into a room with a bunch of sweaty strangers, it was pretty fun. Because of how the nite started off though, I just couldn’t get into it the way I would’ve liked to. I’m pretty sure Ackie and Hide felt the same way. What a scene though. Italian dudes are about the vainest creatures I have ever come across. Japaanese dudes are a close second, but far more feminine, so they hold the edge in that department.
We left ‘OFC’ around 3:00am and walked for a good 20 minutes looking for a cab, then waited another 14 to wave one down. Ackie and Hide were exhausted in the worst way, but I was wired from the whole atmosphere; a second wind of sorts. When we got in the cab, Ackie sat up front and fell asleep. Hide was kind of staring out the window into space, which left ME to talk to the cabbie; what a character HE was. The guy spoke English with a heavy accent and for whatever reason, felt the need bring up the topic of sex, booz, and drugs. I kind of egged him on, as I do, and enjoyed his listening to his commentary. If everyone was so straight laced, this would be a boring world we live in, no? It was time call it a nite.
January 2nd, Venice, Italy
I woke up early, maybe 7:30am, and exercised in the bathroom. Wait, that doesn’t sound right. Let me clarify. It was a BIG bathroom covered with mirrors. Really, it was just like being in a gym, minus the weights. I didn’t want to wake up Ackie and Hide, so that’s why I was in there. Anyway, had a great workout and a nice, long, steaming shower with the windows open. I love traveling.
The boys got up around 9am and we all got primped and set out for the dining room. The hotel had an amazing breakfast spread! I think that’s one of the main reasons I couldn’t sleep in late. I couldn’t wait to dive into the morning buffet. I’ll save you the pain of listing ever item on the table, but I have to mention one special piece of hardware; the fresh orange juice maker. What a piece of engineering. Next to it sat a table full of citrus. Basically, you pick up your fruit of choice, turn on the machine, pop your fruit into the loading cylinder, then set your glass under the spout and collect your fresh juice; simple, fun and nutritious. It’s a bit addicting really, because the machine has a plastic viewing display, so you can see the whole juicing process take place. What a huge waste of fruit though.
After breakfast we decided to head to Venice for the day. We bought our tickets and hopped on the “Hogwarts Express,” or at least that’s what it looked like. We didn’t have assigned seats, so we had to walk through each car until we found some empty seats. This train was unbelievably packed and, though I really didn’t want to stand for four hours, I thought it was pretty funny. It was like a cultural potpourri inside. I saw so many nationalities in there and heard so many languages; it is indeed a small world after all.
We were nearly in the back of the train, or front i guess, when Ackie found a car with only one man in it. He slides open the door and says, and I quote, “Please, together.” It was more of a statement than a question and I couldn’t help but chuckle. I love these subtle comedic situations. The guy we “togethered” with was an Italian in his, oh, late 40’s? He was dressed like the character ‘Waldo’ from the children’s books, but had a face like Steven Segal, if you can picture that. It was all too much for me to register, so I just accepted it and moved on.
Outside, in addition to being cold as hell, it was foggy and drizzling rain; not the best traveling whether, but I was optimistic Venice would be better…..it wasn’t. The last time I had been to Venice was 6 years ago and it was summertime. A completely different scene with about five times the people and the sunny, humid weather. Still, there was a nice, familiarity to it all. Now that I think of it, the last time I was here, I felt like complete crap. This was an infinitely better experience. I went to some of the old haunts I had seen six years ago, which was neat and St. Marks square was more beautiful than I remembered, especially without all the pigeons.
We started heading back to Bagdad, I mean Milano, around 6pm. It was miserable. I sat next to the window in a cramped seat and my pale face was freezing from the air seeping through the glass. Couple that with not sleeping much the nite before and I had a most unpleasant experience. I’m not joking when I say that I put it on my top three worst train rides….ever! All I could think about was taking a hot shower. I was completely consumed by the idea. I eventually got that shower and had a really great dinner at the hotel, and then I was out cold.
January 3rd, Milano, Italy (Last nite in town)
Woke up early again, 8:15am. I wanted to do a little exercise and take a nice, long shower. In the shower you could open the stained glass windows and look out over the area in front of Central Station. The combination of the hot water and the cold air coming in from outside was exhilarating. I had that peaceful, content feeling I sometimes get when everything feels right; it remains one of my fondest memories of the trip Wish we could stay longer.
Though yesterday’s trip to Venice was short and the weather wasn’t ideal, I think it lifted everyone’s spirit a bit. The guys woke up a little late, but then rushed to get ready for breakfast. I was in one of these really calm moods, but I tried to roll with it. My beautiful breakfast felt hurried and as I was trying to enjoy my Cappachino (the best I’d ever had!), the boys informed me that they would meet me at the station. They wanted to go to Florence……shiiiite. This meant that I didn’t even have time to go to the damn bathroom, which made me cranky. I hate rushing in the morning. Come to think of it, I hate rushing period.
After I chugged down my coffee, I said grazie to the staff and sprinted to the stupid station. I was so damn uncomfortable and after waiting in line for a while, we learned that all tickets were sold out for Florence. I was relieved, though I didn’t let it be known. I thought we might go back to the hotel for 10 minutes, regroup, use the “facilities,” etc…. Ackie had a different idea. That’s what I get for thinking.
We bought a couple of two day tickets for the metro and decided to check out Doumo Cathedral, which turned out to be really amazing. <Note to self, next time you visit a place, learn something about it before you go.> The dedication and attention to detail of some of these historic places like Doumo is absolutely incredible. I sometimes wonder if something like that could ever be replicated with the way modern way of life?
After Doumo, we just meandered around a bit and took in the atmosphere. The day turned out to be beautiful, which made the idea of missing Florence that much worse for Ackie and Hide, but I was happy to be walking the streets of Milano. Of course, we had to make a stops at….ALL the designer shops. The prices in these places are astronomical, but I guess if you have the money and you want to spend it on clothes, go for it; the boys sure did. I had fun ‘perving’ at the Italian female staff, so I didn’t mind waiting.
Had a nice lunch after the shopping bonanza and decided to head back to the hotel for a much needed cat nap. I think we were at the hotel for an hour and a half before we set off to see Leonardo Davinchi’s famous, “Last Supper” painting. I had never heard of such a painting, but it was pretty interesting. Hide, I guess feeling the ‘spiritual’ atmosphere of the place, began asking me questions about religion, to which I had no reply. Some things just can’t be put into words, particularly when you don’t know anything about them. I tried asking a few questions of my own to the woman who was watching over us in the exhibit. She didn’t speak English, but she tried hard to communicate, which I appreciated. She was explaining some things for me and said the building was destroyed during WWI or was it II? In any event, apparently the wall with the painting on it was all that remained of the structure and I found that fascinating. Then she asked me where I was from, which can be a little tricky when traveling. When I told her I was an American, she slapped me on the arm and shook her head in disgust (did I mention America was responsible for the bombing of the place?). I then kissed her hand and begged for forgiveness and we shared a smile; I like the Italian people.
Exciting though it was, we were all in need of a little caffeine jolt after the exhibit. We found a place called “Choco Cult,” and I immediately fell in love with the place. It was three floors high and had a really cool vibe buzzing about it. I ordered a cup of chocolate death, at least that’s what it should’ve been called, consisting of nothing but melted chocolate. I enjoyed every mouth full of that tar like substance. I would definitely be a regular if I were a resident of Milano.
Soon after the coffee shop, we went on a hike through the city and worked up an appetite. Eventually, after wondering into some strange area of town, we found a Chinese restaurant; no comment. To be quite truthful, at that point, I would’ve eaten just about anything. The food turned out to be pretty decent and I learned something; Chinese people live EVERYWHERE! It really is amazing how they make these communities throughout the world.
Ackie didn’t look so fresh at dinner (he was sleeping) and Hide was dealing with a case of irritable bowel syndrome. Fortunately for me, I dodged both bullets and enjoyed my, and everyone else’s, dinner. Afterward, we found ourselves back at the hotel and I decided to stay in for the nite. Ackie, not one to sit idle, went out in search of nite life. I quickly fell asleep and was happy for it.
January 4th, Milano, Italy (“The last breakfast”)
Breakfast was bitter sweet. My exit from the dining room was heart wrenching, but all good things come to an end, or so ‘they’ say. We stocked our baggage in the hotel lobby so that we could enjoy one last jaunt through the streets of Milano. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, which made it that much more difficult to think about coming back to Japan.
After breakfast, we checked out some castle (I cannot recall the name). It turned out to be crap, but made for a nice photograph. Time was starting to run out, so we grabbed a taxi and the driver, an elder guy with movie star good looks, tried to tell us that our destination was a two minute walk away. I told Ackie what I THOUGHT he had said and Ackie decided we should stay in the cab. The driver then proceeded to hit my arm with the back of his hand, telling me how stupid we were. It was all very funny and it reminded me of how much I missed people with colorful personalities; the Japanese are not generally known for being characters. He tried not to take money, but we gave it to him anyway. He winked, smiled and went on his way.
Going up to the top of Doumo was quite amazing. The view was spectacular and I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend our last morning; magical sight it was. Going back to the hotel to get our bags was a bit of a drag, but what can you do? We took the bus back to the airport and on the way there I met a Brazilian girl who was studying Italian in Milano. She was really tiny, but cute and I’m glad I initiated things. After that, it was bye bye Milano, Italy, hello Osaka, Japan. All good things must come to an end, or so they say.