History and Background

Milano in the Morning

Milano after my Nap

My Nightmare: Milan to Tel Aviv

Israel at Work

Israel off the Job

Athens for a Day

Athens AM - Aegean Coast

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My Trip to Milan / Israel / Athens
Travelogue November 1998

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Chapter Two

Milano in the Morning

It was cloudy and overcast in Milan and the ground was dusted with white snow. The cabin announcement said the local temperature was 5 degrees, which (let me see, divide by 5, times 9, add 32) means .... it was very cold outside and I was glad I remembered to go back for my jacket. Jetway? No Way!The airport terminal looked nice (in the distance) but we are parked on a side tarmac with one of those ancient roll-up stairways and two really long modern buses to meet us. I remarked how all 3 European airports I visited had this antiquated rollup stairway arrangement, something that even the smallest US airport had long ago upgraded. Of course, I was doomed to find these in my next three US Trips (Midway, San Jose, Norfolk)

We rode the bus across the tarmac, then walked from the bus to the terminal. There was a noticeable scramble among the passengers to queue in the "validate passport" passage. It seemed so silly to watch people aggressively vie to find the shortest lines, knowing full well that they will have to sit around for an hour afterward waiting for their bags. After being stamped, I walked around the luggage area, took pictures of the Italian signage, and watched the customs guards. The Italian airport guards wore a snappy uniform with a stiffly arched policeman's hat worn sharply over the brow. Each guard had a cute small leather holster attached to their belt with a nearly decorative sidearm. Milan was the only airport where I was not formally greeted with military personnel wearing full uniforms and smartly colored berets and resting their arms on sub-machine guns hung across their chests.

I started my stopwatch when I descended the stairway and one hour later I was still waiting for my luggage (another quaint travel-in-Europe custom). I tried to use a telephone to call home, but could not get one to work for me. My AT&T prepaid card was suddenly useless to me, since I could not connect to the local access number without lira cards and the dialing instructions, even with 12 different European Community languages provided, were unintelligible to me. By the time I flew home, seven days later, I had the knack for foreign telephones. For the uninitiated, the secret is to  look for a phone card dispenser with the same color as the phone you intend to use (Italy had orange or gray, Israel had yellow or black).  If you can't just pick up and dial and get the local AT&T access, you may need to buy the cheapest appropriate phone card. Even though the AT&T access lines are nominally free calls, the local phone card may be needed to unlock the door to access the local system. Some countries have truly free access and instant dial tone, and I am sure the systems will improve over time to the level of service universally available in the states.

It is hard to explain how exhaustion, excitement, and Italian mix together. I began to feel illiterate, looking at pretty advertising pictures and international directional icons but unable to decipher any verbiage. Then the luggage showed up and I passed through Italian customs without even a blink from the attendant (we barely made eye contact) and then I passed through a door and I was in Italy. I followed the directions to Hertz, and walked my luggage to their counter. The car arrangement was simple, and the counter staff was friendly and efficient and spoke English with an extremely difficult to understand Italian accent. I started to understand just how much "on my own" I will be for the next full day, being mono-lingual and all by myself.

I asked her about how to make a local telephone call and showed her my wallet card sized AT&T instruction sheet. She "bent the rules" and let me use her Hertz counter phone. She dialed the local number for me, and I then dialed the remaining 46 numbers (with 3 strategic pauses) and my sleepy wife answered and said she is glad that I arrived O.K. and that I should go have fun with my day. The car was a small red 4-door Alpha-Romeo with a stick shift. At least Italy, Israel, and Greece drive on the same side of the road as the U.S. (unlike the UK).  If not, I'm not sure I would have rented a car for just one day. I captured the GPS point at the Hertz parking lot (to help me eventually return to the airport tomorrow) and I watched as my Alitalia flight took off for Tel Aviv – exactly 24 hours to go!

Milan's Malpensa airport is almost 60 miles out in the countryside. They have a 2nd airport (Linate) near downtown, but both of my flights were international and flew out of Malpensa. I followed my GPS directions, my laptop map, the Hertz map and my fold-up map from Barnes and Noble and I set off for downtown Milan (and immediately got lost).

Milan reminding me of boyhood DetroitMilan looked like Detroit to me. I grew up in Detroit, and the same deciduous trees of my childhood (mostly poplars and cottonwoods, I think) were still full of brown autumn leaves that refused to drop from their branches despite the light snow. The terrain was slightly hilly, and was dusted here and there with spots of wintery white. The "motorway" felt like any freeway in any US state, and I fussed to get the heater right (first too hot, then too cold). I marked my turnoff point on the GPS, like Hansel and Gretle leaving breadcrumbs, so I can follow this path backwards tomorrow morning. I saw billboards and motels and church steeples and houses and apartments. The countryside looked just like any place in the US, only with signs printed in Italian. Suddenly, I whizzed by several large and unintelligible blue signs, plastered with dozens of universal icons of which I simply could not make any sense. It seems I was about to pass through a toll-booth, that my "freeway" was actually a "tollway" and an exit sign (to purchase a "ViaCard", whatever that is) directed me to a support building where somebody would surely be able to help me.

After less than 30 minutes on my own in Italy, I double parked my red Alpha-Romeo and wandered groggily into the lobby. I was confronted by the sight of three anonymous looking men speaking through a bank-teller style grated window to a fourth man dressed in a smart and official blue uniform. When they were finished, he turned and addressed me (in fluent Italian). I sighed and said, "I am sorry, I am lost", and he immediately help up his hand in the universal signal for me to stop and wait. He disappeared into his back room, and a minute later a second bank-teller window (behind me) slid open and another man in another smart uniform addressed me and asked, "Keen eye-yah hep yooo?". I smiled as best I could and blurted out: "I am lost, I just arrived, I am going to Milan, what should I do". "Pay the toll", he said, explaining with words and hand gestures how to return to the highway, and for me to use the left hand booths. "I don't have a card". "It is tree-tousand Leeryah". I silently calculated about two dollars and instinctively reached for my wallet to make sure my lira, from the Florida airport exchange booth, were still there. "Not Me! -- The booth", he exclaimed in honest sincere fright. And for the first time out of the hundreds of times in the coming week, I smiled, and nodded and grunted happy grunts and sang out "yeeeesss-yeees, I understaaaand". I added, "Grat-zee" and went back to the car and followed his directions. Sure enough, the left-most booths were clearly marked with giant blue highway signs plastered in universal icons and the words "CASH" and "3000". NOW I understood Italian. I followed the tollway and started looking for "city centre" signs, finding instead several signs to Turin ("Turino"), Bologna ("Bolognese"), and several smaller cities which I managed to locate on my various maps. I finally figured out that during the tollbooth commotion I had turned onto the wrong tollway and was now southbound, passing to the east of Milan. I marked another point on my GPS, and pulled to the shoulder to read the maps. In a few minutes, I mustered false confidence and proceeded on two exits ahead and then pulled off and headed west, right toward downtown Milan.

Milan: Typical sidewalk sceneThe town of Milan seemed to me to be a "typical Italian city". This was an interesting assessment for me to make, since Milan was the first Italian city I had ever seen and I had seen it for just slightly more than one hour at that point. I guess I later said it this way: Milan looked like Venice without the canals. What I mean is each narrow city street was sandwiched by a row of connecting 4 or 5 story tall flat stucco building directly fronting the sidewalk with large geometric repeating patterns of windows, many with balconies and most closed up with huge shutters. The buildings changed color and style every half-block or so; some were red, some were gray, some were white, some were beige-yellow, and all were very dirty. I guess there must be incredible peer pressure if you own a building in Milan; as the first person to wash or repaint their building will mean that everybody else will have to do so too.

Milan: confusing signs / graffiti everywhereI was also surprised and saddened by the amount of graffiti. It was all in Italian, so I couldn't read it, but it was everywhere, on every building, fence, and wall for the 6 feet closest to the ground. By that I mean, if you take pictures of city streets from the "2nd story up", the city is historically picturesque. I mean to check pictures of Milan from travel guides to see if they used this trick (the one made famous for years of Los Angeles's showing its famous "Hollywood and Vine" street sign without the garish sex shops surrounding it).


Milan: Euro-style apartment block I  also passed by many setback Euro-apartment blocks. These must have been popular to build, I am guessing, in the 60's and 70's. Set back from the street by a green belt berm, sets of identical buildings (sometimes 4, sometimes 6, one time 10) rise anywhere from 12 to 20 stories. They match each other in shape and color and design. Either all units have balconies or none, either white stucco plaster or red brick, some have aqua tile accents, others are light beige. All of these were clean and bright, resembling modern American college dorms but, try I as might, I could never get close enough to see if their ground floors were plastered with graffiti.

I quickly came to understand that Italian drivers were a little more aggressive than their American brethren, but certainly nothing to merit the big fuss everybody in the USA seems to make. I simply started to drive a little more aggressively than I normally would, and it quickly worked itself out. Actually, for all the discussions about rude Italian drivers, there seems to be a little secret that nobody will mention. The Italian drivers were actually quite courteous, actually even MORE courteous then many Americans, but would simply never formally announce their own courtesy. If you have ever been through a 2-lane to 1-lane merge in the US (Boston's Callahan tunnel is my favorite), you know that Americans will climb right over you to get ahead by even one car length. I have watched in Florida, people drop onto the grass covered shoulder while other people pull off to have a fist fight, all to simply get ahead of YOU in line. In Italy, and in Greece, everybody took turns, but nobody would formally recognize it. I would give a "big American nod" to allow a person to pull in front of me from a driveway when a light turned green. Sometimes I would even give them a "big American wave" to tell them to come in (everybody must have known I was from out of town). I received just as many of there courtesies as I gave, but I quickly learned to watch for the cultural subtlety (is it Italian machismo at work?) The driver in the road looks directly at you, then looks away and hesitates, and gives you a simple split second to pull in front of him before dropping his own car in gear and ruthlessly tailgating you. One time I missed this signal and the perplexed man looked back up at me still sitting there (suddenly aware I was an American). He shook his head, visibly signed, then waved brusquely (like "go ahead you American idiot") with the ham sandwich on Italian bread in his hand. But he MADE SURE I got to go in front of him. In America, that same driver would sat on the bumper of the car in front and done anything humanly possible to make sure I DIDN'T get in.

We had read much on the Web about "Fiera Milano" (the Milano fairgrounds) which, when I found it, resembled any mid-sized American city's convention center. Maybe "Convention Centers" are hard to find in Europe, because everybody on the web certainly made a big fuss about Fiera Milano and many of the Italian airport and highway billboards (I think) were about different shows or conventions to be held there (Fashion show, children's toy show, tool show). When I accidentally nearly drove onto the Fiera Milano front lawn, I was surprised that it was pretty standard stuff by US standards, actually looking a little dated and very 60's-ish (whatever that means).

Milan: DuomoI pulled off to read my maps and to try to get my car to the dead-center of town, to pass by the Duomo on the Duomo square ("Piazza del Duomo"). All the streets were one-way there abouts and were clogged with cars and buses.  The taxi drivers were aggressive, and I kept hitting road blocks and turnbacks. I later learned that this crazy layout was all by design, to keep people (like me) from driving their cars to Duomo square. Oh well, tell the Milan city fathers that their plan worked.

Castello SforzescoI found (actually nearly drove into) "Castello Sforzesco" (or, if you prefer, "Sforzesco Castle") which has some interesting history, but looks to me like many of the medieval buildings we saw in England during our UK trip. I leave it to you to read more about Castello Sforzesco, its history, the family that built it, and the art stored within it. I had only one day for sightseeing, so I stopped and took a couple of quick pictures of the castle exterior, and paused to mark on my GPS a couple of the "Metro" subway entrances (in case I get lost on foot later). I gave up trying to drive around downtown, pulled off for more map reading, and pointed the car toward my hotel.

We had finally decided that I should stay at a certain hotel near the central train station ("Stazione Centrale"), about 2 miles from downtown Milan. My hotel offered "pay parking" and would be quite easy for me to find. With less than 5 minutes effort I drove by the train station. It was an incredible white marble monstrosity with huge statues in front and huge relief figures carved into its face. I read later that it was built, in this aggrandized way, specifically to aggrandize Mussolini – back when having the trains run on time was reason enough to get you elected dictator for life (or 5 years, whichever comes first). Milan's Central Train StationI quickly found my hotel, but could find no place to park nearby. I circled the block and still no place to park. I circled again, and again no place. So I circled again, and double parked in front of the door, locked the car, and ran inside to the desk.

It was about noon, a little too early to check-in, but I wanted desperately to "set up camp" here. It was nice to talk English to the desk people (even with the distracting accents). I started to ask advice about the museums and seeing DaVinci's mural "the Last Supper" and was well advised to take the Metro and to not wait until dark. I wanted to move the double-parked car, so the distractingly handsome Italian bell-man was sent out to help me. Since I would only be staying 20 minutes to get oriented, we hassled back and forth, first with the downstairs garage, then with street parking. All of this was done with a series of complex and nonsensical hand gestures which both of us made and neither of us understood. I was required to back this little car (with a stick shift) up an incline and around a curve and through a gate backwards onto the street. Luckily a woman was leaving the car repair shop next door and my Italian helper flung himself bodily into the parking spot for me.

The Milan hotel I couldn't findI then found that I could neither shut or lock my driver side door. This lousy Hertz car had some kind of defect and I motioned to him my frustration. He stopped and carefully examined the door, gingerly touching the dirty hinge and lock assembly, then showed me that the driver's door was simply sagging and didn't line up the latch with its post when being shut. He simply lifted the door slightly and it shut and locked perfectly! I shouted "Wah-Lah" (French?) and he lit up a huge grin and shouted "Wah-Lah", too. As we stepped away to go inside, he spotted my laptop sitting on the rider seat, charging off the cigarette lighter. "Oh-no , yabba yabba de yabba" he said to me. I said "I know, I know" (even though I didn't) and pointed to my watch. "Only 10 minutes, then I leave" I said and acted out, pointing at my watch, and he understood nothing I was said. So he acted out somebody smashing the window with his fist (I understood his pantomime perfectly) and taking the laptop. I pointed to my watch, held up 10 fingers, then signaled him to return with me to the lobby desk.

He ran ahead of me and hurriedly told the desk attendant "yabba yabba de yabba" and I repeated my reassurance to him: I know about the laptop, lets just get this all wrapped up. I wanted to see a little more of the outlying city by car before going down to the Duomo and DaVinci by subway. No, I will keep the luggage. No, I don't want a room key. Yes, I will be back in an hour. No, my passport is in the car. Here is my credit card, we imprinted it and I hopped back into the car for one more driving adventure.

Milan: Blockbuster Video and California PizzaI was starting to get groggy, actually drowsy, now. I circled the train station, then drove by the other 2 hotels we almost reserved for me on the internet (and I feel glad for the one I did stay at). My room was small but it was 100 meters from a subway entrance. I saw lots more apartments, an "Oespital" (hospital), lots of little strip malls, and lots of little cars driving in a hurry. I snapped pictures of streets, apartments, billboards and direction signs. Milan is crawling with McDonalds and Blockbuster videos so I captured a couple shots. I was surprised how people parked anywhere, drove everywhere, etc. Of course I was in Milan on a Saturday morning, if that means anything about my experience. Suddenly I was no longer drowsy, I was exhausted. Sitting at a red light I could hear distant car horns. I opened my eyes (I guess I must have shut them) and saw that the light was green and the cars in front of me were long gone. I pulled over and slapped myself on both cheeks. I pulled out my trusty GPS and saw that I was less than three miles from my hotel. With one eye on the road, and one eye on the maps and one eye on the GPS and one eye on the traffic and both eyes closed from time to time, I was back at that hotel in 15 minutes that felt like 2 hours.

No place to park again, but it took only once around the block to figure it out this time. I went inside and they sent the bell-man back out with me to park. He took my suitcase and computer case in, and then joined me back outside. Since the car would not be moved until my morning return trip to the airport, we opened the gate and drove again back down the incline into the courtyard. Under the grass and flower covered garden courtyard (to my total astonishment) was a nearly invisible 10 stall parking garage, each with one of 10 little locked maroon corrugated sheet metal garage doors. I figured some were used by apartment dwellers, some by hotel workers, some for storage. We unlocked and opened one garage door, and I needed to pull my little car nose in (I was given universal hand-signals). I was also given hand signal directions for aid with parking alignment but they were as unhelpful as the ones I get at home (I am suddenly homesick). I was directed to park smack in the middle of the 2 car wide stall. I used fingers and eyebrows to ask if I should realign to the left or right to allow 2 cars to fit, and am signaled back that no, just my car will go here tonight. I got my knapsack out and we walked back up the incline, stopping for a moment to talk to a gray kitty taking a bath in the courtyard. My new friend made kissy and meow sounds and we both smiled and laughed, and I kick myself to this day that I neglected to take a picture.

At the desk I presented the much needed passport (they log the number) and received the key. The lift was small, barely able to hold both of us, and we went to the room which was just slightly larger than the lift. He started to explain to me, in fluent and excited Italian, about the room features then suddenly caught himself and laughed out loud. He showed me how to open the window and the telephone. I dug out my lira and gave him a handful. Self Portrait in my tiny hotel roomHe didn't look at the bill, just stuffed it into his pocket. I signaled that I would take a nap, he showed me the "do not disturb" light switch and set it for me. I cranked open the corrugated metal shutter on the window and looked down into the depressing street crowded with little cars honking their little horns. I opened the window and as the air hit my face I noticed the other two hotels that we had found on the Internet but could never locate on any maps. I took their picture from my open window.

My room had a tiny twin bed, short enough that my feet hung over the end. I uncovered the pillow and fluffed it. I looked at the clock, it said 2pm and the afternoon sky was overcast. I laid down, in my clothes, and then immediately opened my eyes and it was 4:30 and getting gray outside. I was still sleepy, but just slightly refreshed, and now hungry since I hadn't eaten since the airplane meal as we left New York at 7pm.  I guess my "nap" ran long.


Chapter 1 Return to Map Chapter 3

Originally Written March 1999
Original Web Upload January 2000
Last Update: May 10, 2002