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At Home in Milan; Italy: A visitor to the city of Verdi discovers memories of her Baltimore youth - an a new daughter

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Editor's note: In this excerpt from her new book, "Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman," Baltimore Alice Steinbach describes her first visit to Milan, Italy. As is her custom while traveling, she wrote postcards to herself and sent them home as reminders of her expereinces abroad.

Dear Alice,

Milan seems like home to me. It's one of the big surprises of my trip. Today, sitting in the sun in the Piazza la Scala, an elderly man asked if he could sit next to me. I nodded. The man, who looked down on his luck, opened a magazine of crossword puzzles, which he completed by copying the answers from the back of the book. Later when he saw me consulting a map, he asked in near-perfect English: "May I be of help to you?" It's a friendly -- and surprising -- town.

Love, Alice

An hour after arriving at the hotel in Milan I had unpacked and was ready to hit the streets. I needed a destination and had picked Milan's most famous attraction: the Duomo, a huge wedding cake of a cathedral, with 135 spires and over 3,100 statues. I marked on the map the location of my hotel; then the loca-tion of the Duomo. I drew a red arrow between the two. Maybe I'd get there and maybe I wouldn't; that was beside the point. What mattered was that when I stepped out of my hotel I knew which way to turn. Once I did that, the flow of the city would carry me along. Perhaps even to the Duomo.

Outside, the rain had stopped and the sun was struggling to break through the clouds. The busy street that ran past the hotel was not very inviting; its gray buildings, mostly offices with a few banks and dreary coffee shops scattered between, depressed me. But I continued to walk, turning one corner and then another and then another. At the last turn I found the Milan that spoke my name.

Before me, at the center of four tree-lined streets, was a small green park, where two young women were walking, pushing babies in their strollers. An old man sat reading the newspaper. Children ran up and down the paths, their high-pitched voices shrieking in delight. A woman sold gelato from a stand, filling the cups with pale green pistachio ice. I bought some.

It was then that I heard it; the sound of a train rumbling around the corner, its clang clang clang as familiar to me as Grandmother's voice calling me to supper. It was the sound I grew up hearing in Baltimore, where trolleys plied the streets like pleasure boats, ready to take you wherever you wanted to go. They're gone, now -- the streetcars of my youth -- but here and there, some of the metal tracks still gleam above the asphalt surface.

I stood at the Piazza Quattro Novembre and watched the tram approach. It looked exactly like the Number 8 streetcar that Mother and I took downtown to see the newest MGM movies at the Century Theatre. So strong in my mind was this connection that when the tram stopped to let off passengers, I jumped on without a second thought. What did it matter where it was going? I thought. Getting lost was not a consideration. I was already lost -- if lost means not having the slightest idea of where you are.

The interior of the tram was charming. I settled back into one of the polished wooden seats next to an Art Deco lamp and looked through the window. As the streets and shops and neighhborhoods slid by -- streets and shops and neighborhoods I'd never seen before but recognized anyway -- the dislocation I felt dissolved. Odd, I thought, how the past makes its presence known no matter where we travel.

I spent most of the afternoon riding on trams, hopping off whenever I saw something interesting: a neighborhood, a church, a piazza, a street. By this time I was in love with Milan.

I was particularly drawn to a neighborhood called the Brera. Once the center of Milan's bohemian life, the Brera now combined an art-student ambience with unique shops and galleries catering to the upscale shopper. Book shops, bars, boutiques and restaurants of every kind and price dotted its meandering cobblestone streets. After stopping to study the menus posted outside several of the restaurants, I decided to come back to the Brera for dinner that night.

Before returning to the hotel, I walked back through the Brera to La Scala. Although musical performances did not begin until December, guided tours through the beautiful opera house and its museum of operatic memorabilia were offered. I found the museum particularly fascinating. Verdi seemed to be the star here, with more than half the museum space devoted to his career. I studied his scores, in awe of the man who marked down these black notations that expressed so much in such small strokes.

A man's voice, that of an Italian speaking English, suddenly broke the silence. "He was a wonderful man, a great man, our Verdi." I looked up and saw an elderly man standing next to me, studying the scores. He was dressed in a dark suit, one that had turned shiny from too much cleaning and pressing, and a white shirt frayed at the collar.

We began to chat about Verdi. "When he died a great crowd turned out in the streets," the man said. He then went on to tell me of the Rest Home for Musicians that Verdi financed and built. Composers were given preference at the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, followed by singers, conductors and orchestral musicians. As he spoke, I wondered, but didn't ask, if he was a resident at the home.

Later, on my way back to the hotel, I thought of Verdi's Rest Home for Musicians and its similarity to Gertrude Jekyll's Home of Rest for Ladies of Small Means. Perhaps there are similar rest homes, I thought, scattered around the world like an aberrant chain of Hilton Hotels.

In my hotel, I stopped at the door of a room filled with voluminous bridal gowns. Inside, a short, heavyset woman stood ironing the hem of a dress. The deft manner in which she moved the iron across the tricky satin material was as delicate as a butterfly landing on a leaf.

As I stood watching, a pink-cheeked young woman who obviously had been out running -- she was wearing a gray sweat suit and Nike running shoes -- paused at the door. "What's going on?" she asked in a voice that was unmistakably American. I told her about the trade show. "So if you're looking for a wedding dress," I said, "you've come to the right hotel."

Just then the woman ironing the dress gently removed it from the board and transferred it to a padded hanger. "Ah, look at that one," the young woman said. "Bella," she said to the seamstress. "Molto bella." The seamstress smiled and replied with a nod. She began moving toward the door, carrying a bouffant gown high above her head. But a struggle ensued in the doorway: she was unable to get both herself and the dress through the opening.

"Avanti dritto," the American said, taking hold of the front end of the dress and guiding it and the seamstress through the doorway.

"Grazie," said the Italian woman.

"Prego," replied the American.

We watched the woman and the dress march down the hallway together, a happy couple who, unfortunately, would soon be parted.

"You speak Italian," I asked, turning to the American.

She laughed. "No. That's pretty much my entire repertoire. Except for quanto costa."

She had an easygoing way about her, the kind of outgoing attitude that is often associated -- rightly or wrongly -- with Americans. Her appearance matched her manner: long, copper-colored hair casually pulled back into a ponytail and no makeup except a pale gloss of lipstick. I judged her to be in her early 20s. I asked if she'd been in Milan long.

"No. I arrived this morning. At least I arrived at the airport this morning. By the time I found my way out of there and got to the hotel it was afternoon."

"Ah, yes, the enchanting Malpensa," I said. "I had the same experience when I arrived there today."

After a few minutes spent in exchanging war stories about the airport, she asked if I knew of a good place for dinner. "A place where I would be comfortable eating alone."

"Not really," I said, explaining I didn't know Milan at all. "But I walked through an interesting neighborhood today. It's called the Brera and it's loaded with places to eat. I thought I'd head back there tonight for dinner." I hesitated, then decided to go ahead with what I was thinking. "Would you like to come?"

"I'd like that very much," she said. "What time did you want to go?"

I suggested we meet in the lobby at 8:30. She agreed.

"By the way," she said, putting her hand out, "I'm Carolyn."

I laughed. "I can't believe I didn't introduce myself," I said, shaking her hand. "I'm Alice."

"The place we're looking for is somewhere near the end of a little street called Via Fiori Chiara," I told Carolyn, after consulting my map. The taxi driver had dropped us off in front of the Piazza della Scala, just opposite the opera house. From there we set out to find the Tuscan restaurant I'd spotted earlier that day.

The streets were pleasantly crowded with both locals and tourists out enjoying the evening. Carolyn and I fell into step, strolling along at a leisurely pace, stopping often to peek into a lobby or bar. We were in no hurry to reach our destination. In fact, we almost jettisoned the Tuscan restaurant for a piano bar that served pasta. But when we stepped inside, the noise level forced our retreat back to the street. After walking another block or two we arrived at Via Fiori Chiara. Ten minutes later we were seated in the Tuscan trattoria, raising our wine glasses in a toast.

"Cin cin!" Carolyn said.

"Cin cin!" I echoed, clinking my glass of Chianti against hers. We decided to share several dishes offered on the menu. Each of us was surprised, pleasantly so, to learn that the other ate little meat. After much discussion, we narrowed down our choices to bean soup with pasta, baked omelet with artichoke hearts and "Treviso salad," a combination of two varieties of radicchio. Dinner was a leisurely affair, with each course separated by as much as half an hour. By the time our warm zabaglione arrived, Carolyn and I were exchanging stories the way old friends do.

Carolyn, I learned, was 24 and a graduate student in art history. She had interrupted her studies, however, to join her boyfriend, Rob, in Italy. They were engaged to be married.

"He's doing a year's graduate work in Florence, and it was too good an opportunity for me to pass up," she said. "Finally, after all the years of looking at pictures and reproductions of Renaissance art, I'll get to see the real thing." She planned to spend three days in Milan before taking the train to Florence. "There's some wonderful art in this city that I'd like to see. And who knows if I'll have the chance again."

It was her first trip to Italy, but not to Europe. The daughter of a military man who moved from place to place, she had lived a few years in Germany during her early teens.

We finished our coffee and asked for a bill. The young waiter, who had been flirting with Carolyn all evening, made quite a show of saying in English, "It has made me most happy to come to the table of so beautiful women." Later, I told Carolyn it was very smart of him to include me in his flattery; it had earned him a larger tip.

Although it was almost midnight when we arrived back at the hotel, a small band of people were still setting up bridal displays. Carolyn and I stopped again to peek in the door of a room on our floor. A smartly dressed woman was sitting inside, taking bites out of a sandwich and sipping wine. When she caught sight of us, she called out "Buona sera." Carolyn and I returned her greeting. "Good evening," we said, almost in unison. To my astonishment, the woman motioned us to come in. Then, in accented English, she said, "Are you here to buy from the show?"

I explained that we were just guests aat the hotel who couldn't resist the tempting display of silk and satin gowns.

"Oh, look at this one," Carolyn said, pointing to a champagne-colored satin dress that was elegant in its simple cut and lack of adornment.

"Yes, that is the right color for your hair and fair skin," the woman said, rising to pull the dress off the rack and spread it before Carolyn. She turned to me. "Your daughter has good taste."

Carolyn and I exchanged glances. "Yes," I said, "even as a little girl she showed a great deal of taste. Remember, Carolyn, how you would never wear frilly dresses?"

"Yes, Mom, I do remember." She paused. "I always wanted to be just like you."

Then Carolyn asked the woman a question that surprised me. "What does a dress like this cost?"

"Quite a lot," she answered. "I think in American dollars, something like $3,000. Are you getting married?"

"Yes, I am," Carolyn said. "In Florence. Next month."

"What a beautiful city to marry in. And what a beautiful bride you will make."

It was growing late. I could see the fatigue in Carolyn's face. I didn't need to look at mine to know I was dead tired. "You've been very kind, signora, to take so much time with us," I said.

"No, it is my pleasure," she said. "Tomorrow will come only the buyers shopping for their stores. It is nice to see a real bride."

We left for our rooms. There were so many questions I wanted to ask Carolyn, but there would be time for that tomorrow. We already had agreed to spend the day together. But I had to know just one thing before we parted. I asked if it was really true that she was to be married in Florence the following month.

"Yes, it really is true," she said, turning to unlock her door. Then, turning back to face me, she said, "Good night, Mom. See you in the morning."

About this excerpt

This story is from Alice Steinbach's just-released book, "Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman" (Random House, $24.95). Steinbach is a former Sun feature writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1985. She has regaled Sun readers with her tourist persona Madame S. as the "Postmark Paris" series explored that city's unique boutiques and festivals. As a free-lance writer, Steinbach has contributed pieces such as "Christmas in Paris" to the Travel section and the "Postmark Venice" series to the Today section. She was recently a McGraw Professor of Writing at Princeton University and is currently a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. Steinbach still lives in Baltimore and is researching her next book.

WHEN YOU GO...

Getting there: Several airlines, including TWA, US Airways and American, offer connecting service from BWI to Malpensa Airport in Milan for around $500 plus fees. Check online at previewtravel.com or travelocity.com for flight information and reservations.

Where to stay: Italian hotels are classified by a star-scale, from one star (budget quality) to five (deluxe). Each lodging has fixed rates (in agreement with the Provincial Tourist Board) that vary depending upon rating, season, services and location. On average, lodging in Milan is more expensive than other areas throughout Italy. Expect to pay an average of 300,000 lire per night ($150). Go to www.italiantourism.com, a site maintained by the Italian Government Travel Offices, for links to places of interest and an online data bank of hotels.

Information: Call the Italian Embassy in Washington for tourism referrals at 202-328-5500, or visit its Web site at www.italyemb.org, where you'll find information about everything from required documents to traffic regulations.

Tips: Climate: The climate in Milan is similar to that in Maryland, but more temperate. The seasons fall at the same time, and the average low for the months of May through August is 59; the average high, 79. The main tourist season runs from April to mid-October, so the city may be crowded.

Time zone: Milan is six hours ahead of the East Coast.

Currency: There are approximately 2,023 lire to the dollar.

Taxi: From Malpensa to the heart of the city, the ride is about 70 minutes and costs 125,000 lire.

Souvenirs: U.S. residents may bring home foreign goods up to $400 duty free. After that, a 10 percent fee above the $400 is levied. There is a limit of two bottles of liquor, and the import of fresh cheese or meat is generally forbidden unless it has been vacuum-packed.

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