On my way back from Italy I had an overnight stop in Dublin. I had never been to Ireland before and had limited time and daylight to really do much of anything. One thing I knew I had to do was find books to read on the plane ride home. I had deemed the two books I took with me to Italy too boring to continue so I left them behind. This meant I had absolutely nothing for the 8-hour ride home. Thankfully the front desk clerk at the fantastic guesthouse I stayed at (Number 31) knew exactly where to send me and it happened to be close by.
I’ve written a bunch of posts about my week in Milan in February but I’m not sure I have said anything about books or reading. Normally for a trip I would post about what books I was going to take with me on the plane, what I read while I was away, what bookshops I went to, what I read on the way home, etc. The fact is, I really didn’t do much reading at all. Given that the point of my trip was to immerse myself in Italian as much as possible I kind of went out of my way not to have a book with me.
But let’s get real, I’m still me. Bookish things happened.
I went to a few bookshops in Milan as well including the wonderful Rizzoli in the Galleria. I was hoping to find some books that have the Italian on one page and the English translation on the facing page, but no such luck. I know they exist but I supposed general bookstores aren’t the places to find them. I did, however, buy about four young adult/juvenile books in Italian thinking that those might be better for my comprehension level and not require as many trips to the dizionario. More on those in a future post.
When I contemplated what would be the best way to immerse myself in Italian during my week in Italy, I decided I didn’t want to take formal classes. I am already doing that four hours a week in DC and I didn’t want to feel boxed into a curriculum when I could be out and about exploring. What I settled on was setting up tours with private guides who would speak in Italian but be able to explain things in English when I didn’t understand. And since they were private guides and I was the only one on the tour, I could ask them to slow down and help on points of language without feeling sheepish.
It is hard online to sift through all of the corporate results when looking for private tours. I wanted to deal with humans not a company or a website. One of the most promising boutique tour outfits that I came across was Bella Milano Tours run by Mirella Maestri and Valeria Andreoli. They offer all kinds of specialized tours related to food, fashion, history, etc. that go beyond the obvious things to see or do in Milan. And even better, they will create a bespoke tour so you can really dive into what interests you. When I emailed them about the possibility of creating an opportunity to have an Italian conversation with Italians over a good meal, Valeria was quick to write back with some options.
What she set up was a lunch at Trattoria Madonnina with her friend Donatella who is also a tour guide. Now this is the kind of restaurant I would probably not have ventured into on my own. Yes, I was trying to immerse myself, but I would have been intimidated by the fact that it was full of locals without a tourist in sight. It was a wonderful spot to pretend I was a local. There was a large party that arrived while we were there that included a young man wearing a crown of laurel. Had I been on my own I wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on. Thanks to Valeria and Donatella I got the inside scoop. Not only were they able to tell me that he had graduated from university that day and was there with friends and family to celebrate, but I got to know more about how universities work in Italy. Valeria also had lots of ideas for finding sweet treats in Milan. One of her specialties is a food tour of the city center.
Since I wanted to have as many experiences as possible, I also emailed a promising looking small tour company called My Private Milan. Owner Fabio was fantastic and set me up with private tours of three different museums I wanted to see. Since my goal was to listen to and speak Italian and to feel a bit more like a local, I asked if I could have two-hour tours at La Pinacoteca di Brera, Museo Poldi Pezzoli, and Pinacoteca Ambrosiana on three successive days rather then some other kind of highlights tour. What amazed me about what Fabio was able to set up was that each of the three guides (Paolo, Fiamma, and Davide) knew so much about the history of the museums and their collections. If they know half as much about the rest of the city their brains must be enormous.
When I was looking online for a hotel to stay in for one night in Turin I did as I typically would do and tried to find some cool boutique hotel in an interesting neighborhood. There were some pretty interesting options but I decided I wanted something close to the train station and/or the Teatro Regio. In making that choice I was somewhat limited in my choice of the types of hotels available. As I started to comb through the rather uninspiring options I thought, you’ll be alps adjacent, why not stay in a grand old hotel that an Anita Brookner character might choose. Something that looks like it would have porters and telegrams and mature women travelling with their adult daughters.
The thing is, by the time my trip rolled around I had forgotten that was my motivation. And then an interesting thing happened on the train…but first…When I bought my train ticket for the one-hour trip from Milan to Turin I somewhat impulsively chose a first class ticket. The price difference wasn’t all that much and with my tummy issues, anything I could do to minimize possible annoyances seemed like a good idea. As I sat comfortably in my seat watching the snow-capped mountains in the distance I noticed this character…
My first thought was that she looked like someone who could be one of the more glamorous characters in a Brookner novel. (Again, I had totally forgot about my Brookner-related hotel choice.) Then the gentle lady spoke to her husband. She was English. Check. They were discussing how the 59-minute train delay was going to make them miss their connection to Switzerland. Check. It seems they are English but have a house in the Swiss Alps. Check. Then gets on the phone to someone (a housekeeper perhaps) in Switzerland to tell her they wouldn’t be arriving until the next day and asking how much snow there had been and whether the huskies had been out yet. Check and Check. I’m pretty sure Brookner never overtly discussed the snow in Switzerland in her novels or mentioned many dogs, and certainly not huskies. But seriously, how could this woman not be a secondary Brookner character? I almost asked her if her name was Dolly. [If you’ve never read Brookner none of this makes much sense.]
So then I get to my hotel in Turin, feeling both tired and still nursing the dull pain in my stomach, and it slowly begins to dawn on me that this was to be my Brookner hotel. If I had stayed true to Brookner form I should have had tea sent up to my room, but I didn’t.
I made it an early night and was asleep by 9:30. Check. It was a warm room, perhaps too warm, and I had fitful but dreamless sleep. Check. Rather than feel the need to do much in the way of sightseeing the next morning, I took a long hot bath and lounged in my room until check out time. Check and check.
I will return to Turin.
When I was planning my week in Milan I came across a listicle of the top places to hear opera in Italy. On the list, along with the old ornate palaces of opera in Venice (La Fenice), Milan (La Scala), Naples (San Carlo), and Palermo (Teatro Massimo), was the very modern Teatro Regio in Turin. Since there was only one opera playing in Milan while I was there I was looking for other opportunities to hear opera and Turin just happens to be about an hour from Milan by train. So naturally I booked a ticket to hear Rigoletto there.
The fact that Turin is a lovely city with an alpine backdrop was icing on the cake. (Speaking of cake, I just had a big piece of sheet cake and vanilla ice cream for breakfast.) There was also something quite fun about leaving my apartment in Milan, having lunch with an Italian near the train station, then getting on the train for an overnight stay in Turin with nothing in my bag but a book, a change of underwear and socks, and a toothbrush. It felt very cosmopolitan.
Until this month I had never made it to what is perhaps the world’s most famous opera house, La Scala in Milan. Since I wanted to spend at least a week in Italy in 2019 trying to improve my Italian, it seemed kind of natural that I combine that with finally hearing an opera or two at La Scala. Unfortunately La Scala’s schedule is not like the Met’s or some other opera houses where you can see two or more operas in the span of one week. The best I was able to cobble together was an opera on one night and a concert by the La Scala Orchestra and Chorus on another night.
Prior to seeing anything at La Scala I saw a performance of Rigoletto at the Teatro Regio in Turin. I will write about that more in the future, but suffice it to say that it was a well-sung, well-played production in a comfortable theater with good sight lines and good acoustics. That experience, in addition to La Scala’s reputation, had me expecting so much more than what I encountered at the venerable opera house in Milan.
My first performance at La Scala was an all Bruckner program that was supposed to have been under the baton of Christoph von Dohnányi. Since the elaborate program booklet had Marc Albrecht’s name in it, I assume it was not a last minute change. Thinking I was in for some world-class music making I was more than a little excited for Bruckner’s Te Deum and his Symphony No. 4. Working backwards, let me just say the orchestra was woefully inadequate in the symphony. They seemed sloppy and under powered.
In the Te Deum that opened the concert I didn’t really notice the orchestra too much because I was focused on the chorus. Thinking back to a performance of The Dream of Gerontius I saw by the Munich State Opera back in 2002, I was particularly excited to hear a high octane opera chorus singing a concert/liturgical piece. And the opening bars did not disappoint–a big, muscular, over-the-top, wall of choral sound. But after the initial thrill, it was clear the chorus was really just phoning it in. They seemed like a group of soloists who were underprepared and clumsy. Why bother putting on a concert like this (that is, outside of opera) if you aren’t going to make an effort?
And then the soloists came in. Some were better than others, but the most distinctive quality of their sound was that they sounded like they were using microphones. I couldn’t really see speakers and couldn’t figure out why or how that could be, but their sound was very different than my ears expected. The sound of the orchestra and chorus was what one would expect–that is, the sound filled the room and it seemed to be coming from the stage. But the vocal soloists sounded like they were in the box with me at the back of the auditorium. This was particularly strange given that they were positioned on stage behind the orchestra right in front of the chorus. Rather than sounding like they were singing with or on top of the orchestra and chorus, it was as if one channel on the stereo was turned way up. Not being an acoustical expert, it is hard for me to describe, but their sound was too present. It didn’t feel of the room. It’s like they were being directly wired into my ear.
Flash forward three nights later to the performance of La Cenerentola. The orchestra, back down in the pit, seemed much more comfortable playing Rossini and they sounded worthy of the house. But then, as in the Bruckner Te Deum, the soloists sounded like they were using microphones. Their sound was so shockingly present in my ear that I was dying for a pair of binoculars to see if I could see the body mics on the singers. But I was also confused because I couldn’t see any sort of speakers anywhere. Where was that sound coming from? And then I began to notice that it didn’t seem to happen all the time. It appeared that, rather than wearing microphones, they were standing in, or passing through, an acoustical hot spot on the stage. One that brought the sound right to my seat without really passing through the atmosphere. As I thought about it, the area on the stage that seemed to be prone to this effect was about the same area where the soloists had stood for the Bruckner.
To be clear, both nights I sat in the front row of a box at the back of the auditorium just one level above the main floor. For the Bruckner I was just left of center, and for the Rossini I was right of center about three boxes closer to the stage along the side of the horseshoe. In both seats I experienced the same weird sound. Does it sound that way everywhere in the auditorium. Do other people think it sounds weird? When people talk about the great acoustics at La Scala are they talking about this rotunda effect like in the Whispering Gallery at St. Paul’s in London which I found so off putting?
I admit I am no expert on acoustics but I have been in many, many opera houses* and have never experienced anything like this. What’s up? Am I crazy?
No matter how you slice it, I really don’t feel like I need to ever go back to La Scala. Come to think of it, even with unlimited time and resources I don’t think I would ever choose to go there again.
*Among the houses where I have heard opera: Wiener Staatsoper, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bayerische Staatsoper, Paris Bastille, Paris Garnier, Covent Garden, ENO’s Coliseum, Teatro Massimo, the Met, Chicago Lyric, SF War Memorial Opera House, Kennedy Center…
I spent a week in Milan to try and improve my Italian language skills and to hear an opera or two.
Allow me to dissect the photo: Libretti for Rigoletto and La Cenerentola; a collapsible tote bag that I planned to (and did) use to bring home new shoes; I didn’t have a cold but since I had tickets to four different performances, I didn’t want to be caught off guard without medicine and throat lozenges, I never want to be Mr. Coughy; I took two pair of shoes that were both new and was worried I might get blisters, but I didn’t need to use any of the Band-Aids.
I rented an apartment in the Ticinese neighborhood. It was cheap, nice, and was in a great location. I like to pretend I live in a place I am visiting, so having an apartment to call home was great. It had windows on both sides so it was nice and bright and sunny. Unfortunately I didn’t get any good pictures of the place because when I arrived I wasn’t feeling so good.
I arrived in Milan from the U.S. (via Dublin) at about 11:00 in the morning and I wasn’t feeling so good. I had a low grade, but persistent pain right below my rib cage. Thankfully I had recently had a full exam with my cardiologist so I wasn’t worried about heart trouble, but as I stumbled around Milan waiting for my apartment to be available, exhausted from an overnight flight, with this gut ache, I did kind of wish I was back home in my bed.
When I did get into my apartment just after 3:00, I pretty much crawled right into bed. I ended up taking a six-hour nap, woke up for about two hours and then slept from 11:00 pm to 11:00 am. Eighteen hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. This is unheard of for me. Even when I can sleep in, I rarely can get more than 7 hours of sleep at a time. And when I woke up my gut ache was worse. I had a private tour of the Duomo booked that afternoon and after that a dinner party with a bunch of Italians I had never met before. When I got back to my apartment that night and talked to John on the phone he suggested I try the equivalent of Prevacid. Thankfully there was a pharmacy not too far from my apartment that was open until 1:00 am–and on a Sunday no less.
Although each day I felt a bit better than the previous day, it took about four days for the Lansoprazolo to really kick in. And it wasn’t until a good five days into my trip before I started to feel normal. This meant that I ate much, much less than I would have normally. I ended up actually loosing two pounds on the trip.
When I still was only half better I had panzerotti which are kind of like a cross between a donut and squishy bread and a calzone and filled with cheese and prosciutto. It was so, so, good.
I avoided red sauce, but I couldn’t avoid pasta. At least I didn’t want to avoid pasta. And European Fanta is so much better than U.S. Fanta.
I did see the sights and I had about 10-hours of private tours given mainly in Italian, but more on that later.
And I did some some shopping. Two pair of shoes, and a Missoni scarf I decided to wear when I went to the Armani Museum.
And on my first day of feeling fine, I went out for a meal that included some red sauce and a very full pour of wine.
Followed by a craving for gelato, but the gelato place across the street also had crepes so I had one filled with Nutella (and then followed it up with a gelato).
And I wish I could have brought home a case of these Sicilian clementines. They were so good. At home we rate all citrus on a 10-point scale with a five being just the tipping point from edible to delicious. These were all 9s and 10s.
I will have more to say about this trip in the coming days. Stay tuned.