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Was I Lost or a Loser in Milan?

Let me introduce you to one of the chapters in my travel memoirs. I had many collaborators – thank you all very much!

During the summer of 2008, I traveled to Italy with my 21 year old niece and 14 year old daughter. We had one day in Milan, a stopover on the way to Florence. Milan had much to offer us, but what I wanted to see more than anything else was the famous da Vinci painting The Last Supper. The girls were so excited to be in Italy, they would have followed me anywhere. How hard could it be to find the church where one of the world’s most famous paintings is located? Let’s just say, by the end of our day, I looked in the mirror to see if there was a big “L” painted on my forehead.

Our hotel was on the outskirts of Milan. With a late start that morning I hurried the girls along to talk to our concierge. I needed to get precise subway directions into the city. My last trip on a subway was in New York City when instead of arriving at Columbia University, my daughter and I ended up in Harlem. We found a cab to take us the rest of the way. The thought of getting lost in the Milan subway system had many more complications. The directions were perfect, and we reached Milan without incident. Once we rose to the streets from the subway, my heart sank. I realized I had no idea how to get to the church. I did not even bring a map. Humbled by my lack of preparation, I told the girls we were just going to have to follow the crowd and look for a place to get directions along the way.

The flow took us down a modern street lined with designer shoe boutiques. As we window shopped, we admired shoes that resembled works of art. We gasped at the prices which cost more than our plane tickets – combined. This gave the phrase “well-heeled” much more meaning. Trying to get back on track, I steered the girls past all the shoppers to a square filled with bustling outdoor cafes. The smell of fresh bread baking and tomatoes cooking with garlic leapt across the square and teased our noses. The sensory triumvirate overtook us, and we found ourselves in the nearest café and ordered lunch.

As we waited for our meal, we relaxed and observed our surroundings. It seemed that l’amore was also in the air. When we heard loud voices, we imaged two lovers quarreling. When we heard soft murmurs, they belonged to secret lovers. We watched the perfect man, in a perfect suit, with a perfect smile walk by. Unfortunately, l’amore was interrupted by waiters shooing away pesky peddlers and beggars hanging along the edges of the cafes. I was approached by one of these characters, a wizened woman dressed in black. She pointed at our bread basket. Not knowing better, I picked it up and offered it to her. She grabbed the basket, dumped the contents into the crook of her arm, tossed the basket back to me, and left muttering to herself. My astonishment was short lived and I joined in with the laughter that my comic scene had created. Note to self: Not all elderly Italian women dressed in black are sweet little widows.

After delighting our palates with melon and prosciutto followed by homemade pasta so delicious you wanted to sing “Volare,” we continued on our quest for The Last Supper. Have I mentioned it was summer? Let me mention it. Milan was 90 degrees and we were sweltering. I blamed the heat for making me forget to ask for directions at the café. During our languorous walk down another unknown street, we bumped into a fortress-like museum with air conditioning! Yes, we were very curious about these exhibits. We were so curious that we went in through the exit. It took us a few minutes to figure out we were going through the displays in reverse. When we realized our “bigga mistaka” we meekly retraced our way out – avoiding the museum’s dungeons.

The Museum with the Hidden Entrance

Back out on the street, shimmering in the distance, was a gelato stand. Gelato in Italy is an icy kiss of sweetness. There are endless flavors and no wrong choices. Near to the gelato stand was a large ornate fountain with statues spouting water. Our plan was to cool off with a scoop of gelato, then dip our feet in the fountain while listening for anyone speaking English so we could ask for directions to “our” church. We were feeling a bit possessive about the church by this point.

As I sat day dreaming on a shady park bench, enjoying my passion fruit gelato, I was startled back to reality by a screeching gypsy woman. With flailing arms, she hurtled angry words and spit in my direction. I know but one Italian swear word and how to order off an Italian menu, so I wasn’t too sure of my offense. My niece suggested that I must be sitting on the gypsy’s bench. I leapt up and rushed over to a trash bin. There I shaved the top off my gelato cone with my finger knife. When I returned to the others, who were laughing at me again, they asked why I got rid of half my gelato. I said I didn’t want crazy gypsy spit on my gelato. Now in hysterics (and showing no respect to their elder), they told me I was being sprayed with her water bottle, not her spit. Funny how you don’t notice these little details when the fury of a gypsy is upon you.

Icy Sweet Kiss of Gelato

At the fountain, we heard a myriad of languages being spoken. After a few minutes of eavesdropping, we tried our luck with some German tourists. They knew enough English to give us directions to the church. We were relieved to learn that we were very close. With renewed purpose, we practically skipped down the few blocks to the Santa Maria delle Grazie. As we entered, we were greeted with this sign: “The entrance to The Last Supper has been moved next door.” Damn you Dan Brown. If he had not written The Da Vinci Code, the world would not have been so interested in seeing this painting. But it is not Dan Brown’s fault. Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper on a dry wall rather than on wet plaster (common for fresco painting). He sealed the stone wall and then painted over the sealing layer. Because of this technique, the painting began to deteriorate soon after Leonardo finished it. After much restoration, the painting can only be viewed by small groups in a controlled environment.

Cooling Off in the Fountain

Ok, we can handle a small obstacle like this. We went “next door” and got in line. As I strained to read the tickets prices posted over the ticket window, I found out some terrible news. The tickets were sold in advance — twenty four hours in advance. With only one day in Milan, we were “how you say, screwed.” My daughter looked at me pitifully and said, “Can we rename this painting The Lost Supper.” Indeed we could. With a last attempt to lighten the situation, I took the girls into the gift shop to look at a postcard version of the painting. Un-amused, they were ready to go back to the hotel.

The Famous Santa Maria delle Grazie

No, the “L” on my forehead was not fully imprinted yet. For this trip, I had purchased a very practical shoulder bag that I could keep in front of my body and which had many zippers for hiding things — like the hands of a pick pocket. As we were going down the stairs to the subway platform, my niece yelled my name. I swung to look in her direction as she called out “YOUR PURSE”. I yanked it away from the thief fondling its contents. Empty handed, he quickly melted into the crowd. Was there a cabal formed to ruin my day?

Fast forward a few months. I went to my daughter’s high school academic team meet. The team competes against other schools in matches similar to Jeopardy. My daughter was in the cheering section when this question was asked “What city is the painting The Last Supper located in?” Not one of the ten students on the panel knew the answer. I strained to find my daughter’s face where she was squirming in frustration. I nodded to her in conspiracy. We practically screamed at each other when the match was over. “If only I had been on the panel for that question” she shouted!

I may never visit Milan again, but in retrospect, it was one of the most hilarious days of my life. Maybe that “L” on my forehead did not stand for “Loser.” Maybe it stood for “Lifelong.” I will never forget where The Last Supper is located, nor will I forget the sights, sounds and tastes of that rambunctious city. Will there be more days when I have to wash an “L” off my forehead? I do hope so.