Our hotel in Milan has provided a large and comfy room, a pleasant view of a little park and a great breakfast, but to use the internet we must bring our laptop to the Business Center and hook up there.
We had a few errands to run today -- drugstore, get our transportation map and tickets, go to the Tourist Information Center -- but the most critical Piazza del Duomo was to dispatch a letter to the U.S.
The smiling young man at the hotel desk assured us that there are Post Offices all around the city, especially near the Cathedral. He also explained that we could buy a six-day subway ticket, called a carnet, for 11,000 Lire in the Metro station. He was wrong on both counts, but he had a nice smile.
We went to the Metro station. There was a man sitting in a booth. We wanted to buy tickets. He pointed to the newsstand just behind him. As it turned out, they sold cigarettes, books, magazines, candy, and transportation tickets. After many backs and forths we discovered a carnet was a book of ten tickets, not a pass for one-, two-, or any number of days. He would sell us a one-day pass or a two-day pass. The price for the two-day pass was 14,000 Lire.
The newstand man barked this out at us in fierce Italian, calling in his buddy who had two or three more words of English, as backup, and meanwhile taking care of all the other customers, who clearly knew what they wanted and weren't some dumb tourists and besides had a train to catch. If we really wanted a six-day pass, we'd have to have our picture taken. So we gave in and bought two-day passes and a transport map. We're not sure we could have found Il Duomo the office of the transportation department anyway.
About this time something dawned on us. Everybody here speaks Italian. In France, it seemed most people had some English. But in Italy all they know is Italian.
We jumped on the subway. It was late in the morning but the subway was jammed with people. It was a good, tight Italian squeeze with all the flesh in the subway train. But in a few stops we were off. We've since found that most of the Milan subway trains are crowded most of the time.
The center of Milan is Il Duomo, which is Italian for the dome, which is what Europeans often call their cathedrals. The Milan cathedral is richly carved. Every possible tower, niche, and corner of its outer walls was filled with statues. Inside it was busy, with several priests taking confession and at least one mass at a side altar; the building is so large that all this activity can take place seemingly at the side lines. We took a few minutes to tour the treasures in the crypt, some of which date from the fifth century, and to view the tomb of St. Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan. We decided to wait for better weather to climb to the top.
We couldn't see any post offices, so we stopped at the Tourist Office. The clerk marked our maps with the English language bookstore and the Post Office. We left the Cathedral square in a hurry because they were testing the amplifiers for the big Christmas concert coming up and we were worried for the integrity of our eardrums. We walked right past the Post Office, but found the bookstore all right.
We got a book about helping refugees out of France and a short history of Italy, and went back to find the Post Office. Cathedral main aisle
It wasn't there. We got to the plaza where the Tourist Office clerk had marked a big circle and looked all around, but it wasn't there. So we asked a policeman, who pointed energetically at a building and said something in Italian that sounded like "KWEE! KWEE!"
Sure enough, that building was totally enclosed in scaffolding, but if you looked really closely, up on the second floor you could see the word Poste. So we went in, avoiding getting any construction materials dumped on our heads.
We should have figured out something was wrong when all the windows said "BANCOPOSTAL" but we didn't. We talked in English to some more people at some more windows while they spoke Italian back at us, but we learned we were not in the post office where they mail things, but the post office where they act like a bank. We were to go to Via Something-or-Other, Number Four.
Outside, we turned the corner in the direction the clerk had indicated, but didn't see anything that looked like a post office. We decided they probably meant the other side of the same building, so we went in the door which said authorized personnel only. Another lady joined us at this point and asked us in Italian if we were going to the Post Office. We said in English we hoped so, but it looked like authorized personnel only. So we all got out of there.
But wait! Across the street and in the next block was another building saying Poste. This must be Number Four! Here there were many windows and several different areas. In this place you could send telegrams and faxes, you could wire money, you could buy a telephone card and, oh yes, you could buy stamps!
We waited in a line which said TUTTI SERVICI. But then so had the sign in the bancopostal building. Sure enough, wrong line. We had to go to Box Five. Box Five? We tried to explain that we'd been sent from the other building. No, only Box Five could help. Hoping that Box meant window, or room, we trudged along. Marble altar
Another room seemed to be crowded with customers and windows, and we found one numbered five. But it had a sign in Italian, closed. So we went down to the big window at the end that said Informazione. The guy behind the window was talking to his buddy so we waited politely.
Then a short guy with an unlit cigarette in his lip barged ahead of us and dumped the contents of his courier bag on the counter. The guy behind the window didn't say anything like These people were here first, so we started carrying on in English, sort of "Go right ahead mister, be our guest" and the like. The other guys didn't understand. They spoke Italian.
As the short guy was leaving he finally got the idea that he might have pushed ahead of us, cause he looked kind of sheepish, but he got his errand done, so what the heck? Then the guy behind the counter decided we needed stamps.
We explained we didn't want stamps -- we were looking for something like priority mail or express mail -- and managed to say as fast as it could go. So he decided that he needed someone who did English, and there was someone in the office if he could only find him or her, and away he went, with us following along, kind of.
Right next to Box 5 was Box 4, where they sold stamps, and he tried to get us to take stamps on the letter. So he continued to look for the person who spoke English. Meanwhile we had a brainstorm. "Parlez-vous Francais?" Big smile. So we explained in French that we wanted the letter to go to the United States as fast as it was possible. She insisted the solution was stamps, and she was so nice, so we bought some stamps.
As we were looking at the letter and dividing by 2000 to convert lire into dollars, we realized that we had less than one dollar on the envelope. We knew that it ought to cost about five for priority mail and twenty for express mail, so what we had there was ordinary air mail. Now we also know that sometimes those letters go on ships anyway, even though there's a blue sticker.
So they all told us in Italian to drop the letter in the box for fast mail and we smiled and waved back and told them in English we sure would and weren't they the nicest, most helpful people and we got the heck right out of that post office, with our letter still in our hand. We even yelled a "Grazie Arrivederci" at them.
There we were, on the street in front of the post office, wondering what to do, when we spot a big brown truck with engine running and golden writing: UPS. Oh my, yes. So we waited around a few minutes for the driver. We knew it would only be a few minutes because those guys get paid piece rate, and they work fast! Sure enough, there was the driver, and as he zipped into his seat, ready to slip the clutch, we blurted out where's the office. He grinned, and he had a little English, not much, so we whipped out our map, and he looked at it and pointed to the street, about five blocks away. He also assured us that the office was open now, that there was a clerk there, and that she spoke English.
Well only part of that was wrong. We found the UPS office all right, just where he said it would be, and it was open, but the clerk only had Italian. However, it just so happened that there was a customer in the store who had a little English. Besides, the form looked pretty much like the UPS form in the U.S. So we filled out the form, and she took a credit card, and our letter is on the way, with the good old UPS online tracking number so we can follow its progress.
By then it was past time for lunch. Some of the restaurants were filled to capacity, but down the street was a smaller, less crowded one. As we sat down, we started giggling about the Great Postal Adventure. It was serendipity.
We recommend the following salad: wafer-thin slices of parmesan cheese and equally thin slices of raw artichoke which has been carefully trimmed. Lemon juice and/or olive oil as desired by the individual eater. It's remarkably good, and looks interesting, thus satisfying the major requirements of holiday potlucks.
So what's todays lesson? Well, one lesson is that people are happy to help even if they don't have a clue what the answer is! Another is that even in the business capital of Italy, in the heart of downtown, people don't know any English at all. Moreover, most of them don't know any French or German, either. How very interesting. All the other countries we've visited on this trip -- Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, even tiny Andorra -- seemed to have many more English-speakers than Italy. It's a bit surprising when one considers that Italy was one of the first six countries to get on board the European Union. We wonder how ready Italy is for integration with the rest of Europe. An interesting question.