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Looking around Do you know that kids show 'Go outside' with the woman and her collie in the biplane? I took her message very much to heart.

From Dream to Reality

ITALY | Sunday, 14 June 2015 | Views [225]

I had been planning this trip since I was a little girl, sitting in my great grandmother’s dining room, the smell of simmering meatballs and ragù on the stove and her thick, sometimes indecipherable, accent flowing through the air, painting pictures of life in Apulia during the war, even when no one was listening. Italy was a land of dreams, the legendary home of my foremothers, a Neverland of golden wheat fields, olive groves and cloudless blue skies, or so it seemed to me. It was like a kingdom from a fairy-tale, where young Italian girls with flowing raven hair fall in love with handsome English soldiers and elope together, without being able to speak a whole sentence in each other’s language. It was all rolling countryside, clear seas and delicious food. It was freedom and beauty personified. Going there was a dream of mine; it was more than that, it was a duty, it was a pilgrimage. By the time I had enough money to go my grandma had died, and our thread to the magical land of my dreams was severed. But that only spurred me on all the more. I had never travelled before, outside of the rare family holiday or school trip to France, and I felt that my first time had to be special, as we rather idealistically do. So I sketched myself a route and told my friends who immediately insisted on joining me, and set out to the holy land of my daydreams.

When we landed at Bergamo airport outside Milan on that afternoon in mid-June the humid drizzle and clouds seemed to have followed us from Manchester. The terracotta roofs of a small cluster of houses and the undulating hills of Lombardy were cloaked in fog and the sun, the eternal king of Italy, was obscured by grey clouds. This was not much different to England after all. The hour and so shuttle bus ride to Milan revealed a side of Italy I had never expected; the modern consumer capitalist side. The only buildings I ever pictured in my dream of Italy where villas, cathedrals and Roman ruins. But here, running along the tarmacked road of the autostrada were warehouses, empty and abandoned industrial parks, petrol stations, retail parks and all those other ugly scars of modern industry. The villas I saw were tarnished with red stains from the rain like they were secretly made of metal. Even when the suburbs of Milan through broke the monotonous landscape we were greeted with ugly tower blocks first, looking, if you can believe it, almost as if they had economy and housing in mind more than aesthetic appeal. Then the grand Risorgomento era buildings were stained with ugly blotches of meaningless graffiti and the streets lined with litter, like every city in the world. Wasn’t Milan the fabled home of fashion and culture? Even the grandiose Milano Centrale, the central train station that the bus drops you off at, with its luscious marble was picketed by pushy sellers peddling shuttle buses and homeless people begging for change, and its marvellous interior was infected with fast food restaurants, electric light and a literal labyrinth of shops and escalators. We sauntered from the bus down to the metro to catch the train to Duomo metro stop to head to our hostel, thoroughly disappointed. So this was Milan. With its graffiti, its rusted chuntering old tram, its advertising and its rubbish. A pit stop at the Piazza del Duomo, with its wide square full of people and pigeons in front of the stunningly white Duomo, and a much needed cigarette could do little to fight my disillusion.

When we finally reached our hostel, after getting temporarily confused trying to pick the right turning from the Piazza del Duomo and twenty minutes trudging with our backpacks through the stuffy late afternoon heat, I was completely deflated. My dream was shattered. Wheat fields and olive groves I never expected from Lombardy, but no blue skies? No sunshine? Italy was not a land of romance and idyllic countryside. It was a modern nation state with serious and entrenched socio-economic problems, facing the consequences of growing urbanisation and stilted capitalist industry. At the time I was angry at this fact, I felt like I had been betrayed, like someone had just told me Father Christmas was fictional or fairies didn't exist. We stayed in the hostel no longer than half an hour before we set out again in search of a restaurant to eat in. We wandered down the road from our hostel in the opposite direction from the centre where we were met with a wide piazza.  On the piazza is the historic Porta Ticinese, a 19th century arch commemorating the original 16th century city gate. It looks over a junction of the Grande Navigli canal system. Huge colourful snails littered the piazza and strangely jarred, in a good way, against the neoclassical architecture. Why the snails were there I could never find out, perhaps they had something to do with the MilanoExpo that was on at the time, but they made me chuckle anyway. The evening was coming in and the dimming light finally broke through the clouds to fill the piazza with a warm dusk light. A soft cooling breeze blew the smell of warm bread through the air. Fashionable dog walkers and sauntering couples promenaded alongside the sweet little Darsena, a branch of water of the canal system that looks like a long narrow lake, and a group of quite attractive fire-fighters ordered an espresso in a little café.

So this was Milan! It wasn’t until then that I realised what I had felt before in the hostel was right. My dream of Italy was dead. The magical land I had wished it to be was no more than fiction. Italy was not a mythical playground from my imagination and my summer break, it was a real place with its problems and its ugly blemishes just like every other country in the world. Travelling can too easily become a self-indulgent escape for the bored with a bit of money in their back pocket. Sunny, pretty places can become enslaved to our ideals and desires. A place will never be what you dreamt of or you imagined from your flat in Britain, hunched over your laptop on google images and skyscanner. But don’t let that you stop you from seeing the true beauty of a place; the beauty of its local people buying an espresso or taking their dog for a walk; the beauty of a gloomy day that melts into a perfect evening. And don’t be downhearted or unforgiving when the capitalist economy, the globalisation, the poverty and urbanisation lurches around every corner; it is only another facet in the glittering diamond. My trip around Italy was far from perfect. From being stranded in Milano Centrale for six hours because of rail strikes to missing the Pope in St Peter’s Square because I couldn’t open the door of my apartment to wandering alone on the dirty, frightening streets of Naples because my room-mate and I could no longer bare the sight of each other, nothing about my month in Italy was how I planned. But don’t be mistaken, the love I feel for the real Italy, warts and all, is deeper than the shadow of love I had for that childhood fantasy. So if I could give budding travellers a piece of advice it is this: enjoy a place for what it is, not what you wish it was, after all it wasn’t made for tourists, tourists were made for it. I wish I could say I learned the lesson from this epiphany on that first night, but it wouldn’t be much of a pilgrimage if I learnt everything so soon, without the chance of the clichéd dramatic realisation later on. I have no great love for Milan if I am honest, but I always fondly remember that first night opposite Porta Ticinese eating pizza and drinking white wine in the warm evening breeze, watching the teenagers at the Macdonald’s across the street goad each other, laughing loudly at videos on their phones, when I felt just for a second like I was seeing something real.     

Tags: dream, first time traveller, italy, milan, milano, travel

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