If a resident of Monza, Italy gives you any directions that sound remotely like, “just go straight and you’ll see it right there,” be skeptical. It’s not that they don’t mean well, but either they think of directions in broad strokes that obscure corners and curves, or they’ve never had to find their way around in unfamiliar territory. It wasn’t a matter of age, gender, occupation, or language. No one gave us clear directions.
We often had our map handy for reference. The hotel concierge would patiently mark locations, not mentioning the streets or bridges that would be on that route, but were not on the map. If you are counting intersections or bridges, this is a problem. It was not just a matter of reading signs, either. The Italians, at least those there in Monza and Milan, don’t seem to believe in significant signage. And there were rarely any sort of unique markings on streets lined with buildings that may have been of old brick and stonework, but had none of the artistic defining features you might assume in this country associated so strongly with art. To top it off, what street signs there were were colorless, engraved off-white plaques on the corners of buildings in positions that were inconsistent and obviously placed by someone who neither walked or drove on the streets. There was no certain place on a building, or level, or point of architecture that we could discover to always look for the random street signs. Even when we found them, it was not uncommon for the letters to be worn away. (click on any photo to enlarge)
It didn’t help any that many intersections were odd numbered groupings of diagonal crossings. They were extremely creative with their intersections. I use the term intersection loosely, because they all had a way of melding into one anther indistinctly, being of continually different shapes and size. We would get giddy if we came to a simple 90° crossing of two streets. No, simple is not the word. Even those had odd barriers and trolley lines and subway stations that made it a puzzle to look at. All of this could make you think you were walking “straight” on a road, only to discover you had gone a few blocks in a completely different direction than you thought. I may not have a personal compass in my head like some people, and thus be more prone to getting lost, but I do know what a straight line is!
When walking, it wasn’t as potentially fatal as it was when driving. I only rode in back seats, but I saw and heard what it took for a visiting driver to get around. The driving was further complicated by the street lights all being rather low, and, thus easily blocked from sight by other vehicles. Plus, it was hard to look for the unreliable street signs while straining to see what color the traffic light was.
Part of the reason for each town’s street patterns (both Milan and Monza) was that they are built up around the local “Duoma,” or cathedral. (Here is a link to read about the Milan duomo.) Transportation was likely limited and slow when the chaotic grid first evolved, so probably no one was going very far. Somehow, though, they became attached to the “artistic randomness” as the towns grew. It is easy to call it quaint in travel books, but I would use other words when trying to get around in it. The street patterns do not stay as faux-circular beyond a certain point, but they not regular, either. From the Duomo, everything radiates out like a failed prototype of the wheel. Some spokes dead-end, teasing your sense of mystery, but being at odds with your sense of self-preservation. Other spokes melt into plazas or meander like varicose veins, never keeping the same width or flow. They make navigating the Los Angeles freeway system seem like a piece of cake.
Strangely, the dead-ends or funny corners may be where the restaurants can accidentally be found. By restaurant, I mean a place that serves something besides pizza or gelato. Those types of establishments are a bit easier to find, having discovered lighted window signs. Places we found that served anything like a balanced meal were doing their best to be “unpretentious” or something. Another catch is that they don’t even open until 7:30 PM. If you got close enough, there was usually a small lectern near the door, partially behind shrubs, that displayed the menu of dishes they would like to serve (if they had the ingredients that night). There might be a sign over the door, very flat and reserved. No signs were placed perpendicular to the building so that someone walking could look for things from any distance.
Fortunately, my friend and I had caught on to these methods of giving direction and the difficulties of finding our way around before we attempted an excursion more than a few blocks from the hotel. When, on our third day, the hotel concierge cheerfully, and adamantly when we showed signs of hesitation, instructed us to walk 4 kilometers “straight on this road (pointing to the map) and you will walk right into the shopping mall,” we mentally questioned this. At least, he did help us to know the basic compass direction in which to set out, and the suburb-of-sorts outside of Monza in which to find the mall.
Instead of walking, though, we caught a ride with our buisness-traveling husbands on their commute to work the next day. They deserve recognition for this effort, since it took them the opposite direction from where they needed to go and into regions they had not been. It took all four of us working together to manage the GPS, watch for road signs, watch for combative drivers, and be on the lookout for sudden lane dissapperances. We’re still not sure how we got there, so don’t ask for directions here, but we did confirm that the straight line option was, um, optimistic.
Once inside the mall, we might as well have been back in Idaho in many ways. It was a medium-small mall of circular design. Even the outside was round. Most of the music being played had English words, so it was almost disconcerting when someone would speak in Italian. I would add here that the common assertion that “Europeans know so many languages” did not hold true in our experience. In the hotel and airport, we would often end up with someone who spoke enough English to get basics taken care of, but beyond that people spoke only their own language. English was just a subject in school that they didn’t remember much from. In the “total Italian mall experience,” the main difference besides the sales clerks speaking Italian was that the prices were in Euros and they asked for my passport if I wanted to use a credit card. And the mall you-are-here map was in Italian. However, it was color and number coded in an easy to understand way, once I understood that to Italians what in America is referred to as the first floor is their ground floor, one story up is their first floor, etc.
We shopped and bought things anyway, even if we could have found very similar things in the USA. Then, we had a 4 cheese pizza for lunch because that was the type we could be most sure of from translating the menu with an iPhone app. I have never had bleu cheese on a pizza before. Not sure I liked that. After that, we decided to call a taxi to get back to the hotel.
Our hotel concierge had helpfully suggested that we just go straight to the hotel by the mall and ask the person at the desk to call a taxi. It didn’t take us long to realize we could not “just see” this supposed hotel. So, we went into a store in the mall for my friend to learn Italian and ask for better directions. This clerk did not at first understand my friend’s Italian and rattled off something that sounded very impressive, but then they communicated and the clerk was visibly relieved to inform us that she did not know where the hotel was. She said we should “ask a guard.”
The only guard we had seen was at the exit of the Walmart-like store on the ground level. He spoke just a couple of English words to condescendingly tell my friend she was using a Spanish word. He certainly wasn’t impressed that she already knew 2 languages and is working on a third. After she admitted to her indiscretion, he told us emphatically to go to the roof. When we acted dubious, he forcefully repeated in his guard-like fashion the word “roof.” Okay, then.
Seeing as we needed to get back to the hotel, we went to try to get on the roof. We actually knew where it was because in our exploration of the mall, we had wandered up a central flight of stairs that had looked like it might go to another shopping level. All we had seen then were a couple of doors that said emergency exit only. When we returned, we verified that all of the doors around this glass dome said the same thing.
Not feeling confident about explaining to anyone why we were setting off alarms in the building, my friend and I slowly spun and looked somewhat hopelessly around the mall. She spotted a cleaning lady and started off with vigor in that direction muttering something about “a cleaning lady should know her way around.”
The cleaning lady was wet mopping a set of automatic entrance doors, but she was willing to stop for a minute and attempt directions. As Italian tripped lightly off her tongue, the pointed this way and that while the doors closed and opened against her shoulders. Finally a look of enlightenment appeared on my friend’s face and she delivered the translation to me: “Just go straight to the next aisle and find the elevator a the turn. Take the elevator to the roof.” Once we stepped out of the elevator, the hotel would be “right there.” Sigh.
The elevator was tucked deeply into the corner of the outward turn. It was a masterful act of camouflauge, but we spotted it just as it almost faded from our peripheral vision. It did take us to the roof! Its doors opened outside of the clear dome. There was a tall building right in front of us, so we walked up to it. It was deserted.
Having made it this far successfully, we went to look around the rest of the humongous rooftop. It was like the patio to the castle of Jack’s giant at the top of the beanstalk. There were just enough structures about to block any kind of view, though, so maybe it was more like a maze in Alice in Wonderland. The roof was definitely feeling surreal.
We began to walk to the other side of the center dome, and just as we passed it, a gentleman in an expensive looking suit walked briskly toward us. He was not looking at us, though he was going to pass within a foot or two of us between two outcroppings. It was odd that he didn’t seem surprised by our presence, and was going to walk right by. Not wanting to miss this singular opportunity, my friend flagged him down and asked about “a hotel near here.” He laughed, amused but not derisive, and indicated that “the most beautiful hotel in the world” was just “right there” around the corner.
To be sure, I didn’t believe him. But there it was! It was quite posh, sitting there on top of the shopping mall looking over the expanse of cities and towns. The woman at the desk didn’t even blink as she agreed in a very business-like manner to call a taxi. Within 8 minutes, we were on our way straight back to the hotel, more or less.
Once in the taxi, on the roof, we followed a very long, semi-circle ramp of a driveway going down street level. At street level, we could see the ascending driveway that must lead up around to the other side of the mall. And, since that whole adventure, we have been informed that what Americans call “shopping malls” are called Centrale Commerciale “Something Else Identifying” in Italy. So if you see Centrale Commerciale Anything on your map, that is a shopping mall. I don’t know if they all have hotels on top, and you are on your own for getting a taxi.