The next morning we decided to sleep in, however, we still had time to indulge in the typical European breakfast of assorted pastries, deli meats, and copious amounts of Nutella. We were then soon out the door and on the Metro headed to the city centre to explore a Milano afternoon with our new friend from Finland, Max. Despite our hostel being located about five kilometers away from downtown Milan in a rather unattractive part of town, I remember almost every street in the area smelling like fresh flowers thanks to the endless amount of budding trees and bushes that spotted nearly every corner of sidewalk. If that neighborhood offered not much to look at, at least all you had to do was close your eyes and inhale deeply to be reminded of the fact that you were currently walking through Italy.
The first place we visited was Castello Sforzesco, a castle built in the 15th century by the Sforza family. For those of you who have ever played the Assassins Creed video games you’ll immediately remember that name, and for awhile it was fun to imagine just what kind of events were held within the massive walls of the castle. We didn’t tour the inner rooms, but hundreds of years ago artists such as Bramante and Leonardo Da Vinci were commissioned to decorate multiple areas of the fortress. In the far corner that day there was an event company setting up some sort of stage for a concert that evening; In any direction a tour group could be seen lazily making their way through the courtyard with their matching name tags and flashing cameras; And hanging around each exit are a half-dozen men carrying armfuls of cheap, brightly colored yarn bracelets that they will quickly tie around your wrist without your permission while giving you an elaborate story of ‘one world, one love’ brotherhood in exchange for your pocket change (we didn’t fall for this, and I still have the bracelet securely tied around my wrist even four months after the trip.) But it was bliss to imagine that some of the greatest minds to ever walk the earth had walked along those same cobblestones at some point. It was one of the few places we visited that I had a hard time looking up from the ground.
We made our way through the adjoining green space and at one point found a Japanese wedding reception taking photographs in the park. We also noticed countless couples enjoying the weather by making out in the shaded grass under the flower dotted trees. Italy.
Harman and I continued to let Max lead the way, and we soon found ourselves in the shadow of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the Duomo Milano. The Galleria was built in the 1800’s as an incredibly ornate, elaborate shopping mall housing multiple high-end boutiques like Louis Vuitton, Prada, Dior, and Mont Blanc – just to name a few. In the centre of the galleria is a beautiful floor mosaic depicting the Bull of Turin, which guests stand and spin on in order to bring them good luck. Apparently the new thing is also to take an exorbitant amount of selfies at this particular spot to bring good fortune. But it was interesting just floating around the Galleria, peering into the shops that I physically couldn’t afford, watching tourists in outfits that cost more than my flight twirl and pose without a care in the world. I had my camera with me and found a thousand photos to take, and at one point found a Russian model posing for her own photo shoot who was kind enough to let me take a few shots, myself.
We wandered outside to the Duomo to take a tour of the massive cathedral, but upon buying our tickets were informed that if we were wearing shorts that sat above our knees we weren’t allowed in. Harman was the only one of us in jeans so Max and I instructed him to take as many pictures as he could inside, and we’d hang outside. Thankfully I found another wave of scenes to photograph so I wasn’t disappointed at all. I even was able to get a couple of my favorite photos yet, those of a woman sitting at the steps of the Duomo who burst into an infectious laugh and smile when I asked for her picture. Once Harman was finished with his tour the three of us found some lunch and made our way to the Piazza della Scala, which is home to a towering statue of Leonardo Da Vinci. Earlier this year I finished the fascinating biography about him by Walter Isaacson, and have been somewhat obsessed with the artist ever since. So standing just feet away from a nearly 150 year-old statue of Da Vinci – in the streets of Milan – was nothing short of humbling. But it was just about five o’clock at that point and Max was going to make his way back to his hostel to rest, and Harman and I still had to pack for our departure the next day, too. So we found the Metro, shook hands, exchanged Instagram handles, and parted ways.
Back at the Hostel Colours we realized one thing: We were very, very hungry. And dehydrated just a bit. After dropping off our bags we made our way to the front door in search of the grocery store around the corner. But before we could leave we were asked a simple question by a delightful Polish man named Oscar. “Do you guys want some free dinner tonight?” He was standing over the stove, steadily stirring a pot of something that smelled as delicious as anything I’d ever eaten. He explained that a few days prior to that night his phone was stolen in a Barcelona nightclub, and he was trying to put some positive energy back out into the world to makeup for it. We asked if he needed any help or ingredients, but all he said was to be back by 8 o’clock. So we went to the grocery store, bought some water and some wine (both of which are impressively cheap in Italy, just another reason to go there,) and went back to the hostel kitchen to hang out with our new friend.
Before we knew it, a meal for three turned into a meal for nearly twelve, and our table grew to house souls from all over the globe. A couple of women from Munich, a woman from France, a cheerleader from Baylor University in Texas, two travelers from England (one of which was Nile from Manchester, who I proceeded to talk about Oasis with for a good majority of the night), and a pleasant older man from Pakistan. We were each in our own conversations but all of us were together. The time quickly fell away from us, however, and the Hostel Colours curfew was quickly enforced. But there was no time for sleep! We each had a world of new friends to explore Italy with, so we decided to hop back on the Metro and get some gelato at one o’clock in the morning in the streets of Milan. After enjoying some of the best pistachio gelato I’ve ever had (the best would come at our next stop on our trip) we found our way back to the hostel. Some people went to sleep, but a select group of us decided that our night wasn’t done yet. So we found a park just a few blocks away, sat ourselves on a couple of benches, and began to talk about anything and everything at three o’clock in the morning. Oscar and I spoke about the troubles of finding work after college, but more importantly finding purpose in that work. Currently living in London, he explained that he left Poland and arrived in England a few years prior without knowing a word of English, but took the first job he found and began building a life for himself.
I told him he was very inspiring and that, because I hoped to be a (paid) writer one day, I’d remember him and his story. He told me he’d be looking forward to reading it. Then, almost without warning, he informed our little group that his bus was arriving in an hour and that he was going to make his way to the station. I opened Google Maps for him (because he was still without a phone) and pointed him the right direction. He told Harman and I that if we ever found ourselves around his way that we’d have a place to stay. And so Oscar shook our hands, said goodbye, and walked off into the Milano night.
When the rest of us got back to the hostel to sleep I began to think about just how quickly our trip was moving. I was still amazed that I was in Italy, and I admitted that I certainly wasn’t the same man I was before stepping on the plane to Barcelona. These were the times you traveled for, the time when a group of complete strangers agree to become best friends for the night. I was losing a part of myself in the best way possible. When traveling – no matter the distance – you listen, grow, ask questions, become brave, and learn how to speak up. You pass through and move on. I wrote that it is a terrifying thing, growing up. But that it is also beautiful, chaotic, maddening bliss.