It happened in Milan !

I love Italy ! Who wouldn’t?

Bursting with people… a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds and smells…. there is a kind of crackling energy in the air reminiscent of my homeland, India. Italy assaults all your senses at one go….leaving you emotionally drained and exhilarated at the same time. It really is one of my favourite countries and I honestly believe its people know how to make the best coffee in the world. (And that coming from someone who loves her coffee is high praise indeed !).

Although i have visited Italy a couple of times, it always dawns on me afresh how very similar it is to India. And what is the first thing one can think of when one thinks of India? The people…the crowds…the love in the air. Similarly, Italy has people everywhere…all you have to do to gain a bit of anonymity, is to step out of your hotel onto the cobbled streets and simply get lost in the crowds.

During our European sojourn over a year ago, we spent nearly 10 days in Italy, and grew to learn much about the  local culture, food habits, social etiquettes etc. We even practised our kindergarten-level Italian verbs and numerals, finally resorting to frantic sign language when the locals stared at us perplexed and bewildered. Driving around Italy is definitely not for the faint hearted, but life long practice at  dodging cars, humans, cats, dogs and many other living species in Mumbai can transform  the most nervous driver into a true professional. Each day, we would get into our hired car, and would navigate through the tightly packed crowds on the road, pressing the horn with a soaring sense of freedom, felt all the more keenly because hardly any horns are heard in Australia where we live.

Driving in Italy became synonymous with crowds….there was NEVER a street or an alley which was empty or devoid of masses of people going to and fro, blithely unaware of the hapless drivers trying to make their way through these unwittingly created human barricades. And then one sunny morning, towards the end of the Italian part of our trip,  we finally arrived in Milan.  Once again, we were totally bedazzled by the beauty of the cathedrals, the narrow roads bursting with cars and people, the roadside shops displaying some of the finest fashions in the world, the shoe and bag outlets with huge signs screaming ‘genuine Italian leather’. The kids were silent and awe-struck in the back seat, taking in the beautiful architecture of one of the prettiest cities in the world. I stuck my head out the window, stretching my neck to look up at the huge carved structures at the top of the buildings.

And then, all of a sudden, to our utter delight, we magically came upon a street where there were….hold your breath….NO CARS at all !!!

I looked around, my face creasing into a joyful grin as for the first time since we arrived in this gorgeous country, we were not surrounded by a million cars. Hubby dearest was thrilled too, not to have to constantly press the horn and make our way through at the speed of 5 kms an hour. We cruised along, savouring a street that was so well and truly…empty ! After a couple of minutes, i began to feel a faint sense of unease…something was not right. In the entire ten day stay, this had never happened. We had never seen a SINGLE  road or ground space where there were no cars. Where could all the cars have disappeared? Surely they had not all vanished from the surface of the earth. Surely they would all be somewhere around….But where???

Before i could ponder any further on where the entire Italian car population had disappeared, we saw to our horror, the Italian police slowly and menacingly making their way towards us. Some were on horse back (oh, they looked smart in their tailored uniforms), some on motor bikes and some in cars. They all came towards us from all different directions. I nearly choked on the wonderful chicken and vegetable pie i had been gorging on. What could be the matter? Hubby finally seemed to realise the gravity of the situation and braked abruptly. He rolled down the window and looked up in confusion, eyebrow raised, as one of the officers on horseback looked at us in disbelief. In beautifully accented English, he said ‘Sir, you are in a pedestrian ONLY zone’.

I honestly wanted the earth to open and swallow me that very instant. We went pale and gulped. I could see that all the officers were trying very hard to keep a straight face. Their mouths were twitching as they controlled, most heroically I must say, a desire to laugh out loud. We obviously came across as country bumpkin tourists who just couldn’t make our way around one of the most stylish cities in the world. ‘We didn’t see a sign’, i croaked, and had to clear my voice and repeat the sentence before the young officer comprehended what i was trying to say. He shook his head sorrowfully and pointed at a sign which glared at us from a distance. I peered up at it, and could not make out the message. It was after all in Italian. The one thing i have learned through my travels is to always smile and say sorry. That one gesture can bring about a million wonders. And so i said in a voice full of deep regret, ‘We are very very sorry’. Miraculously, they all smiled at us, shrugged away our profuse apologies as if to say stranger things have happened, waved cheerfully at the petrified kids and told us to keep driving. Of course, they did point us, diplomatically, in the direction of the streets where once again we could see with relief the entire car selection of Milan.

It was only when we were back on the ‘Pedestrian AND cars only’ roads that we finally heaved a huge sigh of relief. We looked around at the noisy crowds jostling their way past cars with angry drivers and felt a calming peace descend on us. We were back in the bosom of Milan. But it was a lesson well engraved on our memories forever.

We really must start thinking about taking up those italian language lessons. At least that way we will know (hopefully) in future to not go where even the angels fear to tread.

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