Exchanging Lake Como for Newly-found Friends

Statue of Leonardo da Vinci in Milan

Lake Como was the only reason I even considered visiting Milan. I don’t shop, so branded boutiques don’t attract me at all. As for the Duomo, oh well, I decided to give that a miss since I’d been to Paris and Seville, while Rome, Vatican, and Florence were next in my itinerary. I figured that’s more than enough cathedrals to last me for years.

A good friend of mine who used to spend a lot of time in Milan for work had warned me that Milan wasn’t my kind of place and that I should just use it as a base for a day trip to Como. Since my next destination was Cinque Terre, a brief stopover in Milan sounded like a perfect idea.

And so, on my second day in Milan, I took the metro from my hostel to the central station. I queued at the counter to get a reservation for the next available train to Como, only to be told that the trains to Como had stopped running due to, what else but, train strike. By then, I was already quite immune to train strikes.

Upon learning that there’s no way at all to go to Como on that day, I changed my plan and decided to roam the city instead. I made my way back to the metro station and guess what?! The metro was on strike, too. Yes, the very same metro I boarded less than half an hour ago.

All around me I saw bewildered faces, majority of them dragging luggage and not being able to speak Italian, while the carabinieris who managed the crowds couldn’t speak English. Despite sympathizing with them, I found the sight rather amusing.

A petite Indian girl who looked like she was about my age stood outside a circle of American tourists who were busy harassing a carabinieri. She looked lost, holding on to her luggage with one hand while browsing a map with the other. She caught me staring at her and approached me. “Hi! Where are you planning to go to? I heard the metro is on strike.” I said I wasn’t sure of my next destination yet as the train strike had ruined my original plan.

“I just arrived this morning and was supposed to check in to my hostel, but it’s too far to reach by foot. I’ll have to wait till the metro starts running again. In the mean time, would you like to hang out together and check out the area?”

Without giving my brain much chance to process the invitation, my mouth automatically said “Sure.”

And hence, we walked towards a park not too far from the central station. I offered to take turns dragging her luggage but she dismissed my offer saying it wasn’t a problem at all. There were a couple of small museums inside the park and one of them was animal-related. We decided to check it out since the museum offered a free left luggage service. Honestly, I didn’t pay attention to the name of the park nor the museum at all as we were too busy chatting.

Vandana was a final year PhD student at Georgia Tech. She was taking a short break from writing her dissertation on digital signal processing and decided to visit Italy on her own. As expected, she had to overcome a lot of disapproval from her parents before they let her go to Europe alone – talk about familiar experience! Since that was her first time traveling alone, she was slightly apprehensive. After spending a month doing what I did, I assured her that she would be fine and that solo travel was the perfect opportunity to make new friends. I found talking to her easy, as if we were on the same wavelength, and we got along rather well for someone who just met less than an hour ago.

While walking aimlessly inside the museum, she told me that she had made an appointment to meet up with an Indian guy she knew from the internet, who happened to be in Milan on the same day as her. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t be meeting up with a guy I only knew from the internet. But I ignored my better judgement on that day and agreed with Vandana when she asked if she could contact him and have the three of us hang out together.

Manish turned out to be a normal, average guy. He lived in UK, worked in Portugal for a while, and happened to be visiting Milan that day. In the end, the three of us spent a lovely day traipsing all over town visiting places I wouldn’t have visited otherwise. The metro started running again on the later part of the day, but the idea of going to Lake Como had long been forgotten.

We visited the Duomo, a couple of other churches I couldn’t even remember, and saw Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper at Santa Maria delle Grazie. After lunch, we made ourselves a simple picnic inside the Castello Sforzesco with a bottle of wine and some cheese and crackers. Thanks to the wine, silly conversations flowed non-stop peppered with hearty laughter here and there. A bit of singing was even involved 😛

Outside Castello Sforzesco

Before night fell, Manish expertly charmed a couple of Italian ladies into telling him the locals’ regular hang-out place and where to find a good non-touristy restaurant. A couple of hours later, we sat around a square table in a corner restaurant on some street that didn’t seem to appear on our map. It was Friday night, so we were surrounded by groups of rowdy locals dining while catching up with friends. We shared a couple of plates of ordinary pizza and pasta among us, but food always tastes better when you have great friends to share it with.

Manish would be returning to London soon while Vandana would be continuing her trip to Venice, Naples, and Rome. We made a promise to contact one another when we arrived in Rome as her stay there coincided with mine.

That night, I reached my hostel at 11.30pm. Throughout my entire trip, that was the longest I had ever spent outside and the latest I had ever returned to my room. That day was all about defying my comfort zone and usual habit, and for that, I deserved a pat on the back 🙂

Vandana & Manish at our dinner table (May 9, 2008)

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