Milan, pt. 2

11742741_10206579756909192_225276506331837487_nReturning to Milan felt like waking up from a lackluster dream and returning to reality. Our time in Paris and England had only made me miss Italy, so I was relieved to be back. For those of you who haven’t been following our journey, Milan was the very first stop on our Euro Trip, and I had surprised myself by immediately falling in love with it. This second chance to explore the city only solidified my ability to see myself living here.

We were able to catch the Malpensa train into the city center like pros this time. Anthony effortlessly led us to Hotel Star without even glancing at Google Maps. And even the receptionist at our hotel remembered us from last time. Who knew how quickly one could become regulars in a foreign country?!

After taking our time to settle into our room, we caught the train to the Expo, about half an hour away from our hotel. Expo Milano 2015 is basically the World’s Fair, taking place for six months in a different city each year, to showcase exhibits from countries around the world. This year’s theme is Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, which seemed fitting for us. Throughout our entire trip, we hadn’t been able to escape the country’s excitement over the Expo, as there were advertisements for it in every Italian city we visited. It seemed to be perfect planning to end our trip with such an important event.

China's Pavilion
China’s Pavilion

We arrived in the early afternoon, which was probably not the best idea. We had completely forgotten that Italians take afternoon siestas! Many of the Expo workers, clad in colorful Expo t-shirts, were just arriving, and some pavilions weren’t open yet.

Cooling off with some Vietnamese iced coffee
Cooling off with some Vietnamese iced coffee

We started from one end of the Expo and tried to make our way through every pavilion. This turned out to be an impossible feat, as there were way too many pavilions to count. We did make a few observations as we traveled the world through pavilions:

  1. Most Western countries were more focused on sustainability. Belgium was especially proud of its PermaFungi technology.
  2. The poorer countries were clustered together, presumably because they could not afford their own pavilions, and centered around a common theme such as chocolate, rice, or fruit. These pavilions were more dedicated to selling goods than to anything else.
  3. The Muslim countries always outclassed everyone else. Countries like Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia had incredibly lavish pavilions.

    Typical pavilion for a Muslim country
    Typical pavilion for a Muslim country
  4. Surprisingly, our favorite pavilion belonged to Estonia. Apparently, they invented the swing set and Viks bike, which Anthony had fun riding. The pavilion also showcased a classical concert, restaurant, and mirrored forest. These smaller European countries were definitely trying to lure future tourists.
A couple Italian boys were very impressed by Anthony while he rides a Viks bike through Estonian streets
A couple Italian boys were very impressed by Anthony while he rode a Viks bike through Estonian streets
Walking through Estonia's mirrored forest
Walking through Estonia’s mirrored forest

By the time dusk came around, more and more Italians arrived at the Expo, and everything finally felt more alive. We watched costumed Italian men dance with flags and batons. They were much better than cheerleaders!

Better than cheerleaders!
Better than cheerleaders!

At the end of the night, we gathered around the Tree of Life for an epic light/water/fireworks show. The Tree of Life is a huge lit-up tree in front of the Italian Pavilion. It was during the light show that I started crying. Not again! My emotions were a mix of overwhelming happiness for being in Italy again, and bittersweet envy that all these people around me could live in this extraordinary country while I had to leave tomorrow. My heart ached, just as it did when we were leaving Positano for Paris. Leaving Italy the second time is no easier than the first.11745834_10206576956599186_8156883170233717353_n11694874_10206580259481756_4698845474608685370_nThe next day, we visited Milan’s extravagant Duomo, which took six centuries to complete. The interior is huge — the fifth largest in the world. Even Anthony was impressed by the Gothic architecture. We took the stairs to the ornate rooftop, which was unlike any other roof we’ve ever seen. It was so ostentatious, with flying buttresses, spires, and bronze Baroque sculptures.12032969_10206999683487094_8103639040867713354_n11760218_10206589223185843_3368747990746748853_n12039478_10206999780289514_4461116954378988770_n12032156_10206999737288439_3021593819322654588_nMy favorite part of visiting the Duomo was sharing the roof with three Tibetan monks. They were such an odd sight, wearing bright orange and taking photos of each other. (Monks can own smart phones??)12003244_10207000902797576_8222685746984218862_nAfter the Duomo, we returned to the stunning Vittoria Emanuel Galleria, where I once had the best gelato of my life. We went to the same gelateria and tried a different flavor (fior di latte) to confirm that it was still the best. Was it? Just like the city itself, the gelato was as fantastic as I had remembered.1972244_10206592609470498_193784403652219991_nWe roamed around Brera, an adorable neighborhood full of art galleries and colorful apartments that reminded me of Rome, and watched as chic women in stilettos biked through the cobblestone roads. Milanese women will have my absolute respect for the rest of my not-as-stylish life.

Brera
Brera

After our last Italian meal, we headed to the airport. My heart was heavy as our trip was coming to an end — but it’s not over yet… ¡Hola, Madrid!12037990_10207006470376762_4918714082263676526_nTips for future travelers:

  1. Fly into Europe on a round-trip ticket. Not only are round-trip flights usually cheaper, it’s nice to start and end your trip in the same place. Beginning and ending our trip in Milan helped everything feel complete, like we could tie up the loose ends of our journey.
  2. Stay at the Expo until the very end. The Tree of Life show was the best part of the entire Expo and was one of the most touching spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. It easily topped 4th of July fireworks and Bastille Day in Paris.

England

12009648_10206961723738124_8251336980384777698_nEngland has never been on my “Need to Visit” list. It’s due to the same reason that Australia and Canada have never been on my list, either — what’s the point of traveling to a place if they speak the same language, and the culture is so similar to yours? Nevertheless, we were in Western Europe, and my mom’s sister lives in England, so we decided to swing by after Paris.

We caught the Eurostar from Gare du Nord to Ashford International. It was a shaky ride, but it was a satisfying shake because we could feel how fast our train was going. After spending the past two weeks on our own, it was a nice change to see a familiar face waiting for us at the station. We piled into my aunt’s little Audi sports car and started our long drive home. Even the drive felt like I was still in the U.S., despite noticing the steering wheel on the right side. Speeding through the English countryside (and I mean speeding — my aunt constantly drives 30 mph over the limit) reminded me of Americans’ love affair with cars, and made me long for Italy’s well-connected Trenitalia train system again.

Though my aunt had spent the past few decades living in London, she recently moved out of her apartment and bought a second home in the beachfront community of Brighton — “Hove, actually”. Hove residents tend to distinguish themselves from larger Brighton because Hove is fancier, but both communities have that same relaxed seaside feel.

It was cold in England, and my summer dresses that had worked so well in Italy were insufficient for the overcast, blustery days here. Our guest room had huge windows, and we woke up every morning to the loud squawks of seagulls. After our tiny Airbnb in Paris, my aunt’s modern, well-furnished home felt so luxurious to us.

The next day, my aunt drove us to Oxford to see her alma mater. It was a harrowing journey — over three hours long and intermittently stuck in traffic. Living in New York has spoiled me; every time I’m in a car now, I remember why I absolutely hate driving. We finally reached town and had lunch at The Trout with my aunt’s college friend, a lovely eccentric woman who made us laugh throughout our meal of pork belly, scallops, and black pudding. The Trout, nestled on the riverbanks of the Thames, was once a meeting place for former kings and has inspired TV shows like “Inspector Morse”.11755922_10206556812495596_6490062082373144395_nAfter lunch, we toured the campus. The University of Oxford is the world’s second-oldest surviving university, and operates the largest university press in the world. We climbed to the top of Christ Church for a view of town, then walked through the dining hall that was used in the “Harry Potter” movies. The dining hall is grand, with framed portraits of university presidents and dark wood paneling. What really impressed me is that students here are still served their meals — no standing in line and paying at a cash register like plebians!

Oxford dining hall
Oxford dining hall

12002234_10206960292422342_3952349405939112772_nWe watched some punting, which means propelling a boat by pushing against the river bed with a pole. My aunt told us that, traditionally, Cambridge punters stand on the till and punt with the open end forward, while Oxford punters stand inside the boat and punt with the till forward. Thus, the till end is often known as the “Cambridge End,” and the other as the “Oxford End”. After enjoying our first afternoon tea in England, we drove back home and watched some “Inspector Morse”.

Punting
Punting
Our first afternoon tea in England
Our first afternoon tea in England

On our second day, we took the train to London, which was a much more pleasant journey than sitting in a car. While Paris was a mix of stuffy Upper East Side architecture mixed with Brooklyn cool, London felt like midtown Manhattan, with classical buildings and a constant stream of construction of strange-looking skyscrapers. The new skyscrapers coming up are actually more interesting in London than in Manhattan, but no one can top Manhattan’s skyline.

London skyline
London skyline
City Hall is a funny buildilng
City Hall is a funny buildilng

My aunt did the obligatory touristy things with us: Millennium Bridge, Tate Modern, Borough Market, and Tower Bridge. Much to Anthony’s delight, Madame Tussauds was hosting a special Star Wars exhibit, so we had to visit. We met up with his college friend from Berkeley and breezed past the 12-year-old girls drooling over One Direction wax figures. It was worth it to see Anthony’s glee as he took pictures with R2-D2 and Luke Skywalker.

Millennium Bridge
Millennium Bridge
Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge
my Star Wars nerd
My Star Wars nerd

The next day, we returned to London on our own. I had already purchased tickets for us to ride the London Eye, the giant ferris wheel on the South Bank of the Thames. The pods are huge — each can carry about 25 people. It was about a 30-minute ride and provided spectacular views of the city, including its brown river. Does anyone know why the Thames is so brown? It looks like hundreds of people pooped in it.

Huge pods
Huge pods
London's poop river
London’s poop river

We met up with Anthony’s friends again. Roaming around London with them was probably my favorite part of our England trip. We had too many Whittard tea samples at Covent Garden, and explored the British Museum. The tiny, distinct neighborhoods crammed against each other once again reminded me of New York.

A mural in London
A mural in London
Adorable Japanese school group in the British Museum
Adorable Japanese school group in the British Museum

After saying good-bye to Anthony’s friends, we went to the Sanderson Hotel for our afternoon tea. I chose this place because it had a Mad Hatter’s theme, and if you’re going to have tea in London, you need to go all out. Everything was delightful. The menu was hidden inside a vintage book; the napkin ring contained a riddle; and the dishware was covered in quirky designs. We were presented a three-tier tray of whimsical treats, such as a “Drink Me” potion bottle and meringue mushrooms.

Afternoon tea menu
Afternoon tea menu
Our afternoon tea
Our afternoon tea
“Drink Me” potion
Matcha white chocolate mousse in an edible chocolate teacup
Matcha white chocolate mousse in an edible chocolate teacup

After roaming around Soho and Picadilly Square, we caught a double-decker bus back to Victoria Station. Despite being eager to return to Milan the next day, I wouldn’t have minded one more day to explore Brighton, or maybe try London’s famous Duck & Waffle restaurant.

Our time in England felt like we had just discovered a new section of New York City. I was ready to return to a place where the culture shock would hit me a little harder. Ciao, Milano!

View from the London Eye
View from the London Eye

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Ride one of those red double-decker buses in London. Not just tourists ride them — though, you’ll certainly look like a tourist if you sit in the front row with your camera clicking away, like us. The buses are pretty convenient and provide great views of the city.
  2. Unless you’re running out of ideas, don’t waste your time with the Tate Modern. I expected it to be like MoMA, but it was much smaller and didn’t have a very interesting collection, at least when we were there. On the bright side, it is free, so I imagine it’d be a good place to escape the cold in the winter.
  3. If you’re traveling with your lover, tell everyone it’s your anniversary. This is a trick I learned years ago. Whenever I make hotel reservations or book a table at a fancy restaurant, I inform them that we are celebrating a special occasion (it’s not a lie! Every day is a celebration!). This is how we’ve gotten upgraded to a king suite in Portland’s Monaco Hotel and how we’ve been given free desserts at numerous restaurants.