Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell: A Dantesque Journey through Northern Italy, Part 10

Male Italian Sartorial Splendour…

Photoshopping Your Property on Airbnb…

The Most Important Word in Italian…

Negotiating Parking Rates…

Donato (the owner of the apartment we rented in Milan; or rather–in airbnb parlance–, our “host”) came to our rescue about half an hour after we called. When he first appeared, he was accoutered in an immaculately tailored navy-blue silk suit, paisley tie, and tasseled loafers. And though he had walked to our location through the heat of the early afternoon, there wasn’t a bead of sweat on his person. It was only later that we learned that Italian males never allow themselves to sweat, lest they mar their sartorial perfection.

Much has been written about the splendour of the Italian female, but the men are surely no less magnificent. Coming from North America, where the ubiquitous male costume consists of blue jeans, polyester sweat shirts, “ski” jackets in fluorescent plastic, Nikes, and baseball caps (usually facing aft), it is a pleasant shock to discover that Italian men still wear shoes made from the hides of animals, overcoats of natural cloth, and hats with no conceivable athletic or proletarian application.

 

When questioned, Donato explained that the construction around Milan’s centro istorico was in preparation for the World’s Fair to take place in the coming summer, and had been ongoing for almost a year. It apparently never occurred to him to mention this transportational blockade in the many conversations we had had with him before our arrival. Whether he thought it might put us off, or his reticence was just another case of locals assuming that regional contingencies must be universal knowledge, my annoyance was hard to conceal.

With Donato as our steersman we sailed through the secret gap in Milan’s southern defences toward what we thought was the street on which his apartment was located. But, as he also revealed only when pressed, the Corso di Porta Ticinese was off limits to vehicular traffic (another minor detail he might have vouchsafed to us prior to our arrival). Is it because airbnb “hosts” have received payment in advance that they seem not to care if visitors ever find their abodes?

 

As it turned out, of the seven different rental properties we either stayed at or rejected during our thirty days in Northern Italy, five were utterly beyond Mrs. Garmin’s Holmesian capabilities. On one occasion, after we had to abandon our accommodations in Bologna only two days into our twelve-day tenure because of noise (see below), we discovered what appeared, from the picture on the website, to be a charming rural idyll in the hills south of the city. Once beyond Bologna’s suburban sprawl, we advanced along a narrow dirt road up terrifying, near-vertical ascents, caught our breath as we tacked along horizontal switchbacks, and finally arrived at the isolated farmhouse that Mrs. Garmin had declared to be our “destination”. But no one was home. Finally, after more prolonged and assertive knocking, an ancient donna, visibly annoyed, opened the door to tell us that we had the wrong address, and she had no idea where (or what) a “b and b” was. After randomly knocking on the doors of every house in the area (a long undertaking, since the hillside was wild, and habitations few and far between), we came to a dilapidated hovel, its front yard strewn with the rusted carcasses of superannuated motorcycles. Appropriately enough, its owner turned out to be a gap-toothed Ozarkian right out of the movie Deliverance, who greeted us, warmly, with the question, “What took you so long?” What took us so long was that our airbnb “host” had expediently posted a photograph of the well-kept property of his elderly neighbor rather than his own.

This was more or less common practice, as we quickly learned. So that when we recognized the magnificent quattrocento gate that was depicted in the web-photo of the bed and breakfast we had reserved near Lake Garda, and Mrs. Garmin declared with her wonted confidence that we had arrived at our “destination”, we barely slowed down as we passed under the portico arch and headed directly for the most squalid section of a generally squalid inner courtyard, then began to unload the Panda for our next adventure in lodging.

 

Since we weren’t permitted to drive on the Corso, Donato suggested that we go directly to a “nearby” underground parking garage to leave the Panda during our three days in Milan. Trying, as usual, to forestall unpleasant surprises, we had asked him long before we booked his apartment to tell us the cost of parking in Milan (“Not expensive”, he assured us. “About fifteen Euros a day”). For Italians, adverbs are the most critical parts of speech, and the words “about”, “approximately”, “more or less”, are the most significant adverbs. To our dismay, the sign in the underground garage indicated that the daily rate was thirty-five Euros, “about” twice as much as Donato had estimated. My mental calculator immediately added the extra hundred dollars to the unbudgeted thousand for the car rental; and this, mind you, was still our first day in Italia. Extrapolating (as I did) for the next thirty days, I came to “about” thirty thousand in unanticipated expenses.

In fact, whatever the sign said, the daily rate at the parking garage was indeed only about thirty-five Euros. When Donato noticed our discomfort, he launched into a moving supplication of the attendant, explaining that Mrs. P was his long-lost zia from Canada, coming to meet her nephew for the first time before she died of a terminal illness that had all but financially beggared her. (The extemporaneous brilliance of this confabulation was only slightly diminished in my appreciation when I learned that Donato, when he wasn’t collecting rent from tourists, was a state defense attorney.) At the end of his plea, the reduced price the interlocutors had settled upon was seventy-five Euros for the three days. As I handed the attendant his cash and the keys to the Panda, and heard the squealing of its tires as he throttled it down a corkscrew ramp to God knows where, I began to worry that the Europcar ragazza might not have been merely trying to fleece another victim when she insisted that I didn’t have insurance.

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