About Meet Me in Milano by Mariuccia Milla

Meet Me in Milano is about a young architect who leaves her boyfriend and New York to look for a job and a new life in Milan, Italy. But her ex is not giving up so easily, and follows her there. The people they meet, the places they visit, and the things they learn about themselves during their separate adventures will bring you right there with them as they navigate the Milanese scene.

The reader will meet successful and charming Milanese men like Alberto and Pierpaolo, the wise Lella, the beautiful Elena, and aspiring creative types who, like Melinda and Jonathan, have come to Milan to realize their dreams.

Meet Me in Milano weaves Italian culture, food, language, and personalities into a delightful mosaic. It is a love story in which Italy is the object of desire.

Weekend trips for work and play in the beautiful Italian landscape provide deeper dives into the conflicts and opportunities that bring the characters together…or make them change direction.

This is a book about the discovery of life and self, through connection with place and other people.

“It’s really true that if you take a chance, the world supports you. At least, that’s what Mel believed.” –Meet Me in Milano

 

The Snippet

Melinda embarks

It was a hassle getting to JFK. Mel took public transportation to save money. She had two pieces of luggage plus a carry-on that held her slippers, a book, and a toothbrush to get her through the trip. Her personal bag was reserved for her passport, ticket confirmation, and wallet. There was also a letter from Cecil.

He had given it to her at the end of their last meeting at the Szechuan House on Mott Street. He had made her come to Manhattan, not bothering to make the trip to Brooklyn.

Mel decided not to open the letter until after takeoff, to assure that she wouldn’t act upon the message it held, whatever it was. She didn’t quite trust herself to keep its contents clearly outside of the margins of their story.

Security at JFK was predictably slow. Multiple layers of scrutiny were threaded with conveyors and populated with uniformed personnel. A parade of dull gray bins marched through the black fettuccini curtains, loaded with shoes and phones and Clinique free gift sets. This was her limbo between New York and the rest of the world.

Mel was uncharacteristically calm. Everything was ahead of her: she loved the suspense of not knowing what the future held. It made her feel immensely wealthy in time and possibility. She settled in at the gate with plenty of time to spare.

* * *

Goodbye, she thought, to the morning subway ride into Manhattan with my nose in a book to avoid the overwhelming humanity. Goodbye to the pain au chocolat I bought every day at the coffee shop. Goodbye (and good riddance) to the construction workers and their lewd comments. Goodbye to my boss with her charming indecision, and her boss who stunk of alcohol after lunch. Goodbye to the ping and swoosh of elevators, and the polished terrazzo floors of lobbies. Goodbye to the Lever and Seagram buildings on Park Avenue, backdropped with a bright blue sky in the spring. Goodbye to the woman with the long white fox coat hailing her driver while a homeless man rummages through the waste container behind her. Goodbye to the Muenster cheese, lettuce, and mustard sandwich on rye, with a bag of chips, from the deli on 53rd and Lex (I will sorely miss you). Goodbye to the vaguely familiar people I kept running into at the gallery openings. Goodbye to the sweaty passenger pressed against me, dampening my blouse as the D-train crawled over the Manhattan Bridge on a hot summer evening. Goodbye to the golden late afternoon light on the Chrysler Building. Goodbye to the guy who adjusted my stirrups at the stables in Prospect Park and then gave me his business card: call me? Goodbye to picking up my laundry and finding the mother-of pearl buttons on one of my shirts substituted with plastic ones. Goodbye to walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, marveling at its web of muscular cables. Goodbye to freezing outside of clubs on Saturday nights, and the inhospitable ladies’ rooms inside. Goodbye to the thick and rich Sunday Times at brunch. And goodbye–whack–to soiling the back of my bedroom slipper with cockroach guts. Amen, she thought.

Mel wasn’t really, rationally, afraid of flying. She checked to see if Cecil’s letter was still tucked behind her passport. She wasn’t quite ready to open it. It made her mind wander, just the same, to the time they met.

* * *

Her friend Sandra had called and asked her if she wanted to work at a party being held by her big shot photographer boss. She would check coats for $100 plus tips.

“Sure.” Mel had said. The party was held at the height of fashion season, and she was curious, in a purely sociological way, to have a look at the scene. She needed the extra money, too. Mel didn’t have anything stylish to wear, so she settled on something close fitting and black. She wanted to disappear into the background.

The party was held in a large loft on West 34th Street, accessed by a clunky freight elevator. The space was spare and dim, and a DJ was setting up at the far end of it. Some folding banquet tables had been arranged in a “U” near the door for the coat-check, with racks on wheels behind them. A ticket roll like a thick LP record sat on the front table. Mel and her three co-checkers got their instructions, and people started streaming in. Sandra would stop over from time to time to point out the celebrities. Mel raised her eyebrows and nodded, trying to avoid distraction from her task.

A young photographer wearing a peacoat approached Mel and introduced himself. He had an English accent. He looked boyish and very British with straight blonde hair like a young Peter O’Toole.

Mel’s boyfriend was home in Scarsdale, NY, for the Jewish holiday (to which Mel was specifically NOT invited) and she was feeling resentful enough to flirt.

“Have you ever seen the British series of the Sixties, The Avengers?” he asked. “You look like Emma Peele.” Mel had never seen The Avengers, nor was she up on vintage TV shows.

“It’s probably just the light,” Mel replied, looking around the room.

The photographer, whose name was Cecil, had likely crashed this party. He hung around a bit, chatting, and then asked if he could call her. Mel couldn’t help being flattered. In a moment of indecision she gave him her number at work, concluding that it was totally harmless. Why should I make assumptions? Isn’t it sexist, not to mention conceited, to think that he is trying to hook up? Couldn’t she make friends with a guy, innocently?

Mel pondered her decision during the cab ride home. She was conflicted between guilt and her desire to be open-minded. Maybe they could be friends, and she could meet some more British expats. Isn’t that why she was in New York, to expand her horizons and prepare for her European experience?

He probably wouldn’t call her anyway.

* * *

During her stay in New York, Mel worked at Higgins, Olson, and Benson, a middling architectural firm that was a vestige of former glory days. Mr. Benson was the only remaining name partner, just along for the ride until his hard-working captains squeezed every possible commission from their long-standing clients. He sat in his office, removed from the real work, puffing on a pipe and guffawing on the phone. He drank martinis at lunch, came back late, and left early.

The office consisted of three rows of six tables, each back-to-back with a desk. Low walls were arranged here and there to break up the space. The decorating budget was entirely focused on the reception area and Mr. Benson’s office, both adjacent to the elevator lobby.

The younger members of the firm were all trying to find better positions elsewhere. In the meantime, they tried to look at the bright side. HOB’s clients were well heeled, and the junior designers were given a lot of responsibility. Their friends at the big name firms just designed toilet rooms and stairwells, if they were lucky.

Walter was Mel’s particular friend at work. He was a muscular, olive skinned, impeccably dressed young architect. Without Walter, Mel would never have seen the inside of the any of the hip clubs, including the legendary ones that were beyond their heyday. The younger staff also included a midwestern college football player named Frank, and a Greek American woman from New Jersey named Alexis, who worked in bookkeeping.

Mel and her coworkers stood around the back end of the receptionist’s cubicle during their breaks. Leaning on the files, they discussed impossible deadlines, love interests, and the pros and cons of living together before marriage. Walter was considering moving in with his boyfriend. Mel was living with Jonathan. She couldn’t afford to do otherwise. Frank was against it.

He said, “You know what they say: Why buy the cow when the milk is free?

Lindsay the receptionist, who rotated her chair to face them, thought this was the funniest thing she’d ever heard, although she privately wasn’t sure she understood. With the ding of the elevator, everyone scattered, trying to look busy. For the rest of the day, Lindsay mooed into the phone when she transferred Mel’s calls. She was from Queens and only knew cows from the side panel of a milk carton. Frank had a pet cow named Millie, out in the Midwest.

On the Wednesday following their meeting, Cecil called. Mel’s elder sister had once told her that guys you met on Saturday would always call on the following Wednesday. That way, they didn’t look eager, while still having enough time to secure a date before the weekend.

“Hello Mel? It’s Cecil,” he said.

Mel was a little off balance, not completely expecting this call to occur. “Oh, hi, Cecil.”

“I wondered if we could get together. Are you free some night soon?”

“What do you have in mind?” Her right shoe had fallen off, and she was trying to recover it with her foot.

He mentioned a pub on MacDougal Street. Suggested tonight or tomorrow.

Mel considered. He was not inviting her out on the weekend, which meant it would be a harmless meeting. But what was she going to tell Jonathan?

“Mel?”

“Sorry, I was just looking at my calendar. Thursday would be better.”

“Excellent! Seven o’clock, then. Cheers.”

“Bye.” Mel set her phone down, exhaling. What am I doing?

Then she reminded herself that it was unfair to make assumptions. I mean, why the hell couldn’t she make friends with him? She wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. Just the same, she was angry about Jonathan’s trip home without her. His mother thought the old timers would be put off by her presence on Rosh Hashanah. No offense was meant.

Mel had taken offense anyway.

As Mel waited for the elevator, Lindsay called after her, “Remember, girl, why buy the milk…?”

“Right! Sort of…,” Mel answered, knitting her brow.

* * *

Thursday after work, Mel walked a few blocks west of home and slid into a booth at the appointed pub. She was wearing her favorite camel hair coat and a magenta beret, looking a bit like a Village throwback to the Sixties. She slipped off her coat and slowly sipped a beer, waiting. She took a furtive look around the room, trying to locate Cecil. People were having dinner, or standing near the bar, each of them a dark, shifting, unintelligible blob. After half an hour, she drained her glass and decided to leave.

She had been stood up.

She should have known then that this was a bad idea.

She went home to get something to eat.

* * *

Jonathan, who had returned from Scarsdale, was in the bathroom developing film. Mel gave a couple of taps on the door.

“Hi, I’m home.”

“Hey…I’ll be out in a minute. I brought back some challah and some other stuff,” Jonathan said through the door.

“As long as you left the ram’s head behind,” Mel answered, peering into the refrigerator.

She needed to pee, but decided to heat up leftovers while she waited. She was not feeling in great demand today.

* * *

Cecil called Mel at work on Friday.

“Where were you last night?” he said.

“I was there, sitting in a booth for half an hour,” she replied, annoyed.

There was a pause.

“I wasn’t dressed in black,” Mel said. “Why didn’t you call?”

“Phone was dead. Try again? Do you have any time for lunch?”

“Well,” she said, “I don’t have a long break and I usually brown-bag it. If you can pick up something, we can meet in the sunken court next to my office building. There are tables with umbrellas.”

“Then I will meet you at one umbrella or another,” he said, “shortly after noon.”

“Okay, bye.”

“Cheers.”

Yuk, Mel thought, feeling suddenly sick to her stomach. Walter leaned over the low wall between their drawing boards. Mel had told him about last night.

“I am totally going to check him out,” he said. “Alexis and I will get some take out.”

“Great,” Mel replied. “Just what I need…an audience!”

She managed to recompose herself for the morning’s work, and then left promptly at noon to pick up her Muenster cheese with lettuce and mustard on rye from the deli across the street.

As she settled into her seat, she saw him coming down the steps, wearing workclothes under his pea coat.

“There you are!” he said.

“So you can recognize me in something other than black,” Mel said in a congratulatory tone. She glanced up to street level and saw Walter and Athena eating sandwiches on the wall, in sunglasses, and quickly returned her attention to Cecil.

She told him she was planning to go to Italy.

“Italy is lovely,” he said.

He told her the story of his travels. It started when he was seventeen, on a school trip to Venice. He saw that people were selling paintings to tourists in St. Mark’s square, so he found an old shop with some cheap paintings, and set up in the piazza with an easel. He was able to finance another month there as an “artist.” It was hard to leave. He wanted to travel more.

During his first year at Oxford, he responded to an ad for a photographer by a cruise company sailing for the Caribbean, and spent the next two weeks learning photography. That was the start of his career. Once he had gained a credible amount of experience, he came to New York.

Mel thought this was quite brave compared to her deliberate planning. He just dove into things! She was attracted to his pluck, thinking it might be contagious. At the same time, she felt like she was wandering somewhere hazy, and a part of her was calling for Mel to come back. She was intrigued and afraid at the same time.

Just then, a gust of wind whirled into the sunken court, lifting the umbrellas out of their supports, one, two, five, seven! The staff scurried through the space trying to recapture them as they bobbed in the air. Mel watched, amazed. She laughed like a child, soaring above her murky thoughts, as a crowd gathered on the sidewalk above them.

Walter caught one of the umbrellas and anonymously returned it to its stand in the middle of their table. Then he gave Mel a “thumbs up.”

The other umbrellas were returned to their poles, and nobody was hurt.

It felt like a sign: Do something crazy: give in to destiny.

* * *

Mel’s flight was boarding, and she drifted back into the present, smiling at the improbable image of green umbrellas dancing in the air. Life was full of spontaneous nudges that were especially meaningful to confused and searching minds.

In the end, she had given in to Cecil’s charm, after he convinced her to attend a Bach organ concert at St. Barts Church on Park Avenue. The music and the space were beautiful. They sat in a pew together, silent strangers. Afterwards, they made love at his Chelsea loft. It was furnished with discarded office chairs and filing cabinets he used to store his clothes. The toilet was barely partitioned from the kitchen and you had to wash your hands in the sink over the dirty dishes. Cecil had seemed such a perfect blond-haired, gray-eyed Englishman, one that had stepped out of one of the classic nineteenth-century novels she loved. But somehow the context felt squalid, ruined it.

Afterward, he walked her down the stairs, nothing more than friendly. She looked straight ahead and endured the eternity before her cab arrived. In Victorian novels, you tended to get your just desserts, and now Mel was getting hers, punished for her delusion. She had purged something, but what?

She continued to see Cecil over the next few months. Pounding one nail in after another.

Mel tried to put the memory out of her mind as she fastened her seatbelt. She was flying to Italy on a one-way ticket. Wipe the slate and start again. She closed her eyes and waited for the surge of the engines as the plane accelerated and lifted into the air.

 

 

Mariuccia Milla on her book, Meet Me in Milano

Why Milan…?

 

He thought of how fascinating the layers of a city were: peeling off, adapting, resurfacing; evolving contagiously through unrelenting change. This was a hard city to read at first glance. It wasn’t Florence, that three-dimensional museum of the Renaissance, with its perfectly proportioned voids and consistent vocabulary of detail. It wasn’t Rome, with it luscious curves and attenuated domes, all sensual statues and splashing fountains. It wasn’t Venice either, with its deeply melancholy beauty gilded with decaying Byzantine richness. No, Milan was more reserved and businesslike, even in its ancient quarters. – from Meet Me in Milano

 

…because it’s not the obvious choice.

 

After months of writing, editing, formatting my novel, Meet Me in Milano, I decided to answer the question: why did I write this?

I have always written with great love as part of my work as a landscape architect. I have prepared lectures, presentations, and written essays. Some of this writing was about Italy, and I discovered an enthusiastic response to this subject by the public. I call it, “Italy porn” because people who love Italy just can’t get enough.

So what is so special about Italy?

I knew there was something special about Italy when I was a design student. I needed to go to Milan, the design capital, to discover the “magic ingredient” of Italian creativity. But I didn’t understand the depth or the many facets of Italian culture. It is a culture of cultures. Every aspect of Italian behavior is an exercise in style. There is a way to do everything, and then, there is the right way.

You can get dizzy listening to everyone’s interpretation of the right way to do things. The only thing you can be sure of is that each person’s way is the right way.

You don’t get into arguments about design. You debate its language, and flush out the philosophical underpinnings. The design community is a collection of individuals grouped more by exhibitions than commonalities of thought.

This approach extends to the kitchen. I remember being scolded for stirring the pasta more than once.

It’s not soup, Mariú, stirring it more doesn’t help.”

If you ask the guy at the vegetable stand for a couple of leeks, he’ll not only ask you what you’re making but also insist you include a half kilo of potatoes (don’t ask me how many that is).

And the butcher, “I gave you the best cut, now don’t overcook it!”

I love the place. I barely scratched the surface of my memories as I brought them in, sideways, to my book, “Meet Me in Milano.” There is a lot more to write. Especially now that Italian culture, like all deep European cultures, is under so much pressure from globalization and migration.

I used to get frustrated by the tempo of change in Italy, but now I understand: the critical study that innovation undergoes is in fact a blessing. The historical significance, the correct aesthetic interpretation of the technology, and the social ramifications all need to be debated.

 

I guess I went off on a tangent, talking about Italy instead of why I have written about it. Growing up in a large Italian-American family, I was always conscious of being considered “Italian.” I have always been put off by the stereotyping. I think this even extends to the romanticized idea of the “Tuscan experience” that romance novels promise. (If you do go to Tuscany, avoid the rainy, cool weather; the houses are freezing cold.)

The good news is that the “real” Italy is just as fascinating, if not more so. I guess my wish is that we all look harder, longer, and deeper. Skip the monuments and get to know the people. You won’t regret it. Maybe you’ll even get a dinner invite, and find out how a “real” carbonara is made.

***

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