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Friends, Romans, countrymen..
There's no getting away from the latter in Italy. From camera-totting tourists to pashmina peddlers, there's a lot of 'Mombai' in Milano.
On the railing of a bridge built over five centuries ago, a man in cream shorts has sprawled himself sideways like Lord Vishnu. If he leans back any further, he would probably find himself in a long, black boat with two startled tourists and its vertical driver interrupted mid-song. Undeterred by the hydraulic prospect of landing in a gondola though, he improvises on his pose by striking a thumbs-up with his free hand and between smiles, urging his camera-toting wife to hurry up. In Hindi.
At that precise moment, on the steps of the Ponte Di Rialto, the oldest bridge on the Grand Canal in Venice, I can imagine what Columbus must have felt like, when centuries ago, he set out to discover India and landed in another nation instead. On a short business trip to Columbus' own country, Italy, I had prepared to immerse myself in Roman art and history but bemusedly stumbled upon the symptoms of my own roots at regular intervals.
While taking in the gondola-lined banks of the Grand Canal in Venice, middle-aged women in sarees consider me tentatively as they board water taxis. A Bangladeshi shopkeeper near the Rialto bridge offers me a discount of two euros on a scarf because "you are Indian". On seeing a new bride pose for a photograph with a roughly ten-year-old bridesmaid, the shopkeeper chooses me as the exclusive audience for this comment: "That is her daughter. She is getting married now. " He then speaks to me in Hindi and asked why I hadn't come with "a friend". That's the underlying message in Venice: you should always come with a friend.
In fact, before my one-day tour to the city of gondolas, canals and a Ferrari showroom, Gaurav Wagh, a Puneite who is now working as an assistant manager, strategic planning at Piaggio Vehicles Private Limited in Mantua, prepared me: "When I went to Venice alone, it felt strange. " I realised the full import of this statement not only when I saw couples pulling each other for stolen kisses in the dimly-lit alleyways, but also during the simple act of boarding a train to the island city.
I got a sense of how much Italians like cars when I found out they even call train compartments cars. On the train from Milan to Venice, armed with two heavy bags, I accidentally boarded car eight instead of car two. Unaware of my mistake, I plonked my suitcases and spotted a chair that was empty but for a magazine on the tray which I assumed was for public consumption. An elderly woman in a frock manifests and stands next to me. I ask her if its her seat. She shrugs and tilts her head to one side. It's an exaggerated shrug and as I later realised, an impeccably Italian shrug.
Standup comics love to joke about how Italians can't talk without their hands. It's endearingly true. It's almost like this fashion-driven country is constantly trying to feel the texture of words as it speaks. Even seemingly mundane English words like 'typical', 'particular' and 'important' - when spoken with that R2D2-reminiscent inflection and accompanied by the flicking of fingers or flailing of hands - get that extra flair.
The habit probably derives from centuries of living amidst fashion, beauty and art. Posters of exhibitions rather than movies dot the walls. In the museums, which have different levels for each period and art movement including some strange exhibits of pop art, you may, after a point, find yourself admiring the fire extinguisher. "We are a strange nation with sea, mountains and an unbelievable climate. We live inside beauty and subconsciously expect beauty in everything and every place we go, " says Leofrancesco Mercanti, executive vice president, marketing support, two wheeler marketing unit of Piaggio Vehicles Private Limited.
That's perhaps why even when I try to admire the dome-like canopy of the Milan Central train station and the blend of Liberty and Art Deco styles of architecture, I am met with remarks like: "But it's not as beautiful as the Victoria in Mombai. " That, by the way, is how Italians pronounce Mumbai, like a beautiful compromise between the cities' erstwhile and current name. In Milan, there is even a store called 'Mombai Masala' which sells, among other assorted things, Kashmiri shawls and pashmina.
Italians often compare Milan to Mumbai for it houses the stock exchange and is driven by commerce. But the only thing common perhaps is the way the two cities park. There is no rule or order at work there but the beauty of two-wheeler design and the backdrop of garden-sporting balconies in Milan makes chaos look orderly. Here, cigarette butts seem to quietly find their niche in manhole covers. It has museums, trams and Prada's first showroom. Shops shut every time a celebrity enters and a small crowd of autograph seekers gathers. "Freida Pinto is big, " warns my Italian friend. The police is always scouring the roads for duplicates and stores in Venice like to proudly put up disclaimers, saying, "No China". 'Original', by the way, is another English word they love. "Venice is original, " says a driver.
Two-wheelers, sports, beverages - it's like they are looking for adrenaline in everything. Everyone begins to drive by fourteen and speed, rather than mileage, is important. You can gauge the sheer force of football from all the angry graffiti against Spain - a consequence of the Euro Cup final. Italy, by the way, has three national sports dailies, and they are all, uncharacteristically pink.
They drink coffee as frequently and as quickly as we do cutting chai. The cups are tiny and the handles only enough to stick the tips of your index finger and thumb in. Italians find it hard to understand cold coffee or Starbucks. Coffee's supposed to be consumed in a jiffy, always on the way to work and mostly standing at a bar.
Vegetarian food is abundant, though the lines between vegan and vegetarian are not clear. If you say you are vegetarian, some might presume that you eat fish and not cheese. Cheese, by the way, is an independent entity. It could show up in a small matchbox-sized pouch with a buffalo on top or, in some cases, could look like Santa's sack on your plate. Orange juice is red in colour. On the flight, it was yellow. Tomato is omnipresent - squished on top of spaghetti, slid below a block of mozarella cheese and tossed naked in salad.
Though there are many Indian restaurants, an Italian friend's husband, who had been to India last year, swears it's very different from the 'original'. I respond by introducing them to the Indian perversion of Italian cuisine: Pineapple pizza.
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