Two weeks ago Andrew spontaneously said “Let’s go to Milan for a night.” and so we did just because we can – #Europeanlife.
Milan doesn’t seem to be high on the agenda for most tourists as people assume it’s boring. I hadn’t been there since I was four and a half when my family immigrated to Australia so I was pretty excited to be able visit it again. Especially after listening to my parents stories of their travels there.
My parents and Milan
At the age of 26 my parents and Grandma on my maternal side, Klara, decided to leave Baku in the U.S.S.R. This was in 1974 and, although they were doing well in Baku, the country wasn’t moving forward. My Grandma saw better opportunities overseas for a young family such as that of my parents so initiated the move.
At that time the Soviet Union was under international pressure to allow Jewish people to emigrate as they were being discriminated against by governmental policies and propaganda, in the aftermath of the 6-Day War. Although my Dad is Armenian he was allowed to leave as he was married to a Jew.
Some Jews who left during that time moved to Israel as they saw it as their spiritual homeland. Many, such as my Mum and Grandma, who were Jewish by heritage and not by belief, emigrated to USA, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. My Dad decided to try for Australia because, as a young boy, he had read a little book about our amazing country and fell completely in love with it. I’ve never been more grateful to a book in my entire life!
I was four and a half at the time and it wasn’t till my 20’s that I really realised how difficult that time would have been for my parents.
Migrating from the U.S.S.R wasn’t as easy as migrating from western countries. For one thing, my parents left thinking they would never see or be able to communicate with their family and friends again. The regime was very strict with this and intercepted mail to make sure their citizens weren’t being unduly influenced by “traitors”. Anyone who received communication from people who left were put at risk and possibly question by the state and my family didn’t want to put any of their friends or family in that position.
They also had to become stateless refugees. To leave, they had to give up their Soviet passports. They needed to pay a hefty sum for the “privilege” of becoming stateless. They were then sent to a transit city in Italy, for an indefinite amount of time, to await processing and be told if the country they chose accepted them. It’s by no means comparable to being in Nauru as Italy is a lovely country and they were given total freedom to move around but it’s still unnerving knowing you do not belong anywhere and you don’t know how long you will be stateless for. On top of all this, they were only allowed to take $500 with them and a few basic possessions.
I’m 100% sure that I wouldn’t have the strength to take a four year old to settle in a country I have never seen, not knowing if I’d be accepted and how long it would take, with no option of going back and no way of ever seeing or hearing from my friends and family again.
The nerve wrecking thing is knowing things could go horribly wrong at any moment. My parents recently told me that as they were leaving the country my Grandma was let out but Mum, Dad and I were stopped from going through the gate. It was a few petrifying moments where they thought they were being separated from my Grandma forever. After some discussion and pleading they were let through. I shudder to think how hard their life would have been if they were stuck there and branded as traitors and how scared my Grandma would have been to be sent to a new country on her own.
A lot of their family and friends didn’t understand their need to leave and put themselves through such hardship. Baku was relatively stable and my family were fairly comfortable. But by the 90’s most of their friends and family had fled, not just because of the economic crisis but because of the horrific fighting between Armenians and Azerbaijanis that led to the Armenian pogrom where people were being beaten, tortured, murdered, and expelled from the city. I’m glad my family had the foresight to leave when they did.
My family were only in transit for six months before they received the news that they were accepted by Australia. During that time my Grandma and Dad found a job working in the transit centre and saved up a little money to go on a couple of trips in Italy and on one of these trips, they went to Milan.
I have trouble remembering anything that happened earlier than lunchtime today so of course I can’t remember a thing about that time, except the shop that sold bubblegum next to the leaning tower of Pisa, but I love how my parents describe our visit to Milan.
They said we came out of the underground metro and they stopped in their tracks because in front of them was the most magnificent building they have ever seen. It was the Duomo. They said they actually cried with shock. Although Jewish and Armenian by heritage, my parents are staunch atheists so it has nothing to do with the joy of baby Jesus. It was purely the beauty of the magnificent building.
For some reason, this story really touches me. I see my young, vulnerable parents standing perfectly still in front of a majestic and glorious structure and imagine that for one happy moment the stress and worry of their migration is forgotten.
My Duomo experience
One of the main reasons we went to Milan is because Oli really wanted to see the Last Supper. He had drawn a prawn version of it when we landed in Italy and wanted to compare his one to the real one. We told him not to be disappointed when the real version turned out to have no crustaceans in it and he said he would cope.
We arrived in Milan at 1:30pm and went straight to a cool little Panini establishment called De Santis followed by the amazing Pasticceria Marchesi where they wrap your delicious pastries like a precious gift (thanks Suzy Davies for the awesome recommendation).
We checked out the impressive Saint Ambrose church which was built in 379. We did the customary walk through the crypts to freak out the kids with the dead saint and martyrs whose bodies are buried there but they’ve seen so many dead saints now that it didn’t really have too much of an impact on them.
At 5pm we sat in Santa Maria delle Grazie waiting for our 5:15pm appointment with the Last Supper. We kept ourselves amused by laughing at the priest who was checking Facebook or possibly Instragraming between confessions.
We attended our allotted 15 minute viewing session of the Last Supper and can now confirm that it is quite impressive but has a disturbingly distinct lack of crustaceans.
We checked out the incredibly Sforza castle and attempted to relax in the beautiful Sempione park but were feasted upon by astonishingly persistent and ravenous mosquitos so had to run for our lives towards our dinner reservation.
The kids were super excited as we had booked a table at a Japanese restaurant called Bomaki. After three months of living in Italy they are almost sick of pizza and pasta and really crave a bit of seaweed and raw salmon. They were a bit disappointed when they realised they couldn’t get their favourite dishes as it was actually a Japanese/Brazilian fusion restaurant. For some reason things like sushi burritos totally freaked them out. All was forgiven when the food arrived as it was bloody delicious. If you come across a Japanese/Brazilian fusion restaurant, which I’m sure you won’t as that’s just weird, then definitely give it a go.
We had planned to check out the Duomo the next day and were heading home after dinner when Oli announced he’d like to see what it looks like at night time. As the whole Milan trip was mostly for his benefit we obliged him and decided to walk past it on the way home.
I’d built the Duomo up in my mind for so many years that I was prepared to be completely unimpressed, as reality never matches your imagination. But when we walked towards it and I got my first glimpse from behind another building I realised my imagination paled in comparison to reality. The evening light was perfect and the Duomo’s spires looked so clean and crisp against the beautiful blue evening sky. As I turned the corner and saw it in its full glory I was completely awestruck. I’ve seen a lot of amazing structures in my time but I’ve never seen a building so intricate and delicate.
It’s hard to determine whether it was the emotion I had felt listening to my parent’s stories of their migration or whether it was truly so beautiful but it was quite an intense moment for me. Especially after I saw what I assumed was the metro my parents walked out of. It was a surreal experience standing in the same spot where they were struck dumb by this building’s beauty 39 years ago.
I sent my parents a picture of the Duomo from the viewpoint of the metro station and dad’s comical reply was “We still vividly remember our first Duomo experience coming out of the underground Metro station but that’s not the metro we stood at” followed by a photo of the exact metro exit. Mum’s slightly more romantic reply was “Wow!!! After all these years!!! It made me cry looking at you all now! Who cares if dad says this isn’t the same view point?! He emailed you the one we saw back then. It’s only a couple of hours by train. You can send the kids to take the right picture”. This is where I get my bad parenting from.
I’ve never been more grateful to Oli for making us do something. Going at that time of night was a brilliant idea. We bought tickets to see the inside the next day and although the outside was still incredibly beautiful during the day, I thought the evening light had given it more of a magical effect the night before.
The inside is almost equally as impressive, mainly due to the sheer scale of the building. It’s apparently the largest building in Italy. St Peter’s basilica is larger but that is in the Vatican, which is its own country. We walked on the rooftop, which was was a pretty fantastic experience as you get to see the beautiful spires up close.
The kids got annoyed with me as it was quite hot on the roof and I kept making them take their hats off for photos but a little pain for long term gain I say! One day they will take their kids to the Duomo and stand on the roof and say, “Here’s the spot where I had an argument with your Grandma for making us take off our hats, which is above the metro that she thought was the metro that she stood at when she was four and a half years old with your Great Grandparents and Great Great Grandma when they were migrating to Australia but is, in fact, not the metro and the right one is over there”. How cool is that????