Tuesday, October 24, 2006

It's 6:15 PM. Do You Know Where Your 24-year-old Kids Are?

I need to confess that I feel absolutely horrible right now because I knew my aunt and uncle were a jumpy sort of people, but I had no idea how totally anxiety-prone they were. I need to explain a little bit about my relatives here: They spend most of their time not entertaining visitors. As far as I can tell, they really do very little – I mean, there are tacit but inflexible gender roles among i vecchi in Italy and it's kind of like a throwback to the fifties in America. Both my aunts, one from a more uptight household in Milan and the other, more laid-back (and obviously wealthier, and I have to wonder if the two are related in any way) in Turin, pretty much never take more than a few steps outside the apartment door. A good portion of their lives are devoted to cleaning and clothes-washing, and a smaller, but not insignificant portion is spent ironing. As a side note: it is extremely weird to have someone iron my underpants. Anything outside the house falls to my uncles or, of course, the kids, who are now grown-up and have children of their own. The more I think about it, the more it depresses me, especially given that if my own grandmother's husband were still alive, she too would probably make herself a willing prisoner in her own condo.

I have no doubt that my aunt would be a better entertainer – she's fun, with a sense of humor, and she understands most of what I try to communicate, but my uncle has named himself the de facto tour guide of Milan. I love him and all, and he knows his way around Milan, but as a tour guide, he's just not very good. I'm sorry, but that's generous. It's just that an entertaining tour guide has more skills than a mere human road map, and my uncle is, well, impeded. He's like a version of my mom, except immune to my inherent cuteness. I have my list of things I want to see, but he'll drag me along to whatever's on his list. (You know when old people want to be stubborn, they do that thing where they pretend they're stupid and senile and can't understand what you're very clearly saying?) I have no problem with spending my money to have fun, but he won't let me spend my money to have fun. Mostly, and I think this is where my resent has sort of exploded exponentially, because my mom does the very same thing, he insists on repeating to me very basic information that I already know and is often just plain wrong. I don't want to be so damn blunt as to say he thinks I'm stupid, but… there's not much of another conclusion to make. Maybe I'll use the word "ingenuous" instead.

So there was a big family argument my first night here, where I wanted to explore Milan on my own and my uncle was afraid I'd get (a) lost, (b) robbed, and (c) eaten alive by wild boars. This is an attitude I'm often keen to adopt myself, and in places like Montclair, New Jersey, that have significantly fewer wild boars than Milan. I often have to repeat the facts to myself: I'm not six years old; I'm twenty-four, which is old enough to drink, buy a gun, and get cosmetic surgery without my parents' permission. Also, I have three street maps of Milan and I know how to read them. I can forgive my uncle on this point, because I've seen The Amazing Race and I realize that just because there's a million dollars at stake doesn't mean you passed that geography lesson in second grade. Even back in second grade, when we were spending a month learning how to use a map, I couldn't believe how people could find the concept so slippery – you just have to follow the map, not fold it.

Here I present Jay's Instructions For Using a Street Map:

  1. Get a map. Actually, get several because you'll want maps covering every single street you'll be walking or driving down.
  2. Get a brain. If you don't own a brain, you may want to borrow someone else's.
  3. Learn what your map can and cannot do. I think this is the step they skipped in that second grade lesson and the reason why so many people get lost even with the map right in front of them. So, here's what your map can do: It can tell you the direction(s) and distance(s) of straight lines connecting two points. That's it. Okay? Here's what your map cannot do. It cannot tell you where you are at the moment. It cannot tell you what direction you're presently facing. And without those two pieces of information, it cannot tell you how to get where you want to go.
  4. Figure out where on Earth you are. Like I said, your map can't help you here, at least not without some sort of GPS attached. You'll have to use something like an astrolabe or a sextant or street signs or the guy standing next to you to solve this puzzle.
  5. Find the location on the map that corresponds to your location on Earth.
  6. Figure out which direction you're facing. If the streets radiate from your current direction in a non-symmetrical way, then the map can help you out here. But if you're at an intersection with roads going due north, south, east, and west, you're going to have to try something else. I don't own a compass, so I usually have to walk one block in an arbitrary direction, repeat steps four and five, and then use the information I have and some basic Euclidean geometry to figure out what direction I just walked in.
  7. Now, and only now, are you ready to use your map to get you to your destination.
I trust you'll never get lost again.

Back to my story, With Rian yesterday, I finally got some good, old-fashioned uncle-free time – basically the only time I could do what's on my Milan sightseeing list. I wasn't eager to go back to their apartment so early, because it's way out in the boonies – sort of the Milanese Inwood – and once you get home, you're really not going out again. So I stayed out till around 8:30, and when I got back home my aunt and uncle were literally crying with worry and relief. I should mention that I tried to call them around six or so but these futuristic Italian payphones wouldn't accept my money (now that I've read up more on the phones, I think I was trying to feed it a little too much), and I figured that since I couldn't call them, I shouldn't stay out too late. But it turns out that what's late for me and what's late for a pair of octogenarians aren't exactly the same things, and I returned home to what was essentially a Greek tragedy, with my aunt tearing out her hair at the idea of me being lost in Milan after dark and my uncle playing the strophe, histrionically reminding the audience how dangerous Milan is at night. (It's not dangerous.)

And while they, especially my uncle, keep me on a very short leash, and while, in all honesty, 8:30 isn't that late (especially in Italy, where it's around dinnertime), I couldn't tell them how horrible I felt for leaving them to worry and how truly sorry I was. Literally, I couldn't tell them. Now I learned that they don't go out dopo buio, once the sun goes down, and they'd be very happy if I didn't either. I believe I've seen them on an anti-drug PSA – "What's your anti-drug? Sunset."

No, no, even my uncle, as insufferable as he is, is way too cool to be in an anti-drug PSA. It's just another one of those things I've learned about being on vacation, and when I come back, I'll be thrilled to see my aunt and uncle, but I'll be staying in a hotel.