Hostel Colours in Milan was the most accommodating of the three hostels I’d stayed in so far. Not only was there air conditioning at night, but they provided a breakfast of croissants, jam, and coffee. The coffee pot made for the breakfasters was half the size of the pot I used to drink alone daily when I was a teacher. Coffee comes smaller in Italy.
My traveling companion, Kay, and I explored the streets of Italy’s Fashion Capital and wound up at the gates of what appeared to be a small castle. Within were shops, fountains, and museums. As we walked inside I found that a man was trying to tie a yarn bracelet around my wrist. I waved him off, but he persisted. Another man tried to do the same to Kay, and she sped up her pace. She had heard stories of locals distracting tourists with bracelets or other gifts while another person robbed the preoccupied tourist. Or, that sometimes beggars will tie one end of a string to a tourist and the other string to themselves, and the beggar wont let the tourist escape until he receives money.
While pulling the nearly-braceletted arm away, I put my free hand into my front pocket, to protect my wallet. I looked the man in his face and stopped pulling my arm away. Maybe I’m foolish, but I didn’t find anything scary about these guys. Kay hollered, “You don’t want to pay for this, do you?” And I said to this stranger, “I am not paying for this.”
His eyes darted down. “You do not need to pay for this,” he said. “Some people pay, you, though, don’t pay. This is a gift.”
“Well, thank you.” I said, surprised. And after a sort of stunned lull, “What is this for?”
The man said that these multicolored yarn bracelets were intended to raise money for Africa (which is pretty vague and unconvincing). I’ve been to Africa so I asked him whereabout he was from (though, I’ve only been to two countries in Africa, and I don’t really know much about the country at all, so I don’t know why I asked like I’d have an intelligent response). He answered that he’s from a country in West Africa, and that his first language is French.
I kept my eyes on Kay during this exchange, to make sure she was as safe as I was. “I can tie it on myself,” I heard her say to the other African. She was being reasonably cautious, more so than I was. I kept talking to my braceletter, and we had a quick conversation regarding the differences between Africa and the States (for example, many areas of Africa seem to be wholly happier than in the US, despite (or maybe because of) having far fewer possessions). Kay wasn’t stoked on how relaxed I was about that whole situation. I shook the strangers hand and we headed into the nearby museum.
The museum’s gift shop sold copies of Dante’s Inferno, but illustrated with cartoons, and the text was greatly summarized. It was a children’s book. Somehow, cartoonish interpretations of hell and torture intended for children were more terrifying than reading the complete Inferno in high school.
The museum itself led us through rooms of old furniture, followed by rooms of old weapons, followed by sculptures, and then hundreds of religiously themed paintings. Many of the paintings were beautifully detailed depictions of the crucifixion of Christ. I was actually quite affected by the images.
I grew up in Springfield, Missouri, which is supposedly the 4th most Bible-minded city in America, according to a recent study. But even while living on the buckle of the Bible Belt, I never saw visual art encouraged as a form of worship. I believe in God, but I’ll admit that I’m not the most extroverted about it, and for years I played guitar for praise and worship bands, and I loved doing that–it was my way of worshipping, of giving back–but these works are art will outlive the self-plagiarizing bands we karaoke on Sunday mornings, and require(d) far more talent. I’m certainly not trying to get preachy (ha), but the God-inspired art filling this museum made me wish that more Christians (or, we could say any faith-based group) put their worshipful energy into creating as an act of praise and spreading their beliefs, instead of writing a simple Facebook status, buying a gun, getting into an argument, or getting married before they’re old enough to legally drink. These passed-away artists were really inspired, and I guess I just think it’s a shame we’ve lost that sense of agenda-less creativity in our current religious culture (granted, I’m just presuming that most of these paintings were made out of some combination of love of art and Christ, and not with an agenda to propel something less righteous). I spent a long time staring at these paintings and taking photos of some of my favorites. I definitely lost track of time in there.
On the train ride to the concert, Kay brought up how we could have been robbed by those bracelet-wielding strangers earlier today. It all wound up fine, and I said that I was being careful and keeping a close watch on her. I know that I could have (and probably should have) been more cautious, but I was still offended that she questioned my handling of the situation. I explained that I was trying to avoid them, and she said, “Well you should have been more assertive.” I felt like she spat the words at me. Screw you, I thought, don’t be upset with me just because I’m not afraid of being robbed in broad daylight in a crowded church courtyard. Besides, I was watching you during the whole event, to make sure you were safe. Really, Kay was probably right, but I was hurt she didn’t think I was looking out for her. After a silence I said, “I had a nice chat.” I said it bitterly, and it was a stupid thing to say, and it was only followed with more silence. This was the closest thing to a fight Kay and I had had thus far on our adventure, which was disappointing, because I didn’t want any part of our trip to be ruined by an argument. After a few minutes Kay extended an olive branch in the form of an ear bud so we could better familiarize ourselves with Robbie Williams’ hits before his live show.
We exited the train. Unsure of where we were going, Kay and I followed the masses, assuming they were also attending the concert. We realized the crowd knew the route to the stadium as we began passing dozens of ticket scalpers and food trucks. We decided to eat at a food truck. I hadn’t had a sandwich since arriving in Italy, but I ate a room-temperature food truck hamburger, and it was more disappointing than you can imagine. (I realize that complaining about being able to afford food is ridiculous, but this was a really terrible hamburger–an insult to sandwiches worldwide.)
We kept walking. Kay looked very cute in a new dark blue and polka dotted dress she’d purchased. She was going to wear a nice pair of black flats, believing that one should dress up a little to attend a concert. She’d never been to a music concert before, and I talked her into wearing sneakers. “When I go to concerts I wear clothes I don’t care much about, especially shoes,” I said, “Because beer will probably be spilled on them.”
We found the stadium, our reserved tickets, and then Ben, who was responsible for enabling us to see this show for free. The three of us headed inside. A guy at security tore our tickets and asked us something in Italian. We didn’t understand. “Uh…no parlo Italiano.”
“Oh…” he thought for a second, and said with all of the apathy a man can muster, “Do you have any glass bottles or guns?”
“No.” “No.” “No,” we all said. He waved us through.
“Did he ask if we had guns?” said Kay.
“Yes,” I said, “Top notch security system.”
The concert was held in a soccer (or “football”) stadium, which apparently can hold around 70,000 people. We found our “VIP Section,” which was fairly high up in the seats, but we had a great view of the stage, which jutted out into the audience-filled floor, I assume so our performers could do “rockstar things.” The back of the stage was a multi-story wall composed of a titanic Robbie Williams head, protruding forward like a ritzy Han Solo frozen in Carbonite. We sat in our seats, put our feet up on the bannister, and ordered beers in plastic bottles. It was too hot to get even close to drunk, we were just going to sweat out the little alcohol in these light lagers, but since we got in for free we might as well celebrate the occasion a little.
Olly Murs came on stage to open the show. I pointed out which musicians were our friends Rupert and Ben to Kay. All the musicians were great, and Olly actually put on a really fun show. This portion of the show ended and the instruments were switched out. Then the Robbie Williams portion of the show started.
Robbie Williams behaves like a cartoonish idea of a rockstar, and I loved it. Even though the music was not normally what I’m into, I really enjoyed the tunes, and I loved each of the self-obsessed spectacles that took place throughout the show. The concert opened with the man himself springing out of his own giant golden head (the head was now lighted to look gold), like a conceited visual interpretation of Nick Caraway’s description of Jay Gatsby springing “from his platonic conception of himself.”
One playful debate Kay and I had throughout our trip was regarding the merit of Kanye West. For someone who loves Jesus, I’m also a pretty fan of Yeezus. In spite of, or perhaps because of, Kanye’s outlandish confidence (or arrogance). His ideas are so big that when he tries to express them he sounds like a crazy person, his lyrics are often equally campy and shamelessly arrogant, and he tends to tweet in all caps. I love all of that. I can also understand why someone would find that kind of behavior and state of mind repulsive. Kay likes a few Kanye tunes (Yeezus had come out the month prior to my Italy visit, so I was obsessed with playing “Black Skinhead” at most times, which she didn’t mind) but finds him abhorrent as a person. Ironically though, while she loves Robbie Williams for his talent and can overlook his absurd confidence, and I loved his live show for all of its Kanye-like, larger-than-life spectacles of self-love.
OK, so after Robbie came out of his own golden gleaming head, he was lowered a few stories down to the stage and hollered, “My name is Robbie Fucking Williams!” Cheers, loud, loud cheers. “And for the next two hours, your ass is mine!” I loved this. What a silly thing to say! He said “your ass is mine” like he was going to perform some kind of pop music that was challenging on a physical or personal level. Or that he was going to punish us with his dancey songs. I hadn’t planned on loaning someone my ass for two hours, but I was on board now. With confidence like that, how could I refuse?
The music was very fun, but for me the music paled in comparison to the theatrics. Like three or four more golden Robbie Williams heads came out on stage throughout the show. They wheeled around on the walkway-esque stage while Robbie rode on them. One of them spat flames! I’m surprised the band wasn’t wearing Robbie Williams masks. And I wish they had been. I would have loved that (and Robbie probably would have, too).
I would ballpark that around 60,000 people were in that ballpark (or, soccer, I mean, football stadium…whatever). I remember really enjoying Robbie’s encore, but it was again overshadowed by his own theatrics. I was really happy that Kay and I could attend the show, and I was incredibly grateful to Ben for helping us get tickets to such a great event. After the show, Kay and I power-walked to catch the last of the trains running that night. I fiddled with my new bracelet–I wasn’t used to wearing something on my wrist. Tomorrow we’d be heading to Florence, a city as beautiful as Kanye West or Robbie Williams (in Kanye’s opinion and Robbie’s opinion, respectively).
(Below you can basically see what I described as the show’s opening)