The first time I saw Monza I knew as much as any other chauffeured tourist knows. That is to say, nothing. I didn’t know how close it was to Milan or how close it was to my future husband’s hometown. I didn’t know that the people were well-off yet surprisingly leftist politically, that the library is closed Monday mornings or that the massive duomo rivaling Milan’s cathedral was built by Queen Teodolinda.
These things I learned four years later. At the time, all I knew was what I saw.
On my first visit, Marco and I went for a stroll before mass under the dark spires of the duomo. After, we walked up and down the main road, peering into the designer stops flanking each side, pointing out the funny lap dogs, the kids on scooters and the man roasting chestnuts and selling balloons and knickknacks. Marco bought me a 5 euro helium balloon of a giant yellow duck and I waved it around the streets like a toddler, pleased with how it made others look, with how surprised Marco was. The atmosphere was of a festival. I liked the narrow, stone-paved streets and the massive piazza in the middle. I liked the yellow lights that only dimly lit up the Arengario, formerly Mussolini’s office. And then, we went home. I climbed back in to Marco’s Fiat and we left Monza, as chauffeured as ever.
When we’re brought around from place to place, passively carried by tour guides, buses or well-meaning suitors, we miss out. We miss our chance to actively travel, to be present. We’re no longer a decision-maker of our own trip. Planning a trip is a significant aspect of travel, and in a certain sense, a guide takes that away. Far too often we forget the names of the towns visited. We put too much faith in our guides. We blindly follow from town to town, sight to sight, barely standing on our own two feet.
I didn’t know anything about Monza the day that Marco took me. I was a passenger, not an active driver. It’s scary to think that that could have been the end of my story with the city. The only thing that saved me from losing Monza forever was the number of times we happened to go back. Marco and I went again a bit later to visit his grandmother. We went again for a gelato and evening stroll. Once I learned the route, the city began to reconstruct itself under my eyes. I remembered the buildings, the angles, the shops, and I realized that it was no longer a strange environment.
Monza nestled in a corner of my brain enough so that when it was time to move back to Italy, I chose to live there. Monza was my compromise between the relative isolation of Marco’s hometown and the chaos of Milan. The city was physically located between the two, but its size, population and GDP also fell between Sovico and Milan. It was a perfect location to start our life together, and our barely 600-square-foot apartment was just big enough to hold our dreams.
In that first year abroad Monza transformed from a pretty town I originally toured, to a veritable city filled with its own idiosyncrasies. Each day I learned something new. I observed the immigrants and gypsies hanging around the piazzas during the day, the businessmen going to their favorite lunch delis, the moms picking up their kids from school. I learned the town, circling one way streets in a never ending labyrinth. I tried different supermarkets, restaurants and fruit vendors. I tested the differences between the Thursday morning open air market and Saturday’s. I tried different churches, ate a new sandwich in a new place each outing and learned where the best pastries were found.
Getting to know a city isn’t as easy as it might seem. How much time do you need to honestly know it? Is a weekend trip enough? Is a crazy night pub-hopping with your new hostel friends enough to say you know London? If you regularly frequent the beach reggae nights in Accra, Ghana do you know it? Do you have to live there, or is it enough to regularly visit? Can you feel the pulse of New York even without the struggle? Can you ever really be sure that you understand the city, and not just yourself in that city?
I turned Monza into my playground, getting to know it more and more each day. Until one day the girl who traipsed around with a duck balloon was gone, replaced by one I didn’t yet know. She was just as curious, but more knowledgeable. Still stuck in dreams, but this time acting them out. Most importantly, she was no longer content to be led around, guided through her life as an unknowing passenger.
Anyone can take control of their own travels. The next step is to take control of your own life – and there’s no guide for that!
I love Monza. Read more to find out why: