Combinazione in Milan

I think today may have been the best day of my life.

Really. I’m sure I’ve said that in the past, but whatever that day was, it is quite literally unmemorable compared to today. Today gave me the perfect combination of love, connection, warmth, excitement, understanding, relaxation and adventure, all while allowing me to complete yet another bucket list item – the streets of Milan.

I arrived to Milano after a quick train ride from Firenze. (Yes, I’m really working on my Italiono already – “poco Italiano” – so that someday I can move to Italy and easily integrate into the society here). But somehow, regardless of whether I speak the native tongue, I doubt I’d have trouble fitting in. Italians… they’re just so… god damn nice.

I digress. I hop off the train and slowly meander my way through the crowd. A previous email informed me to wait at the end of the train, and that Sandro, an old friend of my mom’s, would find me. Sandro lives in Milano. I’ve never met Sandro before today, nor do I have him on Facebook, nor do I have any clue what he looks like. (Besides the very vague description my mom gave me: “He was a very good looking man twenty years ago.”)

So, with few other options, I linger. I wait that awkward wait when you’re expecting someone you never met, slyly goggling strangers around you to see if they make eye contact. I didn’t want to make the mistake of approaching a stranger in a second language and creating even further embarrassment if it wasn’t him. So I waited.

I noticed a man a few feet from me, sort of standing still looking down the aisle next to the train. I thought maybe this could be Sandro. “He looks like he could have been good looking in his day,” I think to myself. But this man doesn’t make eye contact with me, and plus, he was wearing a blue scarf which would be too convenient since I had passed along the word that I’d be wearing a blue scarf for mere identification purposes.

But I was wrong, and it wasn’t too convenient. Eventually the man in the blue scarf approached me and confirmed my initial thought.

“Are you Alexa?” he asked.

“Sandro!” I smiled, launching into full Italiano mode, complete with their signature greeting of a double side, cheek-to-cheek kiss (which I find to be endearing and welcoming and warm, just like their whole demeanor – why don’t we do that?).

Sandro took me to his home, which turned out to be incredibly stunning, almost jaw dropping, and introduced me to his lovely lady. She didn’t speak English, but by the end of the day we had discovered that we are both Leos (our birthdays just four days apart) and I’d given her plenty of compliments on her cooking: “e buono!”

His home was filled with interesting decorations, lovely Italian furniture, many different rooms with flowers, and two balconies. But the part I found most positively fascinating about the house wasn’t really a part of the house at all, but rather, the evidence of one of Sandro’s intriguing hobbies. Sandr0, apparently, is quite the scuba diver.

In several large shelving units surrounding his dining room were myriads and myriads of seashells, sea urchins, anemones and other sea-dwelling pieces of beauty. We spent quite a bit of time standing in front of the various shelving units, which I deemed to be the “museum at Sandro’s” and he was overjoyed to tell me about each of them.

After he pointed out about a dozen to me, naming the different places he’d collected them, I grew curious. “Do you remember where you got all of them?”

“No,” he responded, shaking his head honestly.

“You need to make an inventory,” I said, glancing around at what must have been hundreds of collectables.

We made our way to the living room, where coffee was waiting neatly for me, along with some sweets. We sat talking for a while, and Sandro told me many interesting things, reminding me of why I love to be in the company of older people. Such great stories, such great insight.

He told me a story of one of his travels to China, where he once visited on a train with his ex-wife – who’s my mother’s modeling friend, Leigh, from back in their youth and the real connection to Sandro – and how they were kept up all night by the “spitting pit” outside their bunk. When they arrived, they came across one of the famous attractions of the place – innumerous, six foot tall statues that were once intended to be mistaken as soldiers and ward off the enemy – and then scurried off to show me his souvenir from this day. It was a replica of the statue, perhaps just one foot tall, with its head and feet sadly broken off from its body. Sandro held the statue together so I could take a photo.

Next, he grabbed a photo album, and started ruffling through it.  “Ah,” he said finally, pulling out a photo with a smile. Somehow he’d managed to find one of him and my mom the last time they’d seen each other. I looked at the photo for a while, smiling at the oddness in seeing a new, old photo of my nearest and dearest, before turning it over.

On the back was scrawled: “Tampa, Florida; Jill and Sanrdo: 1990”

1990. A recent memory clicked when I read the caption on the back of this photo. My mom had told me the last time she’d seen Sandro was when she was pregnant with me, and yet only in this context did I truly understand it’s interesting parallels.

“What month did you say this was?” I asked, looking for confirmation.

“December, or January,” he said.

My birthday is in July. I smiled. “My mom was pregnant with me in this photo.”

And Sandro got it, too. He laughed, pausing for a moment.

“We have this word in Italian,” he said. “Combinazione. We use it to mean coincidental patterns or repetitive similarities, like this one.”

Combinazione, indeed.

What Sandro didn’t know was that there was more significance to me than just that. But before I go further, you should know that I’m not someone who believes in coincidences. Actually, I’m a firm unbeliever. I think every “coincidence” is a sign from the universe, usually a good one unless it’s a repetitive car accident or something, which can be taken either as a sign that you’re on the right track, or as an indication that there’s something really significant to this so called “ironic accident.” 

Let me lay out the facts. The last time my mom saw Sandro was twenty-three years ago. The last time she saw him she was pregnant with me. She hasn’t seen him or hardly had contact with him since. Now, here I am, twenty three years old, sitting on his couch in his living room, talking like old friends. Imagine his surprise. He’d met me before, technically, but I was just too young to remember or make any grand impression. One of the last memories he has of my mother was her telling him of her “bun in the oven.” (ie. Me)

But wait there’s more. The last time they met, my mom was pregnant with me, and they were in Tampa, Florida – more specifically – Clearwater, Florida visiting with Leigh’s father. Lets keep in mind that they all met, and carried out their friendship in Milan, a place that’s not exactly close to Florida. This means that, technically, I’ve been to Tampa, Florida – not just once – but twice.

You see, one of my recent travels – which was the first, really, to induce some crazy ignition of world travelling in my soul – was to Florida. I was all over Florida as well as the Bahamas during this trip, which marked my first true solo vacation and the first page to a new chapter in my life, but Clearwater, Florida was the truly remarkable journey during this trip.

What occurred in this beautiful place was something completely emotionally transforming and truly life-altering. Since Clearwater, my life has been completely different, all for the better. And definitely forever. And I know with every ounce of my being, that if I weren’t in Clearwater, Florida this past October, I wouldn’t be sitting on Sandro’s couch today.

This is another one of those “moments of clarity” I always speak of – at the hands of Clearwater, Florida – that have truly significant meaning. They bring everything you’ve ever doubted to the surface, showing you that you were wrong, making you so inspired and overwhelmed that you can’t help but deny the truth. In these moments, you know the truth, and you see the real beauty of life, both simplistic and complex, though I don’t think it’s possible even for a writer to put it into words.

This is what I was thinking of as I meandered my way through the streets of Milan, the warm sun encouraging me to peel off my jacket that’s been glued to me for weeks. And my true gratitude for my life, my travels, my present and my future, and what I experienced and understood in that clarifying moment talking to Sandro all came through me in the form of salty tears. I was sobbing the happiest, most grateful of sobs in the streets of Milan, glad to have the embarrassing experience easily hidden beneath my sunglasses.

But all the tears in the world would have been worth it, because now I have a new word for these moments, which I couldn’t be happier is in Italian.