Fashion in Milan

shopping arcade in Milan, Italy

The main shopping street of Milan was almost deserted.  The famous designer’s stores were still open, but there were few customers. It was late August in Italy and many people were on vacation.  The sales clerks in the stores clearly wanted to be on vacation.  The bored stares of the well-dressed Italian girls indicated that they were counting the minutes until closing time.

It was a sweltering afternoon.  The temperature was in the mid-90s and humid.  I darted into the high priced shops to cool off.  I had no intention of buying anything.  Thank you Mr. Versace for letting me get a respite from the heat.

Versace store in Milan
Thanks for the AC, Gianni

Milan is one of the capitals of fashion design.  Many of the shoes worn by the people of the western world are designed in the city.  The designer shops on the Via Monte Napoleone are some of the fanciest and most expensive on the planet.

fashion and statue in Milan, italy
The old and the new in Milan

None of the clothes interested me.  I was more interested in finding the nearest gelateria.  I think the flavor for me that day was stracciatella (vanilla with chocolate chunks).

After much wandering, I stumbled upon the Four Seasons Hotel.  Great, I have to go to the bathroom.  Toilets can be tough to find in big European cities when you need one.  Indeed, the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel had the nicest bathroom in Milan based on my unofficial survey of one location.  Black marble, gold faucets, and individual cloth towels to dry your hands.  Excellent.

I took a seat in the lounge.  My feet hurt and a few minutes rest would do me good.  I was thirsty too.  Perhaps some needed liquids would perk me up so I could continue my tour of the old part of Milan.

A tall, impeccably dressed, handsome young man approached me.

“Good afternoon, sir.  Welcome back to the Four Seasons,” he said in a perfect BBC London accent. “What would you like, sir?”

It was actually my first time trespassing in this particular lobby, but I’m not telling. What I would like is to look like him and speak like him, neither of which was going to happen.

“I’ll take a look at the menu and let you know,” I said.  I was a little annoyed that he spotted me for an American.  Of course, the big camera around my neck and the baseball cap didn’t help my disguise.  I picked up the drinks menu on the table.

One peak at the menu and I knew I was in the wrong place to get something to drink.  A can of Coca-Cola was 11 euros.  That was about $16.  The same can back home at the grocery store would be between 30 cents and 45 cents, depending on whether you’re buying a twelve pack or a 24-pack, and depending on the sale.  Even less for a Big Gulp at 7-11 on a cost per ounce basis.  I guess location makes a difference.  It was a nice lounge, but not that nice.

shopping arcade in Milan, Italy
A shopping arcade in Milan, Italy

The mission to satisfy my immediate bodily needs was accomplished.  When the waiter was looking the other way, I sneaked out of the hotel.  I would get a drink somewhere else.  Maybe even at McDonalds.

shopping street in Milan
Louis Vuitton and McDonalds on the same street?
Center map
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Tips for Looking Un-American in Europe

Blending in in Rome

Some Americans get a little nervous about their citizenship when traveling overseas. When Bush was president and the Iraq war was started, there was some ill will towards Americans in some countries. Some travelers didn’t want to obviously stand out as Americans. Of course, if you are wandering around Paris or Berlin with a backpack on your back and your head down in a tour map mumbling in American English about how to find the nearest McDonalds, it’s pretty easy to tell that you’re not a local.

I’m not suggesting that you should try to hide or even that you would be successful at that endeavor, but there are a few things you can do to make it not so obvious that you’re an American tourist.

Blending in in Rome
Blending in in Rome

First, check your socks and shoes. If you’re a man, wearing white athletic socks and white Nike cross-trainer athletic shoes is a dead giveaway. Better to have some black Pumas with dark socks, or nice leather loafers. If you’re a woman, wearing comfortable, practical walking shoes sounds like a good idea and you’re thinking that your feet will thank you after a long day touring every last exhibit at the Louvre. However, the local women most likely will still be wearing uncomfortable, impractical high heels. Because looking good is more important than sore feet.

Next, don’t wear shorts. Even if it is very hot, wearing cargo shorts (with the aforementioned white socks and athletic shoes) is a no-no. For one thing, nobody wants to see your spindly white legs and knobby knees. Instead, get a lightweight pair of pants. But not those travel pants with the zip-off shorts. Those just look dorky, and who would wear those around your own city anyway?

If you have one of those fancy travel vests with the 39 pockets, leave it at home. Those should only be used if you’re fly fishing in Montana.

Americans love their baseball-style caps. They might look great for cheering on the Yankees, advertising your farm’s seed choices, or making political statements, but in Europe and other places you might as well replace the logo on the front with a sign that says “I am an American! Be rude to me in Parisian cafes.”

A good general rule is to dress up a little more than you would do at home. Americans have a tendency to look, well, sloppy. Blue jeans, a baggy t-shirt, and a bulky hooded sweatshirt advertising the college you wanted to attend or dropped out of is the uniform of the American traveler. You don’t have to dress up to look like an insurance salesman. But you also don’t need to look like you just finished cleaning the garage.

Leaving some of the bright colors at home is good, too. The lime green shirt, orange socks, and purple pants might be fine for your golf course, but will look strange in many places in Europe. I was in Copenhagen, Denmark in the winter and I am sure that 99% of the people on the Strøget wore black. Black pants, black boots, black leather jackets, black scarves, and black hats. I thought I was at an undertakers convention. I had a bright blue ski jacket on and felt very conspicuous.

I don’t always follow these tips, but sometimes I do have minor successes. I was waiting for the elevator to go up one of the towers of the Frauenkirche in Munich, Germany when a woman asked me for the time. In German. I gave her a slight smile and answered her in English. She looked puzzled and walked away to ask someone else.

Curacao is an island in the Netherlands Antilles where they speak Dutch, Papiamentu, Spanish, and English. They also get a lot of Dutch and German tourists in the winter. My family was greeted by the owner of a restaurant in Willemstad first in Dutch, then in German, and then in Spanish. We didn’t say a word. Finally, he spoke in English and we all smiled.

You don’t have to shop at H&M or Zara before leaving the US, but a few minor tweaks to the wardrobe may help you blend in. At least until you open your mouth…

Wearing the wrong touring clothes
Breaking all the rules