I can be pretty shy about asking people for help sometimes, but on Friday, I talked to anyone and everyone that would give me the time of day.
My bus arrived in Milan around 7pm, and I had planned to meet three friends who were already in the city. My phone wasn’t working properly and it couldn’t send messages, call, or use data. I stood outside next to the bus to pick up its wifi signal, and I texted my friend Alexia to find out where to meet them. Her message said to meet in the center of the city at the Duomo and to call when I arrived there. I had no idea how to get there, so I took a picture of the Metro map and stood staring at it in the middle of the station. Two girls who I recognized from the bus approached me and asked if I had any idea how to read the map. It took us a few minutes, but we soon figured out which stop we were at, where we needed to be, and how to buy tickets. We rode the Metro together and had about 15 minutes to get to know each other before they departed at their stop. They are from Brazil and are studying French in the next town over from Nice. After they got off the Metro, I continued a few more stops to the “Duomo” station. Once I arrived, I checked Alexia’s message again and saw that it said meet in the center of Milan, so I hurriedly found the line to “Centrale” and hopped on.
The Central station was large and elaborately decorated, with a big clock and vaulted ceiling like Grand Central Station in New York. I stepped outside for a look around. There were mainly office buildings around me, and a few clothing stores. In the square in front of the station, there were a few people trying to sell bracelets and trinkets from a stash under their coats. I realized this wasn’t the center square I was supposed to meet in, so I asked the nearest person which direction the Duomo was in. The woman I asked was walking with her husband, and he replied for her. I couldn’t understand his response because it was in Italian, but I think it translated to, “Don’t talk to my wife.” They walked away quickly, and I went back into the station, a bit discouraged. I tried connecting to wifi again but couldn’t find an open network. I figured my best bet would be to ask someone else and hope they wouldn’t turn me away. This time, I made a more careful choice about who to approach. I found a man who was probably in his early 30s and appeared not to be in a rush to get anywhere. I asked him if he spoke English, and if he knew the best way to get to the Duomo. I was hoping I could walk there and wanted him to point me in the right direction. He told me it was best to take the Metro there, so we walked all around the station looking for the right line, with no luck. I had just come from there a few minutes ago but I couldn’t remember exactly which staircase I had taken and couldn’t find the sign. Then he remembered that there was a different station nearby with an entrance outside. We left the station and crossed the square, then descended a staircase that led us underground. “Oh,” he said when we took a look around, “I think we were just here.” We were only one floor below where we had started. The entrance to the yellow line was right in front of me, and the man left to return to his spot under the big clock to wait for his girlfriend.
Just before I bought a ticket, a message came in from Alexia saying they were going back to the Airbnb and to meet them there. I couldn’t send a message back, and I knew she was getting nervous because I hadn’t responded to any of her messages. I went over to two girls around my age and asked if I could borrow one of their phones to call a friend. They didn’t seem to understand every word, so I held up my phone and used some hand gestures to try to communicate what I needed. They still seemed hesitant, so I asked if maybe they could send a message for me. Once I said that, I think they realized I wasn’t trying to steal their phones, and the girl who had her phone in her hand gave it to me. I called Alexia to tell her that I was okay and that I would figure out how to get to the apartment and meet them there. I followed the instructions I had written on my phone and took a different Metro line to the station that would connect me to a bus, which I found without too much trouble.
The bus driver spoke no English, but I was able to get him to confirm that the bus stopped at my intended destination. I paid careful attention to the stops, especially because I knew I would have no idea what to do if I ended up at the wrong stop. Fifteen minutes passed, and I saw that we had entered into the neighborhood where my stop should be. Ten more minutes passed, and my stop had not been called. The bus driver said something in Italian that resembled the French words for “last stop.” My stomach sank. I went to the driver and he said in English with a bit of anger in his tone, “I called your stop a long time ago.” He pointed across the street to another bus station and I went there. I asked a man on the sidewalk if I could borrow his phone. He didn’t understand my English at first, but when he eventually realized what I was asking he said he was sorry but his phone was out of credit. There was no one else around except for an older woman at the bus stop. I asked her the same question, and she just chuckled at me. I walked away in a hurry and went into the only building around me that had any sign of activity. It was a small restaurant with a lot of people chatting in Italian and waiters rushing around. I tried to pick out who I could ask for help but I was nervous and overwhelmed and completely exhausted by this point, and not exactly thinking straight.
I went back outside and stood on the sidewalk, trying to calm down. I could see the map of Milan on my phone, although I wasn’t able to search for the address of the Airbnb to see how far away it was. I only knew that the apartment was 100 meters from the bus stop that I couldn’t find. I stood on the sidewalk for a while, watching families and couples leave the restaurant. After a few minutes, two women walked out of the restaurant speaking a language I didn’t recognize. “Excuse me, do you speak English?” I asked. They said yes, and told me I was lucky to have found them because no one in the restaurant speaks English. We chatted for a while and they told me where the bus stop is and said they would wait with me until the bus arrived. I was so thankful to have found people who were so willing to help. I told them I didn’t need the bus anymore because I was very late meeting my friends and just wanted to get to the apartment quickly. I also did not know how to buy a bus pass, and was worried because I didn’t think I could get away without a bus pass twice in a row (side note: we got a fine two days later). One of the ladies, who was here on a business trip from Romania, set up a personal hotspot on her phone so that I could connect to the internet and call an Uber. Then, she wrote a message to the Uber driver in Italian telling him exactly where I would be waiting. I texted Alexia to tell her I would be there in a few minutes. Everything was looking up, thanks to two of the sweetest people I had ever met.
Alexia had said they would all be waiting outside the apartment for me. I didn’t see them as we drove by, and the driver pointed to the building to our right and asked if this was the right place. I told him I didn’t know but that I hoped so. When I got out of the car, I checked the address on the building and it appeared that I was in the right place. I started shouting, “Alexia, Nour, can you hear me?” “Alexia, where are you guys??” “Nour??” hoping that maybe they were just inside the lobby and would hear me. I tried to call them again but I still had no luck with my phone. A message came in saying that they couldn’t wait to eat any longer and had left to go to a restaurant. I had the name of the restaurant and the zip code, not an address. No one walked by for a few minutes, and I started breaking out into a sweat. I stopped the next person who walked by and said, “Excuse me, can you help me find this restaurant?” I showed her the address and said it was next to a grocery store called Lidl. There were three restaurants with the same name on the map, so I picked one that was next to a Lidl and she gave me directions. I found the Lidl after walking for about 15 minutes, but the restaurant was not nearby. I looked around and saw a small art galley that looked like it was having a private event. They seemed confused when I burst in the door toting my backpack, but they let me use their wifi to contact Alexia. By this point, it was almost 10pm. I texted her to tell her I would be waiting outside the apartment. I ran back to the apartment and stood outside for almost an hour. When my friends finally appeared across the street, I shouted, “It’s a mirage!!”
Looking back, it would have been much better to have had a set meeting point, like a Metro station, and to stay there until we found each other. I am just grateful that there were people who were so willing to help me get to where I needed to be. These people helped keep me calm and saved me from going into a full on panic mode.