Milan: Behind the Façade

I guess it was appropriate that my first conversation in Milan should have been about fashion.  H. and I just had lunch at Stazione Centrale and were leaving the restaurant, trolley suitcases in tow, when I noticed a young woman oscillating her head as I passed, to follow my feet with her gaze.  She was sitting on a high stool, and turned to mutter something to the young man next to her.  I did a sharp U-turn.  "You're talking about my socks, aren't you?" 

DSC00225.JPG

She raised her eyes to mine, evidently assessing my tone on the friendliness scale.  "I was just telling him –" she began, cocking her head towards the young man.

"I was talking about tights – not socks!" he stammered, blushing.

"No, you weren't!" she almost snapped, outraged at this evident betrayal.

"Well," I said, "normally, I would never wear white ankle socks with this kind of shoes but, firstly, I come from England, and in England fashion is not a priority, and, secondly, I've just been on a train for several hours, wanted to be comfortable, and the socks stop my sweaty feet from sticking to the insides of my shoes.  I know, the white  ankle socks give it a little girl look –"

"– and the actual shoes are also little girl shoes," she added with organic seamlessness until her face suddenly froze with the realisation she had dispensed a gram of honesty too many.

The young man was looking away, his entire body expressing an unequivocal desire for a hole to open beneath his bar stool and swallow him up.

DSC00208.JPG

I glanced at my shoes.  Sand-coloured leather with flat, white rubber soles, a T-bar with a buttoned strap and oval details carved out at the level of the toes.  It hadn't occurred to me but, now that I studied them, yes, they did look like little girl footwear.  I looked up at the couple and burst out laughing.  The young woman ventured a smile of relief and I walked away, wheeling my suitcase.

DSC00224.JPG

I had never been to Milan before.  I pictured high fashion, risotto with gold leaf and Northern Italian efficiency.  I had read Caterina Bonvicini's exquisitely incisive portrayal of upper middle-class Milanese women in her brilliant (sadly not yet translated into English) novel, Tutte le donne di("All His Women") and an article in the Corriere della Sera that presented Milanese ladies as a bouquet of beige outfits, fish and salad lunches, private views at art galleries and operas at La Scala – but never on opening night.

After a week in the city of unbridled sensual splendour that Rome is, the relative austerity of Milan's imposing, chunky buildings felt like a foreign country.  With a foreign language.  When I used the word stampella (entirely common in Rome)to ask the hotel receptionist for more coat-hangers, he did his best not to stare and, with composed politeness, asked me to clarify, then, with equally measured politeness, communicated to me that a perhaps more easily understandable noun would be grucciaand that I had, in actual fact, just requested a walking stick.

DSC00226.JPG

As we walked along Corso Buenos Aires, then Corso Venezia, every building offended my baroque-spoilt eyes.   The massive palazzi, the lack of finesse in the stucco and carvings – everything seemed to stand witness to the slight vulgarity of 19th-century industry-generated money that has to prove itself.  The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II struck me as rather glitzy and vulgar, not a patch on the genteel, if a little worn, Gallerie de la Reine in Brussels.  Even my first sight of the Duomowas a disappointment, like an over-decorated cake, with sculptures filling every available space – even at the top of the tall gothic spires.  Every building in Milan seemed to antagonise me.

DSC00237.JPG

On our first evening there, I e-mailed an Italian writer whose books I have translated. "Milan is not Rome," he wrote back.  "Its beauties are hidden.  Give it a little time..."

There was a festival of Baroque music the next day, and H. and I went to a concert of sonatas by Arcangelo Corelli by the Ensemble Estro Cromatico at the church of San Bernardino alle Monache.   As it was some distance from our hotel, H. suggested taking the metro.  Frequent and swift, the Milan underground transport system is light years more efficient than the one-down-one-across metro network in Rome.  We emerged in an area quite different from the one we had walked around until now.  Older, friendlier-looking buildings that had more history and more heart.  That were not in your face.  Buildings that whispered.  I approached the makeshift box office outside San Bernardino alle Monache to pick up our tickets. "Ah, Gregor," the lady behind the desk exclaimed as though she'd heard the name before, and rummaged through a stack of envelopes.  "Benvenuti!" she said, smiling and handing me our tickets.  

For a second or two, I was puzzled by this unexpected welcome.  Then it occurred to me that mine must have been the only non-Italian name on her list.  "Grazie!" I replied, suddenly feeling unaccountably cheerful and glad to be there, in this initially aggressive-looking city that clearly had a warm side.   

 We sat at the very back, by the doors that had been left open for the air to circulate in the 35ºC heat.  Everyone sat fanning themselves with either fans or programmes in this enchanting, 13th-century church with frescos, filled with the haunting, gentle emotion of period instruments.  I could get used to being here, I thought.

As though the evening of the concert had unlocked a door I had been walking past without realising it, I began to see a different side to the city.  I remembered my Italian writer acquaintance's advice.  Yes, Rome opened its arms to you.  Milan required a little courtship.  Along the very Corso Buenos Aires and Corso Venezia that had so offended my eyes on the first day, I began to notice small gates leading to magnificent courtyards with hidden gardens and – in one case – a small pond with flamingoes.  Yes, flamingoes.  Who – what kind of individual keeps flamingoes in their garden? I wonder if I shall ever find out.  All over Milan, behind chunky, thickset façades, through elaborate, wrought-iron gates, lurked these alluring, elegant courtyards made of arches, a single lantern and sprawling foliage.  Intimate spaces shielded from prying eyes.

[caption id="attachment_1743" align="alignleft" width="239"]

The view from my temporary "office"

Freelancers aren't free.  Fifteen pages of translation editing – a couple of hours' work – had to be done every day, holiday or no holiday.  Not wanting to stay cooped up in our hotel room, I went in search of somewhere with a table, a view, tea, and where I could linger undisturbed for as long as I needed.  The ideal spot presented itself at the Mondadori bookshop, in Piazza del Duomo.  A corner table by the window.  A view over the Gothic cathedral looming over a square swarming with tourists, spires challenging the Heavens.  A cathedral which, as the days went by, began to look less aggressive to my eyes.  Its whiteness less glaring, its size less daunting, its spires less defiant, more inspired.  More inspiring.

I could get used to being here, I thought once again.

20180710_154053.jpg

Scribe Doll

 

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
...but Max Mara shops! :-) I've always noted that when an Italian gives presents, they are unostentatiously wrapped, but they dis... Read More
Tuesday, 14 August 2018 11:45
Katherine Gregor
Well, now that you mentione it, I did loiter in a MaxMara shop. I used to have a MaxMara coat, about thirty years ago, when the b... Read More
Tuesday, 14 August 2018 12:11
Rosy Cole
These days it's the Precis Petite outlet online for me. I'd be going back thirty years with the MaxMara clothes, in the days when ... Read More
Saturday, 18 August 2018 15:33
752 Hits
4 Comments

Rook

My train home wasn't due for another half hour and I strolled up the platform, looking for something to snack on. There wasn't anything particularly appetising left at that time of the afternoon at the small town station, and I was suddenly tempted by a bag of cheese and onion crisps. Crisps in general are my guilty pleasure, although I prefer plain ones, and I probably hadn't had cheese and onion ones since my student days. College food was so genuinely revolting that, more frequently than I care to remember, all it would take was one mouthful to consign the contents of the entire tray to the rubbish before heading to the tuck shop, buying four packets of crisps, and then dining on them in my room.

And so, in memory of my undergraduate former self, I pulled the packet open and the pungent smell of chemical cheese and lab onion hit my nostrils, bringing back a wave of happy memories. I munched and looked up at the East Anglian sky, especially endless and near in Cambridgeshire. Something stirred on the platform canopy above me. Two rooks were looking down at me. Or perhaps at my crisps.  

I glanced around, looking for any signs forbidding the feeding of vagrant birds – you never know these days – then wondered if any of the other passengers waiting for the train would raise any objections.  Were I younger, I would not have hesitated for a second.  Now that I am middle-aged, I have become a little more wary of displaying my eccentricity in public.  After all, a young eccentric woman is seen as endearingly quirky. A middle aged one – sadly – often as mad.

I stared at the birds, hoping that somehow, by a telepathic process, they would understand that if they flew down, they would get some crisps.  Then I hesitated.  Did I really want to give these innocent, unsuspecting creatures, unhealthy processed food? Oh, go on.  I quickly glanced around to check that nobody was watching and threw down one crisp.  The rooks spread their wings and swooped down with as much speed as silent grace.  One of them, the larger one, landed a few centimetres away from the crisp, while his more timid companion kept her distance despite my attempts to lure her closer.  

The large rook walked tentatively towards the crisp then stopped to study me.  I was drawn into the beady blackness of his expression that seemed to plunge deeper and deeper into my soul.  As though the rook was seeing a part of me no other human could.  A feeling of bonding, of acceptance swept over me.  Then he strutted to the crisp, held it under his talon, and began pecking at it with precision.  I couldn't help but admire his table manners.  Such a beautiful rook, with a long, sand-grey beak and glossy black plumage with glints of purple.  I wished I could watch him for ever.  Once he'd finished his snack, I slowly walked away.  He followed me, looking up at me, expecting rather than asking.  I dropped another crisp and enjoyed observing him as he secured it once again with his talon and proceeded to take small, delicate pecks at it.  Every so often, he would look up at me.  Not a furtive, indifferent peek.  There was no red robin aloofness about this character.  It was a quick but penetrating, intelligent glance.  A connection that ran deep and was acknowledged by us both.  I know you, it said silently.  And at that moment, I didn't care what the humans at the station thought of me.

A few minutes later, I boarded my train feeling a lightness in my heart I seldom experience.  A sense of freedom, of unlimited possibilities and peace.  Of pure happiness.  It had been just a moment on a station platform, sharing a bag of cheese and onion crisps with a rook.  And yet it felt like such a special moment.  

Like making a new friend.  The kind you feel you've known for ever.

Scribe Doll 

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
I don;t think we have rooks here - too bad - they sound like wonderful intelligent companions.
Monday, 26 February 2018 01:36
Katherine Gregor
Same as crows, except for a grey beak. I'm sure you have them (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5o7JQthRpHA)... Read More
Monday, 26 February 2018 20:06
Ken Hartke
I've made a whole career in retirement of being endearingly eccentric. I seems to work better for men. If you happen on to a near-... Read More
Tuesday, 27 February 2018 17:17
1080 Hits
8 Comments

Ash Wednesday

Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.

Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam.

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea: et a peccato meo munda me.

 

The voices gently rise to the stone vaults and fill the 12th-century church, one of London's oldest.  The congregation forms a queue.  Slowly, everybody advances towards the altar steps.  

 

Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco: et peccatum meum contra me est semper.

Tibi soli peccavi, et malum coram te feci: ut justificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas cum judicaris.

Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum: et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.

Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti: incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi.

 

The rector's expression is stern, menacing almost.  I think I am supposed to look down in humility.  Instead, I stare straight into his eyes, searching for an echo to my thought.  "Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return,"  he says as his thumb traces a black cross of ash on my forehead.

 

I am thinking of the phoenix.  Of what happens after the return to dust.

 

Asperges me hysopo, et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam: et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.

Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis: et omnes iniquitates meas dele.

Cor mundum crea in me, Deus: et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.

Ne proiicias me a facie tua: et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.

 

The soprano pierces through the semi-darkness, and lingers high up before fluttering downwards, graceful, having made her plea for us all.

 

I return to the wooden pew, kneel, close my eyes and breathe in the frankincense.  Yesterday, Shrove Tuesday, I ate pancakes.  I realise that I haven't decided on what I will give up for Lent.  I remember those friends who will probably give up chocolate, or alcohol, or both.  Not eating chocolate is easy for me, and, since I hardly drink, renouncing alcohol would hardly constitute a sacrifice.  Now cheese, on the other hand... Could I manage a whole forty days without cheese?

 

The futility of my thoughts suddenly makes me sad.

 

Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui: et spiritu principali confirma me.

Docebo iniquos vias tuas: et impii ad te convertentur.

Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus salutis meae: et exsultabit lingua mea justitiam tuam.

Domine, labia mea aperies: et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam.

What's the point of giving something up that you know you will go back to on Easter Sunday? Doesn't knowing a privation is temporary make it too easy? Easy and pointless? Isn't the true purpose of Lent to cleanse your soul for Easter? Will my soul really be purer without cheese or olives or whatever other anodyne habit I decide to break? 

 

For Lent, why don't we give up something less tangible and yet destructive to us and to others? Something we would work on eradicating from our minds and washing from our souls?

 

Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.

Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.

Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.

Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.

How about we pledge to give up resentment?

We could train ourselves, little by little, to replace resentment with responsibility and forgiveness.  Turn the other cheek.  No, not to ask for another slap, but to remove whoever has struck us from our field of vision, from our thoughts, from our world.  To set ourselves free.

When someone upsets us, we could indulge in making up a story about something that just might have happened to this person that would explain his or her unpleasant attitude.  It doesn't have to be true, only plausible.  And the self-storytelling might make us feel better.

 

How about we give up gossiping? 

We could try never speaking of a third person except to praise at least one aspect of him or her.  Is there nothing good to say about him or her? There must be something, however small.  We could avoid divulging personal information about others.  Instead of using what we know about them as social currency, we could cherish it as a secret treasure.

 

How about giving up sadness?

We could choose an image, a tune or a thought that makes us smile and summon it whenever we feel the clouds gathering in our minds.

 

How about giving up fear?

We could try to imagine that we are safe.  Just making believe at first, until it becomes reality.  After all, we can't make it real if we don't imagine it first.  And if we can imagine it, then perhaps we can create it.

 

Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.

Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.

Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.

Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.

 

How about we monitor the words that leave our lips and give up using them irresponsibly?

We could replace "Filthy weather, today" with the more accurate "It's cold" or "It's very wet" or "It's very grey".

When someone asks us how we are, we could discard "Not too bad" in favour of "Very well, thank you".  It may not be true at the time, but people mostly don't ask because they really want to know.  And "well" might make us feel better.

 

How about we give up believing we can't and, at least for a while, try to imagine we can?

 

How about we give up the familiar comfort of darkness? There is a lot of darkness, I know.

Just one candle.  It's surprising how much light just one little flame gives.

 

ScribeDoll

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
forty days without cheese? unthinkable!
Wednesday, 21 February 2018 23:31
Katherine Gregor
Well, I'm trying to cut down...
Thursday, 22 February 2018 09:45
Rosy Cole
'For Lent, why don't we give up something less tangible and yet destructive to us and to others? Something we would work on eradic... Read More
Saturday, 24 February 2018 17:39
1055 Hits
4 Comments

Qi Gong

It's the same every morning.  I negotiate my way out of bed and, eventually, brave the steep Munchkin stairs and stagger into the kitchen.  I put the kettle on, wait for the first crackling sound and switch it off.  I pour the water into a mug and go back upstairs, sipping it.  It's pleasantly just short of hot, cleansing, comforting.  I open the curtains in my scriptorium.  The sky is still dark.  For a moment, like every morning, I am tempted to skip the next stage of my morning routine.  That lazy, sneakily undermining voice that says, "What's the rush? You can always do it tomorrow."

No.

Today.

Now.

Just for ten minutes.

I start deliberately shaking on the spot, sending the movements from my feet through my body and all the way up to my head.  I direct little jolts to every inch of my skin, every organ, every muscle, every vertebra, waking every nook and cranny.  I imagine I am one of those blankets Roman housewives would shake from their windows every morning, when I was a child getting ready for school. They would flap them vigorously.  To banish the dust, evict mites, fill the fabric with fresh air, toss out memories of bad dreams, liven the wool with sunshine.

I quake from toe to top, like a rag doll, loosening every joint, becoming aware of parts of my body I didn't even know existed.  I banish stale air from the hidden recesses of my lungs, evict dark thoughts, fill my cells with imaginary rainbows, toss out all physical and emotional gunk and liven my muscles with a dose of resounding universal YES.

After a few minutes, once I have given every part of my body a good shake, I stop.  It feels wonderful, like being reset, with every nerve tingling and feeling alive.

Then I stand.  Knees soft, head floating into the sky, feet plunging firmly into the earth.  As the tingling subsides, I focus on my breath.  Regular, deep, inhaling from my belly, imagining sunlight filling my lungs.  Trying to think of nothing else.

Ah, I must remember to buy some cheese later –

Breathe.

I forgot to e-mail my friend, yesterday –

I gently bring my mind back to my breath.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Slowly.

If I can finish work by three, I could –

Never mind that for now.  Just breathe.  Slowly.  Regularly.  Let the belly expand, the lungs fill in full, then let the air out, no rush, sense the warmth spread through my body, grow in strength.  I suddenly feel taller.  Towering over the house.

At least ten minutes have gone by without my noticing.  This time, as the breath rises, it carries up my arms.  Effortlessly.  Naturally.  And so I begin the sequence of movements that constitutes the form of Qi Gong I am practising today.

Dragon and Tiger meet.

I'd tried different kinds of yoga over the years – many of my friends swear by its benefits – but it had never agreed with me.  For some reason, it made me feel ungrounded.  I also did pilates for a few months, but it felt like too much effort.  Then I discovered Qi Gong and it's 70% rule of practice.  Always give it your 70%.  No more.  The interesting result is that I end up achieving far more than when I set out to give it my 100%.

Dragon looks to the horizon.

When I first started Qi Gong, I was suffering from yet another episode of adrenal exhaustion, or Yin deficiency, as my Chinese doctor elegantly puts it.  In other terms, your garden variety of burnout, with all its classic symptoms that make life seem unmanageable.  When you wake up every morning, and your heart sinks at the prospect of the day to come as though you have to climb Mont Blanc in summer clothes.  When I enthusiastically asked my teacher how long I should practise every day, he replied, "Five minutes."

I frowned.  Didn't he understand I intended to take Qi Gong seriously?

"Five minutes.  No more," he reiterated.

Tiger crouches.

He was right, of course.  By setting out to do a five-minute practise session at home, I would inevitably end up practising for twenty minutes, then half an hour, and now nearly an hour every morning.  Of course, if, when I wake up, I were to tell myself that I would spend an hour doing Qi Gong, I would simply never start.  So, every morning, as soon as the nagging little voice of laziness and procrastination whispers, "Why don't you leave it till tomorrow?" I cheat it by replying, "I'll only practise for ten minutes. No more."

Three months after I first started Qi Gong, my health was better than it had been for years.  When people asked "How are you?" I could actually reply, in all honesty, "Very well, thank you."

Tiger separates her cubs.

I find that practising Qi Gong has also helped sharpen my focus in other parts of my life, such as work.  Also, the slowness of it is not only very grounding, but also surprisingly empowering.  After a few minutes of practice, I feel like a willow, soft but sturdy, swaying in the strong wind but not breaking.

Tiger pounces.

Most people I mention Qi Gong to don't know what it is, so I explain that it's the mother of Tai Chi.  Many react by saying they couldn't cope with practising such a slow-moving exercise.  I try to tell them that it's that very slowness that makes you feel so in harmony with life, that's so empowering.  The trick is not to build a boat solid enough to withstand a powerful wind without capsizing – it's to weave a sail of silk that can gather the wind in its embrace, so the boat glides faster and more effortlessly.  But, of course, different disciplines are suitable for different people.

Dragon and Tiger pierce heaven and earth.

Outside the scriptorium window, it's now light.  My body feels like a friend, an ally, and I am looking forward to starting my day.

Dragon soars to heaven and brings back the pearl.

And, let's face it, with movements that have such beautiful, poetic names, I'd certainly rather practise Qi Gong than do "press-ups", "push-ups", "weight-lifting" or going on a "treadmill".  But that's just my own, personal choice.

Scribe Doll  

For further information:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qigong

http://www.norwichqigong.co.uk

Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
Thanks for the inspiration. I'm a "lapsed" Tai Chi person and I need to get back into it. Discipline is lacking. It always cleare... Read More
Wednesday, 13 December 2017 17:09
Rosy Cole
An invigorating post in itself :-) I so sympathise with your episodes of adrenal exhaustion which can be quite a handicap and are... Read More
Wednesday, 13 December 2017 19:58
Stephen Evans
I think this would make an excellent short film!
Sunday, 17 December 2017 14:46
1053 Hits
3 Comments

Writing For Life

We are a small, friendly community who value writing as a tool for developing a brighter understanding of the world and humanity. We share our passions and experiences with one another and with a public readership. ‘Guest’ comments are welcome. No login is required. In Social Media we are happy to include interesting articles by other writers on any of the themes below. Enjoy!


Latest Blogs

Laying bricks is honest work. Hard, straight forward work. It is repetitive. You do one thing and then the next and so on. It can almost rely on muscl...
Night is slowly permeating the evening sky in Place André Malraux.  The rain has eased into a steady drizzle and the yellow street lamps have come on....
Kintsugi (金継ぎ) is the Japanese art of repairing broken items with gold. The gold highlights the area of the breakage, with the idea that the history ...
So there’s this cricket. He comes to visit every August, and he stays in the wall of my bedroom.  His living room seems to be the window frame by my ...
Yes!  I am ready. Finally cut the cord. Made that leap of faith.   When it’s right it will feel right. No explanation necessary. Walk away from...

Latest Comments

Ken Hartke Brickwork
05 November 2019
It caught me by surprise the first time I noticed it. After the trolley man, the house was owned by...
Katherine Gregor Queuing Outside la Comédie Française
03 November 2019
I wish British mothers did, too. Although I suspect that in Paris, too, this is a relatively rare o...
Katherine Gregor Queuing Outside la Comédie Française
03 November 2019
I don't know Congreve well enough to compare. I'm afraid Restauration theatre somewhat escapes me. ...
Stephen Evans Brickwork
03 November 2019
The trolley man’s cigar - wonderful image.
Stephen Evans Queuing Outside la Comédie Française
03 November 2019
So evocative - I wish American mothers would take their children to Moliere.