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?" 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Scribe Doll

 

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VALIDATION

Two years gone by, out of the blue I receive a heartwarming message of thanks.

A former student struggling to make graduation made it!

Long overdue but he finally made it.

 

He reached out to let me know how much he appreciated our talks and words of encouragement. 

If not for those moments, he claims he would have given up.

 

Hearing from him lifted my spirits and put me back on track with regard to my purpose.

In life, that is.

My drive comes from helping others.

 

I am reminded of my days after college, struggling to survive, no job.

$99 in my wallet.

I lived on dollar frozen pizzas until my first paycheck.

 

So yes, validation is always good to hear.

More so at midlife when you find yourself once again struggling with purpose.

Survival with purpose or merely survival to live?

 

Today is the day I re-validate my purpose in life.

It’s not merely to live.

I want to live knowing that I can continue to make a difference in helping others.

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Thunderstorm

After weeks of relentless, unusually intense heat, the weather forecaster announces a violent thunderstorm with possible flash flooding in the East of England.  That and we've been promised the longest lunar eclipse – with blood moon, no less – in a hundred years.

 

My heart sinks when I hear of a forthcoming moon or sun eclipse.  I live in England, and England, as proved – as if proof were needed – by recent political events, always has to be different from everybody else.  So, while much of the rest of Europe is awed by this spectacular display of cosmic art, England, true to the spirit of the Reformation, has to shield its residents from too much magnificence with a blanket of cloud.

 

By 8.30 p.m., when H. and I go for a stroll, I know that, unless a coup de théâtre by our recently-returned grey weather suddenly raises the curtain on a patch of clear sky, preferably where the moon is scheduled to rise, the extraordinary eclipse is something I'm going to see in other people's photos.  The air is so dense and heavy, it's an effort to pull it through your nostrils.  The moisture is so oppressive, it makes every step laborious.  We decide to go back home and breathe more easily indoors in the breeze of an oscillating fan. 

 

Exhausted by having worked all day and overwhelmed by the heat, H. falls asleep to the regular, slightly rheumatic creak of the electric fan that's recently been brought out of storage after several years.

 

I am not sleepy.  On the contrary, I feel a sense of anticipation, of excitement I usually experience before a thunderstorm.  I love thunderstorms.  Even as an easily frightened child terrified by things real as well as imaginary, I always felt strangely safe during them.  As I close the curtains and switch off the lights around the house, I catch a glimpse of a sky that's like marble, with different shades of deep grey infused with lilac, gold, blue, terracotta and red.  I wonder if it's the blood moon seeping through the clouds.  A flock of starlings circles over the Norman church tower a few streets away, then settles on the crenellations, like a row of soldiers ready to face the invader.  

 

I take my notebook and pen and sit on a chair facing the window, which I've pushed open as far as the frame allows, my feet on the sill, watching the gradually darkening sky.  Everything feels still.  I switch off the radio and the silence is suddenly thick with possibility.  The only sound is the whirr and creak of the electric fan behind me.  I consider turning that off, too, but the heat is unbearable, so I just tune its noise out of my ears and focus on the sounds outside the window.  There is enough light to write.

 

I smell the unmistakable, slightly metallic scent of impending summer rain.  Like a refreshing shower of silver after a day bathed in gold.  There are hints of lighting splashing here and there throughout the sky, now a mottled apricot-gold.  A hesitant breath of cool air laps the soles of my feet.  Then a sudden gust of wind ruffles the short palm tree in the neighbours' garden.  A playful gesture.  And here it comes – drops of rain drumming gently on the glass pane and the roof tiles.

 

I glance at the church tower.  The starlings are no longer on the crenellations.  I wonder if they've huddled up inside the walls.

 

A small white cloud drifts quickly across the horizon.  Purposeful.

 

The flashes of lightning are now more frequent, brighter, more urgent, until there are explosions of blinding white before me.  The church tower is floodlit.  I remove my feet from the sill.  Something black flutters a few inches away from the window pane.  Is it a leaf? No, it has wings.  A bat searching for refuge.  Although fascinated, I quickly pull the window pane closer to the frame.  I don't want to deal with a panic-stricken bat inside a house where you can't open the windows in full.  It's now too dark to write.  I can't make out the ink from the paper.

 

The mane of the neighbour's palm tree is suddenly swept right back with violence.    There is a vague rumble of thunder.  Another small white cloud rushes across the horizon, as though seeking safety.  I take a small torch and shine a small ringed circle of light on my notebook.  I pick up my fountain pen again and resume scribbling.

 

I hope the next thunderclap will be louder.  I long for a thunderstorm like the ones I would watch while growing up in Rome.  Like the ones we would always get immediately after 15 August, once Ferragosto was over.  With the skies letting rip, the water pelting down into rivers streaming down the streets, and thunder that exploded as though tearing the air apart.  This thunderstorm is more subtle, more understated.

 

Two little white clouds now flee across the horizon.  Anxious.  The wind is now shaking the window pane and I hear something crashing in the street.  The sky is now a dark, reddish brown. 

 

I feel a surge of power within me.  Whole.  At one with myself.  My fountain pen runs smoothly on the pages I keep turning.

 

Then an alien light takes over the garden and filters into our room.  Brash.  Intrusive.  The neighbours are in their kitchen.  I can hear their television, their laughter.  Their noise upstages the storm and drains the silence of its possibilities.  I suddenly become aware again of the whirr and creaking of the fan behind me.   

 

My fountain pen stands still.  I put the cap back on the nib.  I forgot what I was about to write.

 

 

Scribe Doll

 

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Dendrochronology

I'm always amazed at those slabs of ancient

tree trunks that show how time passes.

A seed fell and sprouted and took root.

Maybe in 1492 or 1215.

There was a drought. There was a fire.

There were good years and bad.

 

My ancient Juniper tree lives on at the back

of a my mostly unused piece of land.

Its age gives it a certain distinction.

How old can it be?

I named the tree Carlos Rey for it was surely

once the property of the King of Spain.

 

These trees grow slowly in the high desert.

They experience things that we never notice.

Once they get a good start, a toehold, they

can go on for centuries.

Carlos Rey was twig when Coronado and

the Franciscans camped just down the hill.

 

Other trees nearby show old jagged scars;

ax marks where a shepherd or soldier

stole a branch for firewood or shelter.

Even the scars are ancient.

Carlos Rey went unnoticed and unscathed.

Endurance and survival are the keys.

 

Carlos has seen good years and bad years.

I think we must be in what will be known

as bad years when some future scientist

ponders our age - our rings.

I see no small Junipers - only ancient ones.

The climate seems angry and uncooperative.

 

Life is precious. It has a memory to share.

There's a man in Sussex who counts the rings

of a Stradavari or a Montagnana or

a Matteo Groffiller.

With years of practice, and in the right hands,

the old tree rings sing with the voice of angels.

 

 

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Latest Comments

Ken Hartke Telephone Nostalgia
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Ha! That's a new expression for me...thanks.
Katherine Gregor Telephone Nostalgia
20 January 2019
Fair enough. Horses for courses.
Katherine Gregor Telephone Nostalgia
20 January 2019
When you are fortunate enough to correspond with friends who take their time to write e-mails as tho...
Katherine Gregor Telephone Nostalgia
20 January 2019
I don't like Skype or FaceTime, although both can sometimes be very convenient. Butthere is somethi...
Ken Hartke Telephone Nostalgia
17 January 2019
I have never liked using the telephone. Too often it brought bad news and holds some of my most pain...

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