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?”
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.
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.
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 gruccia and that I had, in actual fact, just requested a walking stick.
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 Duomo was 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.
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.
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.