Do you ever feel a bit sorry for the rest of Italy? The Italy that isn’t Rome, Venice or Florence. Like Milan for instance. A city built around a medieval castle, with canals and the best apperitivo culture in the world. Beautiful but overlooked for other treasures.
On my first night in Milan I came across a dessert bar. Circling the streets for hours I was lured back by the chocolate parfait, irresistible behind the glass. A young woman about my age noticed I was alone, “sola?” She gestured to the other seat at her table. I accepted with thanks realising at that moment I didn’t speak Italian at all.
The city of Milan is laid out like a giant wheel. The cobblestone streets are made for walking, taking but a few hours to traverse its lengths. Glance upwards in any street you see sets of small balconies with fat balustrades or horoscope motifs carved into the architecture. The apartment buildings all have ridiculously large front doors as if they were built for mythical giant people rather than Italians. The roman ruins have become a dramatic backdrop for students who love making noise on balmy summer nights. Their plastic cups filled to the brim with cheap spirits and vino rosso. Ethereal fairy lights hover over the Naviglio canals where you go to eat, avoiding the equine listed between the lamb and pork dishes on the menu.
Lake Como is just outside of Milan, a short train journey or an hour or so on a scooter. Driving up to the snow capped peaks, my blue-eyed Italian man described his house up in there in the hills. He would go up just to take in the cold air, the same way I’d go down to Brighton Beach to soak up the sun.
At the start of winter, snow falls between tree branches onto the hushed streets. Within a week, it is knee deep and people are still out walking their dogs. They are willing to brave the negative chill for their pets, but not for their employers. The city goes into shutdown. SnowDays (only seen before on American television) actually happen, shushing the city under a white blanket.
The work day starts at a comfortable 9.30 or 10.00, and lunch breaks are a leisurely 90 minutes. In Australia, or London or anywhere else, lunch breaks are for running errands if you bother to take one. In Milan, errands are impossible because only the bars are open. It is social suicide not to eat there with your workmates. It’s fine because we all get along when it comes to food.
On a Monday morning I was called into the office upstairs. The company were in financial trouble and they were letting me go. My bank account was almost zero. Without reliable work I had to return home, immediately.
That drive to the airport is seared into my memory. His warm hand holding mine, the blue of his eyes matched the cold sky. Hot tears ran down my face as I said goodbye to a person who was one in a million. They ran on for months.
It is at times like this you feel exactly how far away Australia is from the rest of the world. Isolated. Distant. It is a lonely continent under burning, brilliant skies.