I STEPPED OUT OF the airplane and the long line of the Alps smacked me in the face about the same time as the freshness of the Lombard air. One of the more boring innovations of today’s world are those mechanical arms that stick out of air terminals to usher you from hermetically sealed environment to hermetically sealed environment. (One of the reasons why Bristol Airport is among my favourites, besides being in Somerset, is the total lack of those loading arms.) Landing at Malpensa, I was pleased to step out onto the stairway with the sun behind my back illuminating the glorious string of snow-capped peaks in the far off distance — a reminder that Milan is indeed a different Italy from the hills of Rome or that Greek-speckled island of Sicily. The polizia di frontiera manning the Unione europea queue takes the barest glance at my maroon passport before handing it back with a forlorn grazie and waving me on my way with a nod of the head.
I made my to the train station, bought a ticket from the little machine — brushing aside a little taxi man with a dismissive no grazie — and boarded the treno diretto a Milano Cadorna. I had left behind a rather grey, miserable, and cold London just two hours before and as the Malpensa Express hurtled through tunnel, cut, and way, I’ll confess the tiniest swivel of excitement — augmented by the glorious sunshine — at the prospect of discovering Milan, a city with which I had no previous acquaintance.
Milan boasts one of the greatest railway stations of the world — Milano Centrale — but I was heading into the smaller and more convenient Cadorna station. Alighting the train HM phones and barrages me with information as I confusedly try to stick my ticket into the slot to let me through the barrier oblivious to the words coming at me through my telefonino. Victory — success — I’m through, and agree to phone HM later when I know what’s what.
Finn’s instructions had been to take the Metro to his, but confronted with the cloudless beauty of the sky I found the idea of scuttling about underground lacked any appeal. A walk would do me good. Following the gentle curve of the Foro Buonaparte under the shade of the graceful trees, I took my measure of the city. I hadn’t any idea what to expect, really, but am pleased with what I find. There are awkward post-war modern bits (American bomber crews were not unfamiliar with Milan) but for the most part the city’s architecture betrays a sturdy late-nineteenth-century confidence that’s been sensibly updated to keep with the best of today’s standards. What’s more, the population are a positive adornment to this city: snappily dressed men of business wait at pedestrian crossings while pretty girls on bicycles sail by. The motto of Dublin is the slightly scary ‘Happy is the city where the citizens obey’ — Milan’s might as well be ‘Happy is the city where the citizens dress well’.
I turned onto the via Dante, continued down the Orefici, and was there at the piazza del Duomo, just a stone’s throw from Don Finiano’s. Dropping my things off in the flat, Finn suggests an immediate walk around the middle of town. “Luckily you can see everything here in a short space of time,” he avers with the assurance of his short attention span.
And so around Milan under the blue sky. The Duomo: “It’s the heaviest building in the world!” Still? “Maybe, maybe not.” Through the Galleria, as civilised a shopping promenade as ever existed, to La Scala. “Have you ever been to the opera? Here, that is.” “YES, with the Pogg!” On to the Castle and through its bifurcating series of portals to the park on the other side as Finn explains his various options for after his eventual departure from Milan. Swinging around and down the via Dante again, I run into a shocked Signora Bubesi who had no idea I was going to be around. (HM, typically, told her nothing). I kiss her hello and tell her I’ll see her later on. (We met up the next morning to see ‘The Last Supper’).
A late lunch by the Colonne di San Lorenzo as I offload the latest news from London and receive information, counter-information, and pure speculation about mutual friends and those in the general circle of things.
The sun still shining, we made our way to the roof terrace atop Finn’s flat. It actually belongs to the genial neighbourhood fascist who has allowed Finn the free use of it and emblasoned it with a quote from Mussolini. He once enlisted Finn’s help in carrying to the ascensore a large and heavy bust of Il Duce. The lift is absolutely tiny and just barely held the two of them, Il Duce, and a confused old man heading for the dentist’s office on the first floor. (The dental staff, reassuringly, use the rear balcony next to Finn’s as their smoking area).
Several larges bottles of Nastro Azzurro are consumed before we head back down to the flat to continue with spritz. The glories of spritz! Appropriately it was Ivo who introduced me to the ambrosian concoction — “Mate, try this. You won’t regret it.” — and I’d had Ivo, Hubert, and Callum round for dinner just the Thursday before; a night that rather typically ended with half-remembered lyrics to Irish rebel songs.
I’ll just pour myself a little more spritz. Oh very well, a full glass, must make up for the ice after all. The genial neighbourhood fascist pops round (in a black shirt, of course) and says hello as we discuss the possibilities of what to do for the evening, the sun having set over the course of the spritz being consumed. The Pogg goes onto Skype and summer plans are discussed for after Finn and Nick’s great Rome-to-Somerset motorbike expedition. We prefer Malta but the Pogg objects and absurdly suggests Isola d’Elba instead. What?!? We’ll see. Wherever the axes of price, sun, and proximity to water converge is where we’ll end up.
And again through the streets to the rather swish place atop that department store on the Piazza Cinque Giornate. After a Moscow Mule and something to eat, a cigarette on the smoking balcony. Looking out towards the city’s western flank and the night sky above it, we gaze downwards and watch the trams sleekly gliding through the piazza before turning our glance towards the appartamenti around the piazza. A surprising number are strangely dark for this time of night and we infer they’ve been bought by dodgy types as tax dodges or money-laundering manoeuvres.
Eventually we end up by the Colonne di San Lorenzo again, crowded with giovani as well as the occasional sketchy foreigner offering to sell you drugs. No grazie. Somehow we find ourselves chatting away with a group of people into the night. Finn, who is fairly fluent from living here, is mistakenly impressed by my knowledge of Italian, which confuses me since — unlike Irish, French, or Afrikaans — I’ve never studied it. A weekend in Milan, however, is enough to convince me it’d be a worthwhile endeavour.
And, having whiled away in conversation, at some unknown hour the police arrive to gently encourage everyone along their way, and returning to the various places from whence we came, we dispersed into the night.