It was about this time of the year, perhaps just a little later, that we arrived in Milan. Nobody I knew had nothing positive to say about the place. It was cold, it was old, it was dirty, it was shabby, it was industrial, it was ugly.
Nothing, however, could dampen my enthusiasm. It was Italy! Cold! Who cared, with all those museums, art galleries, cafes, bars, restaurants and shops offering warmth and shelter? Old? That meant history and heritage – Roman ruins and streets where Leonardo Da Vinci had walked. Dirty and shabby equalled character. Industrial? – Ferari factories and fashion fiera! Fabulous! Ugly? Well beauty, in my book, was confined to the eye of the beholder. I was determined to see it!
Old, beautiful, characterful and sunny! I thought, as we broke through the clouds and circled a city lit by watery winter sunlight.
Our taxi careened along the freeway, steering its own path, or so it seemed, while the driver talked incessantly with both his mouth and his hands, turning, and even leaning, from time to time, over the front seat to look us in the eye. My grasp of Italian, at that stage, was hazy, but it was clear that he was expounding, with great enthusiasm, on the marvels of Milan. I responded with appreciative nods, smiles and with little gestures that I hoped would encourage him to keep his eyes on the road and his hands on the wheel. They were lost in translation.
“Ecco! Via Taormina!” he exclaimed, throwing both arms out in triumph, as we zoomed round a corner, past a church, into a street flanked by cars parked nose to tail and overlooked by a mix of buildings representing every age of construction from middle to modern. Via Taormina was part of the city sprawl that had swallowed whole and left undigested, a small village, with its church, walled gardens, stone houses and stables.
“Ecco! – La Casa!” our driver announced, beaming over the back seat and screeching to halt simultaneously.
Our Via Taormina apartment building was a chunky, stone edifice, of indeterminate age and undeniable ugliness. But ugliness, like beauty, is only skin deep and, inside, our apartment was beautiful. The rooms were large, with wooden floors, tall windows and furniture that spoke of household set up in a vintage somewhere around the mid 1900s . At the front, French doors opened from the lounge and onto a wide, sunny balcony that looked out over the neighbourhood. Potted bamboo and trees, covered in tiny buds, promised shade, flowers and fresh green leaves in a few months’ time. The kitchen was equipped with every conceivable 20th century culinary invention and utensil. Platters, plates, dishes, glassware and cutlery to cater for any occasion and any number of guests spoke of large family feasts and gargantuan cook-ups. In bedrooms there were beds with ornate headboards and dressing tables with doilies and ornaments. This was not just an apartment. It was a home and the presence of the life lived here was strong, close and welcoming. It wrapped around me like a shawl borrowed from a dear friend. I knew that I would be happy and that I would also be at home here.
This was the beginning of life in Milan.