Having decided that, in order to make the most of my new Milan locale, I need to learn Italian and quickly, I set about the business of finding a suitable course.
I turn to my new bible, Easy Milano, the magazine for English speakers in Milan. Among its pages of useful information are lists of Italian language schools – hundreds of them. How to choose? Scanning the list I spot Societa Dante Alligieri, courses in Italian for foreigners. I know the Societa Dante Alligieri! Once, an historic age ago, as a student teacher, I performed with my Introduction to Italian class at the Societa Dante Alligieri, in Christchurch, New Zealand. The title of the song we sang – La Bella Polenta – remains with me still. The words and the tune, alas, are lost, along with most of the language I learned in my “Introduction to Italian”.
Throwing on my coat, I head out to the Societa Dante Alligieri to enrol. I sign up for A1, the beginner’s course, which is where students with only basic greetings and a few random phrases belong. But Maria Grazia, who handles my enrolment, assures me that after a month of daily A1 three hour total immersion classes, I’ll be set for everyday life in Milan.
I start the next morning. The course is brilliant – two hours of written language with Patrizia and one hour of conversation with Myrta. Both are great teachers – fun and interesting. My classmates are fascinating. There’s a student chef from Korea, a Frenchman working in Milan’s textile industry, a young woman from China studying fashion, a model from Belorus and a Russian lawyer, learning Italian before beginning work.
The course moves swiftly and after a week, my language has increased fifty fold and most importantly, my confidence has doubled.
Just around the corner from Via Taormina is the Cooperativa La Vittoria, with its Bar/Trattoria, Da Candido. Of solid, late 19th century style and stature, La Vittoria’s stern façade stares down the glass front of the cool 21st century wine bar across the road with an air that says “wine bars like you will come and go, but I’ll go on for ever”.
That evening, as G. and I take a stroll through the streets, the wine bar’s lights are already dim and its chairs are stacked on tables. La Vittoria’s door and Da Candido’s lights are bright and beckoning. We venture in for nightcap. The place is empty and the bar is unmanned but there are sounds of merriment offstage and through a half open door, I see curls of cigarette smoke, a table with glasses and heads bent over hands of playing cards. As if by ESP, a Signora appears. She seems neither surprised, nor pleased, to see us and says an unsmiling but not unwelcoming “Buona sera”. She’s a generously built, plump-faced white-haired lady, of indeterminate age – perhaps a well-preserved seventy or maybe a worse for wear forty. We timidly ask for “vino, per favore” Without enquiring bianco or rosso, Signora points us to a nearby table.
We head to the window. As we pass the half-open door, silence falls and heads turn. I nod and smile. The heads nod back briefly, then turn away. The talk resumes and the game goes on.
Signora arrives with coasters, grissini and two glasses of red wine. I really prefer white but I’m not prepared to argue. I don’t have the language anyway. Signora is watching from the bar, so I take a nervous sip. It tastes good. I determine to drink more red from now. I nod and smile at Signora. She nods unsmilingly back and continues to watch. Conversation feels awkward, so we gaze around da Candido. It’s a room full tables. Those in the front half are casually scattered. At the back, they’re lined up in ranks, refectory-style. In one corner is a large plastic palm tree and dotted around the walls are pictures of tropical isles and postcards of sunny beaches. There is also photo of the Pope and a print of the Virgin Mary. There are posters for bierra, aqua minerale, vino and even cigarettes. I feel Signora’s eyes studying us, studying the walls. Is she waiting for us to finish our drinks, or is she waiting for us to order another? It’s really hard to know. We finish them, nod, smile and head to the door. Signora follows us and locks it behind us. Was Da Candido closed when we arrived asking for drinks? Is it really closing time now? Is Signora making sure that nobody else comes in and interrupts her evening? Is she telling us not to come back? Impossible to know. There’s a lesson here – we need language.
A few weeks later, I’m passing La Vittoria with my son. It’s lunchtime. Da Candido looks busy. Perhaps we can slip in and blend with the crowd. The tables are filled with men in work-boots and overalls. Even in casual jeans and t shirts, we don’t blend in. We watch from the bar as a duo of Signore, both dressed in crisp yellow, button-up, belted, white-collared uniforms burst backwards through a swing door with steaming plates and reverse out again with stacks of empties. People don’t linger. When their plates are empty, they head out the door, lighting up smokes as they leave. Should we leave too? But Signora has seen us. She waves us over. We obey. She stands at the table holding our chairs. We sit. Glasses and bread basket appear. People give us quick, indifferent glances. I nod and smile. They look away.
“I feel out of place” I whisper
“Me too” mutters Gez
But its contorni, primo, pasta, scallopine and dolci. We’re just two people eating lunch, like everyone else, except that we eat slowly, savouring new tastes, like tourists, with no work to hurry back to. By the time we’ve finished, the tables are empty and the Signore are whipping table-cloths away and whisking a broom across the floor. The lunch costs a laughable few euros.
“Delicioso” I venture. Signora nods, “Gratie mille” I try. She nods again. She follows us to the door. Behind us we hear the lock turn. Did we just crash a private lunch? Is it really closing time? Impossible to know.
I really need language.
Later, when I do have language, I discover Cooperativa, La Vittoria is, traditionally, a neighbourhood and workers’ establishment. Da Candido still is. Foreigners like us rarely venture in. In fact, foreigners like us rarely venture into this area. It’s not on the tourist beat. It’s not in the guide books. It’s a neighbourhood of workers and families of workers. If I’m to understand it, fit in, make friends, or even survive, I need language.
Every Saturday, the market colonises the streets at the end of Via Taormina. My very first week finds me trundling down there with our apartment’s deluxe convertible backpack/shopping trolley.
There are stalls of seasonal fruit and vegetables and very other imaginable kind of fare – meat, cheese, oils, olives, nuts, preserves, sweets, cakes, bread, cheese, milk, yoghurt and wine. I am bamboozled by the variety and paralysed by the staggering number of choices. In the end, I stalk a matron of upper middle-age. She looks as if she knows a thing or two about cibo. I don’t yet know the Italian for “I’ll have what she’s having”, so I stay close, watch keenly and point. Her choices of olio, olive, formaggio, legume, pane and pollo are faultless, I later discover.
Clothes at the market are seasonal too – warm coats, jumpers, scarves, beanies, vests and boots in winter, sandals, frocks and shorts in summer. Here I need no help, nor do I need words. My first purchase, on a chilly autumn morning, is long black padded coat, of unidentifiable material, but of such warmth that I could venture into the snow with nothing more than a bikini underneath and not feel the slightest chill. Furthermore, despite its bulk, it is as light as feather. Best impulse buy I ever made!
Alongside the perennials there are classics; baby layettes, shawls, christening gowns, communion frocks and suits. There’s underwear of a kind not seen since the first half of the last century, including corsets, bloomers and liberty bodices.
Gadgetry abounds – peelers, corers, squeezers and stoners, miracle knives and magic dusters.
There’s a multitude of Manchester from duvets to doilies, table cloths to tapestries. There are beads, buttons and wool.
Among all this merchandise dedicated to worldly needs and pastimes, the soul and spirit are not forgotten; there are holy pictures and statues, shrines and votive candles too.
I stare in wonder as bloomers, buttons, coats, candles, self sharpening scissors, artichokes and apples fly off the stalls and into trolleys.
This a market, I think, as I trundle back along Via Taormina, with the bulging deluxe/convertible backpack/ shopping trolley, that truly serves its community.
Milan’s Via Taormina is part of the city sprawl that has swallowed a small village. In spite of the roads crammed with roaring traffic that surround it and the modern shops and dwellings that hover at its edges, much of village life continues here.
The church, San Marco, opens onto Piazza Caserta at the crossroads of Via Taormina and Via Veglia. While 21st century secular life and work dictate the rhythm of the days for most of the people who live here, still the bells of San Marco mark out traditions of prayer and spiritual observance. Every morning, they call the faithful to Mass. They chime out the Ave Maria at 12 o’clock to announce the Angelus. They ring again at three for Benediction. They peel at length on Sundays and feast days, for Baptisms and weddings. They toll at times of mourning.
Inside, San Marco has all the timeless and universal symbols of Catholicism. There is the familiar scent of incense and candle wax, the dim light, the wooden pews, the pillars, the confessional boxes, the Stations of the Cross, the altar and its white cloths, the gilded tabernacle, the small red lamp glowing beside it, the stone angels, the paintings of Our Lady, the infant Jesus and the saints.
All this was the backdrop to my girlhood, the culture in which I grew up. I am not surprised to find it, here in San Marco, Via Taormina. Italy, is after all “the source” and the “Mecca” of the Catholic faith. The nuns, our teachers, too, always confident that we would make our way out into the wide world, had promised that in any Catholic church, anywhere, we would find all the same symbols and rituals. What does surprise me, is my sense of belonging and how much “at home” I feel here.
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.