VIVA MILANO! - PART 1 - BYE BYE LONDON
15th March 1969 - my 19th Birthday. Enormous suitcase packed and ready, birthday cards hastily opened (the post actually came before breakfast in those days), waiting for the appointed hour when I was to be picked up by my friend Roy, known these days as The Royster, who was to take me from my home in Lewisham to the Student Travel Office at Victoria, where I would join other impoverished teens, twenties, students (and anyone with the money and the slightest claim to being any of the above) on a cheap coach ride to Gatwick Airport to catch the cheap chartered flight to Milan. The first stage in my newest adventure – several weeks ‘work experience’ in that fair city, brushing up my Italian (language that is though I must admit one or two Italians might well have been rather brushed up against along the way).
For any other linguists or classicists or just plain geeks amongst you, that date may ring a bell. It was a most unfortunate day for Julius Caesar, who (according to the Bard) to his cost paid no heed to the soothsayer’s warning to ‘Beware the Ides of March’, and uttered the immortal words: ‘et tu Brute’ as he was stabbed to death by conspirators including his traitorous friend Brutus. That was 15th March in the year 44 B.C. This was the closing year of the 1960s A.D., (though not quite yet the end of the era of the Swinging Sixties, which was even now sashaying gently through flower power into Glam Rock). I rather hoped a similar fate would not await me as I looked forward to exploring the mysteries of the centre of Caesar’s Empire, the ancient kingdom of Italy.
Anyway Roy duly arrived at the appointed hour, driving his shiny red car (I think it was red – though that could be a trick of the light caused by the quantities of cheap cider consumed the night before in the student bar!) and loaded up with my luggage, me, Mum and Dad and sister. Bit of a squash but no-one cared - no rear seatbelts those days, and few people bothered with front ones either! Roy was my first love, having lived next door to each other since early childhood; by this time we had moved on and were engaged to other people, but remained pals, as we do to this day.
A couple of hours later, I was sitting on the coach, feeling a bit lonely and apprehensive, and waving goodbye to my family and my mate. We were on our way to Gatwick, and in 3 or 4 hours I should be greeting my Friend Anna Minguzzi at Milan Airport. I had met her two years previously when we had both stayed in France with the same family in Tours, she being a student of French at the time, as I was, and we had not met since, so I was really looking forward to a friendly face.
An hour after we should have arrived in Milan, we were still sitting glumly in the Airport waiting area. Now we knew why it was so cheap. A message came over the tannoi to the effect that our flight had been delayed (Oh really we hadn’t noticed) and would now be leaving from Stanstead! Off we all trotted, weary and hungry, and got on another coach which spewed us out what seemed like hours later into yet another airport lounge. It was by now getting dark, and I wondered whether Anna would be able to meet me – for, being already renowned on two continents for my complete lack of common sense in the directions department, I had no idea of how I would manage to get from Linate Airport to my lodgings in the centre of Milan on my own. As a special concession to compensate for our delay, we were given quite a nice meal on the plane, though I was too tired and anxious by then to fully appreciate it.
To my eternal gratitude, Anna was indeed waiting for me in Milan. Never had I been so glad to see anyone. She embraced me warmly, and realising how tired I was, didn’t use her native Italian to speak to me – by this time I was so worn out I had forgotten most of it by now – so we conversed in French as we had done when we first met in Touraine. To this day I cannot remember how we got to my lodgings, but I do remember arriving at a rather austere looking ancient building at about one o’clock in the morning, and being handed over by Anna to the manager of the establishment, a rather severe elderly lady who showed me to the room I was to share with one other girl. Then I was handed a list of rules – in Italian – , the main rule of which was NO MALES IN THE BEDROOMS , and as Signora shuffled off back to her bed, tutting at the lateness of the hour, I settled down in my small hard bed. This, ladies and gentlemen, was the Unione Cristiana Delle Giovane – the YWCA.
Luckily, I had had the foresight to time my departure for a Saturday, and now it was Sunday, and I was hoping for a lay-in. Wrong. Little did I know that this YWCA was situated above what must surely have been the only Protestant chapel in town, and at a very early hour the organ struck up. I sat up in bed, knocking my elbow on the small chest of drawers allocated to my corner of the room. Ouch! I heard a giggle and saw a girl a little older than me sitting up in her bed at the other end of the room. She introduced herself, helped me unpack and showed me to the bathroom, which was also where we would have to dry our laundry.
She then showed me the kitchen and the dining room, where breakfast and evening meals were served, and found me something to eat. Apart from the address of the company I was to work for, I had only 2 contacts in Milan. One of course was Anna, who was to meet me later in the evening, and the other was a girl called Ann, who had been in my school and 6th Form, and was doing a gap year, working as an au pair for a Conte and Contessa in the town. Which I thought strange really, as at school she had not done Italian, and did not seem practical enough to do au-pairing, being more on the scientific side of brilliant. Still, after breakfast, I followed the instructions she had left me and set off to meet her at her place of work – which she told me was a huge apartment in a fashionable quarter near the Castello Sforzesco – the historic fortified castle. How exciting! My Italian adventure had well and truly begun.