VIVA MILANO PART 2 - BUON GIORNO MILANO
I stood outside the door of the Italian YWCA, in the rather grim street called ‘via Pinamonte da Vimercato’, looking glumly at the book of tram tickets my room-mate had advised me to purchase from the little coffee shop next door to the Protestant chapel.
This contained about half a dozen weekly tickets, which should cover me for most of my stay in Milan. A bit like a season ticket, and surprisinglyahead of its time in the ‘one ticket gives unlimited travel each day’department.
I was off to attempt to visit my friend Ann, who was au-pairing for a titled family somewhere in the mysterious sprawling city of Milan. She had given me some directions before I left UK, and I studied them thoughtfully, for of course although she had told
me which tram to catch and where to get off, I had no idea where the tram stop
was, nor indeed what a tram looked like – they had long ago ceased to exist in London.
So I popped back into the coffee shop where I had earlier purchased the tickets, and asked the friendly proprietor’s advice. After much biting of lips, he eventually worked it out to his own satisfaction, and even stepped outside his shop to point me the way. I was to see a lot more of this helpful signor during my stay.
It took me a while to identify the tram stop. Trams were even then extremely ancient
structures; brown painted wood exteriors and polished wood and brass interiors, with hard benches facing inwards. They reminded me of Victorian trams such as the one on display in the Transport Museum in London.
Despite one false start, where I got on the right vehicle but going in the wrong direction (something I do all the time even to this day), my first weekly ticket having been duly punched on the ‘Sunday’ spot, I eventually arrived at my destination. The magnificent mediaeval Castello Sforzesco (fortified castle of the ancient Dukes of Milan, the Sforza family) was on my right, and to my left there were huge ornate apartment blocks, which, taken as a whole, looked pretty much like an old palace. I approached and studied the numbers on the various brass plaques placed at intervals near several flights of wide stone stairs leading up to mahogany double doors, many set with coloured glass.
Having located the number on my notes, I pressed the appropriate bell. Actually on second thoughts I believe I may have had to pull the bell. Anyway a disembodied voice said ‘Buon giorno chi e la?’ I replied nervously (in Italian of course): ‘Linda Wigzell to see Signorina Ann’.
A buzzer sounded, I pulled the huge door and entered a large vestibule with a tiled floor in a chequered design. I was looking round at the selection of large wooden doors, wondering what to do next, when one of them opened and an elderly woman stepped out of what turned out to be a beautiful, old-fashioned lift, all padded seats and brass
grilles. Very much like the original 1902 lift down to the pedestrian tunnel under the Thames at Greenwich, which was still in daily use at that time. She greeted me a bit stiffly but was friendly enough, explaining she was the Contessa, and Ann was expecting me but had to see to the children first. A quick ride in the truly picturesque but rather shaky lift, and we arrived at the appropriate floor. The Contessa led me through another panelled door, gestured for me to sit down on a high-backed chair in a corridor, and disappeared into a room further along the passage.
I sat there surrounded by such shabby opulence as I had never seen before. There was a jug of water and glasses on a tray on the highly polished occasional table next to my seat, and though my throat and tongue were rapidly becoming dry with nerves, I decided not to pour myself a drink, firstly because I had not been offered any, and secondly because the
glassware looked like extremely expensive antique crystal. So I sat trying not to catch sight of myself in the gold-framed mirror opposite me. It was not a long wait; soon another woman appeared, younger and less formal than the Contessa. Addressing me in Italian, she told me that she was the Marchesa, and Signorina Ann would be along shortly when the children were settled. Having ascertained that I needed no refreshment, she too bustled off into another part of the flat, which by now I could see was vast.
A third person appeared. This time it was a tall elderly gentleman, smartly dressed with thin grey hair and a moustache such as I had only ever seen in sepia photos of my own
ancestors. He approached, all smiles,hand held out in greeting. I stood up and shyly shook the proffered hand. Having ascertained my business, he announced that he was the Conte, and I would be more comfortable waiting in the drawing-room, beckoning to me to follow him through a set of double doors. Trying to look nonchalant, I followed him into the next room, and sat on the seat he indicated, which was a sort of well upholstered and extremely old dining chair. He sat down beside me and I looked round the vast room. My first impression was that it was like a museum gallery. It was long and filled with furniture all upholstered in what I would have called pink regency stripe fabric, matching the long draped curtains and deep pink carpet. There were wide windows along one side, all with similarly upholstered banks of seats in front, so you could lounge there and look out over the city below.
Several little tables were dotted about, along with some huge pieces of furniture of indeterminate usage, and a couple of matching armchairs of a design which in retrospect I would describe as Queen Anne style, all in the same striped and (on closer inspection) rather faded fabric. In fact, sitting in that room for too long I imagine you would feel like you were drowning in a sea of grey and pink.
The old gentleman was looking at me with interest (rather too much interest I thought) and I tugged a bit at the hem of my skirt, which might have been a bit short for these surroundings – in spite of Milan’s reputation as a fashion capital, I felt the era of mini-skirts had probably missed out this household. He began toask me what I was doing in this fair city, and I explained about the ‘work experience’ placement in a manufacturer of ‘lampadari’ – lighting fixtures butmainly ornate chandeliers, a subject which I thought might interest him as there were several such items in this room, and I had seen two particularly magnificent examples in the hallway. (Shades of ‘Fools and horses here, in retrospect; had this taken place twenty-odd years later I would have no doubt dissolved into giggles which would have been impossible to explain to an elderly Italian Count!)
He enquired where my office was situated, and I told him the name of the street. He frowned, and asked me how I was going to get there? I had no idea, and told him as much, upon which he took out of a drawer in one of the tables a timetable for the whole Milanese tram system. He was poring over this thoughtfully, when the door opened and I was very pleased to see my old school friend. The Count, having helpfully written my travel instructions down for me, took his leave, and Ann and I went off for a look around town.
A nice afternoon was spent in exploring the fabulous shops situated in the ‘gallerie’ all round the central square, the ‘Piazza del Duomo’, and of course my first sighting of the famous Cathedral itself. I have to admit to being slightly underwhelmed as we came out on to the white-paved square. The ancient church seemed to me to be rather a dumpy, grubby building, crouching like a sulky mediaeval beast on one side of the piazza. No, the Wow! factor was not there. Maybe I was spoiled, having fairly recently enjoyed the marvels of Paris. The Eiffel Tower and the Sacre’ Coeur were much more impressive.And of course I had been brought up on the heritage of the wonderful buildings which we Londoners take so much for granted.
The scaffolding round the building didn’t do much for it either. On closer inspection, the façade was amazingly ornate, and would no doubt benefit greatly from being cleaned. We did not go inside; Ann only had a couple of hours off, and beside, there was a service going on which I was loathe to interrupt. So I mentally put exploring the interior of the Duomo on my ‘things to do places to see’ list. Although I should say that after I had been
passing through this square for several weeks, I eventually came to regard the Duomo as the Milanese do; a sort of stern but benign Mother sitting hands folded in her lap watching over her children.
Only too soon it was time for Ann to get back to work – it seemed that she looked after the 3 young children of the Marchesa single handed and for precious little reward and hardly any time off, but they were basically nice people, and the old Count was especially nice to her. I bet he was. So we agreed to meet up the following weekend, said goodbye and headed for our respective billets.
I found the correct tram at the first attempt this time, although I was at one point distracted by some strange looking two-coach articulated buses, which I mistook for more modern trams and which I can now say are indeed rather similar to the 21st Century trams now running in Croydon.
I managed to alight at the appropriate stop, and even ventured to purchase and consume a milky coffee purchased from my friendly local shopkeeper, before climbing the rather dank stairs to the YWCA, where I noted a lot of laughter coming from the sitting room. I peeped round the door – and saw MEN! Of course – the rules had also stated that male friends and relatives could be entertained in the drawing room between the hours of 2 and 6 on Sundays. I smiled and beat a hasty retreat to my room, where my room-mate was getting changed. I did the same, and half an hour later we went off to the dining room for our evening meal.
The long homely table had a massive basket of lovely looking peaches on it, and the biggest bottle of wine I had ever seen. The feast began with a green minestrone, or ‘minestre’, accompanied by hunks of bread. Then there was some sort of meat, and I was horrified to see the cook poor a spoonful of olive oil over each piece before serving. Pudding was peaches. The whole meal was surprisingly good, served by the cook/housekeeper, who sat and ate with us. The Signora was out for the day, but I was told she usually ate in her room anyway, and the housekeeper did almost everything. I really enjoyed it all,although this may well have been the effect of the vino, which I was not really accustomed to, and by the time my Italian friend Anna arrived to take me for an
evening tour of the town, I was a little bit tired and very emotional. I threw my arms around her and told her (aswell as most of my fellow inmates) how much I loved her and was glad to see her. She insisted I drank a glass of water, then bundled me down the stairs and into the aforementioned coffee shop. The Signor proprietor smiled. This was becoming a habit. Another strong espresso downed, then off for a night on the town!
And work to look forward to tomorrow! Yippee! Viva Milano!