Just one foot on the street outside and I’m transported into the bustling world of Milan. The smile spreads across my face as I feel like an extra in a Puccini opera, the protagonists around me sing in their flowery tongue, hands waving emphatically in the air, their conversations sound like arias.
An overweight baker with a mustache that turns up at the corners rubs his hands down on his floury apron, shouting to his assistant at the back of the shop, who throws his hands in the air, as a signora in a fur coat awaits impatiently to be served, eyes hidden behind over-sized, dark designer sunglasses, despite the light grey drizzle outside.
A workman atop a ladder is fixing a cable and calls down to his colleague below – “bellissima” I hear as I pass by, as he brings his thumb and forefinger to his lips and kisses them. A group of children on their way home from school giggle and chatter at the scene; a tapestry of characters that mingle in the street outside my apartment.
Their clothing is impeccable. Even in the more ethnic neighborhood where I’m staying, where there are large Latin, Arab, and Asian communities, the people are markedly better dressed than in other cities of the world.
Even the Chinese – who’ve stamped their trademark curiosity shops stocked with everything from herbal remedies to Hello Kitty mugs – are stylish in Milan. Theirs may be a ripped-off version of Fendi, but the lady behind the cash desk in her faux-Versace scarf and mock Burberry boots has an air of class about her as she serves customers in her unique blend of Chinese and Italian.
Milan may not be up there with Rome with its crumbling monuments, ancient coliseum and iconic landmarks, but its grandiose streets and elegant buildings, glassed-ceilinged galleries, and immense central station with works of art dating back centuries on the walls give it another character all of its own.
The high-brow fashion houses that line the “via Napoleone” and the plethora of shoes, clothing and accessories stores wherever you turn make Milan arguably the style capital of the world. I have never seen so many designer shops one after the after, and I do my best not to gawp as I stroll by, humbled by the exquisite outfits that fill the windows, exuding taste and beauty. Prada, Luis Vuitton, Gucci, Versace, each one offering not just a better way to dress but access to another life.
Roberta, the lady I’m renting the apartment from here warned “Milano è molto buona per gli occhi, non va bene per il portafoglio” – Milan is good for the eyes, not for the wallet. I can certainly confirm this as during my short stay my credit card has been stretched to its limits, I can almost hear it groaning as I punch in the pin number with each new purchase.
In Milan’s spotless streets, with not even a cigarette end or sign of litter anywhere, a public transport that runs like clockwork and urban ticketing system that allows commuters to use the bus, metro, tram, and train, there is an overriding sense of order and modernity.
It’s a city that works, looks good and feels pleasant to walk around. Its compact centre is easily explored on foot and provides a constant delight for the eyes as narrow street after narrow street deviate from the large plazas filled with tourists to reveal old fashioned chocolate shops, a hidden pizzeria, antiques and leather goods, and shoe shop upon shoe shop, filled with all styles, shapes, and colors.
I stumble upon a children’s toy shop with one-of-a-kind pieces made in wood; an old rocking horse with a flowing mane; Pinocchio puppets and ladybug boxes and hand-painted signs for bedroom doors. The seller explains to me that everything I see is made by hand by his mother. I ask him if he designs the toys as well, to which he answers – “I can’t even draw a stickman” and smiles. My Italian may be a little clumsy as I fumble through the conversation, but I get my point across and more than that, delight in the words as they roll off my tongue – “bongiorrno”, “ciao”, “va bene” and “arrivederci” are just so much fun to say I giggle inside as I hear them.
Cars actually stop for pedestrians here, something I am no longer used to, as all across Latin America, with perhaps the exception of Chile, motorists have undisputed right of way and cars will mow you down in a heartbeat. My left foot still aches when I walk too much after being run over in Buenos Aires on a zebra crossing with my right of way.
I walk to Moscova to see a different side of Milan, undoubtedly the area in which the wealthy and powerful congregate. The streets are lined with swanky bars, upmarket cafés, and fancy restaurants, beautiful people sipping cocktails on the sidewalks next to heat lamps, the weather unseasonably chilly for May. I stop for an aperitif at café Redesky, and try “spritz” a local tipple; a “must-have” when in Milan.
The elegant women exude sophistication, head to toe in Armani, expensive jewellery and 4-inch stilettos, on which they stand for hours and then somehow negotiate the cobbled, puddled city streets with ease, over-sized purses on their arms. The men are also immaculately groomed with coiffed hair, manicured nails, ironed suits, man bags and scarves, stepping out of their Mercedes, and cooing “ciao” to their friends, knowing how to make an entrance.
The roar of an engine and a red Ferrari cruises by, purring beside the bar for a few moments just long enough for all heads to turn. In the hour or so I spend there, captivated by my surroundings, the streets fill with Porches, Alfa Romeos, BMWs and Bentleys. This is definitely Damian’s kind of place and I hold back the tears as I think of how much I miss him.
Vespas speed by every few seconds to distract me and almost every cliché I had about Italy comes true before my eyes, as a woman in a fitted suit and heels manages to hop on the back of a motorbike with effortless grace and without losing composure, Luis Vuitton bag over her shoulder and a little kickable dog on her lap in a Dolce and Gabbana jacket.
The places where the photo snappers gather, such as the Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s landmark cathedral, are rather less exclusive, and Senegalese umbrella sellers mix with loud American tourists, Pakistanis selling roses and Romany gypsies aggressively begging for money and cursing at those that don’t give.
It’s difficult to see the signs of crisis here, but then the centre of any major city still hums with commerce, despite the bitter laments of Europeans about times being hard. It’s true that distance yourself a little and you begin to see empty businesses for rent or for sale, shops boarded up and just a pinch of the extended effects of austerity.
The majority of Italians in this region don’t live in the immaculate centre with a population of just two million, but in the outskirts and surrounding villages from which they commute. These are the people with their salaries frozen and benefits cut who don’t share in the lives offered in the window displays or frequent the expensive restaurants.
Yet their inherent passion for all that is good in life – love, art, food, style –make Italy my kind of place, with its leaning buildings and sinking cities, shaky economy and scandalous politicians, they still manage to live the Dolce Vita, savoring every drop out of life from their caffe to their gelato. I leave Milan with heavier suitcases and a lighter heart, even when things get really tough, there’s always something to smile about and life feels better in a pretty pair of shoes.