Exposing style

‘I’ll come around and pick you up’, he said, in a to-die-for Italian accent. ‘Ten minutes. Be ready.’ ‘Okay’, says I. ‘I’ll go down and wait on the street so you won’t have to park. What’ll you be driving?’ ‘I’ll take the Ferrari,’ says he.

IMG_6769 (800x600)Nothing like waking up in Milan and getting straight into the thick of a rather stylish way of life. I’m not that into cars … usually. I’m more of the ‘does it come in any other colour’ rather than ‘how fast can it go in 60 seconds’ type. But I’m sucker for old cars – cars that were made as cars should be made, ones you can sit in and feel the road beneath you and hear the revs as the speed notches up. And while a 18-year-old Ferrari doesn’t go any faster than a normal car, it sounds like it’s racing. From the low-slung leather seats, it’s like looking up at the world from beneath – a wonderful feeling. And not a bad way to have a quick tour of the neighbourhood.

I’ve been to Milan a couple of times, and each time there’s something new to see and more to learn about this lovely city. I had no idea that back in the early 1900s, the streets we were driving on were actually canals. In old paintings, Milan looks a lot like Venice. Neither did I know that Monte Stella, a hill in the city park, is an artificial hill, made from the debris of buildings bombed during WWII and the last remnants of the old Spanish Walls that once surrounded the city.

IMG_6771 (800x600)Given my complete lack of interest in soccer, other than the mighty Békéscsaba Elóre, it’s not all that surprising that I didn’t recognise the famous San Siro football stadium for the mecca it is for many. Home to both AC Milan and Inter Milan, the former having it all to itself until 1945, the stadium seats more than 80 000 … now that there are rules and minor inconveniences like Health and Safety regulations. Back in the day, it could take 100 000 on a good day. There are talks though that each club might well be building its own stadium – going down the 45k-seat, branded route that has turned international football into a multinational business. The stadium sits on prime real estate and the surrounding parks are the focus of many a developer’s fantasy. And what a loss that would be to a city where greenery is still fighting its corner.

IMG_6774 (800x600)For all its style, though, Milan has still retained an undercurrent of contrariness that sets it against societal norms. One gem of a building near Lotto, a squat to all intent and purpose, has been occupied by a group of people whose mission, as emblazoned in graffiti, is to ‘occupy, assist, and produce’. It’s now home to Libreria Don Durito, a revolutionary library that has been on the go  for ten years. The best Google Translate can do to explain its rationale is:

Fantasy and irony. As Don Durito we want to preserve the fantasy and a laugh even when the government launched a military offensive against us. Every day when we open the windows of our library we know why we are here; because we resist and build libraries, occupied spaces, popular universities and why we are still here reading and to read, to do slam poetry, to play and sing, to break the loneliness of the people, to be together in cord tied between mates, siblings .

What a wonderful mission, cause, raison d’être, whatever you want to call it. That’s something I could happily sign up to.

IMG_6780 (800x600)As if that wasn’t surprise enough, when I ventured inside the D’uomo, I found a sculpture by Tony Cragg, a British artist whose work I quite like. It is probably the last place in the world that I’d have expected to see a piece of his on display. He says, of his work, that it’s ‘very often about the structures that lay beyond, behind, and underneath the things we see’. This piece is part of a celebration of ExpoMilano 2015, which opens for six months in May and is expecting to attract millions to the city.

Expo Milano 2015 is the Universal Exhibition that Milan, Italy, will host from May 1 to October 31, 2015. Over this six-month period, Milan will become a global showcase where more than 140 participating countries will show the best of their technology that offers a concrete answer to a vital need: being able to guarantee healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone, while respecting the Planet and its equilibrium. In addition to the exhibitor nations, the Expo also involves international organizations, and expects to welcome over 20 million visitors to its 1.1 million square meters of exhibition area.

Perhaps I might be one of them.


Upscale street markets

I have a fondness for other people’s junk. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and all that. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday morning than wandering a flea market, picking up and putting down bits and pieces of other people’s lives. Budapest has its fair share of markets and, in fact, most cities have regular market days – perhaps a sign that we’re becoming more thrifty?

I associate markets with bargains. Good deals. Stuff I wouldn’t see elsewhere. Old stuff that has character. I loathe the Chinese and Turkish tat that encroaches on the traditional fare, preferring plain old junk to new junk any day.

IMG_0119 (800x600)IMG_0122 (600x800)I missed out on Milan’s famous flea market: the Fiera di Senigallia and have made a note to book a return trip that include a last Sunday of any month, to catch the 400 or so antique dealers displaying their wares at the Antiquariato sul Naviglio Grande. This canalside market takes up 2 km of city streets and attracts more than 100 000 people each time. But we did stumble across the Via Fauchet which didn’t have much in the line of old stuff (if you don’t count the elderly ladies elbowing their way through the cashmere cardis) but the prices made my eyes water.

IMG_0127 (800x600)IMG_0124 (800x600)I took my life in my hands to get close to the leather bags on offer. Display samples in an array of colours in real leather. I could feel the adrenaline as I started to mentally check people off my Christmas list and visualise the space available in my suitcase. But then I saw the label – Made in China. Written in Italian mind you, but made in China nonetheless. I’m still refusing to buy anything made in China except when I can’t avoid it (It’s hard to find a laptop or a phone that wasn’t made there.) It was hard – and as I found myself trying to justify the bargain, I walked away. It’s a slippery slope.

Milan is famous for its fashion and if you had an ounce of style and the fortitude to battle with the masses, you’d easily fill your wardrobe with classic items at half of what they’d cost in a bricks-and-mortar market.

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Prostrate with grief

In Milan a couple of weeks ago, I was a little taken aback to see a woman, lying prostrate on a grave, her grief palpable, her sorrow tangible. Coming from a country that would rival Britain in its stoicism at times, such public displays of emotion are not what I’m used to.

IMG_0297 (600x800)IMG_0287 (800x599)IMG_0289 (800x597)I’ve been introduced as a cemetery tourist by a friend in Malta. And yes, my fascination with how we remember our dead and mark their passing is one I’ve readily acknowledged. That said, I’ve managed to get this far in  life without ever laying eyes on a corpse, despite the numerous funerals I’ve been to. And being from a people who wake their dead at home – this is odd in more ways than one. I just can’t bring myself to look upon a corpse. A body emptied of its soul is something beyond my otherwise virile imagination.

The simplest and most moving cemetery I’ve been to is the Bernadinu kapines in Vilnius, Lithuania. The most different perhaps the Alifakovac cemetery in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The most educational (for me) has to be Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, Ireland. And, up until now, perhaps the most impressive cemetery I’ve been to in terms of sculpture was the Mirogoj cemetery in Zagreb, Croatia. But Mirogoj has relinquished its No. 1 spot to the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano.

IMG_0301 (800x600)IMG_0293 (800x598) (2)Up to 1861, Milan had many small cemeteries scattered around the city. After Italian independence, a decision was made to consolidate them into two: one for the upper echelons of society and another for those whom fame and fortune had bypassed: Cimitero Monumentale and Cimitero Maggiore, respectively. What started as an 18 hectare expanse, taking three years to lay out, Cimitero Monumentale now occupies 25 hectares of this Italian city.

IMG_0295 (800x597)Wandering its paths is like walking through a virtual who’s who of Italian creative aristocracy featuring such luminaries as poet Salvatore Quasimodo, composer Giuseppe Verdi, and novelist Alessandro Manzoni. Names like Pirelli and Campari all ring bells of vague recollection, testifying to the longevity of Italian business empires.

IMG_0314 (800x591)To my mind, cemeteries are some of the best museums out there and don’t get the recognition they deserve. Anyone with a love for Italian art won’t be disappointed. The works of Giannino Castiglioni, Giacomo Manzù, Medardo Rosso, Leonardo Bistolfi, Ernesto Bazzaro, Odoardo Tabacchi, Adolfo Wildt and Argentine artist Lucio Fontana are all represented. Don’t make the mistake we made: come early and plan on staying for a few hours. There is so much to see and marvel at that you won’t feel the time passing before the siren marking 30 minutes to closing sounds and the man on his bike does his rounds to make sure that all living souls leave before the gates close.
IMG_0331 (800x600)IMG_0300 (800x599)While there are many beautiful monuments to be seen, what struck me was how the grieving woman was depicted, time and time again. It’s something I’ve not noticed in other cemeteries – at least not to the same extent. And their numbers made the absence of grieving men even more remarkable. There’s a thesis to be written on that. If you’re in Milan and have time, it’s worth dropping by. No. Scratch that. If you’re in Milan and don’t have time, it’s worth making time for. IMG_0291 (800x599)

2014 Grateful 48

When I was young, very young, I wanted to be a nun. I had visions of rising straight to the ranks of Mother Superior and could envision myself as Mother Mary Martha. (In actuality, it’s probably the only time in my life when I had dreams of promotion – or something resembling ambition.) Then I saw a movie (I can’t remember which one) in which the postulate didn’t get to choose her name; she was given one. And I began to have second thoughts. I had visions of living out my days wearing a name I hated.

I even applied to the Medical Missionaries of Mary (I was fascinated by the whole alliteration thing, consumed by M). They told me to go live for a few years and then come back to them. I never did go back.

I’ve long had a fascination with nuns and convents. Remember Ingrid Bergman as Sr Mary Benedict in The Bells of St Mary? Audrey Hepburn as Sr Luke in The Nun’s Story? Susan Sarandon as Sr Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking? Or the pretend nuns – Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara? Or Whoopee Goldberg in Sister Act?

I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. It could be as simple as a fondness for black and white as a colour combination. God knows it’s not a want in me to surround myself with women – I discovered long ago that I’m allergic to too much oestrogen. But the fascination remains, for whatever reason.

Years ago, visiting Dachau Concentration Camp, I heard the neighbouring Carmelite nuns singing. It was haunting. Mystical. I was entranced. Hearing something so beautiful in a place that was a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man was compelling.

Last week, in Milan, the lovely ES took me on a tour of churches. I was fascinated by one in particular: Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore. The church itself is attached to the old Benedictine Convent.  The nuns would listen to mass through a grid and receive communion through an opening in the wall.

The grid through which the nuns would listen to mass just behind the altar in the believers hall

The grid through which the nuns would listen to mass just behind the altar in the Hall of Believers.

The opening through which the nuns received communion

The nuns hall

Their hall is separated from the Hall of Believers (the public hall) by a partition wall and as I sat there in silence, I fancied that I heard strains of that haunting, disembodied singing again, although this time, in much more pleasant surroundings. The nuns themselves weren’t given permission to come over to the other side to admire the altar until 1794, so for centuries they had no idea of the beauty that lay on the other side of the partition wall.  

Both halls are covered in frescoes by famous Italian painters. Bernardino Luini, a student of Leonardo da Vinci, took his brush to these walls, as did Simone Peterzano – Caravaggio’s master. You could spend hours, literally, sitting in quiet contemplation of these works of art, which date back to the 1500s. My favourite was Noah’s Ark by Aurelio Luini.  If you look at it closely, you can see all the animals in pairs, except for an extra dog … apparently, if my pathetically poor grasp of Italian can be trusted, it’s his signature insert.

This week, I’m grateful for the ministries of friends living abroad who are willing to take the time to show me their world, to share with me the places they hold special. A local’s insight is so much better than a guidebook written by someone who may never had sat in that particular church and felt its peace.  If you’re in Milan – it’s a go-see.




An imposing failure

The linguistically challenged person that I am, I have a mono linguist’s habit of reading everything in English, regardless of the language it is actually written in. Fine is always simply fine and never finished. Worst will always be badder than bad and never a sausage. Die will always be an invocation to pass on and never simply ‘that one’. And as for bra? It may be good in Swedish and Norwegian, but I have days when I hate it.

I see a word in a foreign language that reminds me of something and that’s it. It’s etched in my brain…permanently. The Hungarian word for certificate or award – oklevél – will always have me wondering why anyone would want to show the world their bare essentials – their okay level certificate. How embarrassing. So, when in Milan, and passing one of the hundreds of signs around the city that tell passengers that the tram they’re on will pass the d’uomo, I immediately thought ‘dome’.

What’s worse – I managed to convince myself than when I’d been in the city a number of years ago on my way to the Alps (a magical trip where time literally stood still – but that’s another story) and had taken the time to visit this must-see , it had indeed been a massive dome-shaped building. No question of it. Not a doubt in my mind.

I’d been there. I’d seen it. And if we happened to pass by it again, great. But I wasn’t going out of my way to find it. I had more interesting things to do. But as fate would have it, stumble across it we did. Imagine my surprise… not a dome in sight.

IMG_0247 (800x600)Milan Cathedral is gobsmackingly big. I can well believe that it took six centuries to complete and is the fifth largest cathedral in the world. Building began in 1386 and the last gate was inaugurated in 1965. So, technically, we’re nearly the same age but that was one helluva gestation.

IMG_0250 (800x600)Having taken so long to build, it’s understandable that the numerous architects involved would have drawn from many different schools (ask me and the best I could come up with is Gothic). Curious, I checked it out and found this quote by John Ruskin who reckoned it steals from every style in the world: and every style spoiled. The cathedral is a mixture of Perpendicular with Flamboyant, the latter being peculiarly barbarous and angular, owing to its being engrafted, not on a pure, but a very early penetrative Gothic … The rest of the architecture among which this curious Flamboyant is set is a Perpendicular with horizontal bars across: and with the most detestable crocketing, utterly vile. Not a ray of invention in a single form… Finally the statues all over are of the worst possible common stonemasons’ yard species, and look pinned on for show. The only redeeming character about the whole being the frequent use of the sharp gable … which gives lightness, and the crowding of the spiry pinnacles into the sky.

IMG_0251 (597x800)Be that as it may, John (and we’re all entitled to our opinion), you have to admit that it’s awesome – in the truest sense of the world.  Apparently Oscar Wilde, when visiting the city in 1875,  wrote home to his mother saying: The Cathedral is an awful failure. Outside the design is monstrous and inartistic. The over-elaborated details stuck high up where no one can see them; everything is vile in it; it is, however, imposing and gigantic as a failure, through its great size and elaborate execution.

While I’m quite fond of Mr Wilde as a rule, I can’t agree. Yes, I prefer plain crystal to that that’s heavily embellished. I like simple patterns, minimal clutter, clean lines and were this, say, a wedding cake, I’d refuse a slice even if I was starving. But as an edifice that literally dwarfs everything around it, it’s … amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever stood in the shadow of somewhere that made ants of us all.

IMG_0257 (800x600)I didn’t go in. Sure hadn’t I see it before 🙂 But if you’re in Milan and have an hour or two to spare, it’s worth dropping in. Entry is free. A lift to the view tower will set you back €12 or, if you fancy the walk, €7. Plenty of priests on hand to give last rites should they be required. It’s all coming back to me know…  the last time I DID WALK UP TO THE TOP… honestly!

A pervasive sense of style

I might have my issues with China but that said, one of my favourite places in the world to have breakfast is in San Francisco’s Chinatown. I love the hustle and bustle. The mania that passes for normalcy. The smells. The noise. Even the windows dressed with dead ducks have their appeal.

Practically every Chinatown I’ve visited has been the same – full of life and vigor: Vancouver BC, Los Angeles, London, New York. And that in itself had created a pattern in my mind, a pattern that has been broken by Chinatown in Milan.

IMG_0136 (800x600)Okay, in fairness, while San Francisco’s Chinatown has its origins in the gold rush of the 1900s and takes up about 22 blocks of the city, the one in Milan is much, much smaller and far more recent.

Chinese immigrants first arrived in the city as far back as the 1920s but it wasn’t until 1979 and onwards that they started to come in earnest. By the turn of the century, there were about 10 000 Chinese immigrants in the city – and probably more today. Located between the streets of Via Paolo Sarpi, Via Bramante, and Via Canonica, Milan’s Chinatown is one with a difference.

IMG_0154 (800x600)And what makes it different? It has style. Milanese style. The Milanese are a stylish people. Enviably so. And, apparently once the Chinese vendors figured out what makes the Milanese tick with regard to shopping preferences, they adapted accordingly. Instead of the noisy chaos, there’s a quite elegance about the place. Duck is still readily available but the window space is given up to parma hams. Chinese ‘stuff’ in all its forms and fancies is to be had, but displayed with a certain panache that San Francisco probably wouldn’t know what to do with. And while many locals moved out when the Chinese retailers first moved in, they’re slowly coming back. The area is prospering.

IMG_0142 (800x592)IMG_0158 (800x598)And yes, there are the money markets, and the tacky shops selling the usual Chinese fare but even those have some class. But there are  expensive designer shops, too – more upmarket – catering to the Milanese pocket and the Asian tourist. It has everything that your usual Chinatown has – in style. I was bemused.

IMG_0147 (574x800)What got me though, was how well the two cultures have blended and how part of the city Milan’s Chinatown is. It seems to have assimilated. Or has it? I read that Chinatown is the target of many prejudices and tension. The fear that many Italians have of China is mainly due to the fact that the very important fashion business suffers from dumping prices and copying.

And apparently moves are afoot to relocate it to another part of town… where it would be ‘less infringing’. Who knows.  If you’re in Milan, it’s definitely worth a visit.

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