Milan Journal, Part I

Cathedral of Milan (Photo: Ron Lima/Dreamstime)
Notes on Italy’s “Second City”

As longtime readers know — to the point of fatigue? — I grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich. Not far away was a little town called Milan. I’ve never been there, as it happens. I know it has a prison.

And it was not until I was well along in years that I realized it had to be named after the city in Italy. (Our Milan — Milan, Mich. — is pronounced “MY-lin.”)

‐Milan, Italy, is this country’s Chicago — meaning, its Second City (after Rome).

‐The main airport is called Malpensa. Why, I can’t tell you. The name implies bad thinking (I’m afraid).

‐In the airport, there are sandwiches that come from a company with a wonderful name: Viva la Mamma.

‐When I was a student in Italy — not in Milan but in Rome and Florence — everyone smoked. It was like the law mandated it. Many fewer people smoke today. But more smoke than do where I live.

Especially the women, it seems. There are enthusiastic female smokers.

And I note that the trains still have ashtrays — at least some of them do. I doubt they are ever used. They are holdovers.

‐I never thought of Milan as a beautiful city. I thought of it as a commercial city. Almost a utilitarian city. I was wrong. It’s still Italian, for heaven’s sake.

There are many beautiful things in Milan, of course. Many beautiful works of art. But the city itself is a beautiful thing: a work of art.

‐In my music criticism — concerning both compositions and performances — I often say, “Beauty isn’t everything. But it’s not nothing either.” The same is true of cities, I think. Beauty is not the be-all, end-all. But a little beauty … can make a nice difference.

‐I recall what Ed Koch said about cities: Paris, the most beautiful. London, the most interesting. New York — his own — the most exciting, or dynamic.

‐The Milanese have style. For heaven’s sake, they’re Italian: The Italians have style. There is often a casual formality about them. And, among the older people, a certain courtliness.

Can they be drama queens? Well, they wouldn’t want to betray their nationality, would they?

‐Many of the women look and act as though they consider themselves to be works of art — and they are.

‐Men in suits and ties, riding motor scooters, are a sight.

‐I hear a dog not barking: I see just about no one wearing short sleeves, on a warm day.

‐Mirabile dictu, the window in my hotel room opens. How civilized. Unlike in America.

Hang on, I will soon find out this is a mistake. The window is not supposed to open. Someone locks it. And I prevail on someone else to reopen it.

Ah, civilization again.

(I have promised not to jump out of this window.) (Much to the disappointment of my severest critics.)

‐Out my window, and all around the city, you hear the squeal of trams. It is a kind of music in Milan.

‐Milanese risotto is a famous dish, yellow in color. I’m not sure what it is, exactly. But, when it’s good, it’ll bring tears to your eyes (not because it’s spicy).

‐When I was a student, I practically lived on stracciatella — not the soup, but the ice-cream flavor (which, in short, is their chocolate chip).

It hasn’t gotten any worse …

‐I have always thought of Italian pastries as dry. Disappointingly dry. They can be that way. But I’m here to tell you: It ain’t necessarily so …

‐Eventually, I will get over it, but, for the last 15 years, I’ve seen Indian tourists in Europe. Which is a thrilling sight. It signifies the economic improvement of India. When I was a student, there were zero Indian tourists, I can assure you. Workers, yes. Tourists, no.

‐Across from La Scala, the opera house, there is a handsome statue of Leonardo. And that’s what it says, underneath the man: “Leonardo.” At some point, Americans started to refer to him as “da Vinci,” which is sad. I could tell stories …

‐The cathedral here is the largest church in Italy. Now, how can that be, given St. Peter’s Basilica? Well, that church is not in Italy, technically, is it? (It’s in Vatican City.)

‐At various points outside the cathedral — and elsewhere in Milan — there are soldiers, with guns slung across their chests. I find this reassuring.

‐In the Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square), there is an interesting relationship between guards and beggars. I’m sure this relationship plays out every day. The guards shoo the beggars away with their eyes. Like a parent giving a certain look. The beggars know just how much they can get away with …

‐All over the world, I see conmen hustling people. Good, decent, sincere people, who are taken advantage of. People who want only to be polite. This makes me steaming mad. Many of the targets, I think, are American.

‐Milan’s cathedral is not to everyone’s taste. But it is a wonder. An achievement. The façade alone is worth the price of admission (and you don’t have to pay anything to see it). If there were nothing to the cathedral but this façade, that would be enough to gaze at, long …

‐There is security at the cathedral: soldiers wanding people, and searching their bags. Slows everything down, to a crawl. Necessary, I suppose, and, of course, maddening.

‐Passengers on a National Review cruise were about to visit Chartres, as I recall. In a public session, I asked Paul Johnson — an art historian, in addition to everything else — “How do you visit a cathedral?” He gave a clear, confident, detailed answer (although I hadn’t told him in advance that I was going to ask that question).

I wish I could remember the answer, or that he were here with me now …

‐This may seem dumb — or too simple — but I am staggered by the size of the cathedral. The sheer size, never mind its artistic properties. If someone created something this big today, I would be awed, or at least damned impressed. No, awed. But centuries ago?

I can’t even (to borrow one of my favorite modern expressions).

‐The Crucifixion is one of the most depicted things in history. I think I know why. (A) It’s important. (B) It’s straightforward to depict. But (c) murder and death are comprehensible to people. Normal. Resurrection and ascension, not so much. And these events, without which no one would know about this crucifixion at all, are far less commonly depicted.

‐Borromeo is a big name here: in the cathedral and in Milan. An old banking family. I think, “Ah, that’s where the string quartet got its name, probably.”

So I Google: and the Borromeo String Quartet is named after the Borromean Islands (in Lago Maggiore) — which are named after the Borromeos …

‐Speaking of music: In the Piazza del Duomo, a singer-pianist is performing Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.” The amplification is immense (as always). The music resounds throughout the square, filling the ears of the thousand or so people who are here.

The singer-pianist is not bad. But who decides that everyone should hear him? Who decides that this one person will influence this moment for the thousand who are present? Say that a person, from far away, will visit this square just once in his life. Must he really be subjected to this music? What if he doesn’t want it? Well, too bad, Charlie.

I think this stinks. And on that peevish note — I’m gonna knock off, to finish tomorrow. Thanks and see you.


A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.


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