The night was very cold. The locals were dressed in Michelin-man anoraks, with brightly coloured scarves, dark jeans and flat boots. Their sculptured features were as icy as the November night; sculpted, cool, static, robotic, their glares were exercises in the art of glaring. I was too unusual-looking, too strangely-dressed to be one of them. My face had a permanent inquisitive humility stamped all over it. I was, after all, in their city, in Milan, in Northern Italy, among its monied families, its sense of honour, its glitzy, glass-walled buildings, its fashion-plate inhabitants.
It was November and I was lost. I was trying to get from the Centrale Statione to the Duomo, as millions of tourists have done before me, the difference though – most tourists plan this route intelligently, with a map, a guide, a sense of purpose. I had arrived in Milano, from Malpensa airport, with no guide, no preparation, other than a bag for three nights in the Lakes. Milan was a stop-over.
It had grown dark and I walked down narrow streets, stepping up onto the pavements at the push of a moto or a Vespa. I tried to follow the crowds of beautiful people, but the crowds of chiselled-faced people were going everywhere, and I was lost. I kept going. I wanted the Duomo, that 600-years-in-the-making cathedral which is a scream out to Christianity, to Catholicism, just like Edvard Munch’s notable painting.
I had one night in Milan, and no guide, limited euros and one desire, to see the Duomo, to photograph it, to sigh in its presence. And I wasn’t going to mind getting lost because I was in central Milan and that great beast of a building must be around here somewhere.
I asked someone, an older man who had stopped to light his cigarette. On hearing my accent, he smiled and said ‘Brexit’, to which I stupidly replied, Brexit is no good, Brexit is really bad. To which he put his hand up to stop me going any further. ‘Brexit’ is good, he said. The British people, they are clever. European Union is bad, very very bad.
The encounter was humbling. In the grand scheme of things, the gated community of old Milan is many, many centuries old and its history is almost certainly laughing with scorn at the state of the European Union. The cigarette-puffing man, eyeing me up confusedly, with derision, with sadistic pleasure assured me that Italy needed to go the way of the UK, that Northern Italy was far too good for the likes of a partnership with the south and with the likes of any other European country; that the UK was the force that would pull the EU apart, finally, he said, and with a wave of the arm he indicated vaguely which direction the Duomo was.
I was glad to leave him. I walked past the Teatro alla Scala and came to the Statua di Leonardo da Vinci. I was still lost. There was a glittering shopping strip alive with shoppers, handing over hundreds of euros for designer wear. I was badly dressed in my flat walking shoes and my cloak-like black coat jacket and my five-euro scarf. They ignored me as I passed, but I saw them and examined them, as one would some molecules on a petri dish. I couldn’t help it. They fascinated me; beautiful people, skin and bones and tall and dark and all dressed with immaculate precision in black leather and skin-pinching fabrics, red painted lips and styled hair. They looked robotic and computer-generated and not at all real.
Then I found the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II with its paving slabs that looked as though they were made from quartz or gold, the sky-high vaulted ceilings of glass, the interior shop fronts that almost demanded proof of your income before admittance (I did not go into one of them).
At the far edge of the Galleria, lay the Piazza del Duomo, and the great beast herself. Homeless people lay on cardboard in the piazza, camping out in the presence of such magnificence as if to drink from the well of its wealth and spirituality, to get some hope for the future. Not one passer-by stopped and gave them money. Not one passer-by paid them any attention. Most were asleep, some were begging, all were ignored.
In the narrow side streets shooting off the Piazza del Duomo, I saw young men in dark clothes, smoking cigarettes while leaning on walls. Were they the Duomo’s private army of surveillance personnel? Where they young men scoring drugs? Where they some sort of elite mafioso waiting for the arrival of their target?
I circled the Duomo eating up its architectural feasts. I didn’t go in. I did not have the euros for it and besides it was closed. I had spent too many hours being lost. I started walking back the way I had come, to retrace my steps back to my station-side hotel. I knew I was going to get lost again. Best get lost with something in my belly. I found a strange slip of a bar in a narrow space on one of the side streets. I went in. It seemed friendly in a cool Northern Italian type of way. I ordered a beer and something warm to eat, and listened in on a couple who were examining each other’s phones and the news coming in on it.
It felt nice to be sitting, in the warm, in a down-to-earth bar, in Milan, with no time restraints other than trying to find my way back to my hotel. I got the bill. The amount was crazy. I am in Northern Italy, Berlusconi country, I told myself. This is not Sicily. This is not Spain. This is Milan, the city of multi-millionaires who don’t believe in the European Union and who don’t believe in taxes.
I paid and left. I loved Milan, but Milan didn’t love me, and that was fine. Really it was.