During the last decade I have visited Milan more often than any other European city. It was therefore with great sadness that I watched the news reports two years ago when Milan became the first major city in the Western World to be hit by Covid-19. I have always enjoyed strolling around the Duomo – a marble marvel of a cathedral in the centre of the city. Its piazza, usually to be found teeming with people, was utterly deserted. The Italian tenor, Andrei Bocelli, performed an online concert in the empty cathedral during the first lockdown. A few years before, he had stayed for a week or so in the hotel in London where I worked. I was touched by his blindness and would have liked to help him in finding his way around the hotel but he was assisted by a dedicated companion. I’m also reminded that I once climbed the stairs to the roof of the Duomo and was puzzled to find a stage and an aisle being set up there for a fashion show that evening.
I travelled to Milan last month for the first time during the current pandemic. I had passed through Heathrow during the last year and the terminal looked forlorn. Every other seat in the waiting hall was closed off by crossed tape. The tourist industry in London, like other capital cities, had been all but decimated by the pandemic. Heathrow employed thousands of people several of whom have lost their jobs. To generate more income the airport has now introduced a drop-off charge for passengers arriving there by car.
It was a swift flight to Milan and Linate airport seems to have been slightly renovated since I passed through it a few years ago. I boarded a bus outside the terminal to the town and then took a train to go to see an acquaintance in Villaggio dei Giornalisti. I found that the cost of a day ticket on public transport had gone up considerably in recent years
Massimo wasn’t in when I arrived at his office. However, his father, Alfredo, ushered me in. He spoke only a few words of English but his hand gestures, nevertheless, made me feel very welcome. He mentioned ‘my lady’ with a smile, referring to his wife a few times in our brief conversation, and those reverential words brought to my mind Dante Alighieri’s La Vita Nuova. Alfredo offered to make a coffee for me and served espresso in a fine cup inside a metal holder. The coffee was accompanied by small, round chocolates. I normally shun an espresso in favour of a cappuccino but its aroma and taste proved irresistible.
Alfredo informed me that his son wouldn’t return to the office for another couple of hours so I decided to take a Metro train back to the Duomo and see an art exhibition, Realismo Magico, at Palazzo Reale. The Italian title reminded me of a scene in The Sopranos in which James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano explains to one of his children that their surname ends in a vowel.
The lady behind the counter in the ticket hall asked me if I was a journalist or a teacher so she could offer me a ticket at a discount. When I told her that I was neither but that I do write for myself, she gave me a discount anyway. I thought it was rather generous of her.
The exhibition had opened a year before to accompany Milan’s recovery from the pandemic. It covered the interwar years, one of the darkest periods in Italy’s history when Fascism took root in the country. I had associated the Magic Realism genre only with literature, mainly through the writings of the master of this style, Luis Jorge Borges. A street happens to be named after him in Milan, by the way, located just a stone’s throw from Palazzo Reale. I was unaware until visiting the exhibition that Magic Realism had started as an art movement and the term had originated in Weimar Germany in the 1920s. The art movement was short-lived but in literature the Magic Realism movement flourished long after in South America. I am never sure if I am reading a volume of Borges’s collected fiction or his non-fiction since he has blurred the distinction between the two.
The bright Italian masterpieces inside the darkened rooms of Palazzo Reale were like portals into other worlds and other eras as the shadow of a war unfolding in Ukraine loomed ever larger. In 2003, I had escaped to the RA to see an Aztec exhibition when the war in Iraq was about to start. Thus time seemed to be circular, not linear.
I saw the Magic Realism exhibition at a frantic pace since I had to meet Massimo before he closed his office. The fact that the exhibition was going to end in a week had given me an urge to see it during my brief visit to Milan. I never get the same urge to see an art exhibition on my doorstep in London as I assume that I have got all the time in the world to get round to it.
I had booked an early morning flight back to London. There were two queues at the immigration counter at Milan’s airport – one for citizens of the EU and EEA, and the other for the rest of the world. It felt strange to stand in the latter queue for the first time since the UK exited the EU. The rest-of-the-world queue moved slowly, so there was time enough for me to take out my phone and check if the UK was by any chance still a member of the EEA. I was in for a somewhat rude awakening when I learned that my home country had ceased to be a contracting party to the EEA Agreement after its withdrawal from the EU.
The pilot announced that we might be lucky enough to escape Eunice, the powerful storm that was due to hit the UK. But he had to postpone the landing at Heathrow as Eunice had arrived before us. He circled over London for some time and then tried again. It was a rough landing and all the passengers clapped when the plane finally touched down at Heathrow. In expectation of even rougher turbulance ahead, with more harsh realismo than wondrous magico, our ability to endure will be sorely tested.