Five grey days without a breath of wind or a drop of rain. Five days of a chill that radiates inwards, soaking the bones. On the third day the sun nearly broke through. On the sixth day, it rained.
I left the New Zealand summer for this. Yet it is not entirely inappropriate that I should have come home at this particular time of the year for what is almost certainly the last time, at least in the form that these visits have taken since I left Italy, fifteen years ago. The apartment in which I was born will be sold, ‘home’ will shift to the lands of my mother’s own childhood. And because I wouldn’t choose to visit Milan in the winter, I might as well have to this time. A string of rainless, windless grey days. This couldn’t be more familiar. It’s what I left.
Milan is not an easy city to love. Over the years I’ve grown fonder of its lack of grace, of the occasional, frank ugliness that it doesn’t bother to hide. That is perhaps the closest thing to ‘my’ Milan, but I am no stranger here. In winter, the city looks like a permanent neorealist film set. It’s the city of Rocco and His Brothers, cloaking itself in bleakness to demoralise outsiders, especially those who come here from sunnier climes. (Which is to say, nearly all of them.)
I’m no stranger here, and yet I cannot lay an uncomplicated claim to that naïve possessive pronoun. This is not my city, and in ways more literal than the ones I’ve explored before. Quite simply, somebody else owns it. They, the owners, like to remind the rest of us from time to time, typically during and around Fashion Week. I know it, and yet I wasn’t quite prepared for this.
This sculpture – which is entitled L.O.V.E. – is the work of the renowned international artist-provocateur Maurizio Cattelan and was installed two years ago right in front of the Milan stock exchange, a formidable Fascist-era building going by the rather poetic name of Palazzo della Mezzanotte (‘midnight palace’). Somehow I only came across it on this visit, so I’ve had to catch up with the controversy: first the business community complained, then some citizens expressed bemusement, finally the artist – who is nothing if not canny – managed to persuade the city council to accept the sculpture as a permanent donation, on condition that it wouldn’t be moved from the current site for at least forty years.
Facing as it does away from the stock exchange, Cattelan’s piece could more appropriately be entitled ‘Wall Street Occupies’, and while it is possible that in four decades’ time it will be read as a fuck you to somebody else, right now it’s a straight fuck you to the citizens. I wonder in how many other cities this would be not only tolerated but actually welcomed.
Downstairs from our apartment is a news-stand that ceased operating and was put on the market over two years ago, yet the advertising that hangs from it is always current. It’s another mixed sign of a crisis that in Italy goes back not four or five but twenty or thirty years, and proceeds at a pace that is glacial but assured. Statistics released last week indicate that consumption is at a multi-decade low, but you won’t easily read this in the urban landscape. At least not in this city. There are no strings of empty shops like the ones I saw in London in 1990, with improvised stalls operating inside of the gutted ones, but an economy that frays slowly. Two years ago we lost the news-stand – it had been around since my childhood – but its constantly updated hoardings remind us that the trade goes on elsewhere, uninterrupted. Closer to the centre it’s fashion stores, everywhere, reminding you that there is still a lot of money circulating in the city, albeit not all of it local. Along Corso Buenos Aires, one of our busiest shopping streets, somebody appears to have decided that the English word for when you discount your stock is not ‘sale’ but ‘sales’, and at this time of the year there are lots of those. Sales.
I am no stranger here, not yet. Over fifteen years of regular visits I have been able to notice the small changes, which is a way of keeping one’s citizenship current. You must know what it’s like to live some place to feel that you still belong. But being away a lot gives you a privileged perspective, too, and so friends and acquaintances, especially the older ones, always ask me: how do you find it? How do you find us? My answer is never very illuminating or even interesting. I feel that I never left.