Under the weather in Milan

Under the weather in Milan

By M.J. Akbar | 5 December, 2010

Snow is a sheet on the ground, talcum on the trees, a patched overcoat on the Alps and an electric blue at Zurich airport. I have to catch a connection to Milan within 50 minutes but there is no hint of hurry when I check with ground staff. Swiss calm about process and punctuality is eerie. Clockwork is in the DNA. I go through unruffled immigration police, board a transit train, grab a vital necessity from duty free and still reach my next flight with time to dawdle. The train welcomes visitors with the music of the moo, while a yodel drifts in the background. Forget the infamous cuckoo; the cow is symbol, pride and sustenance of Switzerland. Milk is the national diet, chocolate the people's pastime.

The snow had turned Italian in Milan, intense and disorderly. The driver who welcomed me however was sunny in a puzzled sort of way. "Plane on time, eh?" he said in half-awe, half-regret. Swiss airline, I pointed out, not Italian. He beamed with great pride, switched the subject and wondered what snow was doing in Italy in November. Some of it had descended on me when the passenger bus stopped a little short of the terminal. Snow on a bald head can be a nuanced experience.

The limbs of Milan are commerce; the heart of Milan is worship. The city was born for trade but grew up around a cathedral, the Duomo, a magnificent tribute to the soaring power of the Italian imagination when touched by the miracle of faith. Inside the cathedral the eye is sated by an excess of inspiration as it wanders from painting to sculpture to stained glass. The skeletal saint-scholar standing against a curve in the walls, lit by the rays of a sun deflected by brilliant glass panes, is an utter marvel. The house of God carries the weight of human genius lightly, but cannot quite eliminate the pride of the artist, determined to reinvent the divine in his own image. And so, in a scene from the crucifixion on the stained glass, Jesus Christ is white but the thieves on either side are brown.

The Duomo is the perfect opening conversational gambit with a polite Milanese fellow-guest at our India-Italy conference in an 18th century palace. He surprised me with his readily-expressed irritation at the fact that Moroccan immigrants refused to visit the cathedral, calling it "haraam". This gentleman was a Communist for 364 days and became right-wing at the ballot box thanks to illegal immigration, the great blight that dare not speak its name except in hushed whispers. I thought all he needed to do was wait out a generation. The children would integrate. The latest moll, after all, on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's endless list of "bunga bunga" partners in his swimming pool is a 19-year-old Libyan immigrant whose father probably thought she had gone to the big city to study physics. There is too much hypocrisy about illegal immigration. Immigrants brave the ardour of dispersal only because there are local jobs available. As Italy ages, there is great demand for young women who can nurse the old in their dotage. Demand will always fetch supply.

The most fashionably dressed tourists are Chinese, instantly recognisable by their complete indifference to their host environment. They travel to enjoy their own company, which is good enough reason. You can never tell whether their designer bags are fake, but who cares if they don't care? Lunch at a café with bad food and high prices can be an education in international relations. The Chinese man keeps patting his lips with a chapstick; his stoic partner has enough lispstick already. The British couple at the adjoining table is armed with multiple chips on both shoulders, and seem irritated by the fact that no one is interested in the peculiarities of their accent. A French family is lost in inter-generational disputes as parents look at the price and son concentrates on the food. Travel convinces me that waitresses smile mainly because they know they will never see you again.

I am constantly told during my brief visit that I should never walk without headwear. But the only hat I have packed is a high, Kashmiri wool cap. The choice therefore is between looking like a Turkish immigrant who has not quite squared up the authorities, and dying of cold. No-brainer. Obviously I choose death over the police.


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