The day we arrived in Milan, we drove straight in to the NE area of Padova and found our friend Luca’s street quite easily, but identifying his apartment was another matter. After I’d walked up and down a few times and figured out it had to be somewhere between the clearly labelled smart block no 15 and no 10 marked on the other side, I asked a young ambulance driver who was parked on the pavement if he spoke English and if this building was indeed number 11?
“Ah yes” he said “But it’s not a good place.”
“You don’t think so?” I replied quizzically.
“No,” he said, thoughtfully, shaking his head, “Noooooo”.
Certainly, the block had certainly seen better days maintenance-wise. It was crumbling, mouldy and couldn’t remember when it had last seen a lick of paint. Five stories of flats were stacked high round a courtyard like a pile of old magazines with torn bits sticking out: bicycles on every level, blankets and washing hung airing from every balcony, toddlers’ heads poking from in between. But as I walked in, a shaft of golden afternoon light glittered down across the bins and I felt there was something magical about it. Something Dickensian. It felt like a treasure trove of stories.
I approached two young men sitting in one corner and smiled hopefully, knowing what I was about to say sounded ridiculously ignorant: “Sorry I don’t speak Italian… I’m looking for Luca?” They called a 9 year old girl who seemed to be the oracle when it came to knowledge of the block. “Luca the Italian?” she asked “Er… yes” I responded, confused – was this not Italy? “Oh, over there then” she pointed to the opposite corner… It was only later that I realised that, of course, Luca was probably the only person of Italian parentage in the whole block – and even he wasn’t born here, he was born in Liberia.
According to Wikipedia, Milan is the most cosmopolitan and multicultural city in Italy. The number of immigrants have doubled in the last 15 years and now make up 20% of the population. Luca’s building reflected a predominance of Egyptians, Romanians, Chinese and Peruvians whose paths had all led to them being here together. Their presence made the ambulance driver feel as uncomfortable as Nigel Farage on a London train, but I found the kaleidoscope of intwined origins fascinating. I think Luca feels the same, which is why he has remained when many other Italians have moved out.
We met Luca Bai Varaschini that fabulous Christmas we spent in Liberia back in 2015. Within 5 minutes of chatting to him on the beach, we recognised a kindred spirit. Luca’s father was the local doctor in Robertsport back in the 60’s and Luca spent his childhood there. He is proudly Liberian and unhappy that, as a ‘non-negro’ person, he is denied citizenship under the constitution even though he was born there. Perhaps this is why he finds it easier to empathise with his neighbours.
Despite the fact he is forbidden from owning land or property in Liberia, graphic designer Luca committed to spending time there annually since 2009. The year we met him, he was delighted to be rediscovering the people and places of his childhood. He was entranced with the environment, the scenery of wild Liberia, the red earth, the soft black rocks, the forest, the birds and the sea. All these are reflected in his most recent labour of love:
Luca’s book would make an awesome Xmas present for anyone who loves Africa or loves stories. If you’d like to order one, send me your details in the comments and I’ll hook you up.
On September 1st when the weather turned cold in France, I warned Mark that, as soon as the tank was fixed, we had to get moving as quickly as possible. I didn’t want a repeat of 2014 when my health deteriorated so fast as autumn came on in UK – from functional at the beginning of September to housebound by the end of November and mostly bedbound by January.
We had left the garage on Sept 11th, and motored steadily along south coast, chasing the tail of summer across Europe, with winter nipping at our heels. The roads around Nice and Cannes were still so crowded, it was probably a good job that we didn’t try driving through the Riviera in peak season. We entered Italy too late to do anything but drive straight across it – Luca had been expecting us since August and now there were only a few days left before he left again for Liberia. We are grateful that Papi had given us his maps of Italy and Europe to help us navigate.
I felt a little cheated that I was unable to show my son the baroque splendours of Rome, Florence and Venice but was recompensed with the unexpected joys of Luca’s tiny flat which was a work of art in itself. Every single inch was covered with enchanting images from his abundantly fertile mind, the vast majority made from recycled materials. Move over Michelangelo.
I felt truly honoured to be offered a glimpse of this bijou gallery. I can honestly say I got as much pleasure from it as I did from spending an afternoon at the gorgeous Galleria d’Italia perusing the great 19th century portraits of the city.
Even the reading material next to his toilet is collectible:
With Big Reg ensconced in the carpark behind the IN’s supermarket on the opposite side of the road, we took the Metro to see the sights of Milano:
In France I had started sending Ruby postcards of everywhere we visited without her, and from Milan I sent one of Italy’s oldest shopping mall, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which opened in 1877. The extraordinary iron and glass-domed arcade and its décor are as extravagant as the range of luxury retailers arrayed within.
When we reached the Duomo it was still hot in the full sun on the piazza though ominously chilly in the shade. The superlative Gothic grandeur of the third largest church in the world, decorated with 3400 statues, was somewhat dwarfed by a giant billboard, bigger than its famous bronze doors, and an LED screen suspended on the side. These ads apparently help pay for restoration, but still there seemed something egregious in this blatant slap-branding over something crafted so painstakingly over six hundred years by generations of artisans for the glory of their Creator. *Sigh*. Shamelessness seems to be the fashion just now.
Milan sees itself as the fashion and design capital of Europe, and residents certainly show their commitment to upholding that reputation. Within our first couple of hours walking the streets of central Milan I swear I saw all of the following fabulous folk: a young man in a skirt having a picnic with his girlfriend in the park behind Castello Sforzesco; a Japanese Carrie Bradshaw carrying a clutch of upmarket label shopping bags dressed in a severe monochrome palette complete with giant fluffy white slippers; two women older than me striding along in red geometric stiletto-heeled boots; a girl flying past on a Vespa wearing suede boots over long diamond plaid socks; a woman in the most enviable deep cerise satin boots which glowed along the pavement; and finally a model-looking girl on an Underground platform in black suede knee high boots and a black mini skirt, her dark hair slicked back in the sleekest imaginable ponytail, rocking a sunshine yellow bolero leather jacket. Ciao!
It was the biannual Milan Fashion Week when we were there, so perhaps the quotient of cool was higher than usual, but so few heads turned, it felt like the norm.
I wish I’d had the energy to see more, or at least sit and chat with Luca’s neighbours, but my energy was being consumed by a mountain of admin. While Zola was busy doing end of term tests, I was making arrangements to get the truck’s renewed carnet issued by the AA and safely posted to the SA Embassy in Athens, booking Big Reg on a RORO (roll-on roll-off) ferry from Greece, researching the costs of flights we were going to have to take to Alexandria and agonising over whether we should risk buying Ruby’s Xmas holiday flights to Egypt now when it was cheaper, or later when we were sure we were going to make it to Cairo on time to meet her…
Unlike any other country, Egypt requires you to lodge twice the value of your vehicle before entering as a guarantee against you selling it and avoiding import duties; as a result, even though we had wangled a sympathetic valuation from the AA assessor before we left in 2013, we were still walloped by having to deposit a whack of cash, taking us right down to the wire. I was terrified that if we broke down on the way to Greece and couldn’t get to the ferry on time, we wouldn’t be able to afford to book Ruby another set of tickets to meet us somewhere else. This wasn’t helping my insomnia.
All this wasn’t made any easier by the epic battle I had to engage in with ABSA to get my internet banking working again. Despite spending over an hour at our branch before we left to make doubly sure they knew our itinerary so our account wouldn’t be blocked like last time, I’d been complaining to them since 1st August that I wasn’t able to load any new beneficiaries. Now their entire RVN system stopped issuing confirmations to me it became impossible to make the payments for Ruby’s flights even when I’d worked up the courage to book them – this delayed us by 5 days trying in vain to get it sorted out over a weekend.
I am eternally grateful to Luca for giving us access to free wifi in his flat, as we’d never have sorted it out otherwise. But you can blame ABSA for how very very cold I got sitting waiting for hours and days for them to call me back – it’s one of the reasons I relapsed again and am so behind in the blog.
The night before Luca left, we went to his favourite place for pizza with his daughter Ada, a handmade doll designer who has inherited his exquisitely quirky sense of style. How we wish we’d had more time with these fascinating darlings. Sampson’s dream is to go back and hang out for a decent interval with Luca and Hugo in Liberia.
Ada cooed over Lucky as much as Ruby would have. It made me miss her more than ever.
Ada was about to leave to join her brother in London. I would recommend anyone wanting to visit Milan to stay in the flat Luca built next door for his kids that he’s about to rent out on Air B’n’B.
Luca took the sun with him to Liberia. He picked exactly the right time to go: the last week in September, the blue went out of the sky. European skies can be so relentlessly grim. How are they somehow so gloomy and glarey at the same time? You think you need your sunglasses, but when you put them on you can’t see a thing. #This Is Europe!
Zola was so shocked when we stumbled upon the glazed skeletons of the three saints Ambrose, Gervasus and Protasus displayed in episcopal finery, satin robes and slippers in the crypt behind the golden altar. I baulked from taking a photo of human remains, even from the 3rd and 4th centuries, and quickly whisked him away. But on reflection, I feel obligated to include some downloads here.
If this was Africa, wouldn’t the words ‘primitive’ ‘gory’ and ‘exotic’ be attached to the veneration of such relics? #This Is Europe!
The grim weather continued. Not surprisingly, after his recent travails in Le Rove, Sampson got sick with a virus and wasn’t well enough to drive for a week. Zola and I both went down with it afterwards; it wasn’t the best way to spend our holiday week off school. 1st October was the first day the solar system stopped working because there hadn’t been enough sun the last few days to charge the batteries. #This Is Europe!
We’d like to offer sincere thanks to the lovely people of IN’S Mercato who patiently put up with us in their carpark for a fortnight:
Sabrina saved us with her excellent English and spoiled us rotten with treats:
We didn’t get invited to any Fashion Week shows, but I did manage to pick up my own little piece of joy in the neighbourhood ‘antique and retro’ market:
This garment spoke to me. It said “I am soft sunset orange faux leather and completely impractical for African travel but you want me, I fit you perfectly and I’m only €5!” Ruby loathes it but I love it because it reminds me of that last sunny day in Italy. Forever after I shall tell people “Oh this old thing… yes, I picked it up in Milan during Fashion Week…”
Hi Sam, I had the pleasure of meeting with you guys at Aix-en-Provence, you’ve been a true inspiration ever since. I hope the rest of your journey goes smoothly.
Take good care !
Ps: your last sentence was hilarious!