No pain, no gain

World War II air raid shelter sign (Viale Enrico Martini 15, Milano) - From:

World War II air raid shelter sign (Viale Enrico Martini 15, Milano) – From:

scar |noun| : a mark left (as in the skin) by the healing of injured tissue

For all the flash and splash of Milan, for all the updated impersonations of Truman Capote’s Holly Golighty (with their studied airs of “effortless” elegance and their dictatorial attitudes about lifestyle trends), I know there’s more than meets the eye. I know, because I’ve seen Milan’s scars. Shall we go for a stroll, reader? Please wear comfortable shoes, you’ll need to keep up!

For a street as carefully manicured as Via della Spiga – inhabited by such rowdy tenants as Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana and Armani – you’d wonder why they’ve immortalized the very noticeable cracks on some of the buildings. Are these the signs of some fashionista brawl in which studded stilettos were ruthlessly thrown at each other from across shopping bag barricades? Or are they the markings of cannonballs from the 1848 Milanese insurgence against Austrian rule? And what of the cannonball partially plastered into a wall at Palazzo Sormani – is it a tribute to Cindy Crawford’s mole or another sign of that bygone uprising?

Moving along, you can find diluted black, red and white arrows with R’s, U.S.’s and I’s painted onto buildings all across Milan. These are WWII air raid shelter signs – now generally turned into garages, wine cellars or depots for knock-off handbags sold in the main metro stations. (R is for rifugio, U.S. for uscita di soccorso and I for idrante). The corresponding air raid siren tower still stands in the gardens of Palazzo Isimbardi whose inside bears a sign saying “better alarmed, than bombed”. All are excellent examples of the graphic and architectural styles of their time, as well as a surprising window into an altogether different Milan – not quite so carefree. A walk across town to Piazza della Repubblica will show you tram pylons that have been shot clear through by the air bombings, although no bombing story is as impressive as that of Santa Maria delle Grazie – the home of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. We owe it to Italian ingenuity that this masterpiece escaped the explosions that destroyed large portions of the adjacent monastery. Given that it was impossible to move the fresco, the friars protected it with sandbags – leaving us with a legacy that is nearly as intact today, as it is difficult to visit!

Stazione Centrale, Milan’s main train station, still bears signs of its terrible role in the war. Although nearly all fascist symbols have since been removed, the Sala Regia still shows the decorative motif of swastikas embedded in the design of its parquet floors. (Sadly, it was from Stazione Centrale, in a basement under platform 21, that Jews and political insurgents were packed into cattle cars, away from other traveller’s sight, to be shipped off to concentration camps elsewhere in Europe.)

Next on our itinerary, we head to the Museo del Novecento, where 20th century Italian art is celebrated in a magnificent 1950’s palazzo built in the same white and pink marble of it’s imposing neighbor – the Duomo. If I could make any room my bedroom, it would be Lucio Fontana’s room – ahem, I mean, of course, the room that has Fontana’s artworks in it. (Incidentally, in this room you can do yoga under a Lucio Fontana neon sculpture with the Duomo perched in front of you.) In this architecturally rich room, hang several of Fontana’s famous “slashed canvases”. Fontana wanted to make other dimensions present in his work, which he inadvertently succeeded in doing by taking a knife to a canvas he was frustrated with and slashing it. On doing so, he realized that the space he was looking for was right in front of him, right beyond the canvas’ surface. He had taken a 2-D object (a canvas) and created a 3-D space with it (the space formed by the tear). An apparently destructive act had actually created something. When you look at these paintings/sculptures, they look very much like open wounds. And they are – but a wound within which something has been born.

And that brings us to our last stop – Piazza del Carmine in Brera, where there is a sculpture by the Polish artist Igor Mitoraj. A dear friend once pointed out that Mitoraj likes to discreetly inscribe little flowers and leaves into the wounds of his mutilated sculptures. Unfortunately, the one in Brera has no such scars, but what a powerful symbol – again, something beautiful growing out of a place of pain.

The bit of road we’ve just conquered together, really struck a cord with me when I pieced it together. The truth is – I already look at this city through my own Milanese scars. My father passed away here 10 years ago – how could I not? I felt a new connection to the city in the fact that – just like I carry my own scars around in my handbag (not a Bottega Veneta – alas! – but a fluorescent orange Cambridge Satchel), so does Milan. For the most part, it is an amazing thing that these signs of pain and suffering have not been erased, but have been embraced.

The time I spent here long ago, was a lost, lonely and hurt time, but I discovered a place beyond the canvas too. Through the discreet intensity of God’s love for me, I discovered a place of such strength that even now – when I must suffer again – that is the place I get my strength from. So there was never any need for that wound to heal. It just needed to be embraced – like the historical scars of Milan – and given time to flourish – like Fontana and Mitoraj’s works. The 33 year old me would like to reassure the 22 year old, that my scars have constructed, not destroyed me. Embrace your scars.

Hmm, now that’s something worthy of some permanent body art.


The hidden meaning behind “shop till you drop”

From The Clothes Whisperer:

From The Clothes Whisperer:

shop till you drop|colloquial expression| to shop until physical resources are exhausted

I wish I could be covered in seasonal tattoos. In the winter, there would be one on my wrist, on my upper inner arm, on my back (a long one down the middle), along my rib cage, across my chest – like the pallid, curvy girl that cut my hair once in Soho and had enormous red roses tattooed in lush bouquets all across her décolletage. Then I’d add one down my inner thigh, another sprawled on my calf and, finally, one twinkling around my toes. Little blue stars.

But then the summer would come and it would be Botticelli’s Venus. With sand underfoot, I’d go through the seasonal ritual of the first undressing to reveal my pale skin – recently awoken from hibernation – abuzz. A stray crab would then scamper across the expanse of me taking with it all markings, as if a spider’s web had gotten tangled in its rushed claws. The ocean waves would get rid of any lingering evidence and uninterrupted purity would be restored – fresh as sheets.

But, again, I wish it were seasonal. All winter long, I’d go around with these secrets stashed under my clothes like black lace. I’d smile for no apparent reason as I walked along the street in my overcoat and hat and scarf in the private knowledge of what lay beneath. Only one person would know about my secret and we’d exchange it in hushed voices at night.

To be honest, that‘s what goes through my head as Male Fashion Week spins around our flat on via Tortona. Little did we know, when we chose our Milanese lilypad, that we were landing in fashion showroom central. Male models – some of them rather imposing – rush about discussing plans amongst themselves in thickly accented English as varied as a fruit salad. They then abruptly disappear into who knows what secret doors. I’m still not entirely sure they’re not slipping through the slits in the street drains, which would make this all one big tragedy. Even with the apartment of models clearly visible from our living room window, my excitement about the whole thing lasted about as long as it takes to coo at a red squirrel. In about 10 seconds, I was more than happy to have it scurry off.

Saturday brunch was an entirely different affair. We landed ourselves a table ideal for people-watching at our snooty corner café (with the -unfortunately – delicious juices). The pop art tributes made from compacted drinking straws and the cosmonaut bean bags should have tipped us off that this was an “IT” place. Sipping our dulce de leche cappucinos by the window, we could see the hoards of carefully outfitted folk making their way… to a showroom?… to a secret sewer passageway?… chi lo sa di sicuro? Despite the glass pane between us, a complex and ever so slightly condescending smell of leather, perfume and the need for recognition wafted in form outside. The careful combinations that pranced by our brunch window were painstakingly put together – studied to the stitch! And – it may have been from the momentary lack of caffeine at that “early” hour – but I could almost swear I saw at least two ensembles walk past unaided by the superfluous accessory of a human body. I am certain, however, of the pair of pink glitter platform heels sported by a very tall bald man in a cheetah coat.

I felt the underground passageway hypothesis gaining ground within me. The sense of urgency about this crowd was palpable: the resolute pace (well, except for the dude in glitter), the tense sideway glances. With the exception of the gangly bunch in the back dangling their long lens cameras ever so low and loosely from the neck (and thereby conjuring up all sorts of ridiculous images), most others held their cameras steadfast – ready to shoot to kill. Oh this was to be quite the free-for-all in the underworld today – à la Hunger Games – and, yes, I am well aware that, when it comes to fashion, that pun works on many levels.

You naughty coiffed, curdled and contrived little warmongers, you! How is it that I only now grasp the full meaning of your classic slogan “shop till you drop”? I’m so on to you! Thank God for my present consumerist diet.

Coming out of the shadows of 2012

La Dolce Vita - people watching in style


binge |noun| a short period devoted to indulging in an activity to excess

I woke up this morning to find myself in a strange bed. (Oh my – just realized that sounds rather Kafkian. I haven’t turned into a giant insect, have I? Luckily, not yet!) As reality slowly comes into focus, I realize I’m lying in the middle of a spacious Milanese loft, with Botox stretching at my feet and the temptation of designer sunglasses tapping at my window – despite the typical morning fog. How did I get here? – I wonder. Memory makes an appearance. That’s right – I DROVE 4,000 KMS ACROSS EUROPE! OK, readers. We have some catching up to do.

Upon arriving in Lisbon just in the nick of time for Christmas, my cute little nephew asked me if we’d arrived on the orange plane. Perceptive little guy, isn’t he? In an era of low cost airlines, road trips are as few and far between as ATMs are in Milan – and yet a road trip was what got Luis, Botox and I home for the holidays.

In our case, it began with a morning game of “How Many People Fit in a Mini Cooper?” (replacing “people” with “crap”, of course). After that, came the binge – the kilometer binge. But kilometers weren’t the only things being gobbled up ravenously.

Given that Mr. Botox was taking up the entire trunk of the car, any little change to the volume we humans occupied and there could be no guarantees the delicate equilibrium keeping the backseat doors shut would be sustained. So we knew we were putting our lives at risk with each gastronomic stop. But we took our chances. We took our chances in Paris, we took our chances in Honfleur, in Bordeaux, in Saint Jean de Luz, in Santander. We took our chances with Bordeaux reds, with Calvados, with oysters, with Norman cheese, with foie gras, with baguettes and with tapas. So, little nephew, the orange plane may be cheap and fast, but there is no joie de vivre in its stale overpriced sandwiches.

And thus Christmas came and went. Given that we are living a year based on experiences and not things, we decided to skim down the Christmas presents this year. Our brave announcement was something along the lines of “The only ones getting gifts from Tia Mariana and Tio Luís this year… are the littl’ones (and only if they are shorter than Tia Mariana). This is a limited circle indeed and terrible news for the nephews going through growth spurts – eek! The time we didn’t spend buying last minute Christmas presents and aging in last minute Christmas queues, we spent actually doing things with our friends and family. We gave people ourselves for Christmas, I guess. In retrospect, I get that they may have been disappointed – ha ha!

And so another road trip with a stop to visit some friends and slide down some ski slopes, brought us to Milan roughly 48 hours ago. That’s how I ended up in this bed, in a beautiful loft, set in a trendy Milanese neighborhood where fashion showrooms and design galleries abound, where coffee is delicious and inexpensive, where whenever I call Botox in the street, half of the heads turn around thinking I’m calling them. (And I swear – I saw a resurrected Michael Jackson yesterday coming out of a Smart.)

And so what is my inkling for the next three months? I think Erica Jong may have gotten it right when she said:

“What is the fatal charm of Italy? What do we find there that can be found nowhere else? I believe it is a certain permission to be human, which other places, other countries, lost long ago.”

As I read this, I imagine myself wading in the Fontana di Trevi in a long black gown, my head thrown back à la Fellini – oops, wrong city, wrong season and wrong decade. Plus, I’ve lived in Italy before and I know it’s not all roses, even if it always smells like it. Regardless, I’ll be doing my own avid research over Milanese coffee, aperitivi and people watching. I’m pretty sure I’ll love this city all over again (little secret: I’ve lived here before). And I may just have to get those designer sunglasses after all. How else am I expected to people watch discreetly? In the end, it’s a question of artistic necessity.

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