Tram 23

Tram number 23 bounces at the intersection, leans slightly, hissing as it turns. Then brakes clack, wheels slide to a halt, screeching along the rails; doors clatter, passengers hurry off. Something always calls me to alight a few stops earlier than I need to. I find myself in Piazza Tricolore. A luxurious hotel stands mockingly, next to the bleak, angular building of Milan’s Opera San Francesco, where every day at midday food is offered to those in need. It is nearly twelve. I wander past; there are far more people than a few years ago.

South, into Viale Premuda. A few baroque fin-de-siècle buildings, their façades decorated with acanthus leaves and lion heads, stand alongside far more numerous postwar blocks of flats, austere and simple. They were built after Allied bombs destroyed a quarter of the city in a single week. Ancient planes line the road; their gnarled roots and knotted trunks are about to swallow the tram rails. These trees are older than the bombs.

Further south, in Piazza Cinque Giornate, nobody stops to look at the memorial in the centre of the square. Tiny, yellow violas border a tall, copper-green obelisk, surrounded by fallen and mourning statues. The stretched arm of a woman reaches upwards, towards the golden star on top. There are many names of women on the memorial, for the Cinque Giornate (five days) was not a war but an uprising, and its heroes were not soldiers but Milan’s citizens. They drove Austrian invaders out of Milan, after a five-day insurrection in 1848. Field Marshal Radetzky was their foe; his mustachioed mug the symbol of the Austrian yoke. The uprising marked the beginning of the First War of Italian Independence; but after a few months Radetzky returned to Milan, marching triumphantly through the city door, in the same piazza where the memorial now stands.

Every year, Radetzky March closes the Wiener Philarmoniker’s New Year concert. I always watched the concert with my grandfather, who hated Austrians as much as he loved Austrian music. He taught me how to waltz; his brogues creaked as we slid across the marble floor, spinning one-two-three, one-two-three, while the orchestra played Blue Danube. All of a sudden there was the roll of a snare drum, then the brass allegro rising, bouncy, bright; I wanted to keep dancing to Radetzky March. “We can’t dance now, this is a march. For soldiers”, he said. We sat at the table: he looked up, glanced out of the window. He spent three years underground during the war, hiding in a cellar after deserting the Fascist Army. In the last years of his life he hardly ever went out, except to pick me up at school. He was a foot taller than everybody else: I never missed him in the crowd. He brought me bread and chocolate, and as we walked towards the tram he taught me the capitals of every country of the world. He used to say that, whatever happened, he would come to pick me up every day. Whatever happened, except for one thing. One day he was not there. I understood. I caught tram number 23 by myself, for the first time.


My London Fox

6310_10201002688096470_881612387_nThe first time I saw a fox was a winter night in 2005, near my flat in Ladbroke Grove.  Snow had just started to fall, frosting the tall hedges between the houses. The night had already acquired the muted stillness which is snow’s greatest gift to cities. It wasn’t long since I had moved to London; I remember being told there were thousands of foxes, but I thought it was some sort of urban myth. I crossed Portobello Road and continued south, towards Notting Hill Gate, when I saw a shape, silhouetted on the tobacco-coloured brick wall of the Colegio Espanol. It was blurred by the snow; at first glance I thought it was a dog. It turned into a side street; for an instant, the amber glow of a streetlight showed its gangly legs, its sharp muzzle. As quickly as it appeared, it was gone. I stood puzzled for a while. Foxes really lived in London.

It seemed like a paradox that foxes could live in a city of seven million people. London, however, is a city like no other; it is a city of commons and heaths, of parks as big as entire neighbourhoods. Foxes inhabit the grey area between wild and urban, between night and day. Present yet hidden, they show themselves in flashes. For years I did not see another fox. I felt them, though. Their presence, their traces were everywhere. I moved to Willesden Green, to a house with a small back garden. Their screams woke me up in the middle of the night. After the rain, I saw their tiny, rounded footprints in the mud. I put ribs of beef near the holes I believed were foxes’ dens. A few days later, I collected their chewed-up bones. I spent hours looking out the window, bored of my essays, determined I would see anther fox. All I saw were a pair of eyes near a hole in the back fence.

On the day I left London for good, I woke early. It was a chilly July morning, with a timid sun rising behind Victorian chimneys. Dawn slowly lit up my back garden; magpies scared flittering robins away, bumblebees danced around wilted daffodils. Three fox cubs entered carefully, tiptoeing along the back fence. Their fur was the colour of autumn. They had lost the fuzzy coat of when they are newly born, but their rounded jowls bore a faint trace of sharpness. Their paws were too big for their bodies; the cubs’ movements were still clumsy. They didn’t look stealthy and cunning, as I imagined a fox to be, but spoke of joy and bliss, of the light-heartedness of childhood.

I sat while my coffee got cold, my forehead pressed against the window. I couldn’t  believe what I was seeing. I had tried to see a fox for years, and now three cubs played in the garden, wrestling one another, bounding, jumping; then falling over on a heap of leaves, tripping over fallen branches. A vixen sat behind the bushes, near a hole in the back fence; I could only see her big hazel eyes, a patch of cream-coloured fur around her mouth.

The foxes left when the city awoke. I went to catch my flight.

Milano Centrale

In Milano, Stazione Centrale has a bad reputation. It’s dangerous, prostitutes pickpockets gypsies beggars junkies hang around. Stay away from it, they used to say to me. I didn’t listen. When I was a teenager, something drew me there. I thought it was the trains: it was the station.

I loved the platforms. I used to sneak past the men in the booths checking tickets; I would hang around waiting for them to be distracted, then dash through, crouching down, running at the rhythm of my nervous heartbeats. Luckily for me, more often than not, inspectors were too busy listening to the football on tinny transistor radios.

At 3 pm, the Freccia del Sud from Sicily would arrive. People got off the train holding cardboard suitcases, one tentative step after another, down the three metal steps. Men and women locking arms walked down the platform, under the enormous vaulted roof, supported by cast-iron beams and pillars, covered in decades of soot. Children rushed behind, carrying string bags bulging with food. I listened to their conversations. Tomatoes and aubergines from Milano have no flavour, they used to say.

A young couple sat on a marble chimera facing the platforms. He had a rough face, lined and browned by the Southern sun, proud eyes of darkness; I could not see hers, hidden by a wide-brimmed straw hat. I saw their hands, unwrapping a parcel containing roasted fish; his were working hands, large and yellowed by calluses; hers were deft and long-fingered, picking tiny, translucent bones from the fish. “When will we eat fish again?” he asked. “I don’t know. When we get back home, for Christmas. How can the fish be fresh, so far away from the sea?”

Sometimes, the emigrants would go to the souvenir shops at the end of the platforms, to buy gaudy Madonnas surrounded in twinkling lights. “For protection” they would say,    extracting oily notes from purses sawn to the inside of their trousers. Next door was the Wax Museum, where the exhibits were not half as interesting as the visitors. It was the only heated place, at the time. And it was free. The attendant booth was empty; the Museum was about to close for good. Meanwhile, in a flurry of skirts, gypsy women played the game of three cards, in front of the dusty wax-casts of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference. Two or three women sat on a park bench, their hands tossing cards back and forth on stained headscarves on their laps, while their fox-faced children collected bets. Punters watched, shrouded in cigarette smoke: they never guessed. Every now and then the police would come in and throw everybody out. I hid behind Marie Antoinette’s skirts, terrified, while the police and the gypsies exchanged insults I didn’t understand.

In 2005, the station was renovated. The soot was washed off, the trains from Sicily no longer exist. The wax museum has given way to high street stores. I only go there to catch trains now.