It was with great excitement that I left for Italy in April 1971 to start working with Mila Schön in Milan. Spring was in the air so Milan looked so much brighter and I also felt so much more positive. I could understand that language a little bit better so all this helped. I booked into a hotel ,as I came a few days before the end of the month to get myself settled in.
Mila Schon .Via Monte Napoleone 1
My Italian teacher in London arranged for me to stay with a family in Milan so that helped me a lot.
Signora Castiglione lived with her son that was about my age. Her husband left ,and as divorce was not allowed by the Catholic Church in Italy , he left her without any support .She rented out the main and only bedroom- in the apartment .I asked he in my broken Italian where she and her son slept? She said "Oh ,we sleep upstairs". Later I found out that she and her son slept on a roll-out bed in the living room. She was very surprised that as I was from Africa, that I was a Caucasian. Almost every Italian I met during that time had two things to say ."Che alto e non e nero! " (How tall he is- and he is not black!") She explained to me that her present lodger will still be staying with her for another month, but she has arranged for me to go and stay with a friend of hers, who lived around the corner. Signora Cubino was about 80 years old and a about 4'6" tall. The sweetest and kindest grandmother that you could wish for. I like her immediately .I arranged with her that I would move in the next day.
After work during the evening she would help me practice my Italian and would point at different things in the apartment and teach me the Italian word for it. I would also have to converse with her only in Italian as that is all she understood. In Milan many Italians do speak French or some German but really not much English. The Milanese dialect sounded very much like French and they even counted like the French. I was easier to learn Italian being surrounded by it for 24 hours a day. I also went to he movies quite a lot to learn the language .At work I would tell them about the movie I saw but more often than not what I understood to be the plot was not it at all! I still did not understand it all, that would take a lot of time!
We lived in a neighborhood near Piazza Verdi .What thrilled me even more was that Maria Callas and her husband Meneghini lived in the same neighborhood when they were still married .I walked past that house many a day on my way to the metro.
Watch this video of Maria Callas in her Milan home.
My room at Signora Cubinno looked out onto the street so it was more private, but when I moved to Signora Castiglioni after a month, my room faced the courtyard .From the window at Signora Cubino's apartment I could also see Mount Blanc on a clear day in the far distance ,one of the peaks in the Alps.I bought a small transistor radio and listened to opera most of the time. I was amazed at how they pronounced Sutherland's name." Personaggi Interpretti "J_O_A_N S_U_D_E_R_L_A_N_D .They pronounced every letter like in Italian.
That little radio was my saving grace. I felt so lonely in a country where I did not know the language that well. At least I knew the music and that brought the rest of the world closer.
Margaret Smith and a friend came from London to Milan for a few days on their way to Como ,so it was nice to see a friendly face that I knew.
It was fascinated by the Italian way of life. These big apartment blocks in Milan had big courtyards in the middle so one could look out of your window and look into the apartments that faced the courtyard as well .It was far away but if you did not close the shutters it offered very little privacy. Sound also traveled very well .So living there one was on a stage. Everybody knew each other's business. They all gossiped and generally made each other's lives hell .
Apartment block in Milan
These apartment blocks all had a nosy " portiere" who sat in a little office downstairs and before you could enter the building -or the elevator -she wanted to know everything about you. She lived in an apartment near the front door. So she knew what went on in that building day and night!
Needless to say she knew everything about the tenants. Who is having an affair with who. Who's daughter was fooling around and with who. She would make you life very difficult if you did not tip her and be very nice to her. Signora Castiglioni was petrified of her and I had to lie and say I was a cousin's son staying with her and her son. She was not allowed to sublease to me, so we had to be very secretive. As the portiere knew she was lying she did not like her. As a young male ,my life was so much easier.
Men are treated like gods in Italy .Since birth the mother and sisters carry the brothers and the other men of the family on their hands. The males are treated like gold ,and told how beautiful and clever they were. I was surprised by this word "bello".It was used very freely towards men. Because I was so much taller than the average Italian man (I am 6'3"- 1.87 meters ) they were fascinated with my height .Quite often when they met me it was always " che bello- e alto" (How beautiful and tall.)
The "Bella Figura" is the main thing in Italian society. "To keep up appearances. "Their lives were lead in a manner of "what will the neighbors say? One is always under scrutiny. A woman once almost fell out of her seat on the metro, just to see what shoes I was wearing .When she saw me looking at her she smiled and gave me an approving smile ! Signora always wore a house coat and slippers at home ,but when she went out she dressed to the nines .No matter that it was the same outfit every day. When she went out in public she looked great. Nobody will criticize you , but don't try and walk in the street with your house coat , you will never hear the end of it
The Galleria between la Scala and Palazzo Duomo
On Sunday afternoons the family dressed up for the "passagiata" or afternoon walk .All were in their Sunday best and walked down the street to be admired ,and to admire. The rich people went to the Galleria-the shopping gallery between La Scala Opera House and the Piazza Duomo. There they parade up and down in their designers clothes .The women -and men -were exquisitely dressed. The woman wearing luxurious fur coats and hats, with beautiful leather accessories. The woman are so beautiful and the had the hair styled and wore flawless make up .As they paraded through the Galleria one could recognize the latest styles from the all the top Italian fashion houses.
The Duomo in Milan.
The husbands would also walk together, their arms hooked behind their wives hooked in as well .Touch between men in Italy is much different than we are use to. They touch each other faces and kissing on the cheek is very common. I saw it in Italian movies, but it was quite common to see it on the streets in Italy. They are a very passionate people. In the Galleria you would see groups of men arguing about politics and anything else under the sun. Arguments will be become very heated and they screamed at each other and almost pushed their fingers up into each other noses ,but that is as far as it went. I never saw it becoming physical. Italians are very emotional and grown men will burst out crying when their soccer team did not win. I also saw young guys sobbing on each other's shoulders at the Palio in Sienna when their horse did not win the race! In the opera house they behave like lunatics when they love ,or hate a singer! They walk around with their hearts on their sleeve. Murders of passion is quite common and understood by everybody. No wonder opera started in this country. Every day is a new opportunity for drama. It can get to you after a while.
"Il Palio " Horse Race in Sienna-
"La Mamma" ran the house and the family and she was respected very much. Think of all the songs honoring her in Italian. In most cases ,once she had the title " Signora "and had her kids, she felt she did her duty and the kids took over her life until she died. The men folk went out to dinner at night on their own, while their wives and children stayed home! In a lot of cases she is accepting of him having a girlfriend on the side, as long as he did not embarrass her . A lot of French lived their lives the same way.
In the morning I would get a brioche and coffee at a bar and that was breakfast. One started work at 10:00 am and then worked until 1:00 pm.Then most people went home to their families to have lunch and have a rest. At 4:00 pm all went back to work -all fresh, and dressed in new clothes ready to go out after work at 8:00 pm. It was very difficult ,and a waste of time ,when one did not have a family. I wandered the deserted streets of Milan for 3 hours every work day. When the weather permitted I would buy some cheese and a roll and go to a park and read my book. The Milan Cathedral "The Duomo" was close by and also very cool. When it was a very hot day I would go there, kneel and rest my head on my hands and take a nap. The priest must have thought I was a very devout Christian. Sometimes a student organist would use the organ for practice and the was glorious listening the mighty organ thundering away. Churches stayed open all day so people would wander in and out for a quick prayer. I loved doing that. Religion was not meant for Sunday only. After work I would go to restaurant that offered a "Prezzo Fisso"menu. (Fixed Price) Usually one would start with a small salad or a dish of pasta. Then a small piece of meat and one vegetable -on a separate plate. A piece of fruit or cheese and coffee will complete the meal. This came with bread and a glass of wine. Even in the cheapest restaurants one could find great food and I never went hungry!
After this I would take the metro home. Signora Castiglioni had my bed turned back by then with a cold bottle of water (sensa fizz) on the bed table. My pajamas were folded on my pillow and the shades were down .My own mother never treated me this well. She caught me washing my socks and underwear one night and told me very firmly that no man washed his underwear in her house She will do it! She carried her son on her hands as well. He was a communist and tried to persuade me to share my meager salary with him! He had lengthy discussions with me about the greatness of Communism. In Italy they did not really understand Communism it was practiced in Russia it was more Socialism that hey wanted! No work with pay is what appealed to him. In his eyes I was a fascist!
The apartment was a one bedroom with a big double front door that opened into an entrance hall.
A elevator that consisted of a wrought iron cage which ran up and down in the middle of a winding staircase. The apartment had a colored marble patterned floor that was very beautiful and looked to me if it should be in a museum!
To protect the marble from our shoes we each had two quilted pads that you put your feet on and then you skated through the apartment like that. It cleaned and also polished the marble that shone like mirror! My bedroom had two single beds in it and furnished very well. The big window had wooden shutters to keep out peering eyes- and the heat during the day.
The bathroom had the bath , washbasin as well as a bidet. As I was only allowed one bath a week.
I quickly learned how to use a bidet .I protested the one bath a week and she agreed that for a extra payment I could have two baths a week. They thought I was crazy. Who bathed twice a week?
Every morning Signora would give me a bowl of warm water to clean and shave. Using a bath cloth I learned to wash my body as most Europeans did, without bathing every day. I worked well but I never got use to it and counted the days I could have a bath. Signora watched ,or listened like a hawk and as soon as I had a about an inch of water in the bath ,she would knock on the door telling me that is enough water! It was the early 70's so we all had long hair. What a job that was to keep those tresses clean and well kept I eventually gave up and cut my hair shorter. Working at one of Milan's top fashion houses I had to keep up appearances! When the Portierre found out that I was working for Mila Schon-she always pulled in her stomach when she saw me! She spread the word so all of a sudden most of the other tenants started smiling and greeting me.
Sexuality in Italy always surprised me.One had the idea that the country was run by the Vatican with no divorces allowed ,and girls were expected to be pure when they walked down the aisle in their white bridal gown. One night coming from work I saw some girls standing on the corner with cars slowing down .When the cars stopped the girls would get in and be driven off. It did not take me long to realize that these girls where doing "it " for the money. This was a very decent neighborhood but nobody cared .I later heard from Signora that a married women in the apartment building was "a girl of the night". She got dressed up at 9:00 pm ,kissed her husband and kids good night and went to work.
Most young people lived with their families until they were married, and even after so there was no place to go. The little Fiat 500 ,better know as the "cinque cento" where the "passion wagons of the time. One learned to advert your eyes when you saw people in a parked "cinque cento". Affairs were very common and specially at work most of the married girls I got to know, where having affairs .As long as the other party did not know all was well. The husband was most probably doing the same thing. I am sure this went on all over the world but in Italy "amore" is very important and people spoke about it more. The world had about ten years of free love left before AIDS but a stop to all this .After a few months I was starting to speak Italian a little better but not fluently yet. When one went to a gathering, people were very friendly and for the first few minutes they loved to speak English to you and show off .They spoke English mostly with an American accent ,as that was what they heard from the tourists .After a while they got bored with concentrating to speak English and the party will move away and I would sit there crossing my fingers or keeping a conversation going with some other person that would wish they were somewhere else. It was a very lonely time for me I was very surprised that so few people spoke English.
The Last Supper
Milan was not such a tourist trap as the rest of Italy was. They came to see the last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci , la Scala and the Duomo-the only Gothic Cathedral in Italy -but there was not much else to keep a tourist happy . Milan was, and is a big industrial city and offered much less to the tourist than Rome, Florence or Venice. This was one reason that English was not spoke more often.