Milan: World of Work

The World Of Work

Shock, I suppose, is something we should all push into our lives.

So it was – on impulse, in flight, in sickness – I fled England for Italy. Forever. Or something. 

The shock was finding myself in Milan, a dirty, dusty, city where, instead of wishing you buongiorno people are prone to wish you buon lavoro: good work. Good God. For someone whose idea of work was filing his nails and putting on the Prince album that was some shock. 

Later, a highly provoked and patriotic Milanese would snap at me: “What do you know about the world of work?”

It turns out the real secret to life in Milan, a kind of happiness, is moving to Florence. That aside, the next best thing is avoiding the swarms of English teachers and American models that insist on living there.

The first are merely dull, the latter spectacularly stupid. (“Aren’t those pigeons cute?!” No pigeon on earth is cute.) Sadly, for those of us otherwise unskilled und unacceptably poor, both professions are practically compulsory. I tried both and found teaching to be the real fun. Private English lessons consist of being paid 25,000 lire an hour to be entertained by 12-year-olds like Paolo and Giovanna, who say things like: “my wife, she is a good cooker.” Meanwhile, their delicious, doting, mothers feed me cakes, coffee and cognac. It’s fun. Or something.

Other lessons consist of reading Byron to the landed gentry (who have cooks, maids, mountain retreats, and de Chirico paintings on the wall), teaching journalists to say: “eet peeses me off, Jim, yes,” and conversation lessons with a man who had previously learned his English from studying Roget’s Thesaurus and from whom the mention of a word like ‘beautiful’ would incite a list of alternatives: “Oh, yes ! Lovely, radiant, leonine, pulchritudinous…” Another woman had watched enough episodes of EastEnders to authoritatively produce phrases like “Gis the dosh” and “Cor, wot a bleedin’ palaver, eh?” but not much else.

And whilst I’ve always resolutely followed the WC Fields approach to work, drink, and children, there were moments – when they said, “I want steak and smashed potatoes”, or answered “how old is she?” with “half past three” (for three-and-a-half) when I looked into the kids’ wide, brown, eyes and innocent hearts and realized I would never know how they will grow up or what the world will do to them. By the end of Spring I would gladly have taught them for nothing. (Do I mean this?) Now I miss them.

Such sentiment does not suit Milan, where the Milanese have commandeered the work ethic and stepped it up a few gears.

Having tried it for the first time after twenty-three years of heroic resistance, after a few weeks I found myself on the dreaded treadmill: work – eat – sleep, wheat – slurp – eek – sleek – erp – weep. Weep. The sheer shock made me iller than ever and after weeks of perilously taking enough medication to raise the dead I have survived solely to inform you, warn you, that the work ethic is a formless, hideous, fallacy. There is no pleasure in an honest day’s sweat. It’s a grim conspiracy: a sick joke.

My comrades, the Romans, are fond of saying “why should we work when we have our slaves in Milan?” Escaping to Rome, Florence, Turin, and above all Naples, I am, once again, allowed to do what I do best: nothing.

Back in Milan, the yellow cabs are never dirty, the ancient trams are never late, and at night teams of men clean the streets with passion.

In their eagerness to get to work, they drive like men and women possessed. From my window, I watch 85-year-old grandmothers sprinting for their lives across the zebra crossings as the psychotic Autobianchi drivers swerve expertly around them, beeping their horns, and swearing at them out of their windows for the hell of it. (And yes, that’s just the women…)

There are more cars parked on the pavement than the street and pavement pile-ups are commonplace. Pedestrians are hunted as inferior, inadequate and, somehow, unpatriotic.

Meanwhile on the Metro, the Milanese walk sixty yards to take an escalator when the exit is at the top of the stairs fifteen yards away. Then they will sprint to the office. I do not understand this, but then I have pledged that I do not want to understand such people. (This thought is confirmed when I learn that in Milan the commuters go on strike, invading the track, and blocking the trains they are waiting for. Truly, comrades, this is what work does to you.)

Milan’s weakness is money (usually too much of it). Mmmmmmmmoney. The other ‘M’ on the Metro signs is thus explained. Such is the Milanese’s distrust of anything vaguely reasonably priced I was forced (against my will) to double the price of my lessons to £15 an hour for conversation lessons before being inundated with requests. Meanwhile, down Via Montenapoleone or Via Manzoni the moneyed men parade their wives in the same way their wives parade their fashion: with money. Unlike London, and even Paris, the Dynasty legacy still thrives. Whether 16 or 60, they still clad themselves in shoulder pads like hunchbacks, with jewelry and make-up by the bucketful. High fashion: low style. Milan’s fashionable youth are a disappointment, too, with none of the flair or verve of young London. None of the individualism or the cheek.

At Plastic, you will get past their door policy with mere Top Shop style: beret, shades, mini and polo. The year’s show prizes went to Versace, Krizia and Romeo Gigli with other highlights being Scorsese’s Klein-‘inspired’ Armani TV ad and Trussardi’s fabulous posters: “Nervoso, elegant, un’po blasé, Trussardi.”

The biggest poster in Milan is Armani’s 70-foot-poster off Via Moscova, which the kids on the trams always thrill over, and rightly.

The money means Milan has none of the relishable tension of Rome, Turin, Naples, not even in the loathing they accord the beggars that drag their crutches and dirty, shoeless, babies down to the swankiest streets, where they wait to dig their bony fingers into you so that you can still feel them clutching at you for days after.

There are some images so stupidly staid, perfectly clichéd, it’s hard to take them seriously: two Arabs in Porta Venezia Metro with syringes dangling from their arms as office workers, tourists, and school kids bustled past them for lunch. Or one beggar staggering down the ludicrously affluent, privileged Via Spiga, bent double, head hidden under a filthy shawl, her body positively warped and her hand outstretched with a battered box of coins twitching like a nervous reflex whilst the richest, most complacent hearts in Milan swanked by her. Their full-length Chinchilla furs could keep her for years.

One fights not to become blasé at the sight of the handicapped, crippled, or AIDS sufferers who beg around Piazza Duomo. Exiting Garibaldi Metro, I see a completely ordinary 60-year-old woman with her hand tiredly held out. Later a well-dressed gypsy, as ever overacting, tries to sell me a biro. There is still something wholly distasteful about seeing a blind man begging on the steps of a church.

But ignoring beggars, it seems, is practically de rigueur for any well-meaning Catholic. Like the cheap porn mags that litter their newsstands (Hard, Turbo, the surreally titled The Hours) and the movies (Anal Sandwich Orgysurely being a mistranslation), it all provides the necessary guilt.

Although Last Tango In Paris has just been unbanned, after ten years, Milan has more prostitutes (all new furs and bruises) than paninari (all cowboy hats and no brains), with a booming industry for the frankly, beautiful, beautifully frank, Brazilian transvestites who flock here.

The Italians seem to cherish and defend their religion like a wife to whom they are unfaithful: relishing the guilt, enjoying the weakness and carrying on regardless. At least they take their superstition just as seriously.

In fact, there is a new religion in Italy: football. Italy is a country where every league match in two divisions is previewed and post-viewed like a weekly World Cup so that even the referees are awarded marks out of 10 in both halves for every league match and given their own Performance League Table, and the news has regularly been delayed to show live coverage of an Under-21 international, an Olympic Qualifier or even a friendly.

The sexiest person on television, Roberto Bettega, fronts a show that interviews, examines, and discusses every player, president, and person involved in every team.

I would imagine they spend more time in training diving for penalties than actually scoring them. Nil-nil results matter little against such a frenzy of gossip, scandal, and rumour, nearly all of which concerns the stranieri: Platini, Boniek, Passarella, Junior, Rush, and, of course, Maradona.

Maradona’s domination over Italian football is such that when he was suspended, the daily sports paper headline was “AT LAST! A DAY WITHOUT MARADONA.”

It’s a moving soap opera.

When the season finished they showed a live series of friendlies between Milan, Inter, Barcelona, Porto, and Paris St Germain, and then every match from the South American Championship. When Napoli won the Championship for the first time since the war, the police blocked the traffic to allow fans to complete painting the road blue and white, while shops carried cards with the Lord’s Prayer rewritten to describe Maradona’s and Napoli’s triumph. It’s a kind of mania.

It’s reassuring to hear commentators exclaiming: “Che bello il suo dribbling” or to find that the Italian for an Eddie Waring ‘up and under’ in rugby is ‘up and under.’ “Che bello il suo up and under.”

Sometimes I wonder whether I’m actually here at all. Milan’s outskirts, even in-skirts, are not so very unlike Croydon (except Milan has ‘il smog’) and the colonization of Italy as the 54th State of America is well underway. 

The kids hang out in Happy Days diner gangs, wearing college jackets, ponytails and bobby sox, chewing American gum and drinking Coke. Stallone and Nick Kamen are the new kings, Madonna is a new goddess. Italian boys are full of American bravado.

Meanwhile, the new Italian fast-food restaurants, like Ciao or Amico, are full of busy businessmen snatching a hasty lunch or dinner with their family. It’s classic Italian cuisine, except the bread rolls are hard, the wine is warm, the aqua minerale is flat, and the pasta has to be reheated in the microwaves provided. It’s a sorry sight, a tiny betrayal in every mouthful. But time is money in the world of work.

At home, with thirty-odd (very odd) TV channels, you are spoiled for choice: Happy Days, Charlie’s Angels, Agenzia Rockford, Missione Impossible. There is always Skippy, Il Kanguru. No-one seems to acknowledge the surrealism of following Diff’rent Strokes with a Pasolini film at 8.30 or a show from La Scala. Mork & Mindy dubbed into Italian makes still less sense.

But then everything, but everything, is dubbed. Italians have never heard Brando mumble or Nicholson cackle or Eddie Murphy laugh. De Niro is treated as a home-grown god, but they have never heard him speak. Dean and Monroe are the same. 

This month I’ve seen Connery as Bond, Caine as Harry Palmer, Eastwood in Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo, all dubbed. From JR to Spock, Woody Allen, Ronald Reagan, The Three Stooges, even Top Cat, all are alien to me. Laurel & Hardy are Stanio and Ollio. No-one seems to care that on The Streets Of San Francisco everyone on the San Francisco subway or the bars is talking in Italian. In The Little House On The Prairie, they all talk Italian and sing in perfect English. 

Some of this I can take (if I’m drunk), even Groucho and Woody Woodpecker, but Dex, dubbed, is not the man he was for me. And Krystle is still being kidnapped. It’s a hard life.

Videomusic, Italy’s MTV, offers little consolation, serving merely as a hypnotic water torture when they play Cocteau Twins in between Bryan Adams and Gary Moore, and it makes no difference. From my extensive study (one has to watch it), the only superb videos of the year have been Skin Trade (the year’s best record after The Slits’ Peel Session), Sign O The Times, and the B52s’ Ain’t It A Shame.

England, from afar, has become the place where one can no longer imagine what it will take before the British people vote Thatcher out of office; where Prince Edward goes on Saturday Superstore and Kinnock really does call Thatcher “wibbly-wobbly.” Did I dream Spitting Image?

Oh, and The Times reports: “The Pope, who is on tour in Germany…” And, of course, The Cult can’t really hip, Tom Jones is not still living, and Spear of Destiny did not have three hits.

It’s a shock to find what one misses, the degree to which English culture has its grip. I miss Harry Cross, cheap yoghurt, soggy Sunblest, and Morrissey (though they could all be the same thing), Desmond Lynam, Victoria Wood, Cheers, cream eggs, Brian Hayes, and cricket.

The moments that restore the balance, but don’t change it, are many: STOP cigarettes, ananas in gin, spaghetti vongole, tiramisu, Russian vodka, Grappa Julia through straws, blood oranges; seeing Rummenigge advertising cheese slices, toothpaste sponsoring boxing, or the Calgon ad dubbed into Italian; hearing an English colonel saying, “Grarziar, old man”; Italian phrases like “grazie ragazzi” and the word “bo” which means “…..” (shrug). 

I like watching my 187-year-old neighbour hanging out the contraptions that serve as her underwear, the Carabinieri’s machine-guns-and-eye-liner-leather-boots-and-Lucky-Strikes sex appeal; Bells at £3 (but not Cornflakes at £1.20); GBH playing a gig in Milan; the storms blowing open the windows and the thunder setting off all the car alarms, and everyone in the block leaning over the balconies watching the warm rain. Then I know it’s Italy.

And in Italy everywhere you go people are snogging. How do they do it? And at the end of A Room With A View the crowd sighs “ahhhh !” 

You have licence to wear shades at all times and they elect the likes of Cicciolina, a porn star, to the Rome Senate. On election day she is photographed in classic politician’s pose, voting card in hand…except the other hand is pulling down her bra to reveal her rather ample chest. The week after her victory La Repubblica reviews her strip show, describing her pissing over her audience (her voters). Only in Italy.

Priceless moments would be Venice Carnival masked kisses, Prince at Palatrussardi, Vespa joyrides in Florence, Siena Palio horse race, Prince’s birthday party at Hollywood, the Milan Duomo (enough to convert any smart-thinking, smug-thinking atheist – especially the statues frozen to the spires, staring out over the edge of the world), stealing BLITZ (this one, not the Italian porn one) from Feltrinelli, Helter Skelter punk club in Milan, Mussolini’s Stazione Centrale, the hush of the death card for the Tarot card reader in Via Brera.

Every weekend and all summer the Milanese evacuate, leaving the taste of the hot smog, and flee to the mountains. I join them and escape to Como, Bologna, Venice, Turin, Tuscany, where the hills and skies and trees are designed by Tarkovsky, and rediscover the real Italy of dusty football pitches, white church spires, swallows and lizards and balmy green evenings. Milan is not my idea of Italy.

Now escaped, I sit eating cherries, drunk with the sun and the Moskovokaya vodka. It’s the little things in life that count. And though exile is effortless, the winters kill and I am ignored by the whole of England, the moral will be: money and sun change everything.

As Roberto Benigni would say: “It’s a sad and beautiful world.”

The world goes by. You might as well live.