I didn’t have anything that resembled a clue which bus to take on a Monday morning in November last year. Instead I studied a fold-out street map of Milan, scribbled a crude map onto the back of an Esselunga receipt and strode out of the apartment block, through the green gates and onto Via Airolo. Thirty minutes to walk six inches on the map? Easy, I thought, forgetting that I hadn’t checked the scale of the map. The streets in Milan were splattered with more dog shit than I’d ever seen. A great deal of nimble footedness was required if you were to successfully make it from A to B without caking your soles in it. It was a strange conflict of emotions that I felt that morning; all at once outraged that citizens should think it acceptable to let their canines squat, shivering in the icy Lomabardian winter wind, squeeze a moist one out onto the pavement then walk off without any outward display of embarrasment, chastising of the dog or attempt to scrape it up with a few sheets of newspaper – yet – in a total state of innocent wonder that there still exists here the dried, white fecal matter we lovingly remember from our childhoods. They must still add bonemeal to their dogfood in Italy – what a discovery – I hadn’t seen that shit in twenty years! Forty minutes later – the route I’d sketched had taken me up and onto a raised section of dual-carriageway with little in the way of a pavement – I turned right onto a road named Via Castellino da Castello. This matched the pencil scribblings on another little piece of paper I had in my pocket. My Scuola Materna was on this road. I found it – Number 5 – and kept on walking past, gradually breaking into a run until I found a children’s playground to sit in. What on earth was I doing here? I began to panic. I was about to walk into an Italian state-run pre-school and teach English, alone, to a room of twenty screaming five year olds who’d most likely never heard a word of English in their tiny, thus far meaningless lives. I can assure you this is a more daunting task than a lecture theatre of thirty advanced level teenagers. I’d done that four months previously and it was a breeze. So there I sat on a park bench in the cold, loading little white rocks into my crackpipe before lighting and inhaling to the pits of my lungs, which I can assure you is probably an extended metaphor for taking a few deep breaths of crisp Milanese air before marching in there. It turned out to be a delightful morning where I found out the favourite colours and animals of each and every one of those little knee high beings. All in Italian of course as they couldn’t even say ‘Hello!’, but I was about to change that by introducing them to the Disney themed ‘Hello Song!’ that I had on CD. I gathered them into a circle and pressed play. I’ve broken copywright law and made a video slideshow of the ‘Hello Song!’ accompanied by some pics of my time in Italy. Enjoy.
Lyrics (my own signature dance moves follow in brackets):
Hello Children! How are you? x 3 (WAVING. SMILING. JUMPING. WINNING!)
Fine, thank you! We are fine! (Thumbs UP in the air, spinning in a tight circle)
Hello! Hello! Hello! (PUNCHING the air and shouting ‘Hello!’)
Hello! Hello! … (Mime counting to 3 in the air before final Hello)
HELLO!!! (Jump and touch the SKY)
…collapse… (Get breath back before kids demand encore after encore after encore after…)
I have just calculated as accurately as possible how many times I must have sung and danced to that song in my 5 month stint in Italy. Two thousand four hundred.
I can look back upon my time in Milan and confidently say that I had a good time. It may not have felt like it at times, especially in the deepest, dark-grey recesses of the Northern-Italian winter when outside of the pretty Centro Historico, the rest of the city was about as depressing as watching a looped slow motion video of a dog being put to sleep. The nightlife was shockingly poor for a city of 1.3 million residents and there were times when I just wished I was back in Seoul for a manic 12 hour binge, farting raw soju out of my backside and lighting it, watching the terrific trail of flame arc over the side of the rooftop terrace of Roofers pub in Itaewon, as my friends laughed – Oh, how they laughed in my dreams!
Things we did do well in Milan were dinner parties with copious amounts of Peroni and Chianti to wash down the fantastic food. There were two flats of teachers living on the same street – Via Airolo, nr Maciachini – in gated apartment communities. Every now and then we’d have each other over for exquisite Italian feasts, really making the most of the dazzling array of high-quality ingredients, one thing I actually preferred about Italy over Korea. Enormous artichokes, bright purple aubergines, fresh fish, cured meats, killer pesto, astounding olives, and when we didn’t feel like cooking we lived next to a good pizzeria – I was in foodie heaven.
Winter began mercifully to recede towards the end of February and the feeling of the city completely changed. The sunshine invaded dark corners of streets I had originally felt oppressed walking down, and in the warmth and glow of a slowly breaking Spring, hidden beauty was revealed in their architecture. Some even became a joy to stroll down in the mornings in search of a short, bitter espresso and cornetto – the classic Milanese breakfast for on the go. The strongest coffee imaginable, and something resembling a croissant – not, as you might be imagining from the name, a conical ice-cream from the UK. I started seeing a pretty Italian girl named Loredana, older than me by three years, but nothing much had the chance to blossom as I’d already accepted a job offer from my old boss in South Korea, that was to begin on March 28th. I missed Korea hugely and once the thought was planted in my mind there wasn’t ever really a chance I’d stay. I accepted and handed in my four weeks notice to the company. On my last night in Italy, a Thursday night, Loredana, her sister Maria and friends threw me a going away party at their apartment on a very long road that kept changing names as you went up it – Via Carlo Imbonati, Pellegrino Rossi, Alessandro Astessani… Once up the creaking staircase in their ancient building, we knocked on the door and it was opened by Maria who told us Loredana was still in the process of getting ready, but to come on in and help ourselves to food. Platters of ham, cured meats, cheeses, olives and breadsticks were laid out upon a table. I couldn’t believe they’d gone to these lengths for me – it was completely lovely. Maria poured me a glass of red wine as I set down the bottles I’d bought on the red table cloth. Then Loredana appeared in a little black dress that I still remember to this day. It was quite stunning and I made sure to tell her so. “Damn! Am I really leaving Italy tomorrow?”, I thought. The night wound on and lots of Italians turned up. I didn’t know half of them but they were very friendly and good company – we quickly set about getting to know each other so that we might at best feel a drunken sense of cameradery by the end of the night – it was after all my leaving party. My British friends Rob and Cameron made their excuses and left, leaving me happily pouring red wine down my throat. By this point, 11pm, a guitar had appeared and I joined in with their loud Italian singing where I could. I impressed them by singing all the words to a famous partisan protest song, Bella, Ciao. It had also been used to accompany a famous protest video made by the Iranian Green Movement, who I’d spent a month with earlier that year. I had learned the lyrics by listening to and eventually joining in with my Iranian friends.
Then there was Italian folk dancing mixed with a little bit of flamenco, which the two sisters were expert at and tried their best to teach me. At one point I had one of them clasped to my chest, right hands held together and thrust out in front of us, a bright red rose held by the stalk between my teeth, ten Italians singing with zest and playing guitar, everyone really happy and pissed. I think it was approaching 2am when a knock was heard at the door and we were told to keep it down. “Last year we had the police around!”, said Maria. “But we don’t do this kind of thing too often”.
The next afternoon I flew to Dubai on Emirates, where I spent a full day, before boarding an Airbus 380 to Seoul.