Milan’s World War II Bomb Shelters

This year marks 70 years since the end of World War II. We study the events in history class, perhaps have heard stories from a veteran, we can travel to concentration camps and other memorials and museums. These are all things I experienced but which, afterwards, returned to being detached from my existence. Of course they lived on in my memories as images and in the emotions I felt about them, but they were not part of my daily life.

In my area of Milan are two buildings that still carry the signs of having been bomb shelters during the war. The arrows have likely been repainted through the years to keep their memory alive, but even with such obvious signs, many people I point them out to are shocked that these arrows once indicated bomb shelters. The war, even when the Festa della Liberazione on 25 April comes around, has become a far off memory.

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Being a writer with a colourful imagination, when I pass these buildings, I have a rush of images of what it must have been like on the same street all those years ago… The sounds of a siren and airplane engines, the ground shaking, the women running hand in hand with their children, thinking only of survival, perhaps making plans to escape the city as sfollati to extended family in the countryside.

But nowhere was safe. Movies like 2009’s L’uomo che verrà (The Man Who Will Come) show us the dangers that lurked along the front after 1943, when Italy was divided between the Allied forces coming up from the south and the German army keeping hold in the north. That was when the real Hell began. The Italians were divided: Il Duce’s army together with the German, and the partigiani following the updates of the Allied forces and fighting for the freedom of their land. All of them were human, none of them were innately evil. I often wonder what it must have been like to just kill, be ordered to kill, because you were following orders, because you didn’t think you had a choice or because you believed killing was helping you fight for your cause. I judge no one, but recognise that children witnessed incredible violence, were confused with conflicting images and opinions about the different adults they saw, all based on which uniform they wore and perhaps which language they spoke, and whether they shared their bread with them or ordered their mother to hand over the last chickens and remaining meat.

And although the location has changed, what we witness as part of War has not. Below is a painting by my husband depicting the massacre caused by Allied bombs mistakenly dropped on an elementary school in Gorla, just outside Milan. This image with the dead bodies of children lined up could easily be in Gaza (the painting is entitled Da Gorla a Gaza [From Gorla to Gaza] for this reason). World War II remains a timely reminder of what man is capable of and the present-day has proven that man is still capable.

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Every time I pass these two bomb shelters, I touch the arrows. (Yes, I am the crazy woman caressing the cement!) I could be one of those women, running hand in hand with my daughter, thinking only of survival. And in that moment, I am one with all those living in war-torn areas, hoping that something will change.

“Once you bring life into the world, you must protect it. We must protect it by changing the world.” – Elie Wiesel

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Expo 2015: work in progress

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There are only 10 days to go before Expo 2015 opens in Milan. I’ve heard about where it is and heard updates from my husband every time he drove past the Expo construction site, but have spent all this time very disconnected from the event. Located a short distance outside Milan, it is interestingly positioned across the street from the Baranzate prison.

I don’t really know what Expo is supposed to be beyond a reason to bring countries together and more tourism to Milan. I know the theme is Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. I know some countries have backed out of Expo, but that 20 million people are expected to visit. I know tickets run around 30 euros for a 1-day visit and that a lot of money has gone into making Expo possible.

Today, Tuesday, 21 April 2015, my husband accompanied me to the Expo construction site, because I was interested in seeing it. Although, I kept hearing that it was still so far from completion, that the workers were working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to complete the convention centre by 1 May, I really didn’t expect to feel what I did while walking outside the perimeter.

As we drove up, I saw cranes at work, small makeshift buildings for the construction teams, I saw hints of the architectural design beyond the trees, trucks arriving and leaving, groups of business suits looking over documents and drafts. I saw men in orange vests and helmets and a bus arriving at 11 am with the next shift of construction workers. I suddenly saw Expo differently. There are people saying with a laugh “che figura faremo?!” (What kind of impression are we going to make?!”) because at 10 days from the grand opening, the Expo convention centre is still a work in progress. Perhaps parts won’t even be finished in time. For the last three years, I’ve seen Italy’s economy suffer, seen how Expo might not be beneficial for us. I worry that maybe we will have invested so much money and not get the return we need to keep our city and country going.

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But as I climbed onto the fence of the Baranzate prison to take photos of the construction site, everything changed. In a moment in which jobs are scarce, people are being laid off or are on unemployment with little to no prospect of finding work, Expo is giving a lot of people work. All those construction workers, whether they work day or night, are bringing home money to support their families.

In a country where our ex-Members of Parliament earn an endless and incredibly high pension, here are people who construct the possibility of a better future for all of us, whether it’s an extra convention centre for future events or the opportunity to see how we plan on feeding our planet in a more eco-friendly manner, how we plan on saving those who are undernourished and at high-risk of contracting deadly diseases, or learning more about the effects of obesity. Forget about the politicians, because those men in orange vests are the real labourers who keep our country going. These are the people who move the economy.

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I arrived at the construction site without any desire to see Expo. I left feeling that it is now an obligation for me as a sign of solidarity for all the construction workers who are making this event possible. I do not know what people will see in 10 days time from the exact spot I was standing, but what I do know is that they will see signs of hope for a better future.

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doing the laundry

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Italy doesn’t seem like such a different country and culture when you’re visiting the famous museums of Florence, sipping cappuccinos in piazzas and staying in comfortable hotels during a 10 day tour (cue an alternative version of the Gilligan’s Island theme song here), but once you’ve lived in this country for a decade, you’ve become an expert in the main differences between American home comforts and those in Italy.

The other night, my husband and I were watching a documentary about how washing machines became a common household appliance in Italy. Between amusing 1960s advertisements along the lines of “A woman’s responsabilities: taking care of the house, cooking, children, the school run” followed by the scene of her husband looking in a mirror and calling to his wife asking where his ties are (note: he was actually putting a tie on at the time), the reality that I do not have a dryer took on a different significance. Now, in all honesty, I don’t miss having a dryer and, although having laundry on a drying rack in my living room isn’t my ideal home decor, it’s never really bothered me.

While watching this documentary, I remembered my mother talking about the washing machine my grandmother had in the 1940s (It was an electric washer, but you needed to wring everything out separately!). And, although the costly washing machine made it’s way to Italy’s shores later than for American hourseholds, I wasn’t prepared to hear that, even in the 1970s, many families didn’t have one at home. So, I turned to my husband and asked him if they had a washing machine when he was a child and he said no. It took me a minute to soak it in. I asked if his mother went to a laundromat. Yes. (I felt a huge sigh of relief for my mother-in-law, who also worked fulltime). Ok, so when did they get their first washing machine? In 1982 or 83. Yes, you read that right.

In big cities like New York, there may be easy access to laundromats or shared washer/dryers in apartment building basements, but that’s not a reality I grew up in. I think most Americans who grew up in an middle class suburban setting like I did will experience the same sensation of shock panic as me. But there’s something to be taken from this that’s more important. We take a lot of things for granted. Most of us are living in relatively peaceful countries at little risk of genocide (although there’s the obsessive communication of what terror alert we might be at on any given day if we’re back stateside), we have easy access to clean drinking water, a pantry full of food that would take months to get through, can comfortably whip out our credit card at our local supermarket or even Whole Foods if we’re so lucky to be able to afford all organic all the time.

Instead, not so long ago and not so far away, women were struggling with more. No time for TV or even to read a book. Heck, rationing continued in the UK until the 1950s for certain products. Today, across the US, the UK, Italy and beyond, we see people of all ages, races and social statuses with computers, smart phones, tablets, we all shell out for overpriced lattes (ok, in Italy we don’t, unless you’re in one of those tourist trap cafés!), but in the end, the stories of our grandparents back in the states are the stories of parents here. Moving to the UK in 2000 changed how I viewed many things, but it was coming to live in Italy that I discovered how simple, difficult and beautifully profound life can be.

So, I raise my laundry basket to every woman who slaved over the waters of Vicolo dei Lavandai in Milan, to Cesira and Mamma Roma, because they didn’t have a washer or dryer or Whole Foods. They had no credit card, but just the few spiccioli in their purses. They lived off Mother Earth, depended on what they had at hand and on each other. They fought to just keep their heads above water, whether it was taking refuge in the countryside to escape the Allied bombs, or making ends meet selling vegetables at the market or selling something else at night…

The washing machine is recognition of feminine strength. A strength that couldn’t be subsituted by a man, but by a machine. (No offence intended!) A woman’s strength is found in daily life and in childbirth, her strength knows no exhaustion and when the washing machine came along, woman’s strength was liberated into the world, finally getting out of the house and becoming a more active part of the work force.

And just to make sure we don’t get too serious…

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the traditional Easter Monday daytrip (part 2)

What is the best thing about having a toddler in addition to her genuine laugh, serious temper tantrums and getting to hold someone’s hand anytime you want? The fact that in the afternoon, she takes a nice long nap in the car while we check out the countryside after having spent the morning and early afternoon in Pavia. When we got back to the car, my husband asked me if I wanted to drive to see the old bridge spanning the confluence between the Ticino and Po Rivers. (Of course out daughter insisted Po was a Teletubby and I insisted in return that he was a Kung Fu fighing Panda, because it wasn’t worth arguing that it was the name of a river she would fall asleep before even seeing!)

I always expected the countryside in Italy to be greener and have more trees. (Note: I love green so much, I got married in green!) I expected an emerald landscape and although Italy’s colours vary from region to region, outside Milan, the deep green fields I saw regularly on train rides throughout the UK have been replaced with paler shades and much hotter summers. But to make up for it, there is an expanse of land in all directions, in some areas mountainous and rugged, while in others, a plain leads the eye directly towards sea. I remember visiting so many castles and manor houses throughout England, but in Italy most are closed to the public or open only by appointment. It’s a pity, because if they were open to the ticket-buying public, tourists would quickly resolve our crisi economica! But Milan’s Castello Sforzesco is a tough one to beat anyway, so when we’re travelling, I let myself be enchanted by older farmhouses and cultivated fields.

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We often visit other towns to see historic churches with frescos or famous paintings my husband is interested in seeing. They’re always pleasant places to visit, but driving along 2 lane roads, past fields and houses, through the smallest towns just to reach the fields on the other side, to see a Trattoria where we should have eaten instead of sticking to a little city centre restaurant makes me realise that after 10 years I’ve still only scratched the surface, that I still haven’t gotten to the heart of this country.

There’s always something more that surprises me when we pull over to take a few photos. This painted barn with its images joining nature and technology… the simplicity of staying grounded in the earth and world travel. I’ve travelled very far to come home, more than returning to my ancestors’ roots, I find myself coming home to the meeting point between the life I thought I should be leading and the life I am living now. For me, Robert Frost’s words ring very true:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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the traditional Easter Monday daytrip (part 1)

If you aren’t already away for the entire Easter weekend, it’s likely that you (and everyone else who isn’t working Easter Monday) is either in your car or on a train to visit some location. Museums are open, the weather is good (hopefully) and Easter weekend marks the beginning of a series of Spring holiday weekends.

Many years ago (ok, so it was only maybe 8), I made the mistake of going to Como on Easter Monday. That’s how I discovered that basically every other Italian was taking advantage of his day off and going there too to walk along Lake Como and eat gelato. The old, dusty, rusty double decker train was packed. It was hot and stuffy and unexpected. The town was uncomfortably crowded, nothing like I had remembered it the first time I’d visited. But it was a learning experience.

Since then, and since getting married, we’ve chosen less popular destinations for our Gita di Pasquetta. This year, we decided that since it was nice, but not too hot, we would go to Pavia, about an hour’s drive outside of Milan. Pavia is a beautiful town with a lot of late Medieval and Renaissance architecture remaining. The grounds of the university have beautiful courtyards and the piazzas are full of traditional Italian cafès (as well as a few “Neapolitan” pizzerias) with al fresco tables under the sun. Milan isn’t so much like this (at least no longer to me now that I’ve lived here so long), so seeing these smaller cafè crowded piazzas reminds me of my first visit to Italy in 1995 visiting the main tourist sites… Florence, Siena, Rome, Venice… It’s now sparked my interest to revisit some of these locations now that I’ve been living here long enough that people either mistake my accent as French or don’t even notice I’m foreign until I make a grammar mistake. (At this point, my spoken English is unfortunately heavily inflected by Italianisms!)

These were some of my favourite details and impressions of Pavia this trip. I finally got onto Ponte Vecchio, but was saddened to discover that it wasn’t a footbridge. All my romantic ideals were shattered as modern cars wizzed by. But the anthropromorphic carvings on the outside of the Basilica di San Michele, the beautiful street views, the incredible (and totally unexpected power) of the marble in Pavia’s Duomo and views of the banks of the Ticino River more than made up for it.

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confession: that time I bought a communist newspaper

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Remember high school history class, those beaten up public school desks… the teacher talking about McCarthyism, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cold War? oh, I’ve got the chills now, because I’m about to confess that I once bought a Communist newspaper! And it gets even better, because… come closer to the screen so you can hear me whisper… it wasn’t the only time!

Ok, now that I’ve shocked the CIA awake and their probably planning an eruption into my tiny apartment (note for the CIA: please use the Mission Impossible theme music when you break down my door and I’ll make sure to have a ridiculous dress on to make a risqué getaway jump from the window!), yes, I have purchased with my own money, and in person from the giornalaio, a communist newspaper, Il Manifesto to be precise! Oh and it was a thrill and I held that baby proudly under my arm for all of centre city Milano to see as I went to meet a colleague (an Argentinian who was raised internationally before putting down roots in Italy) and we had a chat and a giggle about Il Manifesto and she told me that she knew someone who bought it regularly. OMG! That’s 2 degrees of separation from a real communist and she came from a politically unstable South American country! The CIA’s probably been keepin’ their eye on me ever since, right?!

Now, I know you’re thinking that I sound like I’m still a giddy school girl and you know that you’re right in thinking that, because I am still like that, but heck, even an American grown man would get giddy over buying Il Manifesto. Ah, but alas, that was many years ago, when I was young and impressionable and at risk of being led down the wrong path, one that would lead me to being exiled from my own homeland of the free. (Too late, I’m on year 15 of my self-imposed exile!) However, when I had the opportunity to buy Il Manifesto more recently, when my artist husband was the subject of an article in their sports section (it’s a long story!), I jumped on it saying “Io lo compro! Io lo compro!” (I’ll buy it! I’ll buy it!) and I felt just as giddy as I did my very first time at 25. But for every giddy laugh and twinkly-eyed smile I had as I told Signor giornalaio that my husband was the subject of an article, a piece of information the guy couldn’t have cared less about, there’s a downside, because  I’ve never really been a newspaper reader. Nowadays, I get my kicks from Yoga Journal… It’s like the same thing, right?

One last thing. Remember the old riddle “what’s black and white and red all over”?  You know you’re thinking what I’m thinking now! Although this riddle gets a little lost in translation with the words for red (rosso) and read (letto [past tense of leggere]) no where near being homophones, the intent of the joke comes through quite clearly. And yes, just in case your’re wondering, my choice of red lipstick was intentional!

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