Italy in December is cold and grey. Before the plane lands at Malpensa, all I see when from my window seat is misty weather, and I feel a chill come on once we get off the plane. Luckily, we are better prepared this time with appropriate apparels, and when Grace squeezes me with excitement, and tells me with that Ugandan accent of hers, that I have come to love so much, and as I write this, I feel a nostalgia for Kampala and the earthy warmth of most Ugandans – “we are here”, all that chill melts away and excitement eats at the vertigo and jet lag and the exhaustion of my three flights – the first very turbulent one hour fifteen minutes midnight flight from Nairobi to Entebbe, the almost-six-hours morning flight from Entebbe to Ataturk, and the two-hour late-afternoon flight from Ataturk to Malpensa at the periphery of Milan.
We spend the next half hour or so doing the usual custom checks at the airport, and I especially like the scrutiny our faces and passports receive at the immigration check counters, as though 5 young African adults could not have possibly come all this way unaccompanied. We smile at them, pick our luggage, and almost miss seeing Simone rush towards us with his beaming smile, beside him a friend of his I have not met before. I am impressed by his hospitality, and the trip to Milan from Malpensa is filled with talk of – how are you? How was the flight? How is so and so? This is what we will do this evening – are you guys tired? Tell me more about your life since the last time we met. And as we go along, the gentle traffic to Milan and the music in his sister’s vehicle is drowned by the voices of Michelle and Grace and Arnold and Simone and me, talking and talking and catching up on how life has been – lives so varied, and oh, how so much changes and remains the same in a year.
* * *
Milan, just like last year, is a fury of activity. We arrived two hours ago – and in those two hours we dropped our bags at Simone’s family home – an apartment, where you have to key in a code to get in the compound, and when you do get in through the black gate, you find yourself ushered into a sizeable opening, such that 4 people can walk altogether at once, and just right across the compound, there is an elevator. You take the elevator, or climb up the flight of stairs. But the elevator is spoilt, so we take the stairs – carrying our full suitcases up two floors. Grace has an extra empty suitcase with which to carry food and other particulars back to Uganda. A whole suitcase, and it is humongous in size!
We nestle in and after a light snack, we step out into the Milan evening labyrinth. First, we head to Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan’s oldest Church. We find ourselves in front of the Church as though birthed from a couple of dimly lit alleys lodged between grey stoned buildings after crossing one or two busy roads. The traffic discipline is impressive – the pedestrians and motorists stop at the traffic lights appropriately, unlike the crazy Nairobi traffic and its unruly bodaboda and matatu motorists.
At Ambrosia, we visit almost all the mini-chapels. Simone takes us to see the remains of bishops who have been embalmed at the one of the “hidden” sections of the Church. We later split to make brief private devotions before we gather at the back of the Church – 4 Africans, and 2 Italians – and we light a candle and say the Angelus together to give thanks for the safe flight and the days before us – before we head out into the night that is fast falling.
We snake our way around the buildings, an unfamiliar road to us, and no doubt familiar to them – and we find ourselves nearing the gates of Cattolica del Sal Cuore, the Catholic University of Milan. Here Simone stops and talks to an African selling jewelry trinkets- from what I can now recall, he is either from Angola or Algeria, and judging by the fluency of his Italian, he has been here a while. This is something that I will note throughout my stay here – most of the Africans I see are hawking wares say bags at the metro, and they are doing it third world style. They have no permits, but they have to find a way to fend for themselves. It seems to me, that it dawns on them, that even in Europe, a man has to make a living, and by no means does changing countries of residence make the process easier, if anything, I access that they probably have it harder here. Looking at Simone chat with his acquaintance, I recall that last year, on our way home from dinner at an Ethopian restaurant I had seen well-dressed Italians scour through dustbins close to Simone’s house, and I, who had fallen behind for some reason, increased my pace and stepped up to him, and asked – who are those people? And he told me – those are homeless people. No amount of documentaries about poverty and homelessness in America would have prepared me for the eventuality of seeing homeless white people in their own country – hungry and locked out from proper shelter and food.
* * *
The system here is harsh but that very same system has made the buildings and the culture what it is – polished and beautiful. That is what Catollica del Sacro Cuore is. Right next to the Virgin’s square, that is where we meet Piro and Giacomo. They emerge, as though from the nether world, from a room in the ground floor, their faces visibly worn from long hours of research and study for their theses. Giacomo’s studies are pressing and we leave him behind.
We take a mini-tour through Cattolica – my favourite being a classroom that is partly modern, and partly made of ancient ruins, whose room is warm, as the temperatures are regulated to preserve the ruins. Despite the clear warnings from Piro and Simone, Michelle and I find ourselves on the other side of the boundary line between the classroom and the ruins, and Arnold is seated on the soft red chairs arranged in neat rows on the modern section laughing his head off. We enjoy the detour before we head out to the historical heartthrob and geographical centre of the city–the Duomo of Milano.
* * *
The rest walk ahead of us in the slow walk to the Duomo, while Piro and I catch up about our lives since he was last in Nairobi 5 months ago. He
has his plans and concerns about what he will do once he graduates later in the month, and I have my last undergraduate academic year waiting for me in January back in Nairobi. It is a pleasant conversation, and I am glad he is here with us.
Michelle, Grace, and Simone are hopping along the streets, happy to see each other, and Arnold is lagging behind because his terrible eyesight will not allow him to keep up. He is happy too.
Milan is alive. Everywhere you turn, there is a flurry of activity and you cannot possibly experience it all. Most shops are fashion shops with dressed mannequins whose price tags are worth a whole year’s income. Emotions are in the air. I recall last year at the Duomo plaza there were communists in red marching at the periphery of the Duomo, blowing their trumpets and singing while a little girl with her young parents was blowing bubbles that rose skyward like little imaginary kites and disappeared into the night sky much to their delight; there were people taking selfies at the Duomo and pictures of the Duomo, there was the hum of vehicles and motorbikes and the light rail in motion. I loved it all then, and I love it now.
We arrive at the Duomo with the taste of castagna
(chestnuts) that Piro bought on our way here. They remind me so much of roasted sweet potatoes. (Recipe of Roasted Chestnuts here
) This year we are lucky the 9 meters long doors of the Duomo are open to the public. The enormity of it all is baffling to the mind – and the intricate nature of the sculptures embedded in every inch of the Cathedral is impressive. The Cathedral is the largest Gothic Church in the world, and the third largest in the whole world. It is at the epicenter of the city as historically, cities were built around churches, as they were the symbol of God. The construction of the Cathedral that spans 157m long, 93 meters wide and 108 meters high began in 1386 under the commission of Archbishop Antonio da saluzzo. Its “completion” was in the 1800s under the patronage of Napoleon Bonaparte, the conqueror, whose statue was sculpted in one of the spires at the rooftop as a sign of gratitude for his accomplishments. He was also crowned King of Italy at the Duomo.
What impresses me most about the Duomo are the 9m long bronze doors on which the life of Christ is crafted from his infancy to his adulthood, and resurrection. The splendor of the massive organs on either side of the interior of the Church also impress me. We spend a considerable amount of time looking at the intricacies of the Cathedral before Grace leads us in a brief prayer before we head out. This year we do not have the luxury of time to make merry outside and dance and sing Ugandan songs with Simone in the middle.
* * *
The last squeeze of the night finds us at the Santa Maria presso San Satiro church. This is after seeing the then closed Biblioteca Ambrosiana (library of Ambrosia) that was closed at the time. (We are walking along the alleys and Simone’s friend, Giovanni, points at the building and tells us that the building houses some works by Leonardo da Vinci. And I am like – Leonardo, Leonardo? And, he is like – yes, Leonardo, Leonardo. Imagine that.)
To me, the Santa Maria church is the most impressive of the three we have visited this year. It is so small, yet at the altar section there is the trompe L’Oeil allusion (French for “deceive the eye”; this is an architectural technique that creates an optical illusion that depicts objects images in 3D) of an elongated altar designed by artist Donato Bramante in the 15th Century. This was because there was not much land for them to build a bigger church and they had to make do with what they had.
At the Santa Maria the Mass is well underway, and we kneel at the pews at the back and for the first time today, we are less tourists and more faithfuls while inside the Church. My heart is filled with gratitude – gratitude for my life – for Simone’s hospitality – for Grace whose heart is as wide as the ocean, and whose smile won’t let you see the life she has survived – for Michelle, from Rwanda, whose youthful face will be brighter when she gets engaged 2 years from now – for Arnold who in four days will be told that he will likely go blind at some point in his life – for Piro and his time and friendship. My heart is full for those who have made it possible for us to be here today, for a priest by the name of Don Guissani whose tomb we will visit in three days’ time at the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano, whose books and charisma have touched the lives of each one of us who are there together – for the uncommon privilege to travel at 23, for the second time to Italy, a country I used to trace in our only map when I read my father’s National Geographic’s about Roman sculptures even before I knew I could travel. Gratitude for life, for providence, for my parents who birthed me, for everything and everyone good in the universe. I feel such immense gratitude, such strong emotion, and here thousands of kilometers away from home, at the back pews of a small dimly lit church, I shed tears of joy.
1. I did not take photos on this segment of the trip, as I wanted to be fully present in the moment. I did, however, take photos when we visited Como.
2. The picture above was taken 3 days later as we were leaving the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano after we went to visit the tomb of Don Giussani.
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