Milan, October 2004

It’s not the worst state to explore a city in, the flu-feverish one. It’s a state which warps the imagination and hones the sensitivity.

In normal 37°C body-temperature conditions, would that Bellini Madonna have drawn tears from my eyes? Would an Italian night porter have managed to break my heart...?

My arrival at Milan-airport, with a headache & a deep fatigue, didn’t augur too well. And then that spooky underground, with its flickering neon-lights hardly relieving the darkness, and with its sickly green signs fostering sea-sickness. Add to that a London-like fog and Parisian-style traffic above the ground , and only the strictest flâneur- discipline could keep me from getting straight into bed upon arriving at the hotel.

So I walked and walked these bustling Milanese streets, to the rhythm of intense traffic. Cars competing with motorbikes in narrow passageways, incongruously old-fashioned streetcars grinding their way through the city. But most stressful perhaps were the lavish shopping streets, with the throngs of fashion-conscious shoppers hurrying by.
My head was buzzing, exhaustion washing over me , I was craving for some peace & quiet, when, all of a sudden, at a chance sideways look through an arched entrance, a fata morgana appeared: a lush palazzo-garden with a peacefully murmuring fountain.

Apart from these delightful palazzo’s strewn all over the city, there are also the many churches to offer relieve to weary travelers. Most of them are of the thick-walled, low-ceilinged Romanesque sort. And more than any triumphantly soaring cathedral, these semi-dark & brooding churches are a harbor for lost & confused souls . They offer protection, like a Madonna della Misericordia spreading out their heavy cloak over the huddled pilgrims…

Though the fog didn’t ever dissipate that first day, the greyness was redeemed when at night the lights came up. Coughing & sneezing I marveled at this Milan by night. The foggy haze had turned a mysterious blue grey, pairs of street-lamps started glowing like little moons, light refracting a hundredfold on the wet pavements and a smell of wet autumn leaves was released by the drizzle.

I stayed at a small hotel on a piazza, where the friendly welcome had soothed my feverish nerves. The grey-haired woman at the reception desk, perhaps the owner, had that friendly-aloof look of one who, though without remaining illusions about the world we live in, has not succumbed to cynicism but has developed instead a wary compassionateness.

I had a corner-room, fully exposed to the roar of a busy Milanese crossroad. In the evenings, exhausted after a full day of roaming, I usually collapsed on the bed, turning on the TV-set to drown out the traffic. So there I lay, leafing through the Brera Pinacoteca catalogue, contemplating thoughtful, unsmiling Madonna’s while every once in a while I glanced up to the TV-screen where quite another kind of feminine appearance – shrieky, bosomy & scarcely-garishly clad- was flaunted .

In the mornings I rose early. While early-rising is obviously a typical trait of the combative melancholiac (who has learned to fear the consequences of sleeping-in: indolence & sinful sloth), I must admit that during this stay in Milan there was another motivation to get me at the breakfast table before 7.30 AM ...

Breakfast for early guests was served by the hotel’s night-porter, who was dark, tall and elegant. . .

But however graciously and obligingly breakfast was served by this night-porter, I was at first mostly struck by the attitude of cautiousness and reserve vàv the clients (who were single business men & happy couples), as if they needed to be screened for possible bad reactions.

So handsome a person, moving about with such grace and dignity! And yet no doubt daily exposed to reactions ranging from curiosity to contempt, or worse. Because he was a she, or she was a he, or someone in-between. Her tall build and strong hands did betray “biological maleness” . But the way she moved & spoke, her sheer way of being was of a delicacy “usually identified as ‘female’” .

(rhetorical aside : isn’t it rather instructive, and a pity, that not more men have claimed “traditionally female prerogatives” in the wake of women tentatively seizing “traditionally male prerogatives”?).

But mind you, she displayed none of the over-the-top feminine camp often associated with transvestites. No, she was merely, discreetly & elegantly ( and quite attractively indeed) , being her vulnerable unclassifiable self.
And yes, meeting her was quite heart-breaking, though perhaps not in the conventional romantic sense ( but then, breaking hearts are quite beyond conventions, aren’t they - well, my breaking heart is in any case).

I suppose there was an element of mutual recognition – different variations of androgyny? (mine is just the run-of-the-mill tomboyish one) . Or perhaps, as a lone Bellini-chasing traveler, I stood out as much amongst the business men and happy couples as she did? Or was it the sight of all these Madonna’s and Pietas in churches and galleries, which had sharpened my empathy? Anyway, we did connect and there was something about her that moved me deeply.

But apart from smiling “buongiorno’s”, meaningful glances and exchanges regarding tea to be served with or without lemon we didn’t even speak till Sunday, my last day in Milan. I was up early again and this time no business men were around.
When I walked in, she looked up and positively beamed at my ‘buongiorno’. We eyed each other nervously , discussed again the tea and then I read on in my “Proust à propos de Baudelaire” while she shuffled some papers at the desk in the entry hall.
I was cursing myself for my silence, but then she came back into the breakfast room, clumsily busying herself with this and that, looking my way. So I finally mustered enough courage to speak to her, enquiring about her night duty, about her life... We spoke for maybe 10 minutes, until her colleague for the day shift came in.
And then we shook hands (hers a quite manly handshake), looking each other questioningly in the eyes. And she wished me a good day and I wished her a good night.

And that was that. That afternoon I flew back to Brussels.

(about three months later, waking dismally early on a Sunday, I looked up the phone-number of the hotel, and … dialed the number. But again & again, the line was engaged . So it was not to be.)


manuela said...

"had that friendly-aloof look of one who, though without remaining illusions about the world we live in, has not succumbed to cynicism but has developed instead a wary compassionateness"

what an insight, and how well expressed! i am really moved by it... - i could not read after it, i just want to sit and savor this for a while. will be back later for the rest.

thank you

ffflaneur said...

thanks so much, manuela... (it did take 15 minutes of staring out of the window to recall the nuances of that woman's presence)

Manuela said...

"A writer is working when [s]he's staring out of the window." Burton Rascoe


i know you say maybe it wasn't meant to be, but maybe what was meant to be already happened? who knows what that brief conversation, or just your presence, meant to her...


i find your descriptions very vivid and immediate, bringing me into the experience easily.

ffflaneur said...

@Manuela: a wise man, that Burton Rascoe! :-)

"maybe what was meant to be already happened" - a comforting thought ... . and you've no idea how grateful I am for the simple fact that you acknowledge the "reality" of this briefest of encounters...

Roxana said...

it has happened to me exactly as to Manuela, i couldn't find the words to express how much this deeply personal story has moved me (i still can't) and opening another parenthesis right away (all your posts are deeply personal, but there is a special touch of intimacy and tenderness and longing radiating here) - i just kept coming here repeatedly, reading and daydreaming again and again. i am very sensitive to this kind of encounters which, in the space of a moment, make everything appear meaningful and rich and bathed in a new light and allow a special connectedness to others and the world - i think this is one reason i am fascinated with photography as well.
and i know Manuela would tend to think "maybe what was meant to be already happened" (hi, M :-), but i am more of an (un-wise) rebel (are rebels ever wise?) and so inclined to say: maybe not, maybe it's all up to you and a second try, don't let it pass like this :-)

and a quick thought to the androgyny topic, and especially this: (rhetorical aside : isn’t it rather instructive, and a pity, that not more men have claimed “traditionally female prerogatives” in the wake of women tentatively seizing “traditionally male prerogatives”?) - at the end of the 19th century, when it was quite artistically trendy to glorify the androgynous, it was almost always the androgynous male who was celebrated as achieving the ideal unity by integrating the feminine side, while androgynous women evoked only negative feelings, of course, how else! interesting in light of your comment, but not surprising at all...

ffflaneur said...

ah Roxana - thanks for your unwisely & rebelliously yelling "Go ffflaneur, Go!" (& I shall not counter such enthusiasm with a doubting Prufrock anwser "and would it have been worth it, after all, Would it have been worth while?")
---- longer reply later!

ffflaneur said...

hi again R - here goes for the longer reply! :-)
i do like your association of meaningful moments ('moments of being' VW calls them) with photography, because it is indeed about the poignancy of a fleeting moment , which photography sometimes can capture ( only sometimes, and only the best photography... & your 'japanese children' photos now do come to my mind) -----

your "19th C androgyny" remark has had me musing ... The 19th C symbolists with their dreamy androgynous creatures, bathed in a melancholy atmosphere... Wasn't there something (vaguely) morbid & (more blatantly) decadent about them? Languorous, impotent creatures living in a realm of art & sophistication, quite removed from the virile entrepreneurial 19th C reality... Nowadays I have the impression that though women (in the west) are allowed a relatively wide range of "gender-expressions" (be it in clothing, sports, professionnally, ...), a man adopting "typically feminine" behaviour would meet far more scorn.

Roxana said...

indeed, dearest fff, don't counter it with such doubts :-) it is strange, however haunted i am, always, by "a hundred indecisions ...or a hundred visions and revisions", i don't like the melancholic poison of the question: "would it have been worth it, after all" (even if i am forced to admit that yes, its subtelty cannot compare to the vigorous simplicity of 'go, ffflaneur, go!', such blatant lack of refinement :-)

yes, i have thought about it as well, and you are right, it is interesting to ponder this change. and what about the androgynous quality wich expresses itself by dissolving the differences into a look that could be called 'neutral', for both sexes? i am not sure about this, so i am just groping in the dark, tentatively. something like CK's ad for One, which, it seems to me, promotes this idea:

(half of the comments say: creepy, the other half: fantastic, that is interesting too)

and i know of a place where young men adopting feminine behaviour are praised, and it is in fact very trendy to have this kind of androgynous look: Japan, very surprising! perhaps because the young women have got enough of the 'samurai' type and the quality they look for in a man is 'yasashii', it means 'kind', 'gentle'. and what can be gentler than to adopt a gentle look? (twisted logic, i know :-)

Roxana said...

totally unrelated, but i have just seen this and remembered your post on 'a power of resistence of quite another kind' (see, how long your frivolous fragments stay on people's mind! :-):

ffflaneur said...

indeed, R, the mixed reactions to that CK's ad are quite interesting, anthropologically speaking :-) ----
"perhaps because the young women have got enough of the 'samurai' type and the quality they look for in a man is 'yasashii'"--- this is in fact a very darwinian observation: the sexual preferences of the opposite sex drive gender-expression! :-)

ffflaneur said...

dear R, your "unrelated comment" is most welcome! Not only because I feel honoured by your remembrance of a post :-), but because that pensum-link is so interesting indeed, with that stark "hyper-realistic" image ('how can one bear to look at it?' --- and maybe your "unrelated comment" is related after all to that milan-trip: one of the more striking paintings in the Milan Brera-pinacoteca, is a , Mantegna-painting of the dead christ , in stark, confrontational foreshortening

Roxana said...

i must say i am not unpleased that you unveiled a little darwinist in me :-)

and indeed, indeed, not unrelated, now i'm most pleased! :-)

ffflaneur said...

hmmm, i do like that advance from not unrelated & not unpleased to most related and most pleased! :-D (oh R, don't mind the above - just some monday nonsense :-))

Roxana said...

oh, but i do think there is a little darwin in me :-) as well as a little descartes, though not so easily visible on that pathos-overloaded bridge :-)
don't worry, i loved your connection, i hadn't thought of it myself, but afterwards it became apparent.

ffflaneur said...

ah but dear R - i didn't ever doubt the cartesian in you - - - don't we both frequently indulge in the pathos of cartesian doubt? :-)