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.)