Tim Parks Reflects on Milan, Italy

Dynamic, energetic Milan is a city of work—and cappuccino breaks. Steeve Iuncker / Agence VU

A Milan day starts with cappuccino and croissant. For speed and quality, this city has no equal for coffee, even at the grittiest of suburban corners. Not two minutes after I enter Angelo’s, I’m already spooning up smooth foam. On the table, Corriere Della Sera unfolds its scandals and city politics. The croissant is warm from the oven.

Then a year ago Angelo sold out to the Chinese. This is working-class Milan, two miles south of the Duomo, and all the bars are selling out to the Chinese. Likewise, the hairdressers and the dry cleaners. I was not the only anxious customer. Of course I wish the Chinese well, but the first cappuccino was undrinkable. En masse the clientele shifted to the last remaining Italian café two blocks away.

Still, the Chinese-run places have the immense merit of always being open. Three months later, a Sunday morning early, I was back. And miraculously, there it was: the perfect Milanese cappuccino, the chocolate laid down on the espresso before the milky froth is poured on at exactly the right temperature and consistency to bring out the flavor. I smiled, complimented. There are famous cafés in London, I said, that have never learned this trick. A bespectacled cherub smiled. “Scuola cappuccino,” she beamed. “We have all been to cappuccino school.” Immediately I recognized the spirit of this town: immigration, assimilation, work work work, and frequent breaks for small, sophisticated pleasures—the signor cappuccino before 8 a.m., and the icy kick of a sparkling spritz aperol when the day is done.

I have been in Italy 30 years now, most of it in Verona. But in 1992 I started teaching in Milan, commuting a hundred miles here two days a week. So it’s a city I’ve gotten to know through its railway stations and subways, trams and ticket machines, a place obsessed with timetables and transport strikes, and a city of crowds in urgent, silent movement.

It’s the exact opposite of Verona. Verona is irretrievably beautiful. I mean so beautiful it cannot change, its monuments and campaniles tucked charmingly into the meanders of its pretty river, protected by red-brick battlements and cypresses, the whole city set off by the white-capped backdrop of the Alps. It’s an exquisite film set of a town where you meet the same folks in bank, stadium, and trattoria. You can grow seriously complacent in Verona.

But Milan is endlessly changing. Unlovely and frenetic, busily gloomy, it has the energy and pathos of its destiny as Italy’s business capital. The painter Umberto Boccioni captured the spirit of the place in early futurist works like The City Rises and The Street Enters the House; all harsh color and frantic effort, they still pull you in to something absolutely recognizable. You want to be Milanese despite it all. Mario Sironi, the visual genius of fascism, understood its more dour side, painting streets of looming factories patrolled by sinister black trucks. There’s always a fine sadness about Milan’s economic power, as if this isn’t quite what Italians would ever want a city to be.

I love to walk here. The massive Stazione Centrale, built as its inscription tells us in the 1931st year of “the Christian era,” a sly reference to the fact that that was Year Nine of the Fascist Era, always creates a strong sense of arrival and purpose, ushers you into a Milan state of mind. From there it’s less than two miles south to the equally huge Duomo, one of the busiest Gothic façades imaginable, with its thousands of grimacing statues. Trams grind between fashion displays and beside Roman columns; you follow canals crossed by hump-backed stone bridges. And everywhere everywhere there are cafés to stop at, some so tiny there’s barely room for four people to stand with their espresso cups, others with chairs sprawling across the uneven sidewalks. Precisely because the city has this work ethic, its mental ecology seems to need these bars, these frequent stops. A different drink for every moment of the day.

So now that I have moved to Milan, walking home at twilight, I stop for an aperitivo: the Chinese haven’t quite got the spritz aperol right yet, a mix of prosecco and aperol on the rocks with a twist of orange. Perhaps there isn’t an aperitivo school just yet. But I feel fairly confident there soon will be.