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  • Dougie

North to Milano with a death-defying start

Updated: Jul 3, 2022

We bade farewell to Stephanie, the cats and the Trullo early. Joe drove us across the 'heel' to Taranto from where our train for Milano departed. Nine hours north by very fast train.

First, of course, we had to board. Backwards, it seems, is "the go" (as we say Downunder). I had fleeting visions of encountering our Frecciarossa bullet train at 300 kilometres per hour.

Backwards ... and by hand-cranked wheelchair hoist. In 30 degrees of heat.

Taranto surprised me. But that tells you more about me than it says anything about the town. The city, I should say.

As Joe drove us along the trunk road that bisects the Puglia peninsula I imagined Taranto to be another sleepy little port on the Ionian coast. Not even close, Douglas.

Taranto is a city of 200,000 residents. It has the largest steel works in Europe and a heavy industry port which, together, employ tens of thousands of people. The problem is, the steel works are poisoning the people and the city.

Gruppo Riva owned the plant from the 1995 to 2012 during which time its elevated levels of dioxins were killing local people. In 2002, dioxin emissions from the Taranto steel works accounted for over 90% of dioxin pollution in Italy and over 30% of all pollution in the country. And in 2014 Taranto was assessed to be the third most polluting city in the world.

Who knew?

Well, it seems the whole of Italy knew. The steel works were seized by the Italian state. In 2021 the sons of the former owners were sentenced to more than twenty years in jail. The former President of Puglia was also put away.

Even now, despite decreasing levels of illness and premature death, cancers remain above expected levels and grazing animals are not permitted within 20 kilometres of the plant.

Unlike city residents, we can (and did) leave Taranto. As always with TrenItalia, dead on time (if that's not the wrong choice of word). Back across the 'heel' to Bari, north along the Adriatic coast until just south of Rimini then inland to Milano through Bologna and Modena.

These are different types of Italy. Quite quickly we leave behind the landscape of endangered olive trees to cross wide, flat plains where wheat and other cash crops shape the countryside.

North of Bari the train hugs the coast although -- at nearly 300 kilometres per hour -- "hug" may not be what I mean. We skate along the coast towards which the summer's masses of holidaymakers have not yet left Italian cities in the west and north. All's quiet on the beaches, where the serried ranks of carefully positioned bright umbrellas, reclining deckchairs and lifeguard stations almost block from view the golden sands.

The view seems so Italian (reminiscent of Visconti's Death In Venice in a way but with less homoerotic tragedy and more colour). It has the deceptive appearance of something quintessential, almost natural. Except it's not.

I'm an ageing leftie living in Australia -- beach central of the universe. I look at those umbrellas and cannot help but feel uncomfortable at the privatisation and commercialisation of public space. It happens in the way that Joni Mitchell sang about so very long ago.

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot

Don't it always seem to go

That you don't know what you got 'til it's gone.

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

That dilemma is for Italians to resolve. Not me.

I'm a tourist, speeding past the blockaded beachfront, sitting in the Business Premium carriage of a very fast train heading north. I am as much a part of the problem as anyone.

A few hours later we arrive at Milano (our twelve hour stopover on the journey back to Paris). Just like their French counterparts, 19th Century Italian Masters of the Universe took pride in their magnificent achievements. Welcome to our world. This is our railway station.

(Interior pic. thanks to The Man in Seat 61)

We do not have long in Milano. There is ime for a stroll to the cathedral and a short night's sleep. And not much more.

First, however, a word about fashion.

I was born in Glasgow. We have always thought of ourselves as snappy dressers. Maybe not at the cutting edge but something more than dapper.

Allowing for the incontrovertible fact that the 1970s was the decade fashion forgot -- think of kipper ties, wide lapels, paisley pattern shirts and platform shoes -- when I left school, found a real job and acquired disposable income, I bought smart clothes: suits, shirts, ties (ties were a cool thing once upon a time) neat socks and shoes.

I thought about what I wore. And I was not entirely without taste.

Although it was -- as I concede -- the 1970s.

Some time later I had my accident. I broke my neck, spent 10 months in hospital and have been a quadriplegic wheelchair user ever since. I am not complaining. Accidents happen.

One of the changes that occurs when you break your neck in three places is the loss of muscle bulk (and control) below the level of your injury. For me that loss begins above my 'nipple line'. It affects my legs (obviously) as well as my biceps, triceps and finger function (of which I have none).

So here's another thing they do not tell you when in traction.

Quadriplegics lose muscle tissue but gain what we rather dismissively call 'tetra tummy'. It all falls down and settles into a dome somewhere around what used to be your waist.

I entered hospital with a 32-inch waist. I came out 10 months later -- many kilos lighter because of muscle loss -- but with a waist measuring 36 inches.

Tell me this. In which universe are those four inches fair?

To which question the universe replied, "suck it up you pain in the ass. I could have killed you if I'd wanted to. I certainly thought about it for a day or two."

Not long after I was discharged from my spinal injuries rehabilitation unit I went through all my adult clothes (from the era of the 32-inch waist) to decide which unwearable garments (in the 36-inch era) would be thrown away or re-distributed to charity shops. Goodbye smart suits. So long, my Levi 501s (yes, they used to be a thing -- not tragic dad clothes). And arrivederci all my shoes (even the pointy ones) because quad feet become two sizes larger.

Worst of all, my totally tragic (but dearly loved) three quarter length brown leather jacket.

I may tear up in a moment at the thought of that loss.

Wheelchairs mangle shoes, jackets and trousers. And no suit hangs correctly ever again in your entire quadriplegic life.

As a consequence of all those changes, I have become tediously practical about what I wear. Cheap, disposable clothes; durable up to the moment when not even I can pretend they'll last another day.

I mention this only because we're spending twelve hours in Milan which is -- depending on your aesthetic preferences -- either the first or second capital of fashion in the world.

What can I tell you?

Armani, Gucci, Versace, Velentino, Missoni. The clue is (literally) on the label. Those folk were not born in Glasgow nor did they move to Woop Woop in the 1990s.

Me and my cheap, disposable, durable clothes. Strolling through the epicentre of masculine haute couture -- from Milano Centrale, down Via Vittor Pisani to the wedding cake architecture of the Duomo di Milano.

I was wearing my $15 shoes from Big W, one of my $8 flannelette shirts from K-Mart and a five year old pair of wide trouser chinos from Lowes (in the Tuggeranong Hyperdome, Canberra). They cost 25 bucks as I recall.

All up -- dressed not to thrill as I was -- my entire ensemble (not counting the socks from Target) cost under $50 (Australian). And we really did pass directly in front of Armani HQ.

I think I may have traumatised the stylish -- painfully thin -- people of Milano.

And remember ... I'm not including the five-euro French hat. 95% paper. 5% polyester.

Not to worry. We saw the statue of Leonardo.

We almost missed what is probably the most renowned opera house in the world (Teatro alla Scala). Unlike our own Sydney Opera House, La Scalla does not exactly draw attention to itself. What goes on inside is what the noise is all about.

We carried on (and through) the indescribable Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. It's louder than the opera house, grander than the canyon, more in your face than my beard. But maybe that's its point.

I was brought to a halt in my cheap clothes by the first window display we encountered. Moncler. I assume there's a truck load of post-modern, self-referential irony going on here.

I am not naïve. Nor am I a Philistine or cultural conservative. I see the fusion -- church, state, tragic history, the glory of classical statuary, pain, pleasure, suffering, shopping, Gods and heroes. But I've also been to Rome. I sat in front of Antonio Canova's Hercules. That's real.

Two other thoughts struck me.

A puffer jacket hoodie in July? Surely some mistake Miss Moneypenny?

A yellow jacket -- three quarter length or not -- with my tetra tummy and clarty wheels?

I do not think so somehow.

The message in this 19th Century shopping mall on steroids is just the same as Westfields.

Also sprach The Galleria ... Let us dazzle you with marble, crystal and the lights of conspicuous consumption. Now -- shop 'til you drop.

(It's not my photo but I can't find a credit. Forgive me whoever you are.)

We emerged from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, bank balances intact. We found the cathedral made out of Christmas cake icing. It is impossible to miss. And entirely beyond my photography luck or expertise to capture adequately.

Spike found a supplier of emergency strawberry gelato then went in search -- successfully -- of lift access to the Milano metro. Ten or fifteen years ago such a spontaneous decision -- to take the city's underground railway back to your modified hotel bedroom -- would have been undoable in almost any major city in Europe. It is still impossible in some.

Back at the Glam Hotel Milano (I kid you not about the name) after a long day and 1,000 kilometres in a train, we slept. Tomorrow we depart at 6:25 a.m. and TrenItalia is never late.

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1 Comment

Jul 02, 2022


Enjoyed reading this.

I thought Currie House was the pinnacle of culture for you!

I’m off to Italy in 10 days.

Best wishes,

John D

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