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from the September 2009 issue

Milano Inside a Star

Monte Stella—Mount Star—is an artificial hill right on the northern outskirts of Milano, not far from the Meazza Soccer Stadium, located in the San Siro quarters of town. Mount Star was built with debris from W.W. II bombings and is the only truly green zone of the Metropolitan Area, together with Sempione Park, which opens onto the Sforzesco Castle.

Seven thirty in the morning. My autumn heart is still beating slowly. Franco and I, we are getting ready to face the long walk, surrounded by silence. A backpack check is vital: we must have everything—or just about—that is needed to start our Milano expedition. The hike across town is supposed to be a comeback to some sort of roots, therefore we need to downgrade.

This is going to be a long day—there's a forty-kilometer hike out there waiting for our steps. The very last minute is dedicated to all that we must not have: no money, no mobile phone, no maps—all of this is resting on the wooden table that Franco's dad built decades ago.

The only gear we furnish ourselves with is a personal camera and my notebook—and in my notebook I cherish a single public transport ticket for my return, later on tonight. For that is my only link with urban life—the only pass for our return after we reach our summit at the end of our long trip through a warm and sunny November day.

Daybreak today was beautiful; the humidity piercing my bones was a reminder of my old self as a small-town boy, of days when urban life could be easily transformed into a faraway kind of adventure—away from everything and everyone, away from the creepy sense of pacing in a cage that later spurred me to come live in the mountains up North.

I enjoy the warmth rising from the streets, it all looks magnificent at the end of November, in the deep North of Italy with the sun so huge on the horizon and the sky as our road. As we cross the main avenue and dive into the backstreets of the south side of town, that big yellow star explodes like a giant crashing stone, it dances on the tarmac leading to the Emilia Way, the long Roman road that leads to Bologna, Firenze, and Roma.

The overpass here in Corvetto Square always left me thinking of a runway when I first used to have a driving licence, picking up a girlfriend who used to live right here, in the early 80s. I still remember looking at these tall buildings and thinking, how many humans can you cram in there?

That is the kind of distance from time and memory that is melting now in the haze before us. It is eight o'clock and the Padana Plain, the biggest in Northern Italy, is beginning to take a shape, or maybe it is just my idea, a perception of something deeply ingrained in my DNA.

Overpasses and cranes, roundabouts and building sites, intersections and God knows what else—it is all out there and we are still in here, and finally ready to go. Funny, I'm not as repulsed by all this as when I come into town on an assignment. We haven't made a single step yet, but I feel like I know my way through the end of all this.

There must be some hidden beauty down there, where we are heading right now, toward the fragments of the sun still dancing in the sky and through the haze: a Star, a world beyond a world that used to be. Something that might happen again. Or that might not.

"Well, we can start towards Chiaravalle, the Abbey where Milano used to find its southern end—that was the border where the countryside took over in the seventies," interrupts Franco. I wasn't speaking, but he can hear my reply—through the look in my dark eyes. The street is our friend: Omero Avenue—a symbolic invitation to go make sense of the deepest stories of the beginning of Man. We start here and now, with a mission in our pockets, while looking at corners littered with broken bottles of beer, and debris from the junkie's underworld.

Heading south. Tall trees mark the road, like a big cairn, we find a crossroad with an old barn. A bus goes by, the morning is running after us, people are minding their own business—as usual—but we are not. We watch and we feel. We are trying to peek into their lives, we really are in a dimension located outside—and looking in.

Chiaravalle is burning with light and dew. The narrow road has a rim of wet grass that borders its mysterious course—a dark tape unfolding through the horizon. Again, we watch. We drink from our bottle. And I see a long irrigation canal for what is left of the country fields that used to feed the city (where does the food come from, now? , I wonder . . .).

I see a wilderness here. Everything that is left behind is a new wilderness—it lies abandoned and alone. They call it urban wilderness. I call it The Unknown Destination.

"Right—we start here, Davide." Franco, always a smiling man. "We head to the railway station where I used to catch my train heading out." So—well, yeah—let's steer backwards to Rogoredo: and so we coast along the railway, watching the endless freight trains humming hard and carrying hundreds of luxury cars off somewhere. We are hoboes passing in the morning; we are invisible as we wish to avoid dissipating into indifference. We are orphans of the past.

We have been walking two hours, and once we stop in a station to take some notes. The glances. If you make a trip like this in your town, please note the glances—beyond the curtain, in the limitless territory for adventure, you can always find a smile. "I've been thinking Franco—this is really extreme. An extreme need for exchange, to imagine, what is the motive of the two men dressed like hikers? "

Today, our expedition will cross the big plateau of Milano. We will climb his Summit, Monte Stella—Mount Star. That was where I used to train with my basketball team in the early 80s: up and down, and all around. Those training sessions only allowed me to see a little green—I did not see Mount Star as Mount Star. It was a training ground. I was only a nineteen-year-old basketball player.

But today we aim at the symbol of desire. Milano already looks different to my eyes. There is a translucent curtain laid between us and the city: those things belong to ordinary life—the everyday streets, the everyday homes, the everyday men and women—they are all characters in my cult movie.

Through the hidden alleys and lanes beyond Lodi Square I gather that the corners of our eyes never forget a thing, the invisible depths in the midst of Milano. We are sailing through the city built on the waters of the Padana plain, and while making our way to the Navigli, the channels built to tame the river Ticino, we are struck by a surreal Persian restaurant. You can also see plastic, multicolored palms, and an old lady feels obliged to stop us in our tracks, to confirm that she "really is from Milano": born in Mantova, though. That is the city of another traveller, Virgilio.

Who knows if those who are watching from behind the curtain can see a different you. Down along Tibaldi Avenue we turn at Riverside—Sforza Street on one side, the Tow-Line on the opposite side: they are dredging the canal, and garbage is everywhere, but you can also enjoy early-morning visions of a discreet beauty. My mind, and my body too, they are already part of a different dimension. Where the old dockyard lies, a huge street poster for Grease—The Musical is mirrored by the oily water in a perfect marriage of realism and irony—the ducks, meanwhile, continue about their business. This too, is nature: it exists and it lives apart from us, the six billion humans. The notion makes me feel good.

We walk through the fruit and vegetable market and we steer toward the Romana gate, and we know it is time for lunch. The park bench in Patellani Street is our spot, right beside two real hobos, who are evidently stirred by the two curious humans represented here by bread-ham-cheese-backpack-technical-gear . . . and Cabernet in a hiking bottle. They just smile, looking at each other—and go back to sleep.

A long stretch through the tram line and under huge centenary trees brings us directly to the bristling life of Buenos Aires Avenue and then, the Venezia Gate Gardens. It brings back memories of the days when the Zoo of Milano looked like an incredibly huge savannah: it was here, all of it - right here where I am standing, looking at the Planetarium and thinking of the universe. There are stars in there, too. Autumn colors are shining bright, the slow floating of those who are jogging in the gardens is so nice and the day stretches out to some other dimension. Franco is looking at a boulder, not more that thirty feet high and he can still see the marks of those who used to climb it.

From a shop window in Montenapoleone Street we are entertained by a mechanical polar bear—flimsiness and lofty quarters, this is the fashion heart of fashion town, the naked truth of the city with the plastic soul. And then comes the Duomo, looming large and tall with those alpine spires, the Sforzesco Castle right across big, wide Dante Street, decorated with huge photographs of the planet Earth.

I've been in many buildings when I've come to meet publishers and magazine editors—I could pop in, but I'm not going to. They are too far away from me now. So, on and on and on we go until we enter another time—the evening.This is the tunnel to reach the other side of Milano, it drags you into a long-lasting dusk, shutting down the windows of the day by the time we find ourselves in the middle of the empty and huge parking lot of Meazza Stadium.

Let's concentrate. Our legs, deplenished of their strength by the hard terrain of the city, have taken us closer to our Star, the little mountain of debris turned into a little oasis of breathing space. We are now measuring the avenues that circle the hippodrome stables—how close are the horses and those residential condos of San Siro, I catch myself thinking.

We have been wearing out our shoes for eleven hours, and the offerings of Milano have been so diverse—we are crossing and cohabiting frontiers. Imagination at work, we could walk on forever, till the end of the trail. But once at the feet of Mount Star everything changes again: we dive into a "direct" route through the trees and then on to the summit. We are shrouded in darkness; the primeval intelligence of our feet is leading our bodies to their destination for the day.

It is almost seven in the evening: "Franco, it's only the two of us. There are more people on the summit of Everest than here, now. Let's enjoy the show. " We raise a toast with our water bottles. And we give a stretch to our tired muscles. Humidity reminds me where I am, but down below us everything floats, Washington Square is like an amusement park and the Alps are slipping away into tomorrow across the horizon from the west into the east.

The Duomo is now merging with the new and old skyscrapers. We touched our Star and we didn't burn.It won't be long now, and Milano, the city of the waters, will swallow us too in its underground. It's hard to believe cities like this were born because a river went through an open spot in the landscape. Some went up north, some went down south. Some stayed. And where is the river now?


First published, in a shorter version, as "Sapessi Com' e' Strano" in GQ (Italy), December 2007. Copyright 2007 by Davide Sapienza. Translation copyright 2009 by Davide Sapienza. All rights reserved.

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