The heavy footsteps of the secondino (prison guard) gradually grew louder. We waited tentatively as each plod brought him closer to the door. We heard the key turn once, turn twice and thrice as we clung together with baited breath. On the fourth turn, the door swung open. Hooray! We can all go out to play again.
Yes, on Monday 18th May, life went back to a new normality here in Milan.
Shops, restaurants and bars, hairdressers, beauty salons and barbers, churches, synagogues and mosques, have all been given the green light to reopen. Gyms and swimming pools are still under lock and key until May 25th, and cinemas and theatres until June 15th. I’m not clear on what the situation is with art galleries; while some of the smaller ones are by appointment only, most, such as Mudec and Fondazione Prada, remain shut, although I note Pirelli HangarBicocca opens on May 23rd. Museums, libraries, exhibition centres and archaeological sites are gradually opening as and when they see fit.
There’s a general sense of joy and trepidation. On one hand, the entire region is a wash with palpable pops of ecstasy as people make appointments with their hairdressers and barbers. Giorgio Gori, mayor of Bergamo Alta (the upper city of Bergamo) put before and after photos on his Instragam account and A, my Monday morning student, was positively beaming, talking about her hairdresser, “I know him, that’s why he’s given me an appointment on Wednesday morning”. I could feel her excitement through the screen, “I can give up anything,” she continued with fixed determination, “but my hairdresser, no”. Looking and feeling good is an integral part of life here.
On the other hand, shops and restaurants need to adapt to social distancing rules. This could involve anything from limiting parking spaces to control the number of shoppers in shopping malls, to using perspex dividers at dining tables in restaurants. Additionally, as one restaurant manager mentioned on the news on Monday, restaurants are tailoring their menus to be fast and affordable.
Personally, I’m not ready to eat in a restaurant yet or even go for an aperitivo (buffet style aperitivi aren’t allowed yet), although if I passed a good gelateria or pizzeria – both to take out – I’d succumb wholeheartedly, no worries at all. The palatable pleasure would soothe any paranoid thoughts I had.
In terms of work, I’m still teaching online via Zoom and Skype. I’d love this to be the case throughout the summer, mainly because I’d be able to travel and work simultaneously. Meanwhile, people used to traveling to work and spending the best part of their day in windowless rooms or looking over office dividers have already started settling into a new normality. Tech, pharma and financial employees – everyone is saying the same thing – a couple of days in the office and the rest at home please. I can only see this as a good thing. For the environment it would lead to less traffic and therefore less pollution; for staff, less transport fees, less stress and more time to get work done; for companies, less rent to pay for office space. Smart working (the English term used here to mean working from home, although the true sense of the word is slightly different) and hot desking (sharing an office desk on a rota system) are all part of the new normality – let’s hope so anyway.
The Italian architect Stefano Boeri, well known for his eco-friendly Bosco Verticale or Vertical Forest (two skyscrapers comprised of residential apartments with 20,000 plants and 800 trees, which absorb 30 tons of C02 per year), said something very interesting recently. He said, “Returning to a normality, which, in and of itself, holds the causes of this tragedy, would be collective suicide.” and “we must do everything possible to avoid a peaceful return to a normality which produces the situation we now find ourselves in.” He refers to studies showing how air pollution and the quality of air in cities is one of the contributing factors that spread the virus. He’s right, simply whinging about the smog, noise pollution and stress of city living over a Starbucks coffee must be a thing of yesternormality. Today’s normality is about pioneering eco and human friendly methods of living in cities or, if you’re so inclined, moving to the country while maintaining your fast paced job. Quality living in the city, a city job in the country – it’s all possible, we just need to be imaginative and assertive.
Tomorrow I’m picking up a bike that N’s daughter is kindly lending me, it’s my new form of transport. I haven’t ridden a bike since 1994, when I was on holiday in the Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Yep, it’s back to life here, back to a new normality. And now, back to the board for a quick game of scrabble before my next lesson.
Putting mascara on is a big deal these days, as is doing my brows, shaving my legs and filing my nails. As for my hairbrush – thing of the past. On Sat night I had a virtual date. He looked great, prepped as if we were really meeting in person, wearing a lovely white shirt and even a splash of aftershave, as he told me. I was in the same clothes I’d been wearing all day and slept in the night before, propped up in bed with nothing on my face but a pair of glasses. I’ve never been the full coverage type, but usually a lick of mascara and a dab of blusher are my go-tos, like wearing knickers I’d feel a bit naked without them. But not this time, in fact I felt totally comfortable, relaxed and confident.
It’s not that I don’t care, it just feels so liberating, as if I’m shedding layers of “shoulds”. I should do this, I should do that, wear this, wear that, eat this, drink that – all these “shoulds” – they’re falling away, and there’s so much more room without them, as if my life were a garden that I’ve spent the last couple of months de-weeding. Ah, freedom and space for new plants to grow that are much more to my liking.
My mental state and physical appearance are not the only things that are changing. I’ve let the reigns go on time too. On Friday, for example, I clean forgot about two English lessons: one at 10:00 and one at 17:00. It wasn’t until 17:30 that I remembered about both of them. I logged into Skype and saw the message from my 17:00 student. At 17:12 she’d written “OK, we will re-schedule this session! Have a nice weekend” followed by a smiley face. “I’m soooo sorry,” I wrote back, “my fault completely”. Then I remembered the 10:00 lesson. “Scusami Tracey, I can’t make our lesson tomorrow,” he’d written the day before. “No worries,” I wrote back, “I completely forgot about it myself”. Again, it’s not that I didn’t care (I’m genuinely fond of my students and enjoy teaching them), but it was as if I knew I could let myself off the hook this time and the heavy thud of “Oh f*ck, I’ve completely blanked on my lessons today” wasn’t there and I felt really glad about that too as I merrily popped open a bottle of Prosecco and went back to playing scrabble.
Time in general has taken on a whole new dimension too and I think that’s what’s confusing me. The days are flying by, but time itself feels more spacious, more expansive. Little things like picking up my pace as I near the metro so I don’t miss the next train, even though there’s always one after that, waiting impatiently for the green man to cross the road, for the elevator, to pay at the supermarket, at the bar for my espresso, all these moments in time – they were quite stressful for me now that I think about it.
Saying that, I’m double checking my calendar more than usual this week. It’s my brother’s birthday today, haven’t forgotten that thankfully and have already called him. I’ve also got a couple of lessons this afternoon, the first one at 15:00 so I’ve set my alarm clock at 14:45 just to be on the safe side.
And bar my regular lessons, I’m not sure what the rest of the week holds (that feels good too). I’ve been enjoying my chats on Cat Back Chat with Seanie – a live radio show organised by HC in Kilkenny, Ireland. Love speaking on it and love listening to other guests too. It usually airs Monday to Friday every evening.
I’ve also been checking out the Italian property market and I kid you not when I say there’s houses on the market here for 1 euro. It’s an interesting situation and there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye obviously, but basically there are many little villages and medieval hamlets in Italy that are so depopulated they are literally becoming ghost towns as old people die and young people move to cities or other countries. So there’s a huge incentive to repopulate these places, plus now with Covid-19 and lots of Italian people themselves wanting to get out of built-up city areas – I think it’s an interesting situation. I’ll write a post about it soon (whenever that may be) and will also talk about it next time I’m on Cat Back Chat.
Off now for another game of scrabble and then a possible trip to Carrefour supermarket. Won’t be wearing make-up, but will have the mask on. Wonder what it’s going to be like when we’re not all wearing masks and communicating through screens. Boh (who knows?), but right now it feels like emancipation.
Wednesday 25th March, I’m scraping the barrel on the food front here. I’m down to four fishfingers and a packet of frozen peas in the freezer, a fennel and two veggie patties in the fridge, a packet of red lentils soaking to make lentil soup this evening and 5 oranges.
As we’re not leaving the apartment, even to go to the supermarket, I tried doing an online Carrefour delivery last weekend. I was in the virtual queue on Saturday evening from 8:30 pm to 02:30 am at which point I absentmindedly folded my laptop and lost my place. I tried again on Sunday at 9:00 am. By 2:30 pm I could start putting things into my basket, but each item was taking so long to load I gave up at 4:30 pm. I just hope the Esselunga order I managed to put through on the 16th March arrives. It was supposed to arrive on the 31st, but it’s been put back until the 4th April.
Some people are still physically going to the supermarket though. This morning, for example, one of my students told me how he queued up outside for an hour and then once he reached the entrance, someone took his temperature before letting him in. He lives with his wife and three kids outside Milan. We spoke about stocking up, but as he says, there’s only so much stocking up you can do when your entire family is at home and everyone’s eating at least two meals a day.
In the meantime, and like many people I know, I’ve joined a whatsapp fruit and veg group organised by Rino a local fruttivendolo (fruit and veg seller). As I write, (it’s now Thurs 26th), I’m waiting for a delivery from him that was meant to arrive yesterday. I called earlier this morning and he assured me that, “it will arrive soon”. It’s now coming up to lunchtime. I’m scrolling through the group messages; one member, also waiting for their delivery, is asking if other people have received theirs. Some are still waiting but one person wrote, “ours has arrived”.
“Great, they’ve lied to me” the person waiting tagged onto the message. “I was told their van broke down which is why they weren’t able to deliver to my area. They told me they’d deliver first thing this morning, but I haven’t seen or heard from anyone as yet. I understand it’s hard, but why lie?”. 12:25 PM.
Rino’s reply, “We had three vans delivering yesterday and your delivery wasn’t in the same van as your neighbour’s. Deliveries have been going on since this morning, I’m sure yours, which unfortunately wasn’t the only one not delivered yesterday, will arrive soon. I’m sorry to have worried you, but we definitely don’t need to lie – it’s not the way we do business and it’s very unprofessional. Apologies again for yesterday, we are working on resolving these inconveniences.” 12:34 PM
13:22 client: Arrivate, grazie (arrived thanks)
13:23 Rino: 🙏🏻
13:24 client: I understand, sorry, mi era montato il nervoso (I was on tenterhooks).
13:29 Rino: Immagino (I understand) 😂😂
I’m waiting full of hope and nervous excitement, like when I was a little girl waiting for my play date to arrive, but this time it’s for apples, spinach and bananas.
While my fingers are crossed for the 4th April, I’ve had to find another option to cover the next nine days. I’ve gone for Mani’s, the kosher shop and just put in a huge order. I can’t wait for it to arrive. It’s all going to be kosher for Passover with kosher for Passover prices but I’m not complaining – he delivers, although when is the next question.
Still Thurs 26th. At 2:30 pm I was just finishing a Skype lesson when the intercom buzzed. “I have to go,” I said to my student hurriedly, “It’s my fruit and veg delivery”. I quickly grabbed my mask, latex gloves and debit card and waited at the front door. The delivery guy appeared also wearing a mask, much more hardcore than mine, and placed two big boxes on our doorstep. I inserted my card into the card reader (thinking of how many other people had touched it that day), and then quickly picked up the boxes and carried then through the kitchen, placing them on the balcony where they will remain for 3 days untouched – this is what is advised to ensure that if there is any Coronavirus germs, they will die within this time frame. Once I’d done that, I ran to the bathroom and washed my hands and debit card with alcohol.
“Siamo riuscite!” (We did it!) said N waving her arms in the air and we both started dancing and shouting for joy, and I’m not just saying that – I really did feel joy!
Friday 27th March. This morning I took a banana out of the box on the balcony and had it for breakfast. I also asked N if she had any idea when Mani will be delivering our order. She said she called him earlier and he screamed down the phone at her. She thinks it’s going to be some day next week, early next week I’m hoping, but I’ll have to think of another way round this over the weekend. If you’d told me four weeks ago that my weekly shop was going to be like this, I would have said you were bananas, but as you can see, buying bananas has taken on a whole new bent.
I haven’t left the apartment since Tuesday 10th March, that’s one week today. N (my flatmate) has been in longer, poor love. Cabin fever – it comes in waves, then goes. Last Friday morning was the worst to date, but there’s lots of balconies in the apartment so for that I’m thankful. Balcony flash mobs are brilliant, they defo add a touch of solidarity and reassurance, reassurance that we’re not alone in this completely unexpected, life-changing experience.
That said, the week flew by. Like most people here, I’ve started “smart working”. On Wednesday I gave my first online classes “at” Liceo musicale G. Verdi high school, using Weschool and Zoom. One class (5A) was on James Joyce’s Ulysses. I spoke about it for 45 minutes even though I’ve never read the entire novel in one straight go. I read the first 50 odd pages in my late teens, then a couple of 100 pages in my 20s and so on. I’m not even sure I’ve actually read the whole book, but still, it’s one of my favorites of all time.
This Wednesday I’ll be talking about Molly’s inner monologue to the same class, “my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes”.
Bloom was schmoozing her too of course, getting round her. When was the last time I schmoozed and was schmoozed? Not with any of my Tinder dates, that’s for sure.
On Thursday I had four privates, two guys and two women, all via Skype. They were quite good but the last guy was lamenting his fate with the English language. “If you want to be a rocket scientist, you need to study,” I pointed out, “so why do you think you should somehow automatically be able to speak excellent English without studying it?” “Because we didn’t have to ‘learn’ our native language,” he replied. I feel the same about learning Italian – as much as I want to be fluent right here, right now, each new word, new colloquial phrase, new idiom is a conscious addition. I wish it wasn’t, I wish they would just all roll off the tip of my tongue, but it takes effort and commitment.
The weekend rolled in and rolled out. What did I do? Watched Netflix, the news, did my exercise routine, cooked and on Sunday I got an online supermarket order through. It took me two hours of non-stop, steel-determination clicking, clicking, clicking. I kept getting messages saying your bill can’t be calculated right now due to this item or that item. I just deleted the item and tried to replace it – at least for the first 20 goes – then I ignored the message and kept clicking anyway. Eventually, at 2:00 AM I got the “procedere” (proceed) screen – joy. It’s arriving on the 31st March – the first available delivery date.
While my students seem to be getting on fine – they are all with their families, and everyone I speak to online is hanging in there, and on the whole, so am I and N, pent up tension comes to the surface every now and then. In fact I had a little bit of an outburst with N this morning about picking up some ‘Kosher for Passover’ groceries. She’s very observant and it’s very important to her. She put in an order at the kosher shop and she wanted me to go and collect it which was no bother at all but I needed an autocertificazione, a form you must carry with you when you go outside stating why you are outside and that you don’t have the Coronavirus. I thought she wanted me to go there and then, and I didn’t have the form ready. Turns out the order won’t be ready for another couple of days and I’ve now completed and downloaded the form to my phone so we’re all set.
Meanwhile I’ve just spoken to J, “How are you?” I asked, “I’m stressed” he said and painted a very bleak picture of the next twelve months. “I’ve asked my aunt if I can have her house in Bologna, I’m going there with a few friends and I’m going to get loads of supplies in.”
“Can I come?”
“Only if I can make love to you every day.”
“OK,” I replied, and then, feeling a little excited, read him the quote above.
I’ve just come off the balcony, there was a 12 noon flash mob of everyone clapping in honour and gratitude for the nurses and doctors here and rightly so, what incredible people they are. And yesterday, there was a balcony flash mob of people singing and playing instruments. Lots of videos have been posted on FB – absolutely brilliant. Where I am, there was a few of us out and one woman, a professional singer and music teacher, led the way with “We are the world”. I joined in, while N, not knowing the words, did her bit with a few bars from Vincerò. Today, at 18:00 there’s another national balcony gathering, this time with the song Azzuro by Adriano Celentano – even if you’re not Italian, you’ll probably know it when you hear it. Here’s the lyrics if you want to join in.
FB is another life line. Among other groups, I’m a member of IWM (International Women of Milan). There’s already been one virtual aperitivo (last night, I missed it unfortunately, but looking forward to the next one) and people, out of bordem, compassion, ingenuity or a little of all three, are networking, advertising or offering their services for free, or posting really important info such as Giving Birth in the Time of Corona Virus – Wow.
Then on Nextdoor.it (Gambara) there’s been quite a few posts about supermarkets and how people are behaving at the supermarket. One person just posted how they went to Carrefour on Via Soderini this morning at 11:30 – there was no queue (they must have hit it just at the right time) but after 10 minutes the fruit and veg department was thronged with crowds and many elderly people not wearing masks! The poster was so annoyed they asked to speak to the manager and threatened to call the police – shoppers should be staggered, let in a few at a time. “Proper order” said someone else, “I’d do the same”. Meanwhile, a new post confirms that the nurses and doctors at ospedale San Carlo heard the clapping at 12 noon today.
Balconies and social networks will get us through this.
Friday afternoon, 6th March, I gave in to temptation and had a big, dirty ice cream on Via Marghera. I was on my way home from meeting IG for a coffee and a stroll; the sun was shining and a Friday afternoon vibe was in the air. I hadn’t had an ice cream for ages, it was yummy, but I knew I was doing something I shouldn’t have been doing.
Someone else on Nexdoor.it (Gambara) had the same idea, “I was thinking today of how to give myself a treat during this difficult time”, (“Oggi pensavo a come gratificarmi in un momento così delicato…”) she wrote and asked if anyone else fancied an ice cream at Gelateria Gambara on Via Palma. Yep, at least four or five people showed interest, so the poster suggested 15:30 today, Sunday 8th March. I was up for it too – it would’ve been nice to meet some new faces from the hood and have another ice cream. I say “would have been” because, 1. she then called the whole thing off, leaving this link to a speech by the Lombardy welfare councillor Giulio Gallera urging everyone to not go out in groups and to stay at home – “it’s fundamental if we want to beat this Coronavirus,” and 2. because Milan, (along with the extended red zone area) has been locked down. News of this unprecedented decree was leaked to the press last night and officially signed off by the government in the wee hours this morning.
What exactly does this mean? Firstly, 16 million people, that’s one quarter of the Italian population, are blocked from moving in or out of the area in question unless it’s absolutely necessary. The news has already triggered a mass exodus from Milan – I’m not sure how many people have already left – but RAI News 24 reported that Milano Centrale and Porta Garibaldi, two of Milan’s main train stations, were thronged with people leaving last night. Students, I suppose or people who have family or second homes in other parts of Italy. The train stations remain open today – I wonder for how long though? And airports are still open but I’m not sure what the story is there – the Ente Nazionale Aviazione Civile (The National Aviation Authority) has said flights are the responsibility of airlines, but I just heard now (I’m listening to RAI News 24 on the lapper as I write) that Alitalia will suspend all flights to Malpensa airport from tomorrow.
Secondly, all schools, universities, cultural institutions and any place where people congregate will remain closed until the 3rd April. Churches have also closed, funerals and weddings have been suspended and bars and restaurants can stay open but only between 06:00 – 18:00, but you must keep a metre distrance from anyone else.
I was at Lidl this morning, doing a bit of a stock-up – tinned goods and frozen veg – just in case. N’s daughter kindly picked us up in the car. There was a guard on the door and people were only allowed in a few at a time. When I went to pay, I asked a woman if she was in the queue and she said, yes, and reminded me of the rule about keeping at least one 1 metre distance.
Right now, I’m watching the TV programme “Soliti ignoti” with N – there’s no live audience as there usually is and the presenter, Amadeus, reminds us to wash our hands, don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth, sneeze into a hanky or if you don’t have a hanky, into your elbow and avoid crowds. The message is getting broadcasted LOUD and CLEAR. It’s like the country has launched a military operation called “Defeat Coronavirus”.
After the initial Coronavirus press explosion and my reaction to it (I was a little bit freaked out), I’d settled into the situation, meaning I was following all the advised precautions but I wasn’t actually FEELING worried or anxious. When I walked past the ice cream parlour on Friday afternoon, I knew it would probably be better to keep walking, but, as I said, the sun was shining, it was Friday afternoon and there were lots of people out and about, not to mention standing in front of me and behind me in the queue, so I gave into temptation. It’s not that much of a big deal, I know, but I also know I won’t be going for an ice cream anytime soon.
Postponed, Juventus v’s Milan in the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia, scheduled to take place today.
The decision was taken as a precautionary measure, in line with the latest “nuove decreti” (new regulations) for combatting the spread of Covid-19. Here’s the latest regulations which were publicized yesterday:
- Keep a distance of at least 1 metre between you and another person
- Do not kiss, hug or shake hands when greeting or saying goodbye
- Stay away from crowded places
- Stay indoors if you have a low fever, even if you have no signs of having contracted the virus
- Stay at home if you’re over 75 years of age, or 65 years of age if you are unwell.
That’s not all the scary news. Schools have been ordered to stay shut until the 15th March! That’s a good chunk of my monthly income for March wiped out. This is serious stuff. I enjoyed the unexpected week off last week, but this is a game changer.
Thank God for the internet. I’m going to need to get creative and techy about this to get through it financially. Necessity is the mother of invention. I can give Skype lessons, translate (thankfully the situation doesn’t drastically effect translation work), become a professional poker player, write a best selling guide called “Safe Sex in the Time of Coronavirus” (if it hasn’t already been written), or “How to Have a Virtual Sex Life” – one couple who haven’t even read my (unwritten) book yet, have already got pregant.
There’s always opportunists ready to make a quick buck at any cost. Take for example, the online Coronavirus Shop (covered on the news this morning) where you could find masks, gloves, overalls, various kits etc all at “prezzi stratosferici” (crazy prices), but guaranteed to 100% protect you from becoming infected with the virus. Who knows how many people got ripped off? That’s not right.
“Pazienza,” says N.
One daily ritual I’m missing is a macchiato (an espresso with a drop of steamed milk) and a sweet treat – some days I have two, but since I’m not running around Milan giving lessons and meeting friends or going on dates, it hasn’t been part of my day. So yesterday I had one on Via Lorenteggio. There were people out and about, mums with buggys, people waiting at the bus stop and sitting in the café. Then I strolled down to Via Solari where lots of famous fashion brands have their showrooms. There were people on the street there too. I looked into a restaurant and there were a few people having lunch. And there were people in the supermarket, and groceries on the shelves. And I wasn’t the only person wearing latex gloves! (N and I have decided to wear latex gloves from the minute we go out and then take them off the second we get back by rolling them off our hands so they’re inside out, and we stick them in the bin like that).
It’s fine, it is, it’s just a bit surreal while at the same time, reality is beginning to set in.
One of the Art Detective’s favourite paintings is The Skater by Gilbert Stuart. He sees in it a man elegantly skating through life. Right now, life feels more like a Jackson Pollack painting – random – and you need a good sense of humour to appreciate it.
Italians have a good sense of humour, especially the Milanese and over the last couple of days there’s been a few things that have made me laugh, either because they were supposed to be funny (videos, jpgs) or because they were just random or a bit incongruous. There’s the video of four guys coughing, singing and spluttering the My Sharona song with different lyrics: “If I cough in public, I feel like a criminal – VIRUS CORONA, everyone says you have to wash your hands, hands, hands, Woooooh”. And the jpeg showing three different crowds of people: at a Queen concert at Wembley Stadium, at a Pink Floyd concert in Venice and the biggest crowd of all, people walking around Codogno in 2020! Codogno is the small town in Lombardy where the first person in Italy was identified with the Coronavirus.
Then yesterday I read a message on an FB group I’m in. Seemingly a notice had been put up in one of the large apartment blocks, not 100 miles from where I live, informing residents that two people living in the block had been “identified” as having the virus . Loads of comments followed like “why would you want to post such a message – it only makes people more nervous” or “thanks, it’s better to know” or “it’s not true”or “it’s only a flu virus”, and so on but the funny thing was, as others were quick to notice, the poster had wanted to say that the building was now in the process of being disinfected, however they had misspelled the word “sanificazione”by adding a “t” making it “santificazione”, so the building is in the process of being sanctified as opposed to sanitized. ‘Let’s pray!’ someone replied with a laughing emoji. Meanwhile, N had heard about it as well, “si avvicina”, (“it’s getting closer”) she said pragmatically. “It’s only a flu!” I replied laughing, but there was a little bit of nervous laugher in there as well.
Life goes on though and as arranged, I met IG at Pagano yesterday at midday. There she was with her long, black hair and her long legs and her “nothing ruffles my feathers” attitude. I put this attitude down to the fact that she’s from Belarus and she’s a vegan. Mind you, we didn’t hug or kiss, our usual form of greeting, and she wasn’t keen on going for a coffee either (being indoors in a bar – although I would have) but we did go to Coin on Via Vercelli to do a little shopping.
On the way back, I picked up a copy of the newspaper, Corriere della Sera and the Saturday magazine that accompanies it, IO Donna. I couldn’t wait to get home to read what Danda (Danda Santini, Editor-in-Chief of IO Donna) had to say about it all. Instead, I was a bit let down and had to laugh when I read about her trip to Finland. In fact, her Buona domenica this week is called, Sì, viaggiare! (Yes, travel!). But she’s right – why even bother mentioning it at all?
Last night I stayed in and read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “What, I’ve found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets.” Pretending everything’s OK, I guess it can work for a while, but it made me sad, and I felt more vulnerable to life than I did before I started reading it.
Then I heard from A, with whom I had a tentative date for today (if not today, next Wednesday), but I cancelled today’s and maybe even next Wednesday’s as I was feeling so vulnerable. “Are you phased by the situation?” I texted, “Nah, not really,” he replied. “Best way to be,” I wrote back, “I’m a little bit younger than you so more foolish,” was his reply. I laughed. I’m looking forward to seeing him.
To stockpile or take stock of myself – I’m caught between the two. There’s no doubt about it, people are stockpiling, (interesting to read this in the Irish Times, re my fellow Irish men and women here in Milan) but is there actually a need? From what I see, everytime I go to the supermarket there is absolutely no need. However, sometimes I drop into worry mode.
For example, what if, in a couple of weeks, there’s no trains, planes or trucks entering Italy? I heard someone talking about it yesterday and it touched my worry nerve.
So today I went to Carrefour, my closest supermarket. I usually go to Esse Lunga, but it’s further away and as I’m not using public transport these days, I thought I wouldn’t be able to walk back with the huge stockpile I’d planned on.
Everything was the same as usual bar empty shelves where the good quality pasta is usually found, tinned tomatoes and tomatoe paste were also in low supply as well as things like breakfast croissants, sliced white bread and long life milk. As for “l’Amuchina” (hand disinfectant) – not a whiff of it to be had, although I did get a giggle out of this video – a take on the song Ciao Bella, Ciao Bella, Ciao, Ciao, Ciao – it’s ciao bella to the Coronavirus with “l’Amuchina” but it costs the same price as an iPhone. Other than these, all was normal, just a bit quiet to be a regular day.
By the time I’d finshed aimlessly walking around, picking up things I’d never usually buy (tea for a flat stomach – that’ll keep me going if there’s a famine, olive and almond paste likewise) the sense of anxiety I’d had about starving to death in Milan had completely subsided and my stockpile came to 13.08 euro.
Mayor of Milan, Beppe Sala, has the right idea. I love this clip he posted earlier today on Instagram plugging Milan. Hashtags #milanononsiferma (“milan’s not stopping”) and #forzamilano (“go Milan” or “power to Milan”) are the way forward. Meanwhile, everyone’s dealing with the situation in their own individual way. I’m trying to roll with it, stay practical, rational, stiff upper lip, but once in a while it gets the better of me – this calls for a bit of the old Wim Hof method I think. Here’s some insight into how friends currently feel:
J (English, based in Milan): It’s no big deal, everyone’s probably gonna get it and get over it, just look after yourself and eat well.
N (Italian, based in Milan): This is serious, stay calm, be patient, everyone must do what they feel is best; better if you don’t go out.
I (Belarusian, based in Milan): These things happens, I’m out and about.
C (Italian, based in Milan): Call me when it’s all over.
E (Italian, based in Turin): It’s a cover up job for something bigger; the martians have landed.
Local Rabbi (Italian, based in Milan): Moral of the story – keep kosher.
I ventured out today, first time since Sunday. I took a stroll down to Gambara to GP’s shop. He sells coffee capsules and vinyl discs. There were people about, but very little traffic. We had a coffee, chatted and listened to a few tunes: the Cranberries and Thin Lizzy and Lucio Battisti, Fabrizio De Andre and Enzo Jannacci. One customer came in and jokingly said to GP, ‘You’re not wearing a mask!’
The press is still on full throttle but it’s not all plague and misery here, people are having a laugh. Things like this video I CONSIGLI DI NONNA sul CORONAVIRUS (Grandma’s advice on Coronavirus) are good for a chuckle. The quintessential Italian grandmother (down to earth, tough as nails) gives 10 pieces of advice on how to avoid the Coronavirus. Advice number 3: hugging and kissing should be replaced by winking at each other! Meanwhile, the usual form of greeting and saying goodbye – hugging and kissing – HAS been replaced, to some degree anyway, with blowing kisses, or jokingly sticking a foot out, or something silly like that.
And what about dating apps? Are people still using them? I’m not. And I wonder what type of effect this Coronavirus will have on the birth rate this coming November / December? I remember the aftermath of 9/11, in New York; it was as if Manhattan had been sprayed with a magic love potion. Strangers hugged each other on the street, love for your fellow man and woman filled the air. I’m sure the number of babies born the following June must have been higher than usual for the New York area – the human instinct to keep the race alive. Who knows, maybe a study’s been done on it. Here, people are reaching out to each other via whatsapp and FB, (even guys I met on Tinder just reach out to say hello), but it’s a very different vibe to anything I’ve ever experienced before.
Mayor of Milan, Beppe Sala put this speech on his Instagram profile. He opens by saying that he was asked to talk about being mayor during the Coronavirus. He answers by giving a run down of his day: he’d visited two day care centres for the disabled, spoke to Prime Minister Conte on the telephone asking him to come and visit us in Milan, he’d also spoken to the Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance, Roberto Gualtieri, asking for more help, and to the Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini regarding the possibility of reopening cultural institutions because, as he said, ‘culture is life’. He’s right, culture is life in Milan: musuems, art galleries and cultural institutions are at the heart of this amazing city. I like his attitude. Going back to 9/11, I remember Bloomberg, mayor of New York at the time, urging everyone to keep going out, keep going to your local restaurant, bar, movie theatre. Don’t let the bastards win. Yes, this is different, but we still need to keep Milan kicking. I think it starts with the right attitude.
Update from Piazza Bande Nere: On Sunday I wrote to the Art Detective, “Yes, it is a bit disconcerting I have to say. All my lessons have been cancelled for the entire week. The Duomo has been closed to tourists, public transport is still running but I’m not using it along with everyone else I know, and I had a ticket for the theatre for tomorrow but the programme has been cancelled. As I say, it’s a little bit worrying!” That was Sunday, on Monday I was close to dialing the 1500 number to book a “tampone” or “test”. I had to use my ashma inhaler, the first time in a long time and I also had a slight cough. ‘N,’ I said to my flatmate, ‘last week I had to use my inhaler’. ‘You don’t have it,’ she answered. Thank God for that. I don’t, but the hype and drama here are overwhelming, anxiety causing and unavoidable. The press is having a field day. Streets and supermarket shelves are empty, kids have been packed off to the coast and whole families are taking to the hills Decameron style. There’s regional mandatory decrees stating that, among other things, bars, cafes and clubs must stay shut from 18:30 to 06:00 (although from what I read on the International Women of Milan fb group, some are staying open around the Navigli area), but if you were thinking of an aperitivo – you may need to think again. As for restaurants, I believe they are open, but who is going to them?
Mind you, it’s fine dining time for the “sciacalli” which literally means “jackals” or more appropriately “fraudsters” who are knocking on peoples doors pretending to give free tests and then robbing peoples’ homes! And IF you can find a face mask on sale, be prepared to spend an unholy amount of money. As for “l’Amuchina” a disinfectant hand gel – I don’t think my great Grandmother’s diamond ring would even buy me a small bottle right now – although I could have bought the same bottle for 1 euro last Wednesday. That will give you an idea about the general state of mind right now in Milan. I’m trying not to buy into it, probably like many others, but it’s difficult. The best piece of common sense I’ve heard to date comes from the writer and journalist Andrea Scanzi on a 15 minute video he posted on his FB page. He’s speaking in Italian obviously but if you understand Italian, it’s worth listening to. Saying that, I was meant to meet J in Pagano earlier today but he whatsapped to say he couldn’t make it because he was going to bed with a sore throat and a bottle of whiskey. While I’m a bit worried about him and suggested lemon, ginger and hot water instead of whiskey, I have to admit I felt relieved I didn’t have to go out. I know, it’s ridiculous. Or is it? I don’t know.
On a lighter, brighter note, and not because of the Coronavirus, I actually went to shul (synagogue) last Saturday morning, the first time since Jan 2018. There’s a strong Middle Eastern Jewish community here in Milan, something I didn’t know until recently. I’m of the Ashkenazi brand myself but really, there’s not much difference between us. One thing I noticed however, was that during the service when the community news was read out about an upcoming marriage, a birth and a graduation, there were ululations from the women upstairs – first time I’d heard that in a synagogue! Also, there was no “Adon Alom” the prayer usually sung at the end of the service and the only prayer I remember the first few words of. Not to be, but I think I’ll learn how to ululate. After the service there was a lavish Kiddish (after service nosh-up) for the married couple to be, with traditional Persian food and lots and lots of cakes and chocolates. There may have been a bar, but I didn’t see it – too busy stuffing myself with a meat, barley and cinnamon dish called Ash.
Later that evening I went to Ittolittos for dinner and to celebrate a friend’s birthday over a good burger and beer. And the Wednesday before, I was actually at Govinda the Hari Krishna restaurant for my friend I’s birthday who’s vegan. It was surprisingly good. This week’s culinary delights won’t be so eclectic and neither will there be any aperitivos – I love going for an aperitivo – but now that I think of it, when I was leaving Govinda they offered me a free vegetarian cook book – so I may try a few new recipes while I’ve got a bit of time on my hands – if I can find a few green leaves and or an odd potatoe in the supermarket.
Yes, it feels like I’ve got time on my hands, like I’m on a retreat at home. When I wake up there’s none of the usual morning traffic and I don’t have to take the metro to work. Instead, I make a cuppa, roll out my yoga mat, do a bit of stretching, make another cuppa, catch up on translation practice, read for the sheer enjoyment of it (I picked up Breakfast at Tiffany’s last week – first time I’ve ever read it), make dinner. It’s all a bit too quiet though, a bit too surreal. Let’s see what the rest of the week brings.
Pizza, pasta, panettone. Some of the delicious joys of Italy, but not for you. Instead, you’re relegated to the fruit and veg stands, the fish, meat and cheese counters. Not such a bad thing really, but while everyone else relishes mouthfuls of spaghetti carbonara, pizza Napoletana and pistachio cream filled croissants, you hang your head like the kid who didn’t get theirs.
Chin up! There are alternatives for us gluten freers that will bring smiles to our faces and indulgent pleasures to our taste buds, without the thumping headaches and itchy rashes. Here are a few of my personal favourites and a few just to have in the cupboard:
If you want to do as the majority of Italians do, and have a quick coffee at your local bar on the way to work, but you can’t stand the temptation as you watch everyone else dunking sugar dusted brioche into their cappuccinos, then this one’s for you. Pasta di mandorla is a paste made out of ground almonds, egg whites, sugar, almond essence and lemon zest. It’s a classic Sicilian recipe which can be found throughout Italy. The paste is made into soft, chewy biscuits that come in different flavours and shapes.
There’s the simple ‘pizzicotti’ balls that have been ‘pinched’ before being put into the oven, cherry topped rounds, pine nut covered balls and many more. The variety is endless. If your local bar has one type, they’ll no doubt have three or four types. I’m particularly partial to the ones at the Dolce Capriccio Bar and Pasticceria on the corner of Via Bramante and Piazza Lega Lomarda here in Milan. BTW, where you have your morning coffee is called a bar in Italy, not as us anglo folk say, a café.
Lunchtime. You’re starving. What are your options? A “panino” (a bread role sandwich), a “piadina” (like a soft tortilla sandwich), a slice of “focaccia” (oven baked bread topped with salt and fresh rosemary) or a slice of pizza? In short, none. But wait, there is a quick carby alternative for gluten freers on the go. It’s called “La farinata di ceci”. Made from chickpea flour, water, salt and extra virgin olive oil, the recipe comes from both Tuscany and Liguria and goes by different names depending where you are: “faine” or “faina” in Liguria, “cecina” or “torta di ceci” in Tuscany. While the Tuscans tend to keep it classic, the Ligurians add rosemary or even peas. When I’m at home, I nip across the road to get my farinata at Pizzeria Dell’Angelo on Via Belfiore. You’ll find it in about one out of every three bakeries (usually on display beside the focaccia and pizza) or in some local pizzerias.
I’ve also found it in the form of Panella, a Sicilian version, which is smaller pieces of the same dough fried. Leave it to the Sicilians to rev it up a notch. Either way, it will keep you full for much longer than a sandwich will, not to mention all that chickpea goodness. The only downside is, it disappears from about mid June to mid September.
Traditional pizzoccheri is not 100% gluten free. Roughly speaking, it’s made with 80% buckwheat flour (buckwheat is a seed, not a grain) and 20% wheat flour, so if you’re super intolerant or celiac, beware, although 100% gluten free pizzoccheri is also sometimes available. This hearty dish hales from the alpine region of Valtellina, and more specifically from the little town of Teglio where it is considered a national heritage and where you will find the Accademia del pizzocchero di Teglio, an entire institution dedicated to keeping the original recipe alive.
Made of tagliatelle like strips of mostly buckwheat pasta, potatoes, savoy cabbage, butter and cheese, it’s Italy’s rich cousin to Ireland’s colcannon, with its layers of textures and flavours. You won’t find it easily outside of Lombardy, although it’s not uncommon in Milanese restaurants and I’ve also seen it served at an aperitivo buffet. But if you’re looking for the real McCoy head north. One restaurant I would highly recommend is Crotto Valtellina about an hour and a half’s drive from the centre of Milan.
Gluten free pizzas
For my liking, not enough pizzerias are serving gluten free pizzas. Take the hugely popular Neapolitan Sorbillo Pizzeria, with branches in Naples, Milan, Rome and one soon to open in New York, yet only the one in Naples offers gluten free pizza. This is a good indication of the general state of affairs. If you’re like me and can tolerate the odd slice now and again, but not really, you’ll succumb, hoping you won’t have to pick up a tube of 1% Hydrocortisone cream the next day. It’s just not good enough! Let’s hope this changes soon.
But although we can’t pick and choose, some restaurants do serve gluten free pizzas. I had one in Quinto on the coast of Liguria in August. I thought I was walking into a fish restaurant, but they also had pizza and gluten free at that. In Milan there’s the brilliant Be Bop Pizzeria and Restaurant close to the very trendy Navigli district. I absolutely love this place, with it’s great choice of gluten free pizzas, (see photo above, everything on the menu is gluten free as is the beer and bread basket contents), great atmosphere and friendly and professional service. I’ve also been told that Cook Window do a good selection of gluten free pizzas, but this one I haven’t tried yet, creature of habit that I am. I’m positive these aren’t the only ones though, it’s just a matter of striking lucky as I did in Quinto or doing a bit of research on the internet.
Gluten free at the supermarket
Getting used to a gluten free diet is challenging, especially mentally. How often have I eaten a sandwich, slice of cake, chocolate biscuit, literally feeling my skin prickle before I even put it in my mouth, and yet I ate it anyway. The mind is like a kid who gets fixated on having to have something, then when they know they can have it, they don’t want it anymore. You have to train it, firmly, but with compassion. This is where supermarket gluten free products can really help. Italian supermarkets like Esselunga and Auchan have an excellent choice of gluten free products including flours, pastas, breads, savory and sweet biscuits and even piadinas – those soft flat breads I mentioned earlier. The key words to look out for are “senza glutine”. So if you must have a chocolate digestive, have one by Schaer, the German, gluten free brand. They’re just as yummy and equally as naughty. I personally rate Garofalo the best for gluten free pasta. And my favourite “gallette” (crackers) are 100% made out of buckwheat by Fiorentini.
“Do you like the show?” I asked a fellow visitor in Italian as we were nearing the end. “I do,” he replied, “what I like most, is its sense of equilibrio.
I knew exactly what he meant. Equilibrio is the word that came to my mind too. In English it can be translated as equilibrium, balance, poise, composure or stasis. With regards to this show it refers to all of the above.
The name of the show is borrowed from the collection of poems by the Martinican writer and philosopher Édouard Glissant. It’s a fitting name, which may sound strange given the sense of equilibrio I just mentioned, but somehow both aspects are present.
Curated by Massimiliano Gioni and promoted by La Fondazione Nicola Trussardi and La Triennale di Milano, La Terra Inquieta (The Restless Earth) brings together 65 artists (although it doesn’t seem that many) from 40 countries.
Gioni’s excellent curatorial direction, the integrity of the works, the storytellers whether they are the artists themselves, many of whom have been refugees or migrants, or the people and experiences they portray together with the absence of the mass media all contribute to make this a five star exhibition.
The show highlights many aspects rarely seen via the mass media. The Witness recorded by Abounaddara Films, an anonymous film making company from Damascus, is a series of interviews with different people. In one interview a woman speaks about how she goes to afternoon prayers wearing trousers which is forbidden under the “Islamic State”. Her friends can’t believe it – ‘a girl all by herself facing the “Islamic State”. Talk about a state!’ she says, ‘it’s more like a gang that takes advantage of people’s fear and feels more and more powerful.’ You can see the entire interview here.
The harsh reality of poverty, the devastation of war, cruelty and upheaval – it’s all here but none of it impacted me in the same way as it does via the mass media. I didn’t feel overwhelmed, the need to judge or take a stance but I left with a more empathetic understanding of the migrant and refugee experience than I have honestly ever felt before.
Filmed in Palermo, Sicily, Western Union: small boats by Isaac Julien, is, as he explains, ‘a meditation on Visconti’s The Leopard but set in modern days. We know the story about Visconti, it’s about the decline of the aristocratic classes and, in this moment in time in Sicily, it’s really about, the new émigrés, new people from Africa, coming into Europe.’
It’s incredibly beautiful and thought provoking.
What came to my mind was the unnerving juxtaposition of beauty and evil. For example, we see people at the beach swimming in a crystal blue sea only a stone’s through away from dead bodies covered in foil lying on the shore.
Not surprisingly, means of travel – especially small boats – figure throughout the show. I found Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project particularly informative. She represents eight different illegal journeys made by immigrants coming from north Africa or Africa to France. Each one recounts their journey while tracing it over a map. You can sit, watch and listen to each journey. In Mapping Journey #1 a man describes travelling in a small boat, ‘You can’t even imagine the huge waves and the fear’ he says.
Hope by Adel Abdessemed is a wooden boat filled with cast resin sculptures of stuffed black garbage bags. He found the boat on the Florida Keys. As described on the wall panel it’s, “a likely castoff of migrants arriving from Cuba,” while the black sacks, “offer a blunt metaphor for how the boat’s presumed passengers are regarded by much of society.” ‘Hope,’ says the artist, is the only negative thing in the world.
The precarious nature of life is another strong theme throughout the show. In Mona Hatoum’s Map transparent glass marbles are laid out on the floor as a world map . They’re not stuck to the floor, they’re just placed on the floor, “revealing the planet’s territorial divisions as both dangerous and fragile,” as described on the information panel. While I was there one guy accidently trod on the bottom of South America which rolled away haphazardly. Perhaps the lack of protection is not altogether accidental hammering home the point, I think, that anything can happen to anyone at any given moment in time so in this respect we’re all in the proverbial same boat but I think this is exactly what gives the show that sense of equilibrio which I mentioned earlier.
The show runs until the 20th August 2017 and really worth a visit in you’re in Milan.
Last April I sent Charley Hill my CV and cover letter suggesting he hire me as his summer unpaid intern. Within an hour I had my reply – a resounding yes. He happened to have several documents he urgently needed translated from English into Italian and as I speak Italian I was the perfect person for the job. ‘I should call you Nathaniel’, he wrote back referring to the angel. My timing couldn’t have been better.
It’s amazing how much you can learn in a short space of time. When I wrote to Charley I knew as much about art crime as most people: bugger all. Sure I’d seen The Thomas Crown Affair and was aware that Edward Munch’s The Scream had been stolen at some point and OK, I have a quiet fascination for fakes and forgeries mainly due to the pile I’ve unwittingly amassed over years of trawling through eBay and local auction houses in search of the needle in the haystack Philip Mould style, but that’s about as much as I knew.
Still, that’s not to say I’m a total newbie to the art world. I’m not. I’ve been weaving in and out of it for years, working for various art institutions and cavorting around London’s incredibly colourful art scene. In fact, having returned from teaching English in Kazakhstan, I half toyed with the idea of donning the Art Representative cap which is what led me to the Sotheby’s Institute of Art open day. At the reception afterwards, I asked David Bellingham, who runs the Art Business courses, if they cover fakes and forgeries. ‘They do,’ he said, and that the famous art detective Charles Hill lectures on them. That’s the first I’d heard of Charley Hill.
There’s a ton of material about Charley on the internet but what I enjoyed reading the most was Edward Dolnick’s book The Rescue Artist. He uses the theft and recovery of Munch’s The Scream stolen from Norway’s National Gallery in 1994 as the central story (hugely entertaining, presently in development to be made into a movie) and intersperses it with lots of other juicy art crimes. Charley turns up in most of them either playing the role of himself – the intrepid self-styled art sleuth – or if he was part of a sting operation posing as a middleman or a dodgy art-dealer. Each case is a heady cocktail of mystery, greed, power and incredibly beautiful and important works of art by the likes of Titian, Leonardo Da Vinci, Vermeer and many more. ‘Is it all true?’ I asked Charley one afternoon as we sped into Oxford following a tip-off that the Ashmolean Museum was going to be targeted for its collection of clocks and watches. ‘Most of it,’ he replied.
The chapter entitled “The Rescue Artist” is Charley’s bio. He’s half English, half American. His Mum, Zita Widdrington, was the daughter of a Reverend and a member of the high-kicking dance troupe The Bluebell Girls (the Kay Kendall character in the Gene Kelly movie Les Girls is based on her). His Dad, Landon Hill, was an Air Force officer and then worked for the National Security Agency. He was one of the first American soldiers at Dachau concentration camp. What he witnessed there haunted him to his death. After the war he became an alcoholic and died in a car accident when Charley was 18. Charley spent most of his childhood living in various cities on the east coast of America and in Europe attending no less than twelve schools. A precarious life style, but one that allowed Zita to bring him and his two sisters to all the great art institutions wherever they went. Perhaps it gave him a sense of stability, looking at the never changing landscapes and faces that inhabit the great masterpieces he came to know so well. One of his favourites is The Skater by Gilbert Stuart (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC). He sees in it a man gracefully gliding through life. l later found out he’d love to own a painting by Edward Hopper who he regards as a twentieth century Vermeer. Before his career took him back to the realms of art he was a paratrooper in the Vietnam War, studied History at Trinity College Dublin (I studied Italian there), Theology at Kings College London and worked as a cop for 20 years – the last three as the supervising Detective Chief Inspector of the Art and Antiques Squad at New Scotland Yard. Above all, Dolnick paints a picture of a man of parts: erudite but would be a square peg in a round hole in academia, courteous but swears like a sailor, humble yet admits to being thoroughly vain and arrogant, a quintessential boy scout when it comes to helping others yet a self confessed lone wolf although extremely partial to a good malt whiskey shared with intellectual banter. I liked the sound of him.
What I didn’t know before meeting Charley was that these days he’s hot on the trail of the Holy Grail of stolen art: Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence also known as The Adoration. Caravaggio painted it in the Oratory of the Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo in the late summer of 1609 while he was on the run in Sicily. It stayed there for over 350 years before some dimwit (they usually are) sauntered in on the 16th October 1969, cut it out of its frame and sauntered off with it. It’s a huge painting, roughly six feet by nine feet but the priest who was having a siesta next door heard nothing. To this day its theft remains a mystery: who dunnit, why, where it is now – if it still exits at all. It’s far from Caravaggio’s most well known works but continues to inspire a welter of speculation. One rumor has it that ex Prime Minister of Italy Giulio Andreotti, ordered its theft. Seemingly he burst into tears when it was brought before him not because he was so awed by its beauty but because it had been so badly damaged by the thief who probably folded it up into eighths and stuck it on the back of his Vespa. True? Who knows, but in this world anything is possible. Then there’s the case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum paintings, all thirteen of them stolen on St. Patrick’s Day 1990 with a collective value of $1 billion and a reward of $10 million but that’s another story.
Our first meeting was at Tide Tables Café under Richmond Bridge on a very wet and windy Sunday morning. We arranged to meet at 11.30 am. He was coming straight from church, I was coming from my bed in Swiss Cottage. I was early. He was late. When he arrived he was adamant about buying the coffees even though I’d already had one, so I settled on a croissant just to humour him. He did most of the talking, diving straight into the Caravaggio case and the Gardner Museum theft. For all the research I’d done, I could hardly keep up and as much as I wanted to, I was too embarrassed to take notes. I’m sure we were there for over an hour but I would have stayed longer, I found him fascinating.
There’s no routine and to my infinite joy no admin work. To catch up on everything, we usually meet once a week at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square or if it’s a nice day at the Courtauld Gallery, one of my favorite museums in London. Charley will treat me to lunch and randomly proffer the latest updates on various cases. I listen attentively, trying to piece together all his snippets of information into some sort of logical order. I repeatedly have to ask him who this person is or how that one’s involved, but he’s extremely patient. I think I’m beginning to get the picture but as he says, don’t bother trying, it changes every day.
As I’m learning, recovering stolen works of art involves speaking with a lot of different characters from a lot of different backgrounds: from the powers on high (Scotland Yard, Interpol, governments), to the powers down low (gangsters, crooked art dealers, international criminals) to those shady folk who straddle both worlds (penitents, informers, dealers who knowingly sell stolen art and antiquities, fakes and forgeries – there’s more than you’d think) and everyone else in between. I can be hob-knobbing with sharp dressed Bond Street dealers with plumy accents one minute then shaking hands and having a drink with one of Britain’s most wanted criminals the next. With Charley, it’s all in a day’s work. Ultimately his only concern is recovering the stolen works of art.
When I’m not ‘pounding the streets’ I may well be doing a spot of translating, more specifically letters to Archbishop Pennisi of Monreale in Sicily. Charley’s been working on recovering precious treasures stolen from the Cathedral in Piazza Armerina in the province of Enna for years. Little by little, members of the local Mafia are coming forward to help him. He’s been back there twice in the last three months alone and spent the last trip acting on a tip-off, wading through muddy riverbanks under a scorching Sicilian sun hoping for a glint of the precious jewels, ditched there by the thieves who knows when. Looting and pillaging of religious and ancient works of art is a huge business in Italy and internationally. Sadly it’s all too often condoned by art institutions and private collectors worldwide. I ask Charley more about this in our interview below.
Since working with Charley my view of the art world has changed dramatically. In one way it’s a bit like having a look under the carpet, delving below the aesthetics and finding all manner of questionable entities. On another level, it’s opened up a whole new dimension I had no idea existed.
What follows is an interview with Charley about cases we’ve been working on together over the past three months and aspects of art crime I wanted more clarity on such as the difference between a reward and a ransom.
In search of the real Caravaggio and other great works of art: Interview with Charley Hill
Tuesday 24th July 2012 at the National Gallery, London
TC: Charley, we’re riding the wave of Caravaggio mania at the moment so I’d like to start by asking you about your search for Caravaggio’s Nativity with St Francis and St. Lawrence. Can you tell me what happened, who stole it and what’s the likelihood of its recovering?
CH: In the Fall of 1969, thieves broke through into the Oratory of St. Lawrence in Palermo and stole Caravaggio’s great Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence. It was assumed to be a Mafia inspired theft. It may have been. They certainly became involved in some ways later on. Obnoxious half-wits stole the painting because they are Philistine half-wits. It cannot be recovered in the condition in which it was stolen, but the canvas cadaver can be recovered in my opinion.
TC: Let’s be optimistic and assume you find it, what type of restoration will it need? Then should it be put back in the Oratory of San Lorenzo? If not, where do you think it should be hung?
CH: The restoration of that Caravaggio will take some ingenious form. The Church of the Eremiti in Padua has an interestingly, partially restored series of frescoes by Mantegna on its walls. The destruction was done by a series of bombing raids on German troops in Padua during WWII by Allied air forces. The restoration was a work of genius by an Italian mathematician and his helpers. In the National Gallery in London is a picture by Cima de Conegliano called The Incredulity of St. Thomas (Doubting Thomas). It was dropped into the Grand Canal in Venice over a hundred years ago and completely repainted recently. It’s a masterpiece of restoration. Once the Caravaggio is recovered and restored as much as it can be, it should go where the Archbishop of Palermo thinks it should go. I’m sure he’ll take good advice. I think it should go where it can be seen, admired and protected from thieves, earthquakes, storm and fire.
TC: I know you’ve got your heart set on finding other stolen art treasures from Sicily, I’m referring to the ancient Byzantine icon of the Madonna from the Cathedral of Piazza Armerina. Can you tell me about this icon and the frame which I believe was a later adornment to the icon and if I’m not mistaken it was only the frame that was stolen? Why would somebody steal this?
CH: Roger de Hauteville was the Norman knight in the 11th century who led the people of Sicily to oust their Saracen rulers. The Pope at the time, Nicholas II, gave Roger an icon that may have been a pre-iconoclastic one, that is, a work of Byzantine art from the 8th century. Whatever its age, later centuries saw it adorned (in fact, it went missing in a big box for some centuries) and in the early 17th century it was festooned with jewels, Hispanic gold, gilt bronze and so on and on. The frame itself was made with silver and other precious metals. People stole from the icon because they could and thought it would satisfy their greed. It hasn’t satisfied anyone’s greed so far as I can tell, although there may be a few people who feel smug about having some of the valuable things on it.
TC: Do established art institutions and museums purchase stolen works of art and antiquities? What do you say to these institutions?
CH: Institutions do purchase stolen things, largely inadvertently, or blindly, or willfully blindly. What I say to individuals and institutions is that you have a conscience or collective consciences. Use them. Do what’s right. In English law, once something is stolen, it is stolen, and no one has better title to the stolen property than its owner.
TC: I’ve read that art crime is the third highest-grossing criminal trade worldwide behind the drugs and arms trade. Can you give me some realistic facts and figures?
CH: More crap is talked about art crime figures than any other subject, other than health remedies and religious or political certainties. I have no realistic figures, and no one else does either, not collectors of statistics, bureaucrats, soothsayers nor bullshitting police officers and the like.
TC: Besides the 1970 UNESCO convention, what measures have governments put in place to deal with art crime? Do you have any suggestions you could offer them?
CH: Other than international agreements, the best thing governments can do is tighten their laws of theft and enforce them internationally. I would include thefts by deception which would include art frauds, forgeries, fakes, willfully dodgy attributions, and intentionally bogus provenance.
TC: How much of art crime is carried out by organized criminal bodies and how much by individuals working for themselves?
CH: I don’t know what the answer is to that but my guess is, most individual thieves have some organized crime connection. They may not be part of some dreadful drugs gang, although it does happen, but by and large art theft is done by people involved in serious organized crime. They steal things because it gives them a buzz and they know they can get away with it.
TC: Do you ever find yourself in dangerous situations? How do you communicate with these people?
CH: I like dangerous situations. I used to be a paratrooper over forty years ago. It gets into your blood. We’re supposed to be surrounded. I treat everyone I meet in the same way and speak to them in the same way: directly and reasonably courteously, although I do make exceptions to the courtesy. Somehow, I manage to convey to people that I’m reasonably straight and reasonable, and not a particular threat to them. I’m a loner who enjoys closer contact on occasion, then the space to do my thing.
TC: Why is it so important to find these works of art? How will their recovery affect the general public?
CH: Art is part, in substance and theory, of the values we have as human beings. There are 7 or 8 billion of us, and we need art, especially great art and architecture, literature and ideas and traditions to help us be and become more fully human. I think that is our common, even though warring or conflicting, humanity. In my opinion, art is God given. Admittedly, a lot of art is bullshit and many artists and art world types are assholes, but still, art is a God given grace.
TC: What’s the likelihood of London’s museums and galleries being targeted during the Olympics?
CH: London during the Olympics and after them should protect its great works of art and architecture better than it does. The minds who destroy great shrines from Jehanabad through Najaf to Timbuktu are out there. If they get a chance, they’ll wreak their destruction here.
TC: What’s the difference between a reward and a ransom? Why is a reward acceptable whereas a ransom isn’t?
CH: A reward is something that should be offered and paid for the recovery of works of art because it makes the people who live and work in the grey area of art crime much more amenable to doing something than not when it comes to recovering stolen works of art. It’s also legal to offer a reasonable reward, so long as you don’t offer the reward to the thief, that’s an English law. As a matter of proportion ransoms tend to be much greater than rewards and as a consequence they may in fact get paid to the thieves which would be a terrible mistake because 1) it’s illegal and 2) counter-productive as it just encourages them to steal more. However a reward would tend not to do that and as a matter of proportion a reward would be a great deal less than most people would ask for than a ransom. Generally speaking you offer a reward, you don’t offer a ransom, you demand a ransom, you don’t demand a reward. I think rewards are to be encouraged and certainly in no way discouraged. The largest reward I know on offer for stolen works of art is the $5 million for the Gardner Museum paintings stolen in 1990 but generally speaking, up to about £100,000, 10% of the value of the item that has been stolen is probably a reasonable reward. However after £100,000, the amount drops, so that if it were worth £150,000, you wouldn’t offer £15,000, you’d still offer £10,000. That’s how it works.
TC: So how do you entice thieves to give back the stolen works of art if legally you’re not allowed to offer them the reward?
CH: A thief will steal something and then straight away pass it on to somebody else down the line. So the people you’ll be dealing with anyway are people down the line. A case in point is Titian’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt. I said to a man who knew where it was, “you get the reward, it’s a public advertised reward, you know what it is – see what you can do.” He certainly wasn’t a thief or the handlers, and he wasn’t the man sitting on it, he was the man who knew the man who was sitting on it, so in that case it was perfectly reasonable for him to get the reward and that’s exactly what happened.
TC: If I knowingly buy a stolen work of art, have I committed a crime?
CH: It depends – if you bought it to return it, no. However if you bought it for yourself knowing it was stolen, you would be committing a dishonest handling offense.
TC: Would I be entitled to a reward if I wanted to return it to its rightful owner?
CH: You could be, yes, if you came straight up and said, “I’ve bought this, it’s stolen, if there’s a reward going, here it is, I’ll accept the reward,” that would be legal.
TC: That’s interesting. Has that ever happened?
CH: I’m sure it’s happened, I’ve never been involved in something like that but it would be a matter of tension that’s for sure. There was the case of Leonardo’s Madonna with the Yarnwinder in Scotland but in the end the painting was recovered through an undercover police operation.
TC: Charley, thanks so much for taking the time to talk.
CH: It was my pleasure.