by Mary Beth Ray
A simple hello can lead to surprising connections.
I walked to the Duomo early in the morning to watch people for a while. I was glad to be able to set my own pace. That’s one of the reasons I travel alone. Today the pace would be measured. But for a few Japanese tourists doing the pigeon photo op thing, the whole scene could have been out of a fifties’ American in Europe movie. Humidity bent the morning light to give everything a golden Technicolor glow. I expected to see Clark Gable or Rock Hudson gambol past. The Italian women were all Loren and Lollabrigida beautiful. It was still cool and I sat on the pedestal of a lamp post/statue to watch people assemble and to look at the church facade. I chose a spot with as little pigeon poop and urine stain as I could find. Apparently, the piazza in front of the Duomo is a place for all to come and leave a piece of themselves behind or to take something with them.
I sat next to a lady who was crocheting a putrid shade of wool acrylic blend yarn out of a plastic bag on the ground next to her. I remember the color from Peter Max posters in 1967 as “lime green.” Looking back, I wonder whether Italian designers saw the lady, too, and were inspired to rejuvenate the color in a mod dash, or if it was already showing up “retro” in some crochet shop. I smiled and said hello in my oh-so-American English. The woman perked up and said hello back. I gathered from her surprised look an AmericanA tourist was not a run of the mill distraction for her.
“Are you English?” she asked. She had on a long cotton skirt, golden like the light. I noticed it was wrinkled already in the heat.
“American,” I said, and we both continued to watch the crowd in the piazza. Miraculously, she never looked at her crocheting in the way a touch typist never looks at the keyboard. I couldn’t tell what she was making. I wondered if she knew.
The previous night lightning had flashed outside my window at regular intervals. It should have boomed with thunder for as bright as it was. Instead, it crackled. Maybe it was the Second Coming. Maybe it was an electrical fire. I thought I had better rouse myself from the death sleep of jet lag to see if I needed to evacuate my room. I fumbled for my glasses, took a drink of flat mineral water “with gas” I had opened earlier from the mini-bar, and looked out the window. Cool air blew from the air conditioning unit below the hotel window. It had felt so good. I stumbled to the room door and felt it for extreme heat, just as I’d been taught to do in Mrs. Schmidt’s fourth grade class. I didn’t feel any “fire heat.” I peeked through the peep hole and didn’t see any unusual activity on the other side of the door. I looked for my watch. It was two o’clock in the morning. The air was all summer humidity, so I sat by the AC vent and looked out the window to watch the thunderstorm. There had been no rain, no lightning, no thunder. No Second Coming, either. The electric streetcar passed a line junction just below my window and threw off a flashbulb bright spark and a crackling buzz when it did. It had been enough to stir me from sleep in the night, but I hadn’t noticed it in the July daylight. But, I had been more asleep than awake when I arrived in Milan. I drank some more Pellegrino and tried to orient myself in space, if not time, by looking at my city map.
Milan, Italy is the money center of Italy, the capital of the Lombardy region, and of course the Italian fashion capital. It presides over a vast plain of the Po Valley between the Alps and the Apennines. It can trap fog or heat or be a cyclonic wind bowl. This was the hottest summer in Milan in decades and the heat didn’t rise, it pressed down. I planned my sightseeing to be back in air conditioning before lunch.
“Do you live in Milan?” I asked the crocheting lady. From time to time we felt a droplet of spray from the fountains behind us.
“Yes,” she said. “I have lived in Milan for eight years. I am from Germany. I live in a city flat for women.” When I really looked at her face she didn’t fit the Sophia Loren profile, so the Germany part made sense. She looked in her forties but with a hard-life face showing toil and weariness. She wore her hair in braids pinned to the top of her head the way my Granny had in her fifties. Her eyes seemed as if she had lived a lot, like Dorothea Lange’s famous Depression Era photograph of a thirty-two year old migrant mother. Maria Elizabeth had less gray hair than I do when it isn’t colored. Maybe even late thirties, I thought.
After a little labored communication – my pidgin German, her rusty English, and informal sign language – I figured out that she was Maria Elizabeth and that a city flat was subsidized housing for the poor. She supplemented the support she got from the city by cleaning floors and windows in some city building.
“Your name is the same as mine,” I said. “I am Mary Beth, almost the same as Maria Elizabeth.” It took a couple of attempts to make myself understood. When Maria Elizabeth did understand, she seemed pleased.
“How old are you?” was the second thing she wanted to know about me.
“Forty,” I said. I thought maybe we had another thing in common.
“Oh.” She was surprised. “I would think twenty-five.” I laughed and touched her arm. She was my new best friend. She never told me how old she was, but, Madonna-like, she seemed to change ages from moment to moment.
“Why did you come to Milan from Germany?” I asked. Surely, I thought to myself, the welfare system in Germany could provide more comfort than the Italians could. But, perhaps Maria Elizabeth was from what had been East Germany.
“I was hospitalized for five years for nerves and moved with the church to Italy,” was how she answered my question. Her eyes were earnest and portrait-like in their directness. This woman who crocheted and spoke three languages that I knew of and was sitting next to me here where Gene Kelly should start dancing had only whetted my appetite for more information.
Which five years? In a church hospital or a state one and where? Why? She seemed OK in a bag lady sort of way. Had she just escaped from the nut house now? What did she do before? Was she a nun? Was there ever a time she hadn’t lived in one institution or another? Was she married? Did she have children?
This wounded bird was becoming the most mysterious creature in the Piazza. She offered no more information about her past and I was too polite, or embarrassed, to ask what I was thinking. Maybe I was afraid to hear her frank answers.
We shared an odd intimacy. She had told me some of the most private details of her life and I had offered only distraction. We sat for a while like old friends, not talking to each other, then started chatting as best as we could, as fast as we could. We talked about the High Gothic architecture of the Milan cathedral. We both liked the simpler Romanesque better, but appreciated this one as the best of its type. We laughed together at some of the people in the square as I told her the stories I made up about them in my head. We giggled girlishly at the tourists with pigeons on their heads and arms. It seemed inappropriate to ask if I could take her picture.
I retrieved a tissue from my fanny pack and dabbed at the sweat that trickled down my bra. I told Maria Elizabeth that I planned to tour the art museum in the Sforza, the ducal castle of medieval Milan. She said she would like to come with me. She seemed excited like a child going to Disney World. Mentally, I questioned the wisdom of her going along. What responsibility would I be taking on?
“It has been years since I was there,” she said. And, so it was decided.
It was nearing noon. Maria Elizabeth set a tolerable pace. We made our progress as she tottered a little from side to side with every step and I strained to swing each thigh around the other in the heat. I dabbed at my face with the tissue that was getting soaked and ragged. She led us confidently along sidewalks too narrow for a side by side stroll. We made it the half mile to the Sforza grounds. Maria Elizabeth pulled a plastic water bottle out of the bag that held her crocheting and filled it from a fountain at the castle. This particular mineral water bottle, dented and battered, had been with her a long time. We both drank from a sixteenth century drinking fountain in the courtyard, but only I wondered about the hygiene of it. We got to the gallery and found it was not air conditioned. The disappointment itself made me hotter, but Maria Elizabeth was bearing up well. She didn’t object to a rest on a bench, though. She raised her skirt a little to cool her legs and offered me the first swig from the water bottle. I saw her swollen arthritic knees and tiny bird legs in a cage of gnarled veins. She was uncomplaining, and reminded me of Jennifer Jones as Saint Bernadette in the movie. She smiled at me, embarrassed, and coyly lowered her long skirt.
The religiosity in the gallery seemed to press down like the heat. I don’t know what I had expected. This was Italy. The one room I had hopes for being a little secular was the armor room. Thirteenth century pillars extruded waist high from the floor, fine examples of medieval architecture.
I asked Maria Elizabeth in German, “Is Secolo the same as Jahrhundert?”
She laughed and said, “Si, Ja, yes,” in her three languages. There was no armor. Maria Elizabeth translated the little labels explaining that it was on loan.
We saw a Bellini “Madonna and Child.” The Holy Virgin looked like a beautiful and wise teenager. I was mesmerized and actually felt faint. Jesus and Mary and Saint Ambrose were getting fuzzy. Maria Elizabeth kept pointing out every portrait of Saint Ambrose to me so I wouldn’t miss him. Sometimes he was just milling around in a group of tiny medieval worshippers in a much larger painting. We would have to stop until I acknowledged I recognized him.
I was getting wobbly. She tottered and I lumbered and we found Saint Ambrose at every turn. How could my legs be so heavy and my head so light? Maria Elizabeth took charge, found a gallery guard, and asked if I could sit in the guard’s chair for a bit.
Saint Ambrose wasn’t even a baptized Christian when he was offered the bishopric of Milan in 374 C.E. He was an able leader, though. Milan needed some organization to withstand the barbarians. Church and politics blended as they often do in Italy and Ambrose embraced the faith and the task. He became Saint Ambrose by dreaming of the location of the lost bodies of two innocent children who had been killed by the invading barbarians from the east. The true relics of the children, later Saint Gervasius and Saint Protasius, that were thought lost, had been a rallying symbol for the Milanese. As patron saint of Milan, Ambrose appears often in paintings of northern Italy. As a pragmatic politician, using his rhetoric and influence, he convinced the Church of Rome to discard many of the traditions of the Irish Church, and that gave an identity to the European Church, and thereby to Europe.
After a sip from the water bottle and a face blot with a new tissue from Maria Elizabeth’s plastic tote, my crippled caretaker and I made it as far as the Michelangelo Pieta Rondanini. The room was enclosed, marble, airless, and filled with a group of tourists checking light meters. The Holy Mother, face obscured by chisel marks, strained lovingly under her crumpled and broken Son. A polished white marble arm of Jesus was left from a previous rendition of the composition, not hammered away. I wanted to stay longer to study Michelangelo’s unfinished work, to see if I could see in Jesus’ blank marble face what the artist had been searching for. I would have to come back to it another time. It was an unbearable weight. Perhaps that is why Michelangelo himself kept coming back to it again and again. I wondered whether I really would.
Maria Elizabeth ushered me the rest of the way out of the gallery and we found a portico that overlooked the Courtyard of the Small Fortress within the keep or Rocchetta of the castle. It was cooler than being either in the sun or inside the marble room. There wasn’t a breeze, but there was moving air. I fanned myself with the pamphlet from the gallery. My afternoon shade was conceived by Antonio Averulino in 1452. He was the architect known as “Il Filarete,” the Greek nickname for a lover of virtue. Maria Elizabeth maternally patted my hand.
“May I have your name?” she asked and produced an address book for me to sign. I entered my name and address and asked her to write to me.
“I have to go to work now,” she said. “It is my windows job. In the morning I clean floors. In the afternoon it is windows.” I stood up to go with her. “No, you stay,” she said with a tender half smile.
I stood up and hugged her tiny frame. I got her all sweaty. I don’t think she noticed. She pointed for me to sit back on the bench and I obeyed. I watched her walk away and remained in the portico for twenty minutes until I got my land legs back. I walked to the Park Sempione, the hunting grounds for the old dukes, and found a vendor for “due Coke Light.” I sat on a park bench to drink my two cans of diet Coke and a couple of more bag ladies tried to engage me in conversation. Maybe they recognized a beatific bag lady aura in my face. But, they spoke only Italian and I understood only woozy.
Later, as I turned out the light in my room I wondered if I should have tipped Maria Elizabeth. Perhaps I would dream about the location of a true relic, the plastic water bottle of Saint Maria Elizabeth. The streetcar flashed.
Mary Beth Ray is a writer who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. This story won the Gold Award for Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers Category in the First Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.