December 3, 2023 | Rome, Italy

O Maramao

By |2018-03-21T18:55:43+01:00June 12th, 2013|"Notebook"|
The simple routine of going to a Milan park can help fortify a sense of belonging.

recently came back from a trip home. That would be the United States, where I haven’t lived for 25 years. Returning to Milan inevitably raises old questions. Why do I call a place I no longer live “home?” What do I call the place I live? And why do I stay in a place that is not home?

The morning after my return, a Saturday, I returned to my routine. It helps deflect the questions, something I’ve learned over time.

I start by walking the dog. We go to the Public Garden, which is the center of Milan and has been the literal center of my life here for two decades. My first Milan home faced it from one side; my current home faces it from the other. I come here every day with my dog as I once came every day with my children.

In those days there were no swings or slides; just a carousel, a pony-ride, and on weekends an old man with a marionette who always sang a song about a dead cat. (“O Maramao, why did you die?”). There are swings and the marionette man is gone, probably to the same place as his song’s dead cat.

Runners, whose weekday uniform is the power garb of Milan finance — cashmere coat, Hermes tie and monogrammed shirt — puff by in Spandex, talking deals and spreads. Then comes the bitter-faced pensioner whose daily route is as tightly traced as a prison guard’s. My dog’s route is prescribed too. Baroque rather than military, he curlicues off towards favorite bushes and stops to see what’s happening in the off-leash area while I keep an eye out for Guardie forestali. While carabinieri and local police patrol the park, forest rangers are the ones who issue leash law fines.

Returning from the park, we cross an embankment with balustrades, stairs and garden areas. When I moved to Milan it was a junkie hangout strewn with discarded syringes. Now the trash is beer bottles and plastic prosciutto trays from picnicking immigrants. At the bottom of the stairs sits the blowsy Rom woman. Residents claim she is a lookout who alerts thieves to empty apartments. At the moment all she’s looking at is a travel brochure, flipping slowly through photos of beaches and palm trees

I then go to my neighborhood street market, fairly new to me since I moved recently. There I discovered my Thursday cheese and salumi man. Farther along, someone cries, “Ehi, Signora Johnson, cosa fa qui oggi?” (“Mrs. Johnson, what are you doing here today?”) It’s a member of the family that has supplied me with fruits and vegetables for decades. Twenty-years in three locations: on Monday near my first Milan house, on Thursday at my next house, and now near my new home on Saturday. We reminisce. I once came by with baby carriage, but now I shop for one. I still call vendors “boys,” despite the middle-aged waistlines and gray hair. Time passes for everyone.

I stock up; they throw in a free bunch of basil, tot up old bills (they take credit) and pack it up for delivery. A few minutes later one of the “boys” catches up with me. We’ve all forgotten that I have a new address.

Next stop is a frame shop, once much appreciated by my children for its Lego table and dish of candies. I’ve brought a portrait of my mother that I brought from home and needs a new frame. By now, the errands and lunch have started to put aside all those coming-back-to-Italy questions.

As I discuss options for my mother’s portrait, other customers arrive. Soon we’re all chatting and everyone expresses an opinion on my portrait and frame. Having bonded, we collectively roll our eyes at an aggressive customer and after she leaves, wonder how anyone can be rude to Ermes (Hermes, like the god) — the shop’s owner. One client describes Ermes as a mix of saint, aesthete and kindly uncle, which is true. There is friendly competition over who’s been coming to the shop longest. I, the straniera, win by a lot.

A young family comes in with a child’s drawing to frame. As they study their options, I remember Lawson’s Frame Shop from my childhood, which once supplied the frame I’m replacing today. My father let no worthy drawing, certificate or photo languish. We’d often go to Lawson’s together. His compulsion to frame things made him their best customer. The Lawsons adored my father and at his funeral announced they would soon close.

Memories of Lawson’s puts one of my nagging Italy questions to rest: Maybe I’ll never call Milan home, but Ermes’ shop and my little routine are mighty close.

An elderly gentleman joins our group. His cane has a fancy handle and the pocket square in his well-cut jacket is orange. His framing project is a tiny jewel of a collage, which he made. He studies my portrait. “It’s my mother,” I explain. “Of course,” he says. “E una bella donna, come Lei.” She’s a beautiful woman, like you.

This of course answers another question: Why I stay in a place I don’t call home, Milan.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."