October 3, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The logic of Milan

By |2018-03-21T19:48:41+01:00February 21st, 2016|"Notebook"|
Friendly old trams that rattle in the night and have cut glass lamps...

hen I separated from my husband more than a decade ago, Italians and Americans were surprised to hear that I didn’t plan to return to the United States. They were even more surprised to learn it was virtually impossible to do so legally while keeping my children.

Not too many years later, both children went to boarding school and then college in the United States. This time Italians and Americans were even more surprised that I didn’t return to the United States.

Neither Italians nor Americans could understand why, with the legal barrier removed, I would not immediately return to where I had come from.

For Italians, the stumbling block was family. To them anything less than a complete nuclear family was like an atom with unstable electrons. Let loose in orbit uncharged, superior physical force would inevitably suck it back to its family of origin.

After the divorce, Italians’ first reaction was to see any law that would keep me from returning to my own family as barbaric. But when they saw the same law in the context of keeping children near their nonna, it was perfectly reasonable.

Once my children were in boarding school, Italians were even more perplexed — and suspicious of me. What kind of mother would not move to be near her children?

For Americans, the stumbling block was more national and cultural. No matter how far from the truth, Americans reasoned along these lines: Italian husband equals mafioso momma’s boy, sexist philanderer who wasn’t good enough for me to begin with – and was probably a lousy father to boot. Americans found it inconceivable that Italian courts would put staying with a non-American parent ahead of the chance to grow up in God’s country. But for Americans, the law is the law. You respect it even if you may not agree.

Yet after my children entered domestic schools even Americans were perplexed at my own choices — at least for a while. If no law obliged me to live outside the U.S., why on earth would I? Especially since I had to have been unhappy in a place where my marriage ended. Reminded that the country was Italy, Americans’ would sigh with recognition and complicity. Oh right, the Tuscan sun, olive oil and those handsome (if philandering) men. Come to think of it, they’d always dreamed of living in Italy, too.

I’ve said this many times and many ways. But for all you who still ask, here’s my meandering logic for staying on in Milan. I’ve considered alternatives; London, Brooklyn, Boston, New Hampshire, Houston, Istanbul, San Francisco — it’s a long list.

Milan has many flaws, but until any one of these offers all or most of the following (see below), I’m staying put:

  1. The Mediterranean and the Alps; both a short car ride away.

  2. London, Paris and Berlin; only a short plane ride away.

  3. No need for a car.

  4. Everything worth having — concerts, movies, friends, services, restaurants — within a 20-minute bike ride.

  5. People who are not offended by last-minute invitations and are not so over-planned they can’t accept them.

  6. Fruit and vegetable markets in walking distance, and almost every day.

  7. A park to walk my dog across the street.

  8. People I’ve known for 20 years; through the ups and downs, good times and bad.

  9. Bars and restaurants more chic than you usually find in a city the size of Milan.

  10. A city that can super hip — during fashion and design weeks — followed by times when it isn’t.

  11. Enough people to continue finding new ones who are interesting.

  12. Not so many people that it’s overwhelming.

  13. People who sit down for family meals.

  14. Home cooking that’s as good or better than restaurants.

  15. Of less concern now, but still: neighborhood public schools that provide a solid — if uninspiring — education, and it’s “free.”

  16. Health care. The state pays for medicine for a chronic condition (I know, I pay with my taxes) and mammograms (not paying makes up for the discomfort).

  17. A view of the mountains on clear days.

  18. A place where yoga pants aren’t considered street wear and men only wear shorts at the beach.

  19. Friendly old trams that rattle in the night and have cut glass lamps.

  20. La Scala. I don’t really like opera that much, but it’s nice it’s there.

  21. The Quartetto chamber music series five minutes away on my bike.

  22. Fewer food fads; most people here eat everything (as long as it’s Italian).

  23. All right, olive oil and great pizza almost anywhere.

  24. The sound of cups clinking in bars (and baristas who take the coffee to offices in cups with tin-foil covers).

  25. The red stripes of carabinieri pants.

  26. A political-correctness-free zone: men can say outrageously sexist — and flattering things — and people just roll their eyes.

  27. A wonderful used bookstore in my building.

  28. A place where waiters don’t try to be my friend.

  29. Change so slow that by the time the pendulum swings back elsewhere, I haven’t had to bother changing.

  30. A city that allows you to produce such a long list of pleasures.
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."