Two friends contacted me from Brazil a few days before Christmas and encouraged me to meet them in Milan in the New Year. T and M had found a cheap apartment via Airbnb but I wanted the additional comfort of a boutique hotel closer to the center of the town—I was embracing my status as a tourist! At one internet site beginning with a “k” I looked for inexpensive flights. At another I searched for reasonable lodging in a smaller hotel. Success!
Then I came down with chronic bronchitis, and my cough was seemingly without cessation. I went to the closest location of a chain of walk-in clinics in New York to make sure I didn’t have a flu, and to get some drugs. I was concerned about flying, but as the Nurse said, “Are you really going to miss a trip to Milan because of a little cough?” I picked up my prescription and continued to pack all my most stylish clothes—after all I was going to Milan, the fashion capital of the world—and I was not going to feel like a rumpled middle-aged American academic…or an Aschenbach from the pages of Death of Venice gazing upon well-dressed Tadzio’s!
Truth be told I didn’t want to be in the United States during the incoming president’s inauguration. After the election I had all but stop watching, listening, and reading the various forms of news media that usually engulf me. But after Christmas I started to slip up. My friends and colleagues on social media had become increasingly frenetic in the weeks following the election and I didn’t have the heart to block their posts. I had to get away in order to ignore the inevitability of succumbing to another pointless rant and rave and I didn’t want to get swept up into the justifiable madness—the doomsday prophesizing, the laments upon an unfathomable election. My city and community had been traumatized and I wanted to get “the hell out of dodge”—if only for a week. Like many, I had worked hard for the losing candidate in large part because of what and who she wasn’t. I believed that her opponent was at best an idiot and at worst a fascist. Perhaps he was both. But too many voters were tricked that he was actually concerned for the unemployed and those who feel estranged from the coastal culture industries.
I coughed my way across the Atlantic, reading Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which imagines a defeated United States after WWII occupied on the West Coast by the Japanese and on the East Coast by the Germans. I thought if Dick were to write such a narrative today, he’d argue that the U.S. was all but occupied by the newest flagbearer of right wing totalitarianism, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Then the Xanax took effect and I went asleep in the rather empty plane, stretching across the three middle seats in row 43. I awoke coughing when we started our descent into Malpensa Airport.
To my elation, the Milanese complied with my unstated wish. No one asked me my opinion about the American election. Certainly they asked me where I was from—they seemed genuinely thrilled to interact with a New Yorker (if they hadn’t visited the city, they emphasized how much they wanted to go), but they were either polite, or uninterested in our contested election, or didn’t consider it as important as the latest collection from Dolce & Gabbana or Prada, or something else I haven’t considered. For seven days I didn’t hear the incoming president’s name uttered in conversation, except in one excellent dinner conversation I had with my Brazilian friends, which folded in Brexit, European racism, and the rightwing takeover in Brazil so that American politics were seen in context. Even when I watched CNN International in my small but impeccably decorated hotel room, the rest of the world was included in its coverage. I learned about the crisis going on in The Gambia when the new democratically-elected President had to flee to neighboring Senegal after the sitting President refused to leave. I even learned about a Nigerian fashion designer! Such stories were not included in the American version—instead endless partisan bickering dominated the Cable News Network. This reinforced what I already knew: American media culture creates a cleavage between United States and the rest of the world. This renders the American populace vulnerable to the shrill pseudo-isolationist repetitions of a candidate like the unlikely winner of the American Electoral College. The news media focused on his every mediated utterance, in large part because he was good for ratings. In the news media’s obsession to cover his ungrammatical twitter messages, they failed to investigate his campaign’s many ties to—and contacts with—unsavory Russian officials.
Milan surpassed my preconceived notions of the city. Of course, I visited the fashionable and tourist sections of the city center, save for one visit to a more industrial suburb where my friends were staying. Yes, the Milanese were well-dressed but they weren’t snooty like Londoners and New Yorkers who considerable themselves fashion-forward. The trendy men wore monkish duster coats and the chic women were three-quarter coats in colorful geometric patterns not seen in darkly-clad New York City. Clothing was for sale everywhere—I don’t think I passed a grocery store, save for chic gourmet shops. Each restaurant was better than the next, and everyone was camera-ready even while eating slushy risotto or pasta drenched in a ragù. My senses were engaged and indulged in through visits to opera houses, cathedrals, museums, dramatic Zaha Hadid-designed buildings about to be completed, and cafes served perfect coffee with free wifi—and I calmed down. Even at night, when I continued to read my dystopian novel at bedtime about a fascist takeover in the coastal regions of the States (or was the book really about the illusion of the regime?), I’d fall asleep before I had read two pages. I slept soundly.
We spent one day exploring Lake Como via hydrofoil and foot. The resort area was empty in the off-season, allowing us to climb up rocky paths to gain a perspective on the oddly shaped lake that appeared to be the conjoining of numerous rivers, slender and long. The air was freezing, but the sun was warming and each village that clung to the lakeside looked more picturesque than the last. At times I felt we were contained within an oversized glitter dome—like the ones that tourists buy and love to shake up–and the feeling of enclosure was pleasing. As we sat down to eat our buckwheat pasta with chard and local cheese in an almost empty restaurant I was as far from the political situation in the States as I could be—at least emotionally.
The ride back to Milan on a crowded commuter train was an encounter with ugly Euro-reality. T sat down next to an older Italian man. This fellow was clearly upset to be sitting next to someone who was to his mindset North African or Middle Eastern, and hence Muslim, whereas T is from Brazil and multi-racial. The racist Italian covered his face with his scarf as if to indicate that he was unable even to breathe the same air. He shifted nervously in his seat. As I was sitting across from him, I stared daggers at this fellow and then turned to his travel companion with an expression that I hoped conveyed that he better calm his nasty friend down. T, regal as ever, ignored the whole scenario, but I was angry at this display of racism. I noticed the more determined way that the Italian army men treated T and his belongings at security checkpoints because of their response to his skin color.
I recalled some of the hateful comments I heard from Austrians about Syrians seeking a home when I was in Vienna and Graz earlier in November 2015 and their assumption that they could share racist opinions with me because I am a white American. Unfortunately the mind-set of white Europeans is not dissimilar to white people in the States who are uncomfortable with religious and cultural difference. The right wing is able to exploit the fear of terrorism in order to assert a reactionary nationalism, giving a permission slip for the unrepressed expression of xenophobia. The experience on the train smashed the glitter dome we had been in, traipsing around an idyllic lake that seemed to be entirely ours. In reality, the right wing was taking over on both sides of the Atlantic and racists were feeling empowered.
The next day I braved the not-so-chic shops along the Corso Buenos Aires near my hotel. I found bargains, which always makes a New Yorker happy. I let the store clerks practice their English with me and we shared some laughs over my mispronunciation of Italian words. In the evening I met up with T and M for my last night in Milan. We went to the theatre—we saw a stark and imaginative dance theatre piece in a black-box performance space named after Pina Bausch. We ate a late dinner at a restaurant recommended by the concierge at my hotel. We were greeted like royalty by the waiters, bartender, and owner. By the time we finished dessert we were all old friends who could gossip all night. The risotto I ordered was superb as was the gnocchi T enjoyed and the pasta M twirled around a fork. I was loathe to return to NYC as Milan was so hospitable to me but I was so eager to see my spouse and my Chihuahua dog. My cough was almost gone too.
My journey back was relatively uneventful—though at one point the chief flight attendant asked if there was a nurse or doctor on board. I told the flight attendant nearest me I had some Xanax if the passenger was suffering from anxiety related to the trans-Atlantic political climate. He laughed. I took half a pill myself and went to sleep. I awoke as we were landing. I got through passport control and customs very quickly—the system at JFK airport had been streamlined somewhat, at least for U.S. citizens.
I caught a cab quickly too, even though sometimes the queue for taxis can take another hour at JFK. I knew that there was protests all over the country against the new president. And I knew that the NYC taxi driver would know all the details. But I decided to try to keep my news embargo going. To no avail. As soon as I got into the taxi cab, the driver, who I soon learned was an immigrant for Vietnam, began to rant and rave about the inappropriateness and ineptitude of the new leader of our country. Apparently the taxi driver’s wife and the president’s first wife became U.S. citizens during the same ceremony. His contact with the entertainer and businessman was rather unpleasant. I resisted for a few minutes, but soon I was drawn back into the horror of the impending new regime and my distrust of the newly-inaugurated president returned in an instant. My heart began to race, my voice started to rise in volume and increase in tempo. I was angry and anxious. I was back home and once again a partisan.
A week later the president signed an unconstitutional executive order banning all people from seven countries, including those who already held visas. Protesters gathered instinctively and dramatically at the same terminal that I had arrived in seeking social justice and an adherence to the laws of the country to let the people back into the country. There was no going back, no way to be in denial. The resistance was in full swing. And I was back to monitoring the news media for the latest info on Russian interference into the election. But at least I had escaped to Milan for a week.