What It’s Like Living Here, Part I—Milan

(This essay originally appeared in Numéro Cinq Magazine in October, 2010.)

October, 2010

Dear DG,

Thanks for your email. You ask about Milan. What it’s like living here. You ask for descriptions, for photos…. Enclosed please find my views :

“Duomo” means cathedral.

A Gothic version wrought with grimacing monsters presides in central Milan. Recently renovated, the marble shines a bright white in direct sunlight, blushes at dawn, or grows ruddy in the gloaming of nightfall.

Pickpockets roam the piazza spread out like a large, bumpy placemat beneath the Duomo. Their glittery black eyes home in on the naïve tourist. Hand to your pocket, or arm firmly over purse, please. You have treasures to lose.

Merchandisers sell Inter, Milan, Juve soccer scarves—blue&black, red&black, white&black—from small wooden kiosks; marketers ring the perimeter with fluorescent neon in pink and blue that exhorts purchases of Gucci, Prada, Sony. Close your eyes to (un)subliminal messaging. Times are tough. Save your dough.

Pigeons squat on the equestrian bronze of King Vittorio Emanuele. White streaks drip from his greened shoulders. Hurry past, head hunkered down.

Seven o’clock shadows lengthen and grow violet while the sun sinks. Cut across the cobblestones of the piazza, wind through pickpockets, tourists, merchandisers, marketers, and pigeons. Climb the steps, enter the Duomo through tall bronze doors, choose the side altar where the Renaissance panel of the Virgin and her Son hangs. Light a candle below the image. Kneel. Even if you’re not Catholic, even if you’re not religious.

The smoky sputter of burning wax. The golden light ringing bowed heads like glowing halos. The sting of incense wafting from the main altar—hundreds of yards away—where evening mass reaches a crescendo.
 The intonation of millions of prayers, seven hundred years’ worth, reverberates in the cavernous, vibrating enclave.

You listen, knees against the stool, fingers laced together on the rail.

Dive in, again today, as you have every day since disaster struck. Add to the swirling mix.

When you finish, fall back into your wooden pew.

You remember that John Ruskin hated the aesthetics of this place. That Oscar Wilde called it monstrous in taste. But that Mark Twain, like you, scoured the thousands of niches decorated with statues of saints, and bugs and birds, and all of nature, and knew here, in the Duomo, he wasn’t alone.

“Salsamenteria” means Sauce-eria.

A new one, near the recently-opened Abercrombie and Fitch, waylays the hungry in a narrow street not far from the Duomo. Salt-cured pig haunches hang from hooks on the walls and rafters in the ceiling. Brown paper mats plaster square oak tables. Kegs of cheaper wine sprawl on a hutch to the left of the bar, bottles of finer wine march across a shelf.

Study the menu taped to the window.

Coppa, it says. Prosciutto, Culatello di Zibello. Tortellini, Ravioli. Lambrusco. Bardolino. DOP–the best of the best. 5 Euros. 6 Euros. 10 Euros. 3.5 Euros. 2 Euros. 4 Euros. 3.9 Euros. Eat. You need to eat. Mangia. Mangia. Keep your strength up.

Take a break from your vigil. Enter. Choose a table for one near the door.

Black eyes, black hair, brown skin. The waitress from Kenya, poised to serve. Pencil on pad.

Order a sandwich. Select some wine.

Pink slabs fall from thick slices of peasant bread. Green sauce—made from parsley, capers, oil and anchovies—glistens in a finger bowl on the middle of your table. Unkegged Bardolino fizzes in the white ceramic bowl the graceful Kenyan girl serves it in.

Dip your sandwich into the oily green, slurp the slick red.

Forget while you eat and drink. Listen to the clinking in the kitchen, the tap of forks against ceramic plates. Watch the girl glide and whirl.


And when wine splats on your blouse like blood (drops of crimson on white gauze) blot and wipe in the room with the skirted stick figure on the door.


Hurry out to evening mass at the Duomo.

“Ca’Granda Policlinico” means Hospital.

Designed in the Renaissance by Filarete, the Florentine, with perfect courtyards, graceful loggias and brick fretwork, the first Ca’Granda is where the ill of the city was nursed back to health. Now university students occupy Filarete’s harmonic spaces, while the Ca’Granda has migrated across the street to become the Ca’Granda Policlinico and occupy dozens of buildings of eclectic styles and dubious periods.

Rush your teenage boy here one ill-fated Monday. See how he is classified code red.

Tell the doctors: He’s healthy. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Tell the doctors: His heart’s fine. But then listen to it beat 200 times a minute.

Wait, sitting on linoleum lit by neon.

An orderly changes rumpled blue sheets on an abandoned gurney. An infant, red with fever, cries in its father’s arms. A small pink girl in a wheelchair, her broken wrist held to her chest, fusses at her gold-jewelry-laden-black-leather-jacketed mother. And a blond boy lies down the hall, behind closed doors, in intensive care, monitors hooked to his chest and fingers.

Wait, sitting on linoleum lit by neon.

Relatives of the injured arrive. One, with stiff gray hair and sturdy brown pumps, holds the infant so his father can go to the men’s room. The pink girl’s burly grandfather bellows into his cellphone. The mother in black and gold lights a cigarette beyond sliding glass. Soon, her exhaust curls up through the night.

Your husband calls. He’s home, caring for your youngest. How is our boy? He asks.

Ask a nurse, How is my boy?

Then wait, sitting on linoleum lit by neon.

“Parco” means park.

A nineteenth-century park—the parco Sempione—sprawls around the Castello Sforzesco, the imposing castle that was built in the early Renaissance where Leonardo da Vinci frescoed rooms for Ludovico il Moro. The parco encompasses the Triennale Art Museum too, and DeChirico’s beach house sculpture.

On sunny autumn afternoons boys bring their dogs to the happy corners of Parco Sempione and run. Disks of red plastic spin through the air, dogs fetch, their pink tongues curling and flapping.

Don’t worry about curbing your dog here—no one does. But check your shoes—wipe them on the graveled walkways—when you quit the grass.

On sunny autumn afternoons boys play soccer on the grassy knolls of Parco Sempione. Under the elm, off to the side. And here, one boy, a teenage boy with blue eyes and a chipped front tooth who plays soccer in autumn crumples one graying afternoon. His chest thumps at two hundred beats a minute—like a golden hummingbird’s—while the parco fades into black.

Call 118 when this happens. Climb into the wailing vehicle. Bump over old, winding streets, ancient alleys, circular passageways, through centuries of urban sprawl and nonexistent urban planning. At rush hour.

Say faster, please faster, as you watch your boy’s lips turn blue.

Hold his hand, whisper a prayer when you see his eyelids twitch.

Plan to light a candle at the Duomo every evening until he wakes.


—Natalia Sarkissian

 27 Responses to “What It’s Like Living Here — from Natalia Sarkissian in Milan”

  1. Kim Aubrey says:October 5, 2010 at 3:59 pmThis is beautiful, Natalia! I hope your son is okay.Reply
  2. Julie says:October 5, 2010 at 8:30 pmI’m thinking of you and your family with love, Natalia. I remember being kicked out of the Duomo in Milan because I was wearing a sleeveless dress. I’m lighting a candle for you here. THank you for writing this.Reply
  3. rjfarrell28 says:October 5, 2010 at 9:00 pmI hope your son is okay, Natasha.Reply
  4. Natalia Sarkissian says:October 6, 2010 at 8:25 amHe’s better. Thanks.Reply
  5. Kate says:October 6, 2010 at 10:14 amThis swept me away. So evocative! Thanks, Natasha. KateReply
  6. Court Merrigan says:October 6, 2010 at 10:35 amSo glad to hear he’s better, Natalia. Wonderfully evocative piece. The new gold standard here at NC!Reply
  7. Vanessa Blakeslee says:October 6, 2010 at 11:40 amWhat a beautiful, heart-wrenching piece. Great job.Reply
  8. Cheryl Wilder says:October 6, 2010 at 12:09 pmBeautifully written.Reply
  9. Frances Lench says:October 6, 2010 at 1:37 pmNat, Sitting here @ the long table in the Ch C kitchen, weeping. I take your word for it that Nicky is doing all right; I’m crying @ your beautiful words–a loving mother’s earnest prayer.
    Love, FrankieReply
  10. Jill Glass says:October 6, 2010 at 2:29 pmWow, Natalia. That just stopped my life cold. Minutes before, I was doing a forensic investigation with my painter, trying to figure out why the previous owner of my house used three different gloss levels of the same color in the kitchen. Now I’m counting blessings–have completely run out of fingers, do toes count?–grateful that your writing pulled me into a more profound moment (oh…now I’ve insulted the paint), and relieved that your son is doing better. Beautiful.Reply
  11. Jeanette says:October 6, 2010 at 3:51 pmYou let us experience the wonder of Milan and then take us on a deeper journey to that duomo pew, to that cold linoleum floor and inside that racing ambulance with you. You are not alone. The candle has been lit for you and your boy. (Sweet relief that he is alright).Reply
  12. Natalia Sarkissian says:October 7, 2010 at 3:30 amThanks for your thoughts and wishes, they’re greatly appreciated.Reply
  13. Pamela Cooper says:October 7, 2010 at 8:24 amI am proud to be climbing the same stairs you once did at VCFA…”What it’s like living here,” is beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.Reply
  14. Margie says:October 7, 2010 at 9:02 amI enjoyed reading this beautiful piece. I wish that someday we can visit you in Milan and hoping your son is doing fine.Reply
  15. Shelagh says:October 7, 2010 at 10:57 pmI began reading this thinking you were just being creative and using detail beautifully. The story itself came at me from the side. (Sorry for seeing your life as “story,” but that’s what it was to me at the time.) This again sends home the truth that writing carries us through. Your piece is as intense as your experience of this event. Strange, that we benefit. How recently did this happen? Sending good thoughts.Reply
  16. Kelly Lenox says:October 8, 2010 at 12:30 amNatasha! How do I love your writing and hate the pain? Powerful story powerfully told, and I’m only glad that I came to it late enough to also read your message that he’s going to be OK.
    Be well!Reply
  17. Celeste says:October 8, 2010 at 9:49 ami love the point-of-view you use, Natasha. major goose bumps by the end.Reply
  18. sheila says:October 8, 2010 at 3:32 pmNatasha – I love your words and all that they have become.Reply
  19. Natalia Sarkissian says:October 9, 2010 at 4:35 amThanks for your words and your support. It has meant a lot to both Nick and me. Next Tuesday he will have an “ablation” which should take care of the tachycardia. Keep your fingers crossed.Reply
    • Gretchen BHrown Wright says:October 14, 2010 at 10:31 amNatalia — your writing left me breathless. The images of Milan made me clutch at my imaginary hand bag and lick oily residue from my fingers. You had me there with you, sooty candles and all. I am relieved to have read “the rest of the story” first, though — so I know Nick is doing well. Best wishes to all of you!Reply
  20. Anna Maria Johnson says:November 30, 2010 at 4:03 pmReally gorgeous writing, and I’m thinking of your son. Thanks for sharing.Reply
  21. Tricia says:December 3, 2010 at 3:30 pmMoving piece, Natalia. I have SVT, and ablation waiting for me on the 15th. I’m glad it’s me and not my child. I cannot imagine your trauma as the parent. I’m glad he is doing better.Reply
  22. Natalia says:December 3, 2010 at 4:15 pmGood luck Tricia. I’m sure it will go well. These days medicine works miracles.Reply
  23. Francis says:June 2, 2016 at 3:58 amWhat a vivid writing style. Yu really bring to life your happy and less happy experiences, all underlined by deep knowledge and experience.Reply
  24. Riba says:June 4, 2016 at 9:59 pmBeautifully written, heartbreakingly poignant, Natasha.

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