It started as a packed and sunny Sunday in Novara. Breakfast in the kitsch hotel restaurant, painted over with seaside scenes;
mass in the iconic Basilica di San Gaudenzio with one of the tallest towers in Europe, an epitaph honouring Petrus Lombardus born in the city ca. 1096 and a few pictorial gems;
stroll in the cold and quiet streets,
buying a Pane di San Gaudenzio as Christmas present and some salty pastry for lunch; the last proper hot chocolate in the Bar Santos run by an old couple, left here from another era, a real neighbourhood place with a charmingly shady Campari advert;
a few minutes of sunbathing in the park next to the castle, before entering to see what turned out to be an enlightening experience, the deservedly well advertised Divisionismo exhibition.
This was the first time I heard about this important group or era of Italian post-impressionist style, perhaps mostly characterised technically by the over layering of colours and the emphasis on light effects.
Then came the originial reason for my Novara visit. A real gem, the orchestrated version of the 19th century female composer Pauline Viardot’s opérette de salon, Cendrillon (published in 1903, when the author was 83). The author’s life is also quite romantic, with Maria Malibran the diva and composer her elder sister, the family responsible for the New York premiere of Don Giovanni with Lorenzo da Ponte collaborating, her relationship both personal and professional with Turgenev etc. – but the focus should be on this piece.
The performance enthralled the viewer with beautiful costumes and scenery all in elegant black and white and shades of grey in between, in baroque or 18th century opulence – some singers were better than others and the acting skills and French pronunciation were also a mixed success, for instance, the two evil sisters arias at the reception of the Prince were probably the real highlights. Wit, elegance and invention in the music transpired even through an imperfect performance and the entire idea of staging such a rarity in a smaller provincial theatre deserves applaud. There was far less than a full house audience (the second of two performances) but the mood was excellent, especially after the performance when all singers and the conductor came to mingle and take pictures with the audience who were also entertained, in pre-Christmas mood, with prosecco [water for the children and abstinent] and panettone.
Then picking up the luggage at the Albergo Italiano and walking through the crowd of the Christmas market to the station, buying two torte di Carciofi and some insalata russa for dinner, I boarded the suburban train back to Milan. Realised that I cannot eat the salad without a fork but finished one of the two delicious torte salate. In Milan, walked a pleasant stroll to Hotel Rio to pick up more luggage. Then fully loaded with a big and a small suitcase, a full rucksack, a paper box of sweets from the fancy Marchesi coffeehouse and a long umbrella, I mounted the old fashioned stylish tram 19 for a 40 min ride to Milano Lambrate (since 15 Dec the train does not leave from Centrale but Porta Garibaldi, curiously not as easily accessible as Lambrate with this much luggage).
As there was almost an hour until departure, I decided to spend it in a bar/take away on the square in front of the station. This is where the fun, a small scale anthropological close observation, began.
Entering the place through some scaffolding, there was a main counter serviced by a very effective young woman and a somewhat slower boy, the oven in the background with another woman baking new and new trays of pizza. On the left there was the bar section serviced by a man – all personnel, as far as I could tell, from Latin America. There was quite a variety of food and drinks mostly to take away or to eat, standing, at the narrow counters along the window or at a tall narrow table in front of the bar. Judging from the atmosphere, most generally, the place could have easily been in the outskirts of any southern or eastern European city. The most popular product were the pizza slices, most of them for 2€50, there was only one type, the siciliana without mozzarella, that one at the ridiculously cheap price of 1€20. The pizzas were baked in large square metal trays in the oven and brought out to be kept warm on straw or reed table runners. Each pizza was sliced into 12 smaller rectangles. When a piece was served to be eaten on the spot it was cut further with a sharp metal tool into 16 bite size pieces – if done properly, the last operation required 2 cuts along the shorter side and because of the length, two times two along the longer side. To do this effectively, quickly and energetically, while collecting money, remembering the change, collecting and memorising the next order was no easy task. The place was generally busy only short moments of rest possible – it was used to quickly clean the counter from morsels and fallen pieces, grease, to put the empty trays in order etc but also to furtively eat something in 2 or 3 minutes – it is always interesting to observe in simpler eateries, what the personnel is eating, usually they get the best bites from the cook or in this case, have the liberty to choose for themselves. In brief, to be on top of things required skills but also dedication apart from the continuous mental presence for long hours. The woman excelled at everything – the cutting, the general speed of service, the funny banter with the second woman who arrived shortly before 9pm for the night shift…
The bar was much less busy also because canned coke and beer and even bottled water was available together with the pizza. In fact, there were some very affordable deals which included a free drink with any 3 slices of pizza. The canned beer there was called Poretti – how they thought to benefit from the vague association with the good brand Moretti, I am not sure, if they wanted at all; clearly this was not the place for brand awareness let alone brand loyalty or refined taste. Thus, although occasional customers ordered a bottled beer from the bar, as I did, it was much quieter there and the waiter found time to sort out bigger issues, getting some decoration ready for Christmas, and he also had time to take out his smartphone. He also caringly assisted the poor old man with a sweet tooth who bought two or three soggy muffins, probably at an end-of-day discount.
The clientele was perhaps the most interesting to observe – local working class people having a quick and cheap meal after work, some less fortunate local figures too: smelly, homeless, drunk, or mentally disabled people walking in, getting their special discount, some kind words, occasional courtesy service such as storing a piece of luggage for them for a few hours behind the counter, etc. The regulars new the prices and prepared the coins already, they called the girl and the guy behind the counter by first name, e.g. when coming back and asking to warm up the piece in the microwave etc. Naturally, there were also the travellers who, like me, had a half hour to kill or the furtive meal to get it before a long possibly overnight journey. Generally better dressed, sometimes feeling out of place, they finished quickly.
In contrast, it was fun to observe how the four people, visibly two middle aged couples, probably from the Philippines or somewhere else in SE Asia, stood at the narrow table next to me and sharing a meal, created communal feeling around themselves and made the rather sordid meal into a merriment, generally enjoying a good time of relaxation after work. Like many others, they were clearly regulars and felt at home, also because of the deep-fried seafood and other smaller snacks reminding them of their home meals.
One was tempted to imagine the new, clean, shiny version of the place (there is one online about the façade, not covered by scaffolding) – how it looked back in 1982 when the world football championship was organised (I am not sure why I have mentally settled on this year, instinctively, perhaps because it was won by Italy?) – by 2019 there was a tiredness in the décor, the signs and some greasy dust sat on many surfaces but everything was functioning and in all probability served the neighbourhood well – and as for the transit travellers, there was nothing really to complain of. Even foreigners on TripAdvisor give favourable comments.
There was also the issue of the plastic forks I had to solve. Forks were added to the food of the appropriate sort from inside the counter so impossible to simply pick up. Having finished my Moretti beer and after standing there with an empty bottle for a few minutes, I got the Eastern European angst of being liable to be politely asked to leave as not consuming, not to take up so much space so to speak – which I did, given the number of bulky pieces I was carrying. So, I used a short moment of quieter business and bought a piece of pizza siciliana for takeaway. I eagerly asked for an extra forchetta, assuming it does not come with a full i.e. uncut slice. But as I was happy to discover half an hour later, sitting on my bunk sleeper bed, to quickly finish my dinner, there was a plastic fork, and thus everything needed. The fork and napkin were put, this time by the boy I previously judged from a certain distance as relatively slow and clumsy, into the paper bag next to the slice, so easily and effectively that I haven’t even noticed when and how it happened.