Like most other cities, mornings in Milan are a chaotic mass of traffic. The sidewalks are crammed with people on their way to work, most of whom are causally talking into their cell phones, not paying as much attention as they should to the vehicular traffic. The old women and store purveyors are busy hosing down the sidewalks in front of their shops. Men and women hurry into cafes for espressos. People still smoke in Milan, filling the walkways with an aromatic haze one has to stroll through in order to reach one’s destination. It’s not an unpleasant sensation.
The streets were already busy by the time I left my hotel to walk the several blocks to the nearest metro station. The sun reflected off the still wet sidewalks and roadways as parents dropped their children off at the school opposite my hotel. Most of the children looked happy, holding the hands of their mothers and fathers and talking animatedly as only Italians do before saying goodbye with a kiss outside the gates. Some children arrived on bicycles, while others pulled up in two seated cars that looked more like enclosed golf carts. All of the children were weighed down by backpacks in various colors and patterns.
Several blocks later I found myself at a bustling intersection. There were several of us waiting on the corner for the light to change. Three of four people decided to chance it and cross during a lull in the traffic. I decided to wait and standing next to me was a mother with two small children. The walk signal came on and we proceeded to cross, only to be beeped at by a car that ran the light, doubtless containing a driver late for work. After a few more cars sped through, we finally made it to the halfway point waiting for yet another light to change. She was holding tightly to the children and she looked at me.
Questa strada é molto pericoloso stamattina!, I said.
Si, si!, she answered smiling.
That was the extent of the verbal exchange. She went to the left and I to the right, but I still think of that chance encounter on a street in Milan one May morning as one of the most fulfilling encounters of my life. For a moment I ceased to feel like a tourist and felt like a citizen of a foreign city. I have no idea if the woman knew I was an American, probably so, we do stick out more than we care to admit, but regardless of what she thought, I felt proud of the encounter. Some part of me had managed to break through the barrier of nationality and touch something inherently human.
Since that morning I have often thought of that woman and her children. I wonder what her life is like. Does she work? Is she married? If so, does she have a lover? Is she happy? One doesn’t have to read about people in order to wonder about their lives and what they may be like. I have constructed an entire history of this woman based on one chance encounter. I know where she lives and how she spends most of her day. I can smell what she’s preparing for dinner, and I can feel her uneasy sense of isolation, even in an apartment full of people. And yes, I think of her as happy with her life.