National Geographic : 1992 Dec
LTHOUGH I WAS BORN IN ROME and spent most of my boyhood there, it was not until I was 27 that I went north to Milan. On my first day in the city I was stranded beneath an awning, waiting for a thunderstorm to end. Peer ing through sheets of rain, I searched for hints of the Italy I knew as a boy-a baroque church front, or a palazzo the color of ocher, or a piaz za with a Bernini fountain at its center. Instead I saw only gnarled traffic creeping down the Corso Garibaldi, an avenue of ponderous stone buildings and ruinously expensive boutiques. A woman with the emaciated build of a run way model paused beside me to pull the collar of an elegant black raincoat around her long neck. I nodded and smiled. She smiled back, and said, "E bella Milano, no?" Well, no. Beautiful is not the first word that springs to mind when describing Milan-espe cially not to a Roman's mind. Milan is known around the world as the capital of high fashion and slick design, the mecca of elegance and taste. Yet the actual physical aspect of the city is oddly unaesthetic, a configuration of computer-card facades vaguely perceptible through an alchemic haze of smog and hype. In fact, all of one's conventional images of Italy-idle piazza crowds and shadowy lanes, abundant sun and endless meals -have little to do with this foggy capital of Lombardy, a region of Italy that drops from Alpine lakes into the fertile Po Valley. Over the past three decades Italy experi enced an astounding economic boom. In 1986 the country's gross national product surpassed Free-lance writer JOHN MCCARRY divides his time between Washington, D. C., and the Middle East. This is his first article for the magazine. GEORGE STEINMETZ turned to photography after earning a degree in geophysics from Stanford University. His photographs last appeared in "Alcohol, the Legal Drug" in the February 1992 issue. that of Britain, making it the fifth largest econ omy in the world, after the U. S., Japan, Ger many, and France. To a large extent Milan was the locomotive of this success. Milan alone accounts for 10 percent of Italy's GNP, has a 38 percent higher per capita income than the rest of Italy, and pays 25 percent of the nation's taxes. Milanese like to say, "Milano lavora e Roma mangia-Milanworks and Rome eats." Milan feels itself to be, both in physical and in spiri tual terms, closer to Zurich than to Rome, more European than Italian. Many Milanese believe this affinity for Europe may further strengthen Italy's political and economic ties with the European Community, the 12 nations now working toward a unified Europe. By the end of this month the community plans to organize Europe into a single economic market by dismantling national barriers to the free movement of people, goods, and services. But the next phase of integration, which seeks a common foreign policy and a common currency, will not be without its obstacles. Before Italy can join a prospective monetary union, it must drastically cut its trillion-dollar national debt. More insurmountable may be what many in Milan perceive as their city's enslavement to Rome. I had thought that their closer union with the European Community would be something the Milanese would be celebrating with glasses of Spumante- at last, the opportunity to cut the Italian peninsula adrift and leap with both feet onto the continent of Europe. But few Milanese think integration can lib erate them from the bureaucratic inertia of Rome. As one young woman told me while we stood squeezed into a subway car at rush hour, "Spain has all of these sexy young politicians and now Spain-Spain of all places!-is where everything interesting is happening. We have the same bunch of geriatric politicians we've had for years. And they don't give a damn On a rare day as clearas sparkling wine, the marble duomo, a Gothic master piece, commands a view from the city center to the Alps, 50 miles away. In the 1400s Sforza dukes ruledfrom the castle, now reconstructed,in the background.