Who better placed to being to unravel the layers of an ideology and mantra "Milanese Cafe Culture as a Lifestyle", than an Italian looking in from the outside. Gino De Blasio's piece for La Bottega Milanese, is a compelling and insightful account of Milan's social fabric, from as an outsider at first and as an infatuated insider as a result.
"..a compelling and insightful account of Milan's social fabric.."
On an early March day in 2014, I was hurried into a bar; the weather was unseasonably cold, it hadn’t stopped raining since my arrival just two days earlier and I was hungry. The city had somehow turned into Manchester and to be honest, I was pretty pissed at the prospect of spending a week working in the metropolis. It was morning, my humour had been lost and things had taken a turn for the worst after being bathed in a taxi splash moments earlier.
And yet, one cornetto (I lie, it was two), a sip of that creamy cappuccino and the world, my worries and my anger had disappeared. This was the Milan I remembered, a Milan where moments make a day worthwhile, even if you’re not totally present in them at that moment.
What I had discovered years earlier about this city is that, whatever you think it is, it isn’t. In that sense, Milan is a very different prospect to what you may have been otherwise instructed to understand. I say this as a Neapolitan who came to the UK as a child and was raised with Southern Italian traditions. Liking anything from Milan was seen as a visceral betrayal, little did that stop me supporting AC Milan - before it became popular to do so may I add. (No, the family still haven’t forgiven me.)
"..Milan’s obsession with appearance is easily scratched when you realise why it holds it in such regard.."
Over the years, my travels, my work and friends have all been centred around the city. I have spent more time there than anywhere else on the peninsula in the last few years and yes, whilst my experiences have been as a worker, tourist and guide, I have never felt anything other than Milan being a home; again, this may come across as weird but there is something about the city that just works.
From what I have observed, being Milanese is in essence an ultimate defiance in how to approach life. It is a city – and a people – that persistently weave the (metaphorical and literal) fabric of Italian-ness, embracing the things that make Italy, Italy and openly discarding the things that also make it as well. The people who battled fascists during the war now stand against the new brand of right wing ideology not by shunning immigration, but taking a wider, more nuanced approach. Whilst the architecture of certain establishments hark back to those days, their neo-realism says more about the city today than the past it held.
The same city which allows old to mix with new is littered with streets where startups reside next to fifth and sixth generation artisans; finding ways to communicate and help one-another creating an exciting buzz and community.
A city where aperitivo is welcomed and not scoffed as “a poor excuse to not eat properly.” Because as we all know, aperitivo is more than a drink, it’s a habitual act, it’s “bella figura” in miniature.
When I first visited, I quipped that the ‘men dress like they’re ready for photoshoots and the women look like they’ve just been on one!’ Bella figura is action but unlike Rome or Naples, Florence or Bologna, Milan’s obsession with appearance is easily scratched when you realise why it holds it in such regard.
'.. It is here where Schultz got the idea to create an international coffee culture..'
Dare if you will to take a look under the veneer and what you see is an appreciation of quality. Looking the part isn’t about the newest, it’s about striving to be the best. It’s an attitude to doing things right, a tangible quality that matches the metaphorical shaping of how the Milanese thinks about something then attacks it. I have spent time in other cities around Europe but none where every action can be observed to some finality.
Wherever it is you head in this city, it all becomes abundantly clear as does the playground to this ideology. The bar, the very same kind of bar where I went that wet March morning. It is a bar like many others across the city. A bar that even your own LBM has captured.
Coffee, pastries, tavola calda selections; that is what makes that observation of quality so unique. Because it is in the bar, which turns into a place for aperitivo at night, the place to gather one's own thoughts, ideas and to make a judgement on something or judgement on nothing. It is here where Schultz got the idea to create an international coffee culture; he wouldn’t have found it in any other city than that of Milan.
Because life here is played out in the bar. Friends who meet, workers who take a break, lovers getting together - and sometimes splitting apart - families that congregate and those in a rush to get a pastry and run. Whatever the time of day you can be sure to set your watch by the ritualistic notion that ‘il bar’ is made of Milanese life; cappuccino, espresso, spritz and everything in between.
If life is about quality of living, ‘il bar’, captures Milan.
So when I look back to those moments that bring peace, some sort of spiritual grounding I think back to those moments spent at ‘il bar’; that wet day in March, that quasi-drunken stroll in the spring and summer. They have taught me that a city is made of its components that mean something to a collective and that shared moments like that coffee, that aperitivo are more important than we can ever take for granted.
Gino De Blasio is an award winning writer, content marketer and speaker.