It’s a French expression, of course: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. But we Traffords are back in Northern Italy after a break of two years, and have spent four days in Milan, a city new to both of us. In Italy’s financial powerhouse, we’ve been powerfully struck by a modern, thrusting, international version of Italy. To our relief, however, you only have to scratch the surface to find still the elements of the “old” Italy that we recognise and love: truly, the more it changes, the more Italy stays the same underneath.
Announcements on trains and in stations are bilingual (Italian and English): not just on the sleek luxury expresses, but on local services too (I’m writing this on the 300km/hr Italo bullet-train-lookalike: Bologna for us in just over the hour, but if we stayed on we’d make Naples in four). On the other hand, a return train from a day-trip to Cremona started late and arrived later: so rather like home, then? Milan boasts a swift and efficient Metro system, and smart new trams run alongside the narrow, pointed old-fashioned models that must be a century old and also rattle along the city’s elegant streets.
Milan has always been Italy’s fashion capital. Unsurprisingly the streets are lined with big-name shops with minimalist window-displays: in one, expensive-looking bags were sparsely spaced between the trees of an artificial forest, with not a price label to be seen, while doormen restricted the flow of well-heeled punters into Gucci. But between those stores and the chic bar-cafés nowadays lurk health-food outlets: wellness centers proliferate (that’s Italian labelling, not English), you can buy a burger vegano, and even in a side-street bar they’ll offer you centrifughe, smoothies.
Frankly, it was a relief to be crossing the financial district mid-morning and see the high-rise offices disgorge sharply dressed executives of both genders into myriad cafés where they grabbed an espresso coffee and a cigarette, old-style, even while they tapped or jabbered into the mobiles. Similarly there are dazzlingly smart restaurants at the bottom of these office blocks, with international menus (even Sushi, which feels as un-Italian as you could get), glass tables and uncomfortable-looking designer chairs.
But in the iconic 19th-Century Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II beside the cathedral square, the overpriced restaurants (this is Milan-tourist-central) generally resist displaying pictures of their food, translate their menus with sadly few amusing howlers, and still offer pasta alla nonna, like granny made it. It’s good, too.
Italian blokes, it’s well known, travel miles to find a restaurant whose pasteare like their mum or granny used to make for them as kids. Step into the backstreets even of Milan, and they’re still there. Near the Stock Exchange and Banca d’Italia in the old city centre, we found the Trattoria Milanese for our last dinner. Fortunately we had booked: on a teeming wet Thursday night it was packed, and we appeared to be the only non-Italians. Tourists ambling by in hope of a table were brusquely sent packing by the ancient, bossy proprietor, and we were briefly chided for being early.
Strictly old-school like the best Italian eateries, this place treats its food with respect but doesn’t become absurdly reverential. It didn’t have a menu in English (hurrah!): and the waiters, all (I suspect) fluent in English, allowed me with a smile to stammer my pigeon-Italian requests for explanations and recommendations. Only once did they slip into English: when I described my rich, almost chewy zabaglione (or zabajione) as meravigliosa (marvellous – a hard adjective to get your tongue round after a bottle of Barolo), one replied, “Signore, it’s the best in Milano: no, best in the world!” I think he was telling the truth.
And that’s the point. You can thrust Italy, as exemplified by metropolitan Milan, into the globalised 21stCentury: but, the more it changes, the more it stays the same. Its heart still lies in its traditions and above all in its food. That’s why I love it so much.