Our bus rumbled over the cobblestone street and pulled up next to the Duomo di Milano, the largest church in Italy – an impressive Gothic cathedral, skulking menacingly in the dim streetlights – a result of almost six centuries in the making. Intoxicated tourists bolted through the vast Piazza on rented city bikes, screaming and laughing. The wind blew a chill through the empty streets, even though it was only August. Dark piles lay sleeping in dark doorways, while some wandered around aimlessly like zombies.
Milan looked exactly how I imagined it – opulent, excessive, over-the-top – but I had not anticipated this forbidding sense of gloom. There was a darkness to the place that overshadowed its worldly glint.
Our first instinct was to find WiFi. We needed to find the nearest establishment still open, seeking the comfort of greasy after-hours food and tacky plastic seats and the electric warmth of indoors to keep us till morning, when our journey would begin again. But all the supposed 24-hour McDonald’s were closed, and only tiny Kebab joints reigned the streets unrivalled.
This particular joint was barely large enough for a row of hard foldable stools against a long bar-top table. A neon sign hung in the window, and reflected weakly off faded pictures of Turkey adorning the walls. The fluorescent lights were too bright and the air hung thick with oily fumes. The guy gave me an extra falafel, yet it felt like a wholly inhospitable place. But at least it was warm, so we stayed there until his annoyed gaze made it clear we had overstayed our welcome.
My partner and I were zero-budget travellers, meaning we didn’t have €150 to spare for the “cheap” hotels. Milan is Italy’s main industrial and financial centre, and one of the most significant global cities. In terms of GDP, it has the largest economy among European non-capital cities and is a very expensive place. For us plebeians, Milan was more a pit-stop than a destination, and we had both agreed that its urban environment would be sufficient shelter against the elements for the night.
We had spent that journey hitchhiking and jumping-trains. The latter, in practice, was to avoid paying for tickets and/or getting fined, by keeping a close watch for conductors as the train approached the station. If the conductors were getting on board, we would get off and take the subsequent train – wash, rinse, repeat – until we got to our destination for free.
One night of sleeping on the streets was far less of a pain in the ass than that – or so we thought.
We decided to speak to the Zombies.
This particular couple – skinny and high as kites and hollow around the eyes – looked like they knew a park bench or a squat we could rest in for the night. They gave us some directions; two blocks down, turn right and then left. We thanked them and eventually made our way to a space that was a few plots short of a park, in the middle of a residential city block. We were accosted while approaching said park; a drug dealer, whose offers we declined. A bulky figure was already occupying a bench, deep in sleep, awash in dim orange light.
We picked another bench further away from the street, and settled in, bracing ourselves against the chill. The wind whistled through the dog park and carried with it the scent of excrement. We stayed awake – no surprises here – feeling the last of our energy seeping away. We watched as under the cover of darkness, a shady, limping figure creeping slowly up to the bundle on the bench. The thief poked around the sleeping vagabond until he was startled by raised voices that had suddenly erupted down the street, and quickly hobbled away. We left soon after.
A right, a left, and then two blocks back again to the main street. A night bus rolled past. We crawled on and managed to grab some sleep in the back seat; it was warm, with plush seats, and no one would disturb us… until…
The service terminated and dumped us right in front of Milano Centrale, the main railway station. During its construction in World War 1, Benito Mussolini had wanted the station to represent the power of the Fascist regime. It was full-on fancy gothic; large concrete pillars and ornate cornices and extravagant adornments. But its crevices held between them an assortment of sleeping bodies and belongings, the walls reeking of piss and sweat and urban grime. Shifty eyes under hooded jackets, hands shoved deep in old jeans – these wandering men haunted below swooping arches. At dawn, the station was already bustling with too fast commuters and weary travellers heaped upon the floor. We crashed in an alcove, fast asleep in front of a shop still shuttered close.
A hooded guy was standing over us laughing. From the depths of slumber, I could hear my partner saying our bag was gone – and with it, our money, his computer, my passport, and all my belongings. The laughing spectre was clutching a sling bag – not ours. Cold shock gave way to a moment spent too long in panic and then gradually a realisation that what I was feeling was an attachment to the material. No money, no proof of identity, no agenda – it was the ultimate liberation. All we had left was our faith in humanity and in the existence of good to bring us home safely.
The police, though unsympathetic, gave us a cup of damn good Italian coffee and a slip of paper. It was evident they’ve done this many times before. The document explained our situation to train conductors, and allowed us free passage home, ironically making our train-jumping hell of a lot easier.
We had asked the police if there was anything we could do. Stoically, they told us that sometimes thieves would keep valuables and chuck the rest of the useless stuff (ID cards, passport, credit cards etc) somewhere nearby. Turns out it’s a sick joke, and we were sick enough to spend so much time combing the perimeter of the train station, and then in the adjacent blocks, looking into bins, asking people if they’ve seen a small blue and black backpack.
Why were we hoping to find it? Non-attachment is very difficult in practice.
My partner got yelled at by a station janitor for pissing against a wall, and he yelled back, that he would’ve paid for the public cubicles if his money hadn’t got stolen. At that precise moment, I saw the hubris of humankind – an eye for an eye would make the whole world blind – a man commits wrong when wrong has been committed upon him.
I wondered about the kind of injustice that goes on in the world, and how a violated person goes on to commit the same crimes as his perpetrator. In 2016, the number of migrants arriving by boat increased by almost one-fifth, and more than half-a-million have now arrived in Italy over a three year period. Earlier this year, police used sniffer dogs, horses and helicopter to clear out dozens of migrants camping out at Milan station. The refugee situation in Italy has reached a crisis point.
I could freak out about losing my passport, but these people snuck across borders or were stuffed on boats, to find a semblance of a life.
I could worry about getting home, but these people didn’t even have a country to call home. So much more has been stolen from them, and the only way they knew how to survive was to lash out or steal back from a system that has the power to help them, but doesn’t.
Life is rough out on the streets.
I can’t say I enjoyed my experience, but it left me with more empathy for those who endure the streets nightly. I am Thankful for what I have, and swear not to perpetuate bitterness, in the hopes of a world we can live in Love and Harmony.