Tram Number 23

Tram number 23 bounces at the intersection, leans slightly, hissing as it turns. Then brakes clack, wheels slide to a halt, screeching along the rails; doors clatter, passengers hurry off. Something always calls me to alight a few stops earlier than I need to. I find myself in Piazza Tricolore. A luxurious hotel stands mockingly, next to the bleak, angular building of Milan’s Opera San Francesco, where every day at midday food is offered to those in need. It is nearly twelve. I wander past; there are far more people than a few years ago.

South, into Viale Premuda. A few baroque fin-de-siècle buildings, their façades decorated with acanthus leaves and lion heads, stand alongside far more numerous postwar blocks of flats, austere and simple. They were built after Allied bombs destroyed a quarter of the city in a single week. Ancient planes line the road; their gnarled roots and knotted trunks are about to swallow the tram rails. These trees are older than the bombs.

Further south, in Piazza Cinque Giornate, nobody stops to look at the memorial in the centre of the square. Tiny, yellow violas border a tall, copper-green obelisk, surrounded by fallen and mourning statues. The stretched arm of a woman reaches upwards, towards the golden star on top. There are many names of women on the memorial, for the Cinque Giornate (five days) was not a war but an uprising, and its heroes were not soldiers but Milan’s citizens. They drove Austrian invaders out of Milan, after a five-day insurrection in 1848. Field Marshal Radetzky was their foe; his mustachioed mug the symbol of the Austrian yoke. The uprising marked the beginning of the First War of Italian Independence; but after a few months Radetzky returned to Milan, marching triumphantly through the city door, in the same piazza where the memorial now stands.

Every year, Radetzky March closes the Wiener Philarmoniker’s New Year concert. I always watched the concert with my grandfather, who hated Austrians as much as he loved Austrian music. He taught me how to waltz; his brogues creaked as we slid across the marble floor, spinning one-two-three, one-two-three, while the orchestra played Blue Danube. All of a sudden there was the roll of a snare drum, then the brass allegro rising, bouncy, bright; I wanted to keep dancing to Radetzky March. “We can’t dance now, this is a march. For soldiers”, he said. We sat at the table: he looked up, glanced out of the window. He spent three years underground during the war, hiding in a cellar after deserting the Fascist Army. In the last years of his life he hardly ever went out, except to pick me up at school. He was a foot taller than everybody else: I never missed him in the crowd. He brought me bread and chocolate, and as we walked towards the tram he taught me the capitals of every country of the world. He used to say that, whatever happened, he would come to pick me up every day. Whatever happened, except for one thing. One day he was not there. I understood. I caught tram number 23 by myself, for the first time.

Margherita Ragg