An old war time friend of my father’s lived in Milan with his wife and five children, and said he would pick us up at the airport. We arrived at about 10 pm and waited. Looked around and waited some more. Tried to telephone but without success. Tried to phone my father in London – to no avail. So we stood at the airport with our clunky suitcases and looked at one another. A bit lost. A bit helpless. And then the first of the minor miracles happened.
A young man came up to me and asked me – in English – if I needed some help. I explained our situation and he said we should come back with him. He enquired quite persistently into our relationship and his eyes glinted quite clearly when I said that Stephen and I were just friends. Stephen was the perfect gentleman and stayed close to me all the time, but we went with George anyway. It turned out he was a Lebanese student studying in Milan, and sharing a small flat with a friend. – who was not due back that night. So we were very relieved about finding accommodation for the night, and I was even more relieved when George’s friend unexpectedly arrived, shortly after midnight – the next minor miracle. (This was a pilgrimage after all.) Whatever plans George had had for me were now confounded by his friend’s arrival. He then proceeded to cook and make us eat the most delicious food – no Instagram in those days so I have no recollection of what it was – and so we went to sleep. The next day we had the next part of our journey before us and we had to get up quite early.
George and his friend insisted on making us breakfast and taking us to the station, making us promise to come and stay on our way back, when they would show us Milan. (Their English by the way was excellent: George explained that he had learnt his in a month in Hyde park, he would sit in the park and approach strangers for little chats – he obviously had enough charm to turn every encounter into an excellent learning experience!) Somehow we agreed to make use of their extraordinary hospitality and set off for San Damiano itself.
We took a train to Piacenza and then we had to take a local bus to San Damiano. I was by this time beginning to be a little nervous about going there. We had no idea where it was, no idea if there was any accommodation, no idea what we would do there if and when we arrived. Stephen was quite blithe about it, so I determined just to tag along. Waiting for a third small miracle I suppose. And of course it happened. Somehow we found the right bus, and tried to talk to the people on it. We had a phrase book and began to practise our phrases. In Italian. No one was taken in. Then a little bit of French. Stephen has a Breton surname and gave the impression of speaking French fluently. I knew I couldn’t despite having French A level, but we both had a go. I don’t know why but the phrases “les collines sont vertes, le ciel est bleu” stuck in my mind. Obviously we were looking out of the window, but did not attract any other French speakers. Now, if we had only spoken Dutch…..