I arrived at Milan Central Train station at around 11 am. It was a beautiful Sunday morning. Milano Centrale is one of the oldest and grandest train stations in Europe. It was also my first trip to Italy. Just about the only thing I remember reading about The Milan Central Station is the story of Luigi Goj with his battalion leaving Milan for Massawa/Eritrea, his parents waving good bye from the platform, to what would be their eventual defeat in the battle of Adwa in 1896 (The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire by Raymond Jonas).
Moments after the train stopped at platform 6, the passengers departed one by one. I was one of the first.
The ride itself was enjoyable. It took us only four hours to get to Milan from Basel, Switzerland where I spend the night in a friend’s one bed room apartment after I arrived late Saturday night from Cologne. The world cup fever was high in Europe. I catched part of the Brazil-Chile game at the train station in Cologne. My arrival in Basel four hours later was greeted by a delicious meal of Ravioli and a glass of red wine. A soccer fan, my friend was visibly happy that Brazil edged out Chile on penalties. We had a dish of scrambled ingera (Ethiopian bread) and roasted dried meat (quanta fir fir) for breakfast. A rush to get on time to catch the train ended up giving me enough time for a cappuccino at the Basel SBB, then off to Milan mesmerized by the unending beauty of southern Switzerland.
Milano Centrale was busy with people from all over the world, so it felt. My plan was to meet my long lost aunt that I never saw in over sixteen years. Like every immigrant’s story, ours is a family spread across many continents. She was supposed to meet me at the platforms but was nowhere to be seen. I was lost in the crowd looking for my aunt but enjoying along the way the magnificent architectures of the train station when I saw a familiar face walking towards me. We exchanged greetings as if we were brothers. He had a new mobile phone in his hand and was trying to figure out how to use it. Marks on his face gave away his northern Ethiopian or Eritrean roots. His accent would soon confirm it. One can tell from his looks that he was brand new to a foreign land. I didn’t ask him where he was going or coming from. I fidgeted on his phone and gave it back to him. The instructions were all in Italian and I had long forgotten the few words grandpa thought me when I was very young. In a broken Amharic he asked me if I knew where the toilet was located. After a few hundred steps away I saw the sign and headed there only to find out that one has to pay 1 Euro to use it.
“Let’s go” he said, walking faster to the central area.
You don’t want to use the toilet?
“I will wait.”
“That is over 20 at home,” he said.
He was new to Italy having just arrived, like so many East African brothers and sisters, leaving behind family and friends in the desert or the sea, for a better shot at life. It took 12 days for Luigi Goj and other Italian troops to get to Massawa from the very platforms we stood on but the consequence of their actions is still felt,one way or another, in the poverty and instability of East Africa leading many to a life of misery and constant search for survival under extreme conditions.
Soon he met many others and disappeared in the city of Milan to search for a living. I left to Bologna with my aunt to have some time to tell our stories.