When I tell Italian children that Japanese kids get barely over a month of summer vacation, they all give me a look that says, “thank goodness I was born in Italy!”. Adults, on the other hand, have to wait longer for their summer break to come, and for the most part it’s so much shorter than the break that the kids get that it’s hardly worth comparing them. Parents struggle to find ways to deal with the fact that their kids are living out the typical summer vacation life while they have to carry on with work and their daily routine as usual. Add to that the fact that the new school year starts when they go back in September, so the adults usually spend their summer vacation getting ready for that.
Italians have a wonderful practice of reusing textbooks. Bookstores will buy back the ones that are in good shape, and families who are on a budget can then buy them for their kids starting the new school year. I remember writing and drawing red lines all over my textbooks when I was in school, and there’s no way they could have been reused—so I was overcome with admiration standing alone in one of these bookstores packed with people buying and selling textbooks.
Meanwhile, one of the books in that store ended up catching my eye. It was a children’s book full of pictures that told the history of Milan. From the first page, I felt like I had been instantly transported back in time.
Wow, I thought. Milan was just a swampy bog 4,000 years ago…
Apparently the early settlers used irrigation systems to their advantage, and that rice farming was quite active in this area. Many, many years past, and the geographic features of the land were most likely significantly influenced by the era in which canals developed through the city. As I kept reading these and many other facts until I came upon a picture that showed an animal form.
It looked a bit like a wild boar, with the caption “the origin of Milan”. I know that the symbol of the city of Milan was a serpent, so it was a total surprise to see this wild boar in a book for children.
I went straight to Wikipedia to check it out, and there I read that the wild boar was the symbol of Milan, and that engravings of it can even be seen still today. I couldn’t believe my ignorance, having lived in this town for twenty years and never known this. I immediately asked some Milanese my age about it, which led me to discover that even they don’t know about this legend of the wild boar symbol. My curiosity only intensified.
I wondered whether the reason the Milanese didn’t want to accept the boar and were so insistent on using the serpent was because they thought the serpent was a rather slick symbol and boars are a bit goofy-looking. That actually made a lot of sense. The fierce she-wolf that singlehandedly raised Romulus and Remus is the symbol of Rome, for example, and Milan and Rome are always butting heads trying to one-up each other. Maybe the Milanese scrambled to cover up the hairy sow symbol so that the Romans wouldn’t make fun of them. The more I thought about it, the more wildly my imagination ran. I had to go see this wild boar for myself.
There’s a plaza right next to a cathedral called the Piazza dei Mercanti, where merchants and artisans of the day would gather to exchange their wares. Even though there’s no such market there today, it somehow still retains its inviting feel.
And there, tucked away in that very plaza, I found the symbol that the Milanese had been covering up for centuries.
La storia di Milano illustrata e raccontata