Laurie Taylor racing the PopemobileIt was only after I’d passed the elderly couple busily slicing salami on the steps of Milan’s monumental central station that I found myself remembering DH Lawrence’s argument about the true nature of the Italian people.

Lawrence reckoned that the salami eaters he spotted on the same steps were tacitly resisting Mussolini’s absurd belief that Italians were the true descendants of the classical Romans, fit subjects for railway stations that looked more capable of housing the gods of the Pantheon than the passengers hurrying for the 18.15 diretto to Torino.

It wasn’t the first sign of resistance to higher powers that I’d encountered during my time in Milan. I’d learned on my first day at the hotel that I’d been very unlucky. “Unlucky?” “Yes,” said the concierge. It was most unfortunate that I’d arrived in the city on the very weekend when a Pope was making his first visit to the place in the last 28 years. It meant that the hotel was unreasonably full and the city centre annoyingly crowded. He shrugged his shoulders expressively. What could one do?

There were even fewer concessions to piety among the waiters and diners in the cafés and restaurants I visited. One waiter went out of his way to explain in broken English that the Pope’s visit had nothing to do with the Milanese. It wasn’t their fault. In fact the only people who’d turn out to see him on the steps of the cathedral or at the airport, or at the grand international conference on the family where he was due to deliver a keynote address, would be the pellegrini – the pilgrims. Many of these pellegrini wouldn’t even be Italian, let alone Milanese. And the pellegrini didn’t spend money. So who wanted them?

Although there was a large Papal merchandising van at the side of the Piazza del Duomo, nobody seemed to be buying the flags or the tracts or the souvenir badges. Even the large placard over the main door of the Duomo announcing the imminent arrival of Il Papa was dwarfed by the huge advertisement for Bel Paese cheese that had been lashed to the cathedral’s extensive scaffolding.

But none of these gentle indications that the Pope wasn’t welcome this far north of Rome quite prepared me for the taxi driver I met outside Mussolini’s railway station when I returned from a day trip to Piacenza. When I gave him the name of my hotel he flung his arms high in the air. “Tutto è uno grande casino,” he said. A big casino? Non capisco. “It’s a big mess,” he explained. “Uno grande casino.” But why? “Il Papa e sua Papamobile.”

By now other taxi drivers were joining in to help explain that I couldn’t get to my hotel in the Piazza Fontana because the police were closing off all the roads in central Milan so that the Papamobile could have a free run to the Piazza Duomo. Were the roads already closed? Was there any way round?

And that was when the wonderful irreverent madness began. My driver, who had by now run through the entire gamut of Italian frustration gestures, suddenly indicated that I should climb into the back of his taxi. Had he remembered a back route to my hotel?

Not at all. As he weaved his way around the jumble of unemployed taxis in the station forecourt, he pointed to a little television set tucked underneath his gear stick which was at that very moment showing live pictures of the Pope entering the centre of Milan. “We beat him,” said my driver as he raced through a second set of red lights and bounced at top speed along cobbled streets and round groups of vainly gesticulating carabinieri as though there were no domani.

His recklessness was clearly compounded by the commentary on the television, which was telling viewers that the Pope had come to the city to remind the infertile Milanese how much happier they’d be if they started having larger families again and how only such large families guaranteed true happiness and “social capital”.

But it wasn’t only words that impelled my driver to press his foot flat to the floor as we screamed along the traffic-free streets of central Milan. For there below his gear stick was the constant sight of the Papamobile slowly moving down a parallel road towards the very same intersection as ourselves.

For a mad moment I thought we might get live coverage on the screen of our collision with the Papamobile but my driver smashed through the junction while the Pope was still a good hundred yards away acknowledging the cheers of the desultory crowds lining the pavements.

“There,” he said, as he dropped me off in front of the surprised doorman outside my hotel. “We beat him. We beat Il Papa.” And he raised his hands above his head. But this time in exultation.