It wasn’t meant to be demeaning. Wherever you turned that winter, someone was selling something with the President’s name or likeness on it. The fact that it was Milan, at the height of the Berlusconi era, and the sellers Arabs and south Asians, said something. They were hoping for a breakthrough, just like Americans were.

Available for sale from nearly every sidewalk vendor, the baseball caps and the tee shirts were rarely exceeded, in terms of their kitsch value. The sole exception were the shopping bags, on sale for a Euro at the open air market set up on Saturdays, in between Via Marcello and Via Tadino, near Milan’s central station.

Run primarily by migrants, the market was distinctly out of sync with Milan’s reputation as a center for European haute couture. Fake Prada bags, Asian housewares, homegrown vegetables, Qur’ans¬†and caged canaries. It was a parallel community, from somewhere else, topped off by the Obama bags.

It was impossible to visit the market and not imagine it as though it were some kind of harbinger of an Italy to come. Not the ‘Eurabia’ model bemoaned by neoconservatives like Christopher Caldwell, but a mashup of everything that was not northern Italian. Where? “Babel,” would be the best way to describe it.

Derived from the sounds everyone was making, speaking in any number of tongues (sometimes even to each other,) the Biblical reference was entirely apropos. Not just because it’s often used as a synonym for diversity, but also because such linguistic mixes have a pejorative connotation for critics of European multiculturalism.

Captured in February 2010, the following field recording has an especially natural feel to it. That is, natural to its environment. When you hear people talking, it’s primarily in Italian. Accented Italian, but Italian nonetheless. There’s nothing strained or out-of-place sounding about it. This was Italy, after all.

 Photograph and recording courtesy of Joel Schalit