Aug
12

Welcome to the neighborhood

By
Via Garibaldi used to be a canal, which you can tell by the white stone border on each side.  It contains everything needful for human life, including two pharmacies.  The fact that they both stay in business tells me something about the neighborhood but I'm not sure what.

Via Garibaldi used to be a canal, which you can tell by the white stone border on each side. It contains everything needful for human life, including two pharmacies. The fact that they both stay in business tells me something about the neighborhood but I'm not sure what.

If someone in Venice were to ask me where I live, the generic answer would be “Castello,” which is the name of the sestiere, or one of the six neighborhoods into which Venice is divided.   But that’s just a little too generic, considering that Castello is fairly large and has several hundred little subsets with all sorts of variations ranging from the sublime to the moderately mystifying.

The more precise answer is “Via Garibaldi.”   We don’t actually live right there — we’re down beyond the end of it.   But it’s an answer which  represents not only geographical coordinates and a zip code, but  an entire biosphere of its own with its own history and climate and fauna, a zone  which to Venetians of other sestieri still connotes verging on the exotic, even vaguely hazardous.

Carnival means the street is clogged with kids, the only difference from every day is that they're in costume.  Otherwise, it's just craziness as usual.

Carnival means the street is clogged with kids, the only difference from every other day being that they're in costume. Otherwise, it's just chaos as usual.

Once, when we were living in Dorsoduro, we overheard a mother snapping at her kid: “Stop shouting!   You sound just like somebody from Castello!”     And when we moved away — to Castello, of all places — Lino could hardly believe how far down in the world he had come.   To his relatives, he might as well have gone to Tasmania.   In fact, Tasmania would have made some sense.   But Castello?  

Many, if not most, people who visit Venice think of the city of palaces and monuments, and maybe also some trendy boutiques and clever little galleries.     Our part of Venice is a gristly precinct beyond and behind the Arsenal.   The Arsenal was the shipyard where Venice’s fleets were built, the foundation on which Venetian power — economic, military, political — rested.   It’s thanks to the Arsenal that all those palaces and monuments exist, so Castello doesn’t have to apologize to anyone if it has chosen to remain in its primordial state.   During Venice’s Great Days there were as many as 10,000 people working in the Arsenal, and their dwellings and relatives surrounding it constituted what amounted to a company town.   Although very few, if any, locals still work in the Arsenal, I’m  convinced there are people here who still haven’t discovered fire.

A member opens the clubhouse of the Mutual Aid Society of Carpenters and Caulkers, a flourishing remnant of the old Arsenal days when the workers had only each other to turn to for help.

A member opens the clubhouse of the Mutual Aid Society of Carpenters and Caulkers, a flourishing remnant of the old Arsenal days when the workers had only each other to turn to for help.

If Venice isn’t a place for everybody, Castello is even less so.   And Via Garibaldi is the axis of a Hogarthian world where the men’s bodies swarm with tattoos; where men and women alike use hand-hewn phrases which can’t be translated and shouldn’t be repeated, and their rampant children have two basic ways of communicating: Yelling and crying.   They’re a lot like London’s East Enders (denizens of another once-great seaport enclave) — tough, practical, unromantic yet sentimental homebodies to whom family and neighborhood are the universe, where grown men call each other “love” and women call each other “girls.”   It’s not that they don’t know there’s a world out there, they just don’t find it all that interesting.  

I love Venice in a complicated way that I don’t understand very well.   In the midst of the obvious  beauty and grandeur and all, the city is also  composed of  so many  aspects which verge on ugliness but which, strangely,  also have their own sort of allure.   Nelson Algren once wrote that “It isn’t hard to love a town for its greater and lesser towers … but you never truly love it till you can love its alleys too.”   You discover this in unexpected moments and glimpses, where she doesn’t mind you seeing her without her girdle: no excuses, no apologies.  

The “alleys” would be out here, with the ingenious, illegal,  improvised sewer outflows, and the “What, me worry?” deposits of dog poop and the hand-lettered signs vilifying the anonymous neighbor who has left his bag of garbage under your window, and the mismatched lifelong friends in the bar  shouting at each other — the one who’s right and the one who’s wrong — about something that happened years ago.   In fact, they’re both right.   Or wrong.

What happens is this: People put out plastic bags of garbage long before the collection is due to begin.  Sometimes they do this on a Saturday afternoon, which means the bags will sit there till Monday morning.  This time frame gives the seagulls plenty of time to bust open the bags and scavenge.  Now the pigeons have started to take up the habit.  Everyone knows this, including the people who put out their bags, bags which would be collected from their very own doorstep,  but which they prefer to bring secretly to this anonymous corner.  It's so stupid it's almost beautiful.

What happens is this: Some people put out plastic bags of garbage long before the collection is due to begin. Sometimes they do this on a Saturday afternoon, which means the bags will sit there till Monday morning, thereby giving the seagulls plenty of time to bust open the bags and scavenge. Now the pigeons have started to take up the habit as well. Everyone knows this, including the people who put out their bags, bags which would be collected from their very own doorstep, but which they prefer to bring secretly to this anonymous corner. It's so stupid it's almost beautiful.

This is not nostalgie de la boue; many things about life down here in the bilges range from infuriating to only slightly flinch-worthy.   Then there are the aspects you can’t easily categorize — say, the septic tank somewhere on the other side of  our canal which for far too long desperately needed pumping out.   When we had company for dinner I used to pray that the wind wouldn’t shift.   They say you can get used to anything, but I’m here to tell you: Not that.  

I was walking down the via Garibaldi one early evening; there was a middle-aged Venetian couple coming toward me.  

There had been a few airplane crashes that month: One in the sea just outside Palermo, another that hit near Athens, now one in Venezuela somewhere.

Anyway, I reach earshot just as the woman is saying to her husband, “Not me.   I’ll never go on an airplane.   Forget it.”

He says, “What about a ship?”

“Not even a ship.   I’m staying home, I’m not going anywhere.   If I die, I’m going to die right here in Via Garibaldi.”   (Wait a minute — “If” you die?).    

That’s what the true voice of a neighborhood sounds like — especially this one.   Via Garibaldi to the bitter end.  

I’m with her.

You'll always run into somebody to talk to -- or about -- on Via Garibaldi.

You'll always run into somebody to talk to -- or about -- on Via Garibaldi.

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Categories : History, Venetian-ness

Comments

  1. Eva says:

    I’m from Castello, too (Ruga Giuffa). So our version of the sentence was “Stop shouting, etc. Are you from Casteo-basso?”. Venetians love to make always the point ;-)!

  2. Erla says:

    I’ve sometimes corrected people when they refer to “Castello” meaning San Pietro, Campo Ruga, and a few other spots in the back of beyond here; the sestiere of Castello covers a really wide range of neighborhoods and types of people, and you make it clear that the Castellani of Ruga Giuffa would have wanted to distinguish themselves IMMEDIATELY from their neighbors in “lower Casteo.” I’m not sure that the “lower” castellani make any reference, disparaging or otherwise, to the people in your old neighborhood. Does anybody ever mention “upper Casteo”? Or do the folks down here not even know that there is more to Venice than via Garibaldi?

    • Franco Bonora says:

      Hi. My name is Franco Bonora. I was born in Venice in 1973. My parents and I used to live on the corner of Calle Coppi and Via Garibaldi, in the apartment just above Trattoria Giorgione. We left Venice and emigrated to South Africa in 1983 where we are still living. Although Signora Rina Bonora passed away in December 2008, my Father Mirko and I are still living in Germiston, South Africa to this day; where my Father still plays the piano and piano accordion professionally.

      I hope that some of the old folk in Via Garibaldi, especially in Calle Coppi and the Giorgione still remember us. My uncle Giorgio Bonora and his wife are still living in Via Garibaldi today.

      I will keep on reading the blog. It reminds me of home.

      Regards
      Franco Bonora

      • Erla Zwingle says:

        I know your uncle! As soon as I see him around (he lives about one minute from us) I will certainly tell him we’ve connected. Thanks for writing — I love the connection.

  3. Franco Bonora says:

    Thank you for publishing my reply on your website. I really appreciate it. We will keep in touch.

    Regards
    Franco Bonora

  4. Debby
    Twitter: Misswang
    says:

    Charming tale, even if scented with waste. This and your other stories on trash in Venice helps to make sense of why no one cleared away a paper topped with dog poo in the middle of the narrow calle where we stayed for 4 days. Human challenge to do something, and not simply wonder; lesson learned. I suppose there were city trash bins on the Rio Terà San Leonardo were the calle emptied on to.