I’m not in Venice. I haven’t been in Venice. I will not be in Venice. I’m on sabbatical.
Which will last a month — my own definition of “sabbatical.” And I’m not acquiring new skills or training, either, which is usually expected in these cases.
I don’t have so much as a photograph of the most beautiful city in the world to throw onto these hallowed pages.
I’m not even in Italy.
That’s all I’m going to say at the moment, except to say that I have, in fact, the full intention of writing something while I’m here and even brought my homework.
But no photos, as mentioned.
I have written this tiny post because some of my sainted readers have contacted me to say they had noticed, and not with approval, my silence. So my conscience smote me.
Passo e chiudo, as we say in the old Belpaese: Over and out.
I like to call them “Venetian moments” — those instants of recognition, typically when you run into somebody you only met yesterday, in some unexpected place.
Today we experienced a tiny but less blithesome Venetian moment. Its Venetianness was based on money.
Experience, and occasional articles in the newspaper, have shown that there are sometimes two price scales here: one for tourists (high) and one for Venetians (low. Or less high, anyway).
We haven’t had much experience with this, except for one strange moment on the Lido some years back. I wasn’t there, but I can picture it. Lino was with someone he has now forgotten, and they stopped in a slightly fancy bar/cafe on the main street to have a spritz. After they’d drained their glasses, Lino, on a sprightly impulse, said to the barista in English, “How much?”
The little cash-register receipt was produced and Lino glanced at the total. ”What’s all this?” he asked the barista. “You charged me double the price for a spritz? I’m Venetian!”
To which the hapless young man responded, “Well, you could have told me you were Venetian.”
But an even stranger moment occurred today.
We were walking toward the Piazza San Marco around 9:30 this morning. Lino was thirsty, so we stopped in a bar/cafe on a corner. For the record, it’s called Snack Bar da Piero. (Sounds like a TripAdvisor warning.)
There was no one in the bar except for the dark-haired young woman behind the counter. Lino said, “May I have a glass of water with bubbles?” Sounds better in Italian: frizzante.
She pulled out one of those little half-liter bottles of water, opened it, and poured half of it into a glass. “That’ll be one euro,” she said.
Lino and I stared at each other, and at her.
“One euro, for that glass of water?” Lino asked? (Note: I would have expected 50 euro-cents.)
“What? We’re not Americans!” Translation: Do you think we’re rich and dumb?
“No,” she replied. “I give the Americans the whole bottle.”
Lino said, “Excuse me? You charge the Americans one euro for the whole bottle, but you’re charging me one euro for half a bottle?”
She just looked at him.
“You can keep the water,” he said, and turned to leave.
“Suit yourself,” was her answer, or some equivalent thereof.
So we walked out, leaving her with an open bottle and full glass which — one can hope — she won’t be able to sell to anyone else.
Lino was a mixture of stunned, offended, and just plain mad. I could hear another nail being driven into the proverbial Venetian coffin, the coffin which contains the few precious fragments of genuine Venetian-ness blown there by the winds of avarice across the vast Kalahari desert which is touristic Venice.
We walked over the next bridge into the Piazza San Marco. At the corner was a small gelateria, and an older gentleman — clearly the owner — was standing just outside it. Lino said to him, “Could I have a glass of tap water? I need to take a pill.”
The man said, “Sure thing.”
I asked Lino, “Was he Venetian?”
“And the girl?”
I can’t explain it, I can only describe it. But by the way, a euro for a half-liter bottle is still too much, no matter who’s paying. I can get six of them in the supermarket for 1.20.
I know that many people have a passion for cemeteries, their gravestones, their curious names and dates, and their general atmosphere of composure and calm.
But the customary calm at the cemetery on the island of San Michele here has been rattled in the past week or so by a very disagreeable discovery, and it doesn’t have to do with the dead, but the living. And the fact that they have taken up housekeeping together.
Because it’s one thing to visit the cemetery to bring flowers to your defunct relatives, or for a brief meander, and another to rent a cheap room in what was part of the old monastery.
Room? A room with a view of a tomb? The first the city heard of it was via the Gazzettino and the Nuova Venezia; the headline on the hoarding essentially said “Now there are tourists even in the cemetery.” The power of this phrase lies secondarily in the word “cemetery” and primarily in the word “tourist.” Neither is a noun that inspires much of a smile on Venetian lips, and the combination produced a city-wide snarl.
The snarl soon became garnished with sneers, because the truth did come out, and a tiresome little truth it was, too. Remember Zwingle’s Eighth Law? ”Everything is fine until it’s not.” Or one could put it this way: “We’ll do what we want until we get caught.” Gosh, it even rhymes.
These tourists were not sleeping on the slabs, but in the former monastery’s infirmary, which the city had made available to the Danish Committee for Venice (Comitato pro Venezia Danimarca) via a free 30-year concession. The Committee wanted to create (fund, establish) a Danish Cultural Center, and in exchange, agreed to restore the wing of the late Franciscan friary at its own expense.
They got the Center going pretty quickly, which is where the tourists come in, who were supposedly scholars and intellectuals and art lovers and others with an evolved attitude toward Venice, but who could also be anybody who joined the Friends of the Danish House.
Thus tourists have been enjoying this facility for the past two years. Perhaps more; I haven’t been able to locate a specific number yet. But it’s been long enough for the drivers of the vaporettos going to and from Murano to get used to stopping at the cemetery, even in the evening, to let people with suitcases on or off. For 200 euros a week — not a typo, and not made up — you can believe there was no lack of travelers checking in, with keys, no less, after the cemetery had closed.
Let’s say that the idea of sleeping in the graveyard doesn’t offend you; after all, it”s not as if skeletons are going to be taking out the trash.
But a lot of people here have been offended by what they regard as lack of respect. And most people anywhere would probably agree that it’s offensive that nine years have passed since the deal was struck, and the restoration still has not begun, while in the meantime the Danes have been operating this lodging which was never mentioned or even hinted at when they got permission to set up their Cultural Center.
A closer look at the legal document also reveals that the city granted the Danish Committee this free concession for 30 years “to be counted as beginning when the work of restoration begins.” So we’re already slightly out of sync here.
Nor is it clear whether the Danes were to be allowed to create their Center before the restoration work had been finished. Or at least begun.
When all this began to come to light — on All Souls Day, the day on which hundreds of Venetians go to the cemetery to visit their departed relatives — the citizens were galvanized. All those supposedly apathetic Venetians who have more or less accepted that they are inaudible and invisible suddenly spoke with one voice, and that voice said “No!”
A petition sprang up on the Fondamente Nuove, where the vaporettos leave for the cemetery, demanding that this wildcat bed and breakfast be closed immediately.
Venetians were signing it. Tourists were signing it. Even Danish tourists were signing it. The petition has reached some 2,000 names.
“By opening a guesthouse,” said Roberto Monegato, who is one of the founders of the petition,”the Danish have violated seven articles of the regulations of the cemetery. Furthermore, the convention was signed nine years ago; the property was given in concession in order that restoration would be made, but till now nothing has been done.”
A week of ire was spent in dealing with all this, during which the thoughts of assorted residents, some city councilors and even the vice-mayor were all amply aired. The letters to the editors were all of one opinion: Shame!
Nobody spoke up to defend the Danes — not even the Danes themselves. Silence reigned; one might almost say the silence of a cemetery.
However, the Committee for Venice (which had been shown to be essentially the Committee for the Danes), has now closed the hostel and is preparing to begin work on the promised restoration.
There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?
By which I do not mean palaces and churches.
I mean the white-haired lady facing me on the vaporetto Sunday evening.
We were sitting on the two seats facing backward. A pair of older ladies occupied the two seats facing forward. Our knees were not touching because we’re all too polite for that.
These ladies might have been somewhere in their seventies, though the one directly before me seemed slightly younger. They were both dressed as any reasonably well-to-do Venetian women dress — clothes of normal value and subdued colors.
I sometimes let myself glance at the lady in front of me because she had a lovely silk scarf draping her neck. It was a soft white with an even softer pink border, with some sort of little figures scattered across it (butterflies? flowers?). I reflected on how flattering pink can be, if it’s just the right shade.
The ladies clearly knew each other, though they exchanged only a few words occasionally; otherwise they looked tranquilly at nowhere as we rumbled along across the dark water.
At the Zattere stop, both women stood up and got off together.
Lino said: ”Did you notice the woman in front of you?”
“She used to live in my neighborhood — her son was in class with Marco (Lino’s son).” This would have been about 40 years ago.
So far, so not very remarkable. Lino is always seeing people he used to know, and sometimes still does.
“Her son had one leg shorter than the other,” Lino continued. ”But really shorter” — he indicated a distance of six inches, which I hope was an exaggeration. “He had to wear a big heavy shoe.
“One day her son went on a camping trip with some other boys; he was around ten or 12 years old then. One of the bigger boys tried to sodomize him (“spaccare il culo“). He fought back, and so the boy killed him.”
“How?” I asked.
“Stabbed him to death.”
“She took such good care of him,” Lino said. ”When he was really little, she’d carry him to school.”
“Did she recognize you?” I asked.
“Of course,” Lino replied. “The woman with her is her sister-in-law.”
The conversation ended there, and so does this post. There is nothing I can say that deserves to be written here, so I won’t.