Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Spring in Full Bloom in a Secret Garden on Giudecca

The narcissi are out in full flaming force within a high brick-walled enclave on Giudecca.

No, George Clooney and his pals have not returned to the Cipriani (at least as far as I know) to celebrate however many months have passed since his splashy Venice wedding. Rather, in the private garden of Ottilia Iten a splendid variety of the flower narcissi are in bloom and she recently opened her door to visitors, as she does three times a year.

For the full story on just how Ottilia makes her garden grow, and single-handedly manages to produce so much beauty, see the following post from last spring:

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Assorted Pleasures on the First Weekend of Spring, Today

Spritz near Campo Santa Margherita

A cigarette (and bike ride) on the Zattere
Gelato in front of the church of I Gesuati

Friday, March 20, 2015

Santa Pazienza! An Amplified Tour Guide

Amplified tour guides in the city center would certainly test the patience of even a saint--unless he was made of stone like the one above
It wasn't unusual when we lived on the outer edge of the city, not far from the lagoon, to sometimes hear the amplified voice of a guide blaring from the speakers of a passing tourist boat. But a few days ago I was surprised to hear the exact same kind of amplified racket right outside our window here in the historic center of town, booming down the narrow calli, pinballing off the bricks and stone.

Considering there was talk some months back about regulating the noise made by certain kinds of wheeled luggage as it was pulled down the city's famously narrow alleys(!), I thought that a tour guide going around the city with a loudspeaker attached to her or himself would certainly be forbidden. Typically, each member of a tour group traipses along behind the guide with a pair of headphones on, hearing everything the guide says without bothering those not on the tour. I assumed the guide with the loudspeaker was a fluke, a one-time thing.

But yesterday Sandro and I happened upon what I suspect is the same guide speaking to a large calle-clogging group of at least 70 tourists. In our apartment a few days ago, I'd only heard (very clearly) that she was speaking German, but didn't see her, so I couldn't be sure this was (and is, pictured above) the same female German-speaking guide of that first encounter. But I suspect it is.

At least I hope it is. For it's bad enough if there is one loudspeaker-wearing tour guide going around the city disrupting the quiet for which Venice has been famous quite literally for centuries. It would be much worse to think there are, or might soon be, even more.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Renting an Apartment in Venice, Part 3

"The past is never dead. In fact, it's not even past." No, it persists irritatingly in the fibers of old rugs
One of the interesting things about moving long-term into a fully-furnished apartment or house (which we've now done three different times in two different countries) is that it's a little like moving into another life. An implicit history resides in each piece of old furniture, in the pictures on the wall, in the plates and glassware, and not only is it not your own history, it often evokes a life and a background nothing like your own.

It's personal history without the burdens of personal history. An old enough piece of furniture in a Venetian apartment, for example, may suggest a family tale spanning generations. But as it's not your own family tale, none of the animosities that often spur such narratives weigh on you, never threaten to make your own life as miserable as that of some actual member of the family. You hear this or that story--or imagine it--from the safe distance of time, usually years or decades after the drama has concluded. Touched perhaps, even deeply so, but not crushed by what has gone on.

Unless, I've now discovered, the apartment's past includes a pet with weapons-grade dander.

This is the short answer to why I type these words from our old apartment, not our new one. And why I still sleep in our old apartment, while my less allergy-prone (though still affected) wife and son live full-time in our new one.

Indeed, I'm now convinced that when William Faulkner wrote the famous lines:
 The past is never dead. In fact, it's not even past.
he was most certainly thinking of pet dander and its damned, dogged persistence.

From what we've heard from our new neighbors, the large black shaggy male dog that used to live in our new apartment left it at least a year ago, yet my skin still burns and itches--as red as if I'd fallen asleep under the equatorial sun at noon--without stop, even when I stay away from the new apartment for 24 hours. 

I won't go into all the tiresome strategies we're pursuing to address this problem--all the usual ones, from removing old rugs and a large tattered 150-year-old wall hanging from the apartment, to having the furniture professionally cleaned, to buying a HEPA vacuum cleaner and air purifiers, to applying cortisone cream. But it's all began to make me wonder if renting a furnished apartment really is simpler than renting an unfurnished one.

In contrast to someone like the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who moved to Paris with his wife, infant and every last item contained in their old New York City apartment, my wife and I liked the idea of traveling (or moving) light.

It would be simpler, we thought, to do so. But beyond that, even if it is not simpler (as it doesn't seem to be right now in our new apartment), I still think that living in Venice surrounded by all the things with which we'd furnished our Brooklyn apartment would make for a very different (and diminished) experience of living in Venice. I sometimes miss things we left behind in storage in New York, things that, in different ways and at different times, seem synonymous in my mind with the idea of home that Jen and I constructed.

Sometimes I miss practical things, as when the absence of, or battered state of, certain furnished pots and pans here make me miss those we received when we were married (which also carry a certain sentimental meaning with them). Or the pair of chairs we had in New York that were perfect for reading in.

Other times the things I miss are intimately tied up with a sense of self. The most obvious of this category of thing are my books, nearly all of which I left behind, carefully packed in dozens of boxes. Who am I when not surrounded by my books, every one of which carried with it an extra-textual story (if only for me) of how it was acquired?

Marcel Proust compared the vast storehouse of life experience lost to the world in the death of a single person to the burning of the library of Alexandria, but the inverse might also be true. Not only does a life represent a library (of experience), but a personal library might represent a life, and to pack it all up can give one a feeling of both liberation and anxiety. 

In any case, aside from the fact that we are up to our chins in allergens in our new apartment, the other problem with it has been that it came, you might say, overly furnished. Not just with the things one needs or might want, but with everything both the landlady and previous tenants did not want, and either put out or left behind, respectively.

Which is a nice way of saying we found old junk of some sort--typically broken, unusable, beyond repair, and completely obsolete--in every place we looked: in corners and cabinets and drawers. Do you long for the days of audio cassette players? How about two non-functioning analog televisions as large as dishwashers? Or a pair of wheezing rattling mobile (in theory at least) air conditioning units, large as old Fiat 500s, but much louder?

Anyone could see why the landlady and former tenants didn't want any of this stuff, but why in the world did they think we would?  

How many days and weeks have we spent arranging with our new landlady's representative (a very helpful architect), to have all this junk hauled away--and waiting for it to happen? And how many days and weeks have we spent arranging and waiting for repairs to be made or broken appliances to be replaced? The whole first month of our lease was devoted to it. A month spent living in our old apartment, but working in the new one. A month for which we didn't pay rent.

And yet in spite of all these complications, and many more I won't go into, the difficulty in finding an apartment like this new one of ours if you're a Venice resident (rather than a tourist or shorter-term renter) has kept us from simply giving it up and looking for another. For the price and size and location and our needs, we just haven't seen a better one. And, more generally, the sense of Venice this particular apartment seems to offer--so different from our last one--seems worth some struggle.

As the great essayist (and psychoanalyst) Adam Phillips writes in his recent book Missing Out (which I highly recommend), "People become real to us by frustrating us; if they don't frustrate us they are merely figures of fantasy." Perhaps the same can be said of apartments, too. Even--or especially--in the fantastical city of Venice.

Though my burning skin suggests at this moment that the word "frustrate" in Phillip's sentence be changed to "irritate."

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Renting an Apartment in Venice, Part 2

A quiet residential canal in the historic center--though not the one visible from our new apartment

The mezzanine floor of the 16th-century palazzo that I wrote about in my last post was the most blatantly Romantic of the various apartments for rent to residents that we saw. For aside from its promising features it was, all in all, a dusty sepulchral ruin--and Romantic writers were all about dusty sepulchral ruins.

It lacked neither a certain character, nor its fair share of quirks, but it's important to remember that those two terms can be applied in one way or another to pretty much any apartment in the city center. In fact quirkiness of layout might be considered a defining feature of a Venice apartment in such areas. Which probably isn't surprising given how old the buildings are and how many times they've been altered over the centuries to accommodate changing uses, needs, and tastes.

For example, a friend once rented an apartment not far from the Rialto that meandered over at least four dramatically different levels. The entrance to his apartment was on the ground floor, where you were immediately confronted with a set of narrow stairs that you climbed to a cramped landing and an only slightly less cramped room off of it: his bedroom. You then continued up two more flights of steep narrow stairs--making a sharp right turn midway--to a door leading outside to a small altana (or wood platform terrace). If you continued climbing the stairs you'd reach his salotto, or small combination living and dining room with its corner kitchen. I believe the bathroom was on yet another level off the stairs, between the salotto and bedroom.

As all of these stairs belonged exclusively to the apartment--not to common areas used by other tenants--it's no exaggeration to say that the majority of the apartment's square footage consisted of just them. You might think an 800 square foot apartment (74 square meters) would give you plenty of room to pace about, but in roughly 500 square feet (46 sq meters) of it you'd be either climbing or descending. Which I suppose would be a great workout for your thigh and gluteal muscles, if that's what you look for in a home.   

The chief architectural quirk of the apartment we decided to rent was that not a single one of its rooms has more than two right angles: there's not a simple square or rectangle among them. At least half the walls of any given room don't meet on equal terms, in a tidy perpendicular. Either they conspire acutely, making it hard for any piece of furniture to really fit in, or happen upon each other obtusely, almost indifferently, leaving the furnishings to feel a bit adrift.

This, too, is Romantic in its own way, as the poet William Blake famously railed against right angles as the very symbol and symptom of oppressive Rationality.

We, however, were looking for just the right balance of Romance and Rationality. The stygian floor-through apartment of the palazzo offered only the former. But in the apartment we decided to rent we believed we'd found the perfect mix of both.

For one thing, it's just a four minute walk from Sandro's elementary school. For another, it has, unlike our old apartment, enough room for us to host overnight guests. For a third, there is no odd unusable space, such as the random dank windowless little rooms that sometimes persist like phantom limbs in Venice apartments. And, most important of all, it seemed warm and dry, with no hint of the mold or dampness issues that plague many residences here, even the most grand.

A quiet canal runs below its windows, two small hump-backed bridges arch just beyond either end of the apartment's length. The floor is real pavimento veneziano, the ceilings high, the window shutters are the traditional dark green, creaky and thickly peeling.

In contrast to the efficient, contemporary and much-appreciated double panes of our former apartment, the window glass here seems thin as the ice that films over a puddle on a barely-freezing day, and in some cases the panes are old enough to be just as imperfectly transparent as a sheet of such ice. They rattle in their frames as one walks across the floor near them.

A white monumental head on the palazzo across the calle gazes blankly in the window of our salotto.

There are pieces of old dark wood furniture, dressers and desks, a large hand-blown glass light in the hallway, and another hand-blown glass chandelier in the center of the bedroom. The latter is large and ungainly and everything about it recalls the seas across which Venetian traders returned with their fortunes: from the strands of hollow hand-blown glass beads, shaped and sized exactly like bulbs of kelp, festooned around its center; to all its sinuous arms, extending as if from a pair of piggy-backed octupi; to, not least of all, the brown corrosion of its iron frame, so profound as to suggest the chandelier spent a good half century on the bottom of the sea before being discovered.

Unlike so many Venetian apartments, including our old one (which had two), this apartment is all on one level. But, then again, not quite.

For though the apartment occupies just one floor, the pavimento itself has shifted so much with the irregularly-shifting building (just as pavimento veneziano was designed so long ago to do in buildings built on the lagoon's sandy soil), that one is almost always walking either up- or downhill.

This is especially noticeable in the apartment's long hallway, whose slope is severe enough to resemble the novice run at a ski resort. Severe enough, in fact, that Sandro has taken to referring to the bathroom to which it leads as the "upstairs bathroom". 

Just walking across our bedroom can call to mind clichèd images of the bonny rolling hills of Scotland: up, then down, then up, then down you go, trudging or almost trotting in turn.

A topographical map, not a blueprint, is what's need to depict such a room. And if such a map existed it would show the highest of the room's various hillocks near the center of the room, where one has no choice (because of the room's built-in features) but to place the foot of one's bed. Alas, the lowest of its various troughs is near the wall where one must put the head of one's bed.

Which makes for the perfect set-up if you're a bat, or some other mammal who likes to sleep with the blood pooling in your head. But we'll have to prop up the head of our bed with pieces of wood to make it tolerable.

All of these things, Jen, Sandro and I all agreed, added up to a distinctly Venetian experience. One we couldn't wait to begin.

So why, five weeks after our lease officially began, are we only just now starting to move in? And why do I type this in our old apartment?

That will be the subject of Part 3 of these posts on renting an apartment in Venice.