Monday, March 2, 2015

Renting an Apartment in Venice, Part 1

Could this become home? A glimpse of a Venice apartment for rent to residents

It's not hard to find a nice apartment to rent in Venice.

If you're a tourist. Or if you're a non-resident.

But it's another matter altogether if you're a resident. That's because for the more ambitious of landlords, and for those who hold their properties in the highest esteem, Venetian residents rarely offer the chance to maximize their returns.

For reasons I've never understood, a lease to a resident of Venice must run for four years, with the option to renew for another four years. In contrast, a lease to a non-resident can, at most, be for only one year. It's not hard to imagine why a landlord might prefer the flexibility of the latter type of lease.

Additionally, according to many landlords, something about the law in regard to renting to Venetian residents can make it almost impossible to ever get rid of a tenant, even after what's call the "4+4 contract" is up. I've heard more than one landlord complain about tenants who simply would not leave, and whom they could not force to leave, even if the tenants were not paying rent.

Add to these factors the change in law some years ago that opened up the way for an explosion of B&Bs in Venice, and the number of absentee and/or foreign owners, whose usually empty properties are reserved for their own occasional enjoyment (or passive investment), and you find, rather paradoxically, that rental apartments for residents have become harder to find as the city's population has decreased.

Which is a long preface to saying that we are about to move.

Now, there was a time not long ago that I thought we would never move to another apartment in Venice. But as our son Sandro has grown from the 3-year-old he was when we arrived to the 7-year-old he is now, our small but comfortable apartment has become even smaller--and increasingly less comfortable. The small salotto, whose little area must function as living room, dining room, play room and thoroughfare between kitchen and the rest of the apartment, now has a hard time fulfilling just the last duty. I can hardly walk from my desk in our bedroom to the kitchen for a cup of tea without tripping over at least two toy vehicless and demolishing, Godzilla-like, a cantiere (work site) of Legos or wood blocks on the way.

True, I could always take a certain pride in knowing that we were not like those suburban Americans roaming wastefully among the unused square footage of their McMansions--with two bathrooms for every bedroom--but even our Italian landlords began to marvel that we showed no inclination to move to a slightly larger space.

Of course our two landlords, who live in an apartment upstairs from us, were two good reasons we wanted to stay. I'd say that everyone should be so lucky as to have two such kind, thoughtful and generous landlords as we've had here for the last four years, but that would be too limiting. Better, and more accurate, to say that everyone should have the good fortune to have two such kind, thoughtful and generous friends as we've had here for the last four years.

Once we realized, however, that they could remain our friends even if they were no longer our landlords and neighbors, a move began to seem like not just a possibility, but a necessity.

Moreover, we were sick of the time we spent getting Sandro to and from school. What if just a few minutes' walk lay between where we lived and where Sandro went to school, instead of the 45- to 60-minute journey we'd been making four times a day for the last three years?

A move, too, would open up an whole new sense of Venice to us: from a place on the periphery of the city, which we'd loved, to someplace in the historic center which--well, we'd have to see what we thought about it. But the process of finding out would be exciting, wouldn't it?

An example of arches in the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi
The first apartment we looked at in the center was certainly exciting. It was, remarkably enough, the entire mezzanine floor of a 16th-century palazzo, its other floors still inhabited--as had once been the norm for such places--by members of the same family. The door handles on its gargantuan exterior entrance were those worn ornamental brass heads (musi da porton) visitors like to photograph, and they opened (heavily and with some effort) to a large high central court surmounted by the largest arch in Venice (whose soft soil kept massive arches to a minimum in its buildings): the whole space looking a lot like a Piranesi print, in this city where I've never before found myself reminded of Piranesi.

There were wide grand staircases to the right and the left. We took the one to the right, which needed only a small tea light on either end of each very wide step to look entirely magical, and came to a broad landing with two imposing doors on opposite sides: both of which belonged to the apartment we were about to see.

Or not see, as it turned out.

It was the darkest apartment I have ever been in, with the notable exception of an impressively rambling (and shockingly affordable) apartment I looked at when I first moved to New York City in 1993. It was just one block south of Central Park South, in a grand Pre-(World)-War-(II) building--and entirely devoid of windows, but for two narrow slits running along the ceiling of the room furthest from its entrance.

What this Venetian apartment revealed to me is that a floor-through mezzanine level abode in a monumental palazzo almost entirely surrounded by the city's famously narrow calli could be almost as dark as any subterranean Manhattan lair.

It was a raw remarkable space. Empty and unlived in for who knows how many years it ran in a horse-shoe shape around the courtyard, with a couple odd galleries running between clusters of rooms, and with two dead staircases, one of which led up to an ersatz wall, one down to a water gate.

A couple of windows overlooked a small lovely campo, one other opened onto a small enclosed garden, but everywhere else one could have leaned out and touched the wall of a neighboring building.

It was 2 o'clock on a sunny late fall day and yet in one large room--with all its shutters wide open--our real estate agent resorted to a flash light to lead us around.

The owners, the realtor told us, were ready to do a complete renovation as soon as they'd found someone to rent it, so it wouldn't be available immediately. This would have been fine with us, as we couldn't have moved immediately. But the owners' hesitation to perform a renovation before finding renters said as much about the apartment as the Venice rental market. They knew finding tenants would be a struggle.

Sandro loved it, though. Its sprawling disjointed quirky 2,000 square feet added up to everything our tidy compact logical apartment was not: a space one could literally get lost in.

And, really, you could close your eyes and imagine it transformed into the most exotic of Venetian interiors--and, giving way to Romantic impulses, imagine your own familiar life transformed in unpredictable ways within it.

But, in fact, closing your eyes would have been redundant. You were in the dark in there even with your eyes wide open and straining. And, all romance aside, how pleasant could life actually be in such pervasive perpetual gloom?

It was in some ways, especially considering its price, a dream Venetian apartment. But like most dreams born in darkness it vanished as soon as we stepped out into the light of day.

We had to keep looking. What we found will be the subject of a future post--when we manage to get settled in it. A process which is ongoing as I type this....

Friday, February 20, 2015

Late Afternoon in Natural Sepia

I added a vignette to the above image taken this afternoon, but the combination of a haze over the lagoon and the sun created the sepia tint.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Carnevale and the Cult of Confetti

A criminal leaves his pursuing police officer in a wake of coriandoli
Childhood is in the details.

Perhaps this is obvious, I don't know. But it occurred to me recently that as much as we adults might, in depicting childhood, get caught up in the sweep and swoon and sentiment and swim of it all, in lighting effects and filters and all the rest, the thrills of childhood for the child himself or herself often reside in the most concrete things--whose appeal often eludes full adult comprehension.

The thing that occasioned these thoughts is coriandoli, or confetti.

I don't think I'm the only adult--or at least not the only American adult--who might be surprised by how important a role this stuff plays in Venetian kids' sense of Carnevale. Based upon my own seven-year-old son, I've been tempted to think at times this year that confetti ranks almost as high as costumes in the festivities for kids.

An adult visiting Venice during Carnevale could easily miss confetti's centrality completely. Though once your attention is called to it you'll notice bags of coriandoli displayed for sale in every window of every tabaccheria selling the variety of cheap plastic disguises--fake eyeglasses with bulging eyeballs or a huge nose, over-sized plastic ears--aimed at local kids, not tourists in search of stereotypically "Venetian" masks (even if made in China).

In the weeks leading up to Carnevale Sandro talked much more excitedly about the coriandoli and the neon-colored goopy string-stuff sprayed out of a can than costumes. Of course this is one of the great benefits of living in a place where certain things are rigorously, and by common agreement, limited to certain constricted periods of the year: scarcity and narrow associations greatly enhance their appeal. I suppose a child could toss handfuls of confetti on Via Garibaldi in December, but he'd generally be considered to be littering by most passing adults, who'd direct a suitably damning look at his parents. (Just as in non-tourist areas of Italy, such as the small Piemonte village we lived outside of for three months, the prohibition against a gelateria/pasticceria beginning to make gelato too early in April--when the weather is "troppo freddo"--has the weight of a moral absolute.)

Perhaps it's only because confetti played no role at all in my own childhood that I've been so surprised by its importance here. (Would it have been just too hard to clean up in a place with lawns rather than paving stones?) But it seems to have been a central element of Italian Carnevale for a long time. Indeed, the great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne explicitly equates the one with the other when he writes about his 1858 experience of Carnevale in Rome (in Passages from the French and Italian Notebooks):
Soon I had my first experience of the Carnival in a handful of confetti, right slap in my face...
In fact it really does seem in Hawthorne's account that the throwing of confetti and other supposedly harmless materials really is the main point of the Carnevale festivities in Rome. So much so that costumes are valued only so far as they provide protection from assault, like armor at a medieval jousting tournament. Hawthorne writes:
Many of the ladies wore loose white dominos, and some of the gentlemen had on defensive armor of blouses; and wire masks over the face were a protection for both sexes,—not a needless one, for I received a shot in my right eye which cost me many tears. It seems to be a point of courtesy (though often disregarded by Americans and English) not to fling confetti at ladies, or at non-combatants, or quiet bystanders; and the engagements with these missiles were generally between open carriages, manned with youths, who were provided with confetti for such encounters, and with bouquets for the ladies. We had one real enemy on the Corso; for our former friend Mrs. T——— was there, and as often as we passed and repassed her, she favored us with a handful of lime. Two or three times somebody ran by the carriage and puffed forth a shower of winged seeds through a tube into our faces and over our clothes; and, in the course of the afternoon, we were hit with perhaps half a dozen sugar-plums. Possibly we may not have received our fair share of these last salutes, for J——- had on a black mask, which made him look like an imp of Satan, and drew many volleys of confetti that we might otherwise have escaped. A good many bouquets were flung at our little R——-, and at us generally.... This was what is called masking-day, when it is the rule to wear masks in the Corso, but the great majority of people appeared without them....
So, in Rome at that time they threw not only confetti, but flowers, sugar-plums, "winged seeds" (blown from a straw), "something that looked more like a cabbage than a flower" (which hits Hawthorne on another day) and lime. This last is interesting for a few reasons:

1. It is traditionally thrown upon the corpses in mass graves, which makes it an appropriately morbid harbinger of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season that Carnevale precedes and prepares for.

2. Hawthorne recounts a few pages later that it was almost exclusively English and Americans who threw lime--and whom received police summons for doing so, as it was not considered an acceptable material to launch at one's fellows (despite, or perhaps because of, #1 above).

3. It reminds me of the baking flour that a native Venetian friend told me was a problem during the first couple years after Carnevale's official re-introduction here in 1980. It seems in those rowdier first years roving gangs of youths would pelt costumed revelers with flour and rotten eggs. While certainly in keeping with the anarchic origins of carnival, this wasn't at all appreciated, and by the third year local authorities had cracked down on such aggression.

But aggression, I've learned firsthand, remains an elemental part of carnival. Not that you'd know it, fortunately, on any given afternoon these days in Piazza San Marco, when perhaps as many as two dozen elaborately costumed folks (or more) are posing for hoards of happy shutterbugs.

No, you need to happen upon a kids' celebration of Carnevale in one of the lesser campi, or within the confines of a patronato (parish hall), or on Via Garibaldi, where the coriandoli still flies, and is flung fiercely--as often as merrily--as part of helter-skelter games of chase.

Note how thrilled the kids are to launch volleys of coriandoli at adults--either their own or the parents of others. As masks traditionally subverted the established social hierarchy by concealing identity and one's "proper" or usual place, so coriandoli still gives kids the chance to upend their usual power relationship with adults, becoming physically aggressive toward them with impunity (for the most part). 

And as Carnevale was traditionally a period of excess immediately preceding the sober privations of Lent, so a chief pleasure of coriandoli seems to be the extravagant squandering of it. For any parent in the habit of forecasting how long a given toy is likely to engage a child it comes as quite a shock to find that the large bag of coriandoli you've bought for a party--as directed by the invitation--is basically emptied as soon as you've opened it.

The cookies or beverages one might usually bring to a kids' party would have lasted longer!

For before I'd even finished greeting the host of a party last weekend in Campo San Giacomo dall'Orio Sandro was returning the large empty bag to me. "I didn't even get to see you throw it!" I said to him, imagining, in my naivete, that the whole point of coriandoli was the spectacle of its bright abundant colorful drift through the air, the children capering quaintly beneath it.  

But I soon learned two things. First, that a chief pleasure of coriandoli seems to be in the recycling of it. Of gathering up handfuls of it from the paving stones and setting off in pursuit of your target

And, second, that coriandoli, really, is the Carnevale version of those old cream pies in silent films. Each finding its proper comical end in its delivery to some victim's face or head. Even--or especially!--my own.

In any case, what I've come to like about coriandoli is the fact that these days a few stray colored dots of paper turn up absolutely everywhere. I don't mean the dusting of them in calli or campi--though I like seeing them there, too--but in the more intimate places of one's life. On the floor of our apartment, or clinging to our furniture. Two or three of them under the covers of our bed. A good dozen of them in one pocket of my coat, a couple more in the other. One in the chest pocket of my shirt, a few more in my bag.

I like how they turn up unexpectedly even after you think you've made a good thorough cleaning of your place or person. Dots of pleasant recent memories, bits of experiences. Reminders of small things which, if I'm lucky, I'll never forget.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Some Views of Carnevale, Piazza San Marco, Yesterday Afternoon

I walked around Piazza San Marco yesterday to have a look at the people in costumes and the many more people with cameras who photograph them. It was a beautiful afternoon and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, the people with cameras perhaps even more than those in costumes, as far I could tell. For the enjoyment of the unmasked folks with cameras was evident, while those completely concealed behind masks and other elaborate ornamentation, well, who knows how they were feeling? I assume they were also having fun.

Some of the people in costume know other people in costume, and it added to the sense of festiveness to see groups of them running into each other and chatting in their various guises, speaking German or French or English. 

It wasn't till I left the Piazza and was on my way elsewhere that I was struck by how much this most Venetian of festivities is, for the most part, a foreign affair, especially in and around Piazza San Marco. Which is fine, as I think most of the people who come to Venice for Carnevale are the best kind of visitors Venice could ask for: people who stay overnight in the city, and think about the city and its customs, and have a real affection for both, rather than those 75% of the city's visitors who merely tramp through the city for just a few hours, doing more damage en masse than their scant expenditures in the city pay for. 

But as pleasant as the whole scene was, something about it unsettled me a bit--I didn't know what. Then it hit me: Never before had I found myself thinking of the Piazza San Marco so much as a convention center. One of those vast empty spaces in which events are staged: cat shows, or dog shows, or car or boat or (in America) gun(!) shows, or annual meetings of divorce lawyers or accountants or computer salesmen.

Perhaps this sense of things is unavoidable in a city in which the vast majority of city's shrinking population of residents no longer participates in festivities in the Piazza. It reminded me of something the great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1858 about a festival he witnessed in Florence, after experiencing Carnevale in Rome: 
But the Feast of St John [in Florence], like the Carnival, is but a meagre semblance of festivity, kept alive factitiously, and dying a lingering death of centuries. It takes the exuberant mind and heart of a people to keep its holidays alive.
Of course this is not the fault of the visiting revelers in and around Piazza San Marco, and it's not up to them to do anything about it. In fact, one might easily say they are doing all they can for the city by staying in the city and bringing costumed life into it.

No, it's not the visitors' fault, but those with power in the city and the region who themselves seem to prefer a convention center to a city.

But forgive me for going on about such things again. My sense of things is no doubt influenced by the fact that our son needs to see an optometrist and to do so he must travel to Mestre. With only "half of a hospital" in Venice itself (as my physician puts it), even the most basic medical needs often require a trip to the mainland.

Of course, why would one ever expect to find an optometrist in a convention center? 

Photographers--lots of them--are ever-present at Carnevale, like this one (which is not me) reflected in the glass of Florian

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Don't Look Now: A Frogman in a Canal on Sunday

A scuba diver--just visible above the gondolier's hat--in a canal near the church of I Frari
It's not often in the course of going around Venice that I find myself reminded of the Nicholas Roeg/Julie Christie/Donald Sutherland film Don't Look Now, at least not during the day. For while the city is, sadly, far less populated these days, the buildings--including famous ones such as the "jewel-box" church of Miracoli--tend to be far better maintained, their facades nowhere near as sooty as they are in the 1973 film. Nor is the city saturated in the eery brown and pea-soup green look of  cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond's Venice.

A frame from the 1973 film Don't Look Now
But Sunday, on the way to a kids' Carnevale party in Campo San Giacomo dall'Orio, Sandro and I happened upon a fire boat in a canal near the church of I Frari, its crew focused on a scuba diver in the water nearby, and I flashed back (though with nothing like the trauma involved in Donald Sutherland's flashbacks in the movie) to a scene in the film involving a scuba diver. (Actually two scuba divers, as you can see in the still at right).

Considering it's a corpse that is brought out of the water in the film, I wasn't sure we should linger and watch what the firemen were busying themselves about. But we have a friend in the fire department here and based upon what he's told me it's much more likely the Venetian FD is called upon to bring a cat (or iguana, as you can read here: http://some-tails-of-venice-fire-department) down out of a tree than a corpse up out of the water.

So we stuck around and, as happens anytime you stop and look at anything in Venice, other passersby stopped and watched, too. (Try it: people are so primed to look in Venice that you need only stop off to one side of a tourist thoroughfare, stare at a blank wall, and you'll soon have company). Then a gondoliere with his fares arrived and, finding his usual route blocked by the fire boat, stopped and watched. Then another gondoliere and his passengers, who also was told to stop by the firemen--as the water taxi in which Sutherland rides in another scene in the film is blocked by police detectives in a small canal.  

After a few minutes the two gondolieri got tired of waiting and set off in the direction they'd come from. There was still no indication of what the firemen and scuba diver were up to. There was nothing happening at all, really, as far as we could see, except for the frogman disappearing beneath the water for short periods of time, then reappearing. Sandro wanted to get to his kids' party and I'd gone through whatever frisson was available to me in watching a scene in real life that recalled a scene in a film.

How much of what we are able to see, or notice, or recognize, or value is determined by what we've seen before? Almost everything, I sometimes think, even if the precursor is a cinematic scene of death and you have, in the present, your vibrant child beside you.

And so we resumed our course to the party, to a small ragtag eruption of life in a city of art.