Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Past Brief Life in Dorsoduro

Rio delle Eremite, last night
Twenty years ago I lived in an apartment overlooking the above-pictured canal. But not for long.

It was a two-bedroom on the top floor of a building whose first two levels had been built in the 14th century and whose two uppermost levels had been added after World War II. Its rear windows overlooked a large gravel courtyard, its front windows looked out on two canals and the pediment of the church of San Barnaba.

A couple of weeks after moving in I returned home to find that all of these views were completely obscured by scaffolding and the opaque material that construction work is covered with here.

The next morning the pounding started.

On the outer walls of the apartment at first: without cease, the sound of something larger than mere hammers, but not so big as sledgehammers. I looked out the window and found them being wielded by a crew of jovial workmen, each of them wearing a little hat made of newspaper.

I could never figure out if these newspaper hats were created in jest and worn ironically or in all seriousness, but the workers created fresh ones everyday for themselves. Recently I came upon a reference to Venetian workers wearing such hats in Jan Morris, but she was writing in 1960, not the 1990s. Perhaps it was a long-standing tradition? If so, I'm sad to note that it now seems to have completely vanished. In any case, the cute little hats didn't make the pounding itself picturesque, or any less bothersome.

I'd moved to Venice with a woman I'd been at grad school with, and specifically to live in this apartment. A new grad student who'd previously lived in it for two years before returning to the States hooked us up with the landlady, who only rented to non-residents. It sounded ideal, and so easy, and friendly.

It didn't quite turn out to be any of those things. My "significant other" (as they were called back then) spoke no Italian; I spoke a little, so the task of calling our landlady about this surprise fell to me.

I didn't handle it well. She persistently refused to answer my question of how long this work was going to continue. Our conversations quickly became rather ugly.

Then the pounding above the ceiling began.

Now the racket was in Surround-Sound, years before it became commercially available.

My s.o. would leave the apartment in the morning and not come back till after working hours had concluded outside our walls and ceiling. But I stayed home and wrote. I was writing my first book and had a story to work on, and did so in spite of the pounding. And the story I wrote in those days--which involved neither Venice nor workmen--ultimately became the first one in my book.

But my s.o., also a writer, couldn't write with that noise, and as I could never get an answer from our landlady about when the work would end we started looking for another apartment.

With the help of a real estate agent we soon found a very nice one in Cannaregio (which came with a piano and an ancestral bust in the entry), but didn't end up taking it for all sorts of reasons that seem utterly foolish to me now, but at the time seemed quite compelling. We were an easily discouraged couple, unprepared for the challenges of moving abroad, and we also had this ridiculous notion that our unsettled circumstances presented a dire threat to our writing. This was my s.o.'s breathless formulation and I went along with it because it made it sound like we were engaged in vitally important though fragile work that had to be protected at any cost. Or at least that she was engaged in vitally important work, as she'd already published a novel, and I hadn't. I actually felt little threat to my writing; I could write anywhere, and I loved Venice, but I felt compelled to protect her supposedly burgeoning career.

We moved back to the States.

For a couple of years afterward there was a quiet competition between us over who would first incorporate this traumatic Venetian experience into a piece of writing, but neither of us ever did.

For in spite of the fact that I'd ultimately been forced to drag the Questura into my conflict with our landlady, and in spite of the fact that they'd taken my side and yet I still never got my security deposit returned to me, the whole experience really had almost nothing to reveal about Venice itself--but only with the problems that already simmered in our relationship. And neither of us were ever ready to seriously ponder those.

When I think of that time now what I think of most is how quiet Dorsoduro was then: what an entirely different place! There was a little art supply shop a short way from the apartment, its trays of brilliant pigment the only color on the otherwise dark still Calle Lunga San Barnaba.

Campo San Barnaba itself was also quiet and still. And even Campo Santa Margherita, with a closet-sized shop on one side where a woman sat smoking in her storefront window and making the most marvelous and useful things out of leather, seemed well and safely away from tourist hordes, and, oddly enough, even student hordes.

Even the Zattere was a peaceful stretch at this time of the year and, though it's now hard to believe, the Accademia Bridge. I remember standing at the Accademia end of it one early October afternoon and watching the most operatic and extended of arguments between what appeared to be two male Ca' Foscari professors upon the top of its hump. These days I wouldn't have been able to see them for the crowds--and they wouldn't have had room to stomp about, or even gesticulate as they did without smacking a half dozen tourists in the face.

Ah, I have to stop myself. I recall those times fondly when tourists teem like maggots not only between San Marco and the Rialto, and on every single vaporetto, but in areas I'd never have thought they'd reach 20 years ago. Teem, that is, upon what seems to me at such times like a dead (or murdered) city.

But the other day Sandro and I were in Dorsoduro and he made a point of directing our footsteps back by the apartment on Rio Delle Eremite I'd shown him once before, this time repeating to me the brief account I'd previously given him about how I'd lived there years before I knew his mother or him.

He paused in front of  the apartment, gazed up at it, then at me, and asked, "Did you like that apartment? Was it nice?" And these short questions coming from him reminded me that the passage of time brings not only convoys of cruise ships through the basin of San Marco and destructive mass tourism, but other things and other people as well. Things and people far beyond the limits of one's past imaginings.

"It was okay," I told him. "But I've never lived anyplace better than with you and Mommy."


  1. Your post made me smile: my first apartment in Venice was a beautiful Three bedroom place on Calle dei Cerchieri in Dorsoduro which I shared with three other girls. I loved it: terrazo floors, wonderful antique furniture, two balconies including one with a view of San Pantolon. That was years ago, and I've just been looking at places for rent in that street, wondering if I'd find it, and here you are revisiting old haunts too!
    Ps my second flat in Venice was much less salubrious; on the same street as the prison, up three steep steep flights of stairs, so damp in winter that I slept with a dozen wool blankets and by summer, the white walls were turning green with mould.

    1. It sounds like you've been both lucky and unlucky enough to have authentic Venetian apartment experiences. I think one can't really say they've rented a flat in Venice unless some mould has been included in the price! (I've "enjoyed" that particular wall treatment myself.) But the 3 BR with the view of San Pantalon sounds marvelous. I hope you find something like that place--or that place itself--again (as you've already put in your time with cold and mould). I'll be curious to find out what you turn up in your apartment search. Good luck!

  2. A lovely post!

    During my visit to Venice in 2010 I stayed in Dorsoduro in the Centro Culturale Don Orione.
    The area had less tourists than most other areas except for when the cruise ships arrived. In the evening there would be mostly college students and the area turned vibrant on Thursdays with a live band and flowing wine as the tides rose.

    Many of my published poems resulted from staying in Dorsoduro.


    1. Thank you, Murissa, and I think you're right that Dorsoduro continues to have its own distinctive feel--or maybe I should say "feelS", as the area you stayed in feels different than around Campo Santa Margherita or San Nicolò dei Mendicoli.

      Though I'd focused only on the chnages, it's nice to hear that you could still find inspiration in that area which had previously inspired such poets as Brodsky and Pound.

  3. I think most of the times a life begins one tends to see it's start as "the first month of the rest of my life" and expects this particular combination of a setting, a work, a partner to last indefinitely. Starting something with full awareness it's temporary, a life, requires a degree of existential sobriety that to me seems dehumanizing. But brevity of such lives as much as it may seem tragic at the time a life ends is a blessing.

    1. I agree with you, Sasha, about the life part and what might be called the blessings of transience, but I do wish fewer parts of Venice were overrun by tourist hordes.

  4. For years now we've been staying at Ca' San Trovaso on Calle delle Eremite. It's so very QUIET there. I love the conjunction of the bridges at the Zattere end. Hotel is nothing special but Mark and Cristina always make us welcome and it's strange how soon holiday accommodation becomes home.Our first visit to Venice was in 1988 and you've just made me realise how much it has changed; not the fabric but the people.

    1. How nice to have a regular "home" to go back to, Andrew, and those bridges at the Zattere end--and the dark moody rear courtyard of that one particular large palazzo to the left of the narrow calle that leads to the Zattere itself--really are great. (For some reason during the 20 years I did not live in Venice whenever I read a certain Henry James story, "The Middle Years", it would call to mind that area and I don't know why, as the story's not set in Venice or anyplace that resembles it.)

      I wish I could have seen Venice in 1988, when you first visited it.