Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Venice Apartment to Die For, Part 4: The False Wall

The master bedroom with its false wall, at right, and an air purifier atop a large dresser, at left

By mid-March, after more than 6 weeks of living and laboring in limbo between our old apartment outside the historic center and our new one near San Tomà, pretty much everyone we knew was  impatient for us to take decisive action. As you probably are, too, Dear Reader.

Specifically, what I might call our supernaturally-inclined friends believed we had to be completely insane to linger another day in such an obviously cursed place.

While those I might term our rationally-inclined friends were just as strongly convinced that we were completely insane to have any hesitations whatsoever about moving into such a beautiful apartment of the sort so rarely available to residents here.

Each group, of course, also thought it absurd that we listened at all to the opinion of the other.

But what both sides agreed on was that we were totally nuts.

And after more than 6 weeks of our struggle to make a go of the new apartment, they were right.

For how many days in a row, and how many times in a day, can one ask the question: "Do you think the air seems better in here since I did X, Y or Z?"

And how many days in a row and times in a day can one strain one's perceptions to the utmost, then try to answer with: "Hm, yes, well, I think it does seem, maybe, perhaps, a little less heavy...."

How many days in a row and times in a day can one try to isolate the cause of one's burning itching flaming face with something like the following tortured internal monologue?:
Perhaps my sweater's been contaminated with allergens. Or maybe the bedspread. But I just hand-washed the sweater... But maybe it came in contact with the bedspread afterwards... Perhaps I should wash the sweater again.... And the bedspread. And definitely my pants if I sat on the bedspread while wearing them. Or if they brushed against the sweater... Or maybe it all started with the pants... And what about my shoes?!
We decided, boldly, to isolate in one room every object we knew to immediately cause an allergic reaction. That meant every single piece of upholstered furniture in the apartment and the two single mattresses we'd tried to salvage from earlier rounds of purges. We put all these things in the large salotto--the most beautiful room in the apartment--and closed both its doors, intending never to use it, nor even venture into it, during this quarantine period.

This did seem to improve the air quality of the rest of the apartment. Though the concentration of foul air in the salotto was so intense that we lined the gap at the bottom of each door with a towel to try to reduce the amount of it that escaped.

We invited La Signora's architect over to experience for herself how hopelessly musty and dusty was the quarantined furniture and said we couldn't live with the pieces in the apartment. No one could. She agreed with us, though she thought it might be a struggle to convince La Signora to haul it away.

We had by this time entirely given up sleeping in the new apartment, as we no longer had any mattresses, so when the architect asked if we were sure we could live in the apartment if the old dust-mite-infested upholstered furniture were removed we hesitated a bit. "Is the rest of the apartment okay?" she asked again.

"Well, there's an odd persistent smell in the master bedroom..." Jen admitted.

We had tried to sleep in there only one night, on one of the original mattresses weeks before, and I hadn't lasted more than 3 hours--every breath a torment to me. But by the time of this meeting with the architect I'd begun to take the side of our rationally-minded friends who marveled that we could ever dream of giving up such a rare beautiful place, and I tried to minimize the problem. "But that was on an old mattresses," I said. "And now that we've removed even the old platform bed from there, which itself was pretty funky..." I added hopefully, if vaguely.

But the architect was not going to engage in a battle with La Signora on our behalf, no matter how justified she thought we might be, if we could not guarantee her we would stay in the apartment after the furniture was out. This was fair enough.  She asked us to give the bedroom a try and tell her in a few days, before the end of the month.

The problem now was to quickly and inexpensively obtain something to sleep on for our trial run in the master bedroom. With the extraordinary help of our friend (and old/current landlord) we managed to do so. Then, with the end of the month fast approaching, all three of us--Jen, Sandro, and myself--settled in for what we hoped would be a comfortable test sleep in the master bedroom.

Now, I should note here that there was always something vaguely unsettling about the master bedroom, nice as its basic dimensions were, and I hadn't been the only one to notice it. But this was usually blamed on its color: an odd indefinably-oppressive shade of red verging on fuchsia that uninterruptedly covered absolutely everything--walls, cabinets, and the large old steam radiator--except for the room's ceiling.

Jen and I both like vividly-colored rooms, and when we'd first looked at the apartment the color--along with a huge old disintegrating silk wall hanging removed before we moved in--gave the room an exotic air that seemed suitable to Venice. The longer one lingered in the room, however, the less exotic and simply more cloying and somehow just plain wrong-seeming the color became.

But by the night of our test sleep I was determined to move into the apartment and so, before turning out the lights to begin our trial sleep, I tried to recapture the exotic sense the walls had once suggested to me. Then I closed my eyes and tried to let the loud hum of the room's ever-running air purifier lull me into a good night's sleep.   

I lasted two hours. It was unbearable. My skin didn't itch and burn as it had weeks ago during our first attempt, but the smell!

We fled, carrying our mattresses into what would have been my office and our guest room and spent the rest of the night there.

The next day we tried to figure out where the room's unrelenting vinegar-y smell was coming from. It was essentially empty except for an old dark walnut chest and a massive walnut bureau--each a couple hundred years old. Neither of them had any smell. Nor did the built-in wood cabinets lining one wall. And the walls themselves were freshly painted and showed no signs of water damage or moisture. If the smell was mold, where was it coming from?

Lacking any other idea of what to do, I walked around knocking on the room's walls. To an American like me, used to the flimsy drywall construction of my native country, the stone-like solidity of Venice's thick plastered walls is a wondrous thing. The first two walls I knocked on were, as expected, fit for a fortress; the third--for a mobile home.

This wall--near which, because of the room's built-in cabinets, you had no choice but to place the head of your bed--was a false one of carton-gesso or plaster board.

And suddenly I could almost imagine myself, no, not in a Donna Leon mystery (whose denouement would have to be more sophisticated than this), but in the brittle yellowed pages of some old Hardy Boys Mystery novels for young readers I used to check out of the Modesto, California Public Library. 

Now looking closely at the wall for the first time (as the teen sleuths Frank and Joe Hardy might have), I noticed how the molding of the custom-built floor-to-ceiling wall cabinets at either end of it had been removed to allow for the insertion of the fake wall. While scrubbing every millimeter of these custom-built cabinets located in each room of the apartment I'd had plenty of time to admire their craftsmanship. Every detail, inside and out, was simply but perfectly fitted and finished.    

The false wall had been put in sloppily, though, seemingly well after the original cabinets had been finished. Moreover, there was a small gap running between the bottom of the false wall and the pavimento veneziano. I could just squeeze the tip of a finger between it, into a space between the false wall and what I assumed was the original wall behind it. It seemed damp and cold.

I remembered then something our friend and old landlord and long-time overseer of reconstruction projects in Venice had mentioned in passing about the ground floor entry to this apartment building when he'd come to look at our new place. He'd stopped on his way upstairs and knocked on one wall along the stairwell, noting it was carton-gesso, and pointed out the row of neat, round 20-centisime-sized holes running along the top of it.

He explained that, as it was now typical for the brick walls of most buildings in the historic center to have been compromised by repeated aqua alta up to a height of half of their first floor (or what Americans would call the second floor), false walls of this sort were put up in front of them. They allowed for a much neater appearance, as paint would not peel off them as it would off the damp plaster or bricks behind them, while allowing air to circulate and dry as best it could the bricks in-between new soakings.

Of course, he said before continuing up the stairs, the brick wall behind the false wall continues to disintegrate because of the damp, but you're only a renter here so that won't be your problem....

If there was mold growing behind this false wall in the master bedroom, though, it was very much our problem. And though we were on the second and highest floor, the damp could be coming from a leaky roof right above us even more easily than from the small canal below our windows.

I thought again of the prior resident of this apartment who'd become ill while sleeping in this very bedroom, his head against this very wall. I thought of how, as he underwent chemotherapy, his family had given away their large furry dog in an attempt to clear the apartment of anything that might be hazardous to a weakened immune system. I remembered what I'd learned a few years earlier about the dangers of long-term exposure to mold. Among the facts: there are types of black mold that research has proven to be carcinogenic....

But I thought also that perhaps none of this had anything to do with the prior family's terrible loss. Those of us with the great good fortune of having some choice about how we shape our lives, some choice of where we live, what we do, or even what (and how much) we eat--as a very great many people in the world do not--perhaps come to harbor illusions about how much control we actually have over what happens to us. Perhaps this is the kind of necessary delusion that the great Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi believed was required to make life--even a fortunate life--seem tolerable.

But I'm wary of such a belief in (or delusion about) our own powers of control to the extent that it makes us dismissive of those who suffer. As though with a little more--what? insight? caution? wherewithal? blessedness? fortitude?--those who suffer could have eluded their trials and pains.

As if there aren't trials and pains lying in wait for each of us, at blind turns in the Venice-like maze of our days, beautiful as they may be. Or behind false walls...

None of which I intend as a conclusion to this. I'll save anything resembling that for the next and last post about this.      

But we started moving our things out of the San Tomà apartment that same day.

[To go directly to Part 5, click the following link:

Part 3 of this series can be read here:

Part 2, here:

Part 1, here:]


  1. You folks were so persistent in your efforts to make this beautiful place habitable. I'm sorry it didn't work out for you.

    1. Well, Yvonne, I suppose we're nothing if not stubborn. (Well, nothing else I'd like to admit to at the moment.)

  2. I can't decide whether to side with your supernaturally-inclined friends or the more rational ones but you've certainly turned this experience into some powerful writing, especially where you weaved into it the story of Death in Venice.

    I shall look forward to your summing-up.

    1. At a certain point I suppose our skin and immune systems made the decision for us, Rosalind, with no regard to anyone else's opinion--or what our own minds might have to say about it. Thanks very much for you kind remarks. (And the summing up might be put off for a bit longer, not only because I'm not exactly sure what to make of all this, but things have arisen that have left me no time to even think about what I might think...)

  3. Unfortunately, I think the only thing you can think of this experience, as in many, is what you've learned and how brave you were to fight against adversity.

    1. Well, Jon, whether wisely or foolishly at least we exerted every effort to make it work, so at least we can't look back in the future and wonder how we ever let such a chance slip away. And regardless of how our attempts go at recovering some of the money we had to lay out to get the apartment, I think we've also learned that, as most Venetians believe, real estate agencies are to be avoided whenever possible. Their fees are outrageous for residents--and this coming from someone used to the one-month's rental fee charged by New York City real estate rental agencies.

  4. Oh Dear. And how do I protect myself from NOT renting this aprartment when you do the sensible thing and vacate?

    1. I can make it very easy, Anonymous: the top floor apartment of San Polo 2808 is, from our experience, to be avoided at all costs. I believe two apartments on the first floor are rented out to tourists, but I have no idea what kind of shape they are in. Perhaps they are wonderful (though I suspect they would have had to properly resolve some damp wall issues to have achieved that state).

  5. I hope you find something suitable soon.

    1. Thanks, Andrew. At this point we are very happy to be back in our old place and are not even looking!

  6. Please! Put us out of our misery and post the conclusion to this story!

    1. Okay, I will try to do so tomorrow, though an actual conclusion--of the sort that involves having (some of) our money returned to us etc--is still a ways off.