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."

Go to Part 2:

Go to Part 1:


  1. This must be extremely frustrating, but your terrazzo floor looks beautiful. I would eliminate the rugs altogether.

    1. Very good advice, Anonymous, which after much effort we had no choice but to follow. We started by eliminating all the rugs but one, but even that one had to go. It's better now.

  2. I made sure my rental apartment was animal free for this very reason, not even my own cats are allowed in.

    1. I envy those people whom dander doesn't bother, Anonymous, I wish I was one of them. Oddly enough, I just read that the dander of dark furred unneutered male dogs or cats is worse than those of other dogs or cats.

  3. As a mother of a meanwhile adult allergy child this reads like a night mare to me. You have all my sympathy. Getting out the carpets was the only thing to do. I would like to suggest the Greek method: stowing away all carpets at the beginning of spring (into commodes reserved for them, together with mothballs) and getting them back on the floors in autumn. I lived some years in a Cretan house with Venetian terrazzo and found the method very pragmatic. You could buy simple carpets of synthetic material in autumn (otherwise cold feet all winter long) in which moths are not interested and spare the camphor aroma twice a year.

    1. That's a good suggestion, Brigitte, about the seasonal rug use. It has turned out that it was not just the carpets that were the problem but the upholstered furniture as well. Though it was once quite beautiful & stylish furniture--when it was new 40 years ago or so--it has been infested with dust mites. So we've had to quarantine all of it in the salotto, close both doors to that room, and make sure that that really is the whole problem. It seems to be, as that one room is now unbearable (and smells like a flophouse), while the rest of the apartment seems quite livable. We have to be sure there are no other problems in the other rooms, and if that's the case then the landlady has to move the furniture out or we'll have to move out. The thing is, the upholstered furniture is in such a state that very very few people would be able to tolerate it, even people with no allergies at all.