Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Venice Apartment to Die For, Part 5: Flee or Die?

The apartment in question lies behind the closed 2nd-floor shutters of the yellow corner building  at center
A couple of weeks ago on the Grand Canal I had perhaps the mostly acutely--and certainly the most conspicuously--Venetian experience of the four and a half years I've lived here.

Jen, Sandro and I were motoring in our small sandolo sanpierota in the direction of the Rialto when we saw a Venetian acquaintance in his topa headed toward his home near the San Tomà traghetto. We waved to each other, then he signaled to us to pause for a talk, so that (after some maneuvering) there on one side of the Grand Canal we sat, "catching up" in our two idling boats, each holding fast to the other's gunwale to stay together, and bobbing in the wake and wash of every passing vaporetto and water taxi.

This, I found myself thinking (after my uneasiness about positioning our boat had passed), is about as Venetian as it gets: pausing nonchalantly to chat on the Grand Canal in boats as anyone might do on foot in any real or idealized Main Street of any real or idealized American town.

Or at least it was as Venetian as I was ever likely to get.

Unfortunately, the subject of our discussion was an experience common to the most clueless and uninitiated visitor to Venice: wasting money on a "dream" lodging (in this most "dreamy" of cities) that turns out to be a nightmare.

You see, our acquaintance was going to be our close neighbor in our new San Tomà apartment, and he was wondering if we were comfortably settled in now.

We gave him a much abridged version of the travails I've recounted in the first four parts of this series of posts and he, after asking some questions that allowed him to exactly pinpoint the nightmarish apartment in question, exclaimed that he knew it well. His family used to own the palazzo directly across the little canal from it; he and his wife had lived in an apartment whose own windows had a clear view into it. He described in detail the furnishings. They'd even known i francesi (the French people) who'd briefly lived in it!

Now, according to the real estate people and various employees of the apartment's owner, La Signora, the brevity of these people's stay was a real plus. They vaguely referred to it as evidence of the apartment's immaculate condition, as in: "Since La Signora herself vacated the apartment some century and a half ago (okay, they actually never specified how long ago she moved out; it was probably 30 years or so) the apartment has been lived in only briefly by dei francesi (some French people) and the Italian family that you met."

But our acquaintance who knew i francesi told us, as we idled on the Grand Canal, that their tenancy in the apartment had been so brief because they, too, had had "problems with the furniture."

They, too, it seems couldn't physically bear to live in the place!

I could have kicked myself, as they say (though had I literally tried at that moment I would certainly have fallen out of our boat). Knowing that our acquaintance still lived to this day literally only steps away from the San Tomà apartment, why hadn't I pressed him for information about it when we first thought of taking it, before we signed any lease? That is what a real Venetian would have done. What a real Italian would have done.

But especially a Venetian, especially here, in this maze of a little island town, with its long history of intrigue, where only a campagnolo (a hick, or rube) relies on strangers (such as real estate agents) to line up an apartment. A true Venetian can't help but raise an eyebrow at anyone who'd buy so much as a head of lettuce from a fruttivendolo (or greengrocer) whose products hadn't been previously vouched for a by local friend in the know. To find an apartment that way? Lunacy.

A suitably phantasmagorical panorama of the apartment in question, to right of bridge with closed green shutters
In any case, for those who might be keeping score at home (as they used to say on old baseball broadcasts), here is a summary of our knowledge about the four groups of tenants that lived in the San Tomà apartment over the last 40 years:

Premature Deaths: 2

Hasty Flights Caused by Intolerable Physical Discomfort: 2

In other words, Flee or Die seems to sum up its history.

After this, Jen called one of the friendly real estate agents at Agenzia Spazio Casa in Spinea who'd helped us find the apartment to fill her in on the unfortunate specifics of the apartment's history--about which, of course, she'd told us almost nothing--as well as our own troubles with it.

The agency charged us 10% of the sum of our first year's rent for doing us the great favor of showing us such a marvelous place. (A higher fee than those charged in New York City.) But because of the apartment's terrible state we'd only been able to actually live in it a month, Jen told her. Weren't we entitled to a bit of a refund of the large fee we'd paid the agency? she asked. Didn't the agency stand behind the apartments it showed?

Do I need to tell you their response? The agency, of course, had (according to the agent) fully completed the job for which they'd charged the (large) fee, after which point, naturally, they were no longer involved or liable for... etc etc.

La Signora's lawyer has at least committed her to refunding our security deposit--though that hasn't happened yet. But because the condition of the apartment at the start of the lease so egregiously violated its description in the contract, I'm also trying to get her to pitch in toward some of our expenses incurred in trying to make it inhabitable. I have almost no hope in this regard, but I persevere as of this writing.

La Signora's melancholy architect, who seemed, in spite of her loyalty to her employer, to have few illusions about the apartment (which may explain her sad eyes), denied any knowledge of the false wall I wrote about in my last post when I ran into her one afternoon after we'd vacated the place.

"In the master bedroom," I told her, "right where you put your head to sleep." I mentioned the smell of mold coming from behind the false wall, I mentioned the illness and death of the previous tenant, I mentioned a lot of things. She shook her head at each of them, whether in denial or helplessness--or both--I'm not exactly sure.

La Signora, she informed me, had problems of her own. She had fallen down and broken her arm. She was in great pain, and it sounded like she was relying on a good many pharmaceuticals to deal with it. She wasn't in any state to deal with the apartment, or anything else.

And what about La Signora, the mysterious and silent figure at the center of this web? you may be wondering. We met her a few times in the drawn-out process of applying for and securing a lease for the apartment. She was an elegant woman of a certain age, and though originally from the mainland, she had over the course of her long residence here perfectly acquired the look and manner of a type of older woman native to the vicinity of Campo Santo Stefano. She could be, by turns, gracious, stubborn, charming, and imperious. She struck one as very proud, and like the city of Venice itself she seemed to be--in rather reduced circumstances from her years of former glory--trying to make the most of the properties she had left to her, ignoring the ravages that Time had wrought upon them out of some combination of vanity and financial need and shortsightedness.

"What will you do with the apartment now?" I asked La Signora's architect.

She shrugged. She said some Swedes had rented it for a few days during the opening week of the Biennale. Then, in an indication that she (and perhaps even La Signora) knew that it was in no condition to rent long-term even to those Venetian residents (like myself) desperate to find a nice apartment among the greatly circumscribed options available to those of us who actually live here long-term, she said they'd probably end up trying to rent it out to vacationers. As if those problems with the apartment that made it intolerable--or deadly--to those who'd leased it long-term, would be less obtrusive--or deleterious--to those staying in it for just a week.

In fact, each day I have passed the apartment since the first week of May its shutters have been closed up tight. Perhaps it has been returned once more to the long years of slumber it passed between the time La Signora moved out and the first renters, i francesi, moved in.

Or perhaps the apartment with the address of San Polo 2808 is just waiting for its next group of ill-starred tenants. Consider yourself warned.  

Part 1 of this series of posts can be read here: http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2015/04/a-venice-apartment-to-die-for-part-1.html

Part 2, "A Home Among the Long Gone": http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2015/04/a-venice-apartment-to-die-for-part-2.html

Part 3, "Two Deaths & the Specter of a Curse": http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2015/04/a-venice-apartment-to-die-for-part-3.html

Part 4, "The False Wall": http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2015/04/a-venice-apartment-to-die-for-part-4.html


  1. I am currently looking for a winter let in Venice - thanks for the warning! I hope you have found a wonderful place to stay.

    1. I hope you'll find a very nice place, Freda, they certainly do exist, especially for non-resident renters (or "transitorio" lodgings).

      We did, luckily, find a wonderful place to stay: our old apartment!

  2. I have greatly enjoyed reading about your apartment journey, but there's just one small thing - broker's in nyc get 12-15% of the yearly rent as a fee, so I imagine we're still worse off in that regard.

    1. Thanks, for the correction, Jill. I wonder if it's gone up since I had to pay it, or if I just misremembered it as being 1 month's rent when it was always actually more. Also, in spite of how expensive Venetian rents are for Italy, they don't come close to those in NYC!

  3. I appreciate the heads up. I often rent apartments in Venice for sketching trips.

    1. For shorter-term rentals--a lease of a year or less--you should have a good selection of choices, Helen, so I hope you'll never find yourself in any place even resembling the place I've written about!