Friday, 28 December 2012

Christmas

Winter has properly arrived. The blazing heat of August and the weeks of almost oppressively bright blue skies are now just memories. It's seriously cold. Maybe it's the humidity, but, even though it hasn't yet dropped below zero, it feels like the kind of cold that sinks deep into your bones.

And yet, I like the fact that it's hat, coat and scarf weather again. I like the fact that the streets are quieter and shrouded in thick blankets of fog. I like the fact that Piazza San Marco is no longer a no-go area. I like the fact that there is no longer any reason to wear sandals. Most of all, I like the fact that I can almost forget that I own such a thing as a pair of shorts.

In short, winter suits me. I think these past few weeks may have been my happiest since we arrived.

Caroline, of course, thinks this is completely insane, and that the ability to wander lonely streets on a winter's day, wrapped in seasonally appropriate deep and sombre thoughts, is a poor substitute for being able to lie out in the sun.

Christmas in the UK seems to start around October time and three months of "Be of Good Cheer. By Order" is a little wearing. It's been more low key over here. Nothing really starts until December, and lights and decorations only went up a couple of weeks ago. It feels less commercial (although that might be helped by the fact that we don't have a telly) and less hard work.

Still, this is not the season to be grumpy. Here's the window of a nearby cioccolateria.






We were quite taken by the little Christmas trees, but, as they seemed to start at around the 30 euro mark, we decided we could make do with a photograph.

Legendary wine shop, bar and cicchetteria "Al Bottegon" has its usual tree constructed of wine corks. We've been coming here, on and off, since 2005 and have built up a relationship with the staff to the level where we sometimes get a half-smile. We didn't want to jeopardise this by being so uncool as to take a picture inside the shop, so we made do with one from the bridge outside.



Christmas Eve was a mix of trad British radio (9 Lessons and Carols and The Archers. Can you imagine how old I felt just typing that?) and trad Italian cooking. Our fishmonger explained the traditional Venetian Christmas Eve meal to Caroline - risotto of volpina, followed by roast eel. So that's what we had. Volpina, it seems, is one of the many words the Venetians have for grey mullet, and it makes a very nice risotto indeed - slightly plain, perhaps, but if you're following it up with an eel, then that's all to the good. I've never really enjoyed eel all that much before (and the slightly icky method of despatch that Mr Eel undergoes at the hands of the fishmonger doesn't encourage me either), but roasting it in a hot oven for 30 minutes seems to be the way to go - the flesh is meltingly soft, the skin deliciously crispy. 


Christmas dinner is our staple - goose in marmalade by Richard Corrigan, sprouts by Martin Wishart, bread sauce by Simon Hopkinson, red cabbage by Delia Smith, and hours of honest toil and sweat by yours truly. Washed down with a modest bottle of red (a gift from one of my students...yeah, I know, it was just an apple for the teacher in my day), it was worth every minute. And the Doctor Who Christmas Special was the best in years.

So there we have it. Our first Christmas in Venice. Buon Natale everyone.




Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Further dispatches from the blackboard jungle

So this is what our dining room table has become :-


- a repository for Headway, Cutting Edge, New English File, In Company, Business Focus, Practical English Usage, The Practice of English Language Teaching, and the blessed Jim Scrivener's Teaching English Grammar. Books full of phrasal verbs and ten minute filler exercises for those awkward moments when you look at the clock and realise you're going to under-run.

It's a very strange job, you know. This week I've had to prepare : a lesson for teenagers explaining the magic of the traditional English Christmas via the music of Slade; two hours of business material for an honorary consul; and a lesson on the restoration of Jan van Eyck's The Annunciation (the art restorer wanted a lesson with some technical vocab). Yeah, it's certainly the strangest job I've ever had. It's almost certainly the best job I've ever had, as well.

Caroline...well, Caroline, faced every day with an army of bellowing teenagers, might not go as far as that. Still, she came back from a morning's teaching on Friday and happily announced that it had "not been horrible". I almost felt we should crack open a bottle of prosecco!

Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Blackboard Jungle

This is taped to our fridge :-



It may not look like much, but it feels significant. Because this is the first time that the two of us are working something that approximates a full week, and we actually needed it to keep track of when we were out and where we were.

Work is steadily coming in. Caroline is working as a teaching assistant in Mestre; whilst I seem to have become the very definition of a peripatetic teacher : business classes in Tronchetto and Marghera, and a growing number of individual lessons on the Lido.

"No job too small" has been a useful motto. From a financial point of view, it made no sense at all to travel to the Lido and back for a single 90 minute lesson. But, on the back of that, I've picked up more and more classes and reasonable money is now starting to come in.

It has to be said, I've had the easier introduction to teaching. Apart from my business classes, I teach a keen-as-mustard water taxi driver; a nice lady who works at La Fenice; and a lovely chap who runs a fine art restoration business and who wanted to spend his second lesson discussing a short story by Chekov.

Caroline, by contrast, has to deal with classes packed full of shouty, hyperactive Italian teenagers, hopped up on a deadly cocktail of caffeine, e-numbers and hormones.

I considered myself extremely fortunate to have avoided this fate until, last week, I found myself with the chance of a contract in nearby Spinea. Just a few hours a week, but, like the job on the Lido, there's always the possibility of it developing into something more substantial. Teaching middle-school children for a couple of hours on Monday and Friday afternoons.

"So, basically being a teaching assistant?", I say.
"Erm, not exactly. You see, the school day finishes at 1pm. You'll be taking after-school classes on your own".
"Hang on, you mean there's not going to be an actual teacher there at all!?"
"No, just you. But they should be fine. After all, they all want to be there because they've shown an aptitude for English. Well, apart from the ones who've been told to be there because they're lagging behind".

I gulp.

For a moment I consider saying "There seems to be some kind of misunderstanding here. I think the person you're looking for is a teacher. I'm a failed IT professional. In fact, I'm a failed IT professional who doesn't like children very much."

And then I think that "No job too small" is a good motto, but perhaps "No job too terrifying" is an even better one.

"Sounds great", I smile.

Monday, 15 October 2012

San Lorenzo



On, then, to more of the Architecture Biennale. I think I just about get the idea behind the Luxembourg pavilion (hosted in a palazzo looking out onto the Grand Canal), but it's a bit cryptic and the overriding impression is not so much "hmm, a thoughtful deconstruction of the idea of the mega-city in a hypothetical future" but more "wow, I really wish I lived here".

Latvia have a small but thoughtful installation in Campo San Zaccaria : a reconstruction of a section of a street in Riga next to a mirrored section that reflects the Venetian space around us (and they also provide a space to sit for the weary architecture hound).



We head on to the Georgian pavilion, in an office on the Riva degli Schiavoni, but it's closed. Peering as best I can through the window, it appears they might have gone home already. Oh well.

The real highlight of the day, however, is a visit to San Lorenzo,  the church that no-one ever quite got around to finishing. It was last rebuilt four hundred years ago, but the facade was never finished. It was suppressed by Napoleon, fell into disuse, and was badly damaged during World War I. There have been a number of restoration efforts since, and attempts to make use of the space (viz. Luigi Nono and Renzo Piano's staging of Nono's opera Prometeo) but, infuriatingly, the interior of the building has been closed off for years now. As Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti reflects "The brick fa├žade of San Lorenzo had been free of scaffolding for the last few months but the church still remained closed...he knew that the church would never be reopened, not in his lifetime...".

Well, the good Commissario was wrong, because San Lorenzo is open again. The reason is that Mexico have taken a lease on the church for the purpose of hosting their Biennale exhibitions for (I think) the next five years; as a result of which the space has been opened up.

The Mexican "pavilion" itself is actually in a temporary wooden structure directly outside the church. We have a look around it, but we find it hard to get too enthused. Part of the problem is the annoyingly insistent background music that loops over and over and over again, making it impossible to concentrate on the actual exhibition itself. We also feel a sense of injustice on behalf of the stray cats, whose home has had to be moved from its usual position in order to accommodate it. But the main reason is that we're mainly here to see inside the church.

You can't just wander around the interior, as most of the floor is dug up at present. But you can make your way through the door and see pretty much all there is to see. What strikes you is the sheer scale of the place. It's a ruin, yes, but a magnificent one.








Prometeo must have been something to see!

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Glass

 The important thing to know about the Murano glass-makers is that almost everything they make is, at least to my taste, perfectly hideous - Jan Morris.

I'm kind of with Jan on this. Well, up to a point. They do make some quite funky jewellery these days. And given that they've supplied Caroline with regular birthday and Christmas presents over the past few years, I'd do well not to speak too harshly of them. But "classic" Murano glass - those great, swirling rococo chandeliers of candy-coloured glass? Oh yes, I can see it's fantastically clever but I have to confess the main reaction it inspires in me is a kind of "Yechhhh...".

Anyway, we'll come back to glass in a moment. The Palazzo Franchetti is an almost impossibly pretty building in Campo Santo Stefano that overlooks the Grand Canal. It always seems to be hosting some event or other but, at the same time, there's always a charge for entrance, so we've put off having a look around, until now. Because, at the moment, it's hosting an exhibition called Nine Rooms, by the Swedish glassmaker Bertil Vallien. It's a high-profile event - images from the exhibition are posted all over town, including the vaporetti - but it's gone rather over our heads. Until Caroline reads that there's a free guided tour of the exhibition on a Sunday morning as part of the European Day of Patrimony (an event which has already led us to, shall we say, a rather challenging evening of Latin poetry at the Palazzo Grimani), and we think well, the glass might be a bit dull but it's a chance for a free look round the palazzo.

And how wrong can you be? Because all our impressions of the palazzo itself are completely blown away by the glasswork. Quite simply, it's the best exhibition of contemporary art we've seen since we arrived. It is a stunningly beautiful body of work.


    

The Sleeping Girl

Kafka

Watchers

Vallien's work contrasts with the traditional Murano chandeliers hanging in the palazzo, which (to our eyes at least) look fussy and frivolous in comparison. But maybe that's unfair. They're extraordinarily complex pieces of work in their own right. It's not their fault that tastes have changed. And Vallien himself recently spent time in Murano learning some of the techniques of the glassworkers there. 

The pictures don't do it justice, but I found it the most persuasive argument I've seen for glasswork as art as opposed to decoration. The exhibition is on until the 25th November. If you're in Venice during that period, do try and see it.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

If you liked School, you'll love Work

Early Wednesday morning. Well, earlier than I've been used to for quite a while. I stop off at one of my regular newspaper stands, stick my copy of Repubblica into my laptop case, and walk to the Rialto vaporetto stop. It's quiet, hardly anyone on the bridge yet, but the vaporetti are starting to fill up and I end up sitting amongst a group of excited Japanese tourists. I read my paper, and obstinately refuse to look at the view as we make our way down the Grand Canal. This is silly, obviously, but I feel like I'm making a statement - "I can look at this anytime, but right now there's probably something important going on in the world that I need to know about. Because I am not on holiday, oh no, I am going to work, just like any ordinary Venetian."

As I said, a bit silly really.

I was quite pleased at having secured some work (teaching Business English) in Venice itself, although it was slightly deflating when it turned out to be in Tronchetto; a part of the city so resolutely un-magical it even has cars. Still, it's convenient to travel to, so I can't complain. And the job has come so completely out of the blue, it hasn't left me time to be nervous - "Can you take over from another teacher? Great. Can you start on Wednesday...no we don't really have anything proper to hand over to you...sorry, but you'll have to wing it for the first lesson or so".

And then - well, the hours pass with no disasters to speak of. Everyone seems pleased and I have to say I've rather enjoyed it. I make my way back to the vaporetto stop, take a coffee in a local bar, and read a bit more of the paper. I stop off at the Rialto market on the way back and pick up four seppie for tea (a bargain, at just a couple of euros). I notice the water is higher than it's been for a while, and some of the calli near the Rialto are starting to flood; a sign that autumn is on its way.

I hop on the next vaporetto, bag of cuttlefish in one hand, laptop in the other. This time, I look at the view. I know there'll be times in the months to come when I'll be cursing the job but, right now, I feel more than ever that I truly, properly belong here.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Puppet Master

We met Heide on the second week of our Italian course at the Istituto. She was from Monaco, which made her seem terribly exotic. Then, over the course of the next few weeks, we came across more and more people from the Principality, and thought that it must be seeming very empty back home with so many of its citizens travelling to Venice to learn Italian.  And then we learned that the Italian name Monaco (meaning, well, Monaco) is not to be confused with Monaco di Baviera (ie. Munich), and it didn't seem so surprising any more.

She'd given up her job as a physics teacher in Bavaria, and - despite not knowing much beyond Ciao or Buongiorno - decided to up and move to Venice where she's spent a year living in a convent and studying Italian.

She wanted a souvenir of her time in Venice, in the form of a hand-made puppet of a Venetian plague doctor, and asked us to come along with her when she picked it up from the puppet maker (there may be a proper word for "a man who makes puppets", but we'll stick with "puppet maker" for now).

We arrive at his studio in Cannaregio and he buzzes us in. Riccardo is a lovely chap, he seems genuinely pleased to see us, and we pass about an hour there. His work is a million miles away from the cheap souvenirs in the tourist shops. There's a real feeling of craftmanship about his studio. Every puppet is hand made, and  their clothes are individually tailored by his sister, a costumier.




Riccardo is happy to talk about every subject under the sun. A quick glance around his bookshelves reveals that he's incredibly well read, everything from the classics to comic books. As he packs the plague doctor away, he tells us that we're more than welcome to drop by any time for a chat.

As I said before, he's a lovely chap. If puppets are your thing, look no further than :-

http://www.marionettesinvenice.com/Catalogue_Stage.htm

We take our leave, and head off for a drink at La Cantina on the Strada Nuova. Now this is one of the busiest streets in town, and not the sort of area that we'd normally think of stopping, but it turns out to be a wee gem of a place. Not least because you can actually get a decent beer here! Oh yes, indeed. They make their own brew, Morgana, an unfiltered beer reminiscent of a British Summer Ale, and full of hoppiness. Frankly, that's a good enough reason to come here, but they do good cicchetti as well. And just when we're thinking the afternoon can't get any better, I take a phone call from a man who ends up offering me a job. This, of course, calls for more drinks (athough Heide, despite being German, is not a beer drinker and remains unmoved when I excitedly explain it's brewed according to the Rheinheitsgebot)! It's very tempting to settle in for the evening, but I've got a rehearsal later on and figure that the Maestra will not be in the mood for tuneless beery ranting.

Heide has a number of plans for the future - she says she likes the idea of travelling round Italy on a scooter - but, for now, she's heading  back to Bavaria. We'll miss her. But I wouldn't mind betting she'll get round to that Vespa tour one of these days.



Sunday, 19 August 2012

Lucifer Rising

The African anti-cyclones are at it again.

We've survived Scipio, Charon, Ulysses, Minos and Nero. At the moment, we're sweltering through Caligula. But as soon as that's due to finish, the none-more-ominously entitled Lucifer arrives.

The Met Office are playing a dangerous game here, as there's really nowhere to go after Lucifer; and they run the risk that an even hotter one may yet arrive, and they'll be forced to call it Keith or Nigel.

Anyway, we're taking a mini-break and heading down to Le Marche for a few days, returning on Thursday. Round about the same time that Lucifer gets into town!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A Touch of Grey

It's raining. Properly raining. Proper, cold, wet rain dropping from a grey Welsh sky. I stand in the garden and look upwards so as to feel it properly on my face. I feel ridiculously happy. I'm tempted to stretch out on the grass and just lie there, being rained on, but it strikes me that my friends might just start to worry about me. And I'd be soggy for the rest of the day. Sometimes you can take this nostalgia thing too far.

What else?

Cars : I thought they might take some getting used to, but no. I guess they're just too ingrained in our collective consciousness to ever seem like a novelty again. I'm reminded how grateful I should be to live in a car-free city.

Beer : Great big foaming pints of malty, hoppy, lukewarm smelling-of-pubs BEER. I'm sorry. I'm starting to dribble now.

Green spaces : This was a strange one. I was very aware how very green everything looked. Venice isn't over-endowed with open green spaces or public parks, and I suddenly became aware how the rolling hills of mid-Wales seem to stretch away forever, looking just so green. And the silence - nothing except the occasional rumble of a heavy vehicle going past. No rumble of shopping trollies or wheelie bags. No cries of OHE from gondoliers.

English : Being spoken everywhere! Fighting the impulse to use Italian in shops. The fear that saying "Ciao" might be taken as an affectation and not just a slip of the tongue.

The Olympics : Blimey. It really was everywhere.

36 hours later, and we're back home. It feel strange to be writing that, but a four day break was enough to make the whole experience seem a little bit surreal again. But home is what it is, and how lucky we are.

I still miss the beer though.




Wednesday, 8 August 2012

A Short Break

Right, we're off back to the UK for a long weekend, so if you wonder why there've been no posts for a while, that's the reason.

I am looking forward to being properly cold and wet, and my first decent pint in nearly six months!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Tornado!

Tuesday afternoon, and time for a post-lunch snooze on the altana. Clear skies, just warm enough, an afternoon for not doing very much at all. Except I notice that it's clouding over a bit and the wind is whipping up enough to make reading the paper rather more hard work than it ought to be. This is a bit irritating, but once Caroline is ensconced in the sun it usually takes a natural disaster of Biblical proportions to force her indoors, so I assume we'll be there until sunset or until a stray gust whips the altana into the lagoon. But then there comes a point (at which I should have been properly scared) when she agrees with me that, no, this is not much fun, and we retreat indoors. And that's it. It's quite windy, it rains a bit, but it doesn't seem anything out of the ordinary.

And then the next day it turns out a proper, actual tornado has hit some of the islands. Sant'Erasmo, the agricultural island, took the worst damage. It seems at least a dozen houses lost their roofs, crops were wiped out, and the damage is running into millions of euros.

Also hit was the island of Certosa, which we pay a visit to on Thursday afternoon.  Like a number of the smaller islands it had hosted a monastery for centuries, was turned to military purposes during the Napoleonic/Austrian period, fell into disuse, and started to be reclaimed during the late 20th century. It doesn't really serve any particular purpose, but it's a pleasant green space and a refuge from the crowds on the main islands. Nobody lives there except the inhabitants of a small hotel, and a colony of wild goats.

A number of trees have come down, but it doesn't really seem all that serious. And then we reach the side of the island opposite the Lido, and it's apparent that it really has taken quite a beating.



Sad, yes, but Nature will sort it all out in due course. And - if you're a goat, at least - there is something of a bright side in that all those leaves are now easier to get at!

To end on a happy note, here's a picture of a friendly and soon to be very well fed little goat :-



Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Three Months

And you may ask yourself...how did I get here? (Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime")

So, three months ago a water taxi plonked us down in Campo San Barnaba without so much as a set of keys in our pockets and now...well...are we where we want to be?

Geographically : There were days when the bureaucracy seemed impassible. There were, are, and will be days of thinking we will never get a proper grip on the language. Frankly, there were days when we thought it would never stop raining. And then there are those moments when we get a vaporetto home at night, and the only thing to be seen on the Grand Canal is the silhouette of a lone gondolier, and we think...bloody hell...this is where we live!

Financially : I've got to put my hands up here, I thought I'd been pretty brutal on the initial start-up costs, but I I miscalculated. I naively thought we'd be settled into a flat within two weeks. That sort of timescale just doesn't seem to be possible in Italy. You can't just see a place you like, give your references and deposit and move in the next day. There are a lot more hoops to jump through. I'd also made no allowance for those banal everyday items that, nevertheless, you find yourself needing to buy : a replacement camera (and I'm not pointing fingers here but it was NOT MY FAULT), a bedside light, kitchen scales, a mop, beach towels, a fish slice, a dressing gown (look, it's a flat with lots of windows in a built up area, let's say no more eh?). All seemingly silly, insignificant things, but they all mount up. We got away with this due to some unexpected cash from our previous employer but still...if you try this yourself be ultra-realistic on the initial costs.

Philosophically : There are times when it's been easier for me than Caroline. The reason for this is pretty simple - I spent most of the 1990s working abroad and so I was prepared for the culture shock (and it doesn't matter how well you know somewhere, when you move there long term there will be a culture shock). This isn't meant to sound smug : she spent the decade having a good time in London and Edinburgh. I spent most of it sitting alone in bars in some of the bleaker industrial towns of the Ruhrgebiet and wondering why I didn't have a girlfriend. And yet - if things can seem a bit difficult at times - there are also those moments of chance encounters with lovely Italian people, the pleasures of a free classical concert, of time spent cooking a nice piece of fish for tea, of discovering a fantastically bonkers piece of contemporary opera, of Negronis that taste like a friendly punch, of long afternoons in the sun, and of those wonderful moments when you have an in-depth political conversation and think yes, I speak this language now. And ultimately, of the realisation that you've reached middle-age and never expected to have an adventure again and yet here you are, right in the middle of one.

Are we where we want to be? Oh yes.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Residenti

"Patience and Time" - General Kutuzov, War and Peace.


It's about 9.10 on Tuesday morning, and the room starts shaking. Just a little but - as before - it's an unsettling feeling. Our teacher, Alberto, looks up at the light fittings swinging from the ceiling, and shrugs insouciantly. "Ah, terremoto". Some of the class seem a bit perturbed but he jokes that we should perhaps abandon the building and go for a coffee. We all laugh and settle down for the lesson.

Nearly four hours later, and we feel the aftershock. Just a gentle vibration through the building, but noticeable. A German lady in the class is visibly unhappy and gets to her feet. She explains that she was in Rome when the 2009 quake nearly wiped L'Aquila from the map. She really doesn't want to sit down, there's only five minutes of the lesson left, and so we call it a day.

As far as I know, there was no significant damage in Venice. A statue toppled over in the Papadopoli Gardens and slightly injured a passer-by, but that was it.


Of course,  we're all thinking the same thing - if we can feel it here, what's happening a hundred miles away? You know by now - over a dozen dead, and thousands more made homeless. And it doesn't matter if you're insured to the nines, or that this is a prosperous Western country - the people of L'Aquila are still waiting to be properly rehoused over three years later.

On to happier things.

We return to the Anagrafe and greet the Signora with hugs, kisses and flowers. Well, not really, but given she's probably the person we know best in Venice by now it feels as if we ought. She hands over our documentation in exchange for a modest number of euros, points us in the direction of the sportello that deals with the issuing of Carte d'Identita, and we make our farewells. And ten minutes later, we're standing outside with two spanking new identity cards certifying that we are now Venetian residents, our photos stamped down with two metal seals bearing the imprint of The Most Serene Republic. We are now effectively entitled to most of the rights of the Italian citizen, except the right to vote in parliamentary elections (we are however entitled to vote in local and European elections, and I look forward immensely to not voting for Silvio Berlusconi!).

Frankly, we deserve a drink. And not just any drink, but a negroni. I don't know if you're familiar with the negroni, but they're a bit like being punched in the face, but in a good way. So we stop at a nearby bar and toast our good fortune. Three months work, disheartening at times to be sure, but everything is now complete. We have health cover, we have a tax code, we have official residency status.

I ask the signora at the bar if I can pay. She fetches the bill, smiles, and says she remembers us from a few weeks ago (I was mistaken for a German, possibly on account of wearing a pin-striped jacket). Caroline explains that we are very excited, as we are now residents.

The signora looks taken aback. Show me, she asks.

Caroline hands over her Carta d'Identita.

She smiles, crumples the bill in her hands, and knocks a not inconsiderable number of euros off the total. When we come back, she says, we must point out to the owner that we are residenti and we will not have to pay the same as tourists.

There were many reasons for becoming residents : a sense of belonging, of making a commitment to a new place, of being strictly legal and above board, even the entitlement to free entry to museums. Cheaper negronis are an unexpected, but very welcome, bonus.

Patience and Time, indeed.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Ruskin

It's Saturday night, and we emerge from the Scuola di San Rocco into the twilight; stiff of back and sore of bottom, after a two-and-a-half hour presentation of a new book on John Ruskin and his time in Venice. We are amongst the hardy bunch who survived the whole series of lectures, an initially healthy audience having dwindled to a handful over the  course of the evening. It's been informative, enjoyable, and perhaps -  like Ruskin's The Stones of Venice- there's also been rather too much of it.

Ruskin's attention to detail is staggering, obsessive even. There is scarcely a column, cornice or capital in St Mark's Basilica or the Ducal Palace that is not dissected and analysed to its most minute aspect. His reasons for this were simple - Venice, he thought, would either fall into ruin or, worse, be destroyed by restoration, and it was important to record what was there as best he could. Admirable, yes, heroic even; but it does not make the Stones an easy book to read in its entirety.

He hated half the buildings in the city as much as he loved the other half. He considered the Gothic and the Byzantine to be the high points of architecture, but despised the Baroque (the "Grotesque Renaissance", as he puts it); whilst Palladio's Classicism drove him into a furious rage ("...contemptible under every point of rational regard!").

Nevertheless, he needs to be read. It may not be necessary to read the whole thing (to be honest, without being as intelligent as the man himself, it may not even be possible to read the whole thing) but he's certainly worth dipping into. When he dismisses a favourite building of yours with his curt (and frequently used) one-liner -  "of no interest" - you'll want to shout at him, "oh for God's sake man, just look at the bloody thing, what do you mean it's 'of no interest'"! But he's always erudite and informative, and, more surprisingly, he can also be waspishly funny and magnificently rude.

At the end of his days, he seems to have felt ambivalent about his relationship with the city, fearing, perhaps,  that he had devoted too much of his time and energy to a place that he considered essentially to be dead or dying; more of a museum than an actual functioning city. People are still debating that, over one hundred years after his death. Proof, perhaps, that the old place has some life in it yet.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Good Samaritan

There are any number of books, blogs and articles that make Italian bureaucracy sound akin to one of the Circles of Hell that Dante never quite got around to writing up. If you're like us, you may well think that these experiences are overwritten, playing on the worst of Italian stereotypes for comic effect. Or maybe you'll think the party involved just didn't have a good enough grasp of Italian, or simply hadn't done their research properly. Then, one day, you'll run into a bureaucratic brick wall that seemingly has no way over, under or round it. And then, like us, you'll regret ever having been such a smartarse.

We arrive at the confusingly-titled ex-Ospedale Giustinian (confusingly titled because it actually still is an ospedale) to register with the Italian Health Service. We have our passports, our codice fiscale, our rental contract, and bank account statements. Most importantly, we have our S1 forms, which state that, in the event of needing health care in Italy, the cost will be picked up by the UK NHS for a period of two years, or until we enter the Italian Social Security System.

We ask at the main desk where we need to go, the receptionist gives us directions, and the sign on the door does indeed seem to indicate that, amongst other things, this is where foreigners should go to register. There's a bit of a queue, so we take a ticket and sit down to wait.

It takes just ten minutes until our number is called, and in we go. We've scarcely begun to explain ourselves when the woman behind the sportello shakes her head, grabs a piece of paper with a phone number and address in Mestre, and tells us to go away and try there. We explain that we've come with our form S1 which needs to be registered here, and that it certifies our health care will be covered by the UK. She scarcely raises her head to look at it, shrugs, and says she's never heard of it.

We find ourselves back on the wrong side of the door after, perhaps, thirty seconds. This is absolutely soul-destroying. This isn't a question of language any more, this is just sheer bloody-mindedness coupled with an unhealthy dose of not giving a toss. Neither of us has any faith that the office in Mestre will do anything other than just send us straight back here. We really don't know what the hell to do.

And then something rather wonderful happens The man who'd been sitting next to us asks, in English, how we got on. We explain, and he looks genuinely concerned . His number is called so he asks us to wait while he has his appointment. Two minutes later he emerges, shaking his head sadly. The signora, he apologises, seems to have no interest in helping people at all. So he takes his telefonino out, dials the Mestre office, and explains the situation. He checks that they recognise the S1. He passes on all our details. He confirms that, yes, this is the place to go. He tells us what we need to take with us. He makes us an appointment for 8.30 on Monday morning, and gives us a contact name there.

Quite frankly, we could hug him. We really don't know what to say, he just smiles and says he's glad to help. As we leave, he stops at the main desk and politely, but firmly, remonstrates with the receptionist.

The world may be run by tedious pen-pushers but, just when you need one, there are still a few Lovely Blokes out there willing to lend a hand. Whoever you are, good sir, we thank you!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Back to School

Day One of Italian lessons and Caroline has spent the entire night, and much of the previous day, convincing herself that she speaks no Italian at all. I need to judge the atmosphere with absolute precision here. Do I go straight into full-on Supportive Hubby mode, bouncing along with with smiles, hugs, and "it'll be alright"s; or is this a situation best played as if nothing untoward was happening at all. I decide this is not the morning to be Mr Life and Soul, and choose the latter. It turns out to be the right choice, and I award myself a bonus Hubby Point.

As it turns out, enrolling really isn't that bad. We've already completed the online application and test; but there's a short written test and a brief interview to go through first, in order that they can be reasonably sure of our level. As it turns out, we're Level 4 of 5 (or Upper Intermediate, if you like). I feel quite chuffed.

Our Italian isn't bad. Trouble is, it's not really that great either. The Great Printer Humiliation excepted, we can pretty much do everything we need to do; but we can't do it with much ease or spontaneity. If The Project is to succeed, we need to get better. So we're signed up for a three-month intensive course with the Istituto Venezia, based in Campo Santa Margherita in Dorsoduro; a pleasant twenty minute stroll for us. Four hours a day, five days a week, everything in Italian - nearly five years worth of evening classes condensed into twelve weeks. This, surely, will set us right.

We're a cosmopolitan bunch in our class. Not everybody is there for the long haul, but, at the moment, we're made up of : three Swiss, two Russians, a Catalan, a Venezuelan, a Colombian, a Japanese woman, a Dutchwoman, an Englishwoman, and a Scot. I'm the only Welshman. Actually, I'm the only man. They all seem like nice people : this is going to be hard work , but it's going to be fun as well. There's a welcome party organised for us at the end of the first day's lessons, with Prosecco and tasty bar snacks. I talk to the Dutch lady for a while. It turns out her husband works for a company called Unisys. I nearly choke on my Prosecco at this point - Unisys make a product called URBIS, the support of which utterly blighted my last three years with the bank! I'm sure he's a lovely chap and had nothing to do with it, so I tell her nothing of the nights of utter horror it caused me. Small world, though, eh?

Finally a big thank you to the Italian Institute back in Edinburgh ,who granted us a bursary which knocks off a full 50% of the cost of the course. And grazie Carlo, grazie Caterina for all those evening classes - finally, it seems, they're paying off!



Sunday, 8 April 2012

Holy Week


It's nearly twenty years now since my first experience of living in Italy. In 1994, I spent six months working in Frascati and living in Monteporzio Catone, a small town in the Alban Hills outside of Rome. One evening, I became aware that a lot of noise was coming from the square behind my flat; so I stuck my head out the window to see what was going on. It turned out to be what I can only describe as a fully-fledged Passion Play; complete with a convincingly bloodied Christ dragging his cross through the streets of the town, followed by what looked like a sizeable proportion of the population. With eerie, and suitably apocalyptic, timing, the skies darkened, a colossal storm broke, and within minutes the streets were awash and lights flickered on and off throughout the town.

With every passing year, Easter, in the UK at least, seems to be becoming little more than just another Bank Holiday. It feels different over here. There's the sense that it still genuinely matters to an awful lot of people.

So, with that in mind, we decided to attend Mass at St Mark's on Thursday night. I have to say that I really wasn't convinced this was a good idea. Neither Caroline nor myself are Catholic, so was this not – at best – a little tacky or disrespectful?

I was half-expecting to be turned away at the side-entrance to the Basilica (I have no idea why I thought this, perhaps I thought we'd have to complete some sort of theological questionnaire to be be allowed in) but St Mark's are obviously geared up for this. The most significant parts of Mass are prefaced by translations in four languages, and it is stressed that only Roman Catholics should receive Communion. And, crowded though the Basilica was, it was evident that more people could have fitted in – it wasn't as if we were denying one of the locals a place.

We managed to follow things reasonably well (it's not actually all that different from the Anglican service), considering that we were constantly having to mentally leap between Latin, Italian and English; although the sung version of the Lord's Prayer, in Latin, is going to take a bit of work. The evening Mass on Holy Thursday is more correctly known as the Mass of the Lord's Supper, a significant element of which is the Washing of Feet. In this instance, the Patriarch washed the feet of a number of children who were about to receive their first Communion (I was amused to see that a number of the kids were 'dressing down' for the occasion – jeans and trainers were a common theme). Following Communion, the service concludes with the consecrated Host being taken to a side chapel in readiness for Good Friday Mass.

It's a powerful, solemn experience. The golden glow of the interior of the Basilica, the clouds of incense, the music from the (invisible) choir, the slow procession of the priests, and, everywhere you look, those extraordinary mosaic images from the Bible. It's religion with a capital 'R'.

The following night we returned for the Veneration of Relics. This doesn't seem to have any particular liturgical significance as a service, and didn't attract the same number of people; it was a memorable evening, nevertheless.

The relics are brought out in solemn procession, and placed along the iconostasis: a fragment of the Cross, a scrap of Christ's robe, a piece of the column from the Flagellation, two spines from the Crown of Thorns, one of the nails, and part of the reed from which Christ, on the Cross, was offered vinegar. Finally, a small crystal vial set in an ornate golden reliquary is placed on the altar. It is said to contain blood from the spear wound. Readings are interspersed with music (antiphonal pieces from Palestrina, Monteverdi, Mozart et al; all beautifully sung); following which the relics are carried through the aisles of the Basilica.

Again, as an experience, it's an undeniably powerful one. As a piece of pure theatre it was extraordinary, reminding me of nothing so much as the knights venerating the Grail in Wagner's Parsifal. But, I ask myself, how much of the emotional impact was due to its theatricality and music? Did I stand there genuinely believing that I was only feet away from the actual Blood of Christ? And for me, at least, that was just too much of a leap of faith.

Fifty years ago, my compatriot Jan Morris went to the same service and wrote “Incense swirls around them; the church is full of slow, shining movement; and in the Piazza outside, when you open the door, the holiday Venetians stroll from cafe to cafe in oblivion, like the men who sell Coca-Cola beneath the sneer of the Sphinx.” We emerged into a clear Venetian night, a perfect moon shining above Piazza San Marco, and were assailed within seconds by a street hawker trying to sell us some tat. Some things don't change that much after all.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Fixed Abode


March 2012 will be an odd month to look back on for all sorts of reasons; not the least of which is that, for nearly four weeks, we really were of No Fixed Abode. And the Italians struggle with that concept. On numerous occasions we were asked to supply a permanent address and the typical response to being told that we didn't have one was a look of baffled incomprehension. In Italy, you just can't not have a permanent place to live. It isn't possible. So, if you're trying this yourself, make sure you've got an address in the UK you can use for this sort of thing.

Wednesday was the day of the Big Move. As the crow flies the distance between our holiday flat in Dorsoduro and our rental flat in San Marco is perhaps half a mile. But half a mile, as the crow flies, in Venetian terms can, depending on the route, easily turn into five miles. Ten, if I was navigating. Confusingly, it could also turn into less than half a mile – Venice is no respecter of the laws of Euclidean geometry..

The move, inevitably, involved transporting ten back-achingly heavy bags over a number of bridges. So any route chosen had to minimise these. It took patience, time, and planning of near-military precision to work this out. Needless to say, I had no part in it. So – transport the bags to the San Basilio stop, and take the vaporetto down to Zattere. Just one stop, but it cuts out a bridge. Then walk down to Accademia, and take the number one boat down to Sant Angelo. Then a short walk, a bridge of modest dimensions, and we're there. Straightforward enough, and it only took three journeys. I still managed to get lost, twice.

No cooking was ever likely to happen that night. We enjoyed a pizza of modest quality and immodest price (ah yes, we're in San Marco now) before moving on for coffee and grappa at what might turn out to be an excellent bar on the splendidly named Rio Tera dei Assassini.

So what started out as a 'blokes in pubs' conversation a few years back, became a pipe dream twelve months ago, then a fully-fledged Project and now - we've done it. We've bloody well done it. Yes, there's a huge amount of work still to do - health, improving our Italian, work - but right now, writing this on the altana of our flat, the only thing that comes to mind is : We live in Venice now!

 The view (well, one of them) : towards the church of the Salute, the wonky-looking Campanile is that of Santo Stefano

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Day 2

Bits of ceiling are plopping gently onto my head as I shave. I look up and notice that another bit has crumbled away, and shake some paint and plaster fragments from my shaving brush. The flat all looks rather nice, but, if you raise your eyes from the horizontal, it becomes obvious that Annamaria and Giuseppe are going to have a bit of redecoration to do.

There's work to be done, lots of it, but we feel we've earned a day or two off. It's a cold, blustery day, but the winter sun is breaking through. Venice is quiet, a genuine pleasure to walk around. We buy some fish from a stall in Campo Margherita, merluzzi. I have no idea what they are but they sound terribly exotic. Fish on a Tuesday is something of a luxury for us, the fishmongers of Sighthill being notable by their absence. We pick up some vino sfuso, the basic white wine coming in at just under two euros a litre.

Home for lunch, and Caroline does some work on putting together a list of flats that might repay investigation in the next few days. Then we stroll from Dorsoduro down to Piazza San Marco. There's a few lines of tourists around, but, even so, it's probably as quiet as it ever gets. Actual tourists are probably outnumbered by the extracommunitari selling imitation Louis Vuitton bags, a few of whom are hurriedly packing their wares away and scurrying off, presumably at the approach of the police. Ten minutes later we indeed see the poignant sight of  two policemen walking across the piazza, bearing a big pile of Mr Vuitton's not-quite-finest.

Then it's home for dinner. I bake the merluzzi (which turn out to be, erm, cod) in the oven along with some cima di rapa. Washed down with some budget prosecco, and some even-more-budget white wine, it all feels like a bit of a treat.

Sunday, March 4th


A few days later and our morale has improved no end, due to the company of friends and heroic quantities of wine. The situation with the flat has resolved itself as we've been told that, whilst it'll need a bit of redecorating at some point, it will be in a fit state for us to move into. And Caroline has repacked further and managed to reduce the number of cases to what we hope will be a manageable level. Ten.

I think it's time for me to make the big gesture, and so I tell her that – if it'll help at all – I'm prepared to forego taking my opera cloak with me.

She tells me that the opera cloak failed to make the cut four days ago.

We're staying with my cousin Susie and her hubby Justin who're driving us to the airport. Cathy and Paul arrive to say cheerio, and to pick up the car. I hand over the documentation, and then suggest to Paul that I run through some of its little quirks such as the non-cancelling indicators and the intermittently successful central locking. I show him how the satnav works and the travel computer.

“I can't help noticing”, he says, “that all the instructions seem to be in Italian”.

“Yes, I changed all the language settings a few years back. I thought it would be a good way to practice”.

“Right. Any idea how you switch them back?”

“Erm, I can't really remember, sorry. Anyway, Zoe speaks Italian...doesn't she?”

“Well...I guess she's going to learn.”

Sue and Justin drive us to Gatwick in an efficiently packed, and extremely snug, Zafira; and then it's final hugs and goodbyes.

It strikes me that four months ago we had jobs, a flat and a car, and now we don't even have any keys. If our luggage fails to arrive we'll basically be left with the clothes we're standing up in; but the flight turns out to be uneventful.

A water taxi from the airport to Venice is pretty expensive, but it's the only way to transport this much luggage in one go and, it has to be said, it's quite a special way to arrive. The boat turns into the Grand Canal, quieter than I remember, and I feel rather like Lord Byron arriving in this great city for the first time. Byron probably didn't have a laptop case on his knee with a copy of Doctor Who Magazine poking out of it, but still. The driver drops us off at Campo San Barnaba, which is the nearest we can get to our flat. It's only a few hundred yards away, but a few hundred yards with ten heavy bags between two is not going to be possible, so Caroline heads off to get the keys while I watch the luggage. Giuseppe, the chap who looks after the flat, is out of town until later that evening, so he's made arrangements to leave the keys with a Signor Colussi who lives a few doors down.

Caroline returns after fifteen minutes. Signor Colussi does not appear to be at home. Not to worry, we've made good time, and it's warm enough to sit outside so we drag our luggage to a nearby bar and order some drinks.

Time passes, and I think I should perhaps go and check what's going on. Signor Colussi does not answer his door, but his neighbour sees me ringing and informs me that she thinks he's out of town at the moment.

Oh. Still, no reason to worry, Giuseppe will be back this evening, let's just give him a call on his telefonino and see what time he's due back.

There's no answer.

We order some more drinks, but it's starting to get cold now, and it's not really ice cold Peroni weather. We give it another half hour, and then Caroline remembers she's got Giuseppe's address so she can at least go and bang on his door and see if he's back.

She heads off. I sit there, and draw my coat around myself. It's properly cold now, and getting dark. I do not know of any hotels in this area, and I don't know how we're going to be able to look for one whilst trying to cope with ten heavy bags. It would be fair to say that, by the time Caroline returns, I'm in danger of working myself into a bit of a state.

Happily, she has found Mrs Giuseppe at home, where she has been all afternoon, with a spare set of keys, and who thought it quite funny that we've spent hours nursing our drinks in the cold when our nice warm flat was only a few hundred yards away.

It takes three journeys to transport all our luggage to the flat. I haul the last of the bags upstairs, and look around. There's a few areas where it's evident that paint has crumbled from the ceiling but otherwise we've finally made it : it's dry, it's warm, and right now this is the best damn little flat in the whole of Venice!

Thursday, 1st March


Caroline gets up at 2.30 in order to start packing. I'm going to need a proper nights sleep if I'm to drive for seven hours so she lets me sleep on, but I pass an uneasy night nevertheless.

There's no time to think about the flat, or lack of one, in Venice. Caroline packs, and repacks, then repacks again. I shuttle back and forth, taking stuff down to the car for a final run to the charity shop, or just to throw directly into the building's communal bins. I completely fill one and half of the other and start to worry if I might actually be done for tipping. How is there still so much left?

Everything seems that little bit more difficult than it ought to be. I have a bag full of kitchen knives. Charity shops, in Leith at least, do not take bags full of knives, and we've been told to take them to the police station. So along I go, press the intercom outside, and inform them that I'm standing there with a bag full of knives that I'd like them to dispose of. Two young policemen come out. They seem a bit confused. I ( slowly) hold up the bag, through which sharp pointed objects are already ripping holes, and explain the situation. They tell me that they only dispose of actual weapons, and these don't count. I point out a wicked six-inch blade that, I imagine, could be used quite successfully as a weapon but no - it's not a samurai sword or a machete, so they won't take it. One helpfully says that I should just take it to recycling or even put it in the bin. I look around me. A skip is conveniently, enticingly, placed on the street only twenty yards away. It's enormously tempting. I shake my head. I am not putting a bag of knives into a skip. In Leith. I drive out to the recycling depot, chuck them in the metals bin, and then back home again.

Caroline is still repacking, but we can almost see an end to it now. Slowly, but surely, I load the car. Amazingly, everything (well, everything that now meets the definition of essential) fits. Every square inch of free space is used. Not a chink of light can be seen in the rear view mirror. Technically, I think, this probably counts as overloading. It almost certainly isn't very safe. If I have to do an emergency stop, Peter Howson's painting “Figure kneeling in graveyard” is likely to hurtle forward and decapitate me.

We should have left the flat at 10am. It's now 2.00 in the afternoon. Caroline has been working, non-stop, for twelve hours. I now have to drive to Sheffield for the first stop on our farewell tour. Both of us are shattered. This has easily been the grimmest day so far but surely – surely – this must be the worst over now?

“Let's go to Venice”, I say, and we leave Edinburgh, and Scotland, for perhaps the last time.


Wednesday, 29th February


I sound more Welsh when I'm angry, and, right now, I'm Very Welsh Indeed. Not quite Bryn Terfel at the Millennium Stadium, more like Neil Kinnock at the 1985 Labour Party conference, but the Welshometer is creeping into the red. I drove 40 minutes across town to pick up some Euros from Sainsbury's (yes, I know, but they offered the best rate) and the young fellow in their foreign exchange booth is telling me that my payment hasn't cleared yet and he can't give me anything. I tell him I rang only an hour ago to check, and was told everything was ready. He apologises, but he can't do anything . I drive home. The moment I step through the door the phone rings. Inevitably, it's Sainsbury's. Everything is ready now. I drive all the way back. The boy hands over my Euros. He doesn't apologise. I'm not in a mood to accept one anyway.

This has wasted a whole morning when we had no time to waste. It's becoming increasingly obvious that we've massively underestimated the amount of work left. There's still a hell of a lot of stuff to be taken to the dump or to the charity shop, the place needs a good clean, and we (“we” in this case meaning “Caroline”, as I'm not really to be trusted with this) haven't even been able to start packing yet.

I spend the afternoon vacuuming and cleaning floors. I clean the windows. Then, I have to turn my attention to the oven. It hasn't been cleaned since before Christmas and the interior now resembles something from The Quatermass Experiment. I attack it with some kind of noxious chemical goo, emblazoned with all sorts of dire warnings, which renders down the unpleasantness into a thick, fatty black sludge. I knew there would be times when the glamour and excitement of The Project would seem to fade a bit. This is one of them.

Still, it's time for our final Italian class, following which everyone heads off for a bite to eat and a few glasses of wine. It's our final big farewell do and good fun, if bittersweet as always.

Home then, feeling happier about things, and we think we'll have a glass of wine or two before turning in. Caroline goes to check her email, just in case there's something that needs to be looked at urgently. There's a message from the owner of the flat we're renting in Italy. The harsh Venetian winter has caused the pipes to burst in the flat upstairs from ours, and, as a result, it's in no fit state to be rented out.

We fly out in just four days time, and we no longer have a place to stay.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Arrivederci Edimburgo

So this is it. Twenty years in Scotland comes to an end today. For that matter, it's the end of six years in Leith, longer than I've lived anywhere. Tomorrow we start on a short farewell tour of some friends and relatives down south, and then, on Sunday, we fly out on a one-way ticket. It's been a strange last few weeks, a steady stream of goodbyes. It's been an emotional rollercoaster to be honest, but, as I've said before, some aspects of The Project were going to be like that.

So before we head off - a very big thank you to all our friends at 'Spin', the Italian Institute, Scottish Opera, the Scottish Arts Club, the Scottish Wine Society, the Edinburgh Bach Choir, and all our drinking buddies from our years here.

To those friends from our previous life at Lloyds - thank you for making things less horrible than they might otherwise have been. You know who you are.

To those we never got the chance to say goodbye to - we're sorry. We simply ran out of time.

To those we've lost touch with over the years - again, we're sorry. We should have made more effort.

To all those people who expressed their support and for all those who offered all sorts of help when they heard what we were up to - a massive thank you. It's been invaluable - without you, we might well have given the whole idea up as insane. It actually might very well be insane, but we're still going to do it, And no, we're not being very brave - we're just doing something we really want to do.

Anyway, this is becoming like Oscar night, so it's time to call a halt. I'm not sure quite when I'll next be able to update the blog - sometime next week, I hope, but we'll have to see.

Things are about to get really interesting!


Monday, 2 January 2012

Capo d'Anno

I've never liked New Year. As a kid, it means only one thing : Christmas is over, back to school. As an adult, it's even worse - you're going back to work, and you're probably starting the year with a hangover as well. Lights and decorations come down, and we return to the cold, the dark, and the rain until Spring. Or, if you happen to live in Edinburgh, we just return to the cold, the dark, and the rain.

Last Hogmanay, I stood on our balcony and watched the last trails of the fireworks at midnight; reflecting, miserably, that 2010 had been an awful year and 2011 didn't seem to promise any better. Another year was starting with the threat of redundancy hanging over us - how many years had this been now? I don't mind playing games, but you can't win against people who change the rules whenever they want to and appoint the referee as well.

Twelve months on. There was a way to win after all, and that was just to refuse to play. And yes, there are still things we can't do anything about, but for the first time in years, we're entering the New Year actually feeling good, and happy, and excited about the year ahead, and feeling in control of events instead of at their mercy.

One day, you'll go out on New Year's Eve, and have a pleasant, slightly boozy evening with friends. You'll get back at a sensible time, and go to bed with a nice cup of tea and an improving book. Next morning you'll wake up, hangover-free, ready for the day and the year ahead, and you'll congratulate yourself for being middle-aged.

Buon anno!