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.