A few years ago, my wife and I decided to spend five weeks in Venice, living like the locals. We planned the trip for the winter—after Carnival—when we assumed that the waves of out-of-town visitors would have receded. And we rented an apartment in the district of Cannaregio, a more working-class and less touristy area.
The apartment is situated a few steps from the Strada Nova on the Calle del Duca (Street of the Duke)—so named because it leads to a palazzo that belonged over the centuries to various nobles, including the last Duke of Mantua. The downstairs entrance of the apartment building faces the spot where the Calle del Duca forms a T-intersection with the less aristocratic Calle dell’Oca (Street of the Goose). The apartment itself is on the second floor. One of its four windows overlooks the Calle dell’Oca. The others face the apartments across the way, close enough that we could have a conversation with our neighbors without yelling. So we felt nicely ensconced within the very heart of a residential neighbourhood, a short walk from shops and markets.
Once we had settled in, we purchased two cell phones (telefonini) and charged them. But when we turned them on, they both presented the same message: “Nessun servizio” (“No service”). We checked through the troubleshooting sections of the manuals, but couldn’t figure out what was wrong. In frustration, I stepped downstairs to use the public phones on the Strada Nova, where I happened to notice that both telefonini now registered a strong signal. Perplexed, I called the person who sold them to us, ready to ask for a refund. But as soon as I explained what had happened, he said something that would become a common refrain:
“Oh, that’s Venice,” he said.
“It’s the stone walls,” he said. “They’re very thick.”
“But what good are the phones if I can’t use them in the house?”
“Oh, you’ll have to try different rooms and see where the signal is strongest. It isn’t the fault of the phones.”
“OK,” I said, and headed back up Strada Nova, skeptical but mildly hopeful. As I turned into Calle del Duca, the signal-strength indicators started showing signs of erectile dysfunction. My skepticism increased. When I opened the front door and walked up the stairs, the indicators shrank to zero. My hope died.
“Nessun servizio,” the telefonini confirmed.
“Shit!” I muttered, taking care to swear in English lest the thick walls have ears.
It took me about an hour of walking around the apartment, cursing the stones of Venice (in both English and Italian this time), and staring at the “Nessun servizio” message before I noticed, when walking more slowly than usual next to the Calle dell’Oca window, that the signal-strength indicators started to show some life. I looked out the window down the narrow Calle dell’Oca and realized that this must be the one place where the radio signals can filter between the buildings. In the rest of the apartment we were incommunicado. But here, overlooking the Street of the Goose, we could connect with the outside world.
Elated, I announced that I had solved the problem: the telefonini must be kept fully charged and as close as possible to the Calle dell’Oca. But we had to be careful, we soon discovered, not to get overly excited during conversations, because if we turned the phones away from the window, the signal, and our spirits, would die.
The tenuous nature of our cell-phone system served as a kind of memento mori that typified this trip and that convinced me that we were, in fact, experiencing life as the Venetians do.
Our apartment reinforced that feeling. When we first entered it, we noticed a miasmic odour that seemed to emanate from the bathroom. We dumped a bottle of bleach down the toilet bowl, which helped a bit. But on the morning of February 27th, the smell was much worse, and we then suspected that it came, not from the bathroom but from the entrance area below—where the gas meter is located.
My wife has a keen nose for gas leaks. She is unusually sensitive in this area because one of her high-school friends died from a gas fire many years ago. So when we noticed the stronger smell, and my wife identified it as gas, we went into red alert. But what to do? It was a Sunday. All offices were closed. And when we called our Venetian cousins, they suggested that we probably wouldn’t be able to get anyone from the gas company until the next day. My wife looked shocked. She reminded us of her dead friend. So I did the only thing I could think of: I called the fire department.
Within minutes, five firefighters arrived. I led them into the entrance, where the smell was strongest. And then, wanting to make myself useful, I switched on the light.
“Who flicked that switch?” yelled one of the firefighters, in horror, reminding me that if there had been a significant gas leak, a spark from a light switch could have sent us all flying.
Happily, we didn’t fly. So they tested the gas line, which registered no leak. By then they had come to realize what the problem was. It wasn’t gas at all. It was puzza di fogna—sewer stench—they explained, which was worse of late because there had been no rain, and the sewer pipes had not been fully flushed out. So when the water level in the canals went down because of low tide, the sewer pipes that emptied into the canals became exposed, and air got into the pipes, allowing the smell of sewage to enter the houses.
“That’s Venice,” they said, as they packed up their equipment. “Have a nice Sunday.”
From then on, we kept the windows open when the odour got worse. And we took consolation in knowing that when we could smell the sewage it was a sign of low tide—a reminder that we were in contact with the ebb and flow of the sea. “We have our fingers on the pulse of life,” I said. At the same time, we prayed for rain.
The rain did not come. Instead, we got snow—a significant dump of the wet, heavy variety that accumulated on the streets and bridges. And it took several days for it to melt because, as the meteorologist reminded us on the news every evening, this was the coldest winter in twenty-five years.
I was not prepared. I had brought sweaters and a leather jacket but had left my parka, boots, and mitts in Canada—where they belonged, I thought. I had not expected arctic temperatures and blowing snowstorms in Venice. And I have to confess to a kind of Great-White-North hubris: “I’ve been toughened by Canadian winters,” I thought to myself. “I can deal with the so-called cold of southern Europe.” So I tried to tough it out as long as I could, hoping that spring would come in March. But it didn’t. I was forced to adjust my attitude. I borrowed an idea from Shylock in The Merchant of Venice: “Hath not a Canadian hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Venetian is? Liable to catch pneumonia if caught in a blizzard on the Grand Canal?”
This was my epiphany. “Why not just accept reality?” I concluded. “It’s cold as hell. All the locals are dressed in furs and winter parkas. Even the dogs are wearing woollies.” I bought myself a down-filled jacket and a toque.
Unfortunately, I may have waited too long for this purchase, because the day after the “gas” incident, I came down with a miserable cold. When I say “unfortunately,” I realize I may be accused of post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc thinking (after stench; therefore, because of stench). But it makes sense to me. I came down with the cold after we had been in the stinky apartment for two weeks: that’s fourteen days of inhaling sewer gas. In my mind, the pollutants in the apartment were directly responsible for compromising my immune system and making me susceptible to marauding microbes. As my cold progressed, I coughed and sneezed and blew my nose too hard, causing it to bleed on a daily basis, and I got weaker. I thought of Henry James’s Milly Theale and Thomas Mann’s Gustav von Aschenbach, both of whom die in Venice. Aschenbach, I remembered, catches cholera. “What if that happens to me?” I thought. “What about the sewer stench? What if there’s cholera in our toilet?”
The cold put me in a sour mood. When I went out, I became hostile to the crowds. I had been disappointed that there were so many people in Venice. In planning this winter trip, I had fantasized that I would be able to wander the empty streets and have deep thoughts. Instead, there were tourists everywhere, so many that the gondolas were in operation.
One day, when my cold was in its waning stages (and by that time I had concluded that I had not caught cholera and would probably live), I was on my way to the hospital to visit one of our cousins. As I was crossing a bridge, a gondola carrying Japanese tourists glided beneath me. As the gondola cleared the bridge, the gondolier started singing a love song. My first thoughts were, “What’s the matter with you people? It’s ten o’clock in the morning! It’s zero degrees! Water freezes at zero! And you’re riding in a gondola, trying to be romantic! Can’t you see how ridiculous you are?” Fortunately, I didn’t say any of this out loud—and not just because I don’t speak Japanese. But I realized as I was thinking this rant that I was being unreasonable. “If people want to have a romantic experience, let them have it. What business is it of mine? And besides,” I thought, “it’s great that the gondolier can still make some money during the winter.” Thus comforted by the generosity of my thoughts, and enjoying the cozy warmth inside my new down-filled jacket, I continued to the hospital.
What I should have added, I now realize, is the standard comment: “That’s Venice.” Snobbish as I was about the tourists, the gondola ride, and the romantic escape, I have to admit they are an authentic part of the Venetian experience. Watching the first-time tourists stare in awe and wonder at the ancient palazzi rising as if by magic out of the water reminded me of my first fair-weather visit to the city. I remembered stepping down from the train station to the vaporetto stops on the Grand Canal. I boarded the #1 boat and went straight to the open deck in back so that I could be close to the water and feel the temperate breeze. As we pulled away from the landing, the vaporetto bobbed gently on the waves created by passing traffic. I felt cradled and safe. I was freed from the hard world of trains and cars as I floated and glided past a seemingly endless series of stone buildings that were somehow softened by the water and lightened by sequences of gothic arches and foliated windows.
I had no notion at the time of the headaches that those stones could cause for the modern life, including cellular communication. I had no awareness of the sewage in the canals, of the smells in the buildings, of the inconveniences of tight quarters. At that moment, Venice was beauty and romance. Subsequent trips have taught me that Venice is not a fantasyland. Venetians live real lives, with real problems, in a real place. But, lucky them, they do it in a city of beauty that will always inspire people to dream.
© 2015, Marco LoVerso
Photo: Andreas Schwabe
Marco LoVerso is Emeritus Professor of English at Concordia University of Edmonton.