The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice

The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice

by Polly Coles


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A riveting account of ordinary life in an extraordinary place, packed with charming anecdotes that will have readers hooked on Venetian life
The beautiful city of Venice has been a fantasy land for people from around the globe for centuries, but what is it like to live there? To move house by boat, to get a child with a broken leg to a hospital, or to set off for school one morning, only to find that the streets have become rivers and the playground is a lake full of sewage? When Polly Coles and her family left England for Venice, they discovered a city caught between modern and ancient life—where the locals still go on an annual pilgrimage to give thanks for the end of the Black Death, where schools are housed in renaissance palaces, and your new washing machine can only be delivered on foot. This is a city perilously under siege from tourism, but its people refuse to give it up—indeed they love it with a passion. This book is a fascinating window into the world of ordinary Venetians and the strange and unique place they call home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780719808784
Publisher: Hale, Robert Limited
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Polly Coles is an anthropologist who writes both fiction and nonfiction, and, most recently, has written texts to accompany two exhibitions at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, England.

Read an Excerpt

The Politics of Washing

Real Life in Venice

By Polly Coles

Robert Hale Limited

Copyright © 2013 Polly Coles
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7198-0878-4


PART 1: Getting Away

I spend my last night in England in casualty. Earlier today some friends, eager to help in the last frantic push to move our family of six to a new life on the other side of Europe, took my children off to an adventure playground, leaving Alberto and me to the packing. Lily, who was nine, lost her grip on the jungle gym, crashed awkwardly to the ground and broke her ankle. This is a small disaster: we are about to leave for the last remaining city in the world where the only way of getting from one place to another is on foot.

In casualty at the country hospital a disturbed young man is ranging around the waiting area. He is heavily built, with a ragged beard and a long, dark, shabby overcoat. He has more of the Russian novel about him than small town Midlands, and his distress and anger fills the space with an alarming stench that is perhaps the stench of his fear, though it quickly becomes ours too as he bellows for his psychiatrist, pacing the walls like a man imprisoned, then suddenly, shockingly, kicking the thin doors of the prefab building so hard that they shake. Eventually, a nurse comes in and briskly pulls a curtain around Lily and me.

'That's better,' she says.

And as the man continues to crash about on the other side of the flimsy partition, I wonder if out of sight is out of mind when it comes to violent paranoid schizophrenics.

The day after tomorrow we will be in Venice, the city that has fed into generations of foreign dreams. My fantasy of escape, predictably enough, assumes a place without the mad, the sad, the inadequate, the just plain difficult. I have visited Venice often and, like so many millions of others, have wandered around open-mouthed in a state of soft-focus wonder, but I have no notion of what it will really be like to live there. I am setting out armed with little more than a handful of clichés, some fond holiday memories and a great deal of optimism. I also have four children in tow.

The following morning, Alberto and I close the door on our house in the small hamlet where we live and the children climb into the green VW van. Once they are seated, we stuff the last of the luggage in around them. Lily, who sits by the window, her foot in pristine plaster, is incarcerated in her own zimmer frame all the way across France. Her twin brother Roland is buried somewhere beside her under blankets and bicycle helmets and whatever else has suddenly, at the last minute, seemed indispensable to a life on water. The two other boys, twelve-year-old Michael, and Freddie, who is six, are lost under still more domestic miscellany – soft toys, frying pans, sleeping bags – in the back row.

Our friends and neighbours have come out to wave goodbye and for five minutes, as we spin off down the country lane in the sparkling September sunshine, towards a new life, it all feels a bit like the movies.

Late the following afternoon, the green van staggers into Mestre, the last mainland stop before Venice and part of a sprawl of industrial developments and petrol refineries strung out along the edge of the Venetian Lagoon.

We park on the roof level of a multi-storey car park next to the station. As the children uncrumple themselves from the travel mulch in the back of the van, I walk slowly across the scorching tarmac and lean on the parapet. The hot air is sickly sweet with traffic fumes; stretched out below me is a tangle of glittering railway lines and overhead cables, empty rolling stock, parking lots, warehouses, factory yards. I lift my face to the sun and breathe out: the long drive is over. Then I squint across the mess of rooftops to the bright waters of the Lagoon. On the horizon, very small, I can see the towers and domes of Venice: an ancient, improbable labyrinth of a city stuck out at the end of a 4-kilometre causeway, on the edge of the Adriatic Sea. Now it is time to make the final push and get there but we are, as usual, late, so we decide that Alberto should go ahead to meet the landlord, leaving me, with the children and the luggage, to come on behind.

Here, for the first time, we experience what I later come to recognize as the Venice Effect. This is the cruel illusion that you have arrived at the city when, in fact, there is still a very long way to go. In order to reach Venice you have to complete the Three Tasks.

The First Task is to find somewhere to leave your car. For those with cash, there are various car parks, ranging from the solid, middle-range Tronchetto to the high-budget San Marco, which takes you as close to Venice as any car gets: the bus station at Piazzale Roma. For those who are either too hard up or just cheapskates – and we fall into both these brackets, depending on the month – there are the back streets of Mestre. Parking here may involve running the gauntlet of irritable locals, sick of seeing a car left dormant for weeks at a time outside their house and knowing full well where its apparently invisible owner holes up.

The Second Task is to transfer your many, heavy belongings on to a train or a bus. Once this has been done, there is a temporary illusion of speed and ease as you travel quickly and smoothly across the causeway to the station of Santa Lucia, on the edge of the city. At this point, however, you have the Third Task and the greatest logistical challenge. Here, all wheeled transport other than the trolley disappears and you have the problem of how to get your luggage and, in our case, a large and partially disabled family to your final destination.

Of course there are the vaporetti, but vaporetti are buses and where would you find a bus driver willing to take you to the front door and then carry the bags up several flights of stairs to your flat?

If the building has a water entrance on a canal, you can hire a boat or commandeer a friend, but these were all things I learned later. Arriving – and surviving – in Venice that September day, I still had no idea of such organizational subtleties.

There is no more total translation from one world into another than the ten-minute train ride across the Lagoon from Mestre to Venice. Already, in the quiet waters you see from the train window, there are subtle clues about the real life, past and present, of the city. To the left of the causeway, there is a small island, overgrown with mangy scrub. This is San Secondo, once a graceful and busy complex of renaissance buildings – a convent and its church; an inn for travellers heading to the city; a boatyard and gardens and vegetable plots: a miniature version of the waterborne city ahead. But now not a single building remains standing on San Secondo; it is just a muddy pimple alongside the railway track and is rapidly dissolving into obscurity.

There are, though, other signs of a continuing life. Fishing nets are hung raggedly about on posts sunk into the muddy floor of the Lagoon. There is still the constant, centuries-old flux of traffic criss-crossing back and forth along the deeper channels: delivery boats, taxis, vaporetti. And there are still people rowing the ancient, flat-bottomed lagoon boats – the sandoli, the gondole, the caorline – standing up and pushing forward on long oars, through the shallow waters, as they have for more than a thousand years.

I don't know any of these things on that baking afternoon in early September, when our train comes to a standstill in the station, and anyway I have more pressing practical matters to deal with.

First, I have to heave Lily down from the train and set her on the dusty station platform. She leans heavily on her little zimmer frame, her broken foot lifted limp off the ground, as the other passengers walk briskly away. Heat scintillates over the disappearing tracks and the three boys pass down the bags. Then, each one shoulders a rucksack and as much else as he can manage and we begin our halting progress across the station concourse – luggage and able-bodied persons – 3 metres forward. Stop. Then back to drag more bags and piggy-back Lily over the same 3 metres. Bags and able-bodied forward. Stop, drag and piggy-back. Bags, able-bodied forward. Stop, drag and piggy-back.

We carry on in this way for twenty minutes, by which time we have covered about half the length of the concourse and are red-faced and sweating. This is when a small woman in a shiny blue trouser suit emerges from her office. She has been watching us. She has a metal Trenitalia badge pinned to her lapel and a worried look on her sharp little face.

'Signora,' she says, with anguish. 'Where are you going?'

I tell her.

'Signora, how are you going to get there?'

Her tone is not complicit: she does not identify with this bedraggled Englishwoman hauling her children and belongings across a foreign station and does not, therefore, feel empathy, but she does see that it is a situation to be dealt with. She directs us to the left luggage office with instructions to borrow a wheelchair. I feel myself being cravenly, gushingly grateful, but still she does not smile. The welfare of children is not a matter of mere personal sentiment in Italy: it is a question of public duty. This is why if your child leaves the house without a coat, a hat, a scarf or gloves on a winter's day, you will be told off vociferously by a string of indignant strangers. This is why the woman in the station office does not see in me a sister struggling under duress, but a wrong to be righted.

Once Lily is installed in her Trenitalia wheelchair, and most of our luggage has been piled on her lap, we roll smoothly out of the station and down a concrete side ramp, acrid with the stench of urine. At the bottom, we turn the corner and find ourselves on a wide pavement, overlooking the Grand Canal.

All of a sudden, I smell the mineral sea, hear the soft cacophony of voices and footsteps, and feel the sharpness of sunlight off water. We have arrived.

Number 3460 Calle del Vin is a fortress-like palazzo, a great, dour, stone building which stands at the corner of a gloomy alley lined with similar tall, dark, ancient buildings. Calle del Vin is a street to be passed along, not lingered in, but the façade of the palazzo gives on to a bright, wide canal, lined with shops and bars – a pleasant, busy thoroughfare that somehow manages to keep out of the tourist mainstream.

Built in 1460, the palazzo spent the first 400 years of its existence in the hands of two wealthy families; the first were Venetian aristocrats, the second, Flemish merchants. Once, the palazzo had been famed for its large and beautiful gardens; now, it is divided into five apartments, with a number of windowless storerooms leading off the entrance hall. Each of these is the Venetian equivalent of one man's garden shed and it is here that wine is stored and condominium plots are hatched. Through the doors, left ajar, you can glimpse shadowy interiors, where red-faced, elderly men fix things or bottle prosecco. Where the palace gardens once stretched along the canal, there is now a small, shady courtyard.

Up until now, I have only ever seen our new flat in photographs. In those frantically busy last months before we left England, it was Alberto who had flown out to Venice to look at the place and sign for it, while I stayed behind packing and endlessly packing. Now, I push open the heavy wooden street door, and we swarm into the shadowy hall, in a flurry of heat and effort and luggage. At first, I have only a sense of dusky space; then, as my eyes adjust, I see that the hall covers most of the ground floor of the palazzo. It is flanked by two marble benches, their curlicued backs set against walls of crumbling, dirty-pink stucco. At the far end are high double doors made up of roundels of opaque Venetian glass, the skewy swirls distorting the courtyard beyond into a dim and hectic cubism. Feeling around in the gloom, I find a light switch and suddenly a wrought-iron chandelier flings the patterns of the souk around the walls. In one corner, a pair of stone lions guard the foot of the marble staircase. We marshall our forces, and begin the final haul: Lily, luggage, boys, up the four steep flights to our new home.

The apartment, like many of the properties to let in Venice, is the home of the landlord's dead mother. Pietburgo, our landlord, seems himself to be half dead: a hulking, bearded, dour-faced man, he is waiting, unsmiling, for the final signatures and the first instalment of rent.

The flat was solidly furnished in about 1950 and is, like its owner, large and awkward and gloomy. It has too much passageway and a series of odd- shaped rooms carved clumsily out of the grander fabric of the medieval building. Lumpen Murano glass chandeliers hang from the ceilings and the furniture is all dark polished wood. But the flat is high up; nobody looks down on us and we, in turn, have a view across red, pantiled rooftops and bell towers. And, what is best of all, we share this eyrie with bands of skydiving swallows.


PART 2: September

Living on Water

During those early days in Venice, my sleep is threaded through with dreams of living in precipitous tower blocks, far above the ground, with a longing for trees and for the feeling of earth underfoot. I wake disgruntled and uneasy.

Lily, who has grown up in the countryside, is having nightmares and screaming herself awake, convinced that the city will be swallowed up by the great wave of a tsunami. She talks about it for days, 'What if ...? What if ...?' but her tsunamis ebb when I show her the long, narrow island of the Lido and tell her: 'That's what stops the big waves; it's a barrier against the sea and it makes the Lagoon.'

My own dreams take longer to go away. I feel the silence here as an absence. When I wake in the morning, only the crack of light through the shutters tells me it is time to get up; there are no other clues to help me refine that knowledge, to say whether it is 5 a.m. or 10 a.m. For the first time in my life I keep oversleeping. I miss the country birds, bantering at dawn, and the next-door chickens, roosting and fussing, then quietening, as the sun moves higher in the sky.

There are pigeons, of course, but other than in Piazza San Marco they keep a low profile. Certainly there are pockets in this city where the smaller birds chirrup, but there is hardly a teeming life of tree-dwellers, ivy-pickers, eaves-hoppers. The only constant birdcall here is the petulant shriek of gulls, those big, lone-ranging birds swooping down the canals or taking up imperious positions on chimney pots. No doubt if I can learn to understand their harsh, wheedling conversations, they would help me out, show me where I stand in the day, the season, the year. As it is, their habits are as alien to me as those of the Venetians.

When the gulls congregate they sound like people cackling with laughter, and you could almost mistake the bleak vowels of the Venetian 'Ciao' or 'eeow', that you hear repeated all day long in the streets, for the seabirds' plaintive cries.

Sound rings differently here. Sometimes, there is a muffled quality to everything: the many walls are like full stops, cutting noise short. Or sometimes, they ricochet it back unexpectedly, so that you hear a full jazz band close by; then turn the corner and find just a couple of musicians in a narrow calle. Their modest fiddle and guitar are amplified by the surrounding buildings to something rousing and mysterious.

When I open the shutters in the morning I hear footsteps, dogs barking, cats wailing, gulls, and the heave and wash of the Lagoon as boats groan or buzz or slip along the waterways. At night, if I open the window and lean out to look along the fondamenta below, the silence of my closed room is all of a sudden filled with the murmur of human voices and I have the unexpected impression that I have just walked through a door, into a party.

In these early days, I find myself keenly aware, relying almost, on the cycles of the moon. At the top of this big, old building, looking out over roofs, to towers and belfries and terraces, the moon, flying high, seems the only thing left of the natural world and I follow its waxing and waning with a new attention.

The fact is, I miss my version of nature: the trees, the grass, the soil. This is when I begin to understand how visual my particular sense of the natural world is: that abundant green of the British countryside and the changes in the colour and density of vegetation that signal the changing seasons. I notice how the foliage becomes lighter or thicker or more brittle; how it begins in spring with a pale green so translucently fine that it seems to vibrate; how, in the late summer sun, it works into depths of dull olive that render the landscape almost black; how, in autumn, it thins, then dries, moving through red and gold to brown. In winter, when the trees are at last bare, the blackened corpses of leaves curl into mulch, like foetal, prehistoric bog men.

These are the signs I happen to recognize. Now that they are gone and I find myself in an environment of stone, punctuated by water, I feel their absence viscerally and I can't settle. My body has to learn the new clues and how to respond instinctively to different rhythms of the natural world.


Excerpted from The Politics of Washing by Polly Coles. Copyright © 2013 Polly Coles. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
A Short Venetian Glossary,
Part 1: Getting Away,
Part 2: September,
Living on Water,
In the Giant's Castle,
The Art of Arguing,
The Politics of Washing,
Part 3: October,
Unlearning IKEA,
Do Not Disturb,
The Last Laugh,
Letizia and the Professor,
Part 4: November,
High Water 1,
High Water 2,
San Martino Went Up to the Attic,
Trailing Clouds of Glory,
Part 5: December,
Undercover Tourist,
Growing Up in History,
Thursday 15 December,
Part 6: January,
The Old Man and the Sea,
Three, or Is Dead Beautiful?,
Baba Yaga,
Giardino di Merda,
Part 7: February,
Village Fete,
Dressing Up,
The Venice Effect,
Eating Cake,
Part 8: March,
Part 9: April,
Hey, You!,
Real Estate Heaven,
Part 10: May,
Other Lives,
The Weather in Moldavia,
Katerina's Story,
The Life of Fish,
Sunday 25 May,
Part 11: June,
Home and Away,
Beside the Seaside, Beside the Sea,
Opus Dei,
Part 12: July,
Pinhole Camera,
Part 13: August,
If You Care,

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