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The Keys to Venice
by Anka Muhlstein translated by Anne Wyburd
For the last 20 years we have spent a fortnight's holiday in Venice each year – either in the autumn or the spring – holidays which over the years have acquired Colette's meaning: 'a holiday is working elsewhere', because during these periods in Venice my husband has been able to write without incessant interruptions. He has the enormous advantage of being a novelist and having everything in his head. I, poor biographer, need books, dictionaries and encyclopedias for my work. Since we hate travelling with a portable library, I do not always write there, but I read, correct and rewrite. This has not always been the case. Before Louis started writing in 1989, we spent long periods walking, losing our way, looking at pictures, going to concerts or negotiating to get into places closed to tourists like us. Among our triumphs we count a visit to the Biblioteca Marciana to see the first editions of Dante – won after claiming a completely imaginary friendship with the director of the New York Public Library – and an hour spent in the Baptistery of Saint Mark's, accompanied by a functionary of the basilica who was moved by our supplications, and gracious enough to respond to our thanks by saying that our pleasure in contemplating 'his' treasures consoled him for the spectacle of the troop of tourists la gregge di pecore (the flock of sheep) – who invaded his church, shuffling their feet and damaging the wonderful pavement. But we did not always succeed. During the years when the doors of San Sebastiano only opened for a brief mass and no exceptions permitted, the guardian of San Sebastiano was impervious to our charms, our pleas as visitors from afar and our passion for Veronese. The porter of the Patriarchal Seminary and the guardian of the Conservatory were equally intransigent.
Step by step we got to know the city, until I no longer needed to walk about with a map in my hand. First of all I knew that, contrary to what I had thought to begin with, it is impossible to get lost in Venice – one only has to follow the flow to find oneself back under the clock tower in Saint Mark's Square or at the foot of the Rialto Bridge – and then I had my landmarks: a shop window, a sign, a stone lion guarding a balcony, a sculpted door reminded me where to turn. In fact the game now consisted in following non-tourist itineraries and avoiding Saint Mark's and its surroundings before 6 pm. If one wanted to go into the Basilica one had either to attend Vespers or to slip in by a side entrance, put on a solemn face and explain to the doorkeeper that one had come to say one's prayers. The walk towards Santa Madonna dell'Orto involved discovering a silent Venice populated by housewives, children and old people in slippers, and a stroll along the Canareggio meant experiencing a more active, working-class Venice. San Francesco della Vigna or the far side of the Arsenal also offered campi where passers-by walked with the quick, decisive step of local residents, expert at avoiding the flights of ubiquitous footballs. Venice had become familiar to us; our first slightly frenetic curiosity had been satisfied. Working in the afternoons (we always devoted our mornings to walking) was the sign that we were now at home in Venice. We had changed, but one of our principles had remained unaltered: we did not want to meet anybody.
Trailing through the alleys of the city in a group while checking that everyone else was following, making appointments which were doomed to be missed, because someone would make a mistake over the vaporetto ('the 7 has become the 82 and the landing-stage has been moved', they would explain pathetically), while others would confuse the Gesuati with the Gesuiti, the Palazzo Bembo with the Bembo-Boldù or even the Palazzo Contarini with the Contarini-Fasan, the Contarini-Michiel or any of the six other Contarini palaces, spending the evening gossiping or talking politics with friends we see all the time in New York or Paris while one is absorbed in one's real or fictitious characters – no, we did not want that. Of course, it is foolish to think one can avoid people completely in this very small town. We were lucky to have an alibi in the charming person of one of our nieces who had settled in Venice. Any attempt to suggest a meeting was countered with 'I am so sorry, we are dining – or lunching, or taking tea – with Marie'. So we continued to see nobody except those we saw every day and even twice a day - that is, the proprietors and head waiters of the restaurants we frequented.
At the risk of seeming to be a little set in our ways, I have to admit to another of our rules: when we find a restaurant we like, we take it unreservedly to our hearts. We love going to the same place every evening; the menu holds no surprises for us (anyhow, Louis is never happier than when eating the same food every day), we are given a friendly welcome and feel at home, with the unparalleled advantage of not having to do the washing up. But in Venice, as everywhere in Italy, one has to take into account the riposo settimanale (weekly closing), which shuts down every establishment for two days a week. So a certain rotation is necessary for survival. In the course of our 20 Venetian years we have adopted four eating-places and the daily routine of the different restaurateurs, chefs or head waiters has been an unsurpassable means of getting to know the city and its inhabitants.
The first to seduce us was Signor Ernesto. Venice is a city which goes to bed early. When evening comes, the countless tourists milling around Saint Mark's Square leave for the terra firma. The tour companies' plans for the day involve an early start – their clients are not there to enjoy themselves; once they have signed up for culture they should be ready for instruction from an early hour. Not surprisingly, therefore, their evenings are cut short. One day we planned to go to the opera and, as we like dining after the performance, we decided to walk around the Fenice quarter in search of a place which might stay open late. We noticed in one of the tiny streets nearby (called, rather disturbingly, the Calle dei Assassini) a place so unobtrusive that one could easily have missed it – a long, narrow room furnished in pale wood, its walls hung with framed banknotes. Through the window we saw a rather corpulent man helped by a very thin younger one laying the tables. We tapped lightly on the door. He raised his eyes and came to open it. 'Is it possible to have a late dinner here?' asked Louis. 'We are going to the opera this evening.' 'You are in luck', he replied. 'La June is singing this evening. They are doing Beatrice Cenci tonight, aren't they? Of course I shall expect you. Don't worry. But tell me, do you like wine, red wine?' Our knowledge of Italian was equal to understanding a question as simple as that and we responded with enthusiasm. 'Excellent, I shall have un vino di riserva, capo di stato ready for you.'
I still remember with enchantment the voice and the beauty of June Anderson, whom we had not heard before. I do not remember the intricacies of the plot very clearly, except for the rage of the assassin (or was it the executioner?) in his red gloves, but I do remember very precisely our arrival at Ernesto's. We were the only guests. On a table stood a full carafe – one of those bell-mouthed Italian carafes, flanked by a black bottle. 'Italian wine, heady wine, you understand, needs to breathe before it can be appreciated.' Ernesto had trusted us and had uncorked and decanted a superb bottle of Amarone. 'Now, did she sing well? Oh, I am so sad not to have heard her.' And he offered us a menu. A surprising menu for Venice: not a hint of fish, no crab, no prawn, no cuttle-fish, but a serious choice of meat. A thick, breaded pork cutlet cooked with vinegar, steak au poivre or alla campagnola and, quite unexpectedly, a hamburger of hand-chopped fillet, which he recommended before disappearing into what I would hesitate to call a kitchen – an area filled by a huge stove with six burners and lined with shelves, so tiny that it looked absolutely impossible for two people to move around in it, let alone prepare a meal for 30. To tell the truth, the restaurant was hardly larger than half a railway dining-car but it had another, mysterious dimension: the seats were so designed that they could be moved like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to create tables for either four or eight. Ernesto and the young man rearranged them so rapidly that they might have been performing a conjuring trick.
My husband declared that he had never eaten such a good hamburger and we gave full marks to the pasta with gorgonzola which preceded it. We offered Ernesto a glass of his own wine and decided to come back the following day at a more civilised hour. That time the restaurant was full of a fashionable crowd, chatting merrily in Italian, French or English. Clearly the groups of diners knew each other and Ernesto's prices spared him the presence of thrifty tourists, happy with a plate of pasta and a glass of beer. At lunchtime the atmosphere was very different. From noon on the room was full of sober-suited Venetian gentlemen antiquarians, doctors or lawyers from the neighbourhood, who had their own customs and probably even their own napkin rings. Ernesto, who called them all by name, suggested a plat du jour, which consisted in a savoury remake of yesterday's leftovers. For a few hours the restaurant was like a family pension.
In the evenings we were often the last customers, and once dessert and coffee were served we would invite Ernesto to finish the bottle with us. His limited French was on a level with our approximate Italian and we managed to understand each other. He had started earning his living as a waiter at the end of the 1950s, at a time when Venice was dormant in the winter. He therefore had to work through two different seasons: in the summer he was to be found first at the Saturnia and then the Caravelle in Venice and in the winter in Germany or at the Sunbeach at Aix-les-Bains. 'A hard life', I said to him, and he shrugged his shoulders and laughed. 'Not so bad.' He came from a family of fishermen in San Pietro in Volta, a village on the narrow, three kilometre-long island of Pellestrina to the south of the Lido, and had decided he did not want to grow old chasing after fish from a boat. He preferred running among tables and saving up steadily. In fact, he had been able to marry in 1964 at the age of 23. His wife and two daughters and he lived with his father and his aunt in the family house, which he had repainted in brick red. He had tiled the floors and put in a bathroom – a modern bathroom with a bidet, which caused a scandal among the neighbours. 'What is the bidet for?' asked his visitors. 'That Ernesto, he must have learned some dirty tricks in France.'
On 4 November 1966 the rhythm of his existence fell apart when Venice and its surroundings were engulfed by the most terrible flood of the century. Ernesto never talked about the details of that catastrophe; he preferred conversations about nology or opera and most particularly about his beloved Verdi, but in 1996 he gave us a slim volume in which a Venetian journalist, Roberto Bianchin, traced the course of the disaster by following the daily life of his friend Ernesto. Having read it, I was stupefied. During days of aqua alta (high water) I had walked over the gangways made of wooden planks fastened to 50 cm-high trestles, which are put up quickly when the water overflows into the low-lying quarters of the city, but I had never imagined what a flood would mean to a city built on water. I went on questioning Ernesto until I could put together the story of his life during those dramatic days.
On Thursday 3 November, the day before he was due to leave for France, he and his wife Liliana had taken the morning boat from San Pietro to Chioggia, a port situated at the southern end of the lagoon and linked to the terra firma by a bridge. Thursday was market-day in Chioggia and Ernesto needed a new pair of shoes, comfortable shoes with crêpe soles to keep his feet warm and dry. They came home in the afternoon with the new shoes wrapped in the pink pages of a sporting newspaper. It was raining, the tide was rising, the wind was blowing very strongly and the grey daylight was fading. Ernesto and his family went to bed early. At midnight he was awakened by a group of fishermen arguing under his window. He pulled on his jeans and sweater and went down barefoot to see what was going on. When he stepped onto the pavement outside his house he saw the water already lapping against the walls. That could happen at very high tides but in such case the water never failed to go down in a few hours. In fact, Ernesto and the fishermen were worried. The water level should already have started to sink but, on the contrary, it was still rising, slowly and silently. Squalls of rain shook the house. Ernesto went back to bed; there was nothing else to do. But at dawn he leapt up. Was that loud bang an explosion? A clap of thunder? Worse, the dyke had given way. The long stone cordon which protected the island and the city from the sea had been ripped apart by the water and had collapsed. Looking out from the windows all one could see was the sea. Ernesto went to work at once. The ground floor was flooded. He rolled up his trousers and started taking everything he could carry on his back to safety on the top floor. He went up and down the stairs as quickly as he could but his efforts were in vain. The water rose and rose. The family took refuge in the attic, where fishing nets were fastened to the walls – those nets which women spend hours mending. They would have to leave the house, but how?
Suddenly they heard shouts. Two farm workers swaying about in a flat-bottomed boat called a saltafossi, had come to fetch them. The order to evacuate had been given. A ship was anchored further out to take residents to the Lido but only the smallest craft could come in close to the houses. Come quickly, only one bag each. Ernesto took a blanket, a bottle of milk for the children and some stale bread. His wife seized her earrings and rings and the small amount of money there was in the house. There was no point in weighing oneself down. The hardest thing was to convince his father to leave his home. On the ship Ernesto found his sister with her five children, his mother, friends and neighbours. Four thousand people were rescued in a few hours. Only a few obstinate youngsters, intoxicated with adventure and with the wine they were swigging from the bottles, refused to leave and stayed clinging to the roofs.
Landing at the Lido was difficult. All the pontoons had been torn away by a raging sea. It took several attempts to disembark the rescued passengers. Buses were waiting for them and through deep puddles and small pools they reached the shelter of the hospital – not a very comforting shelter. Like Venice and the neighbouring islands, the Lido was plunged in darkness – no electricity, no heating, no food and one bed per family in the large reception hall. His baby daughters were crying. Ernesto had thought of bringing milk for them but not their bottles. How were they going to feed the babies? A nurse, busy giving out blankets, was no help at all. Babies' bottles were in another building but it was inaccessible. Ernesto rummaged in the pocket of his soaking wet trousers and pulled out the damp, carefully folded ten thousand lire note, the note reserved for his journey to Aix-les-Bains that very day. He passed it to the woman. Half an hour later she brought him a candle and two bottles. The little girls went to sleep next to their mother on the bed. Ernesto stretched out on the floor.
On Saturday morning he got up in the grey dawn and joined a group of men standing in the doorway of the room, gloomy but relieved. 'It's over, the water is going down, the wind has turned.' 'And the island?' 'It's still there.' And Venice?
Completely isolated from the rest of Italy, Venice had passed through an appalling night. For twelve hours on end the water had remained at two metres above sea level. No help arrived from outside. The authorities, taken completely by surprise – nothing in the weather forecasts had indicated the force of the wind or the tide – had only been able to evacuate a few hundred old people at risk in their ground-floor rooms. A city like Venice, where transport goes by water, is much more vulnerable to flood than others. When the Seine overflowed in Paris in 1911 and some districts were under more than a metre of water, the inhabitants went around in boats. That is impossible in Venice. Boats cannot take to the streets, because they are blocked by bridges, nor to the canals, because when the water level goes up spectacularly there is not enough space for them to pass under the bridges. The city is therefore completely paralysed, and the sick and handicapped have to be carried to safety on men's backs. No food at all can be brought in, because it cannot be unloaded, and the dangers of an epidemic are increased by the fact that flooded markets burst open to disgorge floating carcasses of animals, poultry and fish, and rotting fruit and vegetables. Some irresponsible Venetians served the fish they collectedfrom the canals and some criminal vendors sold drowned chickens they found floating in front of their doors. The sanitary authorities immediately embarked on a general disinfection programme and a campaign of preventative vaccination.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Venice for Lovers"
Copyright © 2003 Louis Begley and Anka Muhlstein.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
Preface by Louis Begley and Anka Muhlstein,
The Keys to Venice by Anka Muhlstein,
The Only Way to Enter Venice by Louis Begley,
Venice: Reflections of a Novelist by Louis Begley,