The Politics of Washing

‘Guardarobieri in crisi!
Zaini dei turisiti troppo pesanti!
Mal di schiena al Palazzo Ducale.’


(‘Cloakroom attendants in crisis!
Tourists’ backpacks too heavy!
Back pain at the Ducal Palace.’)


(Headline from Il Gazzettino of Venice, June 2008)


‘J’avoue que dans l’Amérique j’ai vu plus que l’Amérique.’


(‘I admit that I saw in America more than America.’)


(Alexis de Tocqueville)


‘[Are we] reading into Greek poetry not what they have but what we lack?’



(Virginia Woolf)

To F who wished Venice would ‘ just sink’ and ended up a Venetian himself.


To A and O who knitted and gossiped up and down the Grand Canal.


To G who was so brave.


To Andrea, whose patient and selfless commuting back and forth across Europe meant all of this could happen.


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




to the following friends who read this book at different points in its evolution and offered their encouragement and invaluable criticism:

George Misiewicz, Jenny Condie, Patrick Marnham, Liz Jensen, Geraldine Bedell and John Francis Phillimore.

Amongst the many Venetians, born and adopted, who have, in one way or another, been a part of the making of this book, my warm thanks go to Enrico Palandri, Giovanni Levi, Donata Grimani, Pisana Visconti, Giampaolo Rinaldo, Marie Brandolini, Piero Maestri, Riccardo Held (for help with dialect), Jane Caporal (who so generously and enthusiastically taught me how to row Venetian style) and to Holly Snapp, without whom, quite literally, none of this would have happened since she not only introduced me to my agent but also, many years ago, to my partner.

I am very grateful to my agent John Beaton, who has been so cheerfully industrious on my behalf; to Clive Brill, for his help along the way (and a pen) and to Alexander Stilwell and Nikki Edwards, my editors at Robert Hale.

Last of all, my love and gratitude go to my parents, Bruce and Sally Coles, who brought me to Venice in the first place.

a a
: high water

: mudflats, exposed only at low tide

: flat-bottomed boat of the Venetian lagoon

: wooden posts tied together and sunk in water to mark the navigable channels in the lagoon

): Venetian street

): square or public space

Cantiere navale
: boatyard

: flat-bottomed lagoon boats

): beach huts

: national military police of Italy

: carved wooden structure, slotted into the side of lagoon boats, on which the oars rest whilst rowing

: street running along a canal

: forest dwellers, people from terraferma

: the people who row gondolas

: boat stop (mooring)

La Serenissima
: the most Serene Venetian Republic

: boatman (or woman) on the vaporetto

: soft-shelled crabs: a Venetian delicacy

Il nonno
: grandfather

: a cake shop

Piano nobile
: the main (noble) floor of a palazzo

: the rear of a boat

: the front (prow) of a boat

: a canal

Rio terà:
an earthed in canal

: a flat-bottomed boat that is lighter and smaller than a gondola

: a flat-bottomed boat originally used for fishing

Spiaggia libera
: the free beach, where anyone can swim or sunbathe, without paying

: bank (of a river or canal)

: the mainland (dry land)

: a slightly rounder lagoon boat, originally used for fishing and the transportation of fruit and vegetables

: Italy’s national train company

): water bus

: rowing

I spent in Venice with my family was a time of vivid novelty for all of us. I could have predicted very little of what happened. Before I actually lived there, my image of the place was like everyone else’s: a waterborne city of quite extraordinary beauty and strangeness. But as the months went by and I began to learn the patterns of daily life, what absorbed me was not so much the beauty as the relationship between the city and its inhabitants. I began to notice the ways in which people live there – in the present, but also in intimate relation to history.

The reality of Venice, where millions of lives have amassed over centuries, day by unexceptional day, creating living reefs of memory and experience, runs radically counter to the image of Venice as a museum-fossil. The small surviving community of residents in the city sometimes strikes me as hopelessly disparate: a raggle-taggle of ‘indigenous’ Venetians, foreigners and Italians (that is all those whose families have not been in the city for generations); but the fact remains that almost everybody here is united by the desire to give this city another chance to live. Against all the odds they continue to believe that Venice still offers a vibrant model for the good life, even for a future.

When I first began to show people the stories that fill this book they said that I was casting my net too wide; that it was neither fish (history or travelogue) nor fowl (a personal account of my
year-in-an-exotic-place). But that, for me, is the point: you cannot live in a place that is three parts myth to one part daily life and not engage with it in ways that range from the banally pragmatic: how to get the shopping home through a foot of water? – to the profound: how would all the world be if it were freed from the tyranny of the car? What effect does water have on the soul? How might a child conceive of his place in the present when growing up in an environment so palpably chiselled out of centuries of history?

So this book is a maverick thing. It is the story of the year my family lived in Venice; it is about the city, its corners and backwaters, and it is about the Venetians themselves and the ways in which they navigate their extraordinary home. But, most of all, it is a plea to halt the daily violation of one of the earth’s most precious treasures by unregulated tourism; to preserve not only its stones but its living culture; to allow Venezia to become, once again, just a bit more normal.

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
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
, but
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,
. And there are still people rowing the ancient, flat-bottomed lagoon boats – the
, the
, the
– 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
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
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,
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.

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