Friday, 11 April 2014

Ecce beatam lucem

There have been days when I thought the entirety of volume II of The Venice Project would be dedicated to my seemingly endless battle with ENEL, the state electricity provider. It took nearly two weeks to get the supply reconnected after the previous tenant moved out. It was taking so long I briefly considered getting in touch with the two employees I taught business English to, nearly eighteen months ago, in the hope they might be able to move things along. And then, one blessed evening, I turned up at the flat, flipped the trip switch on the fuse box to the 'on' position, more in hope than expectation, and...the lights came on. I heard the opening bars of Also Sprach Zarathustra running through my head...

It didn't end there. ENEL refused to believe that there was, or ever had been, a gas supply to the flat; but they switched it on anyway. Nearly there then, except the cooker needed to be connected. The previous tenant seems to have bought a spanking new gas cooker and never used it. The landlord seemed surprised it was there, and didn't even know if it was electric or gas.

Now, connecting it up appeared to be straightforward. Just connect the gas pipe to the rear of the stove and that would be it. But, even in Italy, you're not supposed to install gas appliances yourself. So a man had to come out.

This was a stroll in the park compared to the struggle with ENEL. Nevertheless, it took a couple of days to organise. One afternoon, I found myself leafing through the instruction manual. It really did seem very easy. Surely even I could manage this? Connect the pipe to the back of the cooker. Switch gas on. How hard could it be? And then I thought about the possible consequences. Incorrectly installed gas appliance. Dozens of other residents. In the middle of an historic city. I shook my head. I badly wanted a cup of coffee...but not that badly.

Still, it's installed now, and my special cooking trousers can be pressed back into service. All that remains is to get an internet connection. Except that Telecom Italia refuse to recognise our address. Their help page is on Facebook. That's right, to register a problem with the state telecommunications company, you use a social networking site designed to allow people to post photographs of their cat.

Still, I'm not grumpy. It's been fun finding new places to eat. The daily commute is so much easier. The flat, once sorted, will be great. And I'm looking forward to cooking again...

Friday, 14 March 2014

Dulce Domum

I committed to renting a flat last week. For at least three years. Without even seeing it. No, really.

I'm working six days a week at present, and so I'm rarely in the city during working hours. We'd seen somewhere that sounded extremely promising, and Caroline had the chance of the first viewing. The problem was, the agent explained, that eighty other people had also expressed an interest. Now, even allowing for hyperbole, this didn't sound beyond the realms of possibility : any number of flats proved to be taken by the time I rang up to enquire. So it would almost certainly have gone by the time I was able to see it as well.

There was really only one thing to do. I told Caroline that - if she liked it - to just go for it. If she liked it, I reasoned, I was almost certainly going to like it as well. And besides, think back to 2001 and my decision to spend eighteen months in a crumbling gothic pile with dry rot. Whose opinion would you trust?

So after lessons one Friday morning I checked my phone and found a message saying that, yes, she'd made an offer and actually put money down as the first step of the deposit. Later that day, the agent came back to us saying that the landlord had provisionally agreed. There was still a week until everything could be finalised but, last Friday, she went along to sign the final agreement.

And so it was that I found myself signed up to living in a flat without actually seeing it. We got the keys a bit earlier than planned, and I was able to go around there after work. Behind the church of the Scalzi, near the railway station, in a block originally built for railway workers.

It isn't perfect, but we'd realised that nowhere was going to tick every box and this ticked more than anywhere else we'd seen. Truth be told, the only real problem is the kitchen. In fact, it's not even the kitchen itself (which is bigger than the one we have now), but just the cooker hood and the fridge which the previous occupant had decided to paint an unpleasant shade of yellowy-brown. Why would anybody paint a fridge yellowy-brown? For that matter, why would anybody paint a fridge at all? I have no idea, but I can probably sort it out. I think I'm capable of painting a fridge. At the very least, I'm capable of ignoring it until I don't notice it any more.

So there we are. Two bedrooms, a bathroom with a proper stand-up shower at last, a decent-sized living room. A balcony that looks over a nicely-maintained communal garden. A shared altana that looks towards terra firma and the mountains on one side, and right over to the campanile of San Marco on the other. Ten minutes walk to Piazzale Roma, which should save us an hour of commuting every day; and just a short walk to the station in case of a bus strike.  I think we've been lucky.

I committed to renting a flat last week. For at least three years. Without even seeing it. Because my wife is brilliant.

Thursday, 6 March 2014


It sounded too good to be true.

A friend of a friend had a flat available for rent from early March. Near Rialto Mercato, overlooking the Grand Canal, private altana. 4+4 contract available, and no agent fees to pay. I looked at the photographs. It looked fantastic. But there was no way in hell we could afford this...surely...? Still, I mailed the owner and asked what the rent would be.

I blinked when I read her reply. This couldn't be true. How could you possibly rent a flat directly overlooking the Grand Canal for that much? Had she missed a zero off the end?

Neverthless, it seemed to be true. We had to wait an agonisingly long time to view it, but, finally, the existing tenants moved out, Caroline went along to take a look, and came back saying that - although completely unfurnished - it was also absolutely fantastic.

I ran through the figures. The rent seemed an incredible price for what it was, but still at the absolute upper limit of what we could afford. Then there'd be the cost of transporting our furniture and installing a new kitchen. It was more money than we should sensibly pay.

Yet, how could we not? A flat on the Grand Canal, at that price?

There was just one problem. The movida. Don't look this up in an Italian dictionary as it doesn't appear to exist, but the newspapers use it to describe giant pub crawls of young people moving from bar to bar late into the night. Campo Santa Margherita is the area most notoriously affected by the movida, but the areas round Piazzale Roma, Strada Nova and Rialto Mercato are also prone to it.

OK, this isn't a cemetery town (yet). Young people need a place to go, and in a city with only one nightclub (Piccolo Mondo, a place in which one of my students danced the night away in cheerful ignorance of an earthquake shaking the city outside) there have to be alternatives. But the problem with the movida is that the crowds spill out into the streets, where the combination of beery ranting and loud music blasting out from bars makes the area an absolute misery for those unfortunate enough to live in the vicinity.

Still. We've lived in Leith. How bad could it be? We'd set our hearts on the place, and I was due to go for a look around when the owner called to say she'd already let it.

We felt a bit crushed at first, until later that evening. We found ourselves walking home through Rialto Mercato, in the thick of the movida. It is almost impossible to describe just how ear-bleedingly noisy it was. Music hammered out from every conceivable space in an unholy cacophony, as the punters on the street bellowed themselves purple in a hopeless attempt to make themselves heard.

Conversation was impossible but, through the medium of sign language, I managed to ask Caroline if the flat was nearby. She pointed to an adjacent building, and a flat - three stories up - directly above the almighty row below. 

Ears ringing, we made our way home. Three nights of this every week? For the next four years? It had sounded too good to be true. It probably was.

Monday, 24 February 2014

You could do a lot with this place (cont.)...

I can hear a sharp intake of breath as soon as I give the location of the flat. Yes, it is still available - the agent explains - but it is in very poor condition.

I take a look at my notes.

'It is described as abitabile', I say.

'Abitabile, si. But in very poor condition.'

'Ah. right.'

'And the building is very poor, un brutto condominio...'


' fact, four people have seen it and said the condition was too bad for them to want it'.

I'm impressed by his honesty, although his sales patter possibly needs a bit of work. I'm just about to sign off politely when he interjects, 'But you should perhaps see it anyway!'

I agree. I have no idea why, but I agree.

Caroline heads off to see it the very next day. My hopes aren't high, yet she returns saying that - although it really is in a bit of a state - it's a lot of flat for the money and maybe, just maybe, with a bit of work...

'Are you saying', say I, 'that You Could Do A Lot With It?'

'Mmmm. Yes, I suppose so.'

I bite my tongue. We make an appointment to see it together.

On a bright Sunday morning we head off to Giudecca. The agent, an affable fellow who has lived there all his life, meets us at Zitelle. The building itself was originally constructed to house workers at the Junghans company, and is located in what I suppose we'd now call a gated community. We enter through a locked door, walk down a passage, and through a series of gardens, past a series of condominiums all of which, it has to be said, look in rather better condition than the one he leads us too.

He tells us to be careful as we make our way up the stairs, and gives the bannister a good shake to indicate how perilous it is. The flat itself is completely bare. There is not a stick of furniture in it. We'd need to get a new kitchen. The bathroom is functional, but a depressing shade of pink, and the plumbing is such that the washing machine drains directly into the bath.

And is a lot of flat for the money. The location is pretty good, there's a huge amount of space, two terraces (one of which looks out towards the back of the Redentore) and a small (if completely overgrown) garden. Yes, you really could do a lot with it...

Then reality kicks in. The whole place requires repainting. The skirting boards, door frames and some of the doors need replacing. The window fittings are rusting through. Half the of the shutters/blinds no longer work. The floor, I have to concede, is in excellent condition but I'm not sure that "nice floor" is enough of a selling point.

I could, I suppose, repaint it all myself if I felt like spending an entire Venetian summer redecorating an unairconditioned flat. The rest of it is way beyond me. It could look fantastic. It's more likely to be a money pit.

We smile politely, and tell the agent we'll let him know...

Friday, 14 February 2014

What do you miss?

I was recently asked this question on Facebook, and thought it deserved a proper response.

The obvious answer is 'friends'. The more frivolous answer would be 'beer', but it's surprising how quickly the human body can adapt to a diet of spritzes and vino sfuso. I'm not sure if we miss the food or not. Whenever we return to the UK, we try and cross off those things we can't get in Italy - fish and chips, pies, Indian and Chinese food. But somehow fish and chips is never quite as nice as you remember and - after a week of Trad British Staples - we're usually ready for Italian food again. It feels like detoxing. We would like to find a decent Indian or Chinese restaurant over here though.

There are some aspects of our cultural life that we miss (I really did try not to use the phrase, "our cultural life" but it seemed unavoidable. Please feel free to report me to Pseud's Corner in Private Eye). We used to go to the theatre on an almost weekly basis. We don't do that anymore. Maybe we should persevere at the Teatro Goldoni. We used to go to an art event or an opening almost every week - again, we don't do that anymore, although the Biennale kind of makes up to it.

Italian television isn't up to much, but nearly everything we want to watch is available in various degrees of legality. And I think I might even prefer RAI3 to Radio 3.

I don't go to as many concerts as I used to. On the other hand, I take part in more, which seems like a fair exchange. But there is one thing I miss more than anything else. I used to love going to the opera, whether it was Scottish Opera at home in Edinburgh, or travelling down to see WNO in Cardiff. Ten pounds would buy you a perfectly good seat with an unrestricted view. Fifty quid would get you the best seat in the house. That is not the case over here. We saw a pretty good Madama Butterfly at La Fenice last year. Well-enough played and sung, and the set was beautifully designed. Or rather, what we could see of the set seemed to be beautifully designed. The cost was 85 euros. At that sort of price, a visit has to be a very occasional treat. So we find ourselves living five minutes walk from an opera house, something that would once have been my dream, and yet we rarely go there.

So there we have it - completely against my expectations, the thing I most miss about living in Italy is...the opera. You have to appreciate the irony, at least!

Monday, 3 February 2014

You could do a lot with this place...

You know, you could do a lot with this place...

Flashback to 2002, and a place we now refer to as "the crumbling gothic pile"; a flat in Edinburgh we lived in for two years because I was strangely smitten with its, well, crumbliness. I thought we could do a lot with it. In the end, I fitted a new shower curtain. It didn't really transform the place. We moved out shortly after dry rot was discovered...

Ever since then "you could do a lot with this place" has been the siren and blue flashing light that indicates "Stop now. Do not even think about this." And yet, the other day, I saw somewhere that was a bit run down, a bit shabby and yet...with a lick of paint and our own furniture...yeah, we could do a lot with it. I reported this back to Caroline, who went to see it on her own, and came back to me more in sorrow than in anger...

Still, there are other possibilities at the moment. An apartment near San Lorenzo seemed almost ideal. Almost. The agent assured us it was esente acqua alta. I wasn't 100% convinced as I couldn't help noticing that all the furniture had been moved on top of the tables, and a water pump was placed directly by the front door. Still, he assured us it was no problem unless the water level reached 140cm. OK, there was no sign of damp or water damage so he might well have been correct. Then the owner's friend turned up and, before he could be stopped, said he'd come to see if there was any water damage after the recent floods. I'm not saying we're writing it off just yet, but still...

The other place, down in Castello, is similarly almost perfect. Compact and bijou, or, if you prefer, the size of a matchbox; but it's nicely finished off and the neighbours seem lovely. We got well and truly lost on our way back home (heading for Arsenale, we somehow managed to arrive at Celestia) but that was an excuse to stop for a restorative drink and the first fritelle of the year at Rosa Salva.

So nothing has been sorted as yet but at least - after weeks when nothing much seemed to be happening - things are moving a bit now.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Project 2014

The signora fumbles with her keys, but the door opens more easily than expected. It swings open, and a glance confirms that the lock has splintered away from the frame. Somebody has tried to break in.

She smiles, and looks a little embarrassed. I smile back, in a 'well, these things happen' kind of way. She looks apologetic. We both know that her job has just become that little bit more difficult.

The rest of the apartment confirms our suspicions, but she does her best to talk it up. The floor, in particular, is very nice; but once you raise your eyes, it's immediately apparent that that's all it has going for it. There's plenty of space, but it feels run-down and shabby. There was once a pretty good balcony, but an unsuccessful attempt has been made to glass in the top part and it's held together with masking tape. Half of the balustrade itself has been covered up with chip board, the other half open to the elements. An abandoned exercise bike in the spare room strikes a poignant yet slightly threatening note. All-in-all, it's probably the most depressing interior space we've seen in Venice. Our neighbours appear to be students on one side, and anarchists on the other.

No. We're not going to spend the next four years here, no matter how cheap it might be (and it's not even that cheap). It's our turn to smile apologetically, and we make our excuses and leave.

This year's Project is to secure a place on a proper long-term contract. Ideally un- or partly-furnished, so that we can start moving our stuff over from the UK. Caroline informs me that an outside space is non-negotiable. We'd also like to have a cat. So that narrows our options down.

We saw an almost ideal flat in San Marco. Almost, with the caveat that the area is on the main tourist drag, with few normal shops or bars. And more expensive than we'd like. And with seventy steps to climb every day. Oh, and the owner wouldn't let us have a cat either. Put like that, it doesn't really seem that ideal at all. Nevertheless, we swithered for a couple of days before deciding no.

Still, we've got ten weeks left and people from the coro have been keen to help ("we don't want to lose a bass, Philip"). Something will turn up...