Who hasn't longed to escape to the enchanting canals and mysterious alleyways of Venice? Globetrotting writer Paula Weideger not only dreamed the dream, she took the leap. In Venetian Dreaming, she charts the course of her love affair with one of the world's most treasured cities. Weideger's search for a place to live eventually takes her to the Palazzo Donà dalle Rose, one of the rare Venetian palaces continuously inhabited by the family that built it. She weaves the past lives of the family Donà with her own adventures as she threads her way through the labyrinthine city. Art and architecture are a constant presence. Yet even more strongly felt is the passage of time, the panorama of the seasons as reflected in special events -- Carnival, the Film Festival, September's historic regatta, midnight mass at San Marco. We follow Weideger as she explores the Ghetto, the expatriate community, and the lives of locals from noblemen to boatmen. Along the way she encounters everyone from the ghost of Peggy Guggenheim to the Merchant Ivory crowd, and experiences some high drama with the Contessa, her landlady. The resulting memoir is a wry and illuminating, intelligent and tender account of the once grand heritage and now imperiled future of Venice.
How was I going to find a place to live in Venice? I didn't want to go to a Venetian real estate agency. Ciao and buon giorno was all the Italian I knew. Either people wouldn't understand me or, if they did, they'd assume I was after one of those apartments especially done up for Americans. I could do without the power shower and the inflated rent.
Then I learned that there are freelance experts in Venetian rentals who run their businesses from offices or kitchen tables in London, New York, Paris -- and, for all I knew, Berlin and Tokyo. By fax or e-mail or on their Web sites they give out details about properties, complete with color photographs. I got the name of one of these cottage industrialists and called to ask for her list.
A week later it came. I sat at the breakfast table, looked at the professionally produced brochure and drooped. I might as well have been studying a catalogue of mail-order brides. I couldn't connect the pictures and the descriptions with me. Or with Venice.
While there was a certain amount of variation in the size, fanciness and price, all of them had the homogenized look of photographs in glossy travel magazines. I wanted something else.
I tossed the booklet on the table, hrumphing.
I got no sympathy from the man across the table.
"I'm not going. I never said I would," was Henry's response.
I reminded him that we had agreed to spend half our time in his hometown and half in mine. But I'd been in England for ages and had accumulated quite a stack of fair-is-fair days, say a couple of years' worth. I wanted to start drawing on them. It was only right.
Henry saw my point. Unfortunately, he was more convinced than ever that life was meant to be lived in his house in London with all his papers, his books, his things.
We made a deal. I could have my way. Gradually.
We would go to Venice for a month. Then, if I still wanted to, we could go again, trying a different season, maybe staying a little longer. You get the idea. He wasn't promising anything, but...
Now all I had to do was to find us a place to live.
"You can't expect me to be involved if I don't want to go," was the message from across the table. The conversational circle was complete. The search for an apartment was to be mine and mine alone.
We had no friends in Venice. In fact, we didn't know anybody there. And, most inconveniently, I'd concluded that real estate agents, amateur or professional, were not for me.
I had little choice. I would have to trust to chance.
I do not mean that all of a sudden I turned passive. I told every person I met, every stranger and friend, that I was looking for a place to rent in Venice. I rolled the only dice I had. I rolled them again and again.
I had been back from the Biennale more than three months. It was autumn and I wanted to return to Venice in the winter or early spring. Nothing was happening on the apartment front so I put my energy into what I could do something about. I prepared myself for our eventual return.
Diligently, one hour every day I labored at a home study course in Italian. I listened to the tapes, read the grammar book and did the written exercises. Just me and the course. I didn't have to suffer by comparison with the faster learners. I could stop, rewind the tapes, and repeat the lesson as many times as I needed to get the exercises right. I would never master Italian in two months or whatever absurdly breezy estimate the company had dangled before me, but I was learning something. That was progress enough given my history with languages.
I understand some Yiddish because my mother and hers spoke it when they didn't want me to know what they were gabbing about. And in high school and college I had taken French. Too little stuck. Even a spell living in Paris did not result in much improvement.
This time I was determined to stay with it. Knowing Italian seemed essential if I was going to get close to Venice. For that reason, too, I studied Venetian history.
Blessed London Library. The unaired paper smell of its stacks and the reverberating ping of the wobbly, openwork metal steps as I clambered from history to typography to literature are part of the pleasure of spending time there. But above all, of course, there were the books -- books that I could take home.
I had piles of books on my desk. I did my Italian lessons, read my books about Venice and I waited. Then, at last, I got lucky.
My friend, "the garden designer to stars," called one night from New York. I'd known Debby when she was an architectural historian who longed to create gardens but was doubtful she could earn a living doing it. Now, she was overseeing everything from the placement of instant, mature apple orchards to the creation of ornamental vegetable patches on the grounds of ranches, haciendas, country estates and oceanfront cottages. Debby was forever flying around the United States or to her clients' hideaways offshore.
It wasn't strange that she called instead of sending a letter. Debby's life is so frenetic that she doesn't have time to sit down to write her friends. Yet unusually for someone who is so rushed that her own mail often piles up unread at home, she told me that she'd just been browsing through the classifieds in The New York Review of Books.
"There's an ad for an apartment in Venice," Debby said. "Are you still looking for one?"
"Yes," I answered.
"I'll fax it to you," she replied.
Minutes later the ad came chugging through my machine:
RENT AN APARTMENT IN A VENETIAN PALACE FOR LESS THAN THE COST OF A MOTEL ROOM IN KANSAS CITY.
The ad was cute, astute and effective. I was convinced this place wouldn't be too expensive and, with such a canny, funny person promoting it, the apartment probably would be sympathetic, too.
Immediately, I wrote asking for more information. As I was about to send my fax, I noticed that the phone number was for Brooklyn, not Italy. Was this an apartment owned by some American who was now trying to pay off his/her mortgage via short-term rentals? I felt a little bit let down.
One week went by. No response. Then two. Since I'd decided that I'd found the place I was looking for -- and because I had no other leads -- I was desperate.
Hoping that the Brooklyn fax was also a telephone, I dialed. It was. In my antsiness, however, I'd muddled the time difference. The woman who answered sounded groggy. I apologized for waking her.
The apartment did not belong to her, she told me. She was only taking messages for her friend. She would pass my query on to him. He was home, in Venice.
I perked up on hearing the owner was Venetian.
I didn't want to be in Venice only to be enveloped by her beauty, I wanted to become as intimate with the city as I could. It seemed to me that renting an apartment from another American would keep me at a remove. Maybe this was sentimental, naive and/or romantic, possibly even bogus, yet the funny thing is it did make a difference to be dealing with a Venetian. For one thing it meant that our business was conducted in Venetian time: His reply to my first fax took five and a half weeks. This was not a sign of disinterest on Filipo's part.
His faxes to me always began "Dear Ms. Weideger." To me he was always Mr. Pontini. This was lesson number two. Venetians are formal people.
The apartment Mr. Pontini wished to rent was in Palazzo Dolfin, he wrote. It had two bedrooms, two baths, a living room and a good kitchen. The rent was $1500 for the month.
"I'll take it," I shouted to the fax machine.
To ensure that I would be satisfied, Filipo Pontini suggested I telephone the current tenants. They were American, too.
The woman who answered the phone was a New Yorker in fact. And enthusiastic. She described the furniture, pictures and layout.
"The place has everything you'll need," she told me. "The only thing I had to bring was my kitchen knife."
While I was turning this one over, she amplified. "I'm a cooking maven," she announced.
My mavenhood is more in the department of views. "Can you see water?" I asked.
"The apartment is on a canal," she said, sounding guarded. "If you look straight down, out of the window, you can see it." She was speaking so slowly, I imagined she was sticking her head outside to double-check before committing herself. "But you can hear gondoliers singing all day long," she added in a rush. This, she seemed to believe, should do the trick. After all, where there are gondoliers there must be water, so it was practically the same thing.
I faxed Mr. Pontini as soon as I hung up. I said I would like to take the apartment for the month of November, or February if that was not possible.
His reply came in the form of a contract for November. (February was already spoken for.) This document was not a stock item purchased from a legal stationery store but a personally crafted, exceptionally detailed list of my obligations and the monies due. There was information about the security deposit, telephone charges, cancellation fee. It was so detailed that I realized I'd been wrong when I'd taken Mr. Pontini for an advertising copywriter. Clearly he was a banker, accountant or stockbroker. (A long time passed before I discovered that Filipo is a radical, left-wing journalist. I enjoyed the joke, although he did not, when I let him in on it.)
"Shall I send the security and rent by wire transfer?" I inquired.
"No, that's not necessary," Mr. Pontini replied.
I was to mail it. Again I received explicit instructions about what to do.
With care I followed every one. Then I double-checked that the account number and the spelling of the name of the man at the bank was exactly as he'd told me. I took the letter to the post office. The deal was done.
But I wouldn't believe it until the check was safely deposited.
The silence which followed was terrible. The closer I came to getting what I wanted, the more anxious I was about losing it.
More silence. Finally, shaking a little, I telephoned Venice.
"Ah hello," said Mr. Pontini, in a guarded if cheerful voice. Then he paused. It was a long pause.
"There has been a problem," he said.
He did not sound chirpy anymore.
"What problem?" I asked tensely.
"Someone else has taken the apartment for November, December and January."
"How could they?" I bleated. "I sent you a check immediately, exactly as you asked."
"Um, yes," he acknowledged, "but the money from the people in Canada got to my bank first."
"I hadn't realized it was a contest," I said sharply.
Obviously the Canadians contacted him after me and, not wanting to lose a three-month rental, he'd had them cable money to his bank.
If I had still been living in New York this would have catapulted me straight into battle. Well I wasn't. So I employed a tactic I'd picked up from the English: I climbed onto the moral high ground. Venice wasn't London but you never could tell.
"How can you go back on our agreement?" I asked Filipo Pontini in what I trusted was a deeply affronted voice. "I did everything you asked. I followed every instruction."
"Don't worry," he said, soothingly. "I have a solution. I have arranged for you to rent another place. It is the apartment of my sister. It is comparable in every way -- except there is only one bathroom. But the view is even better," he assured me.
I did not feel trusting, but I could hardly call his sister and ask "Is your apartment nice?" Either I gave up the plan to spend November in Venice or I accepted his offer.
"Okay," I said. "But since there is one less bathroom, how about subtracting a hundred dollars from the rent?"
Starting out life as a Jewish girl in New York had certain things in common with being born and raised a Venetian, it seemed. Mr. Pontini and I had made a deal.
• • •
Henry and I flew to Marco Polo Airport. Marco Polo. Even the name of Venice's airport sounds romantic. (Now that I think about it, that's probably why local people insist on calling it Tessera, the name of the district where it was built.)
The airport, on the mainland directly across the northern lagoon, is so close that people in Venice can almost see the planes touching down. However, getting from the airport to the city by public transportation is hardly speedy, whether by land or sea.
We had been advised to take the blue bus to Piazzale Roma. The bus doesn't have outside storage bins so we hoisted our heavy suitcases on board. For ten minutes we sat and waited and then with a jolt we were off. Two hours earlier in London the grass was green and a few delicate pink roses were still tossing their heads in my garden. But all along this route the fields were brown and the trees bare.
The houses and factories we passed, together with the flatness of the terrain, made me think of New Jersey. They'd reminded Hemingway, a Midwesterner, of Hammond, Indiana. Much the same, I imagine: blighted, ungainly, sad. And so was Piazzale Roma, the last stop for the bus that crosses low over the lagoon on the causeway that connects mainland Italy to Venice. Piazzale Roma is a large, asphalt-covered, open space with a row of grim, gray, multistory parking garages at one end. We were entering the city through its scruffy back door.
Ah but once we passed through it, there was Venezia....Pink and ocher against the slate blue gray sky, its palaces standing erect or listing slightly on both sides of the Grand Canal, Venice became Byron's "fairy city of the heart."
We followed Mr. Pontini's instructions and took the vaporetto to the Rialto stop.
Henry is usually our navigator. But I'd found the apartment and I was responsible for us being in Venice, so I was going to lead the way.
I wish someone had told me that it's possible to hire a porter at Rialto (also at San Marco). He would have stacked our luggage on a dolly and taken us to our new home. It wouldn't have cost more than ten or fifteen dollars. A bargain. Instead we pulled our heavy suitcases along, heading inland from the Rialto vaporetto stop. Fortunately, there was plenty to distract me as we walked: the narrow streets, the canals and the furs.
Never before had I seen such coats: Long, short, fingertip length. There were furs with ruffles, furs with pleats or gathers; deep cuffs, double collars. Furs with swing, others belted and straight hanging. There were furs that looked like ski parkas and others modeled on a general's overcoat, complete with hairy epaulets. Some furs climbed up and down while others ran around the body horizontally. As for the colors: there were blue coats and mauve ones, maroon furs as well as those that were in such approximately natural tones as tawny, toffee and chocolate.
I did not have a fur coat of any sort or shade. I came to Venice from London where even cloth coats with interlining are scarce. (England has two fashion seasons: summer and the rest.) But for the moment I didn't notice how cold it was. The labor of carrying my bags through the streets kept me all too toasty.
I'd worked out where Campo Santa Marina was on my street map and I'd planned a route. In a few minutes we came into a square lined with shops selling dresses, suits and linens. This was Campo San Bartolomeo just as it should be according to the itinerary in my head.
At the center of the square was a statue of a man in a frocked coat and tricornered hat. He was standing on a tall plinth. When we got closer we discovered that this was Carlo Goldoni. Not long before we'd seen one of his plays in London -- in Venetian dialect. Not that I would have understood it in pure Italian. But it was one of those plays that you can follow, broadly, without knowing the language. Everybody had carried on with such gusto that even when, supposedly, they were suffering, I felt buoyed up just watching them. I was feeling much the same right now.
Clumps of people were milling around Goldoni. Teenagers, scraggly and smart; mothers with babies in strollers. There were carefully dressed men in soft camel's hair coats and slicked-back gray hair. Matrons, too, had congregated. Most of them were wearing suits; a few also wore buttery gloves. But what struck me most was the marvelous noise.
Everyone was babbling away. We had traveled south over the Alps. The city of heavy silences was now far behind us. I wasn't merely pleased, I was thrilled.
Feeling bouncy, I led the way out of Campo San Bartolomeo. Not five minutes later, we were in hell.
"You said you knew the way," Henry remarked, grimly.
"I thought I did," I answered weakly. Evidently somewhere between my scrutiny of the map and our setting off, the route had run away from me. I had no idea which way to go next.
Henry glowered. He opened his map and began studying.
From San Bartolomeo with its jaunty statue of Goldoni and its lively Venetians, we had marched off in the wrong direction. We would have to backtrack and set out again.
My suitcase was stuffed with books and winter clothes. I was also carting a carry-on bag holding both my laptop and camera. All this would have to be hauled back over the terrain we'd just negotiated. I huffed and lugged, going up the steps of bridges and then struggling to keep control of my suitcase as it bounced and twisted wildly down. By the time we found Campo Santa Marina we were red-faced, tired and late. We were also not speaking.
Entering the square I noticed a small white poodle standing outside a pet shop. He seemed a comical circus performer compared to our serene giant Zephyr. But I took it as a welcoming sign just the same. A stack of birdcages was piled up behind him. In one of them there was a restless mynah. Many mornings during the month that followed, I was greeted by its metallic ciao.