Sunday, 21 December 2014

Christmas 2014

Well, as you might have noticed, I've taken a bit of a break from the blog.

   There are a few reasons for this. I've been busy at work and I've got another Project on the go, which hasn't left me time to keep it up to date. And, to be honest, when I look back at the past few months of the blog I have to ask myself if the world really needs to be kept informed as to the state of our kitchen or how the cat is doing.

   We'd expected to pass summer in places like Chioggia, Trieste or Vicenza. With the exception of a single day in Florence with out great friends PJ, Claire, Caitlin and Logan, it didn't work out like that. We spent more time in places like Campodarsego (cat), Mirano (swimming pool) and Fiesso d'Artico (very good sushi restaurant with Groupon deals!). We spent rather a lot of time in Padova, but, as that was nearly all at IKEA, that doesn't count. But still, the flat is at least on its way to being sorted out now. Chioggia will still be there next year.

   We went back to work in October. Caroline no longer has to deal with infants or chaotic school classes! This did, however, leave her with late evening classes that meant she typically got back home at 10.30pm four nights a week. Still, that side of it seems to be finished for now so hopefully the new year will be easier. I have my my usual classes of kids and not-very-advanced adults. And yes, I still love it. I had the chance to teach business English at an ultra-posh hotel in Venice but just didn't have the time to schedule it in. I'm not saying where, but if you picked up a newspaper or switched your television on during the latter part of September you'd almost certainly have seen it. On the plus side I've picked up a nice little side job as lettore in a school in town and the same place wants Caroline to start with exam prep classes in the New Year.  This does mean that January to April are going to be insanely busy, but should give us some useful extra money for next summer.

   Finally, there is no use in pretending that 2014, with the passing of my sister, was anything other than a brutal year. It's difficult to write about, but the loss hits you in strange, unexpected ways. A Christmas Card with three names on it instead of four. Her LinkedIn profile, still there, on my page. Posting a picture of the cat,  thinking momentarily that "Helen will like this" and then the sadness that - of course - it's "would have liked..."

   On we go then. 2015, hopefully, will be better. We'll have been here for three years now, come next March. So we don't really have a Project any more, it's just sort of Normal Life and perhaps Normal Life isn't really interesting enough to continue writing (or, indeed, reading) about. We'll see. But in the meantime, for those of you who are still reading, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014


Let's backtrack a bit. When we moved into the flat, most things were in order, except for the kitchen which was, in all honesty, a bit of a dog's breakfast. It looked like this :-

The cooker was spanking new, but the good news ended there. The only work surface was an orange picnic table that required me to bend almost double. I improvised by balancing a chopping board on the sink as a workaround. And then there was the mustard-yellow fridge. It wasn't nice to look at, and its best days were clearly behind it as it no longer kept anything cooler than lukewarm. The landlord, fortunately, agreed to replace it.

It left the kitchen looking like this :-

Better, yes. Not so much of a preponderance of yellow. It still left me with nowhere to work, and the nearest thing to a kitchen cabinet was a cardboard box of pans under the sink.

So we ordered a budget set of cabinets from IKEA in Padova. Caroline spent pretty much the entire summer working on this : what was affordable, how much space it would leave us and - crucially - how to get it home. Because if you order stuff for delivery to Venice, they will hit you with a delivery charge of at least 198 euros. However, if you order your parts in discrete packages of thirty kilos or less, you just pay a courier charge of 10 euros each. A logistical nightmare and a mathematical problem of Hawking-like proportions; but nevertheless she worked it out.  The courier was sympathetic, although after the penultimate delivery a note of desperation entered his voice as he asked me if there were many more to come.

Flat packs then. Older readers will remember the time when you bought flat-pack furniture with MFI. Everything fitted together with screws, dowels and glue. You swore at the doors when they refused to fit, and six months later everything started to come apart anyway. But IKEA stuff is a bit different. There's a bit of weight and solidity to it. And, in the case of a kitchen, you can't just fit it together with an Allen key. Proper DIY, and proper tools are needed.

Still, I'm a bit of a whizz at flat-packs. I can put together a Billy bookcase in twenty minutes, so this held no fear for me. Until I looked at the instructions and came across the dispiriting first sentence First ensure your wall is straight.

A cursory check revealed that the wall was not straight. I have no idea how you go about straightening a wall. It would therefore have to remain defiantly un-straight.

Putting the cabinets together was straightforward enough although, interestingly, you still need to give the doors a good swear to get them on. 

The next step was to hang them on the (un-straight) wall. Not so easy as it involved drilling through tiles into masonry. A friend lent me a drill - not a hammer drill, not a masonry drill, but better than nothing. It worked up to a point. All tiles remained uncracked, but it took approximately 30 minutes per hole. Ten holes were needed. It was a long day...

That just left the work surface. Now, if you want a made-to-measure surface, they have to order one in from abroad. Leading to a delivery cost of another 198 euros. No. We weren't going to do that. We'd order the standard size one, and I'd cut it to size. I'd no real idea how to go about this, but I figured I could just take it along to Ratti or somewhere and ask them to do it. 

And then it arrived. Two metres in length, two centimetres thick, and thirty kilos in weight. It nearly killed me just getting it up the stairs. No way in hell was I going to be able to transport it across town. And cutting it with a handsaw would be physically impossible. It needed a power saw

Fortunately our neighbour lent me a jig saw. Two centimetres was pretty much at the limit of its tolerance but, after nearly ninety minutes I emerged triumphant. The kitchen stank of burning wood and sawdust, which had settled over every last surface in the flat. The blade of the saw was almost worn smooth. The thought of the amount of clearing up involved could have reduced me to tears. It would have to wait until the next day. Right now, Strong Drink in Copious Quantities was called for.

Still it's done now :-

Not quite perfect perhaps but any imperfections, I thought, could be blamed on The Wall That Is Not Straight.  There's still the question of what to do with the sink - a chipped and battered old thing that badly needs replacing - but in the meantime, we have a perfectly functioning kitchen with a splendid new work surface.

The only question now is - how do we keep the cat off it??

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

A New Day Yesterday

In 1971, the rock band Jethro Tull released the album Aqualung, one of the highlights of what would become a near forty year career. At the time, the headline "Jethro - now the world's biggest band?" appeared in the  New Musical Express (and everybody believes what they read in the NME). It has since sold over seven million copies. Not bad for a concept album where the central figure is a slightly-more-than-sleazy tramp, which compares the positive aspects of religious belief against the bad things that happen when such belief becomes institutionalised, and - perhaps most significantly - is performed by a band who would not be allowed on television today for fear of frightening the children.

   Drummer Clive Bunker left the band shortly afterwards. He was getting married and, rather sweetly, wanted to spend more time at home instead of being on the road constantly. It's a fair bet that he never envisaged that, one day, he'd be the special guest star in a Tull tribute band in front of an audience of a couple of hundred Venetian communists.

   The annual festival for the Refounded Communist Party is, I think, my favourite festival in Venice. It's in Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio, the loveliest square in the city,  and you get a serious discussion followed by a band. Chances are you'll buy a bottle of wine for 5 euros as well. There's even merchandise - The Struggle needs to move with the times, after all - so I get a Gramsci fridge magnet, and Caroline a Bella Ciao t-shirt .

   Friday night is a leaving do for one of our teacher colleagues, Chris, returning to the UK after two years in Venice. He was young when the Tull were old, but doesn't object to going along. And the band - for an old Tull fan like myself - are somewhere between fantastic and magnificent. What we get are the best bits from the albums Stand Up and Aqualung along with a suite from Thick as a Brick and, wonderfully, my favourite ever track, 'Hunting Girl' from Songs from the Wood (at which point, I must confess, Extreme Pint Dancing might have occurred).

   The musicians are all first-class, the singer makes a pretty good attempt at Ian Anderson's voice, and Clive - well Clive is a better drummer now than he was when he was famous. I haven't seen him since the Tull's twentieth anniversary reunion in 1998. Today he resembles a dapper Spike Milligan, if you can imagine such a thing. At the end of the gig, he engages in a ten minute Battle of the Drummers with the band's regular batterista  (a very good young lad who, at the end, bows down before the wise old master). I have to be honest and say I enjoy the evening far more than the last time I saw the actual band themselves. All those old, old songs seem fresh and new. Most importantly, there's the feeling that everybody is having the time of their lives.

   I'm trying not to be too much of a fanboy, but I wait for him to come off stage and shake his hand. "That was fantastic, mate" I babble. If he's surprised at my accent, he doesn't show it. "Well thank you very much sir!" he says. And with that, this modest man of Rock makes his way into the night.

Mi chiamano Mimi

'Mi chiamano Mimi, ma non so il perchè' (they call me Mimi, but I don't know why)  - Giacomo Puccini, La Boheme.

Of course, we go for the sad cat.

There was a temptation to go for one of the kittens, but they wouldn't be ideal in a flat where one or both of us might be away for hours at a time. Similarly, it's tempting to go for a rescue cat from the Dingo charity - but a street cat is unlikely to settle to being an indoor cat or to be your pal.

So we bring her home from Campodarsego. She whinges just a little bit on the way but, on the whole she's good as gold. She hides behind the washing machine when we get her home, but not for long.

Anyway, the name. At the cattery they tell us that the previous owner had got her gender wrong, and called her Pippo. A perfectly good name, of course, except that it's a boy's name and the diminutive of mine. To name a cat after yourself would seem an act of extreme egotism, and we'd have to explain the gender mix-up every time we introduced her. So we try to come up with something that sounds just a little bit similar that she'll get used to. I think of Mimi. The sad heroine of La Boheme seems appropriate for a slightly sad cat.

Anyway, here are some pictures.

This is a luxury kitty villa :-

This is a lovingly-crafted piece of art by an Edinburgh artisan :-

You can probably guess where she prefers to sleep.

Here's a picture of Caroline peering out from behind Mimi on the table on our balcony :-

And here's me, with one of my lovely girls :-

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Blood on the cats

There's still a fair amount of work to be done in the flat. Try to get the kitchen sorted, make the spare room usable, put my Doctor Who DVDs into chronological order. And we want to get a cat. Now there are various ways of doing this (La Nuova used to run a "cute cat in desperate need of a home" feature every week) but we eventually settled on, an online equivalent of the Exchange and Mart which led us to a cattery in Campodarsego, a small town on the outskirts of Padua. A town, it seems, that is almost impossible to reach by public transport.  They also seem to have no bus service at all. As we trudge the last two kilometres on foot, on one of the hottest days of the year, I start to think that these cats had better be suitably grateful.

We want a black cat of course. Not for any particular nefarious or sorcerous reason, but just because we wear a lot of black. However, the only one on offer - a kitten of 3 months, described as furbo ('crafty') - really doesn't want to know us. I pick him up, he scrabbles away furiously, I let him drop before any major arteries can be severed. Frankly, he's blown his chance. His brother, however, is possibly the nicest cat in the world. He just wants to be cuddled and have a good old purr. But he's still a kitten. He wants to be running around doing mad stuff and breaking things. He's not ideal for a flat.

Elsewhere, Caroline finds a modestly friendly older kitten. He shows no objection to being picked up. He seems to love it. In fact he seems to love it so much that he never wants to let go and his claws are locking on. Caroline is oblivious but I notice that he's actually drawn blood. Her upper arm is bleeding. In fact she's bleeding on the cat. Not just on a dark part either, but on the white bits. We detach him, and set him down; hoping that nobody will notice.

The final one is an adult of 18 months. Her previous owner has died so, from being an only cat with an elderly lady owner, she finds herself in a relatively confined space and surrounded by a host of strange and noisy felines for the first time in her life. She seems gentle and good natured, and yet terribly sad...

It has to be one of them...but which one...?

And so it was that I found myself this evening walking to the Festa di Liberazione, the annual celebration of the Refounded Communist Party, resplendent in my best Che Guevara T-shirt and carrying a shocking pink cat basket. I think I cut a bella figura.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

August 7th

Disclaimer: There is nothing about Venice, or Italy, in this entry. You may find the contents upsetting, and the last thing I want to do is upset anybody. But, quite simply, this is something I had to write...

The cars have arrived, says Caroline. We won't be leaving for another ten minutes, but maybe we should go outside and take a look. Maybe it'd be less of a shock.

Mum and Dad have already left for the church. I'm glad of this. There will be friends there waiting for them, they'll be looked after.

I go outside. I'm feeling ok, shaky, but in control.

There are floral tributes from the family. A wreath in the shape of the Welsh flag. I spot ours, with our card attached. I'd initially thought of a few lines from John Donne, but Caroline's suggestion was better : they shall have stars at elbow and foot. Dylan Thomas' "And Death shall have no Dominion." And then, the coffin. Covered in a Welsh flag.

My sister.

I go back inside. I'm still ok. Just about. Not much time for more than a few deep breaths, and to splash my face with cold water. Then it's time to go.

The church is lovely. Her husband, somehow, reads the eulogy. More than that, he does it brilliantly. And then it's my turn. Ecclesiastes chapter 3, verses 1:6. To everything there is a season. The verses, so familiar, can easily sound like a banal shopping list of the obvious. I dig deep into the words, trying to wrest the meaning from them. Because they aren't banal at all, but perhaps the most beautifully concise expression of our journey through life ever expressed.

More readings, more poetry, more personal memories. Everywhere I look faces are etched with pain.
The final hymn, "Guide me oh thou Great Redeemer".

Then to the cemetery for the interment. A beautiful spot. In an adjacent field a man is racing a pony and gig. The coffin, still covered in its flag, is lowered in. It looks so small. Surely she was taller than this? I pick up a handful of earth, kiss the back of my hand, and cast it in. I think I say something, but can't remember exactly what. Then brush the dust from my hands and walk away.

The wake is easier. All those friends and relatives to speak to and lots of happy memories. There are people I haven't seen since our wedding. Fourteen years, and it took this to bring us all together again...

I knew her for 45 of my 47 years. There has never been a period in my life in which I was not aware of her being. Yet I have to admit that I did not know her as well as her friends and new family. They knew her better than I ever did. For the last 25 years we had lived hundreds, sometime thousands of miles apart. She knew almost everything of interest about me yet there were sides of her that I knew nothing about. I should have made those calls, written those letters, sent those texts...

I expect the next morning to be easier. Instead I pass an uneasy night; music and words from the funeral echoing through my head all night long. I drive Caroline to Luton airport. I still feel raw, bruised, fragile. I'm going off to meet some old friends in Wales for the weekend, but it doesn't seem right. We should be going home together. She gives me a hug.  You need to do this. This will do you good. Hugs and kisses and I drive off.

I'm tired, so tired, so I take it carefully. Hours of driving along anonymous motorways. I channel surf between Radios 3 and 4, but nothing is really engaging me. And then something wonderful happens. At the precise moment of crossing into Wales, Vaughan Williams' beautiful, spectral Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis begins. The sky clears, and the hilly landscape of Powys unfolds before me. So lovely. Equal to anything back home. I wipe away another tear. In 30 minutes there will be the company of friends and laughter. And at this moment, at this perfect moment, it feels good to be alive.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Tourists behaving badly

I try not to moan about tourists. It's not nice and it can sound snobbish. If someone has come all the way from Japan to spend 36 hours here, is it really so intolerable that they can't speak Italian and don't know that they should keep to the right? We're not tourists any more, but neither are we Venetians. We're in a sort of halfway state of "people who've lived here for a bit". So I try not to give visitors a hard time. We were in their shoes once, and we probably got things wrong and annoyed the locals as well.

Nevertheless, there are those moments when you look at the newspaper and think...what did I just read?

If there is an award for "We're on holiday, we can do what the hell we like" it has to go to the couple who were filmed having sex on the Scalzi bridge. In broad daylight. Behaviour which is (a) undignified, (b) uncomfortable and (c) likely to result (for one party at least)  in a sunburnt bottom. For those of you who don't know, the Scalzi is not hidden away in a romantic, unknown part of town. It's next to the railway station, and one of the busiest parts of town. You might as well whip your trousers off in the middle of St Mark's Basilica.

But pride of place for genuinely stupid (if, it has to be said, amusing) behaviour goes to the Kosovan guy who - upon discovering he'd missed his boat back to the Lido - decided he could make his own way home by stealing a vaporetto from the depot and heading off into uncharted waters. He was stopped before getting too far, but - even though this is obviously reprehensible and anti-social behaviour - part of me almost admires the mad ambition of his slightly-the-worse-for wear mind. Can't get home? Why, I'll just borrow a boat. And not just any boat but one the size of a bus! It's a shame he was stopped before hitting the open seas, sailing into an uncertain future to become the stuff of Darwin Awards and Urban Legends.

As I said, I try not to moan about "those people". But as a wise man (let's call him "Pete") once said..."the trouble with those that once you stop being one them...they become a pain in the neck."

Wednesday, 30 July 2014


Caroline arrives back from the butcher's having spent more there than I would have thought possible. She usually comes away with sufficient meaty products to get us through the week and change from ten euros. But this time proper money has been spent. We have a rabbit (which will make us a roast dinner, a pasta sauce and stock) and two pieces of beef. This is where it gets a bit difficult. We can't really identify what type of cut it is. It looks a bit like a rib of beef which has been cut into two steaks. Now, this is a bit of a shame, as - had it been kept in one piece - a roast rib of beef would have been a great treat; but, given what we have, I don't think that's going to be feasible without overcooking them.

The butcher said they could be cooked in the same way as a Florentine steak. Now, strictly speaking, these are not the same thing at all; but, after having trimmed away the bone and some of the excess fat (so they lie flat in the pan), I am still left with two fine-looking steaks, perhaps 3/4" thick.  If I had a rolling pin to hand, I would flatten them to a uniform thickness, but the rolling pin is still lost in a random box somewhere, and a look around the kitchen reveals a shortage of suitable battering implements. Oh well, they'll be fine as they are.

Now then, I have two lovely lilac-and-white striped aubergines (or melanzane if you prefer) to play with and some almost-past-it tomatoes (victims, perhaps, of the spectacularly harsh weather over the past few days). Nigel Slater has a recipe for aubergine slices topped with tomato sauce and parmesan. This sounds nice, but harder work than it needs to be. The Nige recommends cutting the aubergines into rounds, and then topping them all individually. This is going to be (a) time-consuming, as there's no space in the oven to bake all the slices in one go and (b) fiddly to plate up, especially if I've got two steaks that need precision timing.

So I decide just to cut the aubergines in half, drizzle them with olive oil, and stick them in the oven at 180 degrees. Whilst these are baking away, I sizzle some chopped garlic in oil, and add the chopped almost-past-it tomatoes. I add a healthy grinding of salt and pepper, and leave them to simmer away into a sauce. Nige recommends adding a chilli to the mix : now, I firmly believe that the chilli is the noblest of God's vegetables, but I really think there's enough going on in this dish already. It doesn't need anything else adding.

After thirty minutes, the aubergines are just cooked enough. They'll yield to the point of a knife, but they're not so well-cooked that they'll lose their shape and collapse. I take them out of the oven, and layer on the tomato sauce (trying to get complete coverage on every one), followed by a hefty sprinkling of parmesan.

Back in the oven they go. I have a glass of wine and a sit down for 20 mins or so.

When the parmesan is starting to form a crust, I start work on the steaks. Just the thinnest sliver of oil wiped on the surface of the frying pan. I heat the pan until it's just about starting to smoke, and throw the steaks on. 90 seconds each side. I then remove them and leave them to rest for a minute or two as I distribute more glasses of wine and dish up the aubergines.

The steaks are just about right : beautifully rare and red in the centre, and cooked on the outside. I failed on getting a nice blackened crust on the outside, perhaps because the steaks weren't quite of a uniform thickness. Or perhaps I should have had the courage to heat the pan even more. Oh well. They're still good. The aubergines are a bit of a revelation, the tomatoes are delicious, and the whole dish is full of flavour. One half each might have been enough as a side dish, but we have no problems with a whole one. Besides, an entire aubergine each probably counts as 7 of your 5-a-day.

A result, then, and "Baked Aubergine with Parmesan and Not-Quite-Past-It Tomatoes" goes on to the list of future dishes.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The 3 second rule

The spritz is perhaps the perfect drink. On a hot day, the first half of a beer can seem like the best thing in the world. The second half of the same beer, however, can seem stale and warm (this is a general rule, obviously, and doesn't apply to those "didn't even touch the sides" moments). A prosecco is fine, but not a drink that can really be lingered over. But uno spritz al Campari is is bitter and refreshing to the last drop. And for me, it has to be with Campari. I find Aperol too sweet and akin to alcoholic Irn-Bru. I like Cynar as much as I like most artichoke-based drinks. The slightly medicinal Select, said by some to be the most authentic, is today mainly the preserve of old men; and whilst 2014 may have been the year in which I finally embraced the cardigan, I don't think there's need to hurry things along any more than necessary.

I observed the swiftest of spritz-making masterclasses the other day, in the bar at the foot of the Accademia Bridge, where the ancient knowledge was being passed on to a young apprentice. I admired its almost Zen-like simplicity :-

Put ice cubes in glass
Apply three second burst from white wine tap
Hold bottle of Campari upside down. Keep it there for three seconds
Fill up remaining space with three seconds worth of sparkling water
Plop slice of lemon in

The three second rule seemed almost perfect so I gave it a go at home. Sadly, it doesn't really work without proper bar equipment to control the flow. Or maybe I just needed a bigger glass. Nevertheless, whenever I see one being made in the future, I shall look for the count of three as a sign of quality control.

Monday, 30 June 2014

A walk through Milan

I get up at early o'clock on Thursday morning. We're supposed to be going back to the UK for a short break, and my passport is not going to be renewed in time. Which means getting an emergency travel document, and a visit to the British Consulate in Milan.

A lot of people - mainly Italians - give the train service here a hard time; but to a Brit it seems comfortable, efficient, and - above all - cheap. A return to Milan - a journey of 2.5 hours - costs me 19 euros. Next week, we'll pay not far short of twenty quid to go from Edinburgh to Glasgow, a distance of little more than forty miles.

I snooze the whole way, disembark sleepily, take a look around my surroundings

I've been to Grand Central, New York. Port Talbot Parkway has its discreet charms. But Milan Central is something else. Compromised as it is by the profusion of advertising hoardings and shops, it's impossible not to be overwhelmed. The architectural style is a mixture of Art Deco, mock-classical and just a little bit fascist. If the Romans, at the height of the Empire, had invented rail travel, they would have built stations like this.

My appointment at the Consulate is quick, efficient and friendly. I have to say it's possibly the best customer service I've received anywhere. So it leaves me with rather a lot of time to kill. A whole day to pass in Milan, and I've not really thought about what to do...

I start with the cathedral. Well, you know what it looks like; this incredible statue-laden gothic structure. What you might not know is that it took over five centuries to complete. And what I certainly didn't know is that its completion is down to none other than - Napoleon Bonaparte! That's right, the very same fellow responsible for disestablishing and demolishing so many historic churches in Venice, who swore he would be "an Attila to the Venetians",  was responsible for the final completion of this extraordinary building. Possibly due to the fact that he wanted to be crowned King of Italy there, but still. As to the building itself..well, it would be silly to say it's underwhelming, although perhaps the fact that it is just so well known tends to make one a bit blase. I take a little time to wander around inside. The interior is dimly lit which makes it a bit difficult to get a proper look at the art. The stained glass is lovely, although comparatively new, but there's also a lot of restoration work going on at the moment. The presence of fork-lift trucks and cranes is intrusive, and doesn't make me want to linger. I light a candle for Helen, and take my leave.

I walk back across the piazza. Turning back to look at the building, I notice this :-

- Samsung are contributing to the restoration, and it seems this entitles them to stick not just a big advertising hoarding but a giant video screen onto the side of the building. Venetians have been complaining about maxipubblicita for years now : they don't know how lucky they are.

From Piazza del Duomo, I start my walk through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Restoration work is going on, but it's still an impressive environment although the effect of the light is perhaps lost on a grey day like today.

This leads me to Piazza della Scala. The exterior of the theatre is actually surprisingly plain - this isn't a building like La Fenice, constructed to look like a great temple of art. Still, it's nice to see it. One of these days I aspire to make it in through the front door as well.

I have a reasonably-priced lunch at the Caffe Verdi opposite, before making my way through the elegant district of Brera. The crowds thin out, so does the traffic, and I feel cheerful and well-disposed to this city as I stroll up to the Pinacoteca.

There's the core of a great, great collection here. The problem, perhaps, is that the great works are a bit diluted by the lesser ones that surround them. Still, the major works are impressive : Caravaggio's The Supper at Emmaus; Tintoretto's The discovery of the body of St Mark an altarpiece by Piero della Francesca. An unexpected treat in the penultimate room is an early version of Pellizza da Volpedo's iconic socialist work The Fourth Estate. But best of all, as far as I was concerned, was the discovery of a painting by Sodoma, almost hidden away. His haunting Christ Mocked is a study of an all-too-human Redeemer. He stares out at the viewer, not with serenity or pity or mercy but simply with fear. Because he knows his tormentors haven't even started yet...

Time for a drink and a sit down. The bar opposite has a decent selection of foreign beers, and I decide I'll treat myself to a Franziskaner. For some reason, this scrambles my ability to speak Italian, as I walk up to the cash desk and ask for "Ein weizenbier, bitte?". I suppose it could have been worse : perhaps if I'd decided on a Fuller's London Pride I'd have asked for "a pint of your finest nut-brown ale, stout yeoman of the bar!".

I make my way through Brera, and head to the Cimitero Monumentale.  I get a bit lost on the way, which turns out to be a stroke of luck as I come across this :-

- a plaque to the memory of none other than Ho Chi Minh who, it seems, spent some time working in a restaurant here during the 1930s.

The cemetery itself is a beautiful place.

I have about one hour to spare before closing, and stroll around. It's a quiet, meditative space. In the famedio (the "hall of the heroes") lies the tomb of Manzoni, author of I Promessi Sposi, a work of huge influence on the modern Italian language :-

Many of the tombs are the work of some of the great archictects and sculptors of the 19th/20th centuries. I stumbled across some works by Medardo Rosso almost by accident. There's far too much to see in the short time available to me, but, before I leave, there's just time to find what I really came to see :-

- the family tomb of the great conductor, Arturo Toscanini.

I still have about two hours before my train leaves. I decide to walk back to the station. There's plenty of time, the weather is slightly humid but not unpleasantly so and perhaps it'll be a nice walk. This turns out to be a mistake. Central Milan is no place for pedestrians, and it's a grim trudge along characterless streets choked with traffic. After 30 minutes I give up and take the Metro. This leaves me time for another wide-eyed walk around the station and its environs (even at this hour, the area outside is full of bagmen, drunks and tossicodipendenti which makes me think that walking to the station after dark must verge on the terrifying). Time for a beer from one of the many bars, and then a long snooze on the train back to Venice, the ETD safely in my pocket. It's been a good day and, more importantly, a successful one.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Cinquanta sfumature di Dylan Dog

"I can read the Bible, Homer or Dylan Dog for days on end." - Umberto Eco.

I had always wanted to read Dylan Dog.

I first heard about the Indagatore dell'Incubo back in 1994. I was working in Frascati, and my only contact with the English-speaking world was a weekly paper called The European  (which sank as fast as its owner, the late and unlamented Robert Maxwell). One week I read a review of an Italian movie called Dellamorte Dellamore. In truth, the movie didn't sound all that great. What sounded more interesting was the source material, a comic strip (un fumetto) called Dylan Dog. A London-based private investigator who deals in the stuff of nightmares. A clarinet-playing, model galleon-building don Giovanni (the spitting image of Rupert Everett circa 1987), who works with the Robert Morley-lookalike Inspector Bloch; and an assistant who may or may not be Groucho Marx.

Oh yes, this was something I wanted to read. Comic strips are actually a very good way of learning a language : they're told almost entirely in dialogue, the pictures give context to unfamiliar language, and they're very good for idiomatic expressions (I can still remember the German for "My Spider-Sense is tingling" even if - regrettably - I've not yet had occasion to use it). But I didn't need any excuses. I just wanted to read about "The Nightmare Investigator".

Then, wonderfully, La Repubblica announced that they were reprinting the first 150 stories in 50 volumes. Beautifully presented and bound, in full colour, and with scholarly explanatory notes.

Dylan was created by the writer Tiziano Sclavi. Sclavi has a forensic knowledge of horror, and - more importantly - of its tropes. He loves to play intertextual games with the reader, and he did so long before Wes Craven's Scream. Just as one thinks that a particular episode is just a bit too close to David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone for comfort, he has a character break the fourth wall and say exactly the same thing. His scripts are full of references to music, art, literature and popular culture.

Sclavi and Dylan eventually became victims of their own success. The early episodes, whilst brilliant in many ways, have an absolutely staggering level of gore and violence (inevitable, perhaps, given the source material - the horror movies of George A Romero, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci). Kids - I thought, at the end of the first volume - should really, really not be reading this. Of course, they were, and in great numbers. Questions were asked, Sclavi was told to turn the gore down, and the nature of the strip changed. Possibly for the better. What had been lost in terms of sheer visceral impact was more than made up for in terms of characterisation, humour, and intelligence

The Italians love their fumetti, from the cowboy Tex Willer to master criminal Diabolik. But Dylan was different. For the first time, here was a comic strip hero (to be honest, a slightly rubbish hero - he rarely demonstrates much deductive ability) who had the respect of the intelligentsia. The philosopher Giulio Giorello's La filosofia di Dylan Dog can be found on Youtube; whilst the great semiologist Umberto Eco made an appearance in the series as the thinly disguised "Humbert Coe".

Dylan, Groucho and Bloch occupy a slightly never-never London. In the early strips, Dylan even drove his VW Beetle on the wrong side of the road, until the mistake was pointed out. In Sclavi's world, Scotland is a fantastic Dunsany-inspired neverland, albeit one with an unhealthy number of zombies; whilst Wales...ah, Wales...

Sclavi's Wales is one influenced more, perhaps, by HP Lovecraft than Arthur Machen. In his hands, yr hen wlad is akin to Lovercraft's Miskatonic County; whilst Harlech becomes an equivalent of Arkham. Jokes are made about everybody being called Jones, and the seemingly endless stream of placenames beginning with Llan. Dylan, of course, takes his name from Dylan Thomas. One episode is even loosely based around The Mabinogion, spoilt, slightly, by the fact that the Welsh language used is actually Irish.

Sclavi also tried to deal with politics. Animal rights, the environment, press freedom, nationalism, violence against women. He didn't always get the contexts right - Britiain hasn't had a Communist MP since the 1950s, and the the notorious H-block was not in the south of England - but his heart was in the right place.

The reprints came to an end after fifty editions. Never more would Groucho shout Capo, la pistola! before throwing Dylan said weapon with unerring inaccuracy. I could, I suppose, read the continuing monthly strip but the cramped, black and white nature of the regular edition doesn't do justice to the artwork (much of which - from the quasi-cinematic realism of Montanari and Grassani, to the stunning noir-ish work of Corrado Roi - is fantastic). More importantly, there'd be a huge gap in my collection, which doesn't appeal to the completist in me. Oh well, maybe Repubblica will carry on with another 50 volumes at some point.

In the meantime, they are all now lovingly filed away on the shelves. "Are you actually going to read them again?", asked Caroline; to whom my weekly journey to the edicola to buy a comic book was best explained away as being part of my quirky, boyish charm.

Giuda Ballerino! Of course I'm going to read them again!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Presents, Perfect

I never got presents when I worked in IT. Oh yes, you might get a free meal and a boozy night out at the end of a project, but that's not the same as a present. But teaching is different. This year I've received : a magnum of prosecco, a small green nodding turtle, a packet of "Violetta" paper handkerchiefs (well it's the thought that counts), a photocopy of a book on Buddhist philosophy, a bag of chocolate Easter eggs, and a handmade card that read "I love Inglish" (a present that delighted and yet disappointed in equal measure). I think I like the turtle best. Nobody at the bank ever bought me a turtle.

Kids' classes wound down for the year, as the schools finished. The last lesson of each class was given over to a party. Crisps, games, chocolates, and shiny certificates to take home and show Mum and Dad. The Tuesday class, as they have been all year, were just so incredibly nice : all wrappings and packets were put in the bin, and any mess was cleared away immediately. By contrast, the aftermath of the Thursday class resembled an explosion in a crisp factory. The Friday class, who I refer to in my lighter moments as "The Awkward Squad" and in my grimmer ones as "The Army of Darkness", were not to be trusted at all so I lied and told them we'd run out of everything. Yes, I could go down to Billa and buy more. No, I'm not going to.

My adult elementary class very kindly decided to take me out for a meal after the last lesson. They've been a lovely class, and one of the high points of the year. Everybody gets on well, people have a laugh, and even the weaker ones have really come on. Just a two-hour lesson then, a bit of fun for everyone, no need for any prep surely...

And then I open the book, and realise I've made a terrible mistake. The last lesson, and it's on the bloody Present Perfect. The Present Perfect is a sod of a thing to teach. It has no equivalent in Italian so you can't just directly translate from one language to the other. What the hell is this doing here, tucked away at the end of the book? And why didn't I spend more time on prep so I could have swapped in something else. As it is I'll just have to plough through it and hope it doesn't scar them too much...

Giovanni looks beaten at the end of the lesson. 'Ci hai ucciso stasera', he says. 'You have killed us this evening'. I'm a bit worried that the offer of dinner is going to be withdrawn; but then he smiles. 'From now on, everything in Italian. Vendetta!!'

So we drive out into the country. Quite a way, if truth be told, and I'm starting to wonder if maybe I pushed them too far and any moment now the car is going to pull over and they'll start digging a shallow grave. And then I see an elderly lady crossing the road ahead of us. The driver hasn't noticed.

Time stops.

I want to scream something but I can't think of the word "Stop!" in Italian. Then I realise I can't even think of it in English. We are going to take the life of an old woman because I can't think of the word "Stop" in any language at all. All I can come up with is a strangulated "NGARRGHHH!!!" as I flap helplessly at the dashboard. And somehow this works. Brakes are slammed on and we screech to a halt. She doesn't even break her stride...

As for the meal itself, well, I was expecting a beer and a pizza. I'd have been more than happy with a beer and a pizza. But what we actually have is a four-course meal of truly exceptional quality, with not a few glasses of wine, and coffee and grappa to follow. Everyone says they'll be back in the autumn. "Will you still be our teacher, Philip?" Of course I will. I'm not letting anyone else pinch this lot...

Later that evening, as I walk - reasonably steadily - over the Calatrava bridge, I reflect on the past couple of weeks. I earn next to nothing. But I have students who buy me nice meals, packets of handkerchiefs, and small nodding turtles. I am a lucky man.

Saturday, 31 May 2014


I'm waiting on a number 6 vaporetto from Zattere to Ferrovia, and it's taking a bit of time to depart.

The marinaio is remonstrating with a couple on the pontoon, and it's clear that all is not well.  He's putting them off and getting them to fill out a form. Presumably they haven't bought a ticket. It seems they're being fined. The woman is doing most of the talking. Her partner just stands and glowers, although the marinaio is being firm, but not aggressive.

Eventually, they're finished. He takes a copy of the form for himself, and begins to cast off. The other man sees a chance to look like a big man in front of his wife. Risk-free. Take a swing at him now, just as the boat leaves, and he won't be able to retaliate. The boat starts to move and then, just before the gate is closed, he shoves him and swings a punch. The marinaio staggers back from the the force of the push, and the punch misses.

Immediately, the capitano shoves the boat into reverse. People start shouting abuse. The marinaio takes a few steps along the pontoon, after the retreating couple, and then thinks better of it. If he reacts, the guy will have an excuse to make a complaint. It'll be his fault and he'll get into trouble. He shakes his head, gets back on the boat, and we begin to move off.

This hasn't gone unnoticed. A couple of men on the pontoon are now shouting and pointing at the aggressor; whilst his wife looks on with a mixture of resignation and disgust. The boat starts to pull away from the jetty, as the two men close in.

The marinaio looks back to the pontoon. He sees his assailant backing away from the two men, still shouting and pointing, and pursuing him on to the fondamenta. He gives him a cheery wave and beams a broad smile as we move away, leaving the unknown pugilist to an uncertain fate...

Friday, 23 May 2014

Home Alone

Caroline is on a girly night out, so I'm cooling my heels with a pizza and red wine. Time to write.

Work/Life has kept getting in the way over the past six weeks, so no time to blog. So, where are we now...? Well, first of all, let's roll out the welcome mat :-

I returned to the UK over Easter to arrange the transfer of all our stuff from the UK to Italy. A strange feeling in some ways. There really can be no going back now. This is it.

I was taken to task over a recent post for suggesting that some things in Italy do not work as well as they might. Well, I stand by my comments. They don't. But what has to be said, in Venice at least, is that they can move the contents of a house with surgical precision. The doorbell rang at 8.30 one Friday morning, and within two hours everything...*everything*... had been installed. But why should we have expected anything less? The Venetians, after all, have been doing this for a thousand years.

Painless then. At least until we found ourselves, having returned from IKEA in Padua, having to drag five back-breakingly heavy bookcases over the Calatrava bridge; a process that - without our brilliant Aussie friends Pete and Lou - would have been impossible. But all this is another story for another time...

It's a bad thing to define yourself by your possessions. Yet, after two years of living out of the contents of ten suitcases, there is an inescapable thrill of seeing our CDs, books and art in place again. It feels, properly and finally, like our home.

On the day we moved in, we propped our favourite painting on a chair, put an obscure Wendy James / Elvis Costello album on the stereo, and just sat, drank wine, and stared at it.

After more than two years, Lucy Gray has come home again...

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...

Monday, 6 January 2014

New Year

We enjoyed the traditional New Year’s Eve meal of cotechino and lentils rather more than last year’s. It might have been the quality of the sausage itself, it might have been the fact that we knew we wouldn’t have to eat another one for twelve months, it might even have been the negroni we had beforehand. Whatever. It was better this time.

We half-considered going down to Piazza San Marco, but decided against it. The fireworks aren’t as impressive as those for Redentore, and only last about fifteen minutes anyway. We decided to give it a miss.

Then, just after the bells, Caroline came back from the kitchen to tell me that somebody was setting fireworks off in the street. There were three people, a young boy, his dad and grandpa who was entrusted with firework duty, possibly due to past experience in lobbing Mills bombs at fleeing fascists.

As we watched, he moved slowly and purposefully around the street, oblivious to his own safety and, indeed, the safety of anybody else. Spent fireworks were examined at arms length. Live ones were lit within inches of recently extinguished ones. A small rocket pinged off a neighbour's balcony, fortunately without setting light to anything, at which point we thought it prudent to close the window.

Caroline wondered if perhaps we’d seen enough by now, but I thought we should stay and watch just in case we were needed to make an emergency phone call.

He finished up by gathering together the smouldering remnants and placing them in a bag of live ones. Then, without even turning his head, he insouciantly tossed a banger over his shoulder and they were off into the night.

We went up to the altana to watch the fireworks above San Marco. Fun, but to be honest, they weren't really able to compete.

Buon Anno everyone.