Sunday, April 15, 2007

Venetian Journal - Moving to Venice

For the moment the Travelling Blonde has slowed down the travelling. Having rented a tiny flat in Venice I'll be spending the next few months getting to know the city better, and exploring the surrounding area: the lagoon and the Veneto. For rather more helpful reports on Venice, see the web resource I'm compiling: Italy Heaven's guide to Venice

Living in Venice – the practical stuff

I arrived on an early morning flight from Stansted to Treviso; a plane loaded with fourteen-year-olds dressed (and made-up, and hair-tinted) like footballers' wives. The journey went smoothly and on arrival everything was a posto as the Italian say. I picked up my keys and made my way by vaporetto to my temporary home in Cannaregio.

After a day spent unpacking and shopping for household stuff and food, I headed out in the evening to meet my one Venetian acquaintance and enjoy a drink in a nice bar close to the Rialto markets.

Over the next few days I dealt with practical things – such as the discrepancy between the electricity sockets in the flat and the plugs on appliances. It takes considerable detective work to resolve problems like this in Italy, but after several outings with an adaptor in my pocket I managed to buy some more, so I can now operate more than one appliance at a time. Best not put on too many though – have you ever wondered by tumble dryers are so rare in Italy? Because households are limited to certain electricity levels (I believe you can pay to be put in a higher use band). Using too many appliances will blow the systems. Where I lived in Rome you had to turn off the tv and some lights in order to use the washing machine. I once worked in an office where the in summer it was impossible to use both the air conditioning units and our computers.

Dodgy electric systems are typical in Italy – even in smart hotels you'll find odd wires hanging out of walls. After a week in this Venice flat the electricity blew and I had to spend two days with no lights, heat, cooking or hot water. When the electrician returned from holiday he showed me a socket totally eaten away with corrosion from the damp rising through the walls. Sparks had been flying out. The combination of Italian electrics and water in Venice must be absolutely lethal.

My ground floor flat is indeed very damp, but that wasn't a particular surprise in this city. Venice presents its own particular problems. High buildings and narrow lanes make mobile phone coverage limited, for example. The people over the lane from me have to lean out of their window to use their mobile phones.

The lack of cars makes the town quiet, but sounds of voices and radios are magnified as they echo around the restricted spaces. When those same neighbours play their favoured Italian pop and rap loudly it is hard to concentrate on my work. During the night, though,it is deathly quiet here, since I'm off the main thoroughfares. The noise only starts up again in the morning, when the rubbish men make their circuits of the lanes with handcarts, collecting the plastic bags of refuse that residents leave outside. They meet up with their rubbish-collection barges on the canal at the end of the street.

My lane is short but wide; in the daytime a little bit of sun reaches my windows though it doesn't penetrate. Still, I've bought a plant to sit on the external window ledge, between the glass and my mosquito grille. Most window ledges around here are alive with plants and flowers. From the windows on higher storeys, washing emerges on lines to waft about over the canals. Coming home from the supermarket with my baguette one morning, I looked up as I was crossing a metal bridge and saw an old lady at her window, preparing artichokes on the window ledge. Old women in Italy spend a lot of time looking out windows - next time you're in a piazza, look up and see how many faces you can spot looking down. One house near me has an old wing mirror stuck by their window so they can scrutinise their visitors on arrival.

Terraces and balconies teeter upwards when you raise your eyes, and there are also a lot of gardens hidden away behind high walls, betrayed by the tops of trees or by spilling waterfalls of wisteria.

There's animal life hidden away, too. The little pet dogs of Venice are impossible to miss. Venetian cats are plentiful too, though they sneak around more furtively (perhaps they're chased by the dogs). That's not all there is though. A couple of days ago I saw a woman emerging from her front door with a big fluffy white rabbit in a basket. And yesterday a young boy walked past clutching a wriggling ferret.

As well as rejoicing in being here, I've been fascinated by the local details and sights: interesting things like a boatload of long timber piles for buildings like those used as foundations throughout Venice's history.

A canal close to my new home is being dredged, with works taking place to stabilise the banks – some of the constant repairs it takes to keep Venice above water. A narrow canal nearby has been totally drained, and when you peer through holes in the protective canvas, you can see men at work in their bright orange jackets along the empty canal, where boards now cover the remaining mud. Must be a very smelly job.

This is a very mixed area, Cannaregio. It stretches a long way; from the railway station almost to the Rialto. The main route linking the two, expressly cleared for tourists into the broad Strada Nova, is a noisy hell-hole. A Macdonalds pumps out nasty music, nasty litter and chaotic customers. At the Easter weekend the route was rammed solid with tourists trudging along towards the tourist sights - evidently too cheap to catch a ferry for the glorious trip down the Grand Canal.

My home is on a clearly defined island with only a few bridges as exits. It takes ten or fifteen minutes to reach a supermarket only fifty yards away.

Getting to know your new area is always an adventure with frustrating moments. In Italy this is multiplied by a thousand. Shops are very secretive. If you want a hardware store, you will have to ask someone, or trawl the streets during a time when shops might be open (not as often as you'd think) and hope you see one. Once a shop closes and the blinds descend you'll be none the wiser as to their business.

So far I have found an expensive but useful household type shop, where I've bought a rubbish little electric kettle for about £14 (they just don't understand such things here; this one doesn't even switch itself off. A better one would have set me back twenty quid). There are several 'euro' shops selling cheap stuff. I have tried the pizza from a nearby take-away place and found it very nice and cheap too. What's more, you can ring up and order, and they'll even do deliveries. I've even found a store which stocks decent chocolate chip cookies.

One of the biggest difficulties in settling in has been getting internet access. It's terribly expensive here in Venice, although it is worth shopping around. I finally found one place with free access for 30 minutes a day, but no connection for laptops. My final solution was to use my prepaid Italian SIM card on the Tim network. It took a lot of working out but now I can connect via my mobile phone. In case this is of any interest to anyone else, I will make a separate entry on the Italy Heaven blog with some tips.

I've enjoyed several indulgent meals, in restaurants which i will review for the website. On my second day I ate lunch in very sunny spot on Fondamenta della Misericordia - a very nice area to wander or to go out in. Walking past a week later I was recognised and greeted by the waiter – the first time I've been recognised and greeted locally – a satisfying moment.

Escaping the Easter tourists I've made some great excursions around the lagoon, which I will write up in future entries.

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