At night I walk a lane to our apartment near Fondamenta Zen, passing iron doors, brick walls dark as charcoal and stone window frames that glow on their own. Istrian rock laid under my feet, every slab cut and carried from a distant mountain to this new world of stone and water. Feeble lamps hang on filigree struts, but they are too far apart; one sees brigands and assassins assemble in the fog. This lane and strip of canyon sky connect the Strada to the north lagoon, where vaporettos rock at night moorings by the maritime petrol station with its lucky view of the Alps.
Nearing the Ginger Cat bridge I spy a lit window, a tiny spritz bar. How have I not noticed this bar? A neon waterfall shining on a few seats, a few bottles, newspapers on a narrow counter and a Cuban flag (Rupert Murdoch will never find me here). I must tell Clarissa; she enjoys spritz and Italian newspapers and this bacaro is close to our room.
The next day the mystery bar has vanished. Was it a lane over? Venice is like that, puzzling warrens and beautiful dead ends.
Years ago near San Stae we found a bacaro on a quiet square, one of those wonderfully flexible cafés locals can visit first thing in the morning or late at night, a community of babies and tiny dogs and parents and grandparents beside us sipping ombras. Free snacks were laid out every so often in a form of happy hour, delicious pizza slices and spicy cicchetti. A pensioner tried to look nonchalant while waiting to leap at the next tasty round. Later we scoured the lanes, but never again found the café, vanished in mist.
Marcel Proust experienced a similar mystery. A labyrinth of dark alleys led him to a glowing piazza of moonlight palaces. Proust searched for days after, but never again found his dreamlike campo. Perhaps my tiny spritz bar is also a moonlight mirage. But a week or two later, the secret bar materializes once more in the nocturnal calle. When closed, nothing hints at any kind of business: no sign shows in this lane of iron doors and blind windows. A bacaro only for those in the know? We’ll step in the door.
Paolo, the welcoming bartender, wears a dark T-shirt and striped bell bottoms and resembles Charlie on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; I expect Danny DeVito to wander in. We order a spritz and an Ichnusa non filtrata lager. Paolo dips a chipped teacup in a huge vat of red vino; Clarissa feels he’s lifted a few cups of tea already. On one wall, where a shop might hang a portrait of a saint, a red and black poster of the rebel Che Guevara stares at us.
I venture, “Are you not always open? We’ve walked by a few times.”
He says, “I open when I can.” A hurt tone; I fear I’ve offended a local.
This is an obscure calle, no palace or fresco pulls strangers down this lane and tourists are rarer now because of the new virus. Is he managing a McDonald’s? No, this is Paolo’s magic spritz bar and the man opens when he can.
Past Che Guevara’s dark face a canal is visible in the WC window, salt waves searching soft foundations, eating bricks birthed so long ago. The front laneway was once water, canals converted to stone paths, paving stones floating between floating buildings, a strange architecture that in memory is free of colour, etched in primitive bristle and wire.
“How was the flood in this calle?” High tides vary in different parts of Venice, but this winter flood was one of the worst ever. Paolo shows us the tide’s level inside his bar, a foot over the floor, over our shoes. “I just open last year, May, very bad luck.”
Almost word for word what a talented chef told us in another part of Cannaregio; a stoic voice; just opened, bad luck. It is now hard to buy insurance for main floor shops and flats.
Paolo says, “140, 160, that we can take. Two metres? Bad. We put gates in our doors, but they are not high enough this year and the water comes over.”
During acqua alta shops slot low steel gates in their doorways; customers in rubber boots can step over while the gates try to keep out the saltwater and sewage. It’s not one flood and done; tides rise up again and again, alarms calling out across canals and campos.
“How can you dry out your place after the water is gone?”
Paolo points at the material he used. “These walls, that is stone and that is tile, it’s fine for water. And any wood I use is made for boats, made for the water.”
Behind the bar the floor is raised to stay out of the water. I may enjoy these conversations more than Clarissa. I want to ask if he owns a boat, but miss my chance.
“When the acqua alta comes.” Paolo points at his small fridge and pieces of equipment. “This goes here, that goes up there,” he says, slapping spots on top of the bar and counters.
He says, “We know what we are doing, we’ve been through it before. We are Venetians. We are stubborn, we can take it.” Paolo rubs his hair, studies the floor. “But a week. It’s difficult. This year was very difficult.”
He sips more wine, says he feels sorrow for San Marco on the south lagoon. He mimics water over our heads and it’s true, water peaked this winter at 1.87 metres, about six feet. “But we survive,” he says. “We are stubborn. It’s water. We’re not dead.”
He nibbles at a half sandwich that seems to have come from nowhere: gouda with prosciutto?
“Venetians learn to swim before anything, before we learn our address or phone number we learn to swim. So we can walk around water and be okay.”
In an old book I found a photo by Count Giuseppe Primoli, an image of dark-haired women on mossy steps with long ropes tied to two children in the canal, a Victorian-era swimming lesson judging by the shawls and aprons and dark skirts trailing to the ground.
Count Primoli was a collector and photographer whose mother was a Bonaparte and whose brother was named Napoleone; is there anything of Venice that isn’t whimsical and fascinating?
The other day we happened upon a young girl crying beside a canal, wrapped in towels and soothed by her parents. Soaked clothes hung dripping over a rail, a second child watching in puzzlement. We had to pass them in a narrow passage between a residence and a canal, walked through water puddled all around them as the girl added her quiet tears. Did the girl fall into the canal or was it an unhappy swimming lesson?
At the bar Paolo sharpens a long knife on a whetstone for what seems a really long time, the blade’s rasping sound a bit disconcerting. Shick shick shick shick. Che Guevara gazes at us and Paolo asks, “Did you see the corpse in the water last week?” No, we missed that.
“How can they know if it was male or female, suicide or murder? A long time the body had been in the water and something ate the nose and lips. Horrible. I saw it from my boat. No face was left, so how will they identify the lost one?” He bites into the wrinkled black meat of his sandwich. “Horrible,” he says, chewing away.
He puts aside the knife, turns to a small grill behind the bar, flames and olive oil in a pan, fork clinking in a bowl. We are his only customers. Perhaps we’ll be offered free cicchetti like at the lost café of babies and dogs and happy hungry locals.
Paolo says, “I have seen very small sharks out in the north lagoon. Little sharks might have nibbled the drowned person.” He cracks eggs into the sizzling pan. Clarissa, a very good cook, is curious: what culinary miracle will this Italian conjure?
We talk of the crowds making Venice unlivable for the locals. This is mid-February, maybe a week before the virus brings on blue masks and Lady Macbeth handwashing.
“It was not like this in the past. Once the elite visited Venice, princesses, film stars, artists, and poets. Dante and Byron, Picasso, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Bardot. Sinatra! Marcello Mastroianni. La bella figura, their manners, their clothes, how they carry themselves.” Paolo chats of bygone stars and seasons his food as we wait with hope. But in the end the eggs are still eggs and he forks them into his mouth alone. This never happens to Julia Roberts.
He chews and says, “The tourism is a problem, yes. But it is not simply quantity. Also quality. I worked in a Four Star in San Marco; it went from elite people to cruise-ship people.”
I have a vision of Paolo (or Charlie from the TV show) clean-shaven, proud in a white waiter’s coat and white bow tie, a white napkin over his arm. In the piazza Paolo gazes out to sea, waiting for Bardot to walk the waves to him, Venus on the half-shell.
“Now the tourists are not informed. In Venice they want Big Macs, they ask if they can park their car in San Marco! This they said to me! They don’t appreciate anything I do, my knowledge means nothing, how I was serving them, it means nothing. I quit. Enough.”
He eats from his black frypan and dips another cup in his vat of vino.
“When younger I travelled, I had an inter-rail pass. Barcelona, Paris, Prague, Berlin, Dublin. I was informed, interested. My philosophy? I say, Drop a star from the hotel and stay a bit longer. Get to know the food, the lifestyle. And now I want to go to Japan. I am learning. I’ll take time to learn. I won’t just arrive in Japan and not speak the language and knowing nothing about the country.”
“In Bhutan,” I say, “visitors pay for a visa, must pay for every day in the country. What if tourists had to pay to stay in Venice?”
“Si! Si! Here they talk of charging three euro. It should be ten thousand euro, a hundred thousand euro. Why not?” He sips, pauses. “But not so high that it’s only Saudis.”
What would Che say to such prices? My simple solution for Venice is a ban on cruise ships, disappearing thousands of tourists and the pollution and dangers from said ships. Everyone happy except whoever is being bribed.
“Ah, the Grandi Navi, the big ships. I was on the Comitato No Grandi Navi. We try to stop them, no one in Venezia wants the ships, but they keep coming. Money changes hands, clearly. The ruin of Venezia, they encourage it. The politicians live on the mainland, they don’t care about us. A million mask shops for tourists, but no shop that will cut a key for my door. I play guitar, but I must travel to the mainland to buy strings for my guitar. You see the ships sailing past Lido, but the strait is too narrow, there is no room. If the Captain makes a wrong transaction and his ship crashes into San Marco, they’d knock over the tower!”
There is a history there: the old Campanile of San Marco fell over in 1902; the Piazza seemed denuded, so a few years later the landmark tower was rebuilt.
“The tower is one hundred metres tall, but the ships are hundreds of metres!” Paolo becomes animated at this offence to Venezia. “Imagine the Grandi Navi in the cathedral! They could cut us in half!”
Last summer a cruise ship with “mechanical problems” broke away from its tugboats. Horns and sirens wailed as people on a pier fled the huge hulk of a blade steaming at them with no brakes, the cruise ship crushing a smaller boat and injuring sightseers who didn’t escape the dock. My older brother has health issues and cruise ships allow him to travel. I used to think of the ships as an alien world, not mine, but fairly benign. The monster ships, I learn, burn dirty, high-sulphur fuel and their engines run the whole time they sit in port. Exhaust from these cruises totals far more than the combined emissions of every single car in Europe.
Owners have been found guilty of dumping oil and feces at sea, ignoring sexual assaults on board, and spreading early Covid cases. Add then there’s the sheer waste of food, buffets posing an illusion of plenty, that the cornucopia has not been picked over. Some passengers eat like gluttons to get their money’s worth; they don’t need to eat in Venice and have no need for a room with a cabin onboard.
Paolo says, “They clog the Strad and fill up the vaporettos. We are against the ships and we are against the MOSE project, but they don’t listen, they do it anyway.”
MOSE is a six-billion-dollar boondoggle dogged by corruption. Submerged gates in the lagoon are to meant to rise up, part the seas, and halt the tides, but the gates did not stop this latest flood.
“I hope MOSE can protect Venezia, but so far? Nothing! The alterations to the laguna have made the flooding worse. No more causes. They only let you down.”
Venice this moment teems with drunken crowds who fly Ryanair into Carnevale’s mayhem. I ask Paolo: “Do you enjoy Carnevale?”
Paolo says, “Carnevale doesn’t exist now. In the old times we went out to see the masks; my father was mask-ed and I was mask-ed and we’d walk to different campos for the festivities.
Coriandoli was everywhere and we also threw flour, and even eggs. A time of tricks: a Carnevale ogni sherzo vale. Anything goes! Families went strolling and there was music everywhere. Rock-ah, jazz-ah, blues-ah.” He adds a slight vowel to end each noun.
“Live music in every campo. But not now. The mayor stepped in.”
I’m not sure what interdict Paolo means. We heard music in Santi Apostoli, not far from the spritz bar, a lively reggae band playing outside a good trattoria. The bartender told us that reggae was long ago adopted by Venice as a soundtrack for the festa, you hear it all the time. Coriandoli is confetti, sold in bags and, despite what Paolo says, is strewn everywhere.
So there is music and confetti, Carnevale is still a celebration, but I can see how local families might not want to stroll among drunken British tourists garbed in superhero costumes.
Saturdays seem the worst. The final Saturday we walked by a bar with drained bottles and glasses strewn in nearby doorways and sills; male drinkers wore blue hardhats as puzzling Carnevale costumes. A shell-shocked young man walked out the door just as we passed, blood on his face and clutching a teddy bear. This was around noon. We try to skirt the crowded blocks, but sometimes there’s no choice except to barge through giddy idiots.
Henry James called San Marco the drawing room of Europe; during Carnevale San Marco is more like a zoo, the centre of Venice, and I loathe it, a physical reaction now to such crowds. I hide in low-key Venetian quartiers.
The virus cleared Europe’s drawing room later in February. The pandemic hit (the vee-roos) and Carnevale 2020 was stopped. Only then could I wander happily. Carnevale’s Saturday night rolled along, well-oiled, but the government shut down Carnevale’s finale; shut down Sunday, Monday, and Fat Tuesday’s big blowout leading to Ash Wednesday and Lent, Lent’s sombre penance after the masks and dipso debauchery. As Catholic children, we gave up candy for Lent; forsaking my O’Henry bar aided Jesus with his ordeal on the cross.
As we left the spritz bar, Paolo asked if we knew of the scholar Paolo Sarpi. Sorry, no.
“You don’t know Paolo Sarpi! He is a hero of Venice and I am named for him.” A bit miffed. “You can see his statue on the Strada. He is buried in the church over on San Michele.”
On one of our first days in the city we took a gleeful ride on a vaporetto over the tiny sharks to the cemetery island of San Michele. A lovely domed church with a marble façade and a Gothic portal guiding families to the graves. We tried to enter, but the church was locked and we remained ignorant of Paolo Sarpi’s life.
“Sarpi wrote a book that defied the Pope and the Pope sent assassins with stiletto knives to attack Sarpi on a bridge. His statue stands where he was attacked, you’ll see it.”
Wait, isn’t that one of God’s crucial Ten Commandments? Don’t send hitmen with stilettos? Sarpi had holes in his face and torso and the assassins thought him dead, but he survived. The pragmatic Senate of Venice gave Sarpi a boat so he could avoid ambush on the narrow bridges. Pope wants to off you? Have a free boat.
Sarpi’s big book was The History of the Council of Trent, which attacked the idea that a pope was infallible. Sarpi also questioned the Vatican’s authority in Venice: big trouble.
Even after his death popes chased him. The body of this “terrible friar” had to be moved over and over for three hundred years, pope after nutty pope wanted to dig up poor Paolo’s corpse to desecrate the body. Such devotion to revenge! Sarpi was a defender of Venice’s sovereignty, a proponent of separating church and state, a scientist with a photographic memory, and a popular statesman; his devotees moved his hunted corpse around Venice (how can a rotting body survive such manhandling?). Finally, our hero Sarpi came to rest in the marble church on San Michele Island, where we didn’t see his much-travelled corpse.
Paolo said he quit the Four Star in San Marco; beware the gulls of San Marco, dangerous à la Hitchcock. Do you see that man sitting at the Campanile base with a heaped sandwich? A beefy Slavic face, a crewcut; Hollywood would make him a Russian villain, a hitman. As we walk by, a gull dives to hit this man’s hand hard, stealing his meal with a muscular blow. The man stares at his injured hand and lack of large sandwich. He wishes to kill the villain gull vanishing with its treasure; he looks a frustrated hitman who left his gun in the room.
A Slavic face fits well here, as the name of the promenade below San Marco, Riva degli Schiavoni, can mean slaves, Slavs, or Slovenes, as in Slovenia and the Dalmatian coast, including Croatia and Istria, their citizens and salt merchants part of the old Venetian Republic. In Venezia this was their shore. While our hitman pouts, a smiling couple walks holding pastel gelatos aloft, oblivious to a gull hovering over them like a halo, wings adjusting as the bird’s dorky head and dorky brain tilt to study an angle of attack.
Seventy klicks west of Venice, the first European dies of the virus. Not a pandemic, says the WHO, not a big deal, but soon the virus closes Carnevale and museums; when schools close, our campo fills with happy children. Europe in splinters, but giddy children gallop around the Oratory of the Crucifixion and their calls reverberate in a stone passage like an under-sea chamber below our kitchen floor. Making tea we hear laughing voices tugged into the tunnel to burst free the other side. Children rollerblade with balloons as tourists flee the virus, flee Riva degli Schiavoni and San Marco, flee the Serene Republic of Venice.
Weeks earlier we saw a handwritten sign in a woodcarver’s shop window: Chiuso per Influenza. Fuck! Closed because of Influenza. Fuck! We laughed at the note, but now wonder: was that carver’s flu an early Covid case?
The virus does me a huge favour: monster ships gone and Ryanair grounded, trains silent, lanes empty. I love Venice all to myself. I know I am selfish and I know I will pay; no devotees will hide me and the popes of the world will have their way with my sordid anti-social remains. I know we must leave before Europe’s borders close, but for the moment I am very happy in our ghost town.
Walking the Misericordia canal, I see a wooden boat flying a Cuban flag. It’s the right neighbourhood. It’s Paolo bent at the wheel, steering for the north-lagoon islands in search of anchovies, squid, blue duck eggs. Snowy mountains rear up as a backdrop and vast clouds float through like zeppelins, the world hanging over a tiny fishboat.
Our Slavic hitman flew like a storm petrel to the coast of Dalmatia and now San Marco is silenced. Waiters in stiff white coats stare out to sea, like staff in an emptied asylum, and the pandemic gull starves in its naked square.
—From CNQ 110 (Fall 2021/Winter 2022)
We post only a small fraction of our content online. To get access to the best in criticism, reviews, and fiction, subscribe!