– The Exile –
Across Campo dei Apostoli
Eugenio could hear his footsteps echoing behind him as he made his way along the narrow calle that led from his apartment block into Campo dei Apostoli. He hadn’t thought of checking before he left, so he wasn’t sure of the time. He guessed that it was about six o’clock, the day having hardly woken. Not surprising for so early on New Year’s morning, there wasn’t a soul around. The weather was dull and overcast, but not particularly cold, which was just as well, because he was coatless, not having thought of that either. He had just wanted to get out as quickly as possible, to feel the air on his face, to walk and walk.
He planned to take his usual route across the campo, then along Strada Nova, over Ponte delle Guglie and on up to Ponte dei Scalzi. Sometimes, when he felt the need for it, he would cross over the Grand Canal at that point and wind his way through Santa Croce’s maze of calli, returning via Ponte di Rialto, going in a full circle. However, he was sure this morning that the walk to Scalzi and back would be enough to exhaust him, to ensure that he could lie down with a blank mind and sleep, not having to think about Vera or his job or this city.
As he entered the campo, he immediately caught sight of his office along to the right: the bright red door; the big windows on either side, advertising properties for sale on one and properties for rent on the other; the large sign stretching above the door and windows, white letters on a red background, spelling out the name ‘Grimboli’ and the words ‘Property Solutions’ in English underneath. Grimboli was an Italian company, but with offices in London and New York, as well as throughout Italy, it liked to think of itself as a truly international organisation.
His heart sank when he saw the office. It would be another two days before it opened again. He dreaded going back to the same dreary business, but he dreaded worse the long emptiness between now and then. It wasn’t that he was alone in the city, he kept reminding himself; on the contrary, he had a good number of friends who lived there. To begin with, there was Susanna, his assistant from the office, and there was her husband, Giorgio; they were good people, so sympathetic during this awful time. There were also some acquaintances in the same line of business as him, other agenti immobiliare. And, of course, there were his English and American friends, people for whom he had secured properties and with whom he regularly socialised. Only last night, he had been at the home of two of those friends, an elderly English couple, celebrating the arrival of the New Year with them, their first as residents of Venice. He had drunk champagne on their altana and watched as the fireworks burst over the laguna. It had been a very pleasant time, and he had felt good for that short while. It was after three o’clock when he returned to his apartment, but he had slept for only a few hours. When he got up, he had put on last night’s suit and shirt. He hadn’t bothered shaving. He hadn’t even washed. He had needed to get out of the apartment before it suffocated him. Now here he was: unshaved, unwashed, unkempt, the effect of the champagne still buzzing in his head, the taste of it still at the back of his throat. He knew how dishevelled he must have appeared. He knew also that his clothes were hanging on him, that he looked like a scarecrow.
His friends nagged at him to take better care of himself.
‘The feeling will pass, Eugenio,’ Susanna kept telling him. ‘Things will get better.’
He wanted to believe her. He did believe her. But the plain fact of the matter was that he hadn’t been able to eat properly for the last three months, ever since Vera had left.
He stopped suddenly in the middle of the campo and looked up pleadingly at the grey sky. Fighting back the tears, he wondered when the aching would stop. He wanted to know if he would ever be at peace again. But there were no answers up there. When he looked down, he found himself staring through tear-filled eyes at the rear of the palazzo Ca’ da Mosto. He recalled how much he disliked Francesco da Mosto. Count Francesco da Mosto, he corrected himself, the smug, podgy TV presenter and so-called historian, whose family used to own the palazzo. Although Francesco was adored by every Venetian and by the large majority of Italians elsewhere, Eugenio had no time for him, regarding him as someone who had neither worked nor wanted in his whole life. Another pampered aristocratico, he was about to conclude, but he halted the train of thought, rebuking himself not only for his meanness and nastiness, especially on Capodanno, but also for being in such a mess. Then he continued walking, briskly this time.
Along Strada Nova
As he turned the corner into Strada Nova, the dryness inside his mouth reminded him that he hadn’t had any caffè since waking up. Glancing to his left and right, hoping to find a bar open, he noticed that the street, a normally busy one even that early in the morning, was empty as far ahead as he could see. Then something strange occurred. He could hear music. He recognised the strains of Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’. It was the music of Venezia! The violins were loud and clear, swooping over him, threatening to lift him up and sweep him away with them. But they weren’t playing outside on the street; they were there inside his head! He had heard that same music at the party the night before when the fireworks were cascading through the sky. He realised that he must have been carrying the sound in his head since then and that he could hear it again now because of the silence – because for the first time in his experience that perpetually noisy, teeming city had fallen silent, utterly silent.
Distracted by the music, without consciously doing so, he turned off Strada Nova and into the sliver of a ramo that leads to the side entrance to the palazzo Ca’ d’Oro and, further on, to the vaporetto landing station of that name. He marched straight down to the platform in front of the deserted landing station, where he stopped to gaze out at the Grand Canal, which was also deserted. There were no vaporetti in sight, no traghetto, no gondolas. The only movement that he could detect was that of a solitary seagull wheeling high above.
As he regarded the dirty-looking water surrounding the platform, he remembered how he and Vera would come down there early in the morning after drinking caffè at the little bar opposite the entrance to the ramo. She would catch the vaporetto to Ca’ Rezonnico, from where she had a short walk to her work in Campo Santa Margherita, while he would get that day’s first ‘fix’ of his beloved Grand Canal before going to his office. On the very spot that he was standing on now, he would hug and kiss Vera when the vaporetto pulled in, and he would wave to her when it pulled away, not leaving until she and it were well out of sight. Those moments will never be repeated, he sighed to himself. They seemed such a long time ago, a lifetime ago. A pang of longing for Vera almost took his breath away, and his eyes misted again. He turned away sharply. As he walked back up the ramo, the music inside his head stopped abruptly; it was as if someone had snatched the stylus arm away from a gramophone record.
Resuming his journey along Strada Nova, he tried for perhaps the thousandth time to analyse where things had gone wrong with Vera. As ever, he went back to the beginning, when he first met her. That must have been at least five years ago, he reckoned. He had recently arrived from Roma, his home city, to work in Grimboli’s London office. She was twenty-nine, he only two years older. Unlike those cheap-looking, dyed women back home, she was a true blonde, with blue eyes to boot, his own English rose. She was a language teacher. She taught French and Spanish – and Italian, of all things. Even then, his English was very good, so they could communicate fluently in two languages. In no time at all, they were living together. A year later, they were married. Then a couple of years after that came his big promotion: he was appointed manager of Grimboli’s office in Venice. There was no hesitation; they moved there and bought an apartment with Grimboli’s help. She took up a teaching job in the language school in Campo Santa Margherita, teaching English this time to Italian students. And for a while they enjoyed each other and their life together in La Serenissima, the most beautiful city in the world.
He clenched his fists as the memories coursed through him: the many hours that they had spent lovingly furnishing their little apartment; the music and opera recitals throughout the city that they had gone to in the evenings after work; the weekend visits to all those ancient churches to explore their hidden art treasures; the countless vaporetto trips with the wind in their hair; those beautiful Sunday afternoons when they had strolled along the Molo and around Piazza San Marco. He could picture them now, sitting outside at Caffè Quadri, sipping Bellinis and people-watching as the sun slowly dropped down behind the rooftops ... He shook his head to banish any further images of him and Vera. Yes, he almost shouted inwardly, it had all been like a fairy tale come true!
So what happened to bring the fairy tale to an end? he asked himself angrily. Why, less than a year after arriving there, did she become a different person, so much quieter than before, so morose and unhappy? He had been convinced that it was him to blame, but she denied it, claiming that it was the experience of living there that had changed her. He should have recognised the signs. He should have heeded her when she first complained about the Venetians. Yes, that was when it began. She came home one evening and said that the local people were rude, that they pushed and blatantly queue-jumped when getting on and off the vaporetti, that they behaved the same way at the supermarket and the baker’s and the butcher’s – in fact, everywhere they went. She complained about being ignored by the assistants in those shops, because she was a foreigner, not one of them. She said that, even though she could speak the language, the assistants often pretended not to understand her.
‘It’s like a bloody game to them!’ she used to exclaim.
Not long after that, she began to complain at length about the behaviour of the local residents on the streets. Because of the narrowness of the streets in Venice and the large number of people always on them, the custom is to help the flow of pedestrians by walking on the right. Although Vera acknowledged that many tourists didn’t know about the custom and therefore didn’t adhere to it, she asserted that the real culprits were the Venetians themselves. She said that she had watched them deliberately flaunt the custom by walking where they wanted, as if only they had the right of way.
‘I’m sorry, Eugenio,’ she cried one evening after a particularly exasperating day, ‘but going back and forth to work and to the shops has become a daily struggle for me because of those rude, ignorant people.’
Her next complaints were about the dishonesty of the shopkeepers in Venice. She bought a pair of shoes one afternoon. They fitted her perfectly in the shop, but when she tried them on at home she discovered that they were far too big. She was certain that the shopkeeper had swapped the pair she had tried on with a less popular size. She had described it as ‘sleight of hand’. Only a day or so later, she arrived home with a brand new watch, an expensive one, which she had purchased somewhere close to the Rialto. She said that it had looked so good in the dimly lit shop. In the better light of their apartment, however, it became obvious to her that the watch was poorly made and deliberately overpriced.
‘It’s sleight of hand again, Eugenio!’ she had shouted angrily. ‘They’re all just a bunch of bloody thieves!’
And then, to cap it all, the turisti came into her sights. She couldn’t hold back any longer the sheer frustration that she felt about them; what she saw as a constant invasion by them of the streets, the shops, the vaporetti, the very life of the city.
‘I’m so sorry to keep going on about things, Eugenio,’ she whispered one night when they were lying in bed, and he was holding her close. ‘It’s not your fault, honestly. If it were just you and me and Venice, life would be perfect. But the droves of tourists cluttering the streets every damn hour of the day and those robbers in the shops and those people and their daily rudeness – all of them are just grinding me down.’
And how had he reacted to her growing unhappiness? Like an idiota, of course! In a typical, macho Italian way, he had told her that all Italians were rude, never queuing, always pushing and jostling. It was in their blood, he had said, and he didn’t regard the Venetians as any worse. As for dishonesty, he had simply stated that all shopkeepers everywhere were dishonest if they could get away with it.
‘And as for the tourists, allora, what did you expect?’ he had asked her. ‘The whole world wants to come and see Venice! See Venice and die. Isn’t that what you English are always saying?’
No, he hadn’t been sympathetic at all. He had urged her to rise above those things, to ignore the tourists, to enjoy the beauty of the city and their wonderful life together. What a fool he had been! He had been too busy living his dream to understand how she felt. He had been too quick to dismiss the idea that she would not want to go on living in such a scintillating wonderland as Venice.
Then she had decided to return to London – for ‘a short holiday’, she had said. That was three months ago. He had spoken to her many times on the phone since then. He had pleaded with her. He had cajoled her. But it had been of no use; she had remained steadfast, vowing never to return. It had taken him a long time, but he was resigned now to the fact that their marriage and their life together were over. So there he was on New Year’s morning, a dishevelled, emaciated figure, wandering through that lifeless city and feeling deeply miserable.
Over Ponte delle Guglie
Lost in those depressing thoughts about Vera and her reasons for leaving, he didn’t realise that he had left Strada Nova far behind. He had progressed from one empty campo to the next and he had crossed four bridges, all without noticing. As if he had been transported there, he suddenly found himself at the top of a fifth bridge, the wide Ponte delle Guglie. He was standing with his back to the Ghetto, staring down past Palazzo Labia to the junction of the Cannaregio and Grand Canals.
He stepped down the other side of the bridge, smiling bitterly. It’s ironic, he said to himself, but I’m only now understanding the things that had troubled Vera so much. He had recently personally experienced rudeness in the shops, having been kept waiting while local people were served before him; he was Italian, the same as them, but he had been treated like an outsider, just as Vera had. He had witnessed the locals, especially the older ones, barging their way onto and off the vaporetti. He had also witnessed the arrogant behaviour of some Venetians on the streets as they defied the right-hand side rule and maliciously caused obstructions. Only a few days ago, he had watched two elderly ladies, both with shopping trolleys, come from either side of a very narrow bridge and stop to chat in the middle while the whole of Venice squeezed past them. He had been so angry that he had felt like lifting up those old hags and hurling them down into the canale below!
He reached Campo San Geremia, which was deserted like all the others. Passing through it and heading into the canyon of dimly lit hotels and shuttered shops that would take him straight to the Ponte dei Scalzi, he heard the bells of the campanile behind him burst into life, breaking the silence all around. He was so engrossed decrying the behaviour of the Venetians that he lost count of the number of peals and wasn’t sure if the bells had announced six or seven o’clock.
And, di sicuro, there are the turisti, he muttered to himself; hordes upon hordes of them. It seemed to him that there were more of them every day. The very street that he was walking on was always clogged with them as they made their way to and from Rialto and San Marco. He had been immune to them before, but now he regarded them as intruders. And he had noticed that almost all of them seemed to be eating as they moved. He couldn’t help thinking that they resembled a herd of migrating buffalo, rolling in from the plains, thundering across the cobblestones, grazing on the hoof and leaving their detritus in their wake.
Up to Ponte dei Scalzi
Arriving at the Ponte dei Scalzi, the destination of the first leg of his walk, he climbed wearily up the steps to the centre of the bridge. Then, facing the way he had just come, he leaned over the parapet and gazed out at a panorama of grey buildings. The waters of the Grand Canal down below were also grey and sluggish.
He smiled bitterly again when he remembered the man whom he and Vera had once met in a restaurant in Roma. They were still living in London at the time, and they had gone to Roma so that he could announce their engagement to his parents. The man was Italian and about the same age as them. He told them that he lived close to Padova, only a short distance from Venice. But he was at pains to point out that he only ever visited Venice when he wanted to feel sad.
‘I’ve been to many cities throughout Europe and further afield,’ he had said rather bumptiously. ‘Some are happy, welcoming places and some not so welcoming. But, to me, Venezia is the least welcoming of them all. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most melancholic place in the world.’
How he and Vera had laughed afterwards to think that anyone, let alone an Italian, could describe La Serenissima, that glittering city, in such a way. But neither of us would be laughing now, would we? he sighed.
So what now, Eugenio? he asked himself. It was the beginning of a fresh year, but everything ahead looked bleak. He could go on living in a city which he no longer loved and which no longer loved him. He could spend another year of his life here as an exile. It would be a year on his own, a year without Vera. He could go back to a job which no longer held any zest for him. The more he thought of it, the more he disliked that job. Although often naïve and demanding, his English and American clients were usually easy enough to get along with, but his dealings with the Venetians – the owners and the tradesmen – were a different matter; with them, it was a perpetual struggle of lies and broken promises. And there was the acqua alta to contend with. How many times already this winter had he opened his office in the morning to be greeted by several inches of flood water? On top of all that, there was the Carnevale to look forward to in a couple of months, bringing with it more turisti, more congestion, more rubbish on the streets ...
His heart began to beat more rapidly when he realised where his thoughts were leading him. Ever since Vera had left, he had convinced himself that he must stay for the sake of his job, the apartment, that wonderful city. But he knew now that none of those things were important any more. The turisti could have Venice. For all he cared, the place could decay and fade away, disappearing under the laguna and taking its offensive people with it. He wanted to eat again. He wanted to enjoy himself again. He wanted to be at peace again. He could do the same as Vera and go somewhere else. He could get another job, work in a bar, sweep the streets; anything, it didn’t matter. He could return to Roma, even to London, where he was never treated like an exile, where people queued and were always polite. He had always felt at ease in London; it was as if he belonged in its multicultural society, even more so than in Roma. He could go there and find Vera again and perhaps ...
‘Yes, that’s what I’ll do!’ he said out loud, banging the parapet with the palms of both hands.
Yes, as soon as he returned to the apartment, he would go on the Internet and book a flight to London – for the day after tomorrow, if he could. Tomorrow he would pack. And he would write a letter of resignation. But this morning he would soak for a long time in a hot bath. Then he would sleep – a real sleep at last.
Stepping back down from bridge, he caught sight of a vaporetto pulling in at the landing station down on his left. At the foot of the steps, he smelled the aroma of fresh coffee from a bar across the fondamenta. And he suddenly heard those swooping violins again, that wonderful, magical, uplifting music of Venice.
– o –