Reluctantly leaving the toasty interior of Taverna San Trovaso behind, Monsieur and I headed for the Collezione Guggenheim, or Guggenheim Collection. This is where I had served as a museum intern, many a moon ago, in the days before every kid had a mobile phone and when we all wrote snail mail, not e-mail, to our friends and family. Instead of a blog I had notebooks filled with scribbled observations, cameras still used film and notes for the evening lecture series were copied using carbon paper. As I explained all this to Monsieur we realised that we were about to take a trip down Epic’s Venetian Memory Lane.
First we walked up to the gate of the palazzo where I’d once lived. The home belonged to the family of the green grocer who sold his fruit and veg from a barge a bit further north, making an absolute fortune from his humble trade. I’d shared the apartment at the top of the building with two other girls and the rules were strict: no boys allowed, not even brothers. The landlady or ‘Signora’ wore house dresses in busy floral prints, always cut a little too low in the chest region, allowing us to be distracted by her breathless and ample bosom. She did our washing on Tuesdays (this was included in the rent), our telephone calls were measured on a counter and paid for per click, itemising each call in a battered notebook, and the Signora’s husband would always pop some free extras into our bags when we shopped with him, frowning at us as if we were underfed and always encouraging us to eat more. Strangely enough, eating more was never the issue as we were walking all over Venice each day, meaning we could eat what we wanted, including an almost daily gelato, and never gain weight.
Standing outside the palazzo, I remembered the ground floor vestibule, filled with a mess of wet weather gear and footwear in all styles and sizes, from baby shoes to gigantic black wellies. Then there was the climb, past the floors inhabited by the family, the kitchen from where the Signora ruled the roost, with the stairs becoming narrower the higher we rose. By the time we reached our apartment, my fellow tenants and I would be breathless and beyond speech for a good few minutes. No matter how fit we were, those stairs were a killer. We lived at the top of Everest, it seemed.
The bathroom was tiled in sickly olive green and the shower was not partitioned from the rest of the room so when we used it, water went absolutely everywhere. The kitchen was a sink and tiny bench with a skirt around the base, behind which we could store kitchen things, and the gas stove was so fierce that I gave up using it after a while, simply because I valued my eyebrows.
In that apartment, we didn’t need alarm clocks. The church bells woke us early each day, continuing to ring at snooze-type intervals until we were all safely out of bed, and the water buses coming and going from the nearest stop on the Grand Canal made whooshing noises that form part of this musical memory. Whilst remembering the sounds of Venice, I couldn’t possibly leave out the mosquitoes, which buzzed mercilessly around my head each night until I was too tired to fight them, only to wake with a new welt or two the following day. In any case, those Venetian bloodsuckers were always invisible if I turned on the light, and with or without insect repellent they ate at me until my blood’s taste was ruined for them by their own poison.
At the back of the palazzo was a small, walled garden, underused and overgrown with straggles of thriving foliage. We palazzo-dwellers could come and go through a gate in the garden, especially if it was late at night and we needed a quieter way to enter the house (the weighty front door always closed with a bang and a small quake, potentially waking anyone sleeping within). One such evening, I walked back from a gathering in the lively square of Campo di Santa Margarita, where we interns would congregate for birthday drinks and other celebratory occasions. I carefully opened the garden gate and closed it again as quietly as I could. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I heard a rustling from one of the bushes. I froze. Still not quite able to see what or who was making the rustling, my heart pounded as the bush started to shake. After a few seconds, the shaking stopped and something plopped onto the path in front of me. Off it ambled across the paving stones towards another patch of greenery and as I finally managed to focus on the stalker in the bushes, my breathing returned to normal. I’d just been welcomed home by the family tortoise.