Friday, 26 November 2010

Away Days

Most of the time feel fragile with fear waiting for the cancer tsunami to roar back and engulf me.

The chance to visit Venice for a few days, to write a feature for Private Banking Magazine, was a welcome diversion, and a bit of a challenge as anxiety is so draining and makes one want to hide away.

What can one say about Venice? That was a challenge too. I decided to pitch the piece squarely towards bankers and their wives and mistresses i.e. not much about art or churches.

Last time I was there, in 2005, I didn’t like it much, it rained all the time and I was perplexed by the place. The streets really were full of water and I couldn’t understand why people didn’t fall in all the time. I’m surprised that I didn’t as I was in a kind of daze I get when I am disorientated. I remember reading that old Woodrow Wyatt fell into the Grand Canal. He was smoking a cigar and came straight back up to the surface with the cigar still clamped between his teeth. Don’t know if it was still lit.

I must have gone in September, because it was cold and wet but still blanketed by tourists. At least 7,000 a day in St Mark’s Square. The lines of US college students talking about calzone and the price of “Bud,” defeated me. I didn’t get to see St Mark’s Basilica or the Doge’s Palace or very much at all. It was not a successful travel piece.

When I first arrived, I wrote in my diary about my enchantment and my disappointment :

One moment I was in a graffiti smeared multi-storey car-park, the next I was in a boat on the Grand Canal in the dark, gliding out of the 21st century into the 16th. The only light came from lanterns over narrow doorways. In the dark I saw shadowy figures standing on a small Baroque bridges looking down at us and vanishing, then I was hauled onto a creaking jetty and led through an unlit marble entrance hall, ankle deep in canal water.

“When I saw the carved wooden angels guarding the entrance to my apartment in Palazzo Mocenigo, I became a “Venice Idiot,” this was it – the ultimate place of enchantment.

“This was once the home of the powerful Mocenigo family, where they entertained royalty and political allies in the 1570’s.

Once up a marble stairway and inside, I had a thousand square feet of mosaic marble under my feet, silk brocade walls, six delicately painted wardrobes and Murano glass chandeliers overhead. This was the Venice of my dreams. I spent my first night in a bedroom once used by Lord Byron.

“The morning after, as so often happens, wasn’t so good. Who was this next to me in the morning light? It was the Piazza San Marco, epicentre of European culture, described by Henry James as “the drawing room of Europe,” where Sand, Stendhal, Balzac, Wagner, Mann, Byron, Rilke, Hemmingway and sundry Italian film stars enjoyed bumping into each other in the Florian and Quadri.

“Even in the 1960’s the comedian Kenneth Williams was delighted to spot Dirk Bogarde there, and to get an autograph from Eve Arden.

Today you make your way to the Florian through a slew of litter. Inside a scowling waiter will try to sell you “toasts” while Japanese tourists in identical sun visors troop past the window. The square is more like a fast-food joint than a salon, even though the product being gobbled is culture not calzone.”

This time I did some research before I went, reading Jan Morris’ Venice, looking at the Blue Guide, visiting the Canaletto exhibition at the National Gallery and attending a lecture at the Courtauld about Ruskin in Venice.

This made me feel prepared to take on La Serenissima, and also made me feel like a normal person – the person I was when I first went there, before I was so unexpectedly sentenced to death.

I had an itinerary laid out for me by Bellini Travel, a small bespoke company, and it involved a lot of shoe leather. I was determined to do it all, and see the Basilica and the Doge’s Palace this time. In November the ghastly crowds subside slightly so I wouldn’t have to queue for so long. I bought vouchers on line before I went, without realising that all the major churches charge separately.

I worked hard and at least understood where I was going. Bravely I thought I’d have dinner in Harry’s Bar, near St Mark’s, as most of the readers would have heard of it; once frequented by Hemmingway, Gina Lollabridgida, etc.

You have to push through tired Americans propping up the bar, and until recently the most jaded among them was the barman, Claudio Ponzio. He’d been there for thirty five years, making 700 Bellini a week in the summer. This time I heard that he was recently shipped off to Abu Dhabi where they’ve opened a new Harry’s, and perhaps saved his sanity.

I ordered a frozen Martini, which Truman Capote named a “silver bullet.” I followed with a small plate of baby artichokes, a John Dory which was rubbery and a lemon meringue pie, just like mother used to make, very badly, with no trace of lemon and it wouldn’t have passed the Greg Wallace test on Masterchef. With a glass of wine the bill came to 170 E.

After the alcohol hit me I felt very relaxed and wrote in my note book: “Stop fighting death because you can’t win.”

Full of confidence I rolled back up the tiny streets to the Gritti Palace where I was staying.

The next morning all that confidence had melted away. I found I had also written on a post card showing Harry’s Bar as a dot on a map of the lagoon: “Don’t fight it, no point anyway. Just lay down your arms and enjoy what ever is left. It won’t be too bad.”

At breakfast I had one of the most wonderful views in the world; a weak sun resting on the shoulder of Santa Maria Del Salute, but I looked at the post card and it seemed to have been written by a stranger.

There had been heavy rain early on, the lobby of the Gritti was flooded and the concierge sighed as he helped with rolling up the rugs. I made my way to St Mark’s Basilica, trying to walk on the raised portable tables they put up. I found myself in the middle of the square with some other tourists, stranded, with the walkways all round the edge. We had to wade through water to climb up onto them.

The Basilica was shut because of flooding. Owing to a brief reading of Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers, I knew there was a north door I could go through somewhere round the back. I found it, and the walkways led me right into the chapel reserved for private prayer. I looked at the small icon of the Virgin over the altar and wept, then felt embarrassed. Fortunately there was no one in there except plumbers and workmen and no one took any notice of me. I crept out feeling empty and uncertain, no spiritual reassurance received.

I got on a vaporetto to Murano to see the Seguso glass factory. I checked my lipstick in my handbag mirror, and in the sharp light of the lagoon noticed that my eyebrows had returned, and unfortunately some hair on my upper lip, which didn’t used to be there. I hadn’t brought any tweezers along as I haven’t used them for so long.

After Murano, rushing to get back to St Mark’s where a visit to the private palazzo Loredan had been arranged, I made a quick detour to the cemetery island and the graves of Diagalev, Stravinsky and Ezra Pound. It’s a graceful, tranquil spot and it was touching to see the little pink ballet shoes put on Diagalev’s tomb. Stravinsky had the usual roses and Pound a rather suburban shrub, not right for him at all, shards of Murano glass, broken bottles or smashed up flowers would be more appropriate.

On my last morning I had a few hours free before the 12 noon check out, when I had planned to see the Basilica properly, and the Doge’s residence. I didn’t realise how tired I was, or perhaps it was the fault of the dark shutters, but I went to bed at 10pm, felt very restless, woke up at 11. It seemed strange that only an hour had gone by as I felt I had been in bed for hours. I thought I would never get back to sleep and decided to dress quickly and go down to the lobby to use their computer, to kill the dreaded hours of night. When I got there I noticed it was day light outside – I felt a sense of panic as I asked the date. It was the 18th. I had slept from 10pm till 11 am the next day.

I was all of a do-dah then, rushing to get a late breakfast, stuffing in bread rolls and prunes under the two flying cupids in a golden stucco frame, painted by Tiepolo in 1740. I still haven’t seen the Basilica or the Doge’s esteemed home. Wonder if I ever will!

In Marco Polo airport felt an odd pricking sensation, realised later that it must be the pubes coming back.

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