An English Summer: Venice: Once upon a Time in New York
A English Summer
The sun seeps through the curtains as bird calls wake you. The light outside is crisp with spring-like promise, the air has a tingle of moisture and the blades of grass are crowned with crystal morning dew. Colours bombard you, made shocking bold by the unimpeded sun-rays.
At work, voices are light with laughter, still summered behind the office blinds; but the road home is grey as autumnal clouds roll in to subdue hope’s rise. Then comes the weight of drumming rain. Its passing leaves a winter chill in the night air.
An English summer day holds all the seasons.
The above was an exercise at the Torrevieja Writers Circle to describe summer in 100 words. I had a short version too:
Summer is coming, it’s just 8 a.m.
The cloud’s rolling back, the sun’s here again.
Quick, out in the fresh air, it’s waiting for you.
Winter’s rain is due back at about half past two!
When I spent 10 weeks in Venice as a student, I couldn’t imagine that it had long to go before it sank gracefully into the sea with a final echoing sigh.
I stayed in a small pensione not far from the railway station, ie the nearest Venice ever got to modern, and walked most days to classes in an old mansion backing onto the Grand Canal not far from the Accademia Gallery. The number of small bridges crossed on the way depended on my choice of route, but there wasn’t much in it, and this no doubt contributed to my loss of a stone in weight. I say “small” in comparison to the Rialto and the Accademia Bridge, the two choices for crossing the Grand Canal, but they all had several steps up and several steps down. I had never done much bench stepping, but walking through Venice gave me a similar sort of exercise without the pain, for it was a surreal experience rather than a physical one.
The Rialto route led through colourful shops for tourists and a lot of noisy chatter, not much of it in Italian. The bridge itself was a thriving commercial unit with restricted views and an atmosphere of intimacy, mainly enjoyable but sometimes, for a poor student not buying anything, a little threatening. Having crossed the bridge, the route took in some of the big houses of the rich, distinguished from the hotels by their air of decay, their silence and their otherworldly atmosphere. If this had been England, I would have peeked through a window looking for Miss Haversham, but this was Venice and the shutters never seemed to be open. It seemed the only way to tell which buildings were occupied was to view them from the other side, from the canal, and try to determine from the volume of green slime if the steps were in use. Like all the rich, these Venetians would never walk, but here their vehicles floated.
The Accademia route was both more stately and more humble. The art gallery building on the far side was more open in aspect, while from the bridge itself you could see out into the bay across the front of St Mark’s Square, the ultimate in tourist experience. But I turned away from all this and walked through the back streets, tiny narrow alleyways that all looked the same and where I always got lost. They might open out suddenly into a small piazza where ordinary life went on, where old men sat outside tiny bars drinking coffee and old women beat carpets at the front doors or watered flowers growing on tiny balconies 4 stories high. Very occasionally there might be children playing, but any age groups in between were not visible. An alleyway might suddenly end on the edge of a narrow, dank canal, where the black water’s slapping motion released the smell of sludge and decay which even after weeks of practice you could not deny. Avoiding the slippery steps down to the water, you might peer sideways and see a succession of small bridges and if you were lucky, a light at the end where the tall buildings parted slightly. If not, your gaze sank into greater gloom and got lost in the dark. Later when I saw Donald Sutherland and his dwarf playing hide and seek in the film Don’t Look Now, that was the picture of Venice which resonated with truth for me.
Yet Venice seeps into the soul. For all the stench, the cold, the damp, the rain, the impossibility of ever belonging, the vaguely threatening feeling of being for ever lit up by a neon sign saying Tourist, the image I retain of Venice is of myself in silhouette, having plunged down the wrong alleyway yet again, surprised by a canal way full of light, with a flock of pigeons rising from the ground all around me and happy youthful voices calling to each other from behind deep set windows into which I could never see.
Once upon a time in New York
I was an exchange student travelling home from South Carolina and had a weekend in New York before I got the flight home in time for Christmas.
At the end of our USA visit, we students had hardly any money left so a few of us had booked rooms in the New York YMCA. For some reason I never understood, this was a better option than the YWCA. It might have been that a Christian organisation took the responsibility of looking after its young female visitors seriously and locked the doors at night. It was probably because the YMCA was cheaper.
I had known before I left home that New York in December would be cold, while South Carolina would never be less than warm, so having only one suitcase for 4 months, for my 2 days in New York I had packed a warm trouser suit which I wore with a black cape. Dashing maybe but not nearly warm enough; New York was bitter.
We spent the first day walking the streets in a reckless fashion that would have horrified the natives. However the only sinister people we encountered were youthful Scientologists trying to lure us to some secluded room to be brainwashed, and the policemen. The latter never walked about in less than twos and were usually in threes or fours, despite the guns on their belts. We might have been naïve English girls, but we instinctively knew that these were the people you did not look in the eye, let alone ask for directions.
Back at the YMCA, a fellow English student came round knocking on doors to ask if we had any money to spare. The woman in the room next to hers was on the verge of collapse from malnutrition and she wanted to get her a meal from the pizza place across the road. Of course we all chipped in and our reward was an encounter I shall not forget. It is often hard to judge the social position of people from other countries when accents and clothing don’t give off the same messages as they do at home, but I never doubted that this tall, emaciated woman in her sixties with beautiful long white hair and beautiful long words was the American equivalent of aristocratic. She explained that every three months her family sent her money and it was due at the end of December. As was often the case, apparently, she had misjudged her budget and found herself with nothing left until the money came. She was very weak and we were no doubt very exhausting so we got no detail, but ever since she has remained in my mind as the embodiment of the ant and the grasshopper fable. What wonderful things did she squander her money on each time it arrived? Would she survive to the end of December? Who were her family? Why had they cast her out and failed to look after her, but retained enough guilt to pay to assuage it?
The next day my friend Carlos, a post grad student from Ecuador , was looking after me. We got on the tourist conveyor belt and when it stopped at Greenwich Village I had my portrait done. I didn’t want to, but Carlos insisted and then insisted on giving the result to me although I had enough problems with luggage and wouldn’t know what to do with it when I got home anyway. It stayed on my parents’ wall for many years, my tweedy trouser suit visible in all its glory, as a reminder of my most surreal New York encounter.
When Carlos said there was a party that night I must go to, I was blinkered enough to think in English student terms and trust that green tweedy material would do. I got out the one pair of proper shoes I had. In South Carolina we had worn sandals and I had trodden the streets of New York in trainers, so these black leather shoes had been squashed in corners for 4 months and when I put them on, I discovered that one had developed a squeak. Never mind, it would probably have worked its way out by the time we got there.
Carlos did not bat an eyelid when he picked me up, although he was looking even smarter than usual. The taxi left the YMCA and found its way not to some back street student apartment, but to a grand central hotel. We went up in the elevator to the 25th floor and entered a massive ballroom full of New York’s finest Latin American residents. Carlos took my hand and led me to his aunt’s table, greeting people in ball gowns or tuxedos on the way and introducing his English friend, the girl in the green tweed trouser suit who could not hide if she wanted to because her loudly squeaking shoe would give her away. When he asked me to dance, I decided that he would forever be the standard for my idea of perfect gentleman.
On the way out, by mistake we got out of the elevator on the mezzanine floor and entered a crush of people we struggled through on the way to the door. It was another beautiful people’s party, but these were in a class of their own. They were magnificently made up, with elaborately coiffeured hair, and their brilliantly shiny sleeveless dresses were off the catwalk. By the time we reached the stairway down to the ground floor, however, a false note was reverberating. “Did you realise they are all men?” said Carlos, just at the moment when it dawned on me that this was a party of transvestites.
Next day I arrived at the airport with one suitcase for the hold and carrying a bag of books, an extremely large lime green stuffed mouse called William and Mary that I had won at the South Carolina State Fair and a framed portrait of myself. The stewardess very kindly allowed me on the plane.
I told myself that of course I would go back to the States when I was a real grown up and this time I would take a proper look at New York. This time I would take in the scale of the architecture, the bridges and the river, and this time I would form a proper image of the social structure as a whole. I never did get back and I am old enough now to recognise that if I had, I would probably again have failed to record the big picture. My focus is always individual people.