Hello! I live in London, and I like reading about history, travel and literature. I also like good non-fiction about things I don't know about yet, and adventures.
Polly Coles spent a year living with her Italian husband and children in Venice, a place most people only visit for holidays. This isn’t a travel book about a romantic weekend, it’s about the difficulty of getting a washing machine delivered when the canals are at high water and there’s no lift in the building.
Coles gets increasingly frustrated with the surging crowds of tourists that block her way to the supermarket and her son’s school, and never seem to go away, no matter what time of year. She watches a centuries-old family hatmaker’s shop close to become a Chinese currency exchange – one of several within five minutes’ walk – and is pleased when a vaporetto (water bus) line opens for season ticket holders only, effectively shutting out visitors and allowing residents some space. (The line lasts for two years before the mayor opens it to tourists as well.)
Because nearly every foreigner in the city is a tourist, Coles, who is English, finds herself overperforming indicators of belonging. She only speaks Italian in public, feeling self-conscious about being audibly Anglo, and when her family goes on a day trip to the beach, she tries to hide their day bags when they’re on public transport. On the other hand, she is irked when tourists photograph her son and his friends playing and catching crabs in a canal.
What struck me most about this is that Coles is clearly not a usually grumpy person – she is warm and inviting to their neighbours, and briefly hurt when a young woman she knows can’t bring herself to use ‘tu’ with her. (Coles sees it as a sign of intimacy, then realises the teenager would find it incredibly rude to use the informal ‘you’ with an older woman.) She makes friends easily, once she starts to figure out the unspoken social rules that every community has, and enjoys striking up conversations with strangers. Her developing such a strong antipathy to tourists I think says much more about the unavoidable unpleasantness of living in a small place that gets tens of millions of visitors a year than anything about her character.
I’ve visited Venice twice and I think it’s lovely, but I absolutely agree that it feels more like a dedicated holiday spot than a place where people actually live. It’s wonderful and otherworldly to sleep and move around in a place with no motor vehicles at all, and the water in the canals is a shade of blue I’ve never seen anywhere else. Wandering through misty Venice in the morning is one of my favourite memories, but if I were trying to get my kid to school and then to work on time, I’d be pretty ticked off at all the dazed tourists too.