What’s It Like to Live in Venice?

Read “The Politics of Washing” to Find Out

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While I was surprised to learn that 16.5 million people visit Venice, Italy each year, I was even more surprised to learn that the city claims a mere 55,000 permanent residents, according to this article in The Guardian. That’s 300 tourists for every resident.

With numbers like those, I can see why Polly Coles, British author of The Politics of Washing may share the despair of native Venetians when she calls for moderation and sustainable solutions to the problems that unbridled tourism creates in a city many believe to be among the most beautiful in the world. Those sentiments are dispersed throughout Coles’ 206-page tome, an account of her year-long move to Venice with her Italian husband and four children.

Coincidentally, the title of the book refers to the unspoken rules of laundry etiquette in a city where everyone hangs their clothes out to dry. For example, if you’re sharing a line, and it’s full of your neighbor’s dry clothes, do you ask them to empty the line? What clothing items should you dry indoors? What if the skirt you wish to hang blocks your neighbor’s view?

Coles uses the drying of laundry as a symbol for the many rituals of daily Venetian life that, as a foreign-born resident, she was required to discover haphazardly, adapt to, accept, and ultimately appreciate about this unusual city. For example, she recounts enrolling her children in school, meeting with teachers to discuss school work and behavior issues, finding a home, getting lost, learning the social customs and morés, learning Italian, buying groceries, getting lost again, and visiting the hospital.

My daughter purchased Coles’ book on a whim a few days before she left Venice in early May after serving a semester-long internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a modern art museum located on the Grand Canal.

My husband, our son, and I visited Venice for one week in March over spring break. While it was an all too brief vacation, we actually spent more time there than the day-trippers who take a gondola ride, visit St. Mark’s Square, call it good and leave. I feel that we were able to actually get to know the city, at least a little. (Read my lists of ten ordinary things I found in Venice in March here and here.)

 

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The approach to St. Mark’s Square and Basilica

 

We enjoyed winding through Venice’s maze of streets (actually walkways) and crossing its bridges to see cathedrals and numerous campi, those open squares that at one time served as city centers of the assorted islands that compose Venice. We visited the grocery store daily, shopped the pharmacy for an Ibuprofen equivalent, accompanied my daughter to get her hair cut and styled, ventured out at 5:45 a.m. for the train station, bought Clementine oranges at the Rialto Bridge markets, and shopped for Command strips that were never found.

If we had been able to stay a week longer, I would have sought out a library, found the local university, and asked someone what happens if one has a heart attack or other medical emergency. (Seriously, what’s the procedure in a city without cars, motorcycles, or even bicycles?)

So when I found The Politics of Washing on the kitchen table after my daughter had returned home, I grabbed it and read it in just a few sittings to learn about how native residents live in this “movie set” city.

Besides satisfying that curiosity, the book offers glimpses of Venice’s history as a wealthy trading link between East and West that reached its height in the late 1200s. It also recounts the city’s survival in the 1630s of the Black Death that’s still celebrated with an annual pilgrimage to the iconic and beautiful Santa Maria Della Salute.

 

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At end of the Grand Canal stands Santa Maria Della Salute. Photo: Katherine Yung

 

Coles balances this history by showing readers Venice’s contemporary citizenry and its “groups and committees promoting local events and activities. There are youth groups, community groups, dance companies, theatre companies, choirs, rowing clubs. There are associations working for residents to change policy on housing, transport, the environment. Events that come from outside are also, of course, part of the real life of the city. The rich influx of the arts is enthusiastically embraced by many of the people who live here; the Biennale exhibitions, visiting speakers, concerts, opera and theatre are all part of the lives of Venetians.”

Coles continues, “But the difference between Venice and any other city, the reason why there is so much sensitivity and debate about what is and is not Venetian, lies in the uniquely critical problem of numbers. The citizens of Venice are so vastly outnumbered by the visitors to Venice that there is no balanced relationship between the city and the world at large. There is no equal exchange in which the city offers up her history, and her beauty in return for the cultural riches brought in from the outside world. Not surprisingly, this leads to a deeply ambivalent, not to say confused, reaction to outsiders.” This is the delight and the quandary that Coles reveals in this captivating tale of her temporary life in Venice.

As rushed tourists ease away from the magical city on their mammoth cruise ships, I hope that they will have spent at least enough time there to cause them to wonder, What’s it like to actually live in Venice? When those tourists read The Politics of Washing, they’ll learn just that, as well as gain an appreciation of the benefits and costs of tourism to this ancient, sparkling city on the Adriatic Sea.

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Ten More Things You’ll Find in Venice in March

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Photo: W. Mitch Yung
  1. Young mothers in Campo San Stefano at five in the afternoon, visiting and watching their little girls jumping rope.
  2. Intricate wrought iron street lamps at Palazzo Grassi.
  3. Post-Carnivale confetti clustered in the recesses of steps on the bridges in San Marco.
  4. A thirty-something sandwich shop worker laughing as he slices meats for the lunch crowd in Campo San Vio.
  5. AC/DC’s “Back in Black” playing on the intercom at the Punto Simply grocery.
  6. A seagull resting on a terra cotta rooftop at T Fondaco dei Tedeschi.
  7. A woman jogging in tank and tights along the Zattere waterfront before dawn on a Tuesday.
  8. Prayer candles burning in red votives inside Santa Maria della Salute.
  9. The murmur of gondoliers conversing on a Saturday night outside the Rialto COOP grocery.
  10. Sensible, durable, unadorned shoes and boots; not a high-heel in sight.

I spent a week in Venice a few months ago and tried to notice details— large and small. To read about more things you’ll find in Venice in March, click here.

10 Things You’ll Find in Venice in March

 

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Our Venice view from our window in San Marco near Campo San Stefano.

 

  1. An unlit candle in a bowl on a round table outside a glowing café.
  2. A lone fuschia glove dropped on the steps of a bridge in Campo Sant’Angelo.
  3. A woman sweeping her windowsill with a handheld broom.
  4. A cocoa-brown poodle posing happily for its owner’s camera.
  5. A row of uncomfortable, wood-and-metal chairs lined up behind the pews in St. Zaccaria church.
  6. The staccato shouts of middle school students playing out-of-doors, just beyond a brick wall you cannot see behind.
  7. A woman begging for alms, kneeling, head down, enveloped in black, silent, holding a withered paper cup in her hand.
  8. Orange, lavender and smoky-gray marzipan fish glistening in a store full of sweets.
  9. A troop of ten-year-olds skateboarding in Campo Santa Margherita at nine o’clock on a Saturday night.
  10. An overturned green plastic flower box waiting for spring.

 

Is an overseas internship in your daughter’s future? (Don’t worry, she’ll be fine. You, on the other hand…)

 

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My daughter in Venice. Photo: Stephanie Trujillo

Last December 2, I backed out of the driveway headed for the rural middle school in southwestern Missouri where I teach language arts. It was 7:02 a.m. My phone rang. I saw it was my daughter. Awfully early to get a call. I wondered whether something was wrong.

“Mom!?”

“Yeah, what’s going on?”

“I got the internship!” My heart soared. Two months earlier, she had applied for an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a modern art museum in Venice, Italy. She would venture to the beautiful floating city to undertake museum duties such as guarding masterpieces, giving presentations, hosting tours, and sculpture cleaning from Feb. 2 to May 2.

She was beyond excited. So was I, but now that her acceptance was official, it was impossible to imagine her moving to a foreign country and working for three long months away from her home, her language, her friends, her family, her life. The night she received the acceptance email, I lay in bed and cried.

I simply could not see it happening. but it did. True, it was a rough transition for everyone at first, but we made it, and it was a beautiful, life-changing experience… for her and me.

And let’s be honest, I realize this isn’t intimidating for everyone. Many kids and their parents have no problem doing this type of thing; however, for Midwesterners like us, just traveling to the coasts of the U.S. is a major excursion. In our eyes, Venice might as well have been Venus.

Internships that pay, like my daughter’s, are popular and highly valued. Study abroad programs are also. Should you ever be so fortunate as to have your child venture out alone on a similar endeavor, here are some tips to get you through it.

1. Be Strong. Even though I was excited, I was also scared for her, but I couldn’t let my reservations known. I had to be strong and encouraging because I knew that deep down she likely had reservations as well. Even though living in Italy and this particular internship had been her dream ever since we discovered it on Google, interrupting her college career and moving to a foreign country would definitely be outside her “comfort zone.” I had to show I was positive about this opportunity.

2. Send your spouse to get her settled. This was my first and best idea. My husband would fly over with her in January to help her get settled and accustomed to her new home. After all, she had never been to Italy, or even Europe for that matter. She had traveled with our family to South Africa five years earlier, and with a group of other college students and veterans to Vietnam in 2015. But Italy? For three months? Alone?

3. Make sure she doesn’t stand out. We Americans like our colors. Once my husband realized her bright floral umbrella could be spied far ahead through a crowd, he purchased her a black one. In looking at her Facebook posts that first week, I noticed her eye-catching, crimson-red purse.  I texted my husband to make sure to get her a black one of those, too. Maybe we were being overly protective, but after watching a few Youtube videos of tourists and residents walking around Venice, we knew the city is a labyrinth of narrow, sometimes dark, walkways interspersed with those picture-perfect canals. No reason to look like an outsider, especially if you’re female.

4. Use technology. Numerous Facetime calls, the app People Tracker, Facebook, and Instagram made Italy seem not quite so far away. She started a blog called “From Venice with Love” that kept her in touch with friends at home. Happily, her work and social schedule quickly filled her time, and posting to Facebook and Instagram became more convenient.

5. Send a care package. We waited a couple of weeks, but then sent things from home she couldn’t find there. For example, the Venice grocery stores she frequented didn’t carry American basics such as Ranch salad dressing or pancake syrup. Peanut butter is  hard to find. So are Ziploc bags.

6. Visit. If possible, visit for a short time about halfway through. This helped me understand the new lifestyle my daughter was experiencing. Her pictures and posts made more sense and I gained a new appreciation for the life-changing time she was having. Plus, it was Venice, people. We had to.

7. Break the trip into “chunks.” This made the trip seem more “doable.” My daughter’s internship broke down into three parts: one five-week period after my husband left, one weeklong chunk when we would visit, and finally one six-week chunk. Honestly, this last part flew by for both my daughter and I as she was finally comfortable and confidently knew her way around the city.

8. Pray. I relied on this daily. It was a great comfort to know that He would protect and care for her continually.

My daughter’s Venice experience was indeed life-changing. She now has an international set of friends she keeps up with daily through What’s App and she can’t wait to return and tour southern Italy. Her internship also confirmed her next steps: to complete her bachelor’s degree in Art Education and then pursue a master’s degree in Art History with the intention of working in a museum setting someday. She is already filling out applications for another overseas internship. I, on the other hand, am writing myself a note to re-read this post when she lands it.