Wednesday 10 August 2011
On accosting old ladies on the vaporetto on cold misty mornings - Michelle Lovric
I hope this post will not disappoint. Unlike the two preceding History Girls, I am not going to take my clothes off today, much as we all enjoyed Caroline Lawrence’s and H.M. Castor's historical stripteases. (Especially well done to Caroline for getting naked in her first line, and still being promiscuous in her last.)
For those of you still reading, I’m going pull on my huge fake-fur coat known as ‘Brown Boris’ and take you somewhere very, very cold.
When I’m tired of the library, and can’t bear squinting at the screen for a moment longer, there’s no need to stop researching. For me, there is always the vaporetto. At certain times of day, before the tourists make it impossible to breathe, talk or move aboard, a tribe of translucent ladies in their upper eighties take to the ferries in Venice. I consider them a valuable resource.
It is easy to engage them in conversation. A smile will do it. Or a small comment. They don’t flinch away. They don’t think you must be touched in the head to want to talk to them. Unlike many extremely old ladies in England, for example, they are not apologetic, self-deprecating creatures, accustomed to being overlooked or insulted. No woman is ever non-viable in Italy. She may at any age demonstrate self-respect, being elegantly shod and immaculately groomed, without accusations of being pecora dressed as agnello.
I love to talk to these waterborne old ladies. If one is available, I’ll always go and sit next to her. And my favourite conversations begin when they sigh, ‘Ah, non è come era una volta’: ‘It’s not like it was once upon a time.’ When my old lady of choice says that, I hope that she’s not getting out at any stop soon.
For when they say those words, you’re about to hear how it was once upon a time in Venice. And it is magical.
One old lady told me very proudly about an antique soup tureen she bought at auction. It was more than she could afford, but it was a superb piece, a remnant from a noble palazzo, all hand-painted with meadow flowers and herbs, perfect for a cold summer soup. She would never use it, as she didn’t really entertain ‘come una volta’, but it would look exactly right on her credenza and give the whole dining-room an air. She told me how she’d clutched that tureen all the way home in the vaporetto, and how everyone had given her space because she was holding such a precious object. It wouldn’t be like that now, she shook her silky head sadly, pointing at the backpackers using their kit as weapons to bash other passengers out of their way. One blow from those backpacks could stun or kill an old lady like her, and smash a precious tureen to smithereens. That tureen will soon have a place in one of my books.
It is to another old lady on the vaporetto that I owe a central image in The Mourning Emporium, my novel set in Venice and London in the winter of Queen Victoria’s decline and death. It was a cold and humid day three years ago (yes, in Venice it can be both cold and humid at once). The Bora wind pounced on the city, pummelling the citizens with rough cold paws. Ice crackled underfoot. Mist blurred the palazzi rising out of the water. I crouched in the steamy cabin, fragrant with old ladies apparently marinated in lavender water and inflated to twice their normal volume in sweetly musty mink.
I was writing about an ice-storm that engulfs Venice on the night of December 24th, 1901, stealing Christmas and carrying many Venetians away. So my freezing vaporetto trip was by way of research.
‘Che freddo infernale!’ I said hopefully to my nearest old lady. ‘What hellish cold!’
‘Ah si,’ she replied. ‘Ma non è come una volta.’
And we were away.
She told me about the winter of 1929. ‘I was just a little girl, a tiny little thing. We lived near the Fondamenta Nuova. You never saw anything like it. The ice was so thick on the little canals that the gondolas popped up on top like grape pips!’
‘Was the Grand Canal frozen?’ I asked, reaching for my notebook, scribbling ‘1929’.
‘Non totalmente. But great ice floes like whales floated just under the water. Where I lived the shore was frozen solid. People walked right into the middle of the water between the House of the Spirits and the cemetery island.’
My mind raced. In my stories, the House of the Spirits covers a cavern inhabited by greedy, foul-mouthed warrior mermaids. How could my mermaids survive? Would they too pop out of the ice like grape pips? No, I realized, they would have to swim away from Venice. But where would they go?
The old lady continued to reminisce but I was already in the writers’ land of ‘What if’.
What if the Venetian mermaids swam all the way to London? What if the ice-storm was caused by baddened magic? What if two child characters, Teo and Renzo, ended up in London too? What if Renzo’s mother …? I turned back to my companion, with more questions.
Eventually, drained of memories, my old lady rose and shuffled towards the exit, giving me that special Venetian upside-down wave by which the hand becomes a castanet. I waved her goodbye.
At home, I googled 1929 Venezia and was rewarded with a YouTube video of the city engulfed by ice (see link below). But it was the old lady’s own images that would stay with me and colour what I wrote in The Mourning Emporium.
Shall I one day sit on the vaporetto and be engaged in conversation by a young writer wanting to know what it was like here once upon a time? Shall I wave that writer goodbye with a castanet motion?
I hope so. I have a debt to repay.
Anyone else like to admit to a habit of accosting old ladies or gentlemen on buses or trains? Or other vampirical tendencies? Is anywhere, in fact, safe for innocent members of the public, with historical novelists everywhere ravening for fresh story-blood?
Michelle Lovric’s website
You can see the footage of an iced Venice in 1929 on YouTube where there’s also a trailer for The Mourning Emporium and The Undrowned Child
The photo of the vaporetto in the mist is from the excellent pensierospensierato.blogspot.com