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


catdownunder said...

I have met some fascinating people on trains and in supermarket queues and other unlikely places. There are interesting people to be found almost anywhere but, you are right, the oldest are often the most fascinating of all. I always felt rather sorry for Madame Calment dying at 126 at not being able to say to anyone "remember when" about her childhood - but perhaps she needed someone like you to whom she could tell the stories?

Marie-Louise said...

Great stuff!

Linda B-A said...

What a lovely in-praise-of-old-ladies piece and how evocative. I agree with you about the wonderfulness of old ladies. I had the good fortune to meet and stay with a very old lady in Toulon when I was in barely into my twenties. She had sailed from Toulon to Algeria in a sailing ship and survived a husband and three brothers. Men fathered their children late in her family which meant that her grandfather had fought with Napoleon. She talked about coffee being much better before the war - meaning WW1. She could point to a mark on her wall made by a canon ball when Toulon harbour was being attacked. She fought in the Resistance and made the best 'soupe au pistou' I've ever eaten. She was 98 when I first met her and 103 when she died. My history teachers did not inspire me in the least but Nono did. One day I hope I'll find the right moment to write about her.

Sue Purkiss said...

Gorgeous! Especially loved the bit about the old ladies 'in sweetly musty mink'.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Loved it! You are so clever and witty. I especially liked your Italian oxymoron: ‘Che freddo infernale!’

I don't usually approach old ladies when I am travelling (probably because I am one of those clumsy big-boned American tourists always armed with the lethal backpack you mention) but I do talk to men in cowboy hats. Cowboys are among the most polite people you will ever meet. And they aren't alarmed by my backpack!

Ciao, bella!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

There's no doubt you will Michelle... and you'll be that marvellous raconteur and source of story that these ladies are to you! Just not sure you'll be wearing the 'sweetly musty mink' though. Marvellous and beautifully written post.

Katherine Langrish said...

Not an old lady, but I remember being accosted by an old man once, when i was about 16 and was gazing at an exhibit of old lead mining tools, photos, etc behind a glass case in Skipton Library in North Yorkshire. He turned to me and began telling me how he'd worked down the leadmines as a lad, and how he used to hear the pitprops creaking and groaning in the dark, and bits of rubble falling - and he grinned at me and said, "Eee, ah wor frit. Ah wor reet frit."

Mary Hoffman said...

Oh that's lovely! I used to collect mainly old ladies but old gentlemen too, because of my lack of grandparents, and now hope to be collected myself.

I will look old for those elegant and silky ottocenni when I am next in Venice.

There is so much story material just lying around it would be wrong not to make use of it. But yes, writers are vampires.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Oh, how I agree about old ladies. Quite by coincidence the gorgeous Welsh lady I mention in my blog (today) told me so many stories of her life in the war that I was in danger of deviating from my own story.

Wonderful post Michelle. The fake fur coat sounds terrific. I bought on in Venice five years ago because all the women seemed to be wearing them and they were so stylish and sophisticated. Unfortunately mine doesn't seem quite right for life in an English village.

Anonymous said...

Whoa! Ok, being a young writer myself, you've just sent mind-waves shooting up my imagination.
Oh no, my parents aren't goning to see me today, i'm just going to be sitting at my window feverishly writing!
I shall have to go to Venice and use that little trick sometime!
Thank you!

alberridge said...

Thank you for such a beautiful and evocative post, Michelle. But yes, I too am a vampirical granny-grabber, though I have the same problem as Barbara and risk being deflected from my own period every time I talk to one. I think the truth is that ANY period becomes fascinating when you hear it talked about at first hand, and these wonderful ladies not only talk it but lived it.
I so wish now I hadn't neglected my own family's old ladies, but my grandmothers died when I was young. I very much envy those who still have them.

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh, what a lovely post! Yes, I too, have used these kinds of encounters in my novels, sometimes saving them up for years. I remember the old dosser lady telling me in Wellington Square in Oxford that she'd been 'such a pretty dancer' in her youth - and pulling her skirts out and doing a twirl. I used it about twelve years later in Malefice.

adele said...

Super post! I adore very old ladies and am looking forward to being one myself! Old men are also good value on occasion. I was on the bus from Cambridge Station to our house with Sally Prue and she was telling me about her dad who'd been in the Air Force. The bus was bound for Duxford War Museum. A VERY old man interrupted us to tell us that he'd flown out of the East Anglian airfields during the War....he and I and Sally had a lovely chat! He was marvellous. And in very good nick too, though partially sighted.

Donata Ginevra said...

thanks for the "excellent", i am so glad you've liked my site, hope you will be back soon!

Becca McCallum said...

Wonderful post! I am trying to restrain my fangirling here ( I really enjoyed The Undrowned Child and The Mourning Emporium)and reply sensibly.

I have notebooks, and in them I write down ideas, people I meet, places or situations that strike me as interesting, or names that I could use.