Much of my spare time – not that there is a lot of it right now – is spent thinking about Italy. I’ve never been but I hope to remedy that next spring. I want to see Florence and perhaps Rome and, most of all, Venice. But, unlike Florence and Rome, there seems to be a scarce supply of books about Venice. You can buy hundreds of memoirs of life in Tuscany but how many can you think of about Venice? For that reason, I was so excited to come across The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles.
When Coles, an Englishwoman married to an Italian, moved to Venice with her family (she has four children), she already loved the city. In this book, she chronicles the things she loves about Venice and also the things that bother her – which seems to be almost everything.
I can’t imagine Venice is an easy place to live, especially as an outsider. Overwhelmed by tourists, Venetians aren’t exactly known for their warm welcomes. And the city is a logistical nightmare to get around in when dry, nevermind when the waters rise. But it is romantic, in its sad state of elegant decay, and Coles does do a good job of capturing that allure. However, a true Venetian now, she is also very keen to keep that romance for the Venetians, jealous of all the tourists who she sees as destroying the city and its way of life. Undoubtedly, modern tourism has had – and continues to have – a disastrous physical effect on Venice but Coles is equally worried about its effect on the Venetian people and their communities. She talks about all of the native Venetians who have moved to the mainland, preferring to sell their Venetian homes or, more profitably, turn them into rentable properties for tourists. Apartment buildings once full of families and locals are now overrun by an ever-changing array of tourists who roll in and out every week. Coles is deeply frustrated by this and the impossibility of building a strongly knit local community under such circumstances. It is an understandable position but a rather naively frustrating one. Venice hasn’t exactly been a sleepy backwater for the last thousand or so years, only just discovered by modern tourists. To hate that integral part of it seems to me to be a willful misunderstanding of its identity.
Already slightly put off by her general pessimism, Coles completely lost me – and often – when she began spouting aspiring-to-be-politically-correct, rather too deeply felt platitudes. She becomes angst-ridden over the use of the formal pronoun “lei” rather than the familiar “tu” in her passing relationship with a young neighbourhood nanny: “I hear the lei/tu distinction as an overt statement of hierarchy –of my elevated status in relation to Barbara.” She treads a weird line between excessive tolerance and embarrassing romanticism when she talks about Venice’s gypsies: “These Rom children, whose language uses the same word to express both ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ have a grip on time, a foothold in it, born of a social unity, and through that a historical continuity, of which I have no notion, to which I can only bear astonished witness.” (I think we should all be deeply impressed that I made it past that passage.) And she harbours dreams of a future tourist-free Venice “in which the city can become a place of artistic and artisanal excellence again and a cultural centre where people are able to live on a small, environmentally sustainable and creative scale”, a dream which rather ignores Venice’s history as a hub of commerce, culture, and, yes, tourism. And do not get her started on the Italian school system and its quest to destroy her children’s spirits. She is aghast that children are expected to be moulded by teachers rather than nurtured and indulged.
I think the most positive thing I can say about this book is that it has prepared me for the worst of Venice. Perhaps that was the goal, to deter future tourists and promote Coles’ dream of a Venice for Venetians. If so, it didn’t work on me and I still can’t wait to go.