I was born in Venice in the first summer of the 1970s. But four summers later, my family decided to join the ebb tide of our concittadini withdrawing from the city our forefathers had constructed, leaving her to the fate of the high waters, in the hands of those rich enough to afford her. Once settled in my mother’s native England, at first we’d return every summer, packing up the car as soon as school was out and driving south, over the Alps, to the city hidden in the lagoon. Soon however, my parents began to tire of the endless round of visits to family and friends these long journeys entailed and eventually they stopped.
It was at the end of one of these journeys, when I must have been about six years old, that I remember telling my parents I wanted to go back and live in Italy. They informed me that I could, but that I would have to wait until I was 18 years old, when of course I could do what I liked. This piece of advice stuck in my head and I began to hatch a plan. When the regular visits home stopped, I pleaded with them to send me on my own, which they did, and I spent the majority of summers through to my mid teens staying with my Zia Rita, my grandfather’s widowed second wife who taught me to cook some key Italian dishes.
During these trips, every day after breakfast, I’d leave Zia Rita’s apartment in the mainland suburb of Mestre, and take the short train ride to Venezia Santa Lucia. I was armed with a thick guide book from the early twentieth century which described every building, in every calle and campo, and taking each of the city’s six districts in turn, I must have visited them all, several times over.
By this point, linguistically I was a disaster. English had replaced venetian dialect as my native language, and on arrival in England my father spoke Italian with us as it was more useful. However, soon this stopped since my elder brother had refused to speak Italian at home. I insisted, even making my mother attempt to give me formal lessons at one point but I lacked resources and soon my Italian relations were calling me il piccolo milordo—which roughly translates as Little Lord Fountleroy—as a reference to my English accent. Whilst this was cute for them, for me it was an embarrassment and one I carry with me to this day.
My 18th birthday arrived, and with it an obligation to join the Italian army for eighteen months, or not take up residence in Italy until I was 26. Preferring the second option, I promptly went of to Manchester University, which I had chosen because of the possibility of spending one of the three years studying Venetian history under Professor Brian Pullan. This was a wonderful experience and I remember every word of his seminars and still dip in and out of the set books of the course. On graduation, I trained as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in preparation for my imminent return to Italy, but then just as I was able, in my twenty-sixth summer, my personal life took a turn which made me stay in England.
I visited Venice in the October of that year, but that would be the last visit for ten years. Even when in 2007 I finally did return to Italy, it was in Tuscany and not Venice that I settled. And then I did the unthinkable. I neglected Venice. Being preoccupied with settling into Tuscany and all that it entailed, to me she became a distant point on the map, too far to reach, even though in reality the lagoon is a three-hour train ride away. But last week, all this changed when I decided to get on that train, check into a hotel for a couple of nights and rediscover my heritage.
I found la Serenissima a very forgiving and welcoming mother.
I arrived after dark, and having checked into my hotel. The first thing the receptionist said when she saw the name on my ID card was, ‘Oh, you’re a Venetian! Welcome home!’ ‘Grassie!’ I said, in Venetian, and she promptly demanded my life story.
Once I’d settled in, I hit the streets, following my nose to the Accademia bridge with its night-time view of the dome of Santa Maria della Salute. Everything was the same: the smell, the noises of the church bells, and the chug-chug of the vaporetti on the Canal Grande. I felt instantly and almost indescribably at home. No sad nostalgia of times past as I had expected, my father having left this world in 1996. Instead a euphoria of being where I felt I belonged. Back in the city I know better than any other, even the town where I grew up.
The next day was the main event, starting in the Piazza di San Marco at sunrise, and then covering most of the city by foot, having an amazing lunch talking to the old Venetian lady at the next table, taking a sunset ride along the entire length of the Canal Grande before an evening visit to the Accademia gallery.
I now spend a large amount of my time in Venice and the city and I are central parts of each other’s lives once more. And now, I’ve made it my mission to share my love and intimate knowledge of that city with all of you. I find myself in a unique position to do so as a Venetian who is also a native speaker of English.
This blog has grown out of a successful Facebook page, which I continue to update and through which many people will come to and access the blog. I hope that people will continue to enjoy my anecdotes and information as much here as they do there.