My three weeks just south of London have come to an end. In case you’re out of the loop I’ve been housesitting a Boston Terrier named Malibu for a few weeks. My parents don’t live that far away so I’ve been making the most of the proximity to catch up with them and meet my brand new nephew. I’ve also taken myself into London for a couple of days of research at the British Library (that’s the image at the top of this post in case you are wondering).
Manchester for those of you that don’t know the geography is a 5 hour drive from my parents, so I rarely come down this way. And when I do, it’s usually via the medium of other tasks. It’s a lot to justify especially when you run your own business.
Primarily the reason was to get away from my day job and finish revising the second edition of my book which needed a lot of new material putting in. My time here has gone remarkably slowly, and though I don’t feel like I’ve done an awful lot with my time I have achieved what I came here to do – finish the book.
It’s gained a lot of pages and I’ve thrown a few out. And this edition will come with pictures once I’ve forked out for the copyright and got some artefacts properly photographed. There are lots of exciting things to show you and I hope you will be inspired. I doubt the copy will be out by the time I go to Venice in May. But rest assured the link will be up when it’s done.
In the meantime I have continued to plough away at my Italian lessons. And I’ve gained myself a Manchester based Italian penpal via WhatsApp. I’ve also managed to expand my Italian family tree and my grasp of the language seems to be coming on well.
So yes I suppose it has been a good few weeks. Back in Manchester it’s time to return to business. And in just five weeks I will be in Venice. After 10 years absence I am finally back at the ancestral home. And it cannot come soon enough.
There’s an implication that tourists hate Venice, and the Venetians hate the tourists. There are of course two sides to every story. But frankly I am siding with the Venetians on this one – and it has nothing to do with my Patriotism towards the city. This article popped up on my Facebook not so long ago and that is what inspired this post.
You could take out all the Venice implications and insert most places with a large tourism trade. London, Barcelona, Dublin – it doesn’t really matter. The difference is that Venice is defensive of its home in a way you don’t often see. I suppose it’s the close knit nature of the streets and canals that draws such loyalty. Its compact nature means that any problems are keenly felt by everyone. And its dwindling native population has got people a little jumpy. I imagine it has a lot to do with the sense of history and tradition. Of the ancient names that have been peddling their wares here for centuries. At least, that is probably part of it.
I’ve always taken the time to research my holiday destinations. But I’ve never been interested in beach holidays. I go for history, culture and local cuisine. And I’ve been to enough foreign climes and seen enough pig ignorance from tourists to know they largely leave themselves open to exploitation.
I’ve been in restaurants where English speaking tourists have got up and left because their waiter doesn’t speak English. And plenty where burger and chips are still the required meal. And I’ve seen far too many badly behaved hen parties and stag dos to feel able to defend my English counterparts. Excessive drunkeness is an almost uniquely British problem.
Educating yourself about your destination is not difficult. Going armed with a few basic polite phrases will at least mean you give a s*** about the country you’re visiting. In Venice (as in many mainland European countries) a basic respect for culture is at least a kindly nod towards your hosts.
But walking around the city with your top off (men only I hasten to add) or dressed in a bikini (girls I presume) will earn you a firm ticking off from the locals (I’ve seen it). If you’re going to be a tourist in a church at least have the decency to carry something to cover your head or shoulders as required. I am an atheist but even I can manage that one.
All around you businesses will be looking to screw you over. This is not a Venice problem, any business which thrives on tourism sees its victims as gullible money bags and yes we have all fallen for it. That’s what it’s all about surely? You buy souvenirs made half way across the world because you won’t pay more than a fiver and you only eat food which costs less than 15 Euros and took less than 20 minutes to prepare. So what on earth did you expect in return?
So tourists, stop whinging about your treatment by your desitination of choice and start treating it with a little respect. You will get a much better experience.
The last time I stayed in Venice was near the Via Garibaldi in Castello. Incidentally you could get a fully furnished apartment for 400 Euros a week then (2006). Now, it’s 700 Euros for a week and as I travel alone these days I am using AirBNB and staying with Italian friends in San Polo. Which will at least be good for my Italian.
I also hear that the apartment business is bad for Venezia so I am trying to do things the right way, I feel that at least I am helping locals to keep a roof over their heads. Rent in England is a lot cheaper than here in Venice but SpareRoom and AirBNB are important factors in helping residents pay their mortgages.
But I digress. Back to 2006. Most days on that last visit I would pass a huge glass greenhouse. It intrigued me. It looked like something from an Edwardian film set – like a miniature Kew Gardens. But it was sad and abandoned and I felt quite distressed for its future.
That was 10 years ago. Thankfully Venice is not a city where old buildings are pulled down to make way for the new, and in February I discovered that this beautiful building had been resurrected. It is the Serra dei Giardini.
Whether I will have time to patronise it on my next trip in May is one thing, but at least I hope to have the chance to view it from the outside.
How do you sum up a place like Venice in just a few minutes? You can’t. If you have a heart, if you have a soul, if you try to understand it in one go, encompassing everything that is the life blood of this beautiful city is impossible.
But maybe this will help.
To me, this is the best piece of media I have seen so far that demonstrates not only what Venice is on the surface but also what it is hidden beneath.
If there is one thing I really dislike about going on holiday abroad, it’s chain brands ruining the foreign street line. I go abroad to escape everything that is a part of my English routine. But it’s easy to forget how global and faceless branding is. In Malta I was mortified to find a ‘Claire’s Accessories’. And every time I see a McDonalds I rage. I don’t know what else I should expect.
And now Venice has a ‘Spar’ in the Cannaregio district – called a ‘Despar‘. It’s been housed in a beautiful theatre. I was particularly disappointed because Spar isn’t even a great supermarket here in the UK. It certainly isn’t in keeping with the beauty of its surroundings.
I make a point of avoiding anything which doesn’t appear to me to be ‘Venice local’. I am not a tourist who wants the familiarity of home. I don’t even want to be a tourist. And now, being acutely aware of the fragility of Venice’s homegrown artisan economy, it makes me want to dig my heels in even more.
I understand it because here in the UK we have the same problem (doesn’t anywhere?) and I am a part of the ‘Made in the UK’ and ‘Made in Manchester’ movement. I run my own business. I have everything to play for.
It’s something I am very proud of – standing up for locally produced and ethical and sustainable. Venice is only trying to do what we already do here. And I don’t doubt it’s been fighting it as long as we have too. These are some of the parallels between Venice and Manchester. They both have lots of homegrown talent. They both have strong identities. And they both want to protect them. Equally they are both fighting ever expansive erosion by big brands.
So for me, it’s not just about my tenuous links to Venice (I don’t yet feel I have the right to be passionately defensive from a native standpoint) but I do get it. I am not Manchester born or bred either. I come from the South of England originally. I’ve been in Manchester for two years. But I am fiercely protective of what it represents. I may not live in Venice (yet) but I don’t see the harm in being protective of and supporting somewhere I feel emotionally connected to and something I believe in and something I think is worth defending and supporting.
I am not a natural when it comes to learning new skills. If I am really interested in something it’s relatively easy to pick it up and retain the information but there are some things I am just not that great at. Languages is one of them. I admire anyone who can speak a second language. So my bucket list task this year, to learn Italian, is not an easy ride.
Duolingo got me hooked, Tom Weila helped explain the problem areas I couldn’t master, and now I’ve found Italianoautomatico to fill in even more gaps. To top it up I have Google Translate which does get me out of scrapes especially when I am trying to build sentences in real time, and I have a fantastic app on my phone called Vidalingua which is great for on the go. I use this a lot when I need to find words Duolingo hasn’t taught me yet. Of which thre are many!
But of course the main problem is that I live in Manchester which is not known for its ‘lingua italiano’. So I’ve converted all my home pages on my laptop to Italian and and I have Italian Radio and news channels playing at work. The only way to truly learn a language is to live with it and in it. And from here that is not easy. So it’s all remote at the moment. By surrounding myself in it, thinking it, saying it and listening to it, it’s like a slow drip feed.
Come May I will know how well I am doing. I’m off to Venezia for one week. Of course Venetian is a dialect all of its own, even a language of its own, so I know I am going to hit many stumbling blocks that week. Using the language in a real setting will be my first major challenge and I am excited for the challenge and terrified of getting it oh so very wrong and looking like an idiot. I just hope I’m up to the task.
It is fitting that I publish this post today – 10th March. It is the 140th anniversary of Sarah Falcieri’s death. Sarah, my great-great-great-grandmother, was Tita’s wife officially for 25 years and was with him as his partner for about 13 years before that when they both worked as staff at Bradenham Manor in Buckinghamshire for the D’Israeli family.
My family is lucky to still own her memorial ring. And it is this single object that set me on the road to finding out about our unique genealogy and our connections to Lord Byron and Benjamin Disraeli.
It is significant for another reason. Because it is ironic that we know more about Tita than anyone else in the family and yet we have nothing that is personal to him. Sarah on the other hand is illusive to us in the records and yet here is something which is as close to her as it is possible to get. For the ring itself contains a lock of her hair.
There are only two discernable mentions of her in the records pre January 1849 when she married Tita in London. The ring therefore is a highly prized object and continues to be a source of interest and frustration as I search through archives looking for tiny scraps of her life to add to the story.
The only other tangible item that connects to her is a letter she wrote to Benjamin Disraeli in early 1875 following Tita’s death, thanking him for the pension he had obtained for her from Queen Victoria. In mentioning her husband she conveys exactly the person he was:
‘I have only one regret – that my dear husband could not have been cheered before his death by the knowledge that such an event was possible. I do not know which would have caused him the greater delight, – the idea of a public recognition of services which, though indeed faithful, no one knows better than you, Sir, were rendered without desire of reward, or the assurance of the continuance towards him by yourself personally of that kindly feeling of regard….’
You can read my book ‘A Most Faithful Attendant – The Life of Giovanni Battista Falcieri‘ by purchasing it here.