Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Letter from Venice (20) 26-10-16

In the ‘working class’ district in which I reside the nearest square is Campo de Santa Giustina detto (known as) de Barbaria. I sit at one of the four or five tables at the café on the square sipping americanos, reading and smoking a cigar bought in the tabaccheria next door. It is a low-key square which boasts a funeral parlour, a double glazing outlet, a vintage clothing shop, a women’s hairdresser, a tabaccheria, a caffé, a well-head sealed with a metal cap, a dripping drinking and hand-washing tap, and a fire hydrant. There is also a tiny chapel at the southern end, around which you can walk completely which is unusual for Venetian religious buildings. The buildings, which form the square have between two and four stories above the ground floor and are painted in ochre, umber, white, pink and yellow. One or two have marble balconies and they all have iron brackets for window boxes and dark green or brown shutters. There is a sprinkling of aerials. One or two of the buildings have ground floors dressed in crumbling brickwork.

A slow motion camera would show that at this time of day – 5.30pm – a large volume of people cross and re-cross the square and it is never empty. I have a sense of watching the extras in a play make their entrances and exits. Like most squares in Venice there are multiple ways onto stage. Here there are five calli which issue into Santa Giustina from different directions and people will also emerge and disappear down either side of the small chapel. The five routes in mean single people and groups constantly pass through or stop to chat in this space as if they are in a large communal room, an illusion which is strengthened by the way voices bounce off the walls.

The Northern exit from the campo leads to the Vaporetto at the ospedale, while the Western one leads directly to the famous Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo or Zanipolo which is much frequented by tourists who sometimes stray into Santa Giustina clutching maps. The most common trope, though, is the entrance of the phone user. I hear someone speaking loudly before they make their entrance on their own from one of the calli. They cross the square, phone gripped to their ear, hardly taking in the square on automatic pilot, and exit, still talking loudly, via another calle. Their voice then takes a while to fade away. Theirs is a walk-on walk-off part. Then there are the dog owners. Dogs are very popular with the Venetians and many are well groomed and held on brightly coloured leashes. Every now and then a standing dog will suddenly take exception to a passing one and there will be an irruption of loud, threatening barks and squeals, terminated as the surprised owners get their dog under control and continue their conversation. In these circumstances I notice a cat sitting discreetly and judiciously just inside the door of the funeral parlour. He waits until there are no dogs in the square and sallies forth to chase a walking pigeon which clatters into the air.

As well as the odd arriver or leaver pulling a suitcase there are many shopping trollies drawn across the campo by shoppers returning from the nearby Co-op. Groups of short middle-aged women with severe short haircuts which look as though they have been recently renewed hold conversations, expressing themselves loudly and emphatically. When they say goodbye they shout ‘Ciao ragazze!’ Runners with earphones, in Lycra and luminous running shoes, cross the space intermittently. A family of three, all wearing different highly coloured puffer jackets pass by. An old man sitting at the table next to mine calls out ‘ciao’ followed by a name to several pedestrians who all respond with a smile and a ‘ciao’. He is known to them all.

The hairdresser’s shop has a large poster of a young woman of about twenty wearing an eighties hair style, a striped school tie and a torn white shirt. She pouts at the camera. The funeral parlour, with the name ‘Soffiato,’ has three shop frontages on two sides of the square. One of its frontages is on a corner and has a door on the square and another a few feet from the first, opening on the calle. Both are being used for ingress and exit. The caffé has a board outside advertisng a two-course dinner at 12 Euros "made by home" (in English). It is staffed by two overweight young men with large glasses, wearing jogging pants and trainers. As I sit one of them nips into the tabaccheria next door to buy a scratch card. He sits at one of the tables and uses the handle of the spoon from the sugar bowl to scratch the card. Unsuccessful, he disappears into the caffé. A few minutes later a man with purple glasses on his head, a moustache and a greying pony tail enters the square deep in conversation on his phone. Suddenly and inexplicably the same waiter rushes out and places what looks like a vodka and ice in the man’s hand. The man smiles and, still talking into his phone, steps into the caffé to emerge a few moments later without the glass, still talking and then disappearing off-stage by a different calle from that by which he made his entrance.

There are one or two residential doorways onto the square and a much-repaired marble staircase leading up steeply through a heavy wrought-iron gate to some apartments above the hairdressers. A lot of people use the staircase. I watch a mother with a two-year old boy dragging a scooter up the stairs with a phone to her ear. Half way up the boy loses his temper and begins to pummel his mother. She ignores the outbreak of violence and continues to walk up the stairs still speaking into the phone. The little boy has no choice but to continue to mount the steps. Later a woman sits on the second step texting. At the same time a young woman has emerged on the top floor. She too speaks into her phone held in one hand while snipping at her window box with scissors using the other, and throwing the dead flowers onto the roof below her.

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