Last time I was in Venice I was pregnant with my son and had been married about three months. I was a huge whale of a thing and my husband pushed me up and down the steps to our apartment. It rained all day every day and I ate a lot of ice-cream and bright green biscuits and saw a lot of churches. He ran twenty paces ahead of me all the time and didn’t like it when I sang in the bath. We were 27.
It was raining when we arrived this time too, parking the car in the multi-storey car park where we parked in 1998 and getting on the vaporetto to the hotel. This time we had two children with us. Two children who seem to really, really hate each other. They did not, however, hate the view of the Grand Canal from the boat, or the smell of the sea or the gondolas, stone lions and shop windows full of masks and glass animals, the Poste boats delivering letters, the ambulance and police boats, varnished wooden taxi boats and red Telecom Italia boats. We saw workmen standing on a gondola holding a giant sheet of glass, looking like mime artists. The children didn’t hate our attic room with vast fairytale wardrobe, fluffy bathrobes and heavy silk curtains either.
We gondolled around at phenomenal expense and my husband said he felt boring saying how beautiful everything was over and over again. But it was beautiful – crumbly and ancient, salty, chaotic, leonine. We sat next to an English couple drinking prosecco in a café and the man said: ‘I think it looks skanky in this weather.’ Skanky wasn’t how I would describe it. It almost seems more astonishing in the rain, misty, grey and slightly frightening, the water glowing green and all the carnival costumes standing outside the shops fantasmagorical.
In the evening the sun came out a bit and we got a vaporetto to another island, Vignole, where I had read that there is a restaurant. It didn’t seem likely. The boat stopped at the cemetery and nobody got off. Next stop Vignole, which was basically a field. An old man got off with us and opened a gate down a grassy lane, folding up his umbrella, another day over. Astonishing that someone lived here. The restaurant was empty apart from us and I had fried baby crabs that you eat whole, sardines in saor (onions, pine nuts and raisins) and a glass of Fragolino, Venetian wine that tastes like the grape Kool-Aid I used to drink with my American cousins when I was little. Afterwards we ran for the bus with the waiters and bobbed back to Venice doing ballet on deck (my daughter’s got an exam coming up).
Yesterday we went to Murano and watched the incredible skill, effort and molten risk that goes into making a monstrous glass sculpture of an intertwined couple that I would personally pay almost any amount of money not to have. My son bought a blue glass sausage dog with sausage puppies and my daughter bought a blue glass ballerina. I nearly killed both of them for sniping and snarling and whingeing and moaning. My husband’s face went dark and tight.
The sun came out again, hanging plants dripping sparkling in the sunlight, and we went to La Zucca for lunch, sitting by open doors to the canal, geraniums cascading all over the place and tourists being gondolled past. Most of them were ugly. My husband says ugly people shouldn’t be allowed on gondolas because it is so disappointing when they come gliding into view after the sharp silver and black majesty of the prow. Suddenly, a man who had been eating at the next table leapt out of the window into a boat with his baby daughter in his arms and slipped away under the bridge down the canal. The pear and ginger tart was fantastic – it tasted Jewish, as if made with oil and orange juice instead of butter.
On the way back we listened to ‘Are These My Basoomas I See Before Me?’ in the car and the children hated each other so much that I eventually burst into tears and, when we got home, went to bed and cried. It’s true that nobody ever billed family holidays and outings as fun, but somehow you always imagine they might be, in some fantasy life that nobody actually leads. Now that the TV is back on and huband and I are hunched over our computer screen as nature intended, we are all claiming to have had a wonderful time, including me. Maybe one only ever has a wonderful time retrospectively. And yet, it really was beautiful….