An old pensione in Venice
Almost every year until 1969 when I was seventeen, I visited Venice with my parents and younger sister. We used to travel there either by train from Florence, having first arrived in Milan by air, or directly by aeroplane from London.
As a child these air flights, which lasted no more than three hours, seemed endless. In those days, passengers were allowed to smoke once the ‘plane was airborne and there was no entertainment provided during the flight. However, I used to ask for the window seat, and my nose would be pressed constantly against the porthole, hoping, often in vain, to see a gap in the clouds beneath us through which I could see the countryside in miniature far below us.
I used to be very apprehensive about flying. It scared me to think that each time we lifted off from the runway might be the prelude to the sudden ending of my short life. I used to read the safety instruction card, and still do today. However, I had little faith that by following the safety instructions, had there have actually been a disaster, would my life have been saved. On one occasion, I became very agitated because the man in the seat beside me had not fastened his seatbelt when instructed by the voice that cracked through the loudspeakers of the ‘plane’s tannoy system. My mother mentioned my concern to him, and I felt reassured when he told us that he worked for BEA (British European Airways) and knew exactly when it was essential to fasten this safety device.
During the 1960s, there were no moving map displays in aeroplanes such as are commonplace today. However, halfway through the flight, a small piece of paper used to be passed from passenger to passenger. It contained a bulletin about the progress of the flight, and it was signed by the pilot. I used to feel privileged being allowed to handle such an important document.
The airport nearest Venice was, and still is, Aeroporto di Marco Polo. It is situated on the shore of the lagoon, directly north of the city, and separated from it by at least two miles of water. There were several ways of reaching the city of Venice. The cheapest involved taking a coach around the lagoon to the bridge that connects Venice to the mainland. The bus went across this bridge to the Piazzale Roma on the west side of the island. From there, we would have had to take a waterbus or a water taxi to a point near to our hotel.
My parents preferred the more costly, and, in my view, more enjoyable and exciting option. My mother hated travelling on boats as she was prone to seasickness, but for some reason she happily boarded a motorscafo, water taxi that resembled a speedboat, at the airport without resorting to seasickness tablets. After the usual haggling about the fare, we sped across the lagoon directly. This did not bother her at all. After a few minutes racing across the water, the small boat’s prow buffeting noisily against the waves, we used to arrive at our destination on the ‘Fondamenta Zattere’ the waterfront on the Dorsoduro (one of the largest of the multitude of islands on which Venice perches) facing the Giudecca Canal. We disembarked there, and our luggage was carried through the entrance of the Pensione Calcina.
The Calcina was definitely not the most comfortable place to stay in Venice, but its position was superb. Many of the rooms had views over the Giudecca, the widest of Venice’s canals, towards the Giudecca Island, one of the quieter quarters of Venice. From the front entrance of the Calcina, we could see Palladio’s façade of Il Redentore Church in one direction, and the Molino Stucky, a huge nineteenth century industrial building, in another. In between them, and separated by rows of small houses, with red tiled roofs, directly opposite our hotel was the façade of the church of Le Zitelle, also designed by Palladio. My parents always took a room overlooking the canal, but my sister and I were usually allocated a room which overlooked the neighbouring buildings. By leaning dangerously far out of our window, we too could catch a glimpse of the canal.
In addition to the views, there was a terrace that projected over the water on stilts from the front of the establishment. This was furnished with tables and chairs along with umbrellas during the heat of the day. It was reserved for the exclusive use of the Pensione’s guests. Breakfast was served here every day. This was not a meal that sustained or pleased us. Weak coffee was served along with hard hollow rolls that exploded into a cloud of sharp crumbs when any attempt was made to break them. The numerous pigeons that lurked around benefitted from these inedible items more than we did. In fact, one of the first things we used to do after finishing breakfast was to visit a nearby bar, usually the Bar Redentore, and have a decent coffee and some kind of sandwich. However, the terrace and the views easily compensated for the poor breakfasts, the uncomfortable beds, and other disadvantages of this Pensione, where John Ruskin stayed between February and May 1n 1877.
The ‘Cucciolo’ was a superb gelateria, an ice cream bar. It was located in a single-story building, which abutted the Calcina, and was run by two elder men and a younger assistant. We were frequent customers there. I remember a time during the 1960s, long before the Euro intruded into our lives, when one scoop cost 50 Lire (in those days £1 bought as many as 1760 Lire!).
One afternoon after taking our usual naps, we were all sitting on the Calcina’s exclusive terrace when we heard a commotion. A young boy, the child of a family of tourists, had just tumbled into the canal. Quick as a flash, one of the two owners of the Cucciolo came rushing out, and dived fully clothed into the canal. He rescued the child. I distinctly remember that the victim’s parents did not thank the soaking rescuer, let alone offer to compensate him for his watch, which must have been damaged by his courageous plunge into the water.
My parents used to rent rooms at the Calcina on a demi-pension basis. This means that they paid for the rooms, breakfast, and one meal. We used to have lunch at the Calcina so that my parents could take a long snooze afterwards. This meal was little better than breakfast. It was served by a friendly waiter, whom we used to call ‘Mr Greeps’ amongst ourselves because this is the way he pronounced the word ‘grapes’ whenever he served us with fruit.
The dining room at the Calcina was L-shaped. We used to be seated at a table by the window in the toe of the L. There were four other tables in this section of the room and every year they were occupied by other regular visitors. Every year, we met the same group of people. Two extremely elderly Russian men sat at a table near us. My mother was sure that they were not only White Russians, but also homosexuals. I remember little about them apart from one occasion when one of them said to me that he thought that the paintings in the Accademia Gallery, which was a short distance away from the Calcina, had been spoilt by cleaning. He thought that they had looked better before numerous layers of yellowing varnish had been removed.
Two Polish musicians sat at tables facing each other, one with his wife, the other alone. They used to glare at one another throughout each meal. One of them was called Horowitz, and the other Tansman. Many years after I had ceased visiting Venice, I realised who that Tansman was none other than the composer Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986). Only one thing stopped them from glaring, and that was the arrival of the food. It made them raise their eyebrows in surprise and shrug their shoulders as if expressing the hopelessness of the situation in which they found themselves.
The other regular who sat and ate lunch with us was a solitary elderly American, who used to greet everyone silently, but said nothing during the meal. I was surprised that my mother, who was always happy to strike up conversations with strangers, never attempted to break the ice with him.
On the whole, little united our select group of regular lunch eaters except for displeasure with the Calcina’s culinary offerings. That was the case until the Olympic Games held in Tokyo during the summer of 1964. There was a small television in the sitting room that adjoined the Calcina’s dining room. After lunch during the Olympics, most of the regulars from our section of the dining room congregated around its screen. Each time that the Soviet Union failed to win a gold medal, these fellow diners including the solitary American, who were all anti-Communist, cheered.
The Pensione Il Seguso was next door to the Calcina, but set back far from the waterfront. Although none of its rooms could rival the Calcina’s for their views, it was said to be more comfortable. One summer evening, when I was already a teenager, my father was greeted familiarly by an elderly couple. Kit Russell, one of my father’s colleagues from the LSE (London School of Economics), was walking alongside her husband Sheridan. Unknown to my parents, they, like us, had been visiting Venice annually, but stayed in the Seguso. After this first meeting, we bumped into them regularly in Venice each year.
When the Russells learnt that I enjoyed listening to classical music, they began inviting me to their musical evenings, which they held in their ground floor flat in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, close to the bank of the River Thames. Their large seventeenth century living room was ideally suited for the performance of chamber music. It looked right and had perfect acoustics. Sheridan was a very competent amateur cellist and knew many of London’s leading professional chamber music players. On each musical evening several musicians would be invited along with an audience chosen from the Russells’ vast collection of friends. The musicians would arrive not knowing either what they would be playing or with whom they would be playing. After everyone had assembled and been given sugar coated almonds decorated to look like little pebbles, which Kit used to call ‘stones from Venice’, the curtains were drawn, and the musicians began playing the first piece that Sheridan had chosen for that evening. Needless to say, the performances were beautiful. Only one thing marred these wonderful evenings slightly. I used to be given a special job. I was asked to sit close to a telephone, and if it were to have rung during a piece, I was supposed to lift up the receiver and say the following words: “We are having a party. Please ring again tomorrow.” It never rang, but I was always nervous that it might have done.
The Russells explained to me that they kept careful records of each of their musical soirées. They made sure that the composition of the audience was always different, and that none of their guests ever heard the same pieces played together (there used to be two pieces played on each occasion). Also, they ensured that no two musicians ever played the same piece together. However, they always served the same snack during the intervals between the two pieces: glasses of red wine and savoury biscuits, always the same kind, with a particular yellow coloured hard cheese that contained caraway seeds.
Kit and Sheridan married when they were both over seventy years old. Kit had been married before, but for Sheridan it was his first time. As soon as married, he trained to become a marriage guidance councillor, a profession, which in those days, was not open to those who had not been married. He had always wanted to do this kind of work, but had to wait for more than seven decades to elapse before fulfilling this ambition. The two of them were hopelessly in love with each other. I still remember them walking away from the Seguso hand in hand after passing the time of day with us.
The Calcina’s neighbour, the Pensione Il Seguso, was located on a corner where a narrow side canal met the wide Giudecca Canal. One morning, we were waiting outside the Calcina, trying to decide what to do. It was a bit later than usual, which is possibly the reason that we spotted something we had never seen before. A gondola with green upholstery and other identically coloured cloth drapes appeared from along the side canal and drew to a standstill at the corner near where we were standing. The gondolier was dressed in a livery the same colour as the upholstery and the drapes. After a short delay, the American, who used to sit silently with us at lunch, left the main entrance of the Calcina and boarded the gondola. The gondolier set his vessel in motion. His American passenger sat reading his newspaper whilst he was rowed across the Giudecca Canal. We watched them disappearing along a canal that passed through the Giudecca Island towards the wide open lagoon beyond the island. Naturally, our curiosity was aroused.
That lunch time, the American sat down in his usual place. My mother could no longer contain herself. She asked the American about what we had witnessed that morning. He explained that the gondolier was the grandson of his late mother’s personal gondolier. Whenever he visited Venice, he would hire this same grandson for the duration of his visit. Every morning, he was picked up just as we had observed, and was rowed out into the midst of the lagoon. When they arrived there, he and his gondolier exchanged roles. The American had mastered the art of rowing a gondola, and took his daily exercise by ‘gondoling’ around the lagoon for an hour or so.
The American introduced himself. My father, a keen amateur historian of art, was most excited to discover that our American lunch time companion was William Milliken, a former Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio, and a famous historian of mediaeval art.
Later Miss Steiner, a humourless late middle-aged Austrian who managed the Pensione Calcina, told us that Mr Milliken stayed at the Calcina every year during the month in which his mother had died. He stayed in the room that she used to occupy during her visits to the Calcina. Whilst he stayed there, Miss Steiner informed us, the room was always filled with his mother’s favourite flowers, and furnished with the very same furniture that she used to use whilst she was a guest at the pensione.
Mr Milliken died in 1978, at least ten years after I last met him. About twenty years later, I bought a second-hand copy of his book, “Unfamiliar Venice”. This wonderfully illustrated and almost poetically written book, which was published in 1967, describes the magic of Venice beautifully, but makes no mention at all of any of the things we learnt about our solitary American neighbour in the dining room of the Pensione Calcina.