Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Today as I was walking one of the innumerable alleys of old Venice, where I am spending a few days, I was handed a flyer. Usually I turn away from all street handouts, but it came with two words I appreciate ... “free” and “concert”, along with the words “tonight” and “please join us”.

Well, I had no particular plans, so off I went. The concert was to start at 20h30 in one of Venezia’s dozens of old churches, that dedicated to Saints Giovanni e Paulo.

I am not a native of Venice. After a couple of days here I can find a few of the major tourist spots without too much trouble, and have learnt how to read the signs attached to the walls all over this old city. “Per S. Marco” , “Per Rialto” and “Per Ferrovaria” are the ones you see the most. They mean “towards San Marco”, “towards (the) Rialto (bridge)” and “towards the railway station”. If Venezia shopkeepers had a euro for every time they’ve been asked directions to one of these three, they’d all be rich like the Venetian patricians at the height of the Serrenissima. I had to ask several tired, cold shopkeepers how to get there. Explanations were always given with a wave of the hand in a general direction towards the bridges crossing the miasmatic canals. In the evenings, when the chill comes in from the sea, it is better not to breathe too much near the bridges. And to be very well-dressed. It is cold and damp out.

I am writing this near the end of October. All over the centre of this ancient city are hotels and public spaces, including churches, that share the benefits of a municipal heating system. Not every building has to install a furnace, or boiler, and all the what-have-you that a furnace requires. No; all that buildings have had to do is, basically, sign up to the municipality and install the radiators. Then, presto! Heat!

Well, the city this year has declared that November 1 will be The Day The Heat Comes On. Until then there is no ascertained need for heat. It is not in the regulations, or something. Heat = not now. It does not matter what the vagaries of actual temperature might be ... present nights plunging towards 4 degrees outside, and increasingly inside too ... the heat will come on starting November 1. If the municipal boiler works. I surmise there is some doubt. Sometimes, as one blue-lipped soul muttered to me seditiously, the steam from the city boiler seems to rise to exactly the same temperature as the out-of-doors night-time air.

Venezia’s old buildings are, well, old. Some are between 800 and 1000 years old. Not to belabour the point, but most of the Venezia that the tourists come to enjoy, that UNESCO has declared to be part of humanity’s unique heritage, was built a long time ago, when it was common for large public rooms to have a fireplace, or something to help heat the place. Or for everyone to be really good and ready for the chill damp evening and bundle up as best they could, or better yet not leave home and hearth for the dubious benefit of a public gathering.

So tonight’s concert was free. It was lovely! It was also chilly and damp. Between numbers the musicians would put down their instruments and stick their blue-numbed hands into their armpits and huddle together and dance a little, or blow on their fingers to revive blood circulation. All this in an ancient church generously attached to the municipal heating system.

A collection box for free-will offerings was made prominently available near the end of the concert. As one of the delightful (but obviously chilly) performers told the audience, musicians do not live on love and air alone. The love is nice, the air is important, but they also need to eat. Rustling paper money would be gratefully received, we were told. Better than cold, hard cash.

With the seats offered for the performance, designed to reinforce the concept of original sin, and penance required for same, the performers did not want to reinforce any cold hard anything.

Paper money, at least, makes heat.

I hope they made a fortune, and managed to warm up.