The Venice Experiment

The Venice Experiment -- a year of trial and error living abroad
Barry Frangipane & Ben Robbins
256 pages

An amusing series of brief anecdotes recounting the author's personal experiences during his experimental year in Venice. Having lived in Venice for some 40 years myself, I recognise many of the situations he describes and can feel his bewilderment when faced with some of the typical Venetian behavioural oddities. On a few occasions, I did feel that perhaps he himself had fallen victim to some of them when he made sweeping generalisations about the 'status quo'.Just one example which struck me in particular was the affirmation that Venetians don't own ovens! The truth is that Venetians who rent out apartments to foreign visitors, rarely include an oven as an essential electrical appliance because of the added expense, both as furnishing and as an included utilities cost. My Venetian husband was adamant -- 'how do you think we all cook our lasagne?'

On the whole I would recommend the book to aficionados of Venice who are interested in learning more about what it means to live the life of a 'Venetian' from a non-Venetian point of view. An easy read covering a wide variety of Venetian traditions, events and daily routines, especially useful to those who are able to carry out their own 'Venice Experiment' enjoying an extended stay in the city.

Reflections on Venice Writing Retreat, 2015

Eating 'al fresco' at the Venice Writing Retreat 2015 Photograph by Angelica Hopes

Eating ‘al fresco’ at the Venice Writing Retreat 2015
Photograph by Angelica Hopes

It’s not over really — still things buzzing around my head and odds and ends of loose strings to tie up before I can say that the Venice Writing Retreat 2015 — also referred to as the Venice Editing Masterclass (I like the ring of that) — can truly be considered packed up and put away.

As I am still uncertain when that end will be, let me see if I can go back far enough to remember the beginning. I risk being accused of giving you too much ‘background’, but for me this all started years ago, so bear with me.

My parents recognised me as a ‘leader’ when I was only knee high to a grasshopper, though some might have been a bit more pragmatic in their assessment of my skills — I think the term they used was ‘bossy boots’. Leaving aside gratuitous interpretations of my powers of ‘leadership’, it so happens that much of my useful employment and social interaction over the years, has entailed the organisation in one way or another of groups of individuals of varying ages, herding them in both my private and professional lives according to a set of rules, often devised by myself. Well someone has to do it don’t they?

The list of examples of aforesaid situations and large group events is endless (and insignificant to the extreme) and includes large scale kids’ parties with entertainment; coach-loads of opera devotees; wine tasting; darts’ tournaments and beer slurping; puppet making workshop; English lessons; candlelit dinner parties for large groups of anything-but-romantic tourists; a World Cup fanatic ruckus (also present, some of the opera devotees); guided visits to renowned landmarks scattered around Europe; guided visits to totally unknown landmarks in the same geographical areas including a never-to-be-forgotten visit to a pig farm in the Italian Alps, and to a bakery owned by the same people. I hope I am getting my point across — the fact that I was obviously destined to organise things?

It’s still a bit fuzzy in my mind as to how and why the seed of the writing retreat idea blossomed to such proportions. It could be that after I had successfully completed a couple of formal creative writing courses, I was feeling totally bereft at the lack of opportunities to hone my writing skills with like-minded wannabe writers — or at least — wannabe writers in the English language. Could just be I had been looking in the wrong places, but the fact of the matter is that I began to mess with the notion of holding some sort of writing event on my own doorstep. It only took a few ‘likes’ and a little research on Facebook (yes — I know — it’s so embarrassing), to ‘meet’ up with Roz Morris who already regularly tutors writing workshops for ‘The Guardian’ newspaper. She and my published-writer-brother, Henry Hyde were ‘linked’ up virtually both through their personal pages and also through the common interest they hold in ALLi, The Alliance of Independent Authors.

In fairness, Roz Morris was one of several authors who had caught my attention and who had accepted to take part in my event, should it ever actually happen. But it soon became clear that I would need to launch the first edition of the Venice Writing Retreat using a special set of rules — an experimental set of rules created ad hoc for my ‘first time’, for my ‘beta’ event. Roz was allowing me to use her as a guinea pig though perhaps her connections with Henry gave her greater confidence in the potential success of the event. Her risk was limited — controlled. Regardless of the outcome she would be assured her return flight to Venice, her accommodation, her food and fees. But I was not in a position to promise her a full classroom. Being the professional that she is, she accepted those terms and went about preparing her detailed notes and presentation with which she would teach her class, regardless of how many students it might have contained at the final count.

Setting up venues and equipment — a tailored web site and outside catering were child’s play for me. I had found myself in a similar situation on many occasions for both work and social events. A good number of years as a European travel guide with one of the toughest companies in the business, had taught me certain organisational skills the hard way. In more recent years, extensive experience with the joint management of a non-profit outfit responsible for laying on large-scale entertainment had provided me with unexpected strengths in other aspects of people handling.

But in spite of a somewhat exaggerated confidence in my ability to handle anything that came my way, I was suddenly faced with my ‘bête noire’ — my major stumbling block — marketing. It has never been my forte — I can talk the hind legs off a donkey, but if I have to sell myself, I just fall apart. My confidence slips away from me and I become apologetic about my very existence. My thoughts become addled and I forget all the sensible selling ploys that I had planned so very carefully. I cringe and back down and desperately hope that my social skills will be enough to get me through.

So from my point of view, using a mish mash of methods ranging from personal contact to Facebook ads; locally distributed flyers and the backing of a number of warm-hearted champions of my cause — to have managed to get any participants at all, was a major success. To the small group of participants I am totally grateful because, for whatever reasons, they trusted that the event would happen, and that it would happen in one of the most desirable locations in Europe. They were collaborative and understanding and went out of their way to ensure that the workshop was a success. They were attentive and sensitive students, hanging on to Roz Morris’s every word. They were quick to offer a hand when the time came to move tables, serve lunch and clear up. They endured the unusual heat and humidity and then threw themselves headlong into the fascination of the city, making sure they would take home a wide range of memories from our few days together.

And yes — there will be a second edition because it would be so sad not to repeat the wonderful experience all over again — the camaraderie and sense of belonging, and finally understanding that all we wannabe writers have the same fears and literary skeletons in our cupboards.

So watch this space. I’m certain it won’t be long before I begin all over again!

For more specific information, and a more objective report of the Workshop 2015, visit

Photograph courtesy of Angelica Hopes

Venice hosts the 4 Maritime Republics’ Regatta

venice-wins2015There is no substitute for being in a boat for these events. I’m sorry — but that’s just the way it is. Maybe you have seen or heard about the Palio in Siena — the famous horse race run in a square in the town centre every year. There is a tremendous build up of tension and suspense before the race proper begins. More often than not they have false start after false start until at long last, the horses are teased to breaking point and the tension in the crowded square is almost tangible. It’s exactly the same with this boat race, but only if you are right up there at the starting line with them.

But let’s leave the horses, (but hang on to the tension) and get back in the boat and on track to today’s special event. I don’t intend to give you a lecture in history — suffice to say that since 1955 each year in a four year cycle, a regatta takes place to decide the modern-day supremacy between the four ancient maritime republics (that were) of Pisa, Genoa, Amalfi and Venice.

Each of the four ‘republics’ takes it in turn to host the event, and this year it was the turn of Venice. The location has changed since the last time I saw it here — and luckily the weather was glorious this year as opposed to the torrential rain for the race last time, four years ago. This year the whole caboodle was moved from the Giudecca Canal over to St.Mark’s Basin and the very wide canal leading over to the Venice Lido in front of the island of Sant’Elena. Not popular with everyone, but the new route allowed for small boats to follow the race at close quarters — so certainly a popular move with hard core ‘water borne’ fans of the event.

Thanks to a good dose of confusion, and a smidgen of misinformation, we reached the starting buoys far too early . We were told to move on by the Carabinieri, the local police and the Coast Guard, who all kept up the same gesticulating, whistling, shouting performance with every boat (and there were lots of them) that came within yelling distance. A boat isn’t like a car — you can’t slam on the brakes, and the water doesn’t help. It was churning and making it nigh on impossible to stay put — and so the Carabinieri, the local police and the Coast Guard started all over again, and we all got a cyclical earful.

Meanwhile, the four eight-oared galleons, Venice with its green livery — Pisa in red — Genoa white and Amalfi in blue — sneaked out from somewhere and began to warm up in front of Sant’Elena in the midst of the protective forces who continued their arm flailing and shouting whilst the tension built up amongst the players, all champing at the bit to get the race under way. We spectators in our light boats kept going around in circles in an effort to maintain our position, ready for the starting gun and the ensuing rush to keep pace with the galleons as they launched themselves into battle.

And at last it happened — they were off and a roar of support went up from all quarters — the police continued to shout their curt orders at all the ‘floating’ supporters until the regatta had pushed ahead of our position and we were free to race behind them ourselves. Together we created a ‘tidal’ wave of gigantic proportions and risked life and limb riding the lip of the wave in order to keep abreast of our green heroes. They heaved and pushed and pulled their oars, their galleon skimming the water in a surge towards the finishing line in front of St.Mark’s Square. And their efforts paid off — our green Venetian men won!

I can’t begin to describe the euphoric reception they were given — immediately surrounded by all the police forces — and by an ambulance to take care of one of our team who had collapsed at the end of the race (from the heat and probably too much tension and emotion) — and by some one hundred small boats which rushed in to voice their congratulations (well, their pilots did), waving the distinctive Venetian flag of San Marco (bright red and yellow) in sign of approval.

I assume there was some kind of prize giving once the team set foot on dry land, but for me, all the best had happened there on the water amidst the affection and enthusiasm of the locals. It was time to go home and leave the rest of the party to the ‘landlubbers’

Wind stopped play

Couldn’t believe it — the whole of last week was absolutely glorious with brilliant sunny, even if not very warm, Spring days. Yesterday morning we woke up earlier than usual to get ready for the flea market and were frustrated to see that the wind had got up and was putting the whole day in jeapardy. Bear in mind that we only get to take part in six of these markets each year, and having spent almost two months preparing new material for our handcrafts stall – sewing, glueing, cutting etc. — it was upsetting to see that one of those six days might be lost.

It is probably difficult for you to imagine that the only way that we can get to the market zone is by loading everything into our little boat and braving the elements — made even more hazardous by the wind whipping up the water and soaking us every time we rode a wave! We decided to take the two big tables over to the market first, just to see what the situation was and whether the strong wind was rushing down the long and wide street making it impossible to lay out the merchandise without the risk of its disappearing into the nearest canal. Seeing a few other market stall-holders there was encouraging, and we opted for the risk and my husband went back in the boat to pick up all our boxes of stuff.

We weren’t the only ones affected by the wind, as there were very few tourists stopping, and those that did were obviously not dressed for the occasion and were suffering from the cold and too busy trying to stay warm to be able to think about shopping! Nonetheless, we managed to save the day and pay for the snack lunch which we ate at the bar next to our stall. My daughter’s puppy came along to keep us company for part of the time and amused most of the people walking in the area — for her it was a new experience to be able to run after the pigeons and meet lots of new dogs, so it was good fun for her too. The strong wind was the least of her worries!

Dealing with the mozzies

Compared to a few years ago, the mosquito situation in Venice seems to have improved tremendously. I can well remember my early years here when I would get up in the morning covered in bites with a feeling of great fatigue after a night spent battling with these invisible, though noisy, enemies! Small consolation to know that only the females do the damage as they inject an anti-coagulant under the skin in order to take their fill of blood necessary to develop their eggs before laying.

Probably the main reason for my seeing an improvement in the situation can be found in an improved understanding of their habits, and a slight change in my own. My husband is not convinced that there are less mosquitoes around, but just that I now know how to deal with them a bit better! My memory of excessive numbers of mosquitoes is more likely to be of the non-biting — though still a real nuisance — kind. The numbers of that particular species diminished considerably as soon as the local authorities began to remove the dead algae which accumulated in the lagoon which was, by the way, also the principle cause of the terrible smell so often associated with the city.

Something which has definitely happened in recent years is that a ‘new’ type of mosquito has been introduced — the Asian ‘tiger’ mosquito — which has a higher nuisance value in my opinion as this one does not limit its activity to dusk and dawn, but comes out during the day.

So what are my suggestions to tourists or new residents here for avoiding the discomfort of mozzie bites?

— When you go to bed, avoid using strong perfumes. A quick shower to remove perfumes and perspiration will help

— Close all windows before turning on any lights in the evening. If you have air conditioning this will mean that you can leave the windows closed of course. If you do not have air conditioning, only open the windows again once you are in bed with all the lights turned off. Personally I do not like using any of the contraptions with chemical products which are available on the market for keeping mosquitoes away. However, some of these small electrical units do use little tablets with natural ingredients such as citronella so keep your eyes open for those. Citronella is also the deterrent used in various types of candles, but of course it is not wise to leave these unattended in bedrooms during the course of the evening. They are ideal for eating outside if you have a terrace or ‘altana’ — as also are the spiral burners, commonly known as ‘vulcano’ which burn slowly letting off smoke. Be warned that they have a strong smell and might not go down too well with your meal!

— Whatever you choose, particularly with regard to the bedroom where I would suggest only the use of the little electrical contraption, you can keep the windows closed in your absence, but before going to bed, turn off the unit, and with the lights out, leave the window open for about 20 minutes at least so that air can circulate. Mine is only a suggestion, but the packaging on the specific product will give you the directions for its proper use of course.

— Keep a repellent to hand in your bag or backpack as you move around during the day. You will only be likely to need to use it if you are visiting areas with lots of trees or wetlands such as some of the smaller islands — Torcello, Sant’Erasmo, San Francesco for instance — or if you are sitting in a restaurant garden too. It will also come in useful if you decide to eat out somewhere in the evening — a quick spray before sitting down to eat will help ensure that you are not bothered by the presence of mozzies. Just make sure you do the spraying some distance from the other clients, and remember your ankles which are always a vulnerable spot. As said before, I prefer to use the natural oil products available. They are not as efficient as a chemical repellent, but in many situations I find them to be enough.

— And if all else fails, make sure that when you get yourself a repellent, you also buy an ‘after-sting’ to soothe the itching!

— In our home we have an old-fashioned, ‘Casablanca’ style mosquito net hanging over our bed. Very inexpensive, they can be purchased in various places — I think we got ours in Ikea actually — and very effective. Just flap around inside the hanging net a few times before closing it to make sure you have no mosquitoes already inside! Also make sure there are no areas around the edges where they can enter, and do your best to avoid snagging the net as the mosquitoes will find a way in through even those little holes.

— Make sure all potted plants on your balconies (and those of your neighbours) do not have an accumulation of water in the little dishes or trays underneath as this is a sure way to encourage breeding. I am told that it is sufficient to drop a couple of pieces of copper wire in these dishes to discourage breeding — must be some kind of chemical reaction which doesn’t suit the development of the eggs I imagine.

Reading back through all this it would seem that we can hardly move for mosquitoes! Not that drastic at all, though knowing how to deal with them can make life a lot more comfortable — particularly ‘holiday’ life. I had one buzzing around my head here in my little office yesterday, but since the temperatures outside have dropped again, the mozzie activity seems to have stopped for now. However, it won’t be long before we have to get out our net again I’m sure, and by April, through until at least the beginning of November, it is likely to be a full-time feature of our bedroom décor!

The Knickers Connection

You may well be asking where there is a connection between a pair of lady’s knickers or whatever you like to call them, and a set of scales.

Well I have to say that when I first heard about this store many moons ago, I could hardly believe what the locals told me! Would you believe it — you could buy underwear by weight!

Yesterday, on my walk home from the hospital, I made a bee-line for the place as I was in need of some new undies. The shop front is very unassuming, and a bit of a window-dresser’s nightmare I reckon, with a whole jumble of stuff pinned up any-old-how across the windows, and portable clothes’ rails standing outside under the porch area which is usually shared with two or three big baskets of merchandise.

Just inside the door is who I assume to be the ‘husband’ vigilating behind the cash register and rarely moving away from it. Behind the old fashioned, long wooden counter you will normally find at least two assistants, and by the look of them they can only surely be the portly wife and son of the owner. But don’t be taken in by the homely appearance of the store, as years of practice have trained the family in a meticulous sales technique which almost takes your breath away. No time to think — however crowded the place is, normally just as soon as you step inside your presence is noted and your requests quickly administered to. Then whilst one of the assistants whips your goods into a bag you are sent, ‘tout de suite’ to Dad at the cash desk to pay your dues and collect your receipt which also serves to confirm your purchase and retrieve your neatly packed knickers/vests/pyjamas/socks or what have you, back at the starting point.

I always find it amusing how each member of the family has a specific role and that the new millenium has not brought in a couple more cash registers to cut out the to and fro to Dad sitting there by the exit. But maybe he doesn’t feel happy handling underwear, and dealing with the financial transactions is more suited to his character!

Now comes the confession… I forgot to ask yesterday if they still sell their stuff by weight! But anyway, here is the address of the store so that you can check that out for yourselves next time you visit.

Soppelsa s.a.s.
Salizzada S.Canciano 5937
Venice, Italy

If you know Coin, the department store, just keep going towards the rail station from the direction of Rialto, and immediately after the first bridge you come across, turn right down the little alley for about 100 yards and you will see Soppelsa on your right.