Read “The Politics of Washing” to Find Out
While I was surprised to learn that 16.5 million people visit Venice, Italy each year, I was even more surprised to learn that the city claims a mere 55,000 permanent residents, according to this article in The Guardian. That’s 300 tourists for every resident.
With numbers like those, I can see why Polly Coles, British author of The Politics of Washing may share the despair of native Venetians when she calls for moderation and sustainable solutions to the problems that unbridled tourism creates in a city many believe to be among the most beautiful in the world. Those sentiments are dispersed throughout Coles’ 206-page tome, an account of her year-long move to Venice with her Italian husband and four children.
Coincidentally, the title of the book refers to the unspoken rules of laundry etiquette in a city where everyone hangs their clothes out to dry. For example, if you’re sharing a line, and it’s full of your neighbor’s dry clothes, do you ask them to empty the line? What clothing items should you dry indoors? What if the skirt you wish to hang blocks your neighbor’s view?
Coles uses the drying of laundry as a symbol for the many rituals of daily Venetian life that, as a foreign-born resident, she was required to discover haphazardly, adapt to, accept, and ultimately appreciate about this unusual city. For example, she recounts enrolling her children in school, meeting with teachers to discuss school work and behavior issues, finding a home, getting lost, learning the social customs and morés, learning Italian, buying groceries, getting lost again, and visiting the hospital.
My daughter purchased Coles’ book on a whim a few days before she left Venice in early May after serving a semester-long internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a modern art museum located on the Grand Canal.
My husband, our son, and I visited Venice for one week in March over spring break. While it was an all too brief vacation, we actually spent more time there than the day-trippers who take a gondola ride, visit St. Mark’s Square, call it good and leave. I feel that we were able to actually get to know the city, at least a little. (Read my lists of ten ordinary things I found in Venice in March here and here.)
We enjoyed winding through Venice’s maze of streets (actually walkways) and crossing its bridges to see cathedrals and numerous campi, those open squares that at one time served as city centers of the assorted islands that compose Venice. We visited the grocery store daily, shopped the pharmacy for an Ibuprofen equivalent, accompanied my daughter to get her hair cut and styled, ventured out at 5:45 a.m. for the train station, bought Clementine oranges at the Rialto Bridge markets, and shopped for Command strips that were never found.
If we had been able to stay a week longer, I would have sought out a library, found the local university, and asked someone what happens if one has a heart attack or other medical emergency. (Seriously, what’s the procedure in a city without cars, motorcycles, or even bicycles?)
So when I found The Politics of Washing on the kitchen table after my daughter had returned home, I grabbed it and read it in just a few sittings to learn about how native residents live in this “movie set” city.
Besides satisfying that curiosity, the book offers glimpses of Venice’s history as a wealthy trading link between East and West that reached its height in the late 1200s. It also recounts the city’s survival in the 1630s of the Black Death that’s still celebrated with an annual pilgrimage to the iconic and beautiful Santa Maria Della Salute.
Coles balances this history by showing readers Venice’s contemporary citizenry and its “groups and committees promoting local events and activities. There are youth groups, community groups, dance companies, theatre companies, choirs, rowing clubs. There are associations working for residents to change policy on housing, transport, the environment. Events that come from outside are also, of course, part of the real life of the city. The rich influx of the arts is enthusiastically embraced by many of the people who live here; the Biennale exhibitions, visiting speakers, concerts, opera and theatre are all part of the lives of Venetians.”
Coles continues, “But the difference between Venice and any other city, the reason why there is so much sensitivity and debate about what is and is not Venetian, lies in the uniquely critical problem of numbers. The citizens of Venice are so vastly outnumbered by the visitors to Venice that there is no balanced relationship between the city and the world at large. There is no equal exchange in which the city offers up her history, and her beauty in return for the cultural riches brought in from the outside world. Not surprisingly, this leads to a deeply ambivalent, not to say confused, reaction to outsiders.” This is the delight and the quandary that Coles reveals in this captivating tale of her temporary life in Venice.
As rushed tourists ease away from the magical city on their mammoth cruise ships, I hope that they will have spent at least enough time there to cause them to wonder, What’s it like to actually live in Venice? When those tourists read The Politics of Washing, they’ll learn just that, as well as gain an appreciation of the benefits and costs of tourism to this ancient, sparkling city on the Adriatic Sea.