Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Landlady Shrew of Venice

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU ASK FOR. I had not planned to pull out any more exerpts from my Italy Journal but several of you, in comments to the Friday Shoot out Blog, said you really wanted to hear the rest of the story...about the Landlady in Venice. How could I refuse.

The problem is that this, I think, is perhaps the longest blog I have ever posted. I believe blogs should be relatively short and this one exceeds the bounderies of good taste. Sorry. But you -- at least three of you -- asked.

First of all, I need to say that I absolutely loved Italy and my most favorite city (and Karen’s least favorite) was Venice. Sometimes the tourists made it seem like Disneyland but there were a million nooks and crannies and alleys that sang like sirens to be explored.

Secondly, I need to confirm what even the travel books say about Italians. They are passionate and fiery. 95% of the time they are the most good humored, gracious hosts with the tourists who flock there and 95% of the time we were treated like we were in a Hyatt Regency. But from the first day at the Rome airport, we couldn’t help but notice that – with each other – nothing is held back. If they are pleased they embrace each other. If they are irritated at all about something they rant and argue, insult and scream at each other.

By the second day I had come up with a theory that Italians never get ulcers because they never stuff their feelings. I really came to admire their ability to vent.

BUTLER: “Get to the story, Mark.”

BAGMAN (who has returned from his tryst with Dorothea and is taking vitamins) “Yeah. I like the ending of this one.”

I don’t remember her name because very quickly I began to refer to her as the Landlady Shrew, at least behind her back. But she had walked down from whatever gingerbread house she lived in to give us a key and help us settle in.

She was short and slight, dressed all in black with jet black hair (of course – she was Italian). She led us up two flights of poorly lit stairs which was a challenge for us because of tons of useless luggage we had brought with us. On the Internet, the Casa de Molena was advertised as a “cozy, modern bed and breakfast, air conditioned, with spacious bedrooms, kitchen, and inviting common room, close to all tourist attractions.

That part was true. Everything is Venice is close to Venice which is, itself, the attraction. But the Casa de Molena was stuffy maze of nooks and crannies and sealed off rooms behind which I came to imagine lie the bleaching bones of Americans. She showed us the kitchen but seemed intent on blocking us so we couldn’t enter it, then walked down a long hall paneled in dark wood, threw open the door and said in very broken English, “Welcome you new home in Venezia!”

While Karen was trying to figure out how our luggage would fit in the tiny room decorated with only a double bed and one straight back wooden chair and bed table, I glanced over at the Landlady Shrew. She was slightly hunched over and had a mannerism where she would look away from you then turn her head up, her dark eyes darting with a kind of suspicion. But if she saw you were looking at her, she would flash this grotesque theatrical grin. “You like?” she asked and then hearing footsteps approaching, turned suddenly to leave. “Susanna show you everything. See you tomorrow. Welcome to Venezia.”

She disappeared down the hall we could hear her blasting the maid in a shrill voice for something or other. We’d been in Italy for three weeks. We were used to it.

Karen said, “I’m not sure I can stay here.”

I didn’t answer. I was soaked from rain and sweat-drenched from heat and humidity and at least the air conditioning worked and at least the place was cool. We could sort it out in the morning. I was starting to take off my soggy shirt when Susannah was suddenly in the room with us.

Susannah was a young, attractive woman from the Philippines. Her smile was sincere and her eyes pleading. If she had had a tail it would have been between her legs. I was tempted to hold her, pat her gently on the head, and tell her that everything would be okay, but didn’t think that embracing the maid was quite appropriate.

She walked into the room and opened the window and said, “You have nice breeze at night.”

Karen objected, “But the air conditioning is on!”

Just then we heard the rattling of keys as the Landlady Shrew in the hall outside fiddled with something and we heard the heat pumps shut off outside. Karen ran out to protest but the Landlady Shrew had disappeared. It seemed that people just appeared and disappeared in this strange house.

Karen came back to argue with Susannah who shrunk and babbled apologetically and plead even more with her eyes. She spoke English-Italian with a Spanish accent but we learned that the air conditioning could only be used between noon and four and the Landlady Shrew had only kept it on for us because we had arrived late. “But you have a nice breeze at night,” she repeated, showing us the window again, then suddenly disappearing again. From far away down the long hall her voice called out, “Bathroom across hall, breakfast at seven!”

I took off my shirt and then my pants – looking around first to see if anyone was going to appear again out of thin air. Then we just passed out on the rickety bed wondering (a) why couldn’t we sleep until eight (b), was anyone going to appear in the bathroom across the hall, and (b) where in hell was the nice breeze we’d been told about? I dreamed of distant voices arguing in Italian.

“Seven o’clock. Breakfast time.” My eyes popped open and Susannah was standing at the foot of our bed smiling at us. I thought that her lips did smiling very well. I looked down to make sure I was covered by the sheet. I looked up. She was gone again. I wondered if maybe all these people were actually ghosts.

We got to the “inviting common room.” It was just us. Two small place settings at a large table. One cup of coffee. One small bowl of fruit. One croissant and a pad of butter and little packet of jelly.

I was actually glad to have it portioned out. A few weeks before, I had gotten in trouble in Rome where we stayed at another Bed and Breakfast that served a breakfast buffet with the best croissants in the world. The first morning, coming from the American buffet paradigm, I had just stared spreading jelly on my third buffet when the swarthy, bald, landlord suddenly erupted at our table yelling, “Uno! Uno. No Tre! Uno!” So now, I just ate slowly.

And the Landlady Shrew appeared out of thin air. She was wearing the same shapeless black dress. This time all three of us put our tails between our legs and began pleading with our eyes.

She hunched over, glanced sideways at us and grinned. “Good! Yes!” Then she commenced to berate Susannah for something that seemed related to the order of books in the bookshelf.

We were ready to explore Venice so hurriedly finished. Karen asked if she could store some fruit juice in the kitchen refrigerator. Sideways glance from Landlady Shrew. “No. No. We lock kitchen after breakfast.”

I was not surprised. It was like the air conditioning. The Internet promotion didn’t lie. It was there. You just couldn’t actually use it. We left as hurriedly as we could although, not having learned the skill of disappearing and appearing, we had to walk the long dark hallway and go down the two flights of dark stairs.

We saw Venice. It was wonderful. I could wax poetic but this blog is already too wordy.

So we came back around six in the afternoon and discovered we were no longer alone. A French family – two adults and three children -- had moved in, also apparently duped by the Internet advertising. Both Susannah and the Landlady Shrew had already left for the evening. The place was still almost cool but the air conditioning had been turned off and the father of the family was trying to figure out how to turn it back on. The box, of course, like the kitchen, was locked.

He asked us and we did our best to explain in a combination of French, Italian, English, and sign language what we had been told. We went back to our cell, put the rickety chair in front of the door, opened the window without much hope, and went to sleep listening to our new neighbors arguing loudly in French.

The next day was a repeat. I fell even more in love with Venice and had even begun to enjoy, in a dysfunctional sort of way, our quarters.

The last morning, we all sat in multilingual silence in the inviting common room, trying to slowly ration out our single croissants and watching Susannah’s long smooth fingers fidgeting while she waiting for her boss. Karen and I were packed. I was a bit confused, however, because I noticed that the French family had also packed although I thought they had said they were suppose to stay for a week.

With the usual crack of lightening and smoke, the Landlady Shrew was suddenly in the room again, her little rat eyes flashing from side to side. Susannah was curled against the wall in a semi-fetal position near the door and I tried hard not to noticed that she had nice legs. Looking appropriately away, I saw that the Landlady Shrew was counting the silverware. Karen and I decided that it was time to leave for the train to Milan.

While we hurriedly stuffed our last belongings into bulging suitcases, from the other side of the hall voices were growing in volume, intensity, and speed - a combination of Italian and French. It sounded like the French couple was mad at each other or one or both of them at the Shrew or she at them or all of the above.

Then with horror-film shock, the Shrew was back in our small room, blocking the door, her sharp nose like a knife pointing at Karen's neck and she was going a hundred miles an hour in her poor English about the air conditioning. I began to get the point that she was furious at us because we had complained about her and the air conditioning to the French family and, because of that, they were leaving early. We had made her lose money! I even gathered that she was threatening that we were responsible for the remainder of their stay.

For a moment, I tried to be reasonable and explain that they had asked why the air conditioner was not on and we had simply told the truth and we were not accountable for their decision to leave but finally I realized that she was just on a rampage at Karen and I was tired of having to put up with it.

I decided it was time for me to become Italian.

I placed my face and my 240 pound bulk between the point of her nose and Karen's neck and said, "Hold on just a freaking minute!"

She spun like a rat, trying to back me up with her eyes, and snapped, "No, you wait a meen-it!"

I hate confrontations. But forced into one, I hate losing it even more. So instead of backing up, I moved forward until I could almost feel the skin of her nose on my lip. "No! You wait!" This time I hissed it, like a cobra.

She jumped back, rubbing her face as if I had spit on her. Actually, I think I had. She counter-attacked with something about how she wasn’t talking to me but she was "talking to the lady." Losing it, I launched into high-octane, pure American Street English which actually can be spoken as fast as Italian if you no longer care if drops of saliva come out with the sibilant consonants. "This is not our concern! We paid you in full! We gave the keys to Susanna! And we are leaving! Now! Get away from the door!" I’m embarrassed to say but there were also several adjectives which I have omitted from this last quote. Well, maybe only one adjective, beginning with “F” which preceded the words “concern,” “keys,” and “door.”

Then I opened the door. After stepping back again to wipe her face in disgust, she moved forward to shut it again, locking us in. Shrews are fast but they are not strong and the door stayed open and we launched into a fast baggage roll down the hall, through the multiple doors, and down the stairs. At any moment I expected steel bars to clank down from the ceiling to entomb us forever.

But just as we got to the front door and freedom the most incredible thing happened. She appeared at the top of the stairs with her toothy grin and shouted down, suddenly incongruously cheerful, singing out, "Good bye! Have a wonderful journey! So happy to have you! Come again!"

It wasn’t sarcasm and the sudden friendliness was almost more monstrous. Jekyll and Hyde schizophrenic irony, pouring like gallons of honey down the dark, uneven stairway. I was momentarily unbalanced by it. Had I misunderstood her? Had I overreacted? I almost turned back with a weird need to apologize but Karen was pushing me onward.

And closure was satisfactorily achieved when just before we successfully negotiated the stone step to the sun drenched alleys of Venice, the upstairs door slammed with such force and fury the stone walls shook with fear.

By the time we reached the first of countless bridges on the way to the ferrovia, iron road, I had begun to laugh.

Once again I understood why Italians have no ulcers.

I only regretted that I couldn’t bring Susannah home with us. But I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to convince Karen of that idea.


  1. excellent reading with my morning coffee. my computer says you posted at 4.07am was that time released or were you up at 4.00 am - does Karen read you blogs, bet susannah's legs arnt as good as hers.
    have a great Sunday.

  2. Wow, you saw a side of Italy that I had missed...thank God! I don't really know whether I would have your courage or become the mouse. I hope that I would stand up for myself. Good read.

  3. Humorous and very descriptive account of a real experience of staying in a foreign land. Most hostesses try to bend over backwards to please visitors from other countries. But if that is the way it is then you truly got the foreign experience. Loved that story.

  4. Oh my god! That is insane.I guess that is why we hear the saying "Hot blooded Italian". Glad you got a laugh instead of a headache (which is what I would have gotten).

  5. Thank you for posting the rest of the story and good heavens! Barry and I have been to many Bed and Breakfasts over the years and we have never encountered anything like that! Air conditioning rationing, food rationing and a closet to sleep in.......... then she wanted to charge you for the rest of the stay of the French family? Not only that but she didn't want to discuss any of this with you, only Karen? She certainly had the hospitality of a gnat. I feel sad for Susannah having to work there. And, I guess you were happy you hadn't planned to stay a week. Her parting words, "So happy to have you." Hello...I think Karen and Mark were way too smart to be "HAD" by the likes of her! It's a good thing the old shrew wasn't in charge of your tours of Venice. The gondolas would have been locked up and rationed out, one oar at a time. I am happy I came by to read this interesting chapter of your holiday in Italy and the best part of the whole incident is you enjoyed Venice in spite of the shrew. The witch from Snow White becomes very clear.

  6. raelly a long blog
    but i enjoyed reading every bit
    and now i want to go to Itly

  7. A wonderfully written post Mark. You are a master of words and characterization.

    Glad you guys escaped with your lives.

    And if we ever get to Venice, I'll contact you first to make sure the BnB we select wasn't this one!

  8. HAHAHAHA! That is so funny, hysterical, and I imagine at the time harrowing! By European standards, the rooms probably were large, as Ameican rooms are more vast (likely to accomodate our girth);-)

  9. I am so sorry you had to resort to the Ugly American take on this experience.

  10. Thanks for your comments -- it was actually a great trip and I've stayed in hundreds of hotels and although this experience was what it was, it was certainly the most memorable and generated a good I have no hard feelings at all.

  11. Oh gosh, thanks for that story! Wonderful! Your landlady reminds me of an Italian lady I worked for in my late teens. She wanted to instantly dismiss the other girl I worked with for flirting with her husband she said, so I threatened to walk out too if she did it. She then got very angry with me, I got angry back and her English failed her - she stamped her foot and said "Oh shitty!" I burst out laughing, she burst out laughing and we all ended up laughing hysterically. I love Italians, even the crazy ones!