I start this story not at my own desk in the Palazzo Mocenigo, but in a hammock suspended between two graceful pine trees in a place called Oliveto, up in the Sabine Hills, an hour’s drive from Rome. The settlement of a dozen houses is dominated by the Villa Parisi, a medieval casale set in a large hillside garden, which some friends from London have taken for a week’s stay. The nearest big town, with a population of 45,830 according to the 44esima edizione della Guida Michelin found in the rented car, is Rieti, but I did not come here to fret about sightseeing in Northern Lazio. I came here to make jokes, play cards, sleep, drink, and talk about the servants. In England, there is a name for this kind of summer divertissement, which is supposed to take place somewhere beyond the confines of the former Empire, usually in Greece, Spain, or Italy. It is called a villa holiday.
Of course, the arrangements have been made through a London agency, which knows as much about Italy as the Moscow correspondent of the New York Times knows about Russia, and—if such a monster can be imagined—is even more defensively verbose. Accordingly, once the promised luxuries have been paid for in advance, the tenants receive a descriptive folder of several hundred pages, complete with slightly inaccurate maps and wholly imaginary menus, that boils down to something like this: “Just bring your own bloody towels, buy your own bloody Scotch, stay on the bloody terrace, and for Heaven’s sake don’t bother the servants. They are foreign, and we don’t know what they’re saying.” Consequently, what we are given here is the kitchen equivalent of Vladimir Putin’s autobiography, which may be just as well. Like Byron in Venice, I worry about getting fat.
What do I tell my English friends about the servant problem? That there is a reason why I fell for their idea of the villa holiday, apart from the pleasure of seeing them. Our Stakhanovite nanny and housekeeper of four years, Sandra, who had come with us from London to Rome, and later to Venice, handed in her resignation a few weeks ago. In London, she once chased away an Evening Standard reporter, who thought he would take a sentimental photograph of my son playing among the daffodils in Hyde Park, with a softly spoken Russian phrase that means “I’ll rip your mouth.” In Rome, asked what she thought of the Italians, she answered: “They are a noisy and shameless people.” It was in Venice that this loyal, hardworking, and God-fearing woman was finally corrupted, and, of course, it would be hypocritical to blame her: The purple pink light of the setting sun reflecting off the stone facades of the Giudecca is clearly unsuited to the task of vacuuming a child’s bedroom. Like me, poor Sandra realized that what she really wanted was to sit in the café all day and drink Aperol spritzers, and that this great pleasure actually cost very little.
The corruption takes hold of the victim in slow increments, Italian life as a whole only too ready to supply an object lesson at every step. “Buon giorno, Signora!” It would never occur to the average Russian of Sandra’s generation, the last to graduate from Stalin’s university of life, to comment on the weather to a total stranger. “For that we have meteorologists. Ah, you beg to differ? Then you’re probably a Trotskyist spy.” It would never occur to us to address a maid as “Madame.” “What’s that you’re playing at? Bourgeois egalitarianism? In our country people are shot for less.” Indeed, it has taken the death of 100 million of our countrymen to teach the other 100 million to mind their own business, so it would seem that the very least I can count on there, by way of personal benefit, is a good maid.
But eventually the bonhomie routine grinds down the toughest Stakhanovite, and she dissolves in all that wretched civility like powdered sugar. Before you know it, she is no longer an anodized steel bolt holding together an infinitesimal part of a vast statist machine—such as the employer’s household—but a vulgar Western chatterbox, a nosy know-it-all with a diversity of subjective preoccupations, a “wicked and slothful servant” laboring in the belief that disobedience is a substitute for talent. She has become a person, a citizen, a god.
If individual talent is, as I believe, the only acceptable excuse for democratic delusions of this kind, then Margarita, our cook, represents the Western ideal. Margarita speaks only dialect, with the consequence that when she wants to express the most basic thought—even one so proverbially simple as “different strokes for different folks”—something altogether gorgeous and outlandish, like the San Marco cathedral, emerges from her island brain. “Ghe se queó,” she says, rolling up her sleeves to plunge a pair of powerful arms into the colorful chaos of a postprandial sink, “che ghe piase ciuciar el caenasso,” meaning, “some people like to lick a lock.” We all adore her, a Venetian to the marrow of her soup bones, in part because her Italian is as bad as ours.
I met her through her husband, a leading fishmonger in the Rialto market who had already won our not inconsiderable custom. Then, one day, my friend Alberto brought over a dozen wild ducks he had shot, still in feather. With that millstone around my neck, in pouring rain—it was some time before the Madonna della Salute, and unless you are a hunter the weather is terrible—I made fruitless rounds of Venice’s butchers, hoping to get them plucked at any price, until finally I came to the Rialto and saw Beppe, in his white apron, presiding over his banco. Before I could finish my tale of woe, he swept all the fish remains before him into the gutter with a majestic stroke of a giant blade and, with the same gracefully curved movement, cut the tie that bound the birds together.
It was a kind of European Community nightmare. Feathers flew as far as the eye could see, drifting flirtatiously over the snowy banks of bass and sole. Under the roof of the covered market, a crowd gathered, Venetians and foresti in equal numbers. The foreigners spoke in hushed undertones among themselves, lamenting the barbarity of a country that allows meat and fish to be handled on the same premises. The natives were louder, but more curious than incensed: “What’s that you’re doing?” they would ask. “Oh, nothing,” Beppe would reply, relishing the conflict between the individual and the mass, “just some new kind of octopus I got in. With feather on ’em.” When, some mouths later, Beppe offered us a Venetian as a cook, all he said by way of recommendation was that she is his wife. Or maybe he offered us his wife as a cook and said, lay way of recommendation, that she is Venetian.
There is a story about Byron, which the late Sir Peter Quennell had dug up while researching the circumstances of his life at the Palazzo Mocenigo, involving a local type reminiscent of our own Margarita. “La Fornariua,” the baker’s wife who became the poet’s mistress and later his housekeeper, once snatched off the mask of a noblewoman who happened at that moment to have accepted Byron’s arm. When he later reproached her, explaining that Madame Contarini is a lady, she snapped back: “She may be a lady, but I am a Venetian!” How well that defiant mi son Venexiana! would sit on our beloved Margarita’s lightly mustachioed lips. No wonder Byron worried about his weight.
Margarita took over the household until Sandra’s replacement could arrive from Moscow. It quickly turned out that the selfsame qualities that made her a legend in our kitchen—her innovative boldness bordering on recklessness, her open disdain for everything with a printed label, her fierce sense of independence—were grossly counterproductive in a maid. Mi son Venexiana! In a week’s time, the house was laid waste, with that morning-after feeling about it, as if somebody had tearfully asked a couple of bachelors not to trash the place. Plants killed, papers missing, books moved, ashtrays full, laundry dirty, the iron broken, Beppe watching football in the kitchen, Margarita’s daughter sunbathing on the terrace, and Margarita herself nowhere to be seen. “Do not ask Chaliapin to represent you in court, demur if Cicero offers to sing for you, and never assume that a talented cook will make a dutiful housekeeper,” was how I finished telling the story to my friends at the Villa Parisi.
The following Sunday, I was at the Marco Polo airport to collect Vera. There is a moment on the way back. once the boat enters Venice and crawls out into the Grand Canal at Ca’ d’Oro, that is so absurdly unforgettable that I, not content to relive it daily in the freeze frame of my own window, seize every opportunity to go to the airport just to experience it afresh. And there I was, watching Vera next to me. Vera who had never been out of Russia, Vera about to collide, at five kilometers an hour, with the absurdly unforgettable moment, watching her and thinking, “Well? Well? What will she say?”
Nothing. She never even looked up once. The Grand Canal is none of her business. She is the Stakhanovite maid I want.