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SAGA OF THE DROPPED COFFEE POT (Deaf in Venice 6)

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We are nearing the end of our wonderful holiday in Venice – just a couple of days to go. We have had another wonderful day today visiting various churches, museums and art galleries, and now we are relaxing back at our apartment. We have enjoyed a lovely meal in the apartment garden and are about to have some coffee and a glass or two of Limoncello. Julia is in the kitchen making the coffee when there is a sudden shriek accompanied simultaneously by the sound of breaking glass. Julia has dropped the glass coffee pot and it has smashed into numerous fragments!

We recall something in the instruction folder that told us what we should do in the event of such a calamity. Obviously, we are not the first guests to have committed such a faux pas. Sure enough there is a paragraph in the coffee pot section of the folder that tells us where the shop is in Venice where we can purchase a replacement glass coffee pot. Since we only have one more complete day of our holiday left that is tomorrow’s activity sorted because the replacement coffee pot shop is right over the other side of the Rialto Bridge and the Rialto market. Seemingly you can’t get a replacement anywhere else in Venice.

We set out about mid-morning the next day. Once again Julia has a map and a plan, and it looks like the day will not be wasted since there are various places to visit along the way, places we had not planned to visit but which look rather interesting nonetheless. We take the lid of the old glass coffee pot with us and make a rough guestimation of the height of the pot we will need. We still have some space on the tickets we bought at the beginning of our holiday to enable us to visit several churches and museums across Venice.

We know our way around Venice well by now and we soon arrive at the famous Rialto Bridge where the views are just as spectacular as ever and we take even more photographs to add to the ones we have already taken. We find a vacant shop on the Rialto which we think we should buy, reopen it as a butcher’s shop called ‘Shylocks’ where every cut of meat is sold for a pound! We carry on over the bridge to the Rialto Market where Julia (having once been in the fish business) is keen to see the fish market. It is great fun, full of strange looking fish (as well as the normal kind), and lots of people. We resist the temptation to buy some fish since we have an important task to complete first and we are also planning to go out for a final meal this evening.

Finding the shop that sells the replacement coffee pots turns out to be more difficult than we thought. Venetian house numbers are notoriously complicated, and we eventually discover that there are two streets with the same name in the same vicinity. Fortunately a nice lady in another domestic appliances shop helps us out by looking our shop up on the internet and giving us more precise directions. There is only one problem – the shop closes as 12.00 noon and doesn’t open again until 3.30 p.m. We make a dash for it and arrive at 12.05 p.m. The shop has closed for lunch! And we thought that it was only the French who took three-hour lunch breaks?  

This enforced delay has its compensations however. The shop itself is in a road just off the Campo Giacomo dell’ Orio, a square full of quiet charm, where we stop for a coffee and enjoy a picnic lunch. We visit the nearby unusual church of Chiesa di San Giacomo dall’ Orio with its amazing paintings and then take ourselves off to the 18th century Palazzo Mocenigo with its richly furnished and frescoed rooms, and a fascinating history of perfumes. Julia is in her element. Eventually I manage to drag her away as it is time to see if the coffee pot shop is open. It is not, but we hang around for 15 minutes and eventually the owner appears. He is very helpful even though he doesn’t speak English and we don’t speak Italian. He climbs up a tall ladder, roots around in various boxes, and eventually comes back down with a replacement glass coffee pot that looks about the right size.

We retrace our steps back to our apartment carefully carrying the new glass coffee pot. We don’t want to break it before we get home. Eventually we arrive back at our apartment, unpack the new glass coffee pot, insert it in the coffee machine … and it doesn’t fit! There is nothing for it but to take it back to the shop and see if they have another one. I am exhausted, so Julia insists I have a rest while she goes back to the shop, armed this time with all the details about the coffee machine we can muster. An hour later she phones me to tell me that the man doesn’t have a replacement glass coffee pot. Apparently, the coffee machine is so old they don’t make them anymore. He refunds our outlay and points Julia in the direction of another shop on the Rialto that sells new coffee machines at reasonable prices, and so we must buy a new machine.  Julia gets it home safely and it looks rather nice. We discover that the glass coffee pot that is part of it fits then old coffee machine perfectly?! Julia’s journey is not wasted, however, since (without me being in tow) she is able to make one or two other purchases for our new house back in the UK en route!

We decide that we will not use the new coffee machine but use another kind of coffee machine that is also resident in the apartment. It is somewhat complicated, but Julia eventually manages to master it. When we get back to the UK Julia confesses to Johanna (who owns the apartment with her husband Bruce) the saga of the dropped coffee pot. Johanna is appreciative of our efforts and kindly volunteers to split the cost of the replacement pot.   She also laughs and tells us that when she originally bought the old coffee pot she got it back to the apartment, took it out of its box, and immediately dropped the glass coffee pot on the floor and saw it smash into numerous pieces. No wonder she knew where the replacement glass coffee pot shop was!

Jim Binney

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CHUTZPAH (Deaf in Venice 5)

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One of the advantages of having an apartment in the Cannaregio area of Venice is that it gives us the opportunity to explore bits of this magical city that are somewhat off the well beaten tourist trail. Today we are walking through the narrow alleys, with surprises around every corner, that make up the huge crescent between the northern bank of the Grand Canal and the lagoon, to the old Jewish Ghetto. The former Ghetto is now a lively and popular district of the city where the religious and administrative institutions of the Jewish Community and its five synagogues still exist.

The word ‘ghetto’ originated in Venice, derived from getto (meaning ‘casting’) due to an old iron foundry once situated here. As of 1492, many Jewish refugees started arriving in Venice after expulsion from Spain. At first, they enjoyed complete freedom but in 1527 they were obliged by law to move to the Ghetto to live, to wear a sign of identification, to remain behind locked gates from 6.00 p.m. every night until 12.00 p.m. the following day. Their island home was circled by an armed patrol boat to make sure that they kept the night curfew. Many other onerous regulations were also included, in exchange for which the Community was granted the freedom to practice its faith and protection in the case of war.

There were various reasons for this move on the part of the Venetian authorities. Jealousy of the Jewish business acumen was possibly one reason. Banned by the Venetian Republic from practising manual trades, many Jews became skilled doctors or moneylenders. Most were refugees from other parts of Europe, and they are credited with introducing rice-based dishes to Venetian cuisine. Another reason for this move was to prevent Jewish fraternisation with ‘Christian’ Venetians. They were not allowed to build new houses on the island so, with typical Jewish ingenuity, they built upwards adding stories to the already existing buildings. Waves of new arrivals saw each language group incorporate its own synagogue on a floor in some of these buildings raising them to seven floors in height. After the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, Napoleon decreed the end of the Jewish segregation and the equalisation of the Jews to other citizens. This provision became definitive when Venice was annexed to the Italian Kingdom.

In September 1938, the introduction of fascist racial laws deprived the Jews of civil rights, and the Jewish community entered a difficult period. In September 1943, Italy changed from being an ally of Nazi Germany into an occupied country, and the Nazis started a systematic hunt for Jews in Venice as in other Italian cities. In November 1943, Jews were declared ‘enemy aliens’ which meant they could be arrested, and their property seized. Although some Jews managed to escape to neutral Switzerland or Allied-occupied southern Italy, possibly as many as 246 Jews were detained (including some 20 residents of a Jewish convalescence home) and deported to  the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only eight Jewish residents of Venice emerged from the death camps, and the Jewish population of Venice was halved to just over 1,000 because of WWII. Today only about 30 Jews still live in the Ghetto, while a further 470 Jews reside in other parts of the city.

We want to visit the old Jewish Ghetto for several reasons. Firstly, the walk there will take us through some very interesting places such as the Campo dei Mori, an odd funnel-shaped square with its three statues of Arabian-style ‘Moors’ – most probably medieval traders who made their home there – and a house by a bridge over Rio della Sensa (number 3399), once the home of the renowned 16th century Venetian artist Tintoretto. Secondly, however, we want to visit the old Jewish Ghetto because we have been told that it is both a very interesting and deeply moving experience.

Julia has a map, and a plan, and so we enjoy a fascinating walk to the Ghetto noting various interesting places on the way, enjoying seeing some of the locals out rowing their own boats in preparation for the upcoming races (there are a lot of rowing clubs in the vicinity), and stopping off for coffee of course. We know that we are nearing the Ghetto when we start seeing people in traditional Jewish dress. We cross the bridge into the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo and are immediately aware of the tall buildings, the Jewish Museum, and the powerful, prominent memorial plaque to Venice’s Holocaust victims. We want to join the tour of the various synagogues, but we must wait until after lunch for the next tour. We decide to have a look at the museum, situated between the two most ancient Venetian synagogues, first and then come back later for the tour. The museum is small but fascinating and we learn a lot about the Jewish Faith (that we did not know before) and the history of the Jewish Community of Venice. We still have an hour before the tour of the synagogues starts so we decide to have lunch and find a lovely little restaurant nearby where we enjoy Venetian liver – a local speciality – and a Venetian spritz or two.

After lunch we join the 30 or so other people on the tour. There are several Jewish tourists in the party including a man who is very knowledgeable about Judaism, most probably a teacher or Rabbi we suspect. He is very impressive and displays the kind of chutzpah associated with Jewish people (especially the men one suspects). Chutzpah is a Yiddish word that derives from the Hebrew word ḥutspâ (meaning ‘insolence’ or ‘cheek’ or ‘audacity’) describing a kind of supreme self-confidence, nerve, gall that can be used for good or for bad. It is a kind of ‘in-your-face-ness’ that I both admire and hate at the same time.  This man has bucket loads of it. I admire his knowledge but struggle with his know-it-all attitude. Whereas the rest of us on the tour ask questions this man gives opinions. He has opinions about everything including the place of women within Judaism. He obviously likes the idea that these synagogues follow the traditional pattern and that women are relegated to the galleries (even though the numbers at worship these days are very small).

Our guide on the tour of the synagogues is a youngish Jewish lady who knows her stuff. She is clearly very intelligent and gives our friend as good as she gets. She must have met a good number of his kind before and handles him and his opinions with an equal measure of skill, reason, knowledge and winsomeness. She displays a chutzpah of her own but a more attractive and impressive kind.

After we have looked at the two synagogues within the buildings housing the Jewish museum we go back into the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo so that our guide can show us from the outside where the synagogues are in the tall buildings we have just been in. She explains more about the history of the Jews in Venice, particularly the story of the war years in the 1930s and 1940s. We look at the impressive memorial in more detail and see how graphic and powerful a picture it portrays. Our final port of call is another synagogue just a stone’s throw away, opposite the lovely restaurant where we enjoyed our wonderful lunch. Whilst we are standing around in our group listening to our guide I notice some Jewish boys playing football in the square where we are standing. Suddenly one of the boys belts the solid leather football towards the makeshift goal near the museum, miss-kicks it completely, and sends it sailing towards our group. It strikes chutzpah man’s wife on the head. She is OK but very angry. She rounds on the boys playing football and gives them a real mouthful. Chutzpah plus! Julia and I look at each other and grin. So much for chutzpah man ruling the roost, being head of the family, keeping his wife and everybody else in their place? We know immediately who really wears the trousers in his house!

Jim Binney

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LEFT BEHIND! (Deaf in Venice 4)

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We are going on a Sightseeing Tour across the Venetian Lagoon to the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. It will take about four hours or so and we have been warned that it is a tight schedule and that we need to be on time at every stage of the tour. We reckon that it is a good way to see at least some of the more significant islands in the Venetian Lagoon. Murano is famous for its fabulous glassware and we will have an opportunity to see a Master glassblower at work. Burano is known for its amazing multi-coloured painted houses (originally painted in different glowing colours so that the fishermen could tell their own houses in the gloom) and its elegant lacework. Torcello is an island known for its ornate palaces and ancient churches.

We get up early, route march across Venice to St Mark’s Square (managing to fit in a quick stop for coffee on the way) and arrive in plenty of time at the Alilaguna Pier (where we are to board our motorboat) brandishing photocopies of our pre-booked tickets in our hot little hands. We are much wiser after the chaos of the Doge’s Palace, so we check with guy at the gate if our photocopied tickets are OK? ‘No,’ he tells us, ‘You have to go down to the ticket kiosk and exchange your photocopies for proper tickets!’ We comply with his instructions, retrieve our proper tickets, and return to the Pier where (being the English-speaking tour) a small queue is already beginning to form. ‘Have you all got your proper tickets?’ we ask the queue. ‘Yes!’ the queue responds in unison, waving their photocopies at us. We explain the ticketing situation. The queue disperses with everyone heading for the ticket kiosk. We now find ourselves at the front of the queue.

Since we still have 30 minutes to go before the tour is due to leave – and there is no sign of the motorboat – Julia takes the opportunity to find a ‘rest room’ (as our American friends say). After she has been gone for 20 minutes I begin to worry, not just about missing the boat, but because she set off in the direction of Harry’s Bar (made famous by Earnest Hemingway) where the prices are exorbitant but where we know they have toilets. Has she given in to the temptation to have one of their famous Bellini cocktails, a mixture of Prosecco sparkling wine and peach purée or nectar (at 20€ a shot) in order to use the loo?

I needn’t have worried, however, as I spot Julia returning … with our friend little Margaret from Knaphill in tow and they are chatting away nineteen to the dozen. What is little Margaret doing here in Venice, I ask myself? I do a double take and realise that it is not little Margaret but someone who looks exactly like her in every way. It turns out that this nice lady, and a friend who is with her, are both from Australia. They are on a tour of Europe and are spending a couple days in Venice. They too are going on the same half day tour of the islands that we are doing.

Julia introduces me to them both. ‘Have you got your tickets for the islands tour?’ I ask them. ‘Yes’ they reply in unison, waving their photocopies at me. We explain the ticketing situation to them and they rush off to the ticket kiosk to get the proper tickets. Some newcomers in the queue have overheard our conversation and want to know the score. It seems just about everyone has photocopies and no one has proper tickets. New people are joining the queue all the time, and we are the only ones telling them that their photocopied tickets are not acceptable – the guy on the gate ignores us all! Eventually the queue cottons on and those at the end of the queue pass the message on to any newcomers.

Eventually our boat arrives, and we all get on board and set off across the Venetian Lagoon to our first stop, the island of Murano. The views all around us the journey across the lagoon are tremendous and I take lots of photos. After about 20 minutes we arrive at Murano, disembark and are immediately ushered in to a glass factory, where we watch a glass blower creating beautiful pieces of glassware, a Murano tradition that dates to 1291. We hear a bit about the island’s history, about Murano’s prosperity in the 1400s and 1500s when it was the centre of glassmaking in Europe, but we don’t have time to see other sights like churches decorated with mosaics and ornamental details. We are ushered in to the showroom where several sharply dressed aggressive salesmen try and sell us expensive pieces of glassware. Julia asks the price of an elaborate chandelier – we want to buy some new lights for our new Manse in Reading – and are told that it is a snip at 6,000€. ‘How many do you need?’ asks the salesman. ‘Three!’ we reply.

The salesman realises that we are not serious buyers and gets somewhat snooty. Everything is far too expensive here, I tell him. ‘When I bought my Rolex, I went to Switzerland to buy it! When you want the best glass ware you buy it here!’ he responds. ‘If I charged the prices you charge here for glassware, I could afford a Rolex as well!’ I tell him. We leave the shop, walk down the road to another smaller shop, and buy a small piece of Murano glass for 10€. It was probably made in China, but we bought it on Murano.

We make it back to the boat in good time … we don’t want to get left behind … and we head to our second stop, Burano, an island known for its lace production, which dates to the 16th century and was once the best in Europe, and the island’s brightly coloured fishermen’s houses. It is beautiful, and we could easily spend a whole day here. If we had been more familiar with Venice, we would have come here on the water bus and done just that. There are Japanese and Chinese tourists everywhere – all taking photographs. We really enjoy just wandering around. The church in the middle of the town has a prominently leaning tower which is not quite as bad as the leaning tower of Pisa but not that far off. We have 45 minutes to look around, not quite enough time for Julia to buy any lace or dresses or any of the other wonderful items on sale in the various shops. We meet ‘little Margaret’ and her companion. They have bought some very expensive lace. We rush back to the pier to catch our boat … we don’t want to be left behind … and the warning about the necessity of being on time is reinforced every time we dock at a new island. We join the queue for our boat and get into conversation with another Australian couple who are on their honeymoon. They have a huge box with them. They bought a set of expensive wine glasses at the expensive shop in Murano, and now they are worrying about how they are going to get it back home to Australia in one piece?

Our next stop is a visit to Torcello, an island established between the 5th and 6th centuries, to see its ornate palaces and churches including the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in the 7th century, and the excavated remnants of the baptistery in the Church of Santa Fosca. There is a long walk, along a canal, from where our boat docks to the ancient churches we have especially come to see. It is, however, a delightful walk in the pleasant sunshine with lots to see on the way including a rather nice restaurant – where we fancy stopping for lunch, but we haven’t the time – and an old bridge without a parapet so nothing to stop you falling in if you have had too many glasses of wine at the posh restaurant. The 7th century church is amazing (although you can’t take photographs on the inside) and we spend most of our time simply drinking in the atmosphere. We just have time to eat our packed lunch before a quick march along the canal side back to the jetty to catch the boat. We must be back by 5 to 1, we don’t want to be left behind, and we make it with a minute or two to spare.

Our tour of the islands is over … just the 40-minute return boat ride to Venice. We find a seat in the stern of the boat so that we can get a great view. At two minutes to one our boat pulls away from the jetty. They have another trip scheduled for 2.00 p.m. and can’t be late. ‘Where are our Australian friends? ‘Little Margaret’ and her companion?’ asks Julia. ‘Where are the ‘happy couple’ with their great big Murano box?’ They must be up the front of the boat we think to ourselves … but no … there they are, still on Torcello! They have just arrived at the jetty. They are waving to us, but the ‘waving’ soon turns to a ‘shrug of the shoulders’ as they realise the boat is gone and won’t be coming back for them. They have been left behind.

We feel guilty. Perhaps we could have done or said something to make the boat wait for just a minute or two longer. We console ourselves with the thought, however, that if our Australian friends could afford to buy lace from Burano, and wine glasses from Murano … they could surely afford a water taxi back to St Mark’s Square!

Jim Binney

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PHONE HOME (Deaf in Venice 3)

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We are part way through our tour of the magnificent Doge’s Palace in Venice – admiring the pictures in the wonderful Tintoretto exhibition in fact – when Julia suddenly exclaims, ‘You’re not quite the ticket!’ Everybody looks at us. What is going on here I wonder. One minute I am ‘Deafo!’ and now I am ‘Not quite the ticket!’ ‘I’ve lost the ticket!’ Julia says again.

‘What ticket?’ I ask. It can’t be the entrance ticket because we are already in here … and what a palaver that was. We had pre-ordered our tickets on-line over the Internet prior to arriving in Venice and were clutching the relevant photocopies in our hot little hands when we arrived at the entrance to the Doge’s Palace. There were three separate queues to get in but thankfully the lane for pre-paid tickets had no one in it. Unfortunately a large party from one of the Cruise Ships had also just arrived as well and they are given priority over us. And when we do eventually get through the doors the guy at the ticket box won’t accept our photocopied sheets. Eventually we get passed up the chain of command and get issued replacement tickets which the scanner gun accepts. Judging by the numbers of people following us from the entrance kiosk to the ticket office to the manager’s office, and then back again, we are not the only ones with this problem.

The Doge’s Palace is indeed magnificent but we pay extra to see the special Tintoretto exhibition, that is on at the moment, first. Tintoretto was a 16th century Venetian artist, looser in style than many of his contemporaries, a strange mixture of genuine Christian faith and sharp entrepreneurial practice, and we like his paintings. Our rapturous appreciation of these paintings, however, is rudely interrupted by Julia’s sudden realisation that she has ‘Lost the ticket!’ She turns out every pocket and, sure enough, there is not a ticket of any description to be found. ‘What ticket?’ I ask again. ‘The ticket for the left luggage office over by the Basilica!’ Julia explains.

Light dawns. Prior to visiting the Doge’s Palace we joined the queue to visit the ornate St Mark’s Basilica, only to discover that we couldn’t take our backpacks in with us and that we had to leave them at a storeroom nearby. I kept our place in the queue whilst Julia rushed round the corner to find said storeroom and deposit our backpacks. She returns 10 minutes later sans backpacks and flourishing numbered ticket. We shuffle round the Basilica with scores of other tourists. To be honest there is not much to see. It is rather dark and dingy and we are all continually hassled by officious attendants making sure we keep moving and don’t take any photographs. There are lots of extra bits to the Basilica that we can visit … as long as we are willing to pay extra. Blow that for a game of Gondoliers! We are in and out of the Basilica within 15 minutes and on our way to see the Doge’s Palace.

So, everything is fine and dandy … until Julia realises that she has lost the numbered ticket to the storeroom where we have left our backpacks (along with several hundred other backpacks). Our backpacks with all our money, passports, cameras, keys, etc, etc. What if someone has found our lost ticket and claimed all our stuff? Panic ensues. Julia goes rushing off in one direction … I don’t know where she has gone or what she is doing. I wait around for a bit and then male logic sets in. I find my way to the exit, go back to the Bascilica, ask where the storeroom is situated, find my way to the storeroom and explain the situation to the two ladies who are running the show.

The two ladies are not the least bit interested in my plight. They are attempting to deal with a continuous stream of people coming in to the storeroom to retrieve their bags … all of them with the appropriate tickets. They don’t speak any English and I don’t speak Italian but they do allow me to come behind the counter to search for our bags. I can’t find them anywhere … and they won’t allow me to move any bags to see if I can find ours. I have a sudden flash of inspiration … Julia is bound to have left her mobile phone in her backpack, and I have my mobile phone with me, so if I phone her number the appropriate back back will ring. Simples! I phone Julia’s mobile … and although it rings I can’t hear a backpack ringing! After all I am ‘Deafo’ … how can I possibly hear a backpack ringing. I ask the ladies to listen out … but they can’t be bothered. Why should they help? I am just another prat of a tourist. I am from the UK … and we are brexiting Europe aren’t we?

I give up on my good idea and go and try and find Julia. I don’t venture too far from the storeroom because I know Julia will eventually come here and being 6′ 4″ tall means that she should be able to see me above the crowd. Eventually she turns up and we return to the storeroom to repeat the ‘phoning home’ exercise. The two ladies are just as uncooperative as before but do allow Julia behind the counter. I make the phone call … and joy of joys, a backpack hidden in the pile rings and Julia can hear it. We retrieve our backpacks … nobody has stolen them after all … and we are able to prove they are ours!

We are so relieved! We go back to the Doge’s Palace. We resume our tour. The Palace is amazing. We cross the Bridge of Sighs. We visit the prison. We are high on adrenaline when we finally leave and decide that we both need a drink to recover from our traumatic day. We return to St Marks’s Square for a Venetian Spritzer only to discover that if we want to have a drink at one of the prominent cafes we have to pay 12€ just for the privilege even before we buy any drinks because they have a quintet playing light music. Greedy s**s! We go round the corner where the music is free and the drinks are cheeper. We have a delightful time. Julia gets up and dances to the bossanova music the band are playing … so much better than Theresa May’s embarrassing performance the Conservative Party Conference … and we have a great evening.

Julia can’t be bothered to cook for us tonight – we are on holiday after all, and it has been a stressful day – so we stop off for dinner at a gluten free restaurant we have discovered on our way home. When we get back to our apartment Julia remembers that she should have ‘phoned home’ tonight to let her mother know that we were OK. Oh well! It is too late now. We can ‘phone home’ tomorrow … one phone call is enough for today!

Jim Binney

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NO! NO! POLIZIA! (Deaf in Venice 2)

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Julia and I are having a debate about whether or not to go on a Gondola ride whilst we are here in Venice. We know that it is expensive: 80€ for 30 minutes and 120€ for 45 minutes. The 80€ trip is rather minimalistic – just around the back canals if you choose to board a Gondola in the back streets, or more or less under the Bridge of Sighs up a bit and back again, if you hire a Gondola near St Mark’s Square. The 120€ trip takes you on a round tour taking in a number of the main sites depending where you board from. Julia says she doesn’t want to go on a Gondola (even though I know she does really) because of the expense. I want to go because … well you have to if you are in Venice, don’t you. Who knows when, or even if, we will ever be back here, and we are celebrating two very special birthdays aren’t we. When we visited Pisa we saw the famous leaning tower but didn’t good up it – a decision I have regretted ever since. The last time we were in Paris we went up the Eiffel Tower but not to the very top – another decision I have regretted since. I now have to revisit both places to fulfil my ambitions – incuring greater expense than what it would have cost us at the time. So, for me it is a no brainer! We are going on a Gondola – it is just a question of how much.

I have been on a Gondola before. It was back in 1960 when I was part of that school trip to Rome and Venice as a teenager that I told you about in my previous blog in this short series of blogs. Mind you it didn’t cost anything like 80-120€ in those days. There were four of us, two boys and two girls, and it was memorable for me because when the girl I was with and I decided to have a quick snog whilst travelling under the Bridge of Sighs the Gondolier rapped us over the head with his oar shouting, ‘No! No! Polizia!’ Apparently that sort of behaviour was against the law in those days! Julia knows this story and thinks that it is very funny.

We enjoy a pleasant walk through Venice on a bright sunny morning stopping for our usual coffee on the way. I take lots of photographs. The clear air is ideal for photography and I already have some great photos. We decide to catch a Gondola near St Mark’s’ Square so we can actually go under the famous Bridge of Sighs – so-called because it was the bridge from the old courthouse in the Doge’s Palace to the prison. Our route takes us via Santa Maria Formosa Campo but when we get there it is in chaos. There is rubble everywhere where buildings have fallen down, the market stalls are all smashed and broken, it is a scene of absolute carnage. Are we in the middle of a terrorist incident we wonder? But, no, everything is OK … all the rubble is made of polystyrene and they are actually filming the latest Spider-Man movie and the day’s shooting is about to begin! For us this particular Campo now has assumed a new name – Spider-Man Square.

We resist the temptation to join the hundreds of teenage fans waiting to see Tom Holland, the star of the film, and press on with our quest. We discover that we can’t hire a Gondola sharing with another couple (something about family members only, which sounds like an excuse to me) but settle for the longer circuitous trip of around 45 minutes plus. We do manage to get the cost reduced to 100€ on the condition that we don’t tell anyone about it – well, apart from you, that is.

We enjoy a great trip and love every moment of it. Our Gondolier is very friendly and provides us with a guided tour of all the places of interest also the way. As we got under the Bridge of Sighs Julia and I risk a quick kiss but don’t get hit by an oar this time! Obviously morals in Venice are slacking somewhat these days. Our Gondolier tells us that they don’t sing much either. Apparently ‘Just one cornetto’ is not a genuine Venetian song and is therefore no longer allowed. If singing is out, mobile phones are in, and we notice that quite a few Gondoliers are chatting away on theirs as they row. Rowing is an amazing skill for these guys and they train for it from childhood and being a Gondolier is a family tradition and therefore a restricted profession. We have a great trip of more than the allotted 45 minutes and it was worth every penny.

After our trip we sit by St Mark’s Square people watching. A Chinese couple (there are lots of Chinese tourists here) are being interviewed by Italian soldiers? I am sure that they were in another Gondola we passed on our trip. There is a lot of gesticulating and wagging of the finger going on. I can’t help but wonder … what on earth had they got up to on their Gondola when under the Bridge of Sighs?

Jim Binney

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SUNSHINE AFTER THE RAIN (Deaf in Venice 1)

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We are in the wonderful city of Venice for 10 days celebrating two special birthdays this year – Julia was 60 in May and I will be 75 in November. Julia has never been to Venice but I first came here nearly 60 years ago on a school trip when I was 16. That visit is eternally etched in my memory because our Latin master took 40 of us hormonal teenagers to Rome and Venice on his honeymoon?! He was a Roman Catholic and we stayed in hostels run by nuns. You can imagine the chaos.

To be truthful I can’t remember that much about that visit so I too am looking forward to being here in this remarkable city. I am calling this short series of blogs ‘Deaf in Venice’ because amongst Julia’s pet names for me ‘Deafo’ is becoming more prominent. It is not that I am really gradually becoming more deaf – I have had my hearing tested and am just about on right side of the scale – it is that (like many married men) I have developed selective hearing. It actually runs in the family. My late Uncle Ron had one of those old fashioned huge deaf aids, and his wife, my Auntie Ethel, used to talk a lot. I asked Uncle Ron one day how he coped with her non-stop chatter. He smiled knowingly, pointed to his deaf aid, and said, ‘I just switch it off! I can see her lips moving, and I have learned to nod every now and again, but for the most part I live in a world of peace and quiet!’

‘Deaf in Venice’ is therefore a good overall title for these blogs firstly, because ‘Deafo’ is here, and secondly, our Guide Book informs us that the film ‘Death in Venice’ is amongst the top ten most famous movies to be filmed here in Venice. The new Spider Man movie is actually being filmed here right now.

We leave Gatwick in glorious sunshine and arrive in Venice in pouring rain. We hope it is not going to be like this for the next 10 days. We catch a water bus from the airport to the the appropriate stop five minutes walk from the apartment we have rented from friends. The water buses are great and a lot cheaper than the water taxis. We were told that the water bus trip from the airport to Venice takes about 40 minutes but is wonderful, especially in the late afternoon/early evening because you see Venice rising out of the mist in the light of the setting sun. All we see is mist and rain. When we arrive at our stop we don our rain gear, I put up the umbrella I bought back in the UK at a budget price, and venture out in the gale. My umbrella lasts about 30 seconds before it blows inside out and all the spokes bend and break!

We find our way to our apartment … and it is marvellous! We settle in, unpack, have a cup of tea and a rest, and then venture out to find a restaurant and dinner. The storm has abated, the rain has slackened off, and we make our way down narrow lanes and over umpteen small bridges over numerous canals to a Pizza Restaurant that Julia has made a note of in the meticulous planning of our holiday because it is a gluten free Pizza Restaurant. We pass several other really nice looking restaurants on the way but Julia has her heart set on a gluten free pizza and a glass or two red wine! We enter the restaurant, find a nice seat, we are made very welcome … but when we order a gluten free pizza for Julia we are told that this gluten free pizza restaurant doesn’t actually sell gluten free pizzas! We leave and go back to one of the restaurants we have already passed … and we share an excellent seafood risotto, and a glass or three of delightful red wine.

After a lovely evening we return to our apartment and enjoy a really good night’s sleep. It is amazingly quiet here, not because I have become even more deaf I realise but because there are no cars, or buses, or even motor bikes! We wake in the morning to glorious sunshine – the sunshine after the rain.

Jim Binney

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LIVING IN A VACUUM (Notes from Knaphill 14)

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I recall reading of a Pastor who was a key figure in the early days of the Revival in Indonesia during the 1960s who inexplicably lost his ministry and declined into comparative obscurity as a result. Seemingly there was no clear reason for this – no moral failure nor proud spirit. One day he was preaching with great effect and moving powerfully in the strength of the Holy Spirit, and the next day all this had deserted him. He became the subject of much negative talk and eventually he just faded into insignificance. For several years, he was inconspicuous until one day, right out of the blue, it all came back to him and God began to use him mightily once again. The only thing he was sure of throughout this whole period was that God was with him, and that God had led him into this wilderness experience. When asked to try and give some reason in the divine mind as to why God had taken him on this journey his response was, ‘I guess God knew that I needed to die a deeper death!’

I have never experienced this kind of Revival (although the Bewdley years were the nearest I ever came to it) and, although God has been pleased to graciously use me in numerous ways over the years, I could not describe myself in the dynamic terms attributed to the Pastor in this story. Most certainly, like many of us who name the Name of Christ, I need to continue to ‘die a deeper death’ – death to sin, to self, to pride, to the wrong sort of ungodly ambition, etc. I have, however, found myself able to identify with the Pastor in this story in terms of my journey into relative obscurity particularly during much of this past year.

When my ministry at Elm Road, Beckenham concluded in 2010 I knew in my heart of hearts that I would never ever exercise that same kind of preacher-teacher-evangelist ministry again. The following five years were spent ostensibly in ‘retirement’ in Dorset, a mixture of caring for Julia’s elderly mother, Julia herself slowly but surely recovering from the ME/CFS that she had suffered from during our last couple of years in Beckenham, and I myself recuperating after major heart surgery. During this time, we both ‘kept our hand in’ so to speak as active members of Dorchester Baptist Church helping with their mid-week café, often leading the day-time mid-week Communion Service and Prayer Meeting, playing a leading role in one of the church’s several Home Groups, serving on the Sunday Prayer Ministry Team, and even preaching occasionally. When Julia (who is 15 years my junior) felt the call of God to return to Ministry I knew immediately that this would be her ministry and that my role in the future would be to support her in any and every way I could without getting in her way or cramping her style.

When Julia accepted the invitation to be the Minister of Knaphill Baptist Church, Woking, in 2015 I was very happy to leave her to get on with it and play a supporting role. However, things didn’t turn out quite the way we had planned. Although, by and large, Julia has been able to ‘do her own thing’ at Knaphill by way of leading the church, conducting worship, preaching and teaching, pastoral oversight, etc., over time I also got drawn in to various things going on in the community and eventually in the church. In one sense this was not a surprise because by nature I am not the shy retiring type and, prior to arriving in Knaphill, God had spoken prophetically to us on more than one occasion to say that he was about to open several doors of opportunity for us in going to Knaphill. For Julia this involved heading up the local Churches Together group and serving as a part-time Prison Chaplain at the local women’s prison.  For me this meant being enlisted as a Committee Member of the Knaphill Residents’ Association, Editor of the Knaphill News (a somewhat glossy quarterly magazine distributed to around 5,000 homes in and around Knaphill), and ultimately being recognised by our church as its Community Minister (because of all the work I was already doing in the community). In addition to all this the South Eastern Baptist Association appointed me as the Network Pastor for the North Downs Network with a measure of pastoral responsibility for the 20 or so churches and 30 or so Ministers in the Network.

I have to say that for the most part I really enjoyed this kind of largely extra-mural activity even if some of it – trying to get the numerically larger churches in the Network to come on board, trying to get the Knaphill Residents’ Association to concentrate on tackling the fundamental problems facing our village rather than spend so much time and effort on organising the annual Village Show – proved somewhat difficult at times. I particularly appreciated the opportunity to get out into the community, meet people on their own territory, and seek to fulfil the kind of ‘salt and light’ (Matthew 5:13-16) and ‘yeast in the dough’ (Matthew 13:33) ministry I believe God has called us to as Christians. I like to think that during this time, for some people at least, I was by God’s grace able to make a difference.

At the beginning of this year, however, I had a strong sense that God was calling me to step away from all these activities. It was a strange feeling that I felt quite unable to put into words or (until now) write about. At the South Eastern Baptist Association Ministers’ Conference in January the Bishop of Dover (one of the guest speakers) invited us (in one of the sessions) to say what it was that we felt passionate about at this present time. My response was, ‘Doing nothing!’ Everybody laughed thinking that I was making a joke, but that was honestly what I felt like at that time. By this I didn’t mean dropping out, running away, quitting responsibility, etc. For me it was more of a stepping back from things to (eventually) step forward again into something new.

None of the things I was doing were easy for me to give up. For example, I had been a Distance Learning Tutor and then an Online Tutor with Spurgeon’s College for several years, and still felt a sense of loyalty to the college and responsibility for my students. The fact that the college (for sound academic reasons) had to embrace ‘anonymous marking’ (even though many of the courses related to ministerial training where personal contact was important) made my decision somewhat easier. My role as Network Pastor for the North Downs Network of SEBA had proved both rewarding and frustrating at the same time. It had been good to play my part in bringing a small group of Ministers (around 12 or so) together on a regular basis to share and pray together but frustrating that many of the Ministers appeared to want nothing to do with the Network. After a couple of years, I felt that I had achieved all that I could in this direction, and could see the sense in letting this go. The rightness of this was confirmed by the Association who confessed that all nine Networks in SEBA were experiencing the same problem and that they were themselves considering a rethink in strategy. Of all my activities, working out in the community with the Knaphill Residents’ Association was what I enjoyed most.  I made some good friends whilst on the committee as we tried to work together for the regeneration of Knaphill. I enjoyed editing the Knaphill News and playing my part in continuing to update it and make it something worth reading. Most of all (combining my role on the KRA Committee with my role as Community Minister at the church) I enjoyed getting alongside the shopkeepers and locals, listening to their woes and trying to help where I could. Yet again, however, I eventually became aware that I was fighting a losing battle with the Woking bureaucrats who seemed dead set on undermining the viability of Knaphill as an urban village as they put all their time and money into the expansion of Woking town centre.

The hardest thing about dropping out of all these things was that I found it impossible to give adequate reasons for doing so. I am sure that most people simply saw me as a ‘quitter’ and felt that I should have ‘stayed in post’ and continued to fight for positive change. To try and say to people (even my fellow Christians) that God had called me to let all this stuff go seemed like a feeble excuse, especially since I was not replacing these activities with other activities. In the end I simply gave up trying to explain why I was backing off from my various activities and, in effect, choosing to do (what appeared to be) nothing. The inner conviction was so strong that I could do nothing else. It was as though God had picked me up and put me in a vacuum.

For me this experience, as unsettling as it was, was a prelude to something new and exciting that God had in store for me in the future … although I didn’t have a clue what that ‘something’ was. I suppose, on reflection, I felt (without pressing the examples too far) in some ways like Jesus must have felt during his 40 days in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-30), or like Paul must have felt during his three years in the Arabian desert (Galatians 1:11-24).  For both Jesus and Paul this time in the wilderness was the prelude to a prolonged period of dynamic ministry.

When Julia received a call to become the Minister of Abbey Baptist Church, Reading, in late Summer this year (nearly eight months into this living in a vacuum experience for me) the whole thing began to make sense. The one thing I had felt really led to take on (in direct contrast to everything else God was saying to me) during this period was to return to academic study by signing up for a Professional Doctorate in Theology and Practice with the University of Winchester. It was not so much academic honours that I was after in doing this but the opportunity to give myself to disciplined study, especially in the areas of Church as a Missional Community and Community Hub Church. In Julia’s call to Abbey I immediately saw how that related to what I was researching, with Abbey being right in the heart of the historic Abbey Quarter in the town centre with the potential to play a key role in the significant work of God involving all the churches, that is already underway in the town. I also saw that, although Abbey were calling Julia to be their Minister, and not me, God clearly has something dynamic for me in Reading as well. When I had major heart surgery four years or so ago I prayed the night before the operation and asked God for 10 years more, not just of life but of dynamic ministry. I believe God answered that prayer, which was why it seemed so strange that God seemed to be pulling me out of everything I was doing only part way into this period. Clearly God hasn’t finished with me yet, and I am believing that he has ‘kept the best wine until last’ (John 2:10). I still haven’t got a clue how this is all going to pan out for me … but I am excited about what he has in store for me, what he has in store for both of us!

Jim Binney

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