18 April 2009

The local cathouse

For a people whose only real industry is tourism, Venetians can be terribly cold and inhospitable. Which is why I sometimes go a bit out of my way to visit San Lorenzo, to see this: a sort of cobbled-together apartment house for the neighborhood’s feral cats.

The cubbies where the cats retreat and rest are fitted out with cushions, and, when it’s likely to be stormy, somebody – who do you suppose? – comes by and rolls down the little plastic rain shields. I think a good many people must bring snacks for the feline residents here. I have seen the donated bowls filled with everything from ordinary cat kibble to leftover spaghetti bolognese and fresh tuna salad.

Cats play a big role in Venice. From the very beginning, they were welcomed as members of the community. After all, this is a city that’s always at risk for being overrun with rats, and cats have surely earned their keep as exterminators of vermin. Venetians are nothing if not a practical people.

But I find something else in this quaint little cathouse. I see the often-hidden tenderhearted side of the local character. And I see the thing that holds Venetians so firmly to one another. They were refugees, survivors who made their own world in the middle of a mosquito-ridden saltmarsh. Today they still look out for their own.