Gatti di Venezia

In the quiet streets of Giudecca there are cats. One of them, black and white and charming, adopted us immediately, and became our Venetian holiday friend. A couple of tabbies hunched into the cobbles next to the walls along Calle Michelangelo, near the heavy security gate we had to unlock to get into the big open courtyard, didn’t like my approach. But a black and white cat who lived behind the security gate in the apartment complex made himself known, and his availability as a rent-a–moggie, a bit later. We gave him a name too.

The apartment, one of several in the large, gated courtyard open to the blue dome of Venetian sky, was modern in design, squat and thick-walled, with a heavy front door, a ground floor and a mezzanine. The page of instructions that came with the key said to insert it like a nail. Turning and turning the strange long pointed key, around and around in the lock, we could hear heavy bolts doing everything but free the door. Thankfully a kind neighbour who witnessed the scene and took pity, came to our rescue. Grazie, grazie! We could see four heavy bolts set into the door that thudded into place when the lock engaged. Relief – it had been a long day finding our way to Venice, searching with barely-contained panic for the office holding the key as the afternoon sun angled toward evening, heaving luggage onto the vaporetto that would take us to the Zitelle stop on Giudecca, finding the correct address and then being defeated by the heavy door.

In the following days I became aware of lions in Venice – on the Venetian flag, in stone sculptures, on the digital clock in the Piazza de San Marco. But it was the lions’ little cousins that made us feel at home. Domestic cats, gatti, have been part of Venice life for a thousand years, helping to keep the rodent population down in the city of canals. Speculating, I wonder if in breeding on this island city has made them distinctive: our holiday friend had very large paws, and it appeared that many others did too. They all appeared sturdy in build, often short in the leg, with very thick coats. By mid-November the nights and early mornings were getting bitterly cold: big feet, nimble little bodies and thick fur could come in handy. Others have photographed and written about the Venetian cats. As with the Pompeii dogs, the locals look after the gatti who have no homes, and small cat kennels can be seen where cat ladies feed them and provide warm bedding.

Faz came inside the apartment with no hesitation. He would sit outside in the garden courtyard area, clearly a local resident. At the opening of our door and friendly noises being made, he approached at a trot, tail up. He held himself up to the stroke of a hand, looking up eagerly; he explored and sniffed luggage, scouted out the kitchen, circulated around all the legs and friendly hands. We let him stay as he liked, leaving the big heavy door open a little so he wouldn’t feel alarmed at being trapped. He watched, he circulated, he fell asleep on a bag under the bed.

Over the course of our stay he came to us every day. When we returned around 4 or 5pm after a long day of walking, pensive after the soothing motion of a water-bus ride home, he was either waiting or he would arrive soon after. Two mornings at the end of our week, when I woke in my little portable bed by the window on the ground floor right by the garden, unable to sleep as the pinpricks of stars gradually faded with the dawn, I peered out between the vertical blinds. Waiting for the others to stir, I used the time gazing up at the velvety sky and thinking. On those two mornings, a little movement to my right turned out to be a black and white face at the window right beside me, paws up on the low block window ledge, checking out if anyone was home. The name we gave him for our few days was made up of the initials of other names we had toyed with – Fergus? Sylvester? Where the ‘A’ came from I can’t recall, but he became, to us, Fas – or Faz.

So yes we fed him – bits of the inevitable prosciutto, the milk in the bottom of the breakfast cereal bowls, a cup with some milk poured in. I reckon he liked the warm floors – heated tiles – when it was so cold outside. But when he had had enough of us, he was happy to leave, walking swiftly and purposefully out to the centre of the large courtyard garden without a backward glance, and then he was gone. He had other fish to fry. His well-padded body and friendly ways told me he had someone looking out for him. Cats have ever been thus.

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