31 December 2007
Canto alla vita
alla sua bellezza
ad ogni sua ferita
ogni sua carezza...
I sing to life,
to its beauty,
and its every wound,
its every caress…
Canto alla Vita
I wish you a rich and vivid New Year in which you will live fully. Let this picture remind you that dreams do come true.
29 December 2007
Some readers wrote to ask me about Mario Stefani, the author of the quote in the last post. I can only tell you what I know from simple online research and the information John Berendt offers in his book City of Falling Angels.
Stefani was something of a local celebrity here in Venice: openly gay, a prize-winning journalist, television commentator, and successful poet. His mysterious suicide in 2001 rocked his Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio neighborhood. Some said it was driven by an unrequited love for a married grocer; others, after learning about the investigation of his apartment, felt foul play was a possibility.
The graffiti you see above appeared near Rialto Bridge shortly before his death. The translation: “Loneliness is not being alone, it is loving the others in vain.”
I cannot imagine a more accurate description.
27 December 2007
“If Venice had no bridge, Europe would be an island.”
- Mario Stefani
I hit the post-Christmas sales at the two ipermercati (“hypermarkets?”), Panorama and ValeCenter – Venice’s equivalent of Target Greatland. Each of these shopping expeditions requires a brief, grim bus trip to the mainland, something I can hardly bear to do.
When I must do it, I always look forward to being on the bridge as I’m coming home. The experience is exactly like the one I have when I come back to Manhattan from IKEA in New Jersey: an annoying wait for departure, a cramped, somewhat grubby seat among the other tired and crabby passengers, bad radio music, traffic on the freeway. But then…
I get that first glimpse of my Avalon, my fairytale home – Ah, there it is, just over this bit of water!
If you have ever seen Mel Gibson's Braveheart, you know what I feel when I say to myself, silently but a little fiercely, “It’s my island.”
25 December 2007
That old Christmas spirit was late coming to me this year – odd, because I had so looked forward to my first Natale in Venice. But it’s what we don’t see coming that adds dimension to our lives. I tell you tonight that December brought many new and delightful Venetian experiences, but it also brought loss, betrayal, disappointment, and some nights when it would have been very comforting to step out in my own sparkling New York ‘hood with my girls (and my boys!). It has been a time of extroversion and introspection, of asking my closest loved ones for their wisdom, their guidance, their patience. May I say here that they came through for me with flying colors. In truth, I’m not fully out of the woods yet. But I will be. Soon. Meanwhile, here’s the holiday report…
First I must say how very much I missed hearing Christmas music this year. I see how spoiled I have been in New York, with holiday tunes filling the air and nearly every church offering free programs of ecclesiastical music daily throughout the season. I assumed that Venice, a city whose very voice is music, would have been just the place for such entertainment. But now I recall that caroling is primarily English and, to some degree, German in origin, and most of the music I love at this time of year comes from those traditions. Had I just remembered to load up my iPod’s “Joyful Noise” playlist before I came, I would have had enough fa-la-la-la-la to get me through the season. Most especially I wished for madrigals, Vince Guaraldi’s famous soundtrack, Leroy Anderson’s Jingle Bells/O Come All Ye Faithful medley, and lovely Nancy LaMott singing David Zippel’s touching holiday lyrics.
I was also surprised to realize how much I count on seeing It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol (the Alistair Sim one and the Patrick Stewart one, but the latter primarily for the best Mr. & Mrs. Bob Cratchit ever), and A Charlie Brown Christmas again every year.
There was no shortage of holiday lights (including a long string of icicle-style ones zig-zagging right outside my own windows) and dressed store windows to inspire me. But I won't say I didn’t miss the Fifth Avenue star, the Metropolitan’s Neapolitan angel tree, the skaters at Wollman Rink, and the unveiling of Bergdorf’s fabulous tableaux. (Did anyone remember to photograph them for me? There’s still time!)
During Advent I attended a very sweet, playful service for children and their parents at Basilica San Marco. It cost me a small fib to get in, Heaven forgive me! – to get past the door, I had to pose as the tardy zia (“auntie”) of a non-existent child who was dentro gia (“already inside”). Was that very bad?
Santa Claus, known here as Babbo Natale and sometimes dressed in blue (!), arrived in a gondola one day, by vaporetto another, and on foot, accompanied by a crew of jolly vegetable vendors on yet another. He was greeted in each case exactly the same way as he is in the U.S. – with cheers from adults, and with wonder and a hint of fear in the eyes of all the bambini present.
Venice’s pre-holiday, get-ready festivities included a nice little specialty foods market in Campo Santo Stefano, another visit from my favorite mercatino in Campo San Maurizio (where I eased my heart with a stunning pair of vintage crystal earrings and the good company of my friend Erica, who came all the way from Switzerland to Christmas shop), and a rather annoying street mercato of discounted goods sprawling over many shopping districts.
Purchasing my Christmas tidbits was nothing short of a thrill. I got dozens of fragrant, seedless clementines, skewers of caramei (glassy, toffee-glazed dried fruits and nuts, traditional in Cadore), both deer and boar salamini, Sardinian honeys, some specially aged and tended pecorini and caprini (sheep’s milk and goat’s milk cheeses), and a hefty portion of porchetta, Italy’s famous seasoned roast pork (which in itself is a good enough reason to move here). And I ate enough chocolate-covered glaceed clementines to hold me ‘til the next Christmas crop comes in. (Well, perhaps I’ll have one more before the New Year… )
Another kind of Christmas shopping involved the little seasonal shops devoted to the presepio – the Christmas crèche. Here one can buy all the bits and pieces to create a custom nativity scene, as well as the necessary figurines, teeny birds and animals, and other props. I myself purchased a small flock of painted plastic sheep from the 1-Euro store and suspended them from my live Christmas tree, along with decorations I had made myself – gilded walnuts, peach crepe paper roses, cutout paper angels, and the like – and natural leaves and twigs I filched from Il Giardini and other parks.
Amid all this, and far too quickly, the holiday arrived.
Last night I had my Christmas Eve supper with the fellows at Enoteca San Marco, my favorite restaurant in Venice. I enjoyed a salad of smoked goose, pears, celery, and walnuts, and then radicchio ravioli with a sauce of melted morlacca cheese. I received an armful of roses from the partners at the restaurant. After midnight, I drank bubbly franciacorta with one of them as the church bells all over the city rang in Christmas Day.
Snug in my bed, I thought of every single person I love back in the U.S. And then I thought of those I love here in Venice and around the globe – not so many as in my own country, but just as dear. I drifted to sleep with these “sugarplums” dancing in my head.
Today I visited the Basilica for Christmas services. I had never been there at that particular morning hour. I did not know how the pale-honey sunlight pours through the lagoon side's enormous rose window and down onto the shoulders of those celebrating mass. Every single golden mosaic tile seemed to glow in the light. This along with the misty pungency from the censers, the swelling music, and the ruby-red glimmer of the enormous candle lanterns in the shadowy apses created a heady atmosphere indeed. I tried to count how many hundreds of Christmases had passed through that glorious, gilded cavern.
I had planned to visit the beach today too, but it was entirely too cold and damp. So I settled for a late afternoon gratitude trip to San Giorgio Maggiore. By the light of my little candle in the great gloom, it came to me that the winter solstice had slipped by me unnoticed (although I do have a great, big bunch of pagan mistletoe over my door) and the days have already begun to grow longer. The timeless cycle continues.
Tonight as I write this, I dine on a double portion of linguine with clams. (Calvin Trillin would approve!) Later I will slip between the sheets with a small glass of Vin Santo and a plate of tiny, white chocolate-glazed star cookies from Marchini.
So Christmas has come again, as it always does, in spite of our earthbound foolishness. Life in Venice is good. Hope the same is true where you are. Buona Festa to all and to all a Buona Notte!
19 December 2007
Mark the Evangelist has been La Serenissima’s patron saint since early in the ninth century when local merchants spirited his body away from its tomb in Alexandria (hidden under a pile of pickled pork to thwart the Muslim guards!) and brought it to Venice, the very spot on the Adriatic Sea where, Venetian legend has it, an angel from God once said to the saint, Pax tibi Marce evangelista meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum. (Peace be to you, Mark, my evangelist. Here shall your body rest.)
Since that heroic theft, his body has been said to rest in Basilica San Marco (although most likely it burned in a fire in 976). But his Biblical symbol, the lion, is absolutely everywhere one looks in the city. Sometimes the glorious beast has vast wings and a terrifying snarl, and sometimes an open book bearing the Latin motto mentioned above. When this feline symbol represents Venice at war, he bears a great sword, and his other paw rests on the closed book – he puts aside his own peace during wartime.
In her wonderful book The World of Venice, Jan Morris lists Venice’s superlative lion in every possible category: the fiercest, the eeriest, the saddest, the silliest, and so on. (I have visited almost every lion she names. I will show some of them to you as time passes.) Even so, there are hundreds more to seek. Nearly everyday I find one that I have never seen before. Here a majestic doorknocker, there a bas relief, and just beyond, a pride of balustrade ornaments…
And so I hunt lions. And I shoot them with my camera. I especially enjoy the safari late at night when the streets are empty, but I am probably a more successful photographer in daylight. Either way, I am always delighted to come upon a new cat in his native habitat, to add him to my trophies.
Here you see a pair of La Serenissima's lions (Morris calls them “the frankest”). They live at the foot of a monument to Vittore Emanuelle on Riva degli Schiavoni. Each is slightly larger than life and sports powerful wings. One is dauntless even as he is momentarily occupied in biting at his shackles - he's my favorite in all of Venice. His brother lion is unencumbered, roaring fiercely, wings widely spread in threat.
Are they not beautiful manifestations of Venice’s once fierce and noble power?
16 December 2007
I cannot fully express what a total thrill it is to undertake a shopping expedition to Rialto – far better than I ever imagined it would be. Even better if you plan to entertain a guest or two for supper. It goes something like this…
Get up early and have your coffee, then dress in layers. Put on your rain ducks – you’ll be traipsing through fish guts soon. Grab a good, sturdy canvas shopping bag.
Make your way to Rialto, over the bridge toward the market area. Veer right through Campo San Giacometto. Throw a salute to the little stone hunchback for luck. Head for the old porticos and proceed into Campo Cesare Battisti.
Stop at al Marca for a bracing cold glass of one of the Veneto’s white wines and a tiny mackerel sandwich. (Yes, I know it’s pretty early in morning to be drinking, but everyone else is doing it too!) This little snack sustains you while you make your way through the market and prevents you from overbuying. (Remember: never shop when hungry!) Spend only a minute or two flirting with the two cute barmen. They will make it very difficult to depart.
Before you move on, pop into Casa del Parmigiano next door and buy a sliver of some costly, wonderful cheese you’ve never tried before. Don’t forget its name – say it in your head when you eat it. Make up your mind whether to gobble it up right away, or savor the anticipation of enjoying it later. Quickly now – time to go!
Peek into the horse butcher’s shop – see if you’re ready to try cooking Trigger yet. No? OK. There will be time for that later. Further along, admire the hanging poultry still wearing their feet and heads, bright red combs and wattles intact. Even better than Chinatown.
Now the real fun begins. Proceed past the fruit and veg stands – you’ll get to them later – and take yourself among the fish vendors within the red-shaded arches of the Pescaria. See everything from the piles of lively schie scrambling over one another like so many small, grey spiders, to the pale-coral canoce waving their feathers, to the clattering crabs fiercely fighting to escape their buckets, to the inky baby squid and slippery, mottled octopi, to the squirming eels and the pearly scallops still clinging to their beautiful rose-colored fan shells, to the big-and-flat-as-a-dinner-plate rombi and the glittering silver branzini and the golden-faced orate, to a whole, garrotted swordfish being sliced by an impossibly huge knife into translucent steaks for lucky Venetian husbands’ suppers. What will it be for you tonight?
Try not to get dizzy from all the recipes whizzing around in your head. Maybe you want the whole sgombro baked in a crust of coarse salt…yes! No! The orata stuffed with fresh herbs and lemon, and then grilled… No… The slices of snow-white coda di rospo roasted in parchment paper with bits of perfect tomatoes and slivered shallots… No… Come on, choose! Elbow your way in there and shout out what you want!
Time to visit the produce market. Take inventory by making one full trip through before you come to any decisions. You don’t want to buy something at one vendor, only to find that another has the same thing, but better quality and cheaper. This is just an exercise for fun, though: everything here is perfect, like something out of a photo shoot for Saveur. You can’t make any mistakes. Everything you choose will be fresh and delicious. So go crazy. Be careful not to touch anything unless the vendor says you may. Buy every tasty thing you crave (remembering your limited cupboard and fridge space!), then be amazed to see how few euros you have actually spent.
Right at the edge of all this, bubbling along with gondole and vaporetti and traghetti and taxis and workboats and the occasional water ambulance, sirens blaring, is the deep-aqua Grand Canal, wide as a river. At your every turn, it waves and sloshes and glitters and winks at you, a vivid reminder that you’re not shopping at the A&P in Anytown, U.S.A.
Take a minute to listen to the Venetians’ jokes, the bargaining, the arguments, the frank laughter, the flat dismissals. Hear the seabirds’ complaints through all that, and even the occasional canine skirmish or catfight. Smell the air, too – it’s carrying a hundred scents, strange or delicious or disgusting. Feel the slight damp breeze on your face, the sun on your head. Isn’t this fantastic? Can you ever recall being so utterly in the moment?
It’s hard to leave now, but head home with your moist treasure trove and plan your wonderful supper. It will turn out beautifully. And Rialto will still be here tomorrow, just as it has been for about 1,000 years or so. You can do it all again then, if you so desire.
12 December 2007
10 December 2007
08 December 2007
Venice has several Chinese-owned boutiques, many of which have unusual, well-made clothing at bargain prices. Early last month I dropped into one such shop because they were having a close-out sale on some linen skirts I had admired back in September.
A very young Chinese man was at the helm that day, and he worked hard to sell me his merchandise, suggesting colors and finding styles and sizes for me. But when I tried on a skirt, I saw it was too thin to be worn without a slip, a garment I am not much inclined to put on in warm weather. He insisted the skirt was perfect for me, using many flattering words and gestures to convince me.
In my best Italian, I tried to explain, “Questa gonna e troppo trasparente. Non vorrei portare lo slip durante l’estate. Non mi piace lo slip quando fa caldo." (My Venetian readers are already laughing… )
I thought I was saying, “This skirt is too transparent, and I would not want to wear a slip in the summer. I don’t like a slip when it’s hot.” But his face went chalk white and he said nothing more to me. Indeed, he quite ignored me after that.
This week, while in a lingerie shop, I learned why. The Italian word for “slip” is sottovesta.
The translation of lo slip? “Panties.”
06 December 2007
This is the best piece of advice I could possibly give any visitor to Venice. Indeed, I have done so a hundred times or more.
In New York, tourists look up so steadily that they are almost killed by taxis, or by the overwrought, irritated natives sharing the sidewalk. But here, baffled by the winding streets and unexpected culs-de-sac, most people furrow their brows and stick their noses into their maps. They never even see the city they are so doggedly navigating.
A terrible mistake! Looking up, one sees some amazing things – gargoyles, intricate windows, gilded ceilings, ancient signage, well-tended or sadly-neglected shrines, architectural curiosities, shocking contemporary art, savage or tender graffiti, secret gardens, wandering cats, caged birds, the occasional lizard, laundry lines and other evidence of Venice's often-forgotten human inhabitants, and maybe even a few interesting human inhabitants! (I myself recently had a sweet exchange with a lovely old woman and her beautiful, curly-haired grandson: she taught him to blow a kiss to me. When he succeeded, all of us applauded, including the onlookers in the campo.)
It matters little if one gets lost in Venice. In fact, it is the best way to see the city. All roads lead to San Marco or Rialto anyway, sometimes in both directions. So stash the map. Do as I say AND as I do! Guarda su!
03 December 2007
Over the weekend I had the great pleasure of meeting an author about whom I have wondered for a few years – Alberto Toso Fei. A true Venetian, he has written some fascinating books about Venice and her many legends. I have all these books, but I most enjoyed Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories because it was translated into English. Fei, a gifted writer, outlines itineraries (with good maps!) for seeking out the ghosts in their haunted habitats. The black-and-white photographs he chooses are chilling in a beautiful way, and his sidebars are nifty factoids that I enjoy casually dropping when I chat with people who are new to Venice. In fact, this little volume played a big role in pushing me to actually live in Venice. (See November post “Fantasmi.”)
And now, with co-author Shaul Bassi, he has written Shakespeare in Venice - a new book that imagines what may have influenced The Bard if/when he visited Venice in the “lost years,” what may have inspired him to scribble The Merchant of Venice and Othello. An absolutely delicious read, and even better if you're here to re-trace his steps!
Lucky me! – Saturday the author was having his lunch and pecking away on his Mac laptop (same model as mine!) at Chioschetta. He looked vaguely British in his corduroys, and I noticed he was packing Shakespeare in Venice in his briefcase, so I initiated a chat. Imagine my thrill to learn that he was not merely reading the same book I am – he is the very subject of my curiosity! And a handsome, charming man as well: he gallantly accepted the guilt for my move to Italy.
Tonight the co-authors presented their new book, with the assistance of a pair of actors and a guitarist in a vaulted, blackened stone room of the Prigione Nuove. Can you imagine how delighted I was to be there?
30 November 2007
"But, close about the quays and churches, palaces and prisons, sucking at their walls, and welling up into the secret places of the town, crept the water always. Noiseless and watchful: coiled round and round it, in its many folds, like an old serpent… "
- Charles Dickens
Pictures of Italy
Today I feel the scaly slither of the serpent.
27 November 2007
Here is the work of the only artist who truly dazzled me – El Anatsui of Ghana, currently working in Nigeria.
What you are looking at is a pair of enormous “quilts” painstakingly constructed from bits of trash metal – bent bottle caps, sealing lead, tin can scraps, aluminum and copper tubing slices, smashed film canisters, all stitched together with tiny circles of wire. (A third and even larger quilt is currently draped over the façade of the Museo Fortuny where it rustles gently if there is a good breeze.)
I admit I’m a pushover for the artist who has no money for nor access to supplies and tools. How completely driven must such an individual be to get the work done in spite of such difficult circumstances? Artists of Latin and African cultures in particular make extensive use of cast-off materials with very satisfying results. But this achievement surpassed anything I had ever witnessed. (Of course, El Anatsui is neither untrained nor an "outsider" artist in any sense. Google him to learn more about his remarkable career and see his broad range of works, almost all of which are based on cast-off materials.)
My photos don’t begin to capture the lush, tactile quality these sophisticated pieces possess, nor the stunning effect they have on the viewer. They drape deeply and, from a distance, they have a rich, low shimmer like Fortuny’s heavy, gold-stenciled velvets. They bring to mind a Klimt painting or one of the complex gilt mosaics of Basilica San Marco.
Up close the colors, images, and letters on the metal scraps come into focus. The effect is one of naïve playfulness, of the sheer pleasure of mingling and marrying hues and patterns and textures. Then, as you examine the intricacies of the construction, it comes to you just how many hundreds of hours went into producing these beautiful things.
In short, they were most inviting artworks I’ve experienced in ages. Utterly irresistible! We awestruck Biennale visitors were constantly being admonished not to touch the gorgeous quilts; many simply could not stop themselves.
26 November 2007
Here curators opted for too many huge, glossy photos and time-wasting videos that had no effect on this viewer whatsoever (although there was a supersized, five-part sequence of Asian video imagery that gave me a chance to feel like an extra in Blade Runner for a few minutes). Add to that some sophomoric images of conflict in the Mideast (“Isn’t war like totally terrible? Ya know, like, all the innocence and beauty being, like, ya know, totally destroyed ‘n’ stuff?”) and an over-emphasis on Islamic culture in general. Also some silly stuff, like a turntable rigged up with a steel brush to scrape the tracks off Beatles albums, and a big white helium balloon with a vinyl question mark hurriedly glued onto it. Even a Chuck Close wanna-be got into this show. Been there, seen that.
Just like last time, I found my eyes wandering to the magnificent Arsenale itself. With its soaring ship’s keel ceilings, vast brick pillars, and imposing tanks and hydraulics systems, it’s a far more thrilling attraction than the puny artworks it currently showcases.
As awe-inspiring as an ancient temple, these historic buildings once housed the world’s first hyper-efficient assembly line (no matter what Detroiters might attribute to Henry Ford!). At the height of her powers and situated between the two empires, Venice launched a new warship everyday from the Arsenale’s mirror-like basin. The ghosts of generations of laborers and craftsmen nearly come out of the walls and pull your hair to remind you of what occurred here centuries ago. I had a great wish to see it emptied of all the Biennale nonsense and noise.
But there was one very bright spot…
25 November 2007
I finally got around to visiting this year’s Biennale. The theme is Pensa con i sensi, senti con la mente (“Think with the senses, sense with the mind”) – a lofty thought. I’m sorry to report that it was even more disappointing than the 2005 show. With only a few exceptions, I thought the work was trite, untrained, derivative, high school-ish, self-conscious, and – worst of all! – boring.
Wow, I am so mean sometimes! All the things I would NOT want said about my own work! But let’s remember: this is still the most important exhibition of contemporary art in the world. The bar should be set very high.
I had dropped into many collateral events around town over the past weeks, which might have told me what to expect at the pay-to-enter venues. Namely, a snooze.
And I might well have been snoozing part of the time because, to be perfectly honest, I can’t really remember much from the national pavilions at i Giardini. I just kept thinking of that emperor and his new clothes.
The Arsenale show is clearer in my mind…
23 November 2007
The most memorable moments I have in Venice are always unexpected ones, when circumstances conspire to give me a glimpse of the real city and (if I’m lucky) include me enough to make me feel I belong. Today I had just such a moment.
I spent this grey, rainy morning laying in provisions for the weekend – bread, groceries, produce, wine, cash… a new dress… (You get the picture.) Lunchtime got away from me somehow, and I found myself feeling chilly and needing a little pick-me-up. So I dropped into a small wine bar I like (Mondo di Vino) and ordered a glass of a wine I’ve been enjoying recently (Fichimori – it’s from Antinori, and it’s red, but you drink it slightly chilled). At my first sip, the bar went dark. In fact, the entire calle was blacked out.
The two young women behind the bar scurried about, lighting the room with candles and filling up their customers’ glasses at the same time. Very quickly the room became cozy and intimate. Because there’s no mechanical traffic noise in Venice, I could hear all the lively commentary throughout the neighborhood. The blackout brought more people out of their shops and homes. The already crowded room got busier and buzz-ier. Inside and out, the jovial chatter grew louder, punctuated by the hearty sound of Venetians enjoying a good joke. They are such a lively, animated people. And my Italian is now good enough to keep up somewhat, so I caught the gist of their jests. In short, everyone was delighted to have the unscheduled break, but it was still great fun to complain about it to one another.
I don’t know when or if the power came back on for those Venetian neighbors, but what a pleasure it was to be one among them for a little while!
22 November 2007
It’s an ordinary morning in Venice. No one here knows this is the day my countrymen pause to acknowledge and express their gratitude. A fine thing indeed! Among my many life lessons, this one falls very near the top of the list: “The Universe won’t give you anything else until you’re truly grateful for what you’ve already got.”
At one time I was convinced of the opposite. I feared that offering thanks would somehow stop the flow (or trickle, as I saw it). The concept of gratitude eluded me, kind of like when you’re a kid and you can’t possibly imagine how it could be better to give a Christmas present than to get one. But eventually I got the hang of it. Now thanksgiving – small “t” – is a healthy habit that makes me feel better every time I do it, like flossing.
Currently, my “plus column” is crammed. That’s not to say there are no “minuses” in the other column. In fact, at this moment I’m feeling the all too familiar sting of the Universe withholding something that I want very much! I’ll have to get around that today and focus instead on all the wonderful stuff I’ve received lately. If I am quiet and attentive enough, I will even find a way to be grateful for that perceived “withholding” (which is probably something else good that I just don’t recognize or appreciate yet). Grudging acceptance of what’s real right now is often my first step toward genuine thankfulness.
And that’s my point! Gratitude is all about NOW – about being alive and awake and aware of who and where you are and how you feel right this very moment. Usually, whatever is on our plates (literally and figuratively!) here and now is what moves us to give thanks. The bank grants the loan, the lost dog returns, your kid is unhurt in the accident, the medical test comes back negative. All “now” stuff. You can’t be grateful about something that hasn’t happened yet, so the future doesn’t apply here. You might well be grateful about something in the past, but you tune into it because the sweet feeling about it still lingers now. See? This is a great way to be present for your own life while you’re actually living it.
So, while I won’t see the Macy’s Parade and I won’t have any sage stuffing or pumpkin pie today, I will take myself across the Bacino to the lofty, hushed San Giorgio Maggiore. When I’m in Venice, that’s where I go to light a candle and give thanks. I hope you have a similar place and will do the same before all that turkey makes you too sleepy to remember just how lucky you are. Right now.
(David, you cannot imagine how very much I will miss you and Mikey and your wonderful family today. Say my “hellos” for me. I will be there in spirit, but call me from the car anyway. You know my U.S. cell number.)
Every November 21st since 2003 I have been aware of missing this special Venetian holiday, Festa della Santa Maria della Salute, honoring the Virgin Mary for Venice’s deliverance from a devastating two-year plague, 1630-31.
The site of festivities is an imposing church – built to express Venetian gratitude and now referred to simply as Salute (“good health”) – at the Bacino entrance to the Grand Canal. Every year the Venetians construct a bridge resting on boats from San Marco to Salute, to permit the people to make their pilgrimage across the water and offer their thanks.
I waited a long time to witness this. I have wanted to cross with them in the darkness, see them light their candles in the church, be a part of their lovely tradition…
The reality wasn’t exactly the way I pictured it.
To begin with, the bridge was not what I expected, as I had only seen photos of bridges built years ago – wooden planks lain over many small boat hulls, causing the faithful to walk carefully and very close to the water. Today’s bridge is a high, wide, well-constructed affair, fully braced and secured to several large pontoon boats and fitted with traffic signals on both sides to keep the vaporetti passing through on their routes. Safe and efficient. Not quite the quaint effect I had in mind.
The pilgrimage was indistinguishable from the foot traffic on any of the three permanent bridges over the Canal. The church itself, always beautiful, was a thrill to behold in the light of hundreds and hundreds of candles. But the real action took place outside, and it seemed to be primarily sugar-driven.
Behind the church there was a street festival that featured almost twenty stands offering every conceivable Italian dessert and cookie and candy. Adults and children alike had a heyday choosing their favorites. Neighbors and friends greeted one another with sticky smiles and powdered sugar kisses. There was more than enough laughter and camaraderie to keep all of us healthy for another year.
So, here's what I learned tonight. It’s possible for me to over-romanticize Venice and her traditions, but impossible to be disappointed by her.
19 November 2007
What does it say about me, that this is one of my best-loved details in palazzo-packed Venice? That I still have the graphic design virus in my blood, like it or not?
These pretty, old signs read “lowfat cheese, mixed link sausages, whole milk, skimmed milk,” and they hang above a little deli that I occasionally visit in Cannaregio. Their typographical design is timeless and balanced – note the happy marriage of four related but different typefaces! Their graduated yellow hues, so consistently speckled with rust, are subtle and satisfying. And they are utterly functional, too: the deli still sells these same items.
Beautiful in my eyes. Simply beautiful.
17 November 2007
When you read the blog or my email, do you picture me composing it while lounging on a silk-covered chaise in a palazzo, a steaming caffe latte close at hand, and my pristine white laptop resting on a gilded table nearby?
Here is the grim reality: me, freezing, contorted and perched on the slim doorstep of my first apartment building, my coffee growing cold in its thermos, my now-slightly grubby Mac teetering dangerously on my knees... and the local Carabinieri eying me suspiciously from the bridge. More than once I have had to rely on my actress skills to deflect their attention: “Oh, mi dispiace, Signori, I am locked out. My husband will be here soon to let me in...,” smile smile, blush blush, etc. etc.
Why do I do this? The Piscina has something rarely found in Venice – a “hotspot.” The wireless internet connection is free for anyone willing to show up at weird hours, brave the elements (including one particularly feisty Jack Russell terrier who snorts at me!), and type while wearing mittens. While the weather was warm, this was a great way to save some cash. But the mornings have grown quite nippy lately, so…
Buona Notizia! ("Good News!") Yesterday I finally surrendered. I pulled out my thin purse and purchased a hideously expensive wireless modem that will permit me to surf from anywhere (in Italy) my heart desires anytime I wish for a mere 30 euros a month (gasp!). Even from my own cozy bed.
15 November 2007
“The most wonderful thing we can experience is the sense of mystery. It is the source of all true art and all science. Whosoever has never felt this emotion, who no longer knows how to stop and meditate and remain transfixed in fearful admiration, is like a dead man: his eyes are shut.”
- Albert Einstein
November. Now is the time I have set aside to search for the many ghosts of Venice, of whom I have heard and read so much. Wish me luck!
11 November 2007
Venetian tykes don’t do much in the way of Hallowe’en celebration, but today they have a holiday honoring San Martino and they get to kick up their heels a little bit for that. I’m told they make a lot of racket (what else is new?) and go from house to house, playing pranks, teasing the neighbors, and begging for sweets. Sounds like trick-or-treat to me!
Myself, I can’t quite make the connection here – the same way some people don’t understand why the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated with jellybeans and bright yellow marshmallow chickens.
From what I gather, this San Martino fellow was a nobleman and sort of a Good King Wenceslas type. Among his other benevolent deeds, he gave his own cloak to warm a poor man on a cold winter’s night. He is depicted on horseback, brandishing his sword and wearing that same cloak. And today he is honored in sugar form.
Lately every grocery, bakery, and sweet shop in town has been offering cookies like this one, in every size from mini to gigantic. Sugar icing and candy decorations range from the simple and beautiful to the delightfully garish, and prices go as high as 75 euros (nearly $150.00!) for a very large, elegant, chocolate-covered version at Rosa Salva, Venice’s best-loved cake shop.
Of course, I have to try making one for myself tonight. I’ll let you know how it turns out. At worst, I will have a big, sticky cookie to eat. Happy San Martino Day!
04 November 2007
Not long ago, my friend “A” and I dined here at Osteria ae Cravatte, a small place I really like in Santa Croce. If you haven’t been there, you should go immediately. Consummate hosts Stefano & Bruno have a great menu that’s small but so satisfying, and gently-priced. They run the room, giving everything their personal touch. Lots of laughter, great chow. I love it.
“A” and I had a splendid supper, with the focus on Venice’s fresh fish. Particularly tasty was his San Pietro (Americans call it John Dory), dressed with a savory mushroom sauce. He took the moment to teach me about scarpette – small scraps of bread crust formed into scoops and used to snatch up every last bit of the good sauce. De-lish!
The translation of scarpette? “Little shoes.”
02 November 2007
31 October 2007
I was afraid I would miss my favorite holiday during my stay here, but I worried needlessly. Ever the world’s merchants, Venetians have taken the cue from U.S. costumers and confectioners, and tapped into the earning potential of the Hallows’ Eve festivities. They offered plenty of big orange pumpkins for my jack-o-lanterns. And just look at this example of the shop window displays they have conjured. You would swear you’re in midtown New York.
I’m not convinced that they really understand the holiday’s origins, though. For that matter, neither do most Americans, in spite of having made it the second largest spending event on the commercial calendar. (Contact me, Americans or Venetians, to enroll in my very informative class, “A Broad but Brief History of Hallowe’en.”)
Anyway, I can’t wait to see what the Venetian kids will do in the way of dress-up and trick-or-treating. I myself will be visiting “Il Vampiro” at Pleasure Café. He knows me only as “La Strega.” Sure wish I had my Miss October costume with me!
(Jeff, I’ve been thinking of you so much. Good Samhain Tidings to you! No bonfire for me this year… )
30 October 2007
Where else would I be on Devil’s Night but at the Devil’s bridge?
Maybe only Detroit kids know about this little would-be juvenile delinquents’ holiday. Time to toss the rotten eggs, soap-scribble the neighbors’ windows, let the air out of tires, and festoon the trees with toilet paper! (And if any of that happens here in Venice tonight, I want the Carabinieri to know it was absolutely NOT me!)
27 October 2007
A couple years ago I shared a flight from Venice to JFK and then a cab ride into Manhattan with Massimo, one of the proprietors of Enoteca San Marco. He was saying he’d like to live in New York someday. I told him I was dreaming of a life as a Venetian – cooking fresh fish from Rialto, buying my wine from the vendors’ demijohns, taking part in all the wonderful festivals, learning to row a sandolo, finding shortcuts to avoid the annoying tourist routes… My eyes were becoming misty as I rambled on. (Cue the Vivaldi tape…)
“Maybe,” Massimo said, “you just want to try hanging your laundry out over the street.”
He was right.
But my apartment is in a chic shopping district where that sort of thing simply isn’t done. It’s also a bit stark – not much in the way of color or decoration. So I came up with this solution for both problems: I stretched a faux laundry line in my bedroom. Now I (and the occasional guest) can enjoy seeing my lingerie flutter in the breeze without the risk of shocking my neighbors on Calle de Fuseri. I change the “wash” whenever I want a new theme or color scheme. It’s not exactly an art installation, but it’s very pretty. (Sorry, no picture this time, kids. Decency clause and all that.)
So, what’s hanging on the line today? You’ll have to come over and see!
24 October 2007
What’s for dinner on a cool autumn evening in Venice?
Forget Prince Spaghetti Day! Consider this glistening risotto flavored with melted onion bits, buttery William pear chunks, and creamy taleggio cheese. Add a tiny, oven-dried pear slice just to make it pretty. It’s absolute perfection with a salad of spicy greens and toasty walnuts. Have just a bite of extra-dark chocolate for dessert. Then go to bed feeling very rich indeed.
(I got this luscious recipe from a Venetian friend, “M” – Thanks again!)
22 October 2007
Venice is a place of mysteries and secrets, superstitions and ghost stories. Labyrinth-like streets wind around and crisscross, and a shop or bar you enjoyed yesterday cannot be found today. You see your friend ahead in the calle, so you hurry to catch up to him, turn the corner, and find… an empty campo. In the absence of mechanical noise, voices can be heard above you, just behind you, or right beside you when no one is present at all. A route you know very well in daylight becomes confusing and ominous at twilight when all the familiar shop windows are shuttered. Entire buildings can disappear into the mist, or seem to float in it, groundless and ethereal.
In September when the days were still summery, I visited Lido many times. I would walk the beach and search for seashells for a while, then settle down on an old, windworn wooden jetty that stretched out into the sea. This was a makeshift lifeguard post so there was always plenty of lively activity – sunbathers coming and going, children romping in the shallow waves, radio music, laughter and horseplay. Near this post there was a nice, wide platform with little guardrails all around it, and it was very pleasant to be facedown on it with the sun on my back and the sea breeze lifting my hair. I would peek through the spaces between the grey, salt-crusted planks to watch the green water below rushing back and forth.
Beach season is behind us now, which is fine with me. I prefer to visit when the crowds have subsided anyway. Saturday there was a nip in the air, even the threat of rain, so I thought I would go out and sit on the old jetty for a little while, to enjoy the poetic seaside atmosphere in solitude. But…
When I got there, the jetty had vanished. I could not find a trace of it.
16 October 2007
I’ve bored many of you with my anecdote about an old Venetian gentleman who caught me filching old poster fragments on Zattere one bitterly cold January day and dubbed me “the little sister of Mimmo Rotella.” I knew nothing at all about this Italian collage artist whose favored material was poster scraps. But shortly afterward and by sheer accident, I became very well-acquainted with his work. Now I admire him greatly, especially his very large installations.
From time to time, one or two of his smaller works turn up in a Venetian gallery. (I have a pleasant little fantasy that he sends them here for me, to encourage me to keep at my own studio work. So I take his direction. After all, what kind of a little sister would I be if I didn’t continue to carry the banner of the master poster-snatcher?) I thought you might like to see this one, currently up for sale – his “Marilyn.”
11 October 2007
Tuesday morning I finally made my way to the weekly mercato on Lido, in search of some basic bed linens. It’s a bit of a hike to get there, but if you do, the rewards are many. I snooped everything offered – clothing and underclothing, shoes and slippers, household goods, carpets, secondhand furniture, baskets, woodenwares, pots and pans, smallwares, sewing notions and buttons, ribbons and trims, fabrics, linens and curtains, tools, crafting needs, beads, produce, cheeses, eggs, candies, jams and honeys, breads, nuts, dried fruits and vegetables, olives, herbs and spices, even rotisserie chickens!, all at good prices.
A few readers will be glad to learn I came across a stash of inexpensive glass vases. I bought a tall one for just 4 euros. I plan to use it to copy a pricey lantern I saw in a posh San Polo shop last week.
But the day’s biggest reward is pictured here – mandarini cinesi. Translucent, candied whole Chinese mandarins, each about the size of a large marble. Bite into one of these: it begins like a jelly candy, but quickly reveals itself to be a complete piece of real fruit, all textures intact, intensely flavored and deeply aromatic with a familiar, bitter-citrus pinch at its finish.
Venetian candy specialists at Marchini sell me something similar – a candied clementine only slightly larger than this, dipped in dark chocolate – for the equivalent of nearly three bucks. I won’t even mention what Fauchon charges for same, minus chocolate, back in New York. I got six of these babies for about a buck and a half! I’m amazed I had enough self-control to get a picture of the last three! (And yes, I nicked those pretty leaves from a bush in a neglected garden on my way home from the mercato. Let’s call it “pruning.”)
09 October 2007
05 October 2007
This week I’ve been setting up my new apartment, particularly the kitchen. Here you see one of the things I wanted most: a Bialetti espressomaker, nicknamed “Brikka” and special because it has something that other pots do not, namely a clever little valve that coaxes the luscious creamy foam (schiuma) out of the coffee. This foam sets the professionally-brewed cup of espresso apart from that made by the amateur barista in the home kitchen. Imagine how much I wanted to own this thing!
Well… I believe I have invited a demon into my home. “Diavolo Brikka” is torturous to take apart, impossible to clean, then very tricky to fill and seal up properly. Place it on the flame and it begins to make noises that are only heard deep in the bowels of the Inferno. It puffs. It hisses. It spits boiling water at me. It whooshes out bursts of scalding steam. It whistles and growls, then emits a low-pitched, bloodcurdling squeal. It threatens to blow up right in my face. I wonder if I should call an exorcist, or just turn off the fire and run…
And just at that moment the magical valve whispers a little sigh, then bubbles up and dribbles out the most intense, black-as-the-Devil espresso, ringed with – just as promised – a lovely, caramel-colored halo of fragrant, creamy foam. It is absolute perfection.
I greedily drink it up, grateful that I won’t face the demon again for 24 more hours.
04 October 2007
When I opened my window this morning, there was a little nip in the air. And there on my windowsill was… a perfect, red autumn leaf! But from where?! Trees are not common in this city built on petrified poles instead of nurturing soil. If I lived near I Giardini or a campo with a scattering of trees, I could understand. But my new apartment is in the most urban part of the city, halfway between Rialto and San Marco. Is it possible there is an unseen roof garden above me where a tree is now in the full flame of autumn color? Here is yet more evidence of La Serenissima’s many secrets, as well as a sweet reminder that my favorite season is now underway.
It’s difficult not to think of Central Park today…
01 October 2007
29 September 2007
Earlier this week I was awakened before dawn by brilliant flashes of lightning and fierce thunder. Rain poured down my neighbors’ houses in great, glassy sheets. My own room was filled with a strange ocher-colored light. I opened my window to see the storm. As I watched, the sky changed from charcoal-tinged russet to pale blonde, with every possible shade of orange and gold and yellow in between. One by one, my neighbors' dim windows brightened with their own yellow lights
Although I could not fully capture this spectacle, these pictures will give you some idea of the experience.
28 September 2007
I had thought I would do a much better job of keeping everyone up-to-date on my comings and goings here in Venice, but the truth is, I was having too much fun to sit down and write about it. So now I will provide a brief catch-up…
“Deana 2” turned out to be a bright, breezy, pretty little apartment, if all decorated in (yuk!) blue. I have really enjoyed the views – my inner court neighbors on one side and what you see above on the other, Piscina de Frezzaria.
I’ve had a great time shopping for my groceries and cooking in my little angolo cottura (efficiency kitchen). Thus far I have been able to turn out respectable spaghetti alla checca (spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce), penne alle noce e gorgonzola (penne with gorgonzola sauce and fresh walnuts), spaghetti con vongole (spaghetti with clams), involtini di melanzane (eggplant rolls stuffed with creamy cheeses), panzanella (tomato & stale bread salad), pappa di pomodoro (tomato & stale bread soup), insalata amalfiata (fennel, orange & olive salad), spiedini di pollo e di gamberi o di capesante (skewered, grilled chicken or shrimp or scallops), caponata (eggplant salad), polenta con funghi (cornmeal mush, grilled and served with sautéed mushrooms), verdure alla griglia (every kind of grilled vegetable you can imagine). Not bad for only having two electric burners and a bar fridge!
I also like the cheap and cheerful experience of visiting the wine vendors. True, we’re not talking any fine Barolos here, but you can get very good house wine for shockingly low prices – a liter for only slightly more than the price of a glass at any osteria. Plus you have the added pleasure of chatting with the vendor for a few moments as he fills up your plastic bottle.
Here is a list of things you need but don’t even think about having to buy when you move to Venice:
Laundry soap, dish soap, cleanser, floor cleaner, glass cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner, sponges, scrubbers, dishcloths, a dish rack...
A knife – Dear Heaven, how I miss my Henckels!
A funnel – How else will you get the wine you buy from the wine vendor’s cask into a decent storage bottle?
A peppermill – It’s rare to find my favorite condiment being served anywhere here.
A nutcracker – I left only about six of them back at home.
Here is a list of things that are really great fun to buy when you move to Venice:
Hermetically-sealed bottles for storing the wines you buy from the wine vendor’s casks
A thermos for taking your coffee over to Accademia Bridge just after dawn, where you can watch the Grand Canal when it's being used by the regular working folks of the city
Incredibly clever, washable, sticky, stretchy plastic circles for sealing bowls in the fridge – like permanent plastic wrap
A chic little glass plate with three round dents for the “mostarde” you will serve with your cheeses when your guests come for dinner - and it only costs one euro!
Your first bag of freshly-roasted coffee – and all your coffee afterward, if your coffee vendor is as handsome and warm and charming as mine!
Here is a list of things that are surprisingly affordable in Venice:
Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes! – I have eaten more than 50 perfect tomatoes thus far.
Prosciutto – Soft, sweet, fresh, fragrant, delicious, and available everywhere for a pittance.
Parmigiano Reggiano – I keep thinking the chunks must be mismarked.
Really good quality sea salt – I bought roughly a pound in a very chic box for the equivalent of 15 cents.
Lovely real linen curtains – What a pity I will have only two windows in my new apartment, and they already have curtains!
Here is a list of things that are incredibly expensive in Venice:
Eggs - Here you get four for the price of a dozen in the U.S. Only for the Diamond Jim Bradys!
Shelled walnuts – Entirely beyond my budget. Unshelled ones are only slightly less costly, but they're super-fresh.
Here is a list of things you cannot buy for love nor money in Venice:
An ordinary, cheap glass vase – I guess the Murano folks have a lock on this whole area. Those of us on a budget must display our birthday flowers in our thermos.
27 September 2007
Shortly I will catch you up on all I’ve been doing these past weeks. But I can’t let my birthday week pass without acknowledging the many gifts and kindnesses I received while I celebrated. I appreciated the cards and emails from home – thank you! These lovely flowers came from the staff of Hotel Bel Sito – beautiful, no? There was early caffe latte with some old friends, and a prosecco treat and picturesque luncheon (although I forgot to take the picture!) at al Prosecco with my new friend Erica. And she brought me two – TWO! – beautiful books! (Wasn’t I lucky she was visiting Venice at the right time?) We had a good talk and a long walk in the brilliant sunshine, a visit to an exhibition featuring the history of Venetian rowing, and one last aperitif at Hotel Flora. In solitude I visited the awe-inspiring San Giorgio Maggiore to light a candle in gratitude. Then I came home and dressed for the evening. The fellows at Enoteca San Marco treated me to wine and a delicious supper (on the most chic new plates!) and even provided me with their old style paper tablecloth (because I couldn’t possibly scribble and draw on the fresh new linen!). We all talked and laughed about the examples of Venetian dialect I have been studying lately. All in all, it was one of the very best days of my life – all the better because I did not have to end it by packing my suitcase. That night the entire year ahead stretched before me with all its possibilities.
26 September 2007
Before we leave Bel Sito, I want to show you the Baroque church just outside my balcony window, Santa Maria del Giglio o Zobenigo (1683). I see it when I wake up, day or night, and I always look up to my copper-winged angel, who trumpets fiercely at my demons, one hand outstretched to guard me here below...
Sometimes I pass through the campo just for a comforting glimpse of the angel.
21 September 2007
I open by offering you a lovely poem by the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889). You will enjoy it more if you read it aloud, hear the rhythm and play of his words –
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves - goes itself, myself it speaks and spells,
Crying “What I do is me: for that I came."
He describes the irresistible and utterly natural act of “selving” – of fully becoming oneself by means of what one is compelled to do in life. Manley goes on to say that this act is the very fulfillment of grace itself -
I say more, the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is -
Christ - for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
Now, if you know me at all, you know I am certainly not a religious person. But you also know I long for grace, for authenticity, for fulfillment. If one can get past Manley's Christian POV, the essential idea is wonderful: live in grace by being yourself, by doing what you naturally do.
I found a brief, entertaining homily, the inspiration for which was this same poem. I think the author does a fine job of illustrating the concept of the grace in selving with a story from his own backyard: http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/prs/stign/homilies/2004-C/2004-e5c-homily1.html
The story of my year in Venice begins today, my birthday. It must begin here because it really began here four years ago, when I spent another birthday at this lovely little hotel in Venice. I was not expecting anything more than a brief vacation. Instead I experienced an awakening, a shift in nearly every aspect of my inner life. I have often called this awakening my “Sleeping Beauty moment.” I did not know I had been sleeping. I did not know I desired such change. But, once glimpsed, it was irresistible. And the drive to return here, to pursue further, has never ebbed.
I have had the privilege of celebrating each birthday and almost every “spring break” in this same spot since then. Every time I come here, my life gets better. I become more authentic, more self-aware, more satisfied. Perhaps more important, I find I have terrific energy and inspiration for my work in the studio after I have spent some hours “selving” along Venice’s streets and canals or here in Hotel Bel Sito.
I was lucky to find it at all. I owe a debt of gratitude to Susan Walton for leading me to this place that has played such an important role in shaping my life: my body, mind, and soul, my outlook, my attitude, my plans, my wishes, my hopes and dreams. I owe another to the charming people here who have treated me so well, who welcome me “home” each time with warmth and good humor.
Who was I before I came here? I already know the answer to that question all too well.
Who would I be now if I had not come here? I have no wish to know the answer to that question.
Venetians have an expression: Dime che so, ma non me dir chi gero.
“Tell me who I am, but not who I was.”
So it begins.