31 December 2007

Canto alla vita!

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…

-Josh Groban
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

Mario Stefani, 1938-2001

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

From the bridge

“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

Buon Natale

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 Рthe Christmas cr̬che. 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 Рgilded walnuts, peach crepe paper roses, cutout paper angels, and the like Рand 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

Hunting lions

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


Venetians have an expression: La lontananza l’e fiola de la dimenticanza.
“Distance is the child of forgetfulness.”

I would say the reverse.

10 December 2007


It’s beginning to look a lot like… well, you know.

Venice is starting to dress herself up in holiday finery while I’m coming down with a serious case of "Christmas Resistance."

Any remedies out there?

08 December 2007

Italian lesson: lo slip

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

Guarda su!

“Look up!”

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

Shakespeare in Venice

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?