30 December 2008

“Prova! Prova! Prova!”


“Try! Try! Try!”

This too is Christmas in Venice – a greasy little carnival with its garish lights and rickety rides, cheesy games and cheap prizes, all crowded together at the far end of the Riva degli Schiavoni. A very odd sight from the Bacino in the evening, this scruffy bit of smalltown U.S.A. on La Serenissima’s dignified Old World waterfront.

Here Venetian kids can gorge themselves on French fries and cotton candy, bash into each other in bumper cars, and snag a floating pink plastic swan to win a gigantic plush Mickey Mouse doll or even a live goldfish.

Do I need to tell you how much they love it?

28 December 2008

Dreaming of an orange Christmas


My Venetian holiday weekend comes to an end: here’s the report.

Have I ever mentioned that my apartment is all decorated in orange? Yup, orange. Peachy-orange tiles in the bathroom, orange-ish woodwork throughout, a big, bright orange-striped sofabed with its own neon-orange blanket… Orange.

I like orange well enough. I think it’s an interesting, powerful color. But not one I ever imagined I could live with 24/7/365.

Last year as yuletide drew near, I worried that I would have a hideous clash between my Hallowe’en-like home décor and my Christmas tree. Where, I wondered, would I ever find any orange ornaments?! Early in November I began making apricot-colored crepe paper roses, gilded walnuts, and paperdoll angels to fill in for the traditional red and green gewgaws. Still, I fretted...

Silly me! It turns out that orange is actually the preferred hue for Christmas in Italy, I guess because of all the beautiful citrus fruits that show up around this time. The shops were full of orange goodies for the tree. In this past year I have gathered up many pretty things in every shade from pale peach to gleaming copper to deepest russet, not to mention the coordinated wrapping papers and gift ribbons to match. And this year – I swear it’s true – I believe this is the most beautiful Christmas tree I have ever put together. Like a vivid sunset in the desert, it’s a true reminder of the real meaning of the season.

That season got well underway with Christmas cocktails at Jeremy’s Book Club last Sunday night. I brought Spanish almonds for the host’s holiday sherry break and “snausages” for the spoiled spaniel’s, but I was told the latter is no longer permitted to drink. So difficult to shop for some...

But I really got into the spirit Tuesday night after a holiday concert at La Chiesa della Pietà – the “Vivaldi church,” so called because its fine acoustics are the result of design recommendations made by that composer. Vivaldi once operated a small music conservatory for indigent girls there. And, appropriately enough, this concert featured the musical talents of children from four nearby schools. Two friends and I were particularly interested because the announcement poster named the works the children would perform – one of them being a number by Metallica (?!). Me, I had never heard of heavy metal and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing on the same bill, so I was greatly curious. But alas, we were disappointed in the end. A last minute change of program substituted Jingle Bells for that edgier stuff. Pity! The kids seemed to enjoy it, though.

Christmas Eve day was a busy, wonderful flurry of snick-snack shopping and drop-in visits to greet friends around town. It was very satisfying to note how many more people I know since last year. The best moment came mid-afternoon at Bancogiro. I stopped in to warm up with a little schiopettino (please try this charming, inexpensive red wine). But a little crowd of merrymakers began forming and things grew quite jolly, and then Matteo broke out the antipasti and the franciacorta (try this delightful, slightly more costly bubbly, too). A spontaneous little party, another bright Venetian memory for me.

My holiday’s orange theme continued that night when I visited St. George’s Anglican Church and received my first “Christingle.” I had been there Saturday evening for carol service (and some fabulous little homemade mincemeat pies!), and the vicar had taught me about this symbolic tradition of binding an orange with red ribbon and studding it with nuts, dried fruits, and candies. The final touch – a little red candle.

I was lucky enough to bump into my lovely new friend “V” when I arrived – that got me a near-front row seat. When the Christingles had all been distributed to people – mostly to children – throughout the church, the vicar lit the candles of those in the first row and they in turn lit those behind them and so on. Soon the room was awash in shimmering candlelight. And then we raised our voices in joyful caroling. (I confess I had to fake some of it: those Brits sometimes change the words or the tunes of my best-loved holiday songs!)

Later that evening I was treated to a splendid, super-rich supper of foie gras and far too many lamb chops at Enoteca San Marco. As usual, I got the full principessa treatment. These guys are always so good to me. It wasn’t easy to drag myself away and get to the Basilica in time for midnight services. And once there, I had to be, let’s say, less than a lady to get a seat.

Christmas Day I visited the home of friends “L&H” for another festive dinner – this time silky smoked salmon, quail eggs, and the most delicious beets, followed by roasted potatoes, red cabbage, and rosy duck breast (no, not “a l’orange,” but with big black cherries!). Dessert? My favorite! Tender candied orange wedges wearing glossy chocolate jackets. Add to that three fine wines. Perfetto!

Call the next day what you will – Boxing Day, Santo Stefano, whatever. For me, it was The Day to Recover: I had a brutal food hangover. Usually I like to hit the post-Christmas sales, but instead I holed up in my cozy bed with some cioccolata calda scented with (what else?) orange! I nibbled at my Christingle and finished reading Secret Ingredients – the New Yorker Book of Food and Drink. What luxury!

Later I ventured out in the wicked cold to finally meet a gentleman named “G” who had been reading my blog and introduced himself via email a few months back. A charming fellow he is, too! We shared a little prosecco, a fine pizza, and a good long chat. Luckily, his English is better than my Italian, and his patience with my Italian seems long. I hope he visits Venice again soon.

Now Saturday and Sunday have somehow gotten away from me while I’ve been working in my studio, picking at the panettone (Italian Christmas fruit bread), and talking with friends and family, in between a few passeggiate in the nippy winter air to express my gratitude. I tied a black bow on my orange Christmas tonight with an ombra of nero d’avola (a deep, dark wine) at a favorite giro spot, Bar al Campanile. It’s always a little gift to pop in and see Ali and Diego there. But the holiday’s not over yet. I still have a visit from my dear friend “L” to look forward to. She promises she’ll get here soon.

So I guess I must have been a very good girl this year. And you…

May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be... whatever color makes you smile! Buon Natale!

22 December 2008

O Little Town of… Venezia


I have seen a great many things here that I will never ever forget. This is one of them – a beautifully detailed presepio (Christmas crèche scene, often with the surrounding town) that imagines the birth of Christ in Venice. It is currently being shown at the Chiesa della Maddalena, along with about a dozen other lovingly handcrafted nativity scenes from all over the world.

This lovely one is very deep and wide, covering about six square yards. The grey background gives the perfect illusion of endless winter sky. Apart from the stable scene there are several side streets where one can see the vendors and artisans that were (still are!) unique to Venice – the glass blower, the lace workers, the mask master, the makers of remi e forcole (oars and oarlocks), the gondola builders in their squero. And of course, the omnipresent cats and pigeons are there!

All the little figures populating La Serenissima, rich or poor, are dressed in perfect miniature costumes, with real hairstyles and finely-detailed accessories. There is even a pair of Carnevale revelers in mask and costume. Most handsome are the three wise men, one of whom is the Doge himself. He watches solemnly as his little pageboy offers the infant Jesus a red velvet corno (traditional horn-shaped cap of the Doge).

In the distance one can see Rialto Bridge and the Campanile, as well as the familiar turban-style Venetian chimneypots. In the glassy Grand Canal water, gondole con felze (gondolas with privacy cabins attached) float. The leaded windows of the palazzi (palaces) are aglow with warm yellow firelight. The rooftops of the more modest case (houses) have roughly-built altane (little wooden decks used for sunning and bleaching the hair) and clean laundry hanging on poles. (Click the pic to see these things better.)

Italian people lavish much time and attention on the details of the presepi they create. Young and old alike try their hand at the art. Materials and figurines and props appear in shops and kiosks early in November. One can spend a small fortune just stocking the tiny stores, increasing the herds, and improving the local landscape of these wee villages. This particular Christmas town was clearly a labor of great love. I wish I could tell its creator just how dazzled I am!

16 December 2008

Acqua alta’d out!


OK, OK! Got it! Acqua alta!

Been there, done that, got the (soggy) T-shirt! Enough already!!

More than two weeks of this now… A river running through Calle dei Fuseri every morning. Constant timing of one’s errands to coincide with outgoing tides. The limited fashion choices that necessarily include damp trouser legs and funky-smelling rubber boots.

And the rain just keeps on comin’... I am so over it!

C’mon, it’s Christmastime! Where’s that cheery nip in the air, and the bustle of holiday shoppers? Shouldn’t we be tipping those first cups of steaming cioccolata calda instead of shivering over caffè corretto?

09 December 2008

Ya want "cute?"


In Venice, if you want to buy something really cute, you go to Il Baule Blu and order yourself a huggable, handmade teddy bear with real mohair fur, glittery glass eyes, and droopy thread whiskers.

That wonderful secondhand shop in San Polo has lots of adorable old and new things, in fact. Teeny-tiny sewing machines and itty-bitty kitchen needs and Barbie dolls with bendable legs and a big collection of vintage Steiff creatures.

But I guarantee nothing in the whole store is half as cute as the two goofy dogs who live there. Just look at those faces!

05 December 2008

Venetian weaponry


There’s no crime to speak of here in Venice… just some minor pick-pocketing and the occasional shell game scam. But we still need our handguns. Like this Space Age-y beauty. It’s the latest model Chinese rat gun.

Before all the animal protection folks get on me, a rat gun is not for actually killing rats. It just makes a loud, irritating noise and emits a glaring red light. Apparently this double-edged sensory attack annoys the creatures enough to make them scamper away.

Don’t laugh! No one enjoys coming home at night to find a little crowd of vermin lounging about on the doorstep. I know a rather elegant, well-dressed lady here in town who never ventures out without her rat gun.

I’m thinking I can make some fast bucks by bringing a shipment of these clever weapons to New York for the Christmas season.

“Call and order now! Operators are standing by… “

01 December 2008

Acqua alta


I thought it was just the background noise of a strange dream I was having early this morning, but in fact, I awoke to the eerie, three-pitch whine of the acqua alta siren. Haunting, insistent. Punctuated by a stern voice over a loudspeaker, like that of a determined propagandist. The voice was predicting “il punto massimo…”

I knew it before I even saw it: the city was knee-deep in green-grey water. The lagoon was lapping at the door of my building; the smell of it was seeping through my windows. Shopkeepers on Calle dei Fuseri already had their pumps going full tilt.

The reality of living in the middle of an unpredictable tidal basin sank in fully. Still, I had to go look at this thing I had been secretly wishing to see for years. I guessed how worthless my sturdy, waterproof boots would probably be, but I pulled them on anyway and headed out for a look at La Serenissima underwater. Until one actually witnesses this, it cannot be imagined or fully described. Photos do not tell the story at all.

I planned to make my way to Rialto first, then head to San Marco. I cursed the idiot tourists who firmly planted themselves and their luggage on the passarelle (duckwalks, or raised walking platforms). Garbage bags and gift boxes floated down the calli. Glass-front stores, at least those with good, tight watergates, resembled inside-out aquariums. But to my amazement, A. Rosa Salva’s coffee bar was open and doing brisk business. (See it here.) I slogged in for a macchiato with my neighbors, a few in hip-waders. By now my own boots were buckets of sloshing, icy water and I was already soaked up to my you-know-what. (Note to self: buy hip-waders!)

Newly restored by the coffee break, I ventured on to the Piazza, the water level becoming higher at every turn. I began to wonder if I had done something terribly foolish because the tide was still rising, well over my knees now, and I was really feeling the rush and pressure as the water funneled through the columns, which appeared to be coming straight up out of a small lake. There were no people in the far end of the Piazza so I couldn’t gauge the full depth, and I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t be forced to actually dog-paddle in a few moments. I feared for my cellphone in my coat pocket and my camera already held above shoulder level. Nitwit! What are you doing?!, I thought, Should I turn back? Trudge on? Tune in next week when…

I lived to tell! The slope to the bridge leading to Bacino Orseolo provided my getaway and I was soon safe at home. A good shower and some hot tea washed away any nasty traces of lagoon I had dragged in with me. And then I was faced with my idea of great luxury: a long day of cozy solitude with no responsibilities and no place to go.

The only casualty of the day? I lost my incredibly expensive glasses somewhere during my trek. I suppose they are floating out to sea right now. I hope there’s a mermaid out there with acute presbyopia and a slight astigmatism who can use them…

29 November 2008

La mia piccola mostra


Laugh with me...

Here is part of my first little show of artworks, currently at Bancogiro near Rialto Bridge. Four others are in another part of the restaurant. The piece at the far left, which features a poster of a Giovanni Bellini painting recently shown at Querini Stampalia, is called Bellini e Altri. It was the first to sell.

Nothin’ can stop me now!

24 November 2008

Rumors of snow


Yesterday afternoon the weather turned decidedly colder and I thought I heard a few Venetians on the Strada Nuova mumbling something about snow…

Snow?!

My fondest fantasy! Other than a tiny flurry or two early last December, I have been waiting since January 2004 to see snow settling on La Serenissima’s lovely shoulders again.

But I forgot those dim rumors when I arrived at Jeremy’s Book Club in the evening because I was introduced to one of my favorite authors, Michelle Lovric. Ms. Lovric penned the complex and beautiful The Floating Book, my favorite semi-historical tale of Venice, as well as many of the other well-worn fiction and nonfiction volumes on my bookshelves. She herself is a vivid, charming woman with a graceful way of accepting a gush of compliments. (Probably it wasn’t the first time she was inundated that way.) In short, I was delighted to tell her how many happy hours she has afforded me these past years.

Do you know what she told me just as she was leaving? “Snow in the forecast for the early morning hours.”

She was right. Not exactly the fairytale kind that I dream about. Rather, the wet, sleety kind that sends folks in search of a caffè corretto. Still… snow! I thought you might like a glimpse.

21 November 2008

A different Salute


I’m sure I will never forget this day – the day I mounted my first exhibition of artworks. I am so pleased that it happens to be Festa della Salute because my memory of this day last year is bittersweet (no candy pun intended), thanks to a certain gentleman who proved to be anything but. Now I can replace that memory with the giddy picture of myself on the floor of Bancogiro, assembling my frames and securing my Scatole Veneziane (Venetian Boxes) with grubby bits of “Patafix,” the Italian version of “stick’um.” It took me all day, but the show is up at last, and it looks terrific.

To celebrate I walked over the pontoon bridge from Santa Maria del Giglio, lingering mid-Grand Canal before I took myself to the Festa. I bought an extra-large candle to ensure good health for myself and my loved ones in the coming year. It would appear everybody in town did the same, as you can see above.

Then I treated myself to a real Sicilian canollo and a skewer of headache-inducing, filling-shattering caramei. (Remember? – that’s the hard-crack-toffee-dipped dried fruit so loved by Venetians.) To halt the sugar death spiral I shared a Cabernet Franc and a kebab with girlfriend “M.” Tomorrow I plan to sleep late and goof off all day.

Yes, this is just the way I always want to remember Festa della Salute. Frankly I've never felt better.

14 November 2008

Petty crime does pay.


I confess. I have become a criminal.

I was thrilled to be able to add eight more boxes to my upcoming show, but quickly found myself out of my primary material... Thus a few nights ago I was reduced to filching posters in bulk, rather than delicately and discreetly peeling one from this wall and one from that. I was seeking volume, not quality. I needed the assistance of my gal pal "M," as well as a couple of strangers, and I had to work late at night to avoid the Carabinieri. It was damp and foggy... so foggy that vaporetto service in the outer regions was suspended. Luckily, a motoscafo driver took pity on me and gave me a lift to the main line at Piazzale Roma. Me and my bundle, which looked and felt far too much like a dead body hastily wrapped in paper... He never said a word about it. Above you can see Yours Truly, the shameless thief, with her loot.

It all turned out fine in the end. I have completed sixteen pieces for the show. I thought you might like to have a peek at them...

06 November 2008

Sweet November


I have returned from the U.S., where everything I was nervous about actually went quite smoothly. In short, I had a ball. No place on Earth can beat New York in autumn. Even the election went my way.

Now I’m home again, and somehow it’s even sweeter than when I first arrived more than a year ago. My plane touched down in a dense fog – the kind that erases the horizon and blends Venetian sky and lagoon into dull molten silver. September’s crowds have subsided and there’s a cheery nip in the air – red wine weather! Already “it’s beginning to look a lot like Natale” in the streets. (They were putting up the firefly lights yesterday afternoon.) Best of all, I needn’t have worried – I was clearly missed. I had the great pleasure of being heartily welcomed back in many quarters.

I’d love to spend the next few days lingering in my favorite places, but I’m much too busy getting ready for my show at Bancogiro. Before I left I came upon eight more boxes to cover, so I will be able to offer twice as many as I had expected, if I can just get them finished in time.

That said, I gotta run…

01 October 2008

One last quick correction


Remember “my warm, charming, handsome coffee vendor” who wasn’t really so warm or charming after all? Well, it turns out he isn’t really all that handsome either.

Hmm... I can’t imagine how I got that whole picture so wrong.


Ciao! A presto!

30 September 2008

So who am I now?


Well, I am no longer a tourist, but I am not really a resident either, which is a more difficult state than you might imagine. My improved Italian and my abbonamento (resident’s vaporetto pass) aside, I now see that I was naïve to think I could be a real resident merely by residing here these past thirteen months. There are certain Venetian paths and rhythms that are barely visible if one is not struggling to earn a living and build a future, not dealing with the mechanics of Venice in those rather tiresome and mundane areas that I’ve been privileged enough to evade during my stay.

I know I’ve made progress. I’m quite certain I am not the same woman I was when I arrived last September. That much is clear. But who have I become? And how do I feel about her? And what’s next for her? And where? And with whom? And why?

Tough questions. It seems I need more time to know the answers.

Although I am heading for the U.S., I know I have not yet finished what I must do here (even if I am not certain what that is). So I will return to Venice in a few weeks and attempt to stay on until the end of February – the amount of time my subtenant was willing to keep my New York apartment. Beyond that, who knows? In this moment, “Non ne ho la pìu pallida idea” (“I haven’t the palest idea”) how I will be paying my way. But it’s five more months!

That gives me another autumn and another winter. A good many more sunny mornings to visit Rialto and see what delicious things tempt me. A good many more foggy nights to walk the Zattere, to taste the beautiful wines and laugh with friends and strangers in the warm osterie, to scurry over the bridges toward home, to seal up my shutters against the cold and fog. Lots more hours in the studio with my “white work.” More exquisite music in the churches. More tiny clementines to savor, and more caffe corretto when the wind is bitter. More traghetto crossings, more leisurely passeggiate. Another Festa della Salute with candles and caramei and, for the first time, castradina. Another Yule season with twinkling firefly lights outside my windows, another Christmas marketplace, another little fir to festoon with my Venetian angels and Murano glass snowflakes and peach crepe paper roses. Another Capodanno (New Year)… and this year nothing will keep me from the Piazza at midnight! Another hot chocolate toast to Epifania (Feast of the Epiphany) and those curiously masculine witches rowing their sandoli, with their little brooms poking up at the sterns. Another Carnevale – with more galani and fritelle, maybe even a costume! Another opportunity to don my spy get-up and snoop around town incognito. Another chance there could be snow…

“Another chance.” Are there any sweeter words when separation looms and the heart is yearning?

Of course, there’s that pesky problem of income – or more accurately, the lack of income. But…

Venetians have an expression: L’aqua de mare lava tuti i debiti.
“The water of the sea washes away all debts.”

I don’t know exactly how that works, but I hope it will be true for me. Please wish me “Buona Fortuna!”

28 September 2008

Departure


Joseph Brodsky felt Venice’s beauty was such that it reduced him to being merely an eye, an eye madly in love with that upon which it gazed. Following this metaphor, he was at his most eloquent when he described the experience of leaving timeless Venice:

“Because one is finite, a departure from this place always feels final; leaving it behind is leaving it forever… For the eye identifies itself not with the body it belongs to but with the object of its attention. And to the eye, for purely optical reasons, departure is not the body leaving the city but the city abandoning the pupil… As the world goes, this city is the eye’s beloved. After it, everything else is a letdown. A tear is the anticipation of the eye’s future.”

I remember all too well what it was like to depart after my own vacations here. I would always procrastinate with my packing, then stay out too late the evening before the journey home. So I would be awake all night long, so alone and lonely, and so, so sad, jamming my stuff into my bags any which way. At check-out and breakfast, I would barely contain my tears. Then, upon boarding the Alilaguna boat to the airport, I would finally break down. Yes, it always felt like I was leaving forever. My eye would contemplate its future, and produce the water that would perhaps permit it to stay behind and merge with the city.

On the plane, after my last glimpse of the “two fishes,” I would induce an artificial sleep so my arrival in New York was always headachy and blurry. Once home, I would struggle up the stairs with my luggage and collapse into a near blackout until the next morning. Then, with the first mug of thin American coffee, would come the counting of the days until my next visit to Venice.

Yes, I remember: it was almost unbearable.

So, how much harder will it be to leave the same place, now that it has become my home? And without any parting hugs and cheek kisses, without any friendly hotel employees to help me with my bags, to see me off, to comfort and reassure me with Arrivederci! – “We will come together again!”

No matter how we might convince ourselves otherwise, each of us is always alone. But this time, departure will truly be a lonely affair. I fear no one will even notice I have gone.

26 September 2008

Joseph Brodsky


Many of us who adore Venice know by heart the work of writer Joseph Brodsky, a Russian dissident and involuntary exile who became a Nobel Prize winner and a U.S. Poet Laureate. He was a brilliant man who loved Venice deeply. Watermark, his collected memories of seventeen winters spent here, captures the soul and spirit of the city in a most personal way, yet speaks to anyone who has come to know and love La Serenissima. I cannot possibly oversell the book if you have any feeling at all for the lady. (I bet you will be stunned to see your own secret Venetian emotions described so accurately, just as I was.)

It’s amazing that I managed to write this blog all year without mentioning Brodsky. I had to be careful: I might easily have hit you over the head with his words again and again. Looking back over my posts, there is hardly a handful in which I couldn’t have included some Brodsky quote. Consider these, my subjects, and his commentary on same…

What I do is me – “If I get sidetracked, it is because being sidetracked is literally a matter of course here and echoes water. What lies ahead, in other words, may amount not to a story but to a flow of muddy water… The reason I am engaged in straining it is that it contains reflections, among them my own.”

(Brodsky strained out everyone from Olga Rudge and Igor Stravinsky to “the umpteenth” and “King Fog.” Me, I'm still working on my own reflection, but I’ve had only one winter.)

Shutters – “When they are opened, shutters resemble the wings of angels prying into someone’s sordid affairs… shutters bar not so much daylight or noise (which is minimal here) as what may emanate from inside... No sooner do you cross the threshold of your own apartment, especially in winter, than you fall prey to every conceivable surmise, fantasy, rumor.”

(I only wish my own behind-shutters affairs had been a bit more sordid and worthy of gossip.)

La Gondola – “…a septuagenarian can shell out one-tenth of a schoolteacher’s salary without wincing. The sight of these decrepit Romeos and their rickety Juliets is invariably sad and embarrassing. For the young, i.e., for those for whom this sort of thing would be appropriate, a gondola is as far out of reach as a five-star hotel.”

(Still, he felt the same way I do - this simply would not be Venice without these "seahorses.")

Mirror, mirror – “The surrounding beauty is such that one instantly conceives of an incoherent animal desire to match it… This has nothing to do with vanity or with the natural surplus of mirrors here, the main one being the very water. It is simply that the city offers bipeds a notion of visual superiority absent in their natural lairs, in their habitual surroundings.”

(Many of us who frequently visit La Serenissima admit to purchasing our garments with a secret agenda in mind: “How would this look in Venice?” or “This is a bit much, but it would be fantastic in Venice” or the like.)

Sogni & incubi – “Nights here are low on nightmares… You’d need an extraordinary neurosis, or a comparable accumulation of sins, or both, to fall prey to nightmares on these premises.”

(Oh dear! – which of those problems evoked my Frankenstein-like vision?)

Fog – “The fog is thick, blinding, immobile…This is a time for reading, for burning electricity all day long, for going easy on self-deprecating thoughts or coffee…for going to bed early.”

(That’s right, especially that “self-deprecating thoughts” part. If you’ve ever suffered "the cold shoulder” from a lover, then you know what Venetian fog is like. It can make you doubt yourself deeply.)

Rialto Bridge – “Then the sky was momentarily obscured by the huge marble parenthesis of a bridge, and suddenly everything was flooded with light. “Rialto,” she said, in her normal voice.”

(Notice that his friend returned to her normal voice only after the vaporetto had passed under the bridge.)

Any of my lions – “…the lion itself got lionized, which is to say humanized. On every cornice, over nearly every entrance you see either its muzzle, with a human look, or a human head with leonine features… In winter, they brighten one’s dusk.”

(Did you know there are far more images of lions here than of the Madonna and the Redeemer combined? Another hint of how Venice viewed herself with regard to the Vatican.)


La Serenissima takes very few outsiders to her heart, but she granted her faithful admirer Joseph Brodksy his last wish – to be buried in a permanent grave on San Michele. I can think of no one more deserving of the honor.

24 September 2008

Still more updates, errata, etc.


Remember the abandoned palazzo on Lido? The jungle has been chopped down and cleared away (big, blowsy red roses and all), the dirty curtains, broken windows, and rotting furniture are long gone, and renovation of the empty pink shell is now well underway. Soon it will be some sort of facility called Residenza La Fontaine. (So much for my “spooked Italian movie actress” theory.)

Remember my terrifying, demon-possessed “Brikka” espresso maker? I report that I also purchased a second “Brikka” (individual size, and so darn cute!). Both Brikkas behave like angels now. I can fearlessly produce a beautiful cup of coffee with a thick layer of dense, creamy foam using either of them. My landlord has deemed my coffee “Ottimo!”

Remember my paper Venetian “shooze?” Currently there is a small bidding war going on for them. (Neither of the participants seems to grasp that they are truly not for sale.)

Remember the skinny little beggar dog of Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio – the one who always turned up his finicky snout at the prosciutto crudo I offered him? I have learned that he died sometime in this past year – no one was quite sure when. I can’t express how much I’m going to miss his tough, arrogant little Venetian spirit when I visit al Prosecco.

22 September 2008

Another birthday


Is it possible a whole year has passed since I was having my post-birthday breakfast at Hotel Bel Sito and daydreaming about the months stretching before me? I had barely begun my Venice adventure. What a heavenly day that was!

My finances did not permit a birthday stay at the hotel this year. These past two mornings I woke up in my own bed instead, and had my second coffee at Zanin, as I always do. Had some twinges of regret but no real complaints here. In a particular way, it was even sweeter to be in the place that has really become my home – far more than I had ever imagined it would.

Having a Sunday birthday this year required minor adjustments to my usual dining traditions. My friend Erica treated me to a lovely lunch at al Prosecco again, but we had to make it a day early. (You can see what we had above.) Enoteca San Marco is closed on Sunday too, so instead I had my supper at Bancogiro. Same charming proprietors, same quality and innovation from the kitchen, same principessa treatment for me, and a Grand Canal view to boot.

And in between these feasts were two long, leisurely passeggiate around town, a visit to the mercatino at Campo San Maurizio, prosecco and laughter with my new gal pal “M,” who also treated me to a new Alberto Toso Fei book, a pink birthday cake made just for me (with my initial “C” formed in Smarties!) by my friend “S” and chit-chat at Book Club, not to mention calls, cards, and presents from family and friends near and far.

The very best gift I received? The fellows at Bancogiro have agreed to show my work – eight boxes collaged with scavenged Venetian poster scraps – in the restaurant next month. (Can a “white show” be far behind?)

At midnight I meant to stand at the foot of the Campanile to hear the Marangona toll, but instead, and even better, I found myself chatting with “M” – my longest standing friendship in Venice and the man who singlehandedly started me on this journey five years ago. A perfect finish to a perfect day. And another year gone by…

But not just another year. Maybe the most important year of my life.

Yes, I’m quite certain it was.

20 September 2008

Jeremy’s Book Club


Back in July when I went to dinner with the cast and crew of Death in Venice, I met a woman who offered me entry to a regular Sunday evening gathering of English-speaking expats. It’s called “Jeremy’s Book Club,” but I think that’s only because the host is so generous with his vast library of books, magazines, DVDs, and CDs. It’s strictly honor system. Guests carry out and return armloads of English-language entertainment every week. (Again, it’s not right to show the location, but I can let you see this pretty bas relief in the neighborhood.)

Conducted in Jeremy’s very personal, very English sitting room, I would say Book Club is really more of a salon. We – writers, artists, performers, professors, business people, professionals, past residents, and out-of-towners – certainly do not study any books together. Rather, we talk about a wide variety of subjects, and especially about Venetians and life in Venice, over tea and biscuits. There’s even a spoiled spaniel, sniffing at the coffee table for stray cake crumbs while we chat.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Book Club the first time I went. I had been getting by on occasional visits from friends and a few Venetian relationships that were a bit thin, due in part to the language barrier and in part to the closed nature of Venetian culture. I was hungry, I suppose, for real conversation without the struggle of constant translation into Italian. I was longing to be heard, understood, and (with luck!) appreciated for my commentary instead of my conjugation.

I find it quite refreshing to join the circle at Jeremy’s. For one thing, I get to renew my gratitude for my madrelingua (mother tongue) – I see how well this precious tool serves me. For another, I always learn something from the bright people there, and I always laugh. I’m building some interesting friendships, too. But here’s an odd question: why do you suppose I always feel just a hint of guilt, just a tiny bit lazy, just a slight sense of having undone something when I come away from Book Club? Why do you suppose I haven’t yet mentioned it to any of my Venetian friends?

18 September 2008

“Ciao Chiara! Macchiato?”


Every town I’ve ever lived in has had a coffee shop that I made my own – a place where I was called by name and expected on a regular basis, and if I didn’t show up, somebody would ask me about it the next time I visited. I always choose the place serving the best coffee around. No Starbucks slave am I! In Boston it was Travis Café on Newbury Street (which served old-fashioned “hottles” of coffee). In Los Angeles it was Ship’s for awhile (long gone now), then Bob’s Coffee ‘n Donuts in Farmers Market (also famous for “hottles” and fresh cinnamon doughnuts). And in New York it was Hadleigh’s, where I could sit outside on Broadway, right in front of the opera house.

Here in Venice that place is Zanin in Campo San Luca, just a short walk from my house. This place is rare in that even the women are nice to me. Everyone uses my Italian name (I gave them a choice) and everyone knows how I take my macchiato. As morning is not my best time of day, this gentle treatment is very dear to me. Little else here has given me such a sense of belonging.

An Italian coffee break, from order to payment, can be timed at about 90 seconds total, and it’s all done in piedi (standing up). It’s certainly not the custom to loaf on the banquette and linger over a refill or two the way Americans do. Most Venetians polish off their hyper-sugared caffetino in a quick gulp-and-a-half. At the breakfast hour, they also wolf down a cream- or marmalade-filled croissant (which, inexplicably, they call a “brioche”). But the Zanin folks know I’m still adjusting to European ways, so they let me lean on the counter and dawdle. Sometimes they can even guess when I’m needing “Un’altro?” (“Another one?”)

15 September 2008

Bluegreengiltsteelgreyaquasilver


I once read that the designer who created “Venice” in Las Vegas insisted its chlorinated, concrete canals be drained and re-painted three times in the effort to achieve the exact shade of the Venetian bacino and waterways. (Critical details like this are always best left to a perfectionist.)

I have also heard that many visitors to that mid-desert hotel report they are quite satisfied they have seen the best of Venice, and now feel no particular need to see the real city, which (they’ve heard) “is sinking anyway” and “smells bad.”

Hmm. I have one small question...

I have seen La Serenissima’s waters sparkle and roil in a hundred different hues, changing sometimes within a few minutes, merely with the passing of a storm cloud, a drop in temperature, or a change of wind direction. So which one is that official “exact shade?” I’d like to buy a can of it.

12 September 2008

The “white work”


Have you been curious about the studio work I started back in January when I had that weird vision of a gallery show in shades of white and then promptly papered my walls with Post-it notes about all things white? (See blogpost "Lo Studio" in January.) Did you think, “The girl has snapped her cap for sure” when you read that post?

Let me assure you: my cap is fully intact, and the work is coming along beautifully. I couldn’t be more pleased.

Well, perhaps I could if I had access to the supplies and materials locked up and languishing in my Brooklyn studio. I dream of getting my paint-smeared mitts on things like my faux snow collection, my window frost paint, and my silvery Dresden scrap. I long to visit Michael’s Arts & Crafts on Staten Island and linger in my favorite aisles until closing time.

Still, I’ve done pretty well with what I could scare up here. Remember this prediction from the “recipe” I scribbled that first night?: Everything you need is here or close by. Lots of useful things just fell into my hands – a Lambswool blanket label stuck to my boot one windy day, a bunch of giant glass pearls turned up in Santa Maria del Giglio’s trash barrel. And I also had the generous help of my lovely friend Erica: twice she brought me a Santa Claus sack full of white goodies to inspire me. Just like Christmas morning!

The work proceeded in fits and starts, taking four directions. First there were “bridge” pieces, very much like the work I had already been doing, but in white now. Then came things I can only describe as “kid stuff” – games and toys, not too cerebral. Next were pieces with recognizable elements but unclear intentions, and finally, purely abstract pieces that I could swear are coming from some mind other than my own – but I like them well. It seems I will never get to the end of all the “white ideas” that bubble up almost everyday.

Like my earlier work, most things are shadowboxes and deep frames, to be hung up or placed on a table surface. Also I have been building cardboard boxes, meant to sit on a shelf at eye level. And there is a first group of seven freestanding pieces based on santos, but currently their construction is stalled for want of a carpenter’s assistance. I still have no clue what will happen with any of these things I’ve made (although a few people have already expressed interest in buying one piece or another, even in unfinished states).

I show you here the first white piece I completed, called Shallow Bath.

No, you can’t get me to tell you what it’s about, nor why I wanted to make it. The best part of the whole process has been this development: I no longer fear showing my work to anyone, and I have no compulsion to explain or justify it. So you’re on your own!

10 September 2008

Fun feminist factoid


Quick! Who was the very first woman in the world to earn a university degree?

She was a Venetian noblewoman named Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, and she was born in a palazzo right here, just a stone’s throw from Rialto Bridge.

"You go, Ragazza!"

08 September 2008

Regata Storica


Venetians love a rowing race! La Serenissima’s thriving regatta tradition has its roots in the tribal feuds between her citizens in early days, particularly the Nicolotti and the Castellani. Rowing competitions were established to replace their dangerous fistfights in the streets and on bridges. But historians reckon that city fathers also encouraged participation in regattas to ensure a steady supply of strong, skilled oarsmen for the republic’s warships.

Last September I arrived right in the middle of the Regata Storica, Venice’s historic parade of traditional boats, manned by costumed crews and other characters and followed by a series of rowing races for Venetians and mainlanders, all on the Grand Canal. Of course, I missed the whole thing. But yesterday, a whole year later, I finally got my chance to see it. What a thrill!

First, I had to find a spot to view the festivities – no simple task! Every inch of the Grand Canal gets snatched up early in the day, both on the fondamente (walkways along the Canal) and in the water. (This reminded me of nothing so much as the New York crowds gathering for Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade!) Once settled, we all waited in the hot sun for the parade to get underway.

I had hoped to get a good shot of the “doge and dogaressa” in their elegant red and gold boat with the winged lion at the stern, holding his sword upright. Alas, no luck: too many people and poles in my way! Ditto for the beautiful boats with a pair of life-size silver horses or a red-eyed dragon or a golden Lady Justice for their figureheads. But I did manage to snap this picture of the “Council of Ten” on their quaint boat.

Accompanying the fancy boats were watercraft of every size and description. I particularly noticed the boat of a team from the mainland, unique in that its oarsmen were all sitting down. After a year in Venice, I realize that rowing while seated will never look quite right to me again, nor will rowing with two oars! Where’s the skill? Where’s the sport?

After the parade comes the race for i giovanissimi – the under-13-year-olds, boys and girls, two of them to each pupparin, which is a small, low, snappy boat with a snooty stern, first created for maritime patrol work. These little kids are as fast as a shot, with very good form. Not surprising: I see them practicing all the time after school lets out.

Next it’s le donne – the women, two of them to each mascareta, another smart little craft, slightly deeper and more modest in silhouette. The mascarete were traditionally used for fishing and lagoon transport, but they’re also distinctive in that they were once the preferred boat of masked Venetian prostitutes. (If you would enjoy some Venice lore that’s a bit risqué, ask me to tell you about the Traghetto del Buso – the “ferry of the hole” – at the foot of Rialto Bridge!)

When the gals have sped past, the six-man teams show off their skill in caorline – wider, flattish, snub-nose workboats used since the 1600’s to bring produce to market from the outer islands. There’s a terrific lot of cheering and shouting from the sidelines for these fellows. In a town as small as this, almost everybody knows somebody in almost every boat.

And then the crowd grows more serious because it’s time for the highly competitive race of the gondolieri, by twos and also in pupparini. There are prizes for the first four pairs to complete the course, the fourth prize being a pig, an animal thought to be a bit slow. Originally, fourth prize winners received a live piglet, which they would later eat! But nowadays a Murano artisan crafts a glass pig just for the occasion (and, of course, gets a plug in the regatta’s publicity materials).

All in all, it was a lovely day. I’m especially pleased that I finally got a glimpse of my cobbler and his canottieri friends in their 18-oared disdottona, the longest of all Venetian boats. I’ve mentioned it here before. Now I can show it to you. Che bella la barca! Che bella la regatta!

06 September 2008

Shopping: the cheeses


I have found Italian dairy products to be far superior to most American counterparts in variety, quality, and freshness. To begin with, Italian milk, cream, butter, and yogurt taste… milkier. They have a lush silkiness and an appetite-provoking aroma that I have never found in dairy products at home. It really makes me wonder what American producers are doing to our milk in pursuit of bigger profits and longer shelf-life.

But a much greater joy here has been the expansion of my cheese education. (Can I get a degree in this field? Perhaps a “doctorate dei formaggi?”) Every region of Italy produces extraordinary cheeses that beg to be sampled. Indeed, the best vendors beg you to taste them. I have done my very best to keep up with the offerings.

Where to begin? At first I just went crazy gobbling up the parmigiano reggiano… until I realized that “PR” gets even tastier as it ages, but the price gets bigger too. The trick here is to find someone who will sell you a small chunk of the old stuff. (Casa del Parmigiano comes to mind.) And don’t waste it on spaghetti! Italy has a number of similar hard cheeses, perfect for planing and grating. Grana padano and pecorino romano come to mind immediately, as do the aged versions of bavarese, asiago, montasio, and piave, all of which are more reasonably priced.

I’ve had good fun with Italy’s creamy and fresh cheeses. Let’s see... We have oozing stracchino in a box and small, square blocks of tangy robiola and occasionally – dear Heaven! – super-fresh mascarpone scooped out of a little barrel (which has ruined Philly for me forever), to eat in late autumn with fresh mostarda di cotogna (sharp mustard-spiked quince preserve) on still-warm ciabatta, or with slow-roasted figs and honey for breakfast. There’s good Greek-style feta here, bright and tart, and also plain but nice and almost-free farmer’s cheeses like quartirolo and schiz (pronounced something like “skis”). I have used these in omelets, frittate, and gratins with garlic-melted greens or tomatoes and fresh herbs – light and good!

Technically ricotta is not cheese, but why split hairs? Forget those little plastic Polly-O buckets. Here you can choose the quivering, ultra-fresh version or the firm, mature, salted one, or something in between, depending on what you want to cook. Or get it sweetened and baked like a cheesecake, with chocolate or lemon flavoring if you like. Then there is the slightly brown affumicata (smoked) variety, which is another thing altogether, and certainly an acquired taste. I report that I acquired it early on.

Of course, the Italians – even the little kids – eat silky, grey-veined gorgonzola the same way Americans eat Monterey Jack or cheddar. (Oddly, there are no “cheddared” cheeses in the Italian repertoire.) Gorg is nothing special here. I’m sure everyone’s got a little slab in the fridge. There’s also a cheap-and-cheerful, very firm, speckled blue called bergader that makes a pretty snack with sliced pears and toasted walnuts, not to mention a tasty salad dressing for crisp lettuce or ripe tomato slices.

Every cow’s milk cheese imaginable is made here. The mozzarella and mozzarella bufala are legendary. I’ve already told you about the amazing burrata and burratina. Lush and utterly addictive!

For toasted sandwiches, Italy offers many Swiss-like choices. The wee-holed crucolo is extra good and melts perfectly, no grease. Or choose a yummy scamorza, regular or smoked. And the aged provolone, melted or not, is a far cry from that dull, rubbery stuff used in American sub sandwiches.

I was well acquainted with taleggio when I got here – that stinky feet smell with a seductive slipperiness and buttery-mild taste. What I did not know about was morlacca, a little bit of which easily melts into the perfect silky glaze for ravioli or penne, giving a whole new meaning to the term “mac & cheese.”

Then I learned about the piemontasino, and the larger tuma del fen. These soft little paper- or leaf-wrapped Frisbees with a white, bloomy rind (very like the French St. Marcellin) are the ultimate glam snack food. A palm-sized one gently warmed in the oven and split open over lightly dressed valeriana (a deep green, loose leaf radicchio) is a fast and classy lunch, especially if there’s a crusty-tender roll flecked with bits of olive or speck (Tyrolean-style ham) to go alongside.

For something different but still familiar, I watch for names with the word asino. These are donkey’s milk cheeses – simple, mild, rather sweet, and inexpensive. (Me, I didn’t even know donkeys could be milked!)

Just studying all the pecorini and caprini – little cheeses made from sheep’s and goat’s milk respectively – could take a lifetime. Especially when all the possible flavorings are considered – the rind baths (such as beer or wines, which make a cheese umbriaco or “drunk” and sometimes purple!) and packings (such as cracked peppercorns, grasses or hay, ground nutshells, chilies, spices, dried truffles, or ashes, known as sottocenere). Then there are various treatments, like basketing, in which the cheese’s flavor comes from the reed of the basket that shapes it, and that of di fossa (“of the ditch”) which is buried underground while it ages. It’s probably easiest to start with some of the cute little tomini, Italy’s answer to the French tomme. They just melt away in the mouth. I have to be careful not to eat too many of the chile oil-soaked ones.

And don’t forget, one must consider the distinctions of aging – fresco, nuovo, mezzano, vecchio, stagionata… And also the D.O.P. restrictions for certain special, protected formaggi

Alas, I see that I have not even begun to cover my subject yet! Clearly I need more time to work on this if I want to earn that “Fr.D.”

03 September 2008

You can’t swim?


Venetians have an expression: E chi no sa nuar?
“Is there anyone who does not know how to swim?”

Live here for even a short time and you will know exactly what this means: Venetians view themselves and their watery world as the center of the Universe, and if you don’t do things the same way they do, well, then you certainly should. Given a city built on poles sunk into mud in the middle of a tidal basin with as many canals as streets, yes indeed, what kind of fool doesn’t know how to swim?!

What kind of fool doesn’t bathe his fried sardines, sautéed onions, raisins, and pine nuts in hot, sugared vinegar and call it sarde al saor?

(OK, this is a bad example because that very weird-sounding concoction, originally created to satisfy food-starved seamen, is quite delicious. It’s warming in wintertime and cooling in summer. The hungrier you are, the tastier it is!)

What kind of fool doesn’t add a dash of grappa to his cup of espresso on an icy, bone-chilling day and justify it by calling it caffè corretto?

(OK, so… another bad example. The result really is “corrected coffee.” It warms right to the toes, believe me. I feel restored just thinking of it.)

What kind of fool doesn’t take most or all of August off for vacation, when it’s miserably hot and the hordes of annoying tourists are at their swarming worst? And what kind of fool doesn’t do the same in January, when it’s miserably cold and there are almost no tourists at all?

(Actually, both of those ideas seem sensible to me. And I can’t recall any job I ever had in which I accrued two whole months of vacation time.)

What kind of fool doesn’t get up early everyday to sweep and scrub the street in front of his business establishment before trade begins?

(Hmm… now this is a darn good idea, and one that probably saves Venice tons of tax euros. We’ve all been admonished to “keep our own side of the street clean,” right? It would appear La Serenissima’s residents are actually doing it.)

What kind of fool doesn’t close up shop for a couple hours at midday and go home to have a good, hot lunch with his family or a sweet, brief encounter with his beloved?

(Well, I like this plan pretty well, too. I should be so lucky!)

What kind of fool doesn’t take a break from work around 6:00 o’clock or so and take a walk down to the local watering hole for a glass of wine and a pleasant little chat with all his friends?

(I’m sure you already know how I feel about this habit. It’s the best part of being here!)

You know what? Maybe these Venetians really are onto something. Maybe the rest of us should be doing it their way. At least I already know how to swim.

01 September 2008

Years? Decades? Centuries?


How long, do you suppose, before the campanile at Santo Stefano topples?

30 August 2008

Death in Venice


I wonder how many tourists notice the “Cimitero” station on the vaporetto map but never think of spending an hour or so there. That station is the only stop on San Michele, the fortress-like island that is Venice’s cemetery. It’s a strange and fascinating place, well worth a visitor’s time.

Napoleon did Venice few favors when he came to conquer, but one was this: he made the decision to situate the Republic’s burial ground away from the main inhabited islands, as a sanitation measure in a place with a history of devastating plagues (69 outbreaks between 954 and 1793, the last). Since then San Michele (originally the two islands of San Michele and San Grisostomo, which were joined to increase burial space) has become something wonderful to see, somehow all the more odd in that its forbidding, heavy brick walls appear to float on the lagoon waters. Get off the boat and step inside those walls…

I did, and I found a place unlike any other I had ever seen. To begin, the grounds are much larger than one would imagine from viewing the island as the vaporetto approaches. They seem to stretch on forever. One has the sense of being in a pasha’s lush, walled garden. And it’s eerily quiet.

There are thousands of individuals resting in peace here, mostly stacked in row after row of mausoleums that look like big, white filing cabinets. There are also family sepulchers and single graves with traditional headstones. Grave decorations run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, not to mention the downright cheesy. Perhaps the most poignant sight is the little row of children’s graves near the entrance. I’m told there is also a somewhat unkempt Protestant cemetery on the grounds too, but I did not find it.

I have heard a grim adage in Venice. “San Michele,” people say, “is where Venetians at last become landowners.” But here’s a macabre fact – until a short time ago, most people buried at San Michele stayed only ten to twelve years, after which their remains and headstones were removed and unceremoniously dumped on a grim little island called the ossuario (boneyard) or “the island of snakes.” Nowadays they are merely tipped into a mass grave on another part of San Michele after their ten years of solitary slumber.

Of course, some illustrious individuals have merited undisturbed resting places. There are many “Golden Book” names inscribed on permanent markers (some of which are defaced!), as well as those of Igor Stravinsky, Ezra Pound, and Joseph Brodsky, to name but a few. Franciscan Fra Paolo Sarpi, Venice’s tireless advocate for separation of church and state, and near-martyr for same, is buried right at the entrance. (Indeed, Franciscans still tend the grounds here.) Sergei Diaghilev’s grave is sometimes adorned with the ballet slippers of the dancers who have come to pay homage.

Myself, I dislike the practices of burial and entombment. It’s very creepy to me, the idea of being boxed up and put away, left in darkness forever on this somber, lizard-infested island, with lively, timeless Venice just a short journey over the waves. I would prefer to have my paltry ashes sprinkled from the crest of Rialto Bridge, preferably on the last night of a particularly beautiful and exciting Carnevale. At least from that damp grave I might still be able to see the moonlight on the water and hear the serenades of the gondolieri.

28 August 2008

Blight


La Serenissima has a rare beauty but recently, in the name of profit, she has been trashing it up with more and more ugly billboards – something I never dreamed I would have to see here.

Just a few years ago there were no such things. And when a palazzo or public building was being renovated or maintained, city fathers would only permit plain canvas or a life-size, fool-the-eye painted screen mimicking the building’s façade to hide the work in progress. A few small, discreet sponsors’ logos could be shown at the bottom. Really, I thought these screens were rather clever, and served their purpose gracefully. I still enjoy seeing the nicely detailed one at Casino Vendramin when I pass by.

But then the big Times Square-style billboards started popping up, all on the Grand Canal and almost all advertising some lifestyle brand – a grubby-sexy cowgirl & cowboy couple in their dusty Replay jeans, a tanned, glossy-haired fashion model type showing off his new Movado watch, and the like.

And now comes this – the beautiful Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) flattened out and reduced to a puny illustration in a giant cluster of floodlit billboards that obscure much of the Palazzo Ducale and the prigione (prisons) and nearly block the view of the canal altogether. All this cheap, plastic ugliness just to promote a movie called Il Cielo dei Sospiri, currently featured at the Biennale. When I saw this mess, I nearly wept.

Tell me. What in this world is not for sale these days?

26 August 2008

Rialto Bridge


Is there any sight that says “Venice” more than il Ponte di Rialto? It rests at the center of La Serenissima, a place once called Rivo Alto (“high river”) where she first began to take shape about 1500 years ago. It hooks her two sides together and makes her whole. It is the very furniture of all our Venetian dreams.

There’s a certain awe the bridge evokes as it comes into view, even for those of us who see it frequently. I have watched many a visitor as he catches his first glimpse of it, particularly coming around the bend from the north side. Inevitably the chatter halts, the eyes widen, the breathing all but stops. There is a long moment of gazing… and then the frantic fumbling for the camera.

And it’s not just my imagination – the vaporetto slows as it passes underneath it (but perhaps that’s just to safely navigate the sharp curve). Still, the sky is blotted out, the air becomes dense, the water feels very close. That deep, broad, low-slung span of white marble hanging over one’s head almost forces it downward into a peculiar kind of reverence. No coincidence in my mind. I think that’s just what its architect, Antonio da Ponte, intended. (And yes, that really was his name.)

24 August 2008

Graspo de Ua



Few sights in Venice tickle me as much as this gigantic bunch of Murano glass grapes serving as the sign for the restaurant called (what else?!) Graspo de Ua, or “Bunch of Grapes.” My photo doesn’t do it justice – it’s a big, wonderful, garish, kitschy thing (although it really would benefit from a good scrubbing!). Kids and adults both marvel at it, if they happen to wander into the tiny backstreet near Rialto where it hangs. Given the chance, I always take people the few steps out of their way to see it. No one has been disappointed yet.

22 August 2008

Picture this!


Last evening I had supper on the broad garden terrazza of a splendidly maintained and furnished Gothic palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal. (It would be rude to publicize the house, but I think it’s OK to show you the garden entry and one of its two wellheads.) The view from there included Rialto Bridge (from which camera flashes sparkled all night) and, of course, the parade of vaporetti, motoscafi, and gondole below, cutting through the blue-green water.

What made it even more delightful was the good company of a lovely gentlewoman and a gracious gentleman, both new friends in my life, and he the owner of the palazzo. There was bright and funny conversation about Venice’s colorful history and culture, to which I was able to add a few local proverbi and anecdotes that even the host, a true Venetian of an old family, had not heard. Imagine such lively chatter over a cool shrimp salad, a simply grilled Tuscan steak, and some fine wine in that magical setting on a warm, breezy evening…

Can you picture all this? I’m sure I will see it in my mind forever. Grazie mille to both of my charming companions.

19 August 2008

A little romance


Last Friday evening I had the pleasure of meeting a nice fellow from Chicago. He had just arrived in town and he was very excited because he was planning to “pop the question” the next evening. His intended, who was lured here with a clever ruse, was not due until Saturday morning, so he was spending the evening polishing his pitch. The would-be groom wondered if I knew of a romantic setting in which he could get down on bended knee and flash the diamond ring. (Did he ask the right person, or what?!) I suggested a gondola, under the Bridge of Sighs, at midnight when the Marangona tolls. Legend has it that a pair of lovers sharing a kiss at this spot and at this moment will stay together forever. He liked the idea, but wished aloud that someone could get a snapshot of the event… but who?

Yes, of course I volunteered!

It’s not so easy to get a good photo at the Bridge of Sighs though, so we conspired this way: the kiss would happen there at midnight, as the tradition requires, and then, for the actual proposal, the gondoliere would bring them to the next bridge, Ponte della Canonica, which offers several good lurking spots for a sneaky photographer.

And lurk I did, but…

I guess his patience ran out and he started without me! Midnight came, and the next thing I knew, their gondola was whizzing by and the pretty blonde fidanzata shouted, “We’re getting married!” I barely caught them before they disappeared under the bridge and into their new life together.

Since the bride-and-groom-to-be are both Greek, I suggested they pay a visit to ai Greci, the glorious little jewel box that is Venice’s Greek orthodox church, and consider it for their wedding. Maybe I’ll still be here then… Maybe they’ll invite me!

17 August 2008

Shopping: the pasta


In my current situation, you’d think I would be basking in gratitude everyday, wouldn’t you? Yet somehow I still manage to complain. The thing I usually whine about is lack of choice.

But I can’t get away with that here in the pasta aisle at Panorama (Venice’s “Target Greatland”). Sixty feet long, eight feet high on both sides, each square inch of it jam-packed with every imaginable kind of top quality dried pasta. More than a quarter of the aisle is dedicated to Barilla products alone. That’s my favorite brand!

Little ears, priests’ hats, pipes, pen points (smooth or corrugated, thin or thick, large, small or mini), tiny and giant seashells, bowties, celery stalks, wagon wheels, spiral twists, radiators, rice-like orzo, hand-shaped olive tree leaves, big yellow coins with rustic pictures stamped on them, many types of lasagna sheets (cook ahead or no-cook), any size and style of tube or string you could wish for, including handmade, hollow pici (pronounced “peachy”), even beet-, radicchio-, and spinach-tinted and other multicolored selections.

And that’s not all. You can buy the familiar stuff, or you can choose pastas made of special flours: whole wheat, semolina, corn, soy, or even rice. (By the way, Asian noodle products are in a different aisle altogether. Italians consider them ethnic foods, and there’s no room for them here anyway.)

Still not satisfied? Head over to the refrigerated case and find many of the same choices, except in the fresh versions. And while you’re there, don’t miss the gnocchi (potato dumplings that come in a range of flavors and sizes, including the romagna style discs, best when baked with cheese and butter), all the different ravioli and tortelloni with their rustic or elegant fillings, the skinny, twisted one called trofie (good with pesto), and the irregular, thick, pinched one called strozzapreti or strangolapreti (“choke priests” or “strangle priests” – how funny is that?).

So what kind do you think I buy most often? Yup. Ordinary Barilla No. 3 spaghetti, just like in New York. Still, I like the luxury of all these choices. I probably spend too much time in this aisle…

14 August 2008

Exhausted


Venetians have an expression:
El leto xe ‘l paradiso dei poveri.
"Bed is the Heaven of the poor."

In plain words, I am exhausted. I am worn out. I am entirely spent. It’s very hot and sticky here and, like Little Black Sambo’s tigers, I have run in circles around the tree until I have spun myself into warm butter.

For just a little while I need to stop worrying whether or not I will be staying here after September. I need to stop stressing about how I will be earning my living, wherever I may be. I need to stop informing every single person I meet that I’m looking for a job. I need to stop making lists, and then lists of those lists. I need to stop regretting certain mistakes I made here. I need to stop fearing I’m missing something that may never come again every time I close my own front door behind me. I need to stop doing “just this one little thing” in my studio when it’s already after 2:00 a.m. I need to stop staring at and undoing and re-doing and criticizing the work I’m producing. I need to stop wondering if it will ever have meaning and worth to anyone but me. I need to stop thinking thinking THINKING about the utterly incomprehensible behavior of a particular person I know here. I need to stop asking what in the world is the matter with me? and why has it always been like this for me? I need to stop all this non-stop doubting and fretting. I need to stop railing at the gods.

In short, I need to turn on the fan and go to bed.

That would be Heaven. I would love to go to bed early and sleep late. Then do it again the next night. And then maybe again the night after that.

But there’s no time for that now…

12 August 2008

Did you know...?











…that Venetian blinds are properly installed outside of the window? (Right. Because it’s not hard enough to clean them when they hang inside!)

10 August 2008

More updates, errata, etc.


Remember my irritation with people who feed pigeons? Well, this poster, printed in Italian and English (Excuse me - why just English?!), has just appeared around town. It looks like the city fathers are getting a bit more serious about enforcing the ban on crumb-casting. I say Bravo!

Remember the avenging angel of Palazzo Soranzo and the ousting of the Devil, who had taken up quarters there? Some variations on this story have come to my attention, odd in that they leave out the angel altogether but include a pet monkey, which, interestingly enough, could do household chores. It seems the creature was actually possessed by the Devil (which might have happened when he ran away from the Soranzo family for a short time). This state of being was detected by a local priest, who called him out and banished him (the Devil, not the monkey). One legend says the Devil was hanging around because he wanted to snatch up the soul of Signor Soranzo, who had been cheating in his business affairs, but the greedy man had escaped his Hellish fate up to that point by praying to the Virgin every night. On his departure, the frustrated Devil bashed the great hole in the wall, and the rest of the story you know. Me, I still think an angel was involved somehow because everything in the neighborhood is named for him, not some priest. And also the folks living and working there cite the angel’s role in the whole affair. I will continue my investigation and report back.

Remember that I had never seen watermelon ice cream offered anywhere except Igloo? Well, there are several versions available around town lately. Carlo Pistacchi at Alaska has one, and so does Gelateria Lo Squero. Both are winners. (Alaska is also offering arugula-orange gelato during these hot days. And Riva Reno had a pale green basil flavor once!) I guess I just hadn’t been to Venice in summertime before. Meanwhile I’m on an entirely different hot weather kick now: swimming pool-blue, anice-flavored ghiaccioli (popsicles!).

Remember my involuntary single status on tango night? I have a lead on a prospective partner…

08 August 2008

No fish, no coffee


It’s Ferragosto – August holiday time for Venetian folks. Translation for me? No fresh fish until the 19th, no freshly roasted coffee until the 20th.

















(sigh…)

05 August 2008

The Venice Diet


Ladies, you read it here first – the next diet book sensation! It’s The Venice Diet. Easy to follow and the pounds just melt away. You look in the mirror one day and 20 of them have disappeared, leaving you with nothing in your closet that fits anymore.

Here are the basics of the diet:

Set aside a limited amount of money to live on for an extended period of time – let’s say a year – and then prepare a very tight budget, making the grocery and restaurant allotments particularly restrictive. You must not stray from your budget, so plan on cooking at home regularly. Junk foods and those cholestrol-ridden eggs you adore will just be too costly for such a Spartan spending limit as yours. Restaurant dinners should rarely even be considered, unless someone else is picking up the tab. However, inexpensive snacks and accompanying beverages you encounter throughout the day may be enjoyed with real gusto. More on what to eat in a moment.

Next, move far away from whatever is annoying you – the nowhere job, the negligent boyfriend, the irritating political situation, whatever – preferably to a city that’s interesting and beautiful enough to distract constantly. Somewhere in Italy is probably best. I would suggest a place where the only thing more attractive than the view is the men. (It’s very helpful if the city fathers have showcased each one of them in his own little boat or else behind a bar where the wine and the lighting are both good. But I’m afraid there are few cities that fulfill this important requirement of the diet – perhaps only one, really.)

Be sure you choose a city where tempting, healthy foods like gorgeous fruits and vegetables and super-fresh fish are cheap and readily available. Also, the wines offered in bars and shops must be both very good and low-priced. If the local bread is overpriced yet tastes a lot like dry cotton encased in cardboard, you’re really in luck. But be careful! – bad bread can often be sold right next to addictively good cookies. (NOTE: You may test this hypothesis, but not too often.)

If your new city has no cars but lots of steep bridges, and if everything must be reached on foot, so much the better. If you can find a walk-up apartment in a tourist area (i.e., one that’s a long way from any kind of supermarket, cheese shop, or bakery), sign the lease immediately.

It’s best if you don’t have to go to a job while on the diet. Thus, you will have plenty of time to wander around all day and all evening, barely cognizant of the near-constant calorie-burning that is occurring. Feel free, however, to do anything that satisfies you creatively and intellectually as often as possible. This will enhance the general sense of well-being that is so critical to the full success of this diet. Be sure to wear yourself out completely everyday so that you will easily fall into a deep, restful sleep every night.

While on the diet, you may find that you actually enjoy yoga or Pilates or some such activity for its own sake, especially if no one is pestering you about it and you don’t have to jam it into the fifteen minutes between the end of a tiring workday and the beginning of a boring worknight. I would suggest turning on some kind of soothing New Age-y music while you make coffee in the morning, thus notifying your body that warm-up, stretching, and exercise are coming up next on the day’s agenda. Remarkable how quickly this becomes a pleasant habit rather than a tiresome pain in the… well, you know.

Now here’s the second best part of the diet: the food. You can eat whatever tempts you. Yes, that’s right. Eat anything you like! The best things will be right in front of you, cheap enough for your budget, and quick and easy to prepare – tempting fruits, great salads of fresh produce and a variety of beans, lean cutlets of meats, filets of fish, and veggies to grill. But you can also sample the beautiful cheeses, the tasty salami, prosciutto, and other cold cuts, the big, yummy walnuts, the emerald green, made-this-minute pesto sauce, the really great tuna in rich, fragrant olive oil, the fresh, whole milk yogurt with seductive European granola and special honeys, risotto and pasta and gnocchi, pizza, gelato, pastries, biscotti, your favorite cioccolata, soft, hazelnut-studded Italian nougat, delightful seasonal sweets, whatever!

Too good to be true? Well, I grant you, some attention must be paid to quality of your foods and especially to your portion sizes. Notice that I said you can eat “whatever tempts you,” NOT “as much as you want of whatever tempts you.” Duh! This isn’t The Magical Diet!

There is only one small catch in all this, but it’s very simple and palatable. In fact, it’s the best part, the foundation of and the secret to The Venice Diet. You cannot eliminate this important step of the program! You must stop whatever you are doing quite often (and always when you bump into friends on the street) and drink a small amount of good Italian red wine – no substitutes! And if it is offered, you should permit a man to pay for this wine, if only to be polite and respectful of the local culture. “When in Rome (or wherever)…”

Also, you must get in the habit of regularly visiting your local wine vendor, who will fill up your one-liter bottle with good “plonk” (so named for the sound it makes when it hits the tabletop) for only about three bucks. Keep this stock on your kitchen counter, and have a small glass of it whenever you are puttering around the house, and especially right before you begin cooking your meals. No, I’m not kidding. The sense of fullness and satisfaction provided by the volume and flavor of the wine makes it easier to quell hunger with much smaller portions on your plate. In short, if you begin a meal already half-satisfied, you will crave less food and your calorie intake will drop. And then – Eccola! – the pounds will drop. (And let’s not forget the well-known health benefits of the red wine itself! Your heart will thank you when you’re very, very old but still spry.)

Think it won’t work? Think I’m nuts? Well, it worked for me. And I only figured it out after the fact.