31 January 2008

All good things

…must come to an end.

The Christmas holidays officially end on Saturday with Candlemas. Carnevale will be over when celebrants fold their tents February 5th, Martedi Grasso. Can’t say I’m sorry to see either of these seasons pass, except insofar as I am reminded how my time here in Venice flies.

But I will miss these sparkly holiday lights outside my windows. Their firefly glimmer is even prettier when dispersed through my Venetian lace curtains. They have kept me company many hard, dark nights in December and January. What a stroke of luck that the city hung them right at my primo piano level!

30 January 2008

"Lo Studio"

A prime reason for my being here is to pursue my artwork in the place that has inspired most of what I produced in the past four years. Many of you know my Brooklyn studio is my sanctuary. I have been very protective of the things I make there. The idea of even showing them to friends, let alone selling them and letting them go to strangers, made me queasy. Every finished piece was too personal, too full of emotion. I didn’t want my studio experience spoiled by careless commentary, uninvited criticism, or lukewarm reception; I also feared false enthusiasm. And I certainly didn’t want to explain anything.

But recently I had a sudden shift in my thinking about my work, and how I need to grow, to take certain risks now. This shift arrived on the whiplash tail of December’s many difficulties. When it came, I was shocked to find that I already knew how to work in a different way, and I had already formed a rather vivid picture of what the next pieces will look like when gathered together for public viewing. Here’s a hint: in that mental picture, everything I have made is some shade of white. (Please do not ask me how I know this. I just do. As well as I know my own name. Having “seen” it, I’m sure I will see it. Where and when, however, remain to be seen. In between lies the work.)

The first photo shows the thoughts that came into my mind as my picture formed – I scribbled them rather hurriedly. Now I look at what I wrote and I’m a little amazed to see it’s almost like a recipe, a set of steps. Also, it reflects my highest values: honesty, authenticity, trust, forgiveness, hope, abundance, giving freely, with love instead of expectation.

The second photo shows my workspace in the early stage of implementation. All those “post-its” are the result of my brainstorming that first night and the following days. It’s a sort of free word association game in which I wrote down every white thing I could think of, and also anything else that popped up as I did so. This flurry of activity is how I began following the recipe: working fast. (Right away I liked the association of “shelter/prison and promise/sentence” evoked by “bridal lace,” “linen shroud,” “white knight,” and “binding vs. bonding.” And I find it really interesting that “release” showed up twice!) (See? Isn’t this fun?)

You can see my materials coming together – various white things, unrelated but already beginning to seem like they belong together. (Yes, those are the presepio sheep from my Christmas tree.) Some things have appeared almost magically since the shift, such as the giant white pearls, which I found in the trash at Santa Maria del Giglio. This is the second step being fulfilled: gathering. (I like this part of my process – being led to things, almost hearing certain objects whisper, “Take me, take me!” but not knowing why yet. I myself do not understand how I know which items to keep, and which to leave behind. Sometimes I have some odd little thing lying around for years before the right use for it is revealed. When I find that perfect fit, I feel very satisfied indeed.)

I’ve already started some minor construction. That’s going to be the trickiest part for two reasons. One: I am seriously short on money, tools, and supplies here (but the second step assures me they are “close by” and easy to find). Two: white has always attracted me, and repelled me, too. I’m nervous because I’m not good at keeping things clean as I work! That’s one reason I have so enjoyed using Venice’s distressed poster scraps, age-scarred and water-spoiled colors, ravaged textures, grit and grime. But! – the third step says I must make mistakes and discard them without regret! That in itself will be a learning curve for me because I can’t bear waste, especially on my limited Venice budget.

So now all I gotta do is do the work, and then trust and send it out into the world, all without any expectations! OK. Good. I’m ready to try.



How do I do that exactly?

28 January 2008

Do you fear clowns?

Yes? Then be sure you never visit Venice during Carnevale!

Yesterday morning I was awakened by a very loud, very silly mini-parade below my window - no less than twenty of those jolly fellows, all orange-haired and all wearing the same ridiculous polka-dot sacksuit and big, floppy shoes, with their bells tinkling, kazoos humming, and horns tooting.

They left two or three slightly ashen-faced individuals in their wake. (I recognize clown fear when I see it.)

They almost got away over il Ponte dei Fuseri before I could locate my camera…

27 January 2008

“Posso offrirLe il caffe?”

American men, listen up! There’s a lovely custom here in Venice which you would do well to adopt in the U.S., where you tend to be a bit careless of the fairer sex sometimes. Every time I receive this small tribute, my heart sings.

Sometimes when a lone woman enters a bar or a pasticceria and is served her espresso or cappuccino, a gentleman of any age nearby will say to her, "Posso offrirLe il caffe?" He means, “Will you permit me to pay for your coffee?” He always uses the formal form of address, sometimes even with a slight bow. He may do this just as he pays his own tab and is about to depart. Sometimes a young man will make a very cute excuse for his offer: "All this change is so heavy in my pocket, see how it's ruining my suit? You would be doing me a favor..."

This charming gesture only means the gentleman finds the lady attractive and he wants to tell her so. Nothing more is expected of the lady – no tedious small talk, no fending off a tired come-on line or leering gaze. Just the acknowledgment of the gentleman’s kindness with a smile and a "grazie."

Isn’t that nice?

25 January 2008

Frittelle, Galani & Castagnole

“…How may I direct your call?”

(No, it’s not the name of a Venetian law firm.)

So far all I know about being in Venice for Carnevale is how incredibly addictive these three seasonal goodies can be from the very first nibble. All deep-fried and all dripping sugar, they appeared in every café and pasticceria the first morning after Epiphany.

Frittelle are very like French beignets – the same springy, eggy fritters, but scented with lemon and studded with raisins, candied orange peel bits, and pine nuts. The “Veneziana” version has just a sandy sprinkle of glittering table sugar; there are also crema- and zabaglione-stuffed versions. And I have seen a mini version called rossato. Me, I’m a purist. “Veneziana” or nothing.

Galani are thin, crisp, hand-size slabs of bubbled, golden-fried pastry blanketed generously with 10-X confectioner’s sugar. (There is a flatter, oven-baked version, too. It’s actually shown in this photo. Forget about it! Go for the grease.) Be careful! When you bite into them, these things shatter into pieces that skitter away. And it’s impossible to eat one without getting a snowy sugar dusting on your face, your sweater or coat, even your shoes. I learned this the hard way. Apparently Venetians only eat theirs at home. Now I do too.

Castagnole would remind Americans of Dunkin’ Donuts’ classic vanilla, cake-style doughnut holes. Nothing wrong with that! Being called castagnole, I thought for sure they were made with chestnut flour (farina di castagna) but I was wrong. Just plain, sugar-dusted nuggets roughly the size, color, and shape of a chestnut. I notice that the proper serving seems to be three to four castagnole; I prefer six.

It took me less than a week to find Venice’s very best example of each of these yummy diet-busters. I’m just glad they’re not all in the same place!

(Carnevale begins today!)

23 January 2008


Every time I visited Venice in the past, I observed with slight dismay the widespread local practice of closing the shutters. Walk through the streets, day or night, regardless of the weather, and you will see almost every house is sealed up tight. This custom emphasizes the city’s reputation for being closed to outsiders (although I suppose it’s common in any Italian city or village). It used to bruise my feelings a little because I didn’t understand it.

Hungry for light in our skyscraper canyons, we New Yorkers shun dark spaces. “Bright & airy” is the most-sought phrase in a classified ad for a new apartment. We pay a premium for many and large windows, then we refuse to hang curtains over them. So I couldn’t imagine why Venetians would block a single ray of sunlight or any glimpse of their lovely city with heavy, solid wooden shutters. Until I moved here. Now I get it.

My thoughtful landlord “Professor Vinegar” has outfitted my apartment with sound-blocking, double pane windows that seal tightly and admit no hint of a draft. At first I didn’t even bother to investigate the hinging mechanism of my shutters. Never did I imagine I would actually use them.

But one day I found myself closing them when the din of tourist traffic and local merchant gabble below my windows reached a peace-shattering roar. The muffling effect was very welcome!

Then, as the nights grew colder, I learned that closing myself in behind my shutters gives me the snug, satisfying illusion of protection and coziness.

And if one needs some sleep or would like a romantic Saturday night to stretch well into a lazy Sunday afternoon, shutters are just the ticket to prolong the pleasure. (Who couldn’t use an occasional 36-hour night?)

Now I love my own shutters, and I respect everyone else’s. In fact, their closed shutters evoke only gentle voyeuristic curiosity in me. They’re another outward sign of La Serenissima’s intriguing secrecy and mystery.

Hmm… What do you suppose is going on in there?

21 January 2008

My neighbors’ house

(Those people are such show-offs!)

I’m just kidding. This fantastic house is Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo (bovolo means “snail”). It’s right here in my neighborhood, and I am forever leading befuddled tourists down the narrow calle to find it, despite the fact that there are signs pointing the way to it. Usually these folks have walked into the calle about ten meters or so, seen nothing, given up, turned around and walked back out to Calle dei Fuseri, mildly irritated. They are delighted when I lead them all the way in and they see this lovely spiraling staircase with its cake icing-like decoration.

Why, I wonder, do so many people need to be spoon-fed everything? Where’s their sense of adventure and discovery?

19 January 2008

What I do all day

So many of you have asked how I spend my time here. It goes something like this…

Cellphone alarm rings at 6:00 a.m., but I’m almost always half-awake anyway because the only time I can see CNN is 5:00 a.m. And even then it’s only bits and pieces of news and events, often interrupted by those oh-so-critical horoscope updates that Venetians love.

First thing I do is start the coffee. While I wait for “Diavolo Brikka” to hiss and bubble up, I open the shutters and stick my head out the window: weather check! Then I mix up my morning drug and head back to bed. I turn on some music that’s embedded with undetectable tones said to encourage meditation and focus, and maybe they do. Anyway, it’s a good moment to take a look at my day and be grateful for the great gift of being here at all, let alone under such amazingly carefree circumstances. Church bells in my neighborhood start ringing at ten minutes to 7:00. Calle dei Fuseri is already buzzing by then.

Maybe I boot up the laptop and check my email or publish a blog post; maybe not. Depends on the quality of the wireless reception and/or how much I wish to connect with the world. No offense, but sometimes I don’t want to think about any of you out there, nor anyone around here. (I do remember to be grateful that I’m not shivering in the Piscina, though!)

Maybe I grudgingly put in 20, 30 minutes of Pilates. Or, if it’s warm enough and I’m not in a terribly pigra (“lazy”) mood, I haul my cookies over to Accademia Bridge – my “Stairmaster with a view.” There I make four to six round trips over the bridge because even though I’m delighted with the results of The Venice Diet, I could use a little more junk in my trunk, and this is easier and more fun than doing squat-thrusts. Other days I just hang out on the bridge with my thermos and watch the traffic for a while. On nasty days I might go out to a café or bar for a second latte and a quick scan of Il Gazzettino, or just stay home and bury myself in my duvet, thinking, “I really should be studying my Rosetta Stone lessons…” (but I never do – they’re worthless).

After grapefruit juice and yogurt, errands call and they must be completed before everything closes up for lunch. I go get groceries, run over to Rialto, buy flowers, bread, or produce, haunt the hardware store, stop at the post office, purchase my monthly vaporetto ticket, replenish my cellphone and internet time, visit the cobbler, the coffee roaster, or the wine vendor, pick up household, personal, and studio supplies, drop off my recycling, go to the mercato on Lido (Tuesdays) or Sacca Fisola (Fridays), and the like. This is normal, everyday stuff, common to any life. But it’s a great pleasure to plan my route and see it through, and some days it even includes a nice little boat ride. Also, nowadays I almost always bump into somebody I know: “Ciao! Ciao!!” Nothing makes me feel more like I belong here.

Along the way I usually stop in a favorite spot or two for some treat – a small sweet, a particularly good snack, or an ombra, a “shadow” of wine. If the timing is right, I might even have lunch. If I happen to stumble upon a new place that looks interesting, all the better! I am something of an expert now on the subject of where to eat. Lately I’ve been choosing to try some very odd things, all of which have turned out to be delicious. Still haven’t tackled the crostina with a slab of snow-white lard, though.

In Venice, a day’s possibilities are endless. Mine is usually spent in one of two ways, or a little of both: doing some artwork or studying my adopted home. Sometimes it’s my studio work that causes me to take a turn through town, like when I want to get water from the Grand Canal or I need poster scraps. (I will tell you more about my studio life in another post.)

I have begun to organize information on Venice’s sights and curiosities, restaurants and shops, foods, wines, and sources, legends and lore, routes and shortcuts – all with an eye toward the possible development of a private concierge business. So far I’ve done this rather haphazardly, I admit. I read about something, and then I go see it, taking as much time as I need to feel familiar with it. Occasionally my quest will take me into a new neighborhood. But at this point I believe I have been on nearly every street in Venice that isn’t gated. (How many Venetians can say that?!)

Often, though, I’m just another tourist, happily wandering the streets and (of course) looking up. I visit a museum exhibition or sit in a church, pop into little shops and galleries, peek into open workshop doors, snoop alleyways and gardens, take scads of pictures, dig through antiques, try on crazy secondhand clothes and really, really expensive shoes, stop for hot chocolate, a crispy arancino, a Chantilly puff, or a cinnamon gelato, chat with fellow visitors and merchants, anything that strikes my fancy.

In fact, I’m a little bit sad that I know the city so well now. My discoveries are fewer and farther between, and I catch myself being blasé about things that used to thrill me. On the other hand, I know very well now how to get around town, where and when to shortcut, and just how long it will take me to get from here to wherever. (But come the crowds of Carnevale, I might not be such a smart-aleck in that department!)

As the day winds down, if I’m out and about, I like to stop for a glass of wine, maybe a couple of cicheti (bar snacks), among Venetians enjoying their version of happy hour. I have a few spots of which I am very fond. I’m always so pleased to be recognized, occasionally even called by name (“Norm!”), and welcomed back to these places. If I have been at home working all day, I still try to get myself out for this very fun tradition.

Evenings are less glamorous than you might think in such an exotic and mysterious city. Sometimes there are cultural events to attend, even free theatre and music. And I permit myself the occasional out-for-dinner splurge. (No, I am not lonely eating by myself in a restaurant – why am I always asked that? I just talk with the people around me. Some nice connections and possible client relationships have developed from this practice.) If the right person asks, I accept a date for an aperitivo and a passeggiata (typical Venetian pastime – a drink and a walk), a casual dinner, or an after-hours cocktail. But most often, I cook at home, and sometimes I invite a friend or two over to join me. (I also like to have guests in for lunch, but the people I know here work and don’t usually have time for this luxury.) Other times my cucina is chiuso and I just raid the fridge because I want to compose a post for the blog, do something in the studio, or go out “lion hunting.” Now and again, I have even run about town and played the role of a spy. After all, this is the place where spying was raised to an art form! (But I really gotta get a wig for this activity!)

My evening might also include some very mundane stuff like doing the laundry (which entails some dreary ironing, because there’s no dryer here!) and watching “tee-voo.” The former is a drag; the latter is a total hoot! Most of what’s aired here is loud, annoying home shopping promos and game shows, punctuated by horoscope advice, oddly political PSAs, cheesy soft porn and near-naked phone sex, endless soccer, incredibly repetitious news reports, and old and new American dramas, movies, and Scrubs, all dubbed in Italian. (Subtitles would help me more in my quest to learn the language!) I have seen Italian Shakespeare in Love, Dances With Wolves, Robin Hood, The Great Escape, Swordfish, Look Who’s Talking I and II, and Some Like It Hot. And I often catch Italian Cold Case, The Practice, Criminal Minds, CSI, Law & Order SVU, Desperate Housewives, and Sex and the City. I am embarrassed to report that MTV or its competitor All Music are almost always on when I’m at home – background noise. But “‘s’all good.” I also report that I have been doing a lot of private dancing to relieve stress and let off steam. That translates into aerobic activity and that translates into physical and emotional changes of the best kind. I just hope my neighbors aren’t watching me through their shutters!

Nights? Either I’m crashed out by 11:00 or I’m a vampire, burning the midnight oil in my workspace, saying, “I gotta get to bed… right after I finish doing this...” (I don’t like being a vampire because I know it will cost me part of my next day, and time in Venice should never be wasted. I’m really going to try to break that habit.) If I’m still awake at midnight, I can hear the Marangona, the senior bell of the campanile in Piazza San Marco, tolling day’s end.

That’s my life here. Is it what you imagined?

17 January 2008

Six more times?!

Venetians have an expression: L’amor non l’e amor, se no’l se desgusta sete volte.
“Love isn’t love if it doesn’t disgust you seven times.”


16 January 2008

Your "lion" eyes

Bet money on it! This gorgeous Venetian beast will outlast you in a staredown contest every time.

He lives on the façade of the Museo Storico Navale at the Arsenale. And it can be quite startling to glance up and see him peering down. I marvel at how his sculptor created the deep hollow pupils that make his eyes seem to bore straight into me in such an unnerving fashion. I also like his lush curls (particularly the fringe behind his knees), his powerful paws, his roundy ears, and his feathery wings.

But it’s those eyes that give me a little shiver!

14 January 2008

For New Yorkers only

What’s wrong with this picture?

OK, I confess – it’s only an illusion. This familiar Greek diner cup is actually a ceramic impostor, a gift from my friend Patrick Kearney right before I left for Venice.

It was a brilliant choice for me. Each morning I allow myself just a touch of homesickness. I fill my New York cup with fine, black Venetian espresso and hot, foamy milk, and it reminds me that, in my heart, I live in two cities now.

(Thanks again, “P.D.” I really love it.)

12 January 2008

On the other hand...

January can also provide the greatest luxury one can experience in Venice: solitude.

These days it’s possible to sit peacefully in a favorite campo, to lounge and read a book in a cozy café, to amble along a pretty fondamenta without gingerly sidestepping any overstuffed suitcases on wobbly wheels.

Almost all those annoying hordes of loud tourists in warm-up suits and fanny packs have departed, leaving behind streets and bridges that are easily navigated, uncrowded shops and museums, empty seats on the vaporetto, available tables in restaurants, and in some places, lower prices. Not to mention a much greater sense of (dare I say it?) serenity.

Alas, Carnevale is only about two weeks away…

10 January 2008


Yes, now I remember January in Venice…

I have been here only once during this grey, bone-chilling month. It was a brief vacation, which I later described as “a six-day lashing followed by a bucket of cold seawater.” A hotel, very snooty but without a drop of hot water, and a brutal episode of food poisoning were just two of the highlights I recall. I also remember the bitter weather, the wind full of ice needles along the Zattere. I remember how cold and distant the Venetian people seemed – that is, those who were stuck here in town instead of enjoying a mid-winter holiday elsewhere. So different than when I had visited the previous September. I remember missing Venice’s many wandering cats; I remember silently complaining about the construction rubble heaps in the streets, and the small piles of filth left by the dogs that seemed to be running everywhere. But mostly I remember Chiuso – “Closed.”

Chiuso. When I’m in Venice, there's a small ache attached to this word.

January, being the slowest month in the tourist trade, is when Venetian shopkeepers and restaurateurs shut their doors and tend to the repair and maintenance of their properties and businesses, in anticipation of the prosperous days of Carnevale ahead. So the acquisition of some basic item one needs or the expectation of a good meal in a cozy, familiar spot is often thwarted by a scribbled scrap of paper taped to a locked door: Chiuso... Perhaps the dates of the closure are posted too, sometimes with an explanation or even an apology for it. Nevertheless, one must make other plans, or simply go home, empty-handed or with a growling stomach. Mi dispiace, Signora… Chiuso.

La Serenissima, even with her arms ever open to the paying tourist, still has her old reputation of being closed to outsiders. It is never more true than in January.

07 January 2008

Nursery food alla Venezia

Tough day? Post-holiday letdown? Feeling a bit bruised or a little blue? I would suggest this comforting dish I created when I found myself with too many grapes: panna cotta con sciroppa dell’uva – "cooked cream with grape syrup."

But you must prepare in advance for a day such as this one…

First, find yourself some tight, near-black fragola grapes. (For Americans, Concords would work.) Rinse them well. Snip off a few pretty bunches and freeze them. Crush the remaining fruit, then strain and simmer the juice until it is reduced to a glossy, deep-magenta syrup. Let it cool and stash it away in the fridge. (You will be tempted to use it for an Italian soda, and it would make a pretty one, but don’t.)

Now make classic, silky panna cotta with real vanilla seeds. When it’s ready, drizzle it with the fragrant syrup. Add a sprinkle of crushed, toasted hazelnuts and a small bunch of the frozen grapes. Eat slowly while someone says nice things to you in a very soft voice. I guarantee the world will look better.

P.S. I have also poured this lovely syrup over my French toast.
Ooh la la! I mean, Che bella!

03 January 2008

"Quello piccolo cane veneziano"

Here is one of my friends, “that little Venetian dog” who lives in Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio. (Many of you have already heard this story; some of you even know this creature.)

I like to have my favorite lunch – a big, beautiful salad with an array of Italian cheeses and fresh cold cuts, accompanied by a foot-tall flute of glittering, organic prosecco – at a friendly enoteca called al Prosecco in that lovely campo.

Inevitably this four-legged beggar will show up with just exactly this expression on his face – a mix of arrogance and mild irritation, despite the obvious fact that he is clearly underfed and undoubtedly hungry. Sometimes he might snort slightly, but he does not fawn or whine. He simply stares at me, eyes narrowed, until I give in and offer him something from my plate.

But… what a fussy little beggar he is! He will snatch and snap up any scrap of salame, speck, or rare beef, bresaola or roast turkey, soppressata or baked ham. I have even seen him gobble up carrots and zucchini if nothing else looks promising. But if I offer him a fine, soft, pink sliver of prosciutto crudo, he furrows his brow, puts his snout in the air, and looks at me with such contempt that, I swear, it gives me a shiver. Then he turns and walks away without even looking back at me. I can almost hear him saying, sotto voce, “Jeez!” (or whatever the Italian equivalent is).