29 February 2008

Leap Day

I couldn’t possibly have planned it any better! For all the wishing and hoping and thinking and praying I did when I was dreaming of my year in Venice, never once did it occur to me to add, “And please, Spirit, make all this happen during a leap year so I’ll get that extra day in February.” Yet that’s just how it worked out. Lucky old me!

All of yesterday I thought about what I might do with my extra 24 hours (that is, after spending four of them in class on my last day of school). I decided I should do something I had never done before in Venice… but what?

My list of possibilities was rather short. I have been hoping to meet someone with a boat who might take me out to see the small islands of the lagoon – but no luck yet. I have also been meaning to take a dip in one of Venice’s public swimming pools, to me a very odd idea in this city built on water. And lately, I’ve had a notion to create and document a small, unobtrusive art installation somewhere in the city, possibly in one of the gardens. I have not yet eaten any foreign cuisine here, even though Venice has Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, and Middle Eastern restaurants – all favorites of mine. Nor have I ever visited Ca’ Pesaro, the natural history museum, or La Zecca – all three "must-sees" for me. I have never been over the waters to see Murano or Burano, glass and lace being of almost zero interest to me, or Torcello, which has a church I want to see before that island’s lizard population awakens from winter slumber. And the long road of the seabreak islands Lido and Pellestrina is another journey I want to make soon.

But none of these options were really calling to me.

Then at day’s end I got news of the sudden death of Alan Frank, my neighbor and a close friend in New York. It was a terrible shock. It made me think of how helpful he had been in finding my subtenant last summer. And it made me think of a breakfast and a dinner we shared just before I departed for Italy. Never did I imagine we would not meet again, talk again, laugh again. (Alan was a great, quick wit.)

Later, sometime in the night, my answer came to me… the right thing to do on my bonus day in my beloved city. I knew Alan would approve of my choice. Certainly I had never done it before. Indeed, it had never even crossed my mind before. But the timing seemed right – Leap Day. A “leap of faith.” “Leap, and the net will appear.” Just do it!

(Is your curiosity killing you? Stay tuned… )

28 February 2008

The pigeons

File this under “Things I Just Don’t Get” - the famous pigeons of Piazza San Marco.

Regarding these creatures, I belong to the “rats with wings” school of thought. Can someone explain to me the fascination so many visitors to Venice have with these nasty, annoying birds? Why they would actually pay for food to attract them? Why they enjoy having them swarm around in such great numbers? Why they want to lure them to sit on their heads, shoulders, and arms? Why they like to get snapshots of this?

Venice’s city fathers frequently ponder the problem of i piccioni and the damage their acidic droppings do to artworks, monuments, and architectural treasures. The more extreme solutions have included, among other things, poisoning (grim results) and birth control (just a bit crazy). Silly me! I’m thinking, “Here’s an idea – just stop feeding them!” In fact, I’m told it’s illegal to do so anywhere other than the Piazza. But the tourists don’t know that, and I see elderly Venetians scattering crumbs everywhere!

Ah, well. I suppose it wouldn’t really be the Piazza without them. And I guess this is just one of those things I'll never understand about my lovely city.

26 February 2008

Hot chocolate

It has no beginning or end,
this love that I have for the
daughter of cocoa,
cinnamon, sugar and vanilla;
I would go three hundred miles
barefoot just to drink a
little cup of it.
I would pawn my Breviary
and my robe…
I would give up all beverages –
I would give up tocai, and malvasia
and the whole geneaology of wines
if I could only be given
that holy liquor which
touches my heart,
which only to name it
makes my mouth water.

-Antonio Sforza
Sonnet in Praise of Hot Chocolate

As he opens this sonnet, the Venetian poet describes how he thanks God for Christopher Columbus, “simply because he brought from the new world the sweet blessed potion that we call Chocolate.” (Notice that in the poet's mind the word "chocolate" merits capitalization, but "new world" does not.)

Venetians have always had a special affection for chocolate. Once upon a time in Venice ten cocoa beans would buy a rabbit, twelve a night with a courtesan, and one hundred a slave. Casanova was particularly fond of it, keeping his chocolate sticks in a strong box. Even now, hot chocolate still plays its traditional role in the celebration of both Epifania (when little cups are given away on the Riva del Vin near Rialto) and Carnevale (when the elegant Quadri in the Piazza holds elaborate hot chocolate parties for its costumed guests).

If you have never had hot chocolate in Venice, do not imagine it to be anything remotely like a couple tablespoonfuls of Nestle’s Quik or Swiss Miss halfheartedly stirred into microwaved skim milk. (In fact, erase that miserable idea from your head this minute!) Venetian cioccolate calda is a rich, swarthy, fragrant mud, more food than beverage, almost a pudding, and so utterly delicious, you want to wash your hair in it, perhaps even bathe in it (that is, if it weren't so wickedly hot!).

Here I’ve shown you my favorite cupful, from a splendid chocolate shop near the San Toma vaporetto station – Vizio Virtu, which translates roughly to “good bad habit.” (I should say!) A wonderful place with gorgeous goodies… It’s just a pity the women behind the counter are so cold and sour all the time. But – non ti preoccupare (don't worry) – drink up your luscious cioccolata calda and ignore them.

25 February 2008

Blogpostcard: San Marcuola

This is where I get off the vaporetto when I make a late day grocery run. Not exactly the parking lot at Safeway...

22 February 2008

Il traghetto

On the other hand…

When I can think of any excuse to do it, I like very much to ride the traghetto across the Grand Canal. This is a ferry, an unadorned gondola oared by two men instead of one, that makes countless bank-to-bank trips in places not convenient to one of the three (soon to be four) bridges connecting Venice’s two sides.

Currently there are eight traghetto stations in operation on the Grand Canal. For my money, the best traghetto run is this one, from Santa Sofia in Cannaregio over to the Pescaria at Rialto. Or the reverse, if one has just bought fish, but still must fare la spesa (buy groceries) at the supermarket, coffee vendor, wine shop, butcher, produce stands, and pastry shops on the other side.

For a mere 50 centesimi (about 75 cents), I get to wait in line on the dock and chat with my fellow passengers, Venetian or foreign, although very few tourists ever use this convenient system. The wait is never long because the crossing takes less than a minute. After the traghetto arrives and its passengers disembark, I accept the tanned, strong hand of the gondoliere at the bow and I gingerly step aboard the low, bobbing boat. Local etiquette requires that the first ones on move to the aft, and local custom strongly suggests that we stand for this crossing, however unsteady it may be. (Why? I don’t know, but I’ve seen how Venetians look at a first-timer who sits down or complains that there are too few seats. I do not wish to evoke that particular sneer.) Now the passengers adjust and steady themselves and the two gondolieri push off from the wooden mooring poles. The traghetto glides out into the Grand Canal, amid the vaporetti and motoscafi and gondole and the occasional rowing crew on a practice run. It is a giddy feeling indeed to be gently rocking so close to the deep-aqua murk for these few moments and to see my adopted city from this odd viewpoint. And always I am impressed by the economy of the oarsmen's efforts in maneuvering their delicate craft. No matter how choppy the waters, we arrive safely on the other bank. That same hand that helped me aboard is now offered again to see me safely ashore, accompanied by a soft, “Buonagiornata, Signora.”

This lovely pause in my day reminds me I am fortunate to be living in a place like no other, rich in colorful history and brimming over with Old World tradition. There is nowhere else on Earth I can do this small, special thing. Each time I ride, I know it is a privilege.

17 February 2008

La gondola

No matter how long I live in Venice, I do not ever expect to ride in a gondola. Don’t get me wrong – I adore the gondole. And certainly the gondolieri. They are as much a part of La Serenissima as the Grand Canal itself. They lift my heart everyday. I hope they will always enjoy the city’s full protection so they may cut and glide through the blue-green waters of the lagoon and canals in their elegant fashion forever.

The boat itself with its low-slung, fluid silhouette is a gorgeous thing, the watercraft equivalent of a swift, sleek, black horse. In this photo you see many such beauties moored in the Bacino Orseolo, near Piazza San Marco – a sort of parking lot for gondole. When they are crowded together like this, and their hatchets bob and their hulls pitch, they remind me of nothing so much as high-spirited horses in a corral. I cannot think of a more romantic mode of travel. (But I do think it’s a shame that they no longer use the felze – the little attached cabin that once sheltered passengers and afforded them complete privacy on their water journeys. Imagine the possibilities!)

And the gondolieri! Well, their charm is legendary, and many of them are shockingly handsome, not to mention tantalizingly fit from all that rowing. Often I am touched by their warbling serenades. I know their songs would seem ridiculous anywhere else, but here in the lantern light beside a dark canal… (sigh!) And when I am a very old woman, I will still remember some of the delicious things a few of them have said to me in an effort to get me to loosen my… purse strings.

Still, I have never wished to ride in Venice’s unique but painfully expensive form of transportation. I would feel quite foolish, I think. Unless, of course, someone were proposing to me. In which case, I hope that fellow would know enough to have the gondoliere take us under the Bridge of Sighs just at midnight when the Marangona tolls. Legend says I could then be certain his promise would endure forever. But otherwise, I am already Venetian enough to be a snob: le gondole are strictly for tourists!

15 February 2008

Fish fight

Adolescent humans may have a food fight now and then, but the big, sleek seagulls of Rialto have a daily fish fight when the Pescaria closes up and the fishmongers dump their workday’s waste. It’s quite a loud and lively ruckus, a free entertainment well worth a few minutes of any Venice visitor’s time.

These handsome, well-nourished birds haunt the perimeters of the market all day long, hoping to snap up some tasty, unattended scrap. They can be quite daunting when they swoop in for a landing, their powerful white wings spread wide. (I myself – steadfast before any speeding New York taxi – have leapt out of their flight path many times.)

At closing time, they know well that the grubby Styrofoam boxes of melting ice chips hold many meaty treasures: glassy-eyed fish heads and scaly tails, fishspines with fat, pink morsels still clinging to them, limp shrimp and lifeless crabs, stripped eelskins, inky squid strings, broken clams and mussels. A veritable feast for these magnificent creatures!

In they come for the fight…

It’s every bird for himself! They shriek and squawk, bob their heads, weave and hop around, and threaten fiercely, their wings beating at their competitors’ faces. They pounce on the best and biggest bits, tear them out of one another’s sharp beaks, snatch them back with blood-chilling squeals and flee, then head back in for another round. Over and over again the battle rages.

It’s hard to tell which ones will emerge victorious – it’s not always the ones with the advantage of size. Sometimes the smallest ones are the nimblest and shrewdest. I show you one such fellow – you can see how he announces his mastery of this slippery, smelly terrain! Today he is the victor (tomorrow perhaps the vanquished?). The truth is, the whole flock goes home full of Venice’s fine, fresh fish. New York’s seabirds should be so lucky!

12 February 2008

Yutaka Sado

Here in Venice, in the absence of the human voices I know and love, music has become very important to me. Something new for me! My work is solitary, sometimes late-night and lonely, so I rely heavily on my little iPod, televised music from MTV to La Fenice, and whatever I can pick up on the street – sometimes it’s Vivaldi and sometimes it’s hip-hop. And a few of you know about my private, energy-expending pastime, “mutandini dancin’.” (Venetian readers, I am aware that mutandini is incorrect. American readers, think “underpants dance.”) I confess I am rather ignorant about music, but – like those who “don’t know anything about art” – I know what I like. More important, I know why. I like it best when it moves the spirit and provokes the mind, no matter what the genre.

Over the weekend I had the great good fortune to visit Teatro Malibran, for fun and for free, to sit in a plush house seat, view unobstructed, and to fall under the spell of a remarkable conductor – Yutaka Sado.

Once he comes to the podium, it is impossible to take your eyes away from this tall, handsome man who is so clearly in right livelihood – a primary value of mine. The music seems to channel right through him to his orchestra. He stretches it, he crouches over it, he draws it to himself, he extends himself into it. Sometimes it almost makes him leap right off the podium. It is a powerful thing to see, and the result of his effort is a thrilling thing to hear – pure and rich. I suspect the orchestra feels the same. When it’s all over and the applause comes in waves, Yutaka Sado is the very picture of gracious humility.

Afterwards I had the privilege of meeting the conductor and his beautiful wife. He was warm and utterly charming – so much so that I spontaneously reached right out and touched his still-flushed cheek! I sincerely hope this was not too terrible a gaffe in the eyes of the Japanese friends, nor anyone else present. I simply could not help myself.

I owe thanks for this gift to my friend Craig Urquhart, himself a composer and pianist of stunning talent. Give yourself a great treat: Google him and listen to his beautiful, sensitive solo piano music.

10 February 2008

Ancora sono una studentessa.

“Again I am a student.”

Adverb position optional; subject pronoun unnecessary; first person singular positive form of present indicative tense of infinitive “to be;” indefinite singular feminine article; singular feminized version of noun “lo studente” to correspond to my gender… blah, blah, blah!

I have completed my first week of a month-long corso intensivo in Italian at Instituto Venezia. I feel the same about school now as I did when I was a kid: I hate it.

“Aw, Ma, do I hafta go?”

I have grown quite fond of my little Venetian mattina routine. Disrupting it to be in Campo Santa Margherita by 9:00 a.m. is a major pain, especially when my fellow students drag themselves in around 9:15, 9:20, thus robbing me of about 3 euros worth of class lessons and teacher input in each session. It’s the same thing after the break – so that makes 6 euros a day spent for nothing.

“The teacher doesn’t like me…”

The first day I nearly got my hand slapped. My crime was reaching for my well-worn English-Italian dictionary. (Scusami! I was raised to look things up when I don’t understand them!) Instead the class spent ten minutes in a ridiculous “Charades”-style pantomime of the Titanic sinking, and then there were some stick-figure drawings... Five seconds and a peek at page 301 would have told me sopravvivere means “to survive.” She also made a "shame on you" face when I expressed irritation at an inane 10-minute discourse – remember, in largely incomprehensible Italian! – on the debatable health benefits of “Raid Bool” (say it out loud), with my fellow students adding their own stumbling, ever-uncorrected two cents: “Uh…er, hm… Um, uh…“ Another euro or two down the drain. And this is the daily norm, not an exception.

“…and the other kids are mean to me.”

Well, maybe not mean. But sometimes clique-y (a few are in the last of their four weeks and thus are very cozy and snarky together) and often impatient with those of us who refuse to nod our heads and say we understand something when we don’t. I try to play nice when we must do our lessons together, but I wonder why there is so little camaraderie among us. After all, there’s no prize to be won here except fluency.

“And the dog ate my homework!”

OK, that didn’t really happen, but I did lose a page of it in a Xerox machine. That was no fun the next day when my turn to recite came up. Che figura!

I’ve always thought the Tower of Babel story, meant to be a cautionary tale about ambition, is instead the perfect illustration of the uncaring selfishness in a puny deity’s cold heart. My long struggle to become fluent in Italian has certainly enhanced that view. Being hamstrung by language differences only creates painful misunderstandings and needless distance between us, the wingless folks down here on Earth. (Certainly this has been true for my non-English-speaking ragazzo and me!) But I want to fly.

So, to re-phrase a favorite New York joke, “How do I get to Heaven? Conjugate, conjugate, conjugate!”

07 February 2008

Post-Carnevale thoughts

Two weeks ago I faced the onset of Venice’s Carnevale with some trepidation. Everyone was sure I would adore it because – OK, everyone knows it – I am a costume freak! Hallowe’en, Renaissance Faire, Christmas pageants, “Witchcraft & Taco Nite,” theme-driven dinner parties, private dances in my boudoir – any excuse to haul out the glitter and sequins, the boas and capes, the hats and wings, the corsets and petticoats, the wigs and the make-up box, and all the perfect props. Since babyhood I have been putting together fantasy get-ups in which I could try on other lives, other personalities. As in childhood, I ponder next year’s Hallowe’en costume even as I am still wearing this year’s. In short, I was born for Carnevale! So I couldn’t quite put my finger on just why I felt lukewarm about this important event in my Venice year – my beloved lady, committed to masking and costuming for twelve whole days!

I knew that the present day Carnevale is a fairly new version of the old custom, revived in the ‘70s to drive tourist traffic, and not truly an extension of the long and historic Venetian tradition. Some things were bound to get lost in the translation.

I also figured the crowds would take a toll on me. They surely did. Here was, in great part, the lowest class of tourist, and so very many of them! Bridges and streets were hopelessly clogged, crass behavior and litter were abundant, nighttime racket reached new decibel levels on Calle dei Fuseri.

I imagined I would suffer some wistfulness that my budget would not permit me to take part in one of the many glamorous balls around town. And also I had nothing special to wear. Originally I planned to make my own fabulous costume for the festivities – a Venetian version of the black spider in Cirque du Soleil: Allegria. But the time to depart for Venice came too quickly and I didn’t finish it. I didn’t have room for it in my suitcase anyway. I was OK with that, though. Venice is full of places to rent one’s fantasy persona for an evening.

I had a dim idea that it had something to do with the ever-increasing glut of garish mask shops in Venice. Sometimes I almost weep when I come across yet another such place. Especially when the piled-up goods are clearly inauthentic, probably imported from China, and often shabbily manufactured. Why, I always wonder, does Venice cheapen her most valuable asset – her unique, exotic history – in this charmless, money-grasping way?

When the first day arrived and the costumed celebrants hit the streets for their promenades, I realized just what was keeping me distant from the festivities, and why probably I will never be fully seduced by Venice’s Carnevale. The reason: it is not Carnevale. It is not even a pale shadow of Carnevale. (And it is certainly no Mardi Gras, even post-Katrina!)

C’era una volta – “There was a time” when Venice’s pre-Lenten celebration stretched to almost nine months. Masks played the critical, driving role. The practice of masking permitted Venetians of all social strata to mingle in public and to behave outrageously in an otherwise restrictive Christian culture. A nobleman would pose as a peasant, and a seamstress as a great lady. In this way they might meet and greet (perhaps more!) without revealing their true selves, without the usual restrictions of their classes. (What could be more democratic? What could be more delicious and erotic?) And mingle they did! In a charged, colorful atmosphere, surrounded by street theatre, all kinds of special drink and foods, and always, always festive music. Commedia dell’Arte flourished. Acrobats and troubadors, puppeteers and jesters performed day and night. Charlatans fervently hawked their miraculous cures and mysterious love potions in the streets. The well-to-do flung handfuls of gold coins into wine shops, to buy rounds for their less fortunate neighbors. Large campos saw bullfights, contests of strength and speed, and feats of daredevilry; sottoporteghi (passageways under houses) saw brief, heated trysts between momentary lovers. All of Venice partied together, hard enough to provoke the wrath of the Vatican on many occasions.

Today’s Carnevale is lacking in these elements for me. Now it seems to be about separation of the classes. The wealthy (usually foreign) can rent spectacular costumes and attend costly balls; the others slap together whatever get-ups they can, usually completely incongruous with the historic aspect of Carnevale, or buy a cheesy (but still overpriced) mask to wear with their jeans and parkas, or merely stand by dully and watch. And, in truth, nothing much happens in the streets, outside of some loud, bad music, a few thin little puppet shows and acrobatic performances, lots of late night drunken student carousing, and the occasional brief spurt of puny fireworks or a small trashcan “bonfire.” And what does it say, that I met the world’s foremost portrayer of Arlecchino, not in Venice but in… Manhattan? That, in fact, there was no representation of Commedia dell’Arte during Carnevale at all?

Very quickly I found myself repelled by the breathtaking, over-the-top professional costumes, as well as the much subtler but obviously very expensive ones with rich passementerie and real furs. They seemed ridiculous in the otherwise ordinary setting of shops and restaurants (if Venice can ever be called “ordinary”), embarrassing when stared at through Florian’s windows. Worse, they seemed elitist. Costumed promenaders often appeared intent on excluding onlookers. They were aloof at best, downright snotty at worst. Gawkers behaved like lovestruck groupies at a rock concert, snapping pictures, oohing and aahing. I fear that this will be the only way they will ever see this city in their minds now. They have missed the complex, remarkable “woman” behind her shabby disguise. Even the backdrop, lovely Venice herself, seemed saddened, faded, more tired than I had ever glimpsed her. I suppose it was the glare of the glitter…

All this made me long for an afternoon at any Renaissance Faire in the U.S., where the consistency of the whole picture is far greater and everyone participates at an equal level, at least in spirit. At such an event (usually held in an empty field, perhaps with a small lake or pond), food and music and games and theatre are so plentiful, one hardly knows where to look or what to do first. It’s hard to fit everything into one visit! Nearly everyone contributes to the conspiracy of the illusion because nearly everyone is in period-correct costume – there are few if any blue-jeaned voyeurs with videocams. Thus, there is a great sense of playfulness. Strangers mingle easily. A brash, wolf-faced nobleman-rogue in velvet breeches (Is he really a shy computer nerd?) might leer at or even try to snatch a kiss from a near-bare-breasted serving wench (Is she really a tough corporate executive?). No way he would have the nerve without his leather wolf mask; no way she would permit it without her push-up bodice and lace. Both have a delightful time in this fantasy pantomime. All the onlookers participate too, applauding and howling. More fun than I had at any moment during this hollow Carnevale (“Incontri” and my personal spy games aside)!

I do not suggest that La Serenissima has disappointed me. Never. I only fear that this cheap way she sells herself day in and day out will be the real cause of her demise, and not her supposedly rising waters. I wish she would stop and re-think her special holiday, her Carnevale, make it instead a true reflection and a celebration worthy of her glorious past. I wish I could think of a way to help.

05 February 2008

Carnevale weirdness

If you expected to see pictures of fabulous costumes and colorful, feathery masks here during Carnevale, I am sorry to disappoint. (You can just Google "Venice Carnevale" and have at it!) Those closest to me know that it’s the weird, offbeat, pathetic, and incongruous details of big deal events that always get my attention and evoke my fascination. They will not be surprised to learn what I will be taking away from this experience…

My Carnevale memories include the American guy with the beer gut and beard grizzle, wearing jackboots and a Steelers jacket, sucking hard on a long neck and saying things like, “Dude!” and “Righteous!” and… oh!... did I mention he was also wearing a flawlessly powdered white settecento peruke wig, complete with a velvet bow?

I won’t forget the mind-jarring, head-jangling sight and sound of the Hare Krishnas who celebrated with us in the Piazza every night. I mean, I guess they were celebrating. So hard to tell when they’re in that trance dance they do. I can’t quite see how they fit into this “meat festival,” this would-be glut of self-indulgence. Unless they intended to serve as a vegetarian example? If so, non va (“no go”). Their saffron robes just seemed like all the other no-effort costumes.

And something else... Above you see what seems like any handful of tossed confetti littering the street. Look again – it isn’t. (Click on the image.) Confetti is available everywhere right now, sometimes it’s free, a giveaway. Everybody has a little bit in his pocket, even if by accident. But someone (thinking God knows what!) has gone to considerable trouble and expense to crush an entire bag of costly, carnival-colored souvenir pasta down to the size of confetti, then had the bizarre pleasure of flinging it into the air in celebration. My question is, Why? (Actually, I think I would like to meet this individual. Here is evidence of some truly interesting, possibly even deeply political thinking, or sheer wasteful idiocy. Whichever it is, I'm curious.)

It seems I always expect some very particular thing from my lady Venice, but instead she always gives me something else – something unexpected and thought-provoking, something that shows me yet another facet of her complex self. Who wouldn’t keep pursuing a woman like that?

03 February 2008

I spy.

Earlier I mentioned briefly that I have dabbled in spying here in Venice. (You thought I was kidding, didn’t you?) A tricky business, this! Timing is always critical, and of course, one must be disguised as fully as possible. But here in the land of the twelve-day costume fest, Carnevale has afforded me the opportunity to spy at leisure, appearing to be just another masked reveler. I am amazed at what I have learned about masking and the spy game in a short time…

First, after crafting a disguise (the best, I think, is something least like oneself, and certainly androgynous), it is shocking to observe oneself in it. To look into the mirror and see no trace of anyone familiar is a little frightening. I found myself pulling up close, to gaze into my own eyes for some flicker of recognition. I realized they are almost not my eyes without the rest of my visage to give them context! Through two small holes in the mask, they are merely… eyes. Genderless, ageless, almost raceless, impossible to read without the clues the other parts of the face provide.

Next comes the absolutely weird sensation of walking about in one’s disguise, of gazing upon people one knows from behind the mask. I had to try this several times before I could actually believe I was not being recognized (and thought an utter fool!). Frequently I chickened out in my early attempts, blushing hotly in my fear of exposure. But finally I got the hang of it. Some of it is a distance thing, and surely body language, a certain nonchalance. And some of it is paying attention to one’s intuition, to know when it’s time to move along. Calmly, deliberately. Amazing what the mind can sense! And amazing how quickly people catch on to the fact that they are being watched! (How does that work anyway?)

And then, there is the bizarre feeling that comes from seeing how an acquaintance behaves when one is “not there.” Equally strange is to be present with someone, almost right in front of him, and to realize one is a million miles away from his mind in the moment. (Can he not feel my presence somehow? No!) What a rush! Like being “The Invisible Woman!”

Finally, there are the unexpected responses one receives from fellow pedestrians. I am tickled pink when they ask to take my picture. I nearly snort with a stifled giggle when I catch them eying me suspiciously and hurrying away – especially in more isolated areas of the city. (I have never had this power. It gives me a sense of what it was like here in the days of the fierce bravos!)

But I have been quite unnerved when a few of them have seemed obsessed with discovering my gender, or with the possibility of unmasking me. Now and then someone will talk very loudly to me (Why? My ears are not masked!). They might bully or block my way and attempt to peer straight into my eyes or try to get me to say something. It feels very threatening. My response has been to draw myself up haughtily, make a gruff, irritated harrumph!, brush them away, and stride straight forward. Never did I expect I would draw this kind of scary attention. But I have had the rare opportunity to see just how I handle myself when I receive it!

In one particular instance, though, an attractive young man determined my gender almost instantly: “Femmina!” Then he became quite intent on discovering all he could about me without any physical revelation. His eyes were so mischievous and he was so appealing in his playful quest that I allowed him to hover quite close to me, to examine me up and down, to gaze into my eyes, even to sniff my perfume! Strange and exciting! He attempted to cheat a little by sneaking a peek under my mask – hoping for lipgloss, instead of a mosca (“soul patch”), I suppose! I confess, his effort was so charming that I dropped a flirtatious comment before I could catch myself, and he pegged me for a New Yorker! We chatted a bit, then made a date for drinks tonight. He offered me the option of remaining masked, if I prefer. He says it does not matter to him how I look – he ‘already likes what is dentro (“inside”).’ We’ll see about that.

I have been consulting with local police and the Carabinieri: I’m curious to know whether or not I may legally wear my disguise in public after Carnevale. There is a Venetian law about out-of-season masking, but opinions about it vary widely. Some say I might merely be requested in good faith to remove my mask now and again, or possibly I will be refused entrance to certain public places; others swear, in these days of terrorist threats, I may well be asking to get myself deported!

It would be fun to show you my spy persona here, but then I would lose the use of it. And anyway, that would be unprofessional. A veteran spy never blows her own cover.

02 February 2008


Last evening I had the pleasure of seeing a fine example of free street theatre, a dazzling spettacolo ("spectacle") called “Incontri” in Campo San Giacomo dall’Orio. (Venetian readers, you can still catch it for the next two nights.) Incontri means “encounters.” How shall I describe it?

A circle of sand like a small beach in the campo, surrounded by burning smudgepots, a tall gateway, two bare stick tepee structures supporting wasp nest lanterns of glittering orange sparks and embers, a few chairs, some ominous charred props, some haunting, evocative music, and six individuals (each a skilled acrobat and mime) encountering one another in the most emotional ways, all the while playing boldly with – or being terrorized by – fire. The gateway’s curtain burned away in a burst of flame and onto the beach they came…

Many brief human dramas were played out on this smoky patch of sand, and, at very close range, the fiery element magnified each. The idea that we “play with fire” when we deal with others, the temptation to do that and its mesmerizing effect on us, never seemed so clear, so dangerous, and yet so enticing to this onlooker. (Not surprising. I myself have been playing with fire lately: I have the emotional blisters to show for it.)

There were dances and duels, cruelty and empathy, threats and seductions, courtship and war, betrayals and redemptions, loss and triumph, glory and humiliation, all in the glow of fire being tossed from bare hand to bare hand, dancing wildly through the dark night on invisible strings, or sparkling and spurting from buckets and boxes, hats and boots, spears and swords.

How can anyone approach a woman when she wears a wide skirt of flames? What can possibly be said to a man who fashions a burning halo for himself, but is invisible from the neck down? Who wouldn’t run from giant, fiery hands that threaten to restrain and crush? These metaphors and others were made visible, vivid, in the pure, glaring firelight.

I was aware that the show struck all my senses. First I saw the hot gleam and I heard the crisp crackle of the fire, then I felt its dangerous warmth and smelled its sharp scent, and finally I tasted its acrid smoke in my mouth and throat. I even brought a little of that smoke home with me on my coat. Here it is beside me, reminding me of a truly memorable hour of Carnevale street magic on a cold Venetian night.