30 April 2008

My Venetian shooze

I’m quite fond of using the scraps on my worktable to make paper shooze (as opposed to “shoes,” which are functional), usually in my own size, although sometimes I make them as gifts for others. I have produced caffe latte-inspired espadrilles and Carmen Miranda wedgies with 50s-style cocktail pick fruit adornments, even pink floral baby-girl Mary Janes for my mother. It’s an exercise in structure and problem-solving as well as an opportunity to daydream and decorate, just a pure, mindless craft with a pretty pay-off. Often I get bored with them before they are finished, and I discard them. I hadn’t made a pair for a long time. Until this week…

Here’s a pair of shooze I’ve just completed. Distinctly Venetian in spirit and with more than a nod to the paper footwear of Isabelle de Borchgrave (see an earlier post entitled Un Mondo di Carta). Yes, I confess hers were in the back of my mind. In fact, these were made with de Borchgrave cocktail napkins. But I honestly think mine are just as beautiful, and perhaps even more carefully finished, and anyway I was making paper shooze years before she was!

Clearly these shooze weren’t “made for walkin’.” I think that’s why they materialized here… to remind me that I’m not walking. I’m stuck. And more than a little lost.

I don’t know where I live anymore. I don’t know where I belong now. I don’t know where I will be after September. My time in Venice is speeding by; my money (thanks to the brutal exchange rate) is disappearing faster than I ever dreamed possible, despite my thrifty efforts to conserve.

To make matters worse, I believe I am on the right track but very far behind where I would like to be by now. There are so many things I feel absolutely driven to do – in Venice, in the studio, in my personal transformation. I know I need to make some decisions and take action. I know I need to figure out what’s next for me, and how I will pay for it.

But I’m stuck.

So these shooze will do just fine for now. I won’t even scuff their gilded serpentine toes…

27 April 2008

Gregory Warren Wilson wrote...

If you ever take me for granted, I'll take you
by the hand, confound you this way and that
in a maze of Gothic passageways I memorised
year by year, nameplate by shutter by headstone,
to a place where the scent of crushed geranium
mingles with the sour lagoon - a blind alley
that comes to an end in three scooped steps
down to a green canal; there I'll unfasten
the muslin binding your eyes and say Venice
all Venice is lapping your feet
and darling you'd be lost without me.

- Gregory Warren Wilson

(Fair warning!)

25 April 2008

San Marco, April 25

Every day is some saint’s day here in Italy, but today is the feast day of San Marco Evangelista, patron saint of Venice, not to mention the “festival of the blooming rose” or il bocolo (commemorating the rose bed that supposedly grows in San Marco’s tomb) AND the national holiday of Italy’s liberation to boot!

I watched the city’s florists very late last night, stripping the thorns from endless piles of long stem red roses, then wrapping the de-barbed blooms in cellophane. This is the traditional Festa di San Marco gift from a Venetian gentleman to the lady of his choice. (Oddly enough, to his mother too, in some quarters.)

Except for the crowds, the day was largely indistinguishable from any other. No major festivities in the Piazza – just the usual pigeon-feeding frenzy and overpriced prosecco at Florian and Quadri. (A friend of mine once told me that sometimes in spring Florian serves new champagnes and made-this-minute potato chips in their back room to those in the know. I had high hopes today, but no dice.)

If one got up early enough, there was a dead serious and very swift regatta between the members of all the traghetto stations. (Could these gondoliers-in-training be any cuter? I doubt it!) Next time I want to see this race from a boat at the finish line and avoid the rabble. I have no clue which station won!

There was also another grueling 22-kilometer regatta around the perimeter of the city and then up the Grand Canal, open to anyone who wished to make a political point on this important day. Billed as Vogo, e ti difendo (I row and I defend you), it was intended to draw attention to the increasingly indiscriminate use of the Grand Canal, the Bacino, and Giudecca Canal by mechanical watercraft – everything from motoscafi to monster cruise ships – that damages the delicate lagoon environment and disrupts the more traditional means of water travel. I missed this one. What a pity! I would have enjoyed seeing the women’s teams all dressed in white, as tradition demands, and the canottieri of the disdottona – the 18 oarsmen of the take-apart craft, of which my calzolaio (cobbler) is so rightfully proud.

I really had my heart set on seeing some young Venetian fidanzato (fiancé) get down on all fours and claw the air and roar like a lion at the wellhead in Campo San Zaccaria. There’s a very sweet old legend about a young man who rescued his beloved from the hands of the Devil in this very spot, just by his quick-thinking mimicry of that fierce feline who personifies San Marco. Sometimes a romantic fellow with a bit of flair re-enacts that melodrama on April 25th. I dropped by a few times and waited patiently. None showed up, though. Is romance dead in Venice?

I think not. I myself did not receive a red rose from anybody, but I did enjoy a terribly romantic, matinee idol-style, deep-dip embrace from one of the hottest guys in town. Way better than a rose… It certainly made my (San Marco) day!

24 April 2008

A haunted house

What do you make of this beautiful old home, and its expansive, terraced garden surrounded by a forbidding iron fence, seemingly abandoned to the weeds, the sea wind, and the rain? I see it on my way to and from the mercato in Lido on Tuesday mornings. There is never a single sign of light or life inside. Every week the lush jungle encroaches further, the moldy steps crumble more, the curtains hanging out the still-open windows are grubbier. A few kitchen chairs scattered about the grounds have rotted to the point of collapsing. There’s not even a hint of birdsong here.

Why would anyone leave such a lovely house to die this way? It’s as if some glamorous Italian movie star forgot to lock up after a long weekend of luxurious Lido fun with her famous friends… and just never came back. Perhaps she gambled her money away, fell on hard times, or met with some accident, and her house remains stuck in the Venetian version of probate. (Imagine what a bureaucratic nightmare that might be!)

Or maybe it’s something more sinister that drove the house’s owner away so hurriedly, and still keeps her from coming back. After all, Venice is teeming with ghosts. Might not two or three of them make their way over the waves of the Bacino and take up residence in such a pretty pink palazzo?

22 April 2008

One-man band

When my ear catches a few notes of his Old World, rumpty-tumpty music, I always take a moment to follow it and find this small fellow, Venice’s one-man band. Usually he makes his way around the Rialto area on the weekends, drawing plenty of attention from the crowds but, it seems to me, not so much in the way of payment for his talent.

I could be wrong about that – maybe he nets a lot more than I imagine! Or maybe he has a lucrative workweek job, and he just does this for his own amusement or a little pocket change. Who can say?

The first time I saw him I had that awful little twinge one feels when seeing someone do something humbling for handouts. He has a stoic, expressionless way of slowly shuffling down the street, pitched slightly forward to bear the weight of his apparatus, staring straight ahead and beating out his cartoonish but still somehow melancholy songs. That could be his way of distancing himself from the pointers and gigglers, or perhaps it’s just a matter of concentrating on all the different things he is doing at one time. He acknowledges every donation he receives (somehow nodding without adding any unwanted sleighbell sounds to the song he plays), but he never smiles, he never fawns, he never says a word to anyone. I am always struck by the great personal dignity this comical entertainer manages to maintain.

Of course, being who I am, my mind wanders and wonders about this man’s life…

How, exactly, does one get into this line of work? Did he inherit the enterprise? Learn it from his father or an uncle? Or did he himself get the idea to construct the mechanism that allows him to beat his drum or bang his cymbals with a tug of his foot and still shuffle along while also playing his toy-like concertina and precisely twitching to shake the sleighbells on his goofy funnel hat in time to his sad-funny music? Are the euros dropped into his can an important part of his family’s weekly income? Will he complain to his wife tonight about his workday? Does he dream of retiring from this musical grind?

This past Sunday evening I noticed him getting off the vaporetto at Piazzale Roma with all his equipment (jingle-belled funnel hat included) bundled up securely, heading toward the queue for the bus to Mestre. While he waited, he lit a cigarette and checked his watch, just like any other working man on his way home to supper.

20 April 2008

The flat people

I noticed there are some strange people in Campo Santa Margherita this weekend. Forty or more of them. True, their clothes are a little unusual, and their faces have an exotic look. But the very first thing you notice about them is… they’re flat! Colorful, life-size, real-people paper dolls. The kids in the campo respond to them like big toys, but they have an important message to relate to the adult passers-by.

They are part of an installation and related media events called Persone: Africa, Società Civile, Cambiamento, intended to promote the efforts of a number of organizations (under the umbrella of CISPI) which seek a change in the way the world (Italy in particular) responds to Africa’s social and economic struggles (much like Africa Works, to which Italian Vanity Fair dedicated its cover story in February). They encourage training services and the extension of micro-loans, rather than charity, to assist African people into profitable work with sustainable resources and, thus, self-sufficiency. A worthy cause, publicized in a clever, accessible, “human-scale” way.

I like the fact that this exhibition started in Venice, which has always been a crossroads of the world, always willing to assimilate and integrate other cultures. These flat people will stick around here for a while, then they’ll move on to a dozen other Italian cities in the coming months. Buona Fortuna to their real life selves! Bravo to their supporters!

18 April 2008

Van Gogh & Shanti Daan

This is Van Gogh, whom I believe to be the most serene individual currently residing in La Serenissima. (Apparently it was not always so. He is named after the artist not only for his red-orange fur, but also for the loss of part of one ear in fight some time ago.)

He lives with the very gracious and serene Antonia in the beautiful shop called Shanti Daan. She sells lovely things from India and Tibet and Thailand and many other such exotic places, all of them designed to bring pleasure to the senses and peace to the soul. The whole place has the most wonderful scent of flower and spice. I cannot describe the relaxing sounds in there because I have not yet figured out what it is I am actually hearing (a delicate flute played underwater in a deep cavern maybe?). I like to drop in, just to feel the shift of the energy from the ruckus of the street. And Antonia doesn’t mind my breathing in a little of her calming atmosphere for free. The only rule here is, as you can see, “Don't disturb the cat!”

Sometimes Van Gogh snoozes on the counter like this, under the rosy-warm halogen lights; other times he’s away on a passeggiata through the neighborhood. Today the cat was “in.” I was lucky enough to get a photo. (I’m sorry it’s not clearer, but I could not bring myself to risk waking him with the flash.)

I show you Van Gogh just because I like him. Sometimes he permits me to pet him, but I have no clue how he really feels about me.

[This post was corrected 9 June 2008. Mea culpa!]

16 April 2008


Last evening I had a lovely time with an American gentleman, born and raised in Queens and now an Army officer serving in the American embassy in Rome. I met “D” at Bancogiro while I was having a late afternoon glass of prosecco; he was having a glass of Barbera and a few cichetti. He appeared to know a thing or two about food and wine, so I struck up a conversation.

What great luck! I found an intelligent, enthusiastic, witty fellow who shares many of my interests, my taste in wine, and even my political viewpoint. When our glasses were drained, I dragged him around to a few other favorite spots, finally touching down at Enoteca San Marco where we decided to settle in for dinner. The wine flowed, the chow was delicious, and the conversation was varied and animated.

As we chatted, I told “D” that it seems I have acquired a new nickname among Venetian gentlemen of a certain age who make the rounds at the giro hour. (I like to bump into these jolly older fellows, laugh a little, and pick up some dialetto from them.) Lately when I see them, in a bar or just on the street, they call out to me, “America! Ciao, America!”

I confessed to “D” that this new moniker was troubling me a bit: Venetians are a very difficult people to win over, and the name seemed to suggest I was moving in the wrong direction!

“D” (who has an Italian wife and seems very well versed in Italian culture) swears this is, instead, an homage to a beloved Italian movie character. He says, in fact, my new soprannome is a sign of real acceptance in the community. I blushed with pleasure to hear this (although I cannot begin to explain why I want to belong among these people so much).

But, you know, it got me thinking in the wee, small hours… Really, who am I becoming? It was such fun to drop my halting Italian and converse in a normal, thoughtful fashion in my own tongue. Will I ever be able to truly communicate in Italian? How much longer will that take? And even though the evening was not a romantic one at all, the ease and certainty of being with another American startled me a bit, seduced me a little. All males are a slight puzzle to me. But my struggles with Italian men in the past few months have often left me feeling bewildered, wondering if there isn’t something in them I will never fully comprehend. So what chance do I have for any real connection?

To put it another way, I have one foot back in the U.S. and the other in Italy right now. I don’t know exactly why. I don’t know what lessons I have come here to learn. I don’t know where any of this is taking me. To tell the truth, I thought I would have had my fill of Venice by now. But late last night I felt a twinge of melancholy when I realized that I don’t want to be pulled back into my own culture. And I haven’t yet advanced as far as I had hoped to in this new one. So where does that leave me?

14 April 2008

Elezioni (or not)

It’s Election Day in Italy.

I have paid as little attention as possible to the presidential election currently underway at home, but I have not been able to avoid the near-constant jabber of the process here in Venice. (Frankly, it has been ruining MTV for me!) For once, I’m glad my Italian is not fluent: I don’t want to know what all the contenders are trying to get across to voters.

And when I say “all the contenders… “

Americans readers, you think we have problems in the U.S. with Democrats, Republicans, and a handful of Independents? These people have at least seventeen political affiliations. Seventeen! See for yourself this roster of senatorial candidates, listed by their parties (only sixteen of them in this race). The mind reels!

I’m grateful to be among the blissfully ignorant and utterly uninvolved this time around. The sickening circumstances of the past few years in the U.S. and all the damage done to its economy and the quality of life there have cost me my usual healthy appetite for politics. At least for now.

Here in Venice, I can be in the world, but not of it. At least for a little while.

12 April 2008

Amarena, Amore!

Other women dream of and wait for a big promotion or the private, on-bended-knee proposal. But this woman dreams of and waits for… this splendid Venetian cookie called amarena. Che bella!

It’s a preserved tart cherry with thin layer of soft marzipan, baked inside a crisp, golden butter cookie shell sprinkled with toasty, sliced almonds. A brief fantasy of perfectly-blended textures, flavors, and scents. Sort of buttery crunchy soft cherry almondy. Can you imagine it?

I can easily pass up dessert, but I am a hopeless cookie addict. This particular temptation has a special season, so even though they are painfully expensive (due to their surprising heaviness), when I see amarene at the pasticceria, I happily prepare to part with my hard-earned cash.

10 April 2008

A world of paper

I got lost yesterday. Completely, hopelessly lost. I wandered helplessly from Istanbul to Lisbon, from Morocco to Paris, from Hong Kong to Lagos, from Bangkok to London, from Athens to Timbuktoo. And I did a little shopping along the way…

The fantastic rabbit hole I fell into was just inside the door of Museo Fortuny in Palazzo Orfei, the home and studio of the fabulous Spanish painter/designer/collector, Mariano Fortuny. There I saw Un Mondo di Carta, an exhibition of the work of a contemporary talent, Isabelle de Borchgrave, among some of the fabulous things that belonged to the source of her greatest inspiration. This Belgian artist and designer interprets the history of fashion – and far, far more – in paper. The show’s curator has blended her works into the ever-changing Fortuny collection, and often it is difficult to separate the real/Fortuny from the faux/de Borchgrave.

First the viewer sees the artist’s immense linen-covered worktable and her giant-size versions of her tools and trays full of samples, all realized in papier-machê. The feeling she evokes is that of being a child who has just been invited to play. (Indeed, the artist herself insists that any design commission she accepts must be, above all, fun.)

Then there is every imaginable paper garment, complete with paper lace, passementerie, feathers, tassels, toggles, buttons, eyelets and lacings – capes, caftans, djellabas, kimonos, waistcoats, ballgowns, hapi coats, filmy togas, corsets, hoop skirts and peplum jackets, sarongs, many versions of Fortuny-style pleated chemises, even a classic trench coat with the proper English boots! And there are also all the exotic paper accessories to go with them – chains of golden coins, pearls, brooches, belts, shoes, slippers, boots, bags, hats, and helmets. Other than the cobweb-like rice paper veiling, every detail is rendered from the same plain 1m x 1.5m sheet of white paper, which becomes unrecognizable when transformed into silk, velvet, wool, ikat cloth, mudcloth, linen, leather, and tapestry by the artist’s application of layers upon layers of organic paints.

After the initial dazzle of the paper clothing subsides a bit, the viewer can notice all the other creations – a full stage backdrop, several pierced window screens, mannequins, pillows, vases, lanterns, footstools, a bouzouki, even paper dogs! There is also a life-size paper tableau of the artist herself at her own desk, but situated in Fortuny’s Venetian palazzo. In her cardboard “mirror” the paper doll of the artist sees not herself, but Fortuny!

Her piece de resistance (Is there an Italian equivalent for this expression?) is a swooping, airy white paper tent fit for any Arabian princess. With its endless Middle Eastern patterned screens layered one over another and its filmy wall panels blowing gently in the breeze from the Grand Canal, it would be right at home at a milky oasis in a snowy paper desert.

So convincing is the result of the artist’s efforts that when I looked at these works I could almost hear the bells of caravan camels, smell the spices of the bazaar. I cannot think when a show has so completely taken me away into the realm of sheer imagination. Then, afterward, came the wistful longing for a life of such obvious right livelihood as that of Isabelle de Borchgrave.

08 April 2008

Don't ask.

A big reason I fell in love with Venice (and one of the same reasons I fell in love with New York) is that there are strange, quirky things around every corner. Which tells me there are lots of strange, quirky people (just like me!) around every corner, too. Here’s an example…

Obviously Christmas was over long ago, but one of my Campo San Luca neighbors had put some effort into creating this unusual symmetrical arrangement of holiday greens and lights. Evidently it pleases him or her enough to keep it shining well past Easter.

That’s so like something I would do that it absolutely fascinates me. Somehow it gives me a sense of being in the right place.

I was led to this odd little display by happy accident. It pleases me enough that I keep dropping by every so often (like tonight), to see if it’s still intact and aglow.

It is.

This is Venice... don’t ask.

06 April 2008

The lions that laugh

How did Jan Morris miss the eight cheerful leoni holding in their smiling jaws the oak and laurel garland all around the perimeter of a pillar dedicated to XXII MARZO MDCCCLXVIII in Campo San Salvador? (Do not ask me why that pillar isn’t in Calle XXII Marzo – I cannot guess!) They should have the title of “the jolliest Venetian lions." Each one is unique with his own special, semi-toothless grin. Truly, they seem ready to drop that garland and burst into laughter any minute.

Most of Venice’s lions were meant to look either very fierce or very dignified. Why do you suppose these were so obviously designed to evoke a smile? I only know they give me a giggle every time I see them on my way to and from Rialto.

04 April 2008

Asparagus = spring

Is there anything that says “spring” more than fresh, emerald green asparagus? No!

Is there a more delicious way to enjoy it than gently-steamed and served as a “mimosa style” salad, with a generous sprinkling of chopped hard-cooked egg? Yes!

Skip the traditional vinaigrette. Instead sauté bits of smoked pancetta until crisp, then add a little red wine vinegar and some olive oil to the pan to make a warm dressing. Drizzle and savor.

If you have some good bread and ice-cold mineral water – Eccolà! A light, easy dinner for a busy weeknight. No need to thank me!

02 April 2008

One of those moments

Late this afternoon from the traghetto, I watched an ominous thunderstorm making its way down the Grand Canal. Another time I would have scurried home to avoid a soaking, but Bancogiro looked so warm and inviting as I passed by that I decided to stop in for an ombra, maybe a brief chat with Carlo and Matteo. I was served a beautiful wine that I’d never had before – Poncaia. As it grew darker and the rain hit, several other damp customers joined us. The whole place became quite jolly. As I took a sip of my second glass, I turned to look out the window at the rain.

You can see what I saw – Campo San Giacometto, the San Polo entry to Rialto Bridge (not even looking its best). But you can’t feel what I felt – the sudden rush of emotion this scene brought to my heart. It took my breath away. Why?

Countless times over the past years, when I sat at my desk in my New York office, I would pull up the three Venice webcams and see a storm like this one making a haunting, poetic picture of my city. It would make me ache. How I longed to be living there, stopping for a break during my weekly errands, lingering over a great glass of wine in a cozy osteria, laughing and chatting, postponing the wet walk to my apartment just like the others, almost a Venetian myself!

Today that’s exactly where I was. It was perfect, just as I’d always imagined.

01 April 2008

Pesce d'aprile!

April Fool! Here it’s “April Fish!” and it’s a day for making jokes and playing pranks on the gullible, just like in the U.S.

Sweet shop windows are full of pretty chocolate fish, from teeny-weeny to two feet long. But no two Venetians have given me the same explanation for the significance of the symbol, although in true Venetian fashion, they are all absolutely certain it must be something that had its origin here in Venice. After all, “Venice is a fish!” (Look at a map – you’ll see what it means.)

The joke’s on them! I learned this one years ago in Paris where they use the same image for this holiday, and the explanation is utterly consistent: in springtime the waters are crowded with young, hungry fish that will bite at anything, even false bait, so it’s easy to catch one. Get it?

As for the chocolate fish… I’ll bite!