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


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


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?