30 December 2008

“Prova! Prova! Prova!”

“Try! Try! Try!”

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

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

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

28 December 2008

Dreaming of an orange Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 December 2008

O Little Town of… Venezia

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

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

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

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

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

16 December 2008

Acqua alta’d out!

OK, OK! Got it! Acqua alta!

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

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

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

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

09 December 2008

Ya want "cute?"

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

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

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

05 December 2008

Venetian weaponry

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

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

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

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

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

01 December 2008

Acqua alta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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