08 October 2009

“The Venice effect”

“The rhythm in Venice is like breathing,” he said. “High water, high pressure: tense. Low water, low pressure: relaxed. Venetians are not at all attuned to the rhythm of the wheel. That is for other places, places with motor vehicles. Ours is the rhythm of the Adriatic. The rhythm of the sea. In Venice the rhythm flows along with the tide, and the tide changes every six hours.”...

“Do you see a bridge as an obstacle?... To us bridges are transitions… like changes in scenery, or like the progression from Act One of a play to Act Two. Our role changes as we go over bridges. We cross from one reality to another reality. From one street to another street. From one setting to another setting.”...

“A trompe-l’oeil painting… is so lifelike it doesn’t look like a painting at all. It looks like real life, but of course it is not. It is reality once removed. What, then, is a trompe-l’oeil painting when reflected in a mirror?”…

“Sunlight on a canal is reflected up through a window onto the ceiling, then from the ceiling onto a vase, and from the vase onto a glass, or a silver bowl. Which is the real sunlight? Which is the real reflection?”

“What is true? What is not true? The answer is not so simple because the truth can change. I can change. You can change. That is the Venice effect.”

Count Girolamo Marcello, speaking to John Berendt
The City of Falling Angels

We human beings are notoriously resistant to change. Why? Because change makes a dreadful mess of things. Change is a very clumsy, undignified business. Change robs us of our certainty, or – more accurately – our illusion of certainty. Change can make us look foolish or selfish. Change might irritate or frighten those around us, making them suspicious of us, leaving us without our usual support systems, forcing us to explain or appease. Change often causes us to doubt ourselves, makes us feel timid and embarrassed. And change almost never happens smoothly, nor without extracting a price.

Two years ago I moved to Venice to… well… to change. Really, to accelerate the change in myself that was already well underway. What a fool I was! I believed in a few months’ time I would reach some particular internal state, recognize it, breathe a sigh of relief, be satisfied, finally feel authentic and at ease, and move on. Life would make sense then, and everything would fall into place.

I’m here to report: it doesn’t work that way. Or at least it hasn’t so far.

The past summer in New York was tough. It set me back a few steps on my journey. I did some back-sliding, lost my way a bit. This brief visit to my other home showed me that La Serenissima and I are not finished with one another yet – not at all. Perhaps we never will be. I see that I must have both Venice and New York if I am to enjoy balance and peace in my life, if I am to conduct my studio life in a satisfying way. Why? I still don’t really know. It’s very weird, this drive to seek the two cities’ contrasting energies and influences to guide and shape me. And achieving my bi-continental goal will certainly not be easy. At present I really can’t afford to live in either place! But in truth, I have no choice. I am fully under the spell of “the Venice effect.” And the only constant in my life is change.

01 October 2009

Report from Venice

Remarkable how much can be jammed into eight short days! Still… I did not manage to do the little personal things that meant the most to me while I was there. It would seem I have lost my anonymity in La Serenissima, and therefore my beloved solitude. I love the friends I have made in Venice, certainly, and I was delighted to be with them again. But I was neither a resident (although I kept turning to go “home” to my old apartment instead of my hotel) nor a tourist while I was there. It was difficult to be between these roles.

The particulars of the trip…

Having studied weather predictions, I was prepared for a full week of showers. Instead I got a string of hot, sunny summer days. I had also shortchanged myself on clothing to avoid Delta’s overweight charges. Two big mistakes for someone who likes to dress up three times a day while in Venice.

Everyone at Hotel Bel Sito gave me the usual principessa treatment, particularly on my birthday. I even had my own reserved breakfast table on the terrace every morning!

My birthday partying included lunch at al Prosecco (as usual) and supper at Enoteca San Marco (as usual). As a pre-birthday blow-out, my friend "E" took me to a new place we had never visited - Cantinone Storico. What a pleasure to spend time with her again! I really gilded the lily by having supper at Bancogiro on my last night in town, thereby stretching my celebration to the financial limit.

If you have followed this blog, you know an important Venice task for me is snatching old posters for use in my work. Curiously, there was a dearth of paper loot for me to filch this time. I cannot explain it, but it seemed there were fewer current ones posted, and the outdated ones had been rather efficiently stripped away. Thus I came back almost empty-handed this time. (Above you can see one rain-mottled beauty I coveted but could not manage to carve away with my little Exacto knife.)

Many shops and restaurants have closed or changed hands since I left. The presence of Chinese immigrants grows daily. Venice already had far too many of their glutted handbag shops back in spring. Now this situation has become something of a bad racial joke in town. Sadly, this is happening at the expense of those everyday services that the local folks really need – a hardware store, a cobbler, a fine little bakery, and the like.

But the Tuesday morning mercato in Lido was exactly the same, thank Heaven. I happily rooted through the rummage sale and I brought home a bagful of those magnificent greasy walnuts they sell there. My gal pal “D” accompanied me, and she showed me where in that neighborhood one can buy the best fishing worms. (I might need to know that someday!)

There is another tango night now. It’s in Campo Santa Margherita on Saturday evenings. So far it hasn’t exploded in popularity the way the original did. Probably due to the loud, annoying student crowd milling around between the bars there.

This year’s Biennale was as foolish and time-wasting as ever. There were only a handful of truly captivating artists represented. Mostly it was stupid things like a single sheet of pink paper creased once and framed in Plexiglas or a few primary-colored Tinker Toys stacked on a stick. (Snore!) There was entirely too much self-important, amateurish, boring video nonsense, although there were two elaborate and terribly moving video installations that relied on sophisticated technology along with poignant history for effect, most notably the Hungarian entry, Col Tempo.

I mourned my lack of a kitchen because the fish market was full of gorgeous, glittery creatures and the late summer produce was looking like something from a movie set. I had to settle for just a taste of my favorite mozzarella bread and a few pieces of perfect fruit. In particular it broke my heart that the season for chiodini (clumps of tiny, tasty mushrooms called “little nails”) began just as I was departing. I remember well how good they are roasted briefly with garlic, shallots, and butter…

It was an absolute delight to eat and drink in my favorite places again. The summery weather made the gelati irresistible. I had my second coffee at Marchini Time almost every morning. And of course, the daily giro hour – the thing I miss most about living in Venice – was the very best part of my stay. Here in New York a glass of prosecco runs about $15 plus tax and tip. But in Venice this quaff runs like water – cheap and cheerful. It’s nothing at all to bump into a friend on the street and pop into the nearest bar for a bubbly pick-me-up. Now that’s living!

17 September 2009

Another homecoming

I am almost jumping out of my skin! Tonight I return to Venice.

It’s just for a brief holiday. I will be a tourist again, and it seems like that will be the hardest part for me. I keep wondering, How will it feel to pass by my house on Calle dei Fuseri? But maybe my status was changed by my extended residency. Maybe I’ll never really be a tourist in Venice again.

Anyway, tourist or not, I will stay at Hotel Bel Sito again (albeit in the little “nun’s cell” rather than in my usual room with its balcony and bathtub – finances just wouldn’t permit that luxury this time). The important thing is, I will celebrate my birthday among friends in La Serenissima again.

I also wonder, Is there any other madness as sweet as obsessive anticipation? It seems just like old times around here…

I have counted down the days, just as I always used to do.

I have exchanged excited email with the friends I expect to see again.

I have made sightseeing and study notes from my many books – amazing that there is still so much for the lady Venice to reveal to me.

I have outlined the days and nights of my holiday calendar, without cramping the ever-hovering spirit of Serendipity, a surprisingly frequent phenomenon in Venice.

I have indulged in my very favorite form of OCD – packing, unpacking, and re-packing – more than a few times.

I have been trimmed, styled, manicured, pedicured, polished, waxed, and threaded.

And, of course, I did not sleep a wink last night. Good! That means I will dream away this dark transatlantic night and wake up tomorrow morning, watching the Alps give way to the blue-green lagoon…

Finalmente! The SuperShuttle van is due in just minutes… I am on my way home again!

20 May 2009

Gains & losses

It’s the two-column list, that trusty old tool we use for seeing how everything turned out when it’s all over. A personal P&L. Here’s how I fared during my 20 months in Venice:

- My hesitation to speak Italian
- My hesitation to identify as an artist
- 2 friendships that brought me great joy in their brief histories
- Almost 20 pounds (without dieting!)
- A very expensive pair of progressive lens eyeglasses
- My financial security (only a temporary loss)

- The improved ability to read, write, and converse in Italian
- The chance to help some Italian friends speak English
- The joy of proverbs from the Venetian dialect
- A closer relationship with an old and dear friend
- A bunch of great new friends – people whom I hope to know forever
- The restoration of one of those two lost friendships (jury’s still out on the second)
- A lot of information on a wide variety of subjects
- Improved exercise, dietary, and housekeeping habits
- A good many new recipes and kitchen practices
- A whole new wardrobe of things I never dreamed I could actually wear
- Lots more shoes, boots, and handbags
- Lots more books
- The rare experience of playing the role of a spy
- Some amazing insights about my own personality and sexuality
- A few unexpected, even shocking romantic adventures and, thus, many memories – some bitter and some delicious
- Greater freedom from concern about what people think of me
- More confidence in myself as a woman
- More trust in my intuition
- My first public show of studio work
- Considerable entitlement to proceed with that studio work
- And real, actual, cold, hard cash payment for some of it
- Many, many new ideas and lots of materials for future studio work
- This blog to remind me of the whole wonderful experience when I’m old and grey

This journey wasn’t without pain and sacrifice, and it wasn't entirely the way I had imagined, but all in all, I have to say I did pretty well.

And I also have to give thanks to all the people who encouraged and helped me. You know who you are, but you cannot possibly imagine the depth of my gratitude to you. Thank you so much. Grazie mille.

15 May 2009

Was I really there?


Something I was not expecting… a sense of disbelief that any of this happened at all, that I ever had a home and a life in Venice, that it all goes on without me now.

Painful. And strange.

11 May 2009

Per Veneziani soltanto

What’s wrong with this picture?

Yup. It’s another illusion. This time the windowsill is that of my New York brownstone, and the ceramic impostor mimics the typical Venetian take-out espresso cup.

(Probably this little joke is amusing only if you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning.)

07 May 2009

Two Avalons

Yesterday morning I took my last look at La Serenissima from the window of my New York-bound jet. As we climbed higher, I could easily make out the Piazza, Rialto Bridge, even my own little campo. I searched for my friends’ homes and my favorite spots. But the clouds were closing over her and, just like the mystical island of Avalon in the King Arthur legend, she faded into the shroud of mists. Ethereal. Elusive. Too strange and beautiful to exist, to endure. As she disappeared from my view, it seemed impossible that I had ever really lived there at all. I confess that I wept bitterly.

The flight was cramped and torturous – nine long hours of tasteless food, brain-dead movies, inane jabber from the seat-kickers behind me, and nonstop screaming and crying from a toddler a few rows ahead of me. Nine long hours of wondering what lay before me, probably the most unwilling traveler on that crowded flight.

Descending toward our destination, I looked over a deep layer of the same dense, dull clouds I had left behind in Italy. Then the mists parted and I caught my first glimpse of Manhattan, my other Avalon. It took my breath away, just as it always does when I come home…


But I just left “home…”

05 May 2009

New York songs

It was so easy living day by day
Out of touch with the rhythm and blues
But now I need a little give and take
The New York Times, The Daily News

Tomorrow morning I leave Venice. Tomorrow afternoon I become a New Yorker again. “I’ve a cozy little flat in what's known as old Manhattan,” and all that jazz…

I confess I have some trepidation. I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know how it will be for me now. Will I feel welcome, “at home?” Will I readily fall into the paces of the places that I so loved? Am I really a different woman than I was before I left? And if so, does that woman fit into New York life? I hope, at least, I will be up to the challenge of settling back into my apartment and studio, finding some kind of suitable work, re-building my battered finances. I hope I can hit the ground running, get up to speed without faltering. I do not feel confident. Only confused.

I thought I’d be well ready to head back to New York when the time came. Twenty months ago I never really imagined I wouldn’t do that. The last thing I told my friend “W” was, “Don’t worry. I know where ‘home’ is.” But at some point I think I stopped believing I would ever actually leave Venice. When I returned to New York for a short time in October, I dimly thought of it as “just popping in to pick up a few things.”

Maybe that was foolish. Maybe not. Maybe now I have to figure out a way to live in both cities. It seems I cannot do without either of them. Something to ponder… “In a New York minute everything can change.”

But first I must go back and try to make my beloved New York my home again. Start over.

Retreat. Review. Re-group. Reorganize. Restore. Refresh.

It comes down to reality, and it’s fine with me
‘Cause I’ve let it slide
I don’t care if it’s Chinatown or on Riverside
I don’t have any reasons
I left them all behind
I’m in a New York state of mind.

04 May 2009

Final final updates & corrections

Last autumn my fave coffee shop Zanin closed – almost broke my heart, truly. It was shuttered for some time. Then, early in spring, it re-opened as Marchini Time, run by the same people who make the best candies and sweets in town. Their coffee is terrific; so are their pastries. But they aren’t nearly as nice to me as the Zanin folks used to be.

That plea for assistance in finding a lost pigeon – little, grey, slightly lame – turned out to be a hoax. Apparently the perpetrator/
performance artist posts “LOST!” flyers for all kinds of things, tangible and intangible, all over the world. (Check his website - address on the flyer - to see some of the hilarious examples.) OK. I fell for it. But here in Venice, it didn’t seem all that farfetched.

I’m now clear that there was absolutely nothing to admire about my “warm, charming, handsome” coffee vendor. A liar and a coward, rude and cold, with all the depth of a parking lot puddle. Still, I feel a bit like Adelaide in Guys and Dolls: “Tell him I never want to talk to him again. And have him call me here.”

The final clementine count was 366. A personal best.

30 April 2009

Twilight time

C’era una volta (“Once upon a time…”) La Serenissima, although a great power in the world, operated by her own private calendar. Her days began at nightfall.

Venice has never been and never will be like any other place on Earth. Born of the sea, she has always been a willing subject to the moon’s subtle tyranny. She has her special rhythms… her own particular way of dancing with time and tide. Yesterday and tomorrow. Wax and wane. Ebb and flow.

From La Serenissima I received an important lesson. She taught me something about being who I am, about honoring my own rhythms. But a new month arrives this evening. Only a few hours now until my departure. Already I can feel myself being pulled back to an external clock and calendar that have never suited me. And I don’t know when I will again have the natural luxury of telling time by the waters.

27 April 2009


Tramonte. Sunset. My Venice adventure is really ending.

This week my life seems to be all about making lists:
- Things to take back in suitcases
- Things to pack up and ship
- Things to store in a friend’s magazzino
- Things to give away, drop off, replace
- Housekeeping chores to be done
- Business tasks to be completed
- Loose ends to tie up
- Friends to see one last time
- Good-byes to be said

There’s also a terribly long list that lingers in my mind, haunting me:
- Things I intended to do here but never got around to

Then there is a more wistful list – never actually written down but always tugging at my heart. It’s the list of all the people and things I know I am going to miss terribly:

- Rialto – absolutely everything about shopping trips to Rialto: the vendors, razor clams and monkfish and glittery-golden orate, clementine and bruscandoli, ciabatta speckled with bits of melted formaggio, a vino & paninetto break at al Marcà, the seagulls’ ruckus at closing time
- Prosecco – the lifeblood of Venice
- Riding the vaporetto – both the “hippos” and the “sharks”
- Riding the traghetto – especially on a very dark night, with the little yellow light shining at the prow
- My shutters, especially in wintertime
- Good talks with my friend “E” from Switzerland and my friend “F” from Rome
- The Marangona at midnight – in fact, all the bells everywhere in town
- All the cats and canaries and a few of the dogs – particularly Sid
- Cheek kisses and “Ciao!”
- The sound and scent of “Diavolo Brikka” bubbling up the day’s first espresso
- My midmorning caffè macchiato at Marchini
- Kindness, attention, flattery, and laughter from the handsome fellows of Bancogiro, Enoteca San Marco, al Timon, Mondo di Vino, La Cantina, Schiavi, Margaret DuChamp, Tappa Obbligatoria, Alba, Campiello del Remer, Osteria dai Xemei, al Marcà, and Bar al Campanile
- “Spritz o’clock” with my friend “A,” a nursery school teacher who calls me at the end of her evening commute, when she’s nearing Bar al Campanile, and says just one word: “Now!”
- All the lovely, intelligent, entertaining, English-speaking gal pals I have met through the very unselfish “A”
- Tuesday morning excursions to the Lido mercato
- First-Saturday-of-the-month excursions to the Mestre mercatino – in fact, all the mercatini
- My favorite cookie treats – amarene, amarettini, spumigliette, baci di dama
- Libreria Acqua Alta, the bookshop where I sometimes slog around in a few inches of water because the lagoon has come right in through the back door
- Quick snacks of beautiful crostini at Schiavi, and studying the three brothers there while I eat those crostini
- Spy games, complete with disguises
- Arancini
- The “lions who laugh” near San Salvador
- Sweet, smiling Afi and his wonderful secondhand clothing shop
- The way my Russian gal pal “M” says, “Where is my dog?” and mimics a certain smart-aleck fellow we know here
- Staying up all night to work in my studio if I want to
- Foggy nights on the Zattere and silvery mornings on the lagoon
- Vini sfusi – inexpensive, unbottled wines, straight from the demijohn
- Jeremy’s Book Club – the unexpected encounters, the chat and, later, the gossip
- My San Giorgio Maggiore gratitude journeys
- My tricorn hat
- The special sweet treats of Carnevale season, and the cioccolata calda
- Gelati! – pear, pink grapefruit, pistachio, fresh ginger, cinnamon, sweet cream fior di latte, fig & hazelnut, watermelon, extra fondente chocolate with cayenne pepper or dates…
- Lingering in the dappled sun at al Prosecco in Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio – my little corner of Heaven
- Being able to see and talk with my dear friend “M” (and sometimes his adorable baby) just about anytime I want to
- Being called by my Italian name on the street… or, even better, being called “America!”

I try to counter that list with another one. That’s the list of things I look forward to enjoying when I get back to New York:

- Central Park – absolutely everything about Central Park in every season
- Good Chinese food, plenty and often
- The Washington Square greenmarket, with an occasional side trip to ABC Carpet & Home
- Cupcakes
- Regular manicures, pedicures, and threading
- Cosmetics that I can easily afford
- Pork buns, king cake, and bubble tea at the Korean bakeries
- Pastosa ravioli
- Gray’s Papaya hot dogs and fresh papaya juice
- BLT’s cheeseburger and Chipotle’s soft tacos
- All my shoes
- All the supplies and tools in my Brooklyn studio
- Bryant Park – a little bit of Paris in New York
- The “lady in the harbor,” whom I see on my way home from the studio
- Music, movies, and television programs I can completely comprehend
- Politics and current events I can (almost) completely comprehend (Can’t imagine how Sundays will be without Tim Russert, though.)
- Watching our new POTUS restore my country’s dignity
- Doing the week’s grocery haul along Broadway (even if I do get into nasty spats at Fairway!)
- New England clam chowder
- Art galleries, big and small
- The Greenflea Market every Sunday and the Hell’s Kitchen flea every so often
- An endless supply of Zip-loc bags in every size I could possibly need
- Magical things at Tinsel Trading Company
- Macy’s
- Lunch at Pret-a-Manger and Mangia
- Fresh corn and grilled chicken wings with Margaritas on the terrace of a particular 79th Street penthouse, and the good talk and feline entertainment that come with the meal
- Zabar’s coffee, H&H bagels, and some catch-up chat in the morning on the 17th floor terrace of a particular CPW apartment
- The clip-clop of the hansom cab horses as they pass by my bedroom windows at night
- Fireworks and salsa dancing at Lincoln Center
- My own bathtub, filled to the rim, steaming hot and full of bubbles
- My own four-poster bed and my antique vanity with its triple mirror
- And, of course, “The Swells” – a handful of beloved friends who are New York to me

25 April 2009

Little secrets

By now I know a hundred little secrets about La Serenissima. Maybe more.

I know to turn as I walk by and glance at this tiny jewelcase of a shop window. A little architectural wonder. The average passerby usually misses it because it’s on a busy street that’s tough to navigate, due to the ever-present swarm of jostling tourists.

I know where to find a small grey lizard. He lives on the façade of a big hotel on the Riva degli Schiavoni. He’s the same color as the bricks, and he spends his days (the warm ones, at least) calmly investigating the crumbling masonry and a spaghetti-mess of dusty wires. No one ever notices him, so utterly invisible on that wall is he.

I know to walk a bit out of my way for the chance to tap two heavy squiggles of iron attached by rings to the column of an ancient building: clank-clank! (Venetians assure me this brings me some good luck.) And I know to sidestep a particular paving stone in that same neighborhood. (Venetians are just as certain this helps me avoid any bad luck.) Now I always do these things, figuring, “What could it hurt?”

I know a quiet courtyard with a cool, shady watergate near which, now and then, a small crowd of jellyfish gathers, opening and closing their opalescent umbrella bodies with the rhythm of the little waves that slosh on the algae-covered steps. Surprising how hypnotic it can be to watch them on a summer day.

I know by their skins which fish at the Pescheria were farm-raised, and which ones just came out of the lagoon last night. I know the secret of grilling seppialine (baby cuttlefish) – the one critical step that will prevent them from curling up and becoming tough as an old shoe.

I know the stomping grounds of a big, glossy, black cat named Chicco (“coffee bean”) who will quite regally accept all the gentle stroking anyone cares to offer him. And I know another big cat – Poldo, the faithful companion of my calzolaio (cobbler). Poldo (who’s yellow fluff-matted, snaggle-toothed, and very old) looks for all the world like the Beast in Jean Cocteau’s eerie, beautiful film Beauty and the Beast. See him here and you will agree it’s true.

I know where the gypsy beggar women go for a break and a smoke. And I know where handsome twin gondolieri take a willing woman for a sveltina (“quickie”). (And, no, I was not one of their willing women, thank you very much.)

I know of a heart-shaped brick hidden in a dark sottoportego (tunnel) underneath a very old house, and I know what gift it promises the romantic soul who takes the time to find it.

I know a now-murky canal where a little boy (who is an old man today) once swam in crystal-clear water – so clear that he could see and catch live seahorses in his cupped hands. He still remembers how their tails felt curling against his palms. I never cross the bridge there without seeing his wistful, faraway smile as he told me this sweet story.

Near the end of her memoir of her years in Kenya, Isak Dinesen wrote:
If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?

In these last days of my stay here, I often catch myself adjusting her words a bit: If I know a song of Venice…

18 April 2009

The local cathouse

For a people whose only real industry is tourism, Venetians can be terribly cold and inhospitable. Which is why I sometimes go a bit out of my way to visit San Lorenzo, to see this: a sort of cobbled-together apartment house for the neighborhood’s feral cats.

The cubbies where the cats retreat and rest are fitted out with cushions, and, when it’s likely to be stormy, somebody – who do you suppose? – comes by and rolls down the little plastic rain shields. I think a good many people must bring snacks for the feline residents here. I have seen the donated bowls filled with everything from ordinary cat kibble to leftover spaghetti bolognese and fresh tuna salad.

Cats play a big role in Venice. From the very beginning, they were welcomed as members of the community. After all, this is a city that’s always at risk for being overrun with rats, and cats have surely earned their keep as exterminators of vermin. Venetians are nothing if not a practical people.

But I find something else in this quaint little cathouse. I see the often-hidden tenderhearted side of the local character. And I see the thing that holds Venetians so firmly to one another. They were refugees, survivors who made their own world in the middle of a mosquito-ridden saltmarsh. Today they still look out for their own.

12 April 2009

Another Easter

Really. Seriously. I do not understand this holiday.

All week long the shopping areas have hosted an enormous Pasqua mercato. One can only imagine that Venetians expect to receive gifts like bundles of crew socks and glittery Indian jewelry and big, gaudy palm leaf lamps and "Miracle" kitchen sponges and pro-cannabis
T-shirts on Easter Sunday.

Then there are all the pastel-colored, sugar-based egg and animal and combo egg-animal goodies (like these) in the pasticcerie. They're adorable - but am I supposed to eat them? And what about those gorgeous decorated chocolate eggs, about the size of a small toddler and double the price of dinner in the best restaurant in town?

OK. You already know how I feel about Easter... and spring. I'll just bite the ears off my chocolate bunny and be quiet. Buona Pasqua!

08 April 2009

Sea change

Any sailor will tell you there is a perceptible moment when the sea one is navigating shifts, becomes different, changes color or temperature, takes on a new attitude, soothes or threatens in some unforeseen way. A sea change is a time for re-evaluation, for examination and adjustment of one’s course.

Many of you have let me know that you have missed my ramblings here this past month. I thank you sincerely for that. I have been experiencing my own sea change. Or perhaps it’s more like an undertow.

Midway through March I could feel a slight difference in the air, but I couldn’t… or I wouldn’t name it. The inevitable was drawing near. A certain wistfulness infected my daily round. Looking back, I was trying to accept the idea that my time here is ending.

Yesterday – finally – I learned for certain that I must return to New York next month: my subtenant has found a home of his own.

Yesterday – finally – I let my Venetian landlord know he can begin seeking a new tenant for my apartment here.

Yesterday – finally – I began the serious and unpleasant business of packing up for my journey back.

Yesterday – finally – I bought my ticket for May 4th.

Still… I have no idea how to leave this place.

09 March 2009

“The Cure”

Behold the Testa d’Oro (golden head)! This serious character stares down on the entry to Rialto Bridge, San Marco side. Today there’s a junky souvenir shop below him. But if you look very closely, you can still see the etched traces of the 250-year-old sign: THERIACA ANDROMACHI. That shop’s original purpose was the production and sale of theriaca (or triaca), Venice’s mystery-shrouded, Orient-inspired, cure-all potion.

The recipe for this panacea originated in the apothecary of the secretive Greek Andromaco, and came to Venice by way of Arabs. It called for no less than sixty ingredients, a primary one being dried viper meat. They were pounded and mixed in heavy mortars, sometimes in full public view. (The stone pavement in front of a chemist's shop in Campo Santo Stefano, originally the site of a historic farmacia called “The Old Cedar,” still bears the round indentations of theriaca mortars.) There was even a special song to accompany the rhythmic blows of the makers’ pestles, and a special costume for the fellows who delivered the miracle drug around town.

Venetians relied on theriaca to relieve stomach and bowel ailments, toothache, headache, and fever, heal scorpion stings, dog and viper bites, and plague buboes, prevent contraction of the plague and other contagious diseases, ease the pain of childbirth, restore sight and improve hearing, and even drive out evil spirits. (Somebody get Merck headquarters on the phone!)

Pharmacy was, and still is, a very dignified profession in these parts. To understand how seriously Venice took the preparation of theriaca and other medicines, and how much the farmacista (pharmacist) was honored in the culture, think of this: farmacisti, even though of common birth, were permitted to cross social lines and even marry Venetian noblewomen. Not a bad career choice for a smart, ambitious fellow!

I’ve heard that Farmacia Ponci Santa Fosca (which is so beautifully preserved that it looks like a movie set) still has a few drams of theriaca on the premises. The pharmacist there could not be persuaded to show it to me, though. Indeed, I got the impression he hates it when people come in asking stupid questions.

06 March 2009

Reserve now, Ladies!

This Sunday is Il Giorno della Donna – “Woman’s Day.” The celebration of womanhood, the wearing of the mimosa… The whole town is already trimmed in bright yellow.

You local gals who haven’t yet made plans might want to get in on this action. Dinner and festivities in the “Chippendales” style: the waiters will be stripping. “Tutto da ridere…!” – “All for laughs,” we’re assured. Looks like a pretty good menu, too (except maybe that "chocolate mouse” dessert selection). And just 40 euros!

I find it interesting that the sponsors produced this poster all in Italian, except for the title of the main event – “Venetian Waiter Strip.” Are there no words in Italian for the age-old tradition of striptease? Is this a new idea here? Or does the bold use of English in this context make the event seem slightly more naughty, or perhaps a bit more hip?

Italians use the English word “sexy,” both in conversation and in print. I once asked my Venetian friend if his mother tongue lacks a corresponding word for “sexy.” He told me such a word does exist in Italian. “But,” he added, “it isn’t very sexy.”


04 March 2009

“Go” fishing

Tuesday mornings when I go over to the mercato in Lido, I sometimes run into this fellow, patiently dipping his line into a small, murky canal that looks very unlikely to yield any fish. We meet and greet as I come and go on my shopping expedition.

The first time we met, I was curious to know what he was angling for, and he told me: “Go.” We have a real language barrier. He only speaks what I believe to be pure Venetian dialect, because I can barely make any sense of it. Still, I have gathered that the little fish he catches – goby – are bony but very tasty when fried and served red-hot with just a sprinkling of salt and pepper. (I have since learned from other Venetians that they are also good cooked in risotto, to which they lend a yellow tint.)

By the time I finish up at the mercato and make my way back, the go fisherman has usually caught enough for a decent little lunch. He doesn’t mind showing me the reward for his morning’s efforts; I admire his catch with a big smile. And then we say, “Ciao!”

My question is this: who in the world do you suppose he thinks I am?

02 March 2009

Calle Stretta

Venetians often gave colorful and mysterious names to their streets. Those names endure today, on the painted street signs called ninzioleti, or "little sheets." I'm thinking now of Santa Croce's Fondamenta di Tette ("Canalside Way of Breasts"), San Marco's Calle dei Assassini ("Street of the Assassins"), Dorsoduro's Calle del Sangue ("Street of Blood"), and Castello's Calle delle Moschette ("Street of Little Flies," referring not to insects but to the beauty spot patches that were once designed and sold there).

But I believe sometimes they just plain ran out of ideas. For example, here is San Polo's Calle Stretta. Can you guess what that means?
Yup. "Tight Street."

28 February 2009

Donning the tricorn

Lent is underway. Here is the Carnevale wrap-up...

I confess I feel a tiny bit sad because the season was more satisfying for me this year than last. I'm sure that's because I made a costume, and costumes enhance any event, in my opinion. I admit it was much easier to get into the spirit of the games in the guise of La Piratessa (the lady pirate).

Months ago I had asked my friend "G" (a veteran costumer whom I call “Pirata” because he looks just like a pirate, and he surely has the spirit of one) if we might be pirates together during Carnevale season. He agreed... and I faced my challenge!

Being short on cash, I was concerned about what kind of get-up I could possibly create on my own. But it turned out my regular wardrobe held many piratessa-like items already: a black velvet buccaneer’s coat, a black satin lace-up corset, black wool stockings and garters, a long, red, fringed sash, turn-down boots, and a lovely tricorn hat. I had only to purchase and cobble together a couple 10-euro dresses from the boxes at Laura Crovato’s secondhand shop – a flouncy organdy Scarlett O’Hara number to serve as the blouse and petticoat and a dreadful black-velvet-and-gilded-gypsy-print one that came apart to become the overskirt. Add to that big gold hoop earrings, some over-the-top make-up, and a handbag made from the bodice of that second dress, and my transformation was complete.

It had been a while since I had played dress-up. Almost immediately I re-discovered how one’s outer garments and trappings permit one’s “inner pirate” to emerge. I guess that confident, Grace O'Malley-ish gal had been near the surface for some time because I had no trouble imitating her strut and swagger. I swear to Heaven – in La Piratessa’s boots I actually felt inches taller and many times tougher. In fact, I enjoyed that part of the masquerade so much that I went out in costume a few times just by myself. And while I had fun with other costumed friends, it was even better to feel the freedom of really letting loose on my own. That was, in fact, a magnification of a lesson I have been learning here these past eighteen months: change the body, change the wardrobe, change the attitude, and you change the woman forever.

There is one piece of Carnevale that I cherish and keep enjoying, even beyond the festivities. That is my tricorn, which I purchased early last year from Giuliana Longo, Venice’s best loved, most authentic modisteria (milliner). It is a cocky, smart-looking hat, my preferred headwear for the Venetian winter. All the masking and seasonal silliness aside, when I don my tricorn to go out for ordinary things – just to run to the bank or pick up some groceries or meet a friend for a drink – I always feel a little historical thrill, a thin sense of belonging to this place. A pale, ghostly shiver goes through me as an invisible thread connects me to thousands of Venetians who have walked these streets just as I do in these precious days.

22 February 2009


Bad news. Another fellow has lost his bird… this time it’s a little grey pigeon.

It shouldn’t be too tough to pick him out among Venice’s massive flocks of little grey pigeons though. He walks with a limp.

18 February 2009

Large and in charge

Lording over the Carnevale festivities this year is a giant winged lion topiary. He towers over the stage in a fool-the-eye formal garden that sprang up Friday night in the Piazza. His golden eyes see all…

Tonight he watched as a half-dozen couples (a few of them decked out in their best blue jeans) danced the tango to taped music.


I believe Casanova is turning over in his grave.

15 February 2009

A confetti conspiracy

Carnevale 2009 began Friday evening, and early yesterday morning I noticed something a bit odd when I opened my shutters and looked up and down Calle dei Fuseri. As usual, the pre-dawn streetsweepers had brushed away every single cigarette butt, scrap of litter, and soda bottle. Clean as a whistle. Yet there was still a dusting of vividly colored, high quality confetti all along the calle. Hmm. Strange…

As I have mentioned here, my street is a major artery between San Marco and Rialto, lined with many shops and other businesses. It’s no secret that these enterprises rely heavily on the income from this busy tourist season. Was it possible that city fathers had planted this false evidence of street festivity to encourage and enhance the Carnevale experience for the tourists who would soon be making their way along this route? Sort of like using breadcrumbs to trap pigeons??

I had to get up early this morning and check to see if my hunch was right.

Yup. There it was again! Spic-and-span streets all around Campo San Luca, made bright and inviting with that very same confetti, sprinkled in a far too regular “random” pattern. “This way to the fun!” it seemed to be saying, “Follow me!”

It made me wonder…

Who is appointed to do this secret scattering task? And what do you suppose is the amount of the confetti allotment in the annual Venetian city budget? (For that matter, what do you suppose it is in New York City?!)

13 February 2009

Friday the 13th

I realize Carnevale season is upon us. But it’s still very weird to see Hallowe’en costumes in the shops just a few weeks after Christmas.

What, I want to ask these know-it-all Venetians, have ghouls and goblins to do with a pre-Lenten festival? How exactly does Jason’s goalie mask fit in?

10 February 2009


(Is that not one of the greatest words in the English language? It always leads me to think of Holly Golightly explaining the difference between “the blues” and “the mean reds.”)

Sometimes things happen to me here that aren’t exactly blog-appropriate. Not even blog joke-appropriate.

Currently I find myself wrestling with something very personal that probably should have come up back when I was about 20 years old or so. My own fault, really. I came here seeking to discover some things about myself, both as an artist and as a woman. And Heaven knows I have! I guess I was just hoping to discover...

I cannot say more than that, but I can offer you this old chestnut:
“Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.”

05 February 2009

Updates & corrections again

Last year I reported that frittelle (Venetian fritters sold only for Carnevale season) come in three versions – plain or filled with pastry cream or zabaglione – plus a mini version called a rossato. This year I have also seen them filled with whipped cream. And! (Are you sitting down?) Tonolo in Dorsoduro now has a frittella di mela – a perfect apple fritter. Does it get any better than this?

I have had some additional input on the phrase, “Fai la brava!” According to my friend "M," it can be something you say to a child, i.e., “Behave yourself!” When I mentioned that to another friend, "R," he said yes, but when you say it to an adult, it’s could mean something more like “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. (Wink, wink!)"

A few wrote to ask for a translation of the subtitle on the TV frame of the new POTUS Obama that I showed here (Yes we can!, 21 January). It gives me great pleasure to do so. It reads “…and that is how changes happen in America.” Magari! From his lips to God’s ear!

The clementine count is now up to 265.

02 February 2009

Grey day, blue night

February 2nd already. Call it what you will: Candlemas, the last day of Christmas, Groundhog Day.

I see that Punxsutawney Phil, America’s official groundhog, clearly saw his shadow up at Gobbler’s Knob this morning. Six more icy weeks of winter in the U.S., it would seem. (And yes, I do sometimes miss these quirky, uniquely American things like furry ol’ Phil’s prognostications.)

There’s no groundhog here in Venice, but I’m sure our pantegane (big, big rats) couldn’t possibly have seen their long-tailed shadows in the grey gloom this morning, and that must mean spring is on the way. I have mixed feelings about that. Even as I shiver in my Chinese silk longjohns, spring isn’t something I’m looking forward to. But it is inevitable.

Meanwhile, I wistfully look at these blue fairy lights, the last bit of Christmas still shining in town, and I wonder, as I so frequently do… How does the time go by so fast here?

27 January 2009

I'm Left, he's Right

Here’s a pair of ancient red porphyry lions that I see nearly everyday. They live in the little Piazzetta dei Leoncini, right beside the Basilica. Actually, they’re built more like a couple of tough little pugs than lions, with their short, stubby legs and roundy rumps. And their heads are way too big for their bodies. But that doesn’t stop the kids from climbing right up on them for pretend piggyback rides while their parents have a cool drink at the American Bar next door or squint at their maps in the Piazza.

From the goofy smirks on these leonine faces, you’d never guess that this little raised pile of stones saw many horrors through the centuries, and also a great miracle, according to local legend. It is said that St. Mark himself intervened in the blinding of a slave here – he dropped into the melee (evidently upside-down) and stilled the burning brand in mid-air. If you don’t believe me, you can take a look at Tintoretto’s stunning painting of the event, currently hanging at the Accademia (but I gotta say, the scene really doesn’t look much like the Piazzetta).

Just like the pair of lions at the New York Public Library – “Patience & Fortitude” – these two have nicknames, or so I am told. But nobody seems to know them, so I just call them “Sinistra & Destra." (Yup,
"Left & Right.")

24 January 2009

An angel and her elephant

Can anyone tell me anything about this lovely, mossy, larger-than-life angel and her equally green baby elephant companion? They both seem so serene, so at peace here in... the police station (?!).

Yes, you must drop by the police station in Piazza San Marco if you want to see them. (Please do not write to ask me what I was doing there, and thank you very much.)

But nobody there will be able to tell you anything about them. Indeed, they will all act terribly annoyed if you ask.

21 January 2009

Yes we can!

Last night was all about hope and glory.

I had the privilege and great pleasure of being among American and Venetian friends while watching Barack Obama take over his new office (the Oval one, that is). I'm told people were talking to me during his speech, but I was utterly caught up in the moment - still not believing what was happening right before my eyes. I dimly heard someone in the room say, "She's hypnotized..."

Lovely friend “V” and her charming husband and son made an all-American buffet supper party for us. She provided a classic gumbo (made with real okra!), red beans, and rice. Another friend “D” served up the crispy southern fried chicken and a deep-dish apple pie. I cannot possibly express how delicious these familiar treats tasted, especially while we were watching our new president and his wife walk toward the White House. I’m sure I will never forget such a satisfying evening.

My list of American friends in Venice has become quite long. It’s interesting to see how they straddle both countries, both cultures. Some manage by way of marriage; others by their work. Me, I haven’t yet found the way to make Venice a permanent part of my life. In fact, I’m beginning to feel the dim panic related to another upcoming “expiration date” – March 1st, this time.

Anything could happen between now and then, I know. But if I must go back, at least it will be to a country headed by a man I can respect and admire. I can return with real hope (if not much glory).

19 January 2009

Barking from la barca

The Venetian equivalent of leaving your dog in the car with the window open a crack while you run into the market...

12 January 2009

Italian lesson: Fai la brava!

This past weekend I was doing my errands – buying postage stamps, visiting my calzolaio (cobbler), picking up some groceries. Energy flagging, I dropped in at La Cantina for a brief rest and a prosecco. I like the spirit at La Cantina. The staff certainly doesn’t fawn over anyone, but show up twice and they’ll act like you belong there, maybe even remember what you drink.

As I buttoned up my coat to leave, the mischievous redheaded barman and I exchanged our regular Ciao, ciao! good-byes. Then he smiled broadly, saluted me, and said, “Fai la brava!”

Fai la brava? I had never heard this. I tumbled it through my mind – not terribly complex Italian, after all.

Fai – that’s the informal command for “Do ---!” or “Make ---!” Bravo or brava – that’s not “brave,” but rather “good” or “clever” or “Well done!” So… “Do well”? “Make the good thing”? Or maybe “Make like you’re clever”? No, not quite right.

Then I got it. Literally it’s “Do the good!” In essence it’s “Fight the good fight!” Or perhaps, "Behave yourself!" Or, as I like to say, “Onward and upward!” I announced my translation to the barman and he responded, “Brava!”

Can’t tell you how tickled I was to learn this handy, upbeat phrase – if for nothing else than a useful personal reminder.

08 January 2009

Oh, my darlin’ clementine!

There are few things in life that are absolutely perfect. This is surely one of them.

An adorable little Sicilian clementina, only slightly bigger than a quail’s egg and bursting with perfume-y citrus sweetness – all the more wonderful for being senza semi (without seeds). That means I can greedily pop the whole thing into my mouth – thin, delicate peel and all – and enjoy it in one juicy bite.

Or I can follow M.F.K. Fisher’s tangerine advice: remove the peel, then separate the teeny sections and leave them near the house’s heat source until their membranes are dry and very taut. Hard to describe the flavor sensation, the brief, splashy thrill of nipping into one of them…

I get about three dozen of these pretty babies for a euro and fifty (around two bucks) at Rialto. I recall that I went crazy for them last year; this year I have actually kept track of my addiction. As of this writing, I have eaten more than 200 clementine. And the season isn’t even half over yet!

06 January 2009

Festa dell'Epifania, January 6

Orthodox Christmas, Twelfth Night, Three Kings Day, the Feast of the Epiphany. Here in Venice it’s called La Festa dell’Epifania and it’s a day dear to children because they wake up and find what La Befana left in their stockings the previous night, as well as clean-swept floors throughout the house.

Who’s “La Befana?” you ask. Well, she’s often depicted as a happy witch on a broom, but really she is a tender-hearted crone (and reputedly an exceptional housekeeper). She’s got a soft spot for kiddies, whose stockings she stuffs with candy and toys, although she’s not above leaving a lump of coal for ill-behaved children. While families sleep, she enters their houses by way of the chimney, so her ragged dress is always covered in soot. Sound familiar? Yes, she’s a kind of female combination St. Nicholas-Belsnickel character.

Her name may be a mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania.” More likely though, she has her roots in the pagan goddess and giver of gifts at the new year, Strina or Strenia (which happens to sound a lot like strega, the Italian word for witch). In some parts of Italy the word for a Christmas or New Year gift is still strenna.

La Befana also appears to incorporate another pre-Christian European tradition, that of Nicevenn, the wooden puppet of an old woman representing the passing old year, which is burned to make way for the new year.

I have heard two Christian legends explaining La Befana.

In one story, the three wise men (sometimes called “astronomers”) came to the crone’s door, asking directions to Bethlehem and assistance in finding the newborn Christ Child. But she was too busy with her housework and she sent them on their way. Later she had a change of heart, and followed after them, seeking the Holy Family. Still she searches at every home, leaving presents for all the children, in case one of them might be the Baby Jesus.

In another, darker story, the crone had a baby whom she loved deeply but the baby died. Her grief drove her to madness. She followed the three wise men to Bethlehem, with the delusional thought that the Christ Child was her lost baby. She brought gifts to Him, and He saw her great love and took pity on her. His gift, in return, was to make her the honorary mother of all children.

See that big stuffed stocking hanging from Rialto Bridge? That marks the end of the regatta of the befane – actually Venetian men dressed up as crones, rowing their sandoli with little pink-ribboned brooms poking up at the sterns. At the finish line, on the Riva del Vin side of Rialto, there are little cups of cioccolata calda and the first powdered sugar galani of the season (see blogpost 25 January 2008 to learn about this treat) for everybody and the corniest music you ever heard. Delightful!

If you’re ever in Venice for the Epifania regatta, finish up your sweet snack and hurry over to the Piazza to witness a rare spectacle at the Orologio. At noon you will see the little doors on either side of the Madonna and Child open, and out will come a brief, beautiful parade: an angel in gold blowing a trumpet, followed by three bowing kings bearing their gifts. See them here now, or wait for another year to pass…

04 January 2009


A few of you have written to gently scold me. You've let me know I’m slacking off – letting too much time go by between postings since I got back from the U.S. in November. Mea culpa… Don’t I know it! Look – four days have already passed since Baby New Year arrived, trailing his “binky” in the snow. Well, I’m gonna pull out that great, vague, status-rich New York City excuse: “I’ve been so busy!”

Busy?! “ you might well retort, “But you don’t even have a job!” Right you are – not a regular job with obligatory hours for suiting up and showing up. But still, I’ve been working everyday.

Perhaps most important, each month I have been living here, I have spent more hours working in the studio. Does that translate into more work produced each month? Oddly, no. But I’m more than satisfied with my progress. (You can see a piece of “white work” called Wandering Cherubs here. It went home in my friend “E’s” suitcase!)

In November there was preparation for the show of my boxes. Remember: half of that work was created between mid-June and October. The other half was completed in less than two weeks, and I had to go out and scrounge the posters to do it! Of course, everything for the show took longer than I expected. And then came the effort to get the Venetian gallery community to go and see the boxes. That took awhile because I was timid and I dragged my feet a bit.

Those first boxes led to… bigger boxes. I have nearly finished one. I am working on two more, a set. The effort required to complete a box increases geometrically when its foundation size increases. The design problem changes dramatically with the additional square footage (inch-age?) to be covered.

Also in November I began the start-stop-start footwork to attempt to get this blog into print. Today the prospects for blogbooks are dim, even dangerous, but someone I know here who knows a thing or two about the subject said, “It will only take one successful one to open up the field.” If you have any thoughts, please share them with me. Meanwhile, onward & upward!

December brought a flurry of visitors with their delightful distractions and some nice social engagements. Places to go, things to do, delicious meals to eat, fabulous wines to drink, great conversations to ponder. And shopping to the point of dropping. OK, I admit it – I had a great time behaving like this is one big Venetian vacation.

Around this time there was some time-and-energy-sapping wheel-spinning to be done to investigate two possible business ventures presented to me – one sublime and one ridiculous. Ready for a big shock? All my good faith wheel-spinning aside, neither one of them panned out.

Also around this time I had an unforeseen and very unpleasant set-to with a friend here, although it’s inaccurate to call her that anymore. In my adult life I have learned that conflict, while lousy, can actually make one's relationships stronger. But this gal is still punching, even though I left the ring three weeks ago. How sad. Loss is tough going, and that takes time, too. (Call it luck, but I also had a handful of new friendships take shape in December and January. I guess when one door closes… )

Before I knew it, it was Christmastime. Even holiday preparations as minimal as mine take time, if you do them right. You’ve seen my tree and you’ve already heard it was an altogether wonderful season.

Last but not least, I have launched another blog this week – one in which I will share my Venice “insider tips” and (with luck) begin building my private concierge enterprise. Check my profile here and find the link to it. And tell your friends, especially the ones coming to Venice!

So, you see… busy!

I’d like to think I will be a more consistent blogger in January, but I have another “expiration date” looming (March 1st) and I think it will only get busier here. I have decided to stick around for Carnevale after all, and this time I will have a costume… which must be created. I have a small gig as an English teacher starting soon, as well as a student for private lessons, maybe two. And, of course, the hunt for a job or business opportunity continues, in both Venice and (necessarily) New York. Add to that the drive to be in the studio as much as I can and…

Well, I’ll do my best!

01 January 2009


New Year’s Eve, the way it’s done in Venice.

Not so very different than the way it’s done in New York, if on a much smaller scale than Times Square. Believe me, it doesn’t feel smaller when one is caught in the dangerous crush of thousands of loud, clumsy, drunken celebrants, with firecrackers and homemade air rockets exploding only a few meters away.

Last year I missed this highlight of the holiday season. I had made supper for a gentleman friend, and we became involved in a long and difficult conversation that simply wore us out. We nodded off and snoozed right through the midnight hour festivities. I could have kicked myself for that mistake. I was sure I had missed some real magic.

As I have expressed here before, nothing was going to keep me from seeing the New Year roll into the Piazza this year. And now that I’ve seen it, I have no wish to ever do it again.

But one thing did make it all worthwhile…

It snowed! Great billowing clouds of swirling snow, all the more dramatic for being illuminated by the colored spotlights in the Piazza and the glimmer of fireworks over the Bacino.

Snow! Enough to cover the calli and campi with white sparkle. Enough to inspire brief snowball skirmishes among the kids. Enough to leave lacy ice on the hulls of the gondole resting in the still canals. Enough to reveal the delicate pawprints of some unseen wandering cat.

Hours later, after the crowds subsided, I took a long, solitary passeggiata to see this small miracle again. I can’t guess what’s coming for me in the New Year. But this gift of snow was a very good omen, don’t you think?

Buon Anno a tutti!