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!