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.