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 fa├žade 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…