Venice, June 9, 2011—A DAY REMARKABLE for its conversations, flawed by one futility.
We set out pretty early on a fine morning, the water middling high in our Canale di Cannaregio, lifting the good ship Francesca nearly to sidewalk level. We were off in search of the French consulate, don't ask why, it's complicated and has nothing to do with Venice.
Soon enough we were hailed by a pair of handsome lads in fine 18th-century brocade suits. It's always a shock to see men wearing such finery but divested of their powdered wigs: perhaps their union rules let them get away with this, but I think it's a little déclassé. One of them was Italian, the other Tunisian; both were in the employ of a local music group, and they enticed us to do what we'd talked about doing anyhow, buying tickets to a production of La Traviata tomorrow night.
We had a nice conversation, mixing up English, Italian, and French. They were an engaging and handsome pair; if we see them again tomorrow I'll break a rule and photograph them. You see young men and women at various strategic location on the tourist routes in Venice, dressed in 18th-century clothes, pitching performances of vocal music, string orchestra music, things geared to what's presumed to be tourist taste. On a previous visit we were roped into a performance of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, and it wasn't half bad. I'll let you know what I think of this Traviata in a day or two.
On then to the French consulate: but en route we came upon a greengrocer stand in a small campiello (are there big ones?). I was attracted at first by the artichoke rounds, but there was no way they'd survive being carried around all day. On the other hand, a plastic bag of shell beans, not that's within reason.
I asked the lady running the stand how to cook them. She was short, maybe five foot four, and a little inclined to weight; but she had a handsome face and a dignified though quite forthcoming presence. She seemed surprised that I wouldn't know how to cook beans.
You put them in water, she said, in Italian, add a little oil, cover them, bring it to a boil, turn it down, and cook them until they're done. Then you salt them: not before.
Oh, I said brightly, you cook them the way you cook pasta. What an idea, she said, certainly not, of course you don't, you never put oil in the water when you cook pasta, beans are one thing, pasta is another, you don't cook them the same way.
A man I hadn't noticed before said Don't forget the rosemary. Give him some rosemary. She half-turned to shoot a meaningful glance at her partner, then rummaged around and came up with a fine healthy spray of rosemary. Oh, said I, rosemary? Not sage? I always like to add sage to beans.
You're joking, the man said, a shocked look of disbelief on his face. Sage, imagine it, sage with beans. No, of course not, this is Venice; we put rosemary in beans. You're in Venice, you must do things the Venetian way.
We thanked them both politely, for the conversation, the beans, the rosemary, the instructions, and went on toward the French consulate.
It has to be around here someplace, we said, looking alternately at the map in our hands and the reality around us. Finally, though, I stopped in at an expensive-looking hotel and asked the man at the desk.
Yes, it's nearby, no, not there where you were told, it's over near Santa Maria Formosa. I know it is, though I've never been there; I know it is, I walk across this bridge every day on my way to work, and I see the French flag flying there. It's right here (indicating a spot on the map, on a canal); I suppose you leave Santa Maria Formosa by this little street, and then turn down one of these streets.
He gave us the map and we walked away, across the campo S. Maria Formosa, down the street he'd indicated, then down the first little street to the left, which ultimately ran past rather an imposing palazzo — casa or ca', they're called here — and ended at a canal.
The main gate was open, so we went on in. No one to be seen. The front door of the palazzo was open, so we went on in there too. One of the bells at the gate had a label: Consulat de France, 2° étage, so we walked up the marble staircase, the treads a little cattawampus as is always the case in these old buildings, and found the door on the second floor.
We knocked and knocked and waited and waited; we called out; we knocked again. Finally we gave up and walked back downstairs. In the foyer I noticed a bank of mailboxes: the consulate's was stuffed with mail, obviously hadn't been looked at in days.
We looked in at a couple of churches, trying to see badly lit paintings flanked by brightly sunlit windows, and then we went to lunch. Afterward, a block or two from the restaurant, I noticed a handsome sculpture on the street, up against a garden wall. Nearby was a largish detached one-storey building; on its front door a sign: SPINGERE.
When you see a sign that says PUSH, well, you push; at least I do. It swung open and we stepped into a marvelous workshop, crowded with planks, bricks, stone, slabs of marble, blocks of granite, statues, thresholds and lintels, lathes and saws, worktables, a bedstead, assorted pieces of furniture. Up in the rafters a bicycle was hanging, suddenly making me think irreverently of the crucifixes we'd seen in the churches.
We called out — Buon giorno! Buongiorno! — but no one was visible. Finally a somewhat disgruntled voice came from somewhre at the back of the shop: Che é?Who's there? And a man dressed entirely in blue appeared, a man in his fifties, I'd say, clearly a little out of sorts at being interrupted.
Il porta dice “spingere”, I said, a little apologetically, e ho spinto. The entire conversation took place in Italian, mine quite bad, his voluble and quick and articulate and now and then ornamented with the Venetian dialect.
Yes, it says Spingere, that doesn't mean you should spinge, he said. Sono inglese?
No, statunitense. Ah, Americani, he said. No, non americani, californiani, e un altra cosa. E non inglesi; abbiamo vinto due guerre coi inglesi.
I still think of the English as the colonialists; it still annoys me that they burned our capital and especially our Library of Congress, quite deliberately. I was glad when Tony Blair finally apologized for this, but still.
The whole digression into Anglo-American relations amused the man. Ah, guerre, he said, we've had our share of wars. And, mollified, the conversation was on. He is a marmista, a marble-worker; this was his grandfather's shop; that's his grandfather's bedstead there; he's kept it ever since his grandfather died, but there's no point in keeping it any longer, he's going to get rid of it.
Suddenly he launched into a disquisition on the Venetian disinterest in its own history and heritage. They don't care about anything any more, he said, only about money, and not working too hard. It's always been like that.
He showed us a neatly stacked pile of bricks, all completely covered, like everything else in the shop, with marble dust. Look at these bricks, he said; the Venetians don't even care about their bricks. (In truth there are an awful lot of them; I'd estimated this morning that one small part of S. Maria Formosa was made of about 3500 bricks, and that at that rate the entire church must have had at least five million of them.)
Look at these, he said, they were all made here, here in Venice; look at these. Each man had to make a hundred bricks a day. He held up two bricks, one three times the size of the other. Look at these, he said; no one said how big the bricks had to be; as soon as they said you had to make a hundred a day, why, some of them began to make a hundred bricks each of them a third the size of a brick.
He suddenly handed the smaller brick to F___. This is important, he said, don't ever get rid of this, take it home and clean it with soap, not too much, don't use a wire brush, use something soft; then keep it and put something beautiful on it.
I was beginning to get, well, not bored, but restless, wondering how we were going to detach ourselves from this fascinating conversation. California had brought the subject of wine to mind, and he'd gone to the back of the shop and returned with a half-finished bottle of Cabernet sauvignon from somewhere, pouring glasses for us. He talked about the local restaurants, only one of which was maintaining any standards. He complimented the street market we've been shopping at, near our Ponte Guglie. Then another fellow entered, and he introduced him as a very important man, because he still beat out gold leaf by hand, the only man left in Venice who did.
A spirited conversation in Venexiano developed between them, and I thought of Carlo Goldoni, the playwright, whose house we'd seen yesterday. In fact the gestures, attitudes, and intonations of these two could have come directly from a Goldoni comedy: but when I said something to that effect our marmista took exception.
He seems mercurial, this man, brittle like his medium, and resistant, and set: but like the expressions we see every day carved into marble in churches, on lintels, at street-corners, he's lively, expressive, amused and amusing; intelligent; active. Another example of the liveliness of this city, so human, so fallible, so fragile, so perdurant.