Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Venice Journal, 7: a dismal story.

Venice, May 31, 2011—
AS MENTIONED THE OTHER day, we were at first not allowed to go out the second gate from our apartment here, which was an inconvenience: the first gate leads to the fondamenta and then, over an asymmetrical wooden bridge, to a street leading right to the broad main pedestrian street leading to the railroad station. It's convenient if you're going to the station, or beyond it to the Piazzale Roma where buses stop, and cars can be rented: but if you're going into town it forces you to take a long and boring way around.

The back gate, on the other hand, lets you out quite near the Canale di Cannaregio and its restaurants and bars; beyond it lies the old Ghetto, then the rest of the Cannaregio, on quiet streets much more interesting and relaxing than the main Rios terà S. Leonardo and Maddalena and the Vie 28 Aprile and Apostoli which the tourists walk, through markets and past trinket shops and the like, on their way to Rialto.

The second day we were here another resident of our apartment complex volunteered to let us through the back gate with her key, but I wanted one of our own, and asked our rental agent about it the next day. He decided we could be trusted to keep quiet, and gave us one, but cautioned us to be extremely quiet when we used that gate.

I have since found out the reason for all this caution, a story so grotesque and yet so banal it could only be truly Venetian, or Venicely true. I found out as a consequence of an adventure yesterday: F___ and I had forgotten to be utterly quiet on returning from an outing, and were conversing as we approached the gate.

We were quiet as I put key in lock and turned it, quieter as we swung the gate open, utterly hushed as we noiselessly returned the gate to its place, easing the bolt home. Still, when I turned around after closing the gate I was confronted by a small dark balding man frowning from underneath the fringe of hair over his eyebrows. He seemed to be dressed in pajamas and a cardigan sweater, and wore a large crucifix on a chain around his neck.

Glaring at me, he hissed at us to be quiet. Have the courtesy, he whined, not to annoy people as you enter their cortile. Had he been any bigger he'd have been menacing; as it was, he was hugely irritating. Still, he was right: we had been conversing, and we'd been warned not to do that.

But what was the reason for all this? It turns out that the man — Fabiano, his name is, I think — lives with his stepson Pietro, if that's his name, an unpleasant, irrational man who alternates between long periods of sullen silence and infrequent outbursts of nearly uncontrollable rage. The almost unbearable sadness of caring for this youth is made even worse by the family's history, for Pietro is both stepson and nephew to the little man with the crucifix.

Years ago Fabiano had married badly: unable to attract the girl he really loved, who in fact married his older brother, he settled for a neighbor's walleyed daughter. In time, though, she died, of tuberculosis I think it was, and he was left alone. A few years later his brother was killed in a boating accident, and the widow, left with a difficult son to raise, consented to our neighbor's long-delayed suit. They were married in a quiet ceremony in the parish church across the Canale di Cannaregio.

In one of his fits, though, soon after the marriage, alarmed by a sudden noise he thought he'd heard outside their apartment, Pietro attacked and killed his own mother. Fabiano was away on a business trip of some kind to the mainland, Treviso I think, and returned late that night to discover what had happened. The boy was clearly remorseful and no charges were pressed; neighbors and, I suppose, the police as well apparently felt it was a case of a family cursed with a terrible destiny, one that would inevitably exact its own punishment.

But no one speaks to Fabiano unless absolutely necessary, and Pietro is almost never seen — only occasionally as a face glimpsed at one of the windows looking out on the gate, at the rare times he's roused by the sound of the click of the lock on the gate. I still shudder a bit when we go through it, and it's not used as often as you'd expect, given its convenience.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Venice Journal, 6: cats and changes

Campiella della Pazienza, Venice, May 30, 2011—
AMONG THE OTHER changes in this town, changes to be expected given human mortality and the evolution of the global economy, one has been gnawing at me particularly insidiously: The Absence of Cats.

On our first day here, a week ago yesterday, we walked across the Accademia bridge, south to north. On the way I told F____: Once down the other side, there's a nice surprise for you off to the right.

I was referring to the colony of feral cats we'd seen there ten years ago, when we spent a month here at the other end of the Cannaregio. On that visit we saw cats throughout Venice, but particularly there at the north end of the Accademmia bridge. Since then we've seen the similar colony in Rome, at the Argentina square, fairly recently: and of course idiot that I am about change and permanence I assumed they'd still be here in Venice.

They aren't. There wasn't a cat to be seen in the park in front of S. Vidal, where they'd hung out before. There haven't been any anywhere else, except for two adolescent cats we saw out for a stroll crossing a bridge in the Dorsoduro, I think, a week ago. They were so rare a sight that a native Venetian businessman bent down to pet one; and they were so comfortable with that that I assumed they were housecats out for an airing, not feral cats, not at all. (One was a nice ginger-marmalade, the other a black-and-white mackerel tabby.)

Since then, nada. Not a cat to be seen. Plenty of dogs, most of them carried about by nicely-dressed women, but not cats. We hear them at night, or one at least; at least I think it's a cat; the sound's unlike anything else.

The other day we stepped into an attractive shop next to Santa Maria dei Miracoli, a shop featuring women's clothes and accessories. The woman who owns the shop also makes costume jewelry and prints up fancy and fanciful greeting cards, many of which featured photos or drawings of cats. I mentioned that we'd missed seeing cats on our walks about town, and wondered what had happened. She explained:

A few years ago, apparently soon after our 2001 visit, an organization concerned about the health of the feral cats, having noted an increase in deaths due to feline leukemia, rounded up hundreds of cats to take care of them, and began sterilizing them and, apparently, those who escaped capture and/or leukemia as well. Since then, with the passing of time, the feral population has pretty well collapsed.

Now we have mice, the shop-owner said, quite seriously; Venice is overrun with mice. I'd rather have cats.

Me too, I said; I'd much rather have cats.

But there it is, she said; they didn't like seeing so many cats suffering, and they sterilized them.

I thought about this again this morning as I was reading, in another guidebook about Venice — we seem to read a lot of them lately — that the population of Venice is declining because it's so expensive; it's no place to raise children. Of course there are children living in this city; we see them at schools and in parks, and hear them in the streets; but there aren't a lot of them. Young couples beginning their families find life easier and considerably less expensive in Mestre, on the mainland.

But is the local human population threatened with the same fate that befell the local feral feline population? If it doesn't reproduce, and bring up a new generation, how can it remain viable; how can it outlast the life-expectancy of its own generation?

YESTERDAY, pursuing our gelato assignment, we made it a point to visit the Campo Santa Margherita again: it was on that vast expanse that we had some of the best gelato we've ever tasted, at the old Gelateria Causin. I particularly remember a rice ice cream I had in the summer of 1980, and again on another visit later.

(When were last there, in 2001, they didn't have riso on view the first day we dropped by. When I said I'd like some, Me too, the old man behind the counter said, Me too, but we don't make it any more; no one wants it. Since then my flavors of choice have been Fior di latte and Crema; L. smiles at my fondness for bland flavors.)

We'd rushed through the Campo a week ago, the first Sunday we were here this time, and hadn't seen Causin, but we hadn't looked too carefully, we'd been in a hurry to get somewhere else before closing time. We'd heard that there was a particularly good gelateria on the campo, though, called Il Doge, and having forgotten the name of Causin I thought they might be the same: but Il Doge was in quite the wrong part of the campo and, tellingly, its gelato was nowhere near the mark of what we'd remembered.

Then yesterday we were walking by and I decided to have a much more careful look. I'm sure it was at the north end of the campo, on the west side, close to that curious squared-off tower, I said, and went to have a look. There was one empty store, shuttered and padlocked, with two green awnings over its windows: the one on the right read CAFFE VENICE; the other had no lettering. At least not on first glimpse.

More careful scrutiny made me realize there were letters there, but they were backward:


and soon I realized a new owner had turned the awning inside-out to hide its former lettering. A closer look revealed the original wood sign over the door:


I rushed back to the tabacchi where the girls were looking at old postcards. Look at these, L. said; they're so nice. An old man stood behind the counter; he looked a lot like the guy who'd told me they'd stopped making rice-flavored gelato, ten years ago. He was proud of his postcards, and pleased L. liked them. Guarda questo, he said, Look at this, and showed us a schoolboy's notebook with the date October 1940 on its first entry. The inside cover showed a faded monochrome photo of a man in fancy uniform reviewing troops: E Mussolini, the old man said, Guarda, Mussolini, che bel un uomo.

Yes, I said, but tell me, when did Causin go out of business? Oh, a long time ago, maybe ten years ago, the old man said. The years go by, here in Venice; everything changes. What is your year?

I was a little taken aback, first by Mussolini, then by his question, and didn't quite understand. Seventyfive, I responded. He smiled dubiously: seventyfive, no, I don't think so. I'm fortytwo.

Oh, I said, what year was I born: thirtyfive. That's more like it, he said. He was sixtyseven, seven years my junior, and I've been calling him an old man.

Later on I asked a waiter standing outside his restaurant about Causin and the Café Venezia. He didn't remember any gelateria there, but said the Café had closed, oh, two years ago at least. Really, I said; and the place stands there empty, on the Campo Santa Margherita, all this time. Oh yes, he said; there isn't any business. Wouldn't you like to have lunch here? No? A drink, then? Such a nice day, why not sit down and have something?

We'd eaten lunch; it was too early for an apéritif. I shook my head and thanked him. He completely lost interest in us and turned away. At the other end of the campo a couple of kids were riding a bicycle and a scooter; earlier, two very little girls, watched by their young mothers, had been playing with a ball and a spinning-top. All is not lost here in Venice, but the last few years have been hard.
Online photos from Venice this month

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Venice Journal, 5: canals

Campiella della Pazienza, Venice, May 27, 2011—
canal.jpgBECAUSE OF WRESTLING with Italian, French is momentarily away from my brain, and I can't recall the art-talk for the painter's device for connecting foreground to background in his painting. Is it simply passarelle? Don't know; don't remember; doesn't matter.

It is of course one of the things that attracts me to these views down canals from bridges. Venice, being built on hundreds of little islands, all separated by canals of various widths, has a lot of bridges. We're standing on one here, hard by the Oratorio San Giobbo, on the penultimate northwest island of the Cannaregio. I've gone out for a short walk, but I'm headed for home, as it's beginning to rain. Perhaps you can sense, from the photo — not a very good one, I'm afraid — that the sky is heavy and overcast; there's not a breeze to be felt.

Most canal-bridge photos from this town feature buildings; many feature people. I tend not to take pictures of people. After an early trip to Europe, back in the 35mm slide-show days, I bored a few friends with an evening of photodocumentation; at the end, one friend asked: But, Charles, are there no people in Europe? Well, yes, there are; but in those days I felt it improper to photograph strangers. Now, of course, cameras are everywhere and there is no privacy in public (why should there be, anyhow?). I'm less hesitant to take a general shot with people in it, but I still don't like focussing in on an individual.

And in any case the function, or one function at least, of the still photo is to freeze a moment. We could be standing on this bridge, looking up this canal, now, or ten years from now, or forty years ago. The idea of permanence lends such photos their attraction, I think; it is what extends simple viewing into contemplation.


This morning — Saturday, now, the 28th — we were back on the same bridge, on a nice sunny day, with a little breeze. The eye clearly saw what the photo does not reveal: at the distant end of the canal, the tiny white speck is not another cloud but an enormous cruise ship.
We rarely see anything like this: we saw one when we arrived, but have been back to that part of town only once since, apparently between stops. Just as well.

I mentioned the other day chancing upon the hotel we stayed in for a couple of days thirty years ago, Dalla Mora. Yesterday we visited the quarter we stayed in for a month, ten years ago, when we rented an apartment with another couple, and were joined by two granddaughters. That trip was before digital photography, or at least before I'd embraced it, and though we took a number of photographs, mostly as transparencies, I haven't taken the time to look for them — so we took a few today, finding the area looked virtually unchanged.

That apartment, like the one we're in now, is off the tourist track. Closer, though: only a few turned corners, only a couple of bridges, and you're on the Strada Nova. (Venetian tends to drop the “u” from words like nuova.) As I've mentioned, the only notes left from that sojourn are those concerned with eating; you can see a comparison of eating notes over at Eating Every Day if you like. We're less enthusiastic about the restaurants this time, so far, and more careful to collect facts about them — partly because I never dreamed how enthusiastic readers would be about these eating-notes, so never really realized how responsible I should take this exercise in journalism.

Cameras and foot-traffic may slow things down, but things do change; and among them restaurants. People retire, or get lazy, or find more profitable ways to do things, or give in to trends or expectations. At the same time, of course, our own experience has grown by ten years; our tastes change — they've evolved toward a simpler cuisine, and at the same time my own sense of taste seems to have heightened; I'm more aware of chemicals, and of changes brought by aging (in the food, not in me).

At the same time, of course, restaurants have got a lot more expensive. I don't fault them: I haven't once felt exploited. Fish is expensive, because there's less of it, and more people who want to eat it. But we seem to be eating in house more often this time, usually simply sandwiches and salads — mortadella and prosciutto are so good here, and relatively inexpensive; and the arugula and lettuces are very fresh and tasty. And the Prosecco spento — still, not sparkling — is a little less than €2 for a liter and a half, cheaper than water. So we make do.


Let me leave you with one last photo today: the garden behind a wall, seen from the same bridge from which we looked down that canal at the beginning of this post. I think of our quarter as workingclass, and have so described it earlier: but this garden suggests a certain degree of comfort, don't you think? You just never know what might lie behind all these brick walls…

Online photos from Venice this month

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Venice Journal, 4: the pace

Campiella della Pazienza, Venice, May 26, 2011—
THERE'S A LOT of stuff in this town: bricks, stones, tiles, glass, more trees than you'd think, jewelry, clothes, fish, wine, fancy papers, feathers, watches, hats, books, musical instruments, sandwiches, cameras, churches, and pasta, among other things; and none of it arrives in trucks. Freight trains, perhaps; maybe a few small vans too, though I haven't noticed them. And even then those things will be off-loaded, as today's ugly English has it, at the depot at the west end of the city, and distributed throughout Venice, like every other portable commodity, by boat or hand-truck.

I first thought about this in 1980, when we first visited Venice. Today in our walkabout we ran across the hotel we stayed in then, the Hotel Dalla Mora, and we looked in at the lobby to see if it had changed. No, signor, sempre lo stesso, it's always the same, the man at the desk said. Ancora le bottiglie, le mattine? I asked, smiling. He glanced at some guests who had just checked in, then smiled at me, Yes, you hear the bottles in the morning.

It's a very nice little hotel: but across the canal there's a loading dock where bottles of soft drinks are loaded into boats early every morning, to be shipped off to little shops, I suppose, and restaurants; and the workers don't take pains to do this silently.

There are many reasons to appreciate the lack of motor vehicles here, and one of the subtlest is the result that you're frequently reminded of work that's otherwise too often invisible, therefore taken for granted. There's no separation of pedestrians and freight: Tourists in their finery (or more often their astounding negligée) rub elbows with workers hand-trucking commodities along narrow pedestrian streets and over bridges.

And everything is nearby, or at least immediate. On the morning walkabout we passed three men repairing pavement: a three-foot hole had been dug, probably to repair or check on some plumbing or conduit, and had been refilled with sand, and a few paving-stones were lying about, two men turning them over, this way and that, a third looking on (the foreman, not doubt, it's the same everywhere). When we went by again, an hour or two later, they were just finishing resetting the stones and sweeping in the sand; you'd hardly know the job was recent.

Yesterday in a very narrow street — you can easily touch the walls on either side without stretching your arms — we noticed a good many such stones stacked alongside the temporary boards on which we were walking: perfectly flat and squared on one side, the side you always see; rounded and rough on the other, which would be set into the sand when the job was done. Each of these stones was numbered, but the numbers only ran from 1 to 5: I don't know what the numbers represented. They all looked the same to me, and I worked on paving crews, fifty years ago.

Mattingly Curtis asked the other day yesterday if in some post-petroleum era all urban life may have dispensed with motor vehicles. It would be nice. You could easily phase this in, I suppose, by first restricting deliveries to certain hours in certain areas — say, noon to three in residential sections; or various such periods distributed among various areas within a town, as is done on pedestrian streets in towns and cities in Europe. Then, later, phasing in hand-operated delivery in certain areas, never more than a practical distance from some kind of freight dock. I've noticed that there are refrigerators (though smaller than American ones), and possibly even grand pianos, even here in Venice; somehow they're delivered, and perhaps taken away again when required.

Of course this would require more workers, and why not? Why shouldn't healthy strong young men and women do such work after college, say, or even during college, and then move into some sinecure like journalism or brain surgery later, when they want more money and less muscle? And why shouldn't we pay just a little more for unnecessary commodities when we buy them in places like Venice where the stress of exhaust fumes, noisy trucks, and vehicular traffic has given way to a gentler pace?

We came here directly from London, where you're constantly threatened by trucks and buses, often coming at you from the wrong direction, incredibly close to the vulnerable pedestrian: traffic lanes right by the sidewalks, with no parking lane to protect the passerby. The lessened stress here is quite noticeable: you can walk for hours — and do — without feeling the strain of constant alertness to impending death. (Unless it be by drowning, of course: we've gone down a number of streets that ended abruptly at a drop into a quiet back canal.)

We did ride our first vehicle today, our fifth day here in Venice: a traghetto, a gondola rowed by one boatsman, carrying no more than ten or twelve pedestrians at a time (five of us, in this case) from one bank of the Grand Canal to the other. This saves a lot of time and walking, as there are only four bridges across the Grand Canal, and they are far between. It only takes a minute or so to cross, though you may have to wait three or four for a traghetto to arrive; you stand all the way, feet slightly spread and facing front to brace against the wake of passing vaporetti and water-taxis. It's a real pleasure, of course: you're close to the water; you feel the breeze; you're away from crowds and hard surfaces. The price has doubled these last ten years, but it's worth a euro to save twenty minutes' walking, if you want to get somewhere soon.

Of course we rarely feel the need to get somewhere soon. Lunchtime runs from noon to four, these days; dinner from eight to eleven, unless we simply feel like snacking. It's hot; it's always hot in Venice this time of year. We have plenty of time, and there'll be no final exam. And to me, almost anything here is as interesting, as absorbing, as anything else.

Online photos from Venice this month

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Venice Journal, 3: the edge of Cannaregio

Campiella della Pazienza, Venice, May 25, 2011—
YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED, though probably not since it's such a trivial matter, a change in the dateline above. It involves a curiosity of our apartment's location, which, since it probably stands for a general peculiarity of this curious city, may be worth describing.

The fact is, it's hard to tell exactly where we are. According to Google Earth, I'm sitting at 45°26'39" North, 12°19'14" East, and the image looks dead on the money to me. Describing the location in any other terms, though, is a tricky matter. I thought at first we were on the Rio della Crea, a blind canal that runs northerly from the Rio di Bursello, which flanks the railroad terminal on the north, toward the Canale di Cannaregio. That would make the street we walk to our front door — actually a pedestrian street, of course — the Fondamenta della Crea.

Our apartment is one of a dozen or so in a relatively new building (2007, I think) in a gated complex, a condiviso, I think they're called. L____ found it on the Internet, I'm not sure how, and rented it from a man called Fabiano, who appears to own it and at least one other, next door. Our front door is on a narrow footpath between two identical buildings, each containing a number of apartments identical, I suppose, to ours: short front hall, bathroom with tub and washing machine to the left, big room dead ahead with its kitchen, sofabed, television cabinet-armoire, and dining table and chairs; also a staircase leading to the bedroom upstairs with its king-sized bed and ample bathroom (shower, no tub).

But it's the cancello, the main gate, that gives access to the apartment. On the map you'd think it was at the end of the Calle della Misericordia, but that street takes a bend back to the Calle Priuli di Cavallletti which you might as well have taken in the first place, the first street after the train station as you walk into the city. At the end of the Priuli di C. you come to a wooden bridge over the Rio della Crea, take it, turn right, and walk to the end of the Fondamenta; then, to the left, you find the cancello.

As the crow flies we're quite close to the much more attractive Canale di Cannaregio, the broad canal that twas Venice's driveway until the railroad came to town: but the cancello in that direction is locked. Frustrating.

Until yesterday, when Fabiano came for his money, and explained a few things. I asked about the back cancello, and he looked at me carefully. He saw a responsible man, apparently, or perhaps merely an old one unlikely to raise hell, and gave me another key. You must be very quiet when you go in, the cancello can be noise when he closes, neighbor sleeps. Yesterday noon, then, after Fabiano left, we could put this to the test and explore our neighborhood as if the train station didn't exist — and, more to the point, the Lista di Spagna, the broad pedestrian street-cum-plaza crowded with tourists, hand-trucks, gimcrack stands, dubious restaurants and bars, and those fellows who try to sell you a flourescent green ball made of something that goes splat when you throw it forcefully onto the pavement, then regroups itself into a ball again, expressing the futility of action.

I turned out we were on the Campiello della Pazienza, as I'd originally thought when exploring the area a month ago, vicariously, on Google Earth. If only the Rio della Crea had not been filled in for its last forty yards or so, forming the Rio Terrà della Crea, we would be on our own little island, the fine three=arched Ponte Tre Archi anchoring its northwest corner, the Fondamenta di San Giobbo its front door.

"Fondamenta" is Italian, or at least Venetian, for "quay." Elsewhere in Italy you live on a "lungo" if next a river: the Lungadige, say, or Lungarno, or Lungotevere: here it's the "fondamenta" or, if in a classier district, the "riva." Our little island is not classy. There are no fancy houses, no Gothic arched windows, no marble wellheads. The buildings are blocky apartment buildings from, I'd say, mid-20th century, or these new low ones, row-type buildings with tiled roofs. All are stucco'd, of course. From the stone- or concrete-paved street the impression's rather hard and desolate. There's little street activity: few passersby, fewer cats, rarely a dog. One's not on the street unless one's going somewhere: home, or leaving home.

Our apartment's lit by skylights, fancy new Velux ones with remote controls working their panes, shutters, roller blinds, and ventilating slots (very difficult to remember the configurations). Through them comes the local sounds: the cooking of pigeons, quacking of unseen and unidentified waterfowl, something sounding suspiciously like chickens, mewing of cats (never a dog barking), songbirds. Now and then a neighbor working his skylight. Occasionally the sound of a large object being hoisted, or moved, or perhaps dropped: these are working canals, with depots and docks.

The quarter's not fancy, but it's attractive and even serene. Yesterday's little walk to lunch, on the Fondamenta di S. Giobbo, took us into the Calle della Cereria, where we found geraniums and petunias in boxes decorating the stucco façades of these workingclass condivisi, and in once case a garden behind an eye-high stucco wall, beautiful double white oleanders and single red ones mounding up at the corner. Across the way, in a little nook next another wall, discarded, an iron decoration, about as big as me, representing a shooting star, leaning up against the wall.

We spent a month in Venice ten years ago, with two granddaughters and two friends, in a two-bedroom-plus apartment at the other, eastern end of the Cannaregio, much nearer the Rialto. That was a profoundly impressive month. I took a lot of notes and wrote an extensive journal, and we accumulated a few maps and guidebooks. Alas, all that disappeared the day after we left Venice, when our car was broken into and a number of items taken. (I'd forgotten this detail a couple of weeks ago, when I looked for that journal and those notes, all over the house, unsuccessfully: it was only when I re-read the e-mail "dispatches" I'd sent from that visit ten years ago, fortunately preserved on my computer and printed out to bring along as reading matter, that I encountered a description of the robbery.)

Among those impressive experiences, of course, were the restaurants, the eating in general. That was before I'd begun my other blog, Eating Every Day, where I record such things now. Again, I'd fortunately recorded a few of these restaurants in the dispatches, but I'd made some mistakes. Yesterday we went to dalla Marisa for lunch, partly to confirm my suspicion that I was wrong to attribute a meal to it ten years ago, partly to try it out, as it's been highly recommended.

It's one of at least three restaurants with tables on the Fondamenta running along the south side of the Canale di Cannaregio. Marisa may or may not be the woman who hosted; or she may be the cook; or she may no longer be involved, or even for all I know on this happy earth. In any case lunch was not impressive, as you'll read over at Eating Every Day. Dinner may be much better, but we're unlikely to find out.

What was impressive, I thought, was the area. It's at the end of the world, or at least the end of the Cannaregio. At the end of the Fondamenta di S. Giobbe you stand on the edge of the island looking north toward the distant airport on the mainland; to the right somewhere, hidden by buildings on the other bank, the islands of S. Michele and Burano. The air is maritime, salty, breezy, delicious. There's a fair amount of boat traffic, even at noon when most things have stopped for the midday meal.

Boats tie up next to the quay your table's on, a few yards away — you could get up and step onto their decks in just a few paces. Boatsmen steer their boats with their rumps, standing backward straddling the tiller, nonchalantly cruising down-canal toward town. One calls out to a man walking past our restaurant: Mario! Stasera, a Giorgio! Alle otto! and you make a mental note to join them at Mario's this evening at eight, then reflect that you don't know Mario, or where he'll be.

There's something about walking toward the end of something, I tell F____, and she nods gravely in her way, slightly setting her lips in a memorably beautiful, meaningful, serious expression of awareness and understanding beyond her eighteen years. There's something pleasing about it, but also a little sad. I'm sorry if this sounds like a pendant to yesterday's meditation on the sweet sadness of Awareness of Large Scale; something puts me into this mood, perhaps Venice, perhaps merely Aging.

We stand silently on the edge of the island, the three of us, and watch an airplane, nearly invisible in the distance, touch down at Marco Polo airport, a few miles away. It's an improbably delicate blue, this airplane, with a white tail, descending with an uncanny grace and stateliness, one of the few moving objects in view, confirming the beauty and truth of this intersection of human activity with the timelessness of the lagoon and its islands, islands now almost entirely covered with structures and activity of human manufacture yet calm and measured in that activity.

Across the way there's a new building, or at least a new façade on an old building; it's linked by a curious arch containing a curious ring to a slightly older new façade on another, higher, equally symmetrical building. The smaller building sports two of those characteristically Venetian chimney-pots, these in metal and not chimney-pots at all but sizable smokestacks. Symmetry, design, color, placement — all convey an awareness of history, history as recorded in architecture and human activity; and an awareness of ecology, by which I mean the balance of human concerns and "values" and those of the natural setting, the lagoon, its marshes, its waters; and an awareness of economy, the traffic of freight, tourism, shipping, fishing; the transportation of agricultural and industrial products; the endless business of work (as slow and relaxed as possible), eating, conversation, meeting and parting, activity and contemplation. These are among the rewards of my Venice today, ordinary Venice, quite away from basilicas and Bellinis.

Online photos from Venice this month

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Venice Journal, 2

Rio della Crea, Venice, May 24, 2011—
NOT THAT MANY changes here in Venice, apart from that Calatrava bridge mentioned yesterday. There is the occasional new building — or new façade, perhaps — and I've noticed a new shop here and there where it seems to me there used to be something else. There's a section down on the Strada Nuova, I think, where there's a number of chain shops: a Disney store, a United Colors of Benneton, a couple of others. I don't recall them being there before.

It's our first visit in ten years, near as we can figure it out. We haven't yet quite got our bearings. It's famously easy to get lost here, and my iPhone often loses its place because the narrow streets are urban canyons, the poor thing can't see enough satellites to get its own bearings until we come to a campo.

Yesterday, for example, we decided after lunch to walk over to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The map app made this out to be a fairly straightforward trip: across the Canale Grande in front of the railroad station, straight through San Polo on Rio Marin to the Campo dei Frari, out along the Calle Largo Foscari and behind San Barnaba, through the warren of streets at Toletta, around the Accademia and along the Fondamenta Ospedaleto, and there you are, Bob's your uncle.

(I write all this out in detail here to fix it in mind: it's a route we'll surely be taking again. Today, for example, we'll continue our exploration of gelaterie; one of the first I'll want to confirm is Il Doge over on the Campo S. Margherita, behind Frari; and no one wants to get lost on his way to a gelato.)

Not much has changed, but the Guggenheim has changed, a little. There's a fancy new ticket-booth lobby. Duchamp's Sad Young Man on a Train was not to be seen, which made this young man sad as well: it's a favorite painting, and one the mind's eye — or at least mine — doesn't hold as well as, say, Max Ernst's unforgettable La Toilette de la mariée, which needs little more than a glance to bring it back into terrifying life.

I feel a little guilty about the way I enjoy visiting familiar museums. It's not only a matter of revisiting the objects, or even the buildings and the installations: it is perhaps more a matter of confirmation of past visits, of reassuring myself that, yes indeed, I have been here before, I am that sophisticated. Let's set that to one side for the moment, though: there is in fact something about the revisited painting. Here's one of my very favorite paintings, I tell F___, down at the end of the corridor. (It's Picabia's Très rare tableau sur la terre.)

We approach it, and as I contemplate it I realize we're seeing two different paintings, the one I've seen several times and studied many more, the one she's seeing for the first time. Same thing with many other favorites, not all of which the pedant in me insists on mentioning. Pollack, Picasso, Picabia; Klee, Kandinsky; Duchamp-Villon. Marino Marini, of course, the "handle" of whose equestrian seems ever more schematic — how many times has it been replaced?

Contemplating a familiar painting — in the flesh, so to speak, not in a reproduction — is a little like hearing a familiar symphony in a fine performance. The experience reinforces pathways already present, already imprinted, in the synapses of the brain. Simply recalling it, however accurately, leaves out the gateway apparatus, the involvement of eye or ear. Even renewed experience via reproduction — whether photograph or recording — renews the gateway's involvement, but omits the prime external stimulus, which I think anchors the experience in reality. So perhaps one need only glance at the remembered painting in situ, or overhear a live performance of a piece of music, or confront once again a favorite landscape, to confirm and reaffirm one's original exposure. This must be what Melville, I think it was, called "the shock of recognition"; what Proust described when writing about his famous madeleine.

To the extent that things have changed, to the extent that Calatrava's come between the Piazzale Roma and S. Lucia, these confirmations are disarranged, deranged even; the assurance of continuity is damaged; one feels a bit threatened. Of course to an extent such a derangement is pleasant, is itself a new experience; and I tell myself it's a folly and a flaw to expect to live in a steady state; life is change; fixity is a form of death. But as I grow older I enjoy the more the vast and very slow. A Bruckner symphony, an extensive landscape offer both detail and scope, reminder of the possibility of life in long measure.

I suppose this is a reason we — I, I mean; I shouldn't involve L____ in all this — like to revisit Venice. The city is rich with detail; it is fine-grained. The tourists and the shops catering to them, with their improbable clothing and accoutrements, anchor the city to the mutable present moment; but the city itself continues to offer the illusion of — not permanence, God knows, but the very long scale, the dozen centuries of perdurance. (I look forward to an early return to Torcello, founded in 639.) Crazed Hitler dreamed of a thousand-year reich; Venice has actually achieved it; and if its decay is a caution against aspiration to eternity, it also offers its key to serenity.

Online photos from Venice this month

Location:Campiello della Pazienza,Venice,Italy

Monday, May 23, 2011

Venice Journal, 1

Rio della Crea, Venice, May 23, 2011—
AN EASY FLIGHT on EasyJet from London across the dramatic Alps, a gentle descent to Marco Polo airport. It's always a little exciting to land at a new small airport. This one was simple enough: the baggage fairly quick to arrive, a simple passport control, no customs interview. Fabiano's father was there holding a sheet of paper with my name on it.

Fabiano's the agent for our apartment, which is in a new building near San Giobbo, in the Cannaregio. Ours is pehaps not the most convenient location; it's a five-minute walk to the Canale Grande with its vaporetti and, more important for us, the main (pedestrian) street to other parts of town. But it's quiet here, the apartment's well equipped, one can relax, read, and perhaps write a little.

Fabiano's father speaks French, German, and of course Italian. He's a drummer, it turns out; he's spent years playing in a small jazz combo in Germany and England — but he doesn't speak English: at least, not to us. He drives efficiently through the glorious sunset, rays of sunlight mounting behind towering clouds.

At Piazzale Roma he parks, illegally and a little nervously, and we make a few phone calls on his telefonino to find out where Francesca is. Surely she's at the bridge, I think, and on one occasion even say; no, says Fabiano's father, she'll meet us here. Finally Fabiano's wife arrives, speaking English: she's over there, she says, at the bridge.

The bridge surprises me, even shocks me a little. It's a new one, at least to me; a Calatrava bridge, a broad rather low arch with glass treads, spanning the Grand Canal to lead people to Benneton. Fabiano's father explains: there may be four thousand, five thousand people on that cruise ship; they all get on the People Mover, arrive at the Ponte Calatrava, and go to Benneton, where they buy things; then they cross the Calatrava, get on the People Mover, and go back in the ship.

Yesterday, our first full day, we spent walking and getting lost in the Dorsoduro, a sestiere (an arrondissement, a borough) I hardly know. We were going for Sunday dinner to Montin, a place I've always loved. Venice is famous for confusing its pedestrians, of course. Maps are increasingly useless as one's eyesight continues to decline: the streets go every which way, and so do the printed street names when they are present, and in any case the names may be printed on the map but they're rarely to be found on the streets themselves.

What are streets anyway, in this wonderful city of no vehicular traffic? Some, like the Strada Nuova, could well sustain two lanes of cars and trucks, with sidewalks on each side — but how would cars and trucks get to it? Every few hundred meters you'd need another drawbridge. And then: would the street bear the weight of such traffic? Many of these “streets” are rii terà, former canals roofed over or filled in.

The streets are narrow for the most part. Tourists are cautioned not to walk two abreast and certainly not arm-in-arm: but of course they do. And they stop without signalling, or lollygag along. They stop at the tops of bridges to take photos each way down the canals. They even sit on steps when they want to, the steps of the many bridges I mean: someone should tell them only beggars are allowed to sit on bridge-steps, beggars in black, perhaps exposing wounded legs or arthritically crippled hands to excite sympathy.

It's hard to be sympathetic for the tourists. It helps to recall one's a tourist oneself. Most of the locals — waiters, sales clerks, even residents — are pleasant and patient. I always begin a request in Italian, and try to remember to begin with Buon giorno, and not to smile: it's the Americans who are always grinning like apes. We dress modestly, too, of course: not everyone does. Yesterday near Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari we saw a young woman standing near a low stone wall, one foot in her companion's lap: he was examining a toe, I suppose for a blister. Her skirt was improbably short and sheer; not much was left to the imagination. I wondered if they'd try to enter the basilica when the pedal inspection was finished, but we did't wait around to see.

Montin was just as remembered: I wrote about it over at Eating Every Day. This used to be thought one of Venice's best restaurants, but it has declined in the sweepstakes, partly because its cuisine has been shouldered aside by trendier stuff, partly because the public's taste has evolved even for its own old-fashioned cuisine, which is neither fashionable nor casalinga (home-style); it's simply the familiar Veneto restaurant fare of fifty years ago. But that's a comfortable, nourishing approach, I think, and one comes to appreciate its dependability. You sense it's a family-run establishment, with the older generation managing things, the next waiting tables, and a third allowed — in the indulgent Italian way — to watch and participate a little, eventually to take its own place in the parade. A six-year-old girl brought us a basket of bread, set it down with a smile, then clasped her hands behind her back exactly like Degas' petite danseuse de quatorze ans, posed just a few seconds, and gravely walked away. Later we saw her deliver a plate of sliced tomatoes to the next table; and later we noticed a woman of thirty or so moving among the tables, her hands clasped behind her back.

Canale by night.jpg

Each night so far — there have been two — we've taken a walk about our quarter, at eleven o'clock or so, to enjoy the balmy air, the dark sky, the lapping of the dark water in our Canale di Cannaregio. Last night at eleven o'clock we wanted ice cream, and realized we were near one of the most highly recommended gelaterie here, da Nini. Alas, it closes at nine. Next door was a restaurant: a handsome young waiter invited us to have ice cream in his giardino— in fact, a table on the street. We discussed it for a moment, then decided What The Hell, our frequent philosophy when in Italy.

I'm confused, he said to me; you speak italian, she (indicating Lindsey) speaks English, she (Francesca) is Italian. Fran explained, but the waiter looked more into her eyes than attended to her explanation. Che bei occhi, he said, you can't be from Napoli, you must leave Venice. We sat down for gelati: lemon for me, vanilla for L., both for F. At a nearby table three loutish young men were shouting at one another in low, bad, and broken English; impossible to tell their nationality, though one had a strong Spanish accent. So loud and profane, not to say vulgar, were they, that other parties left early, or did not stay at all to be waited on.

Today F. and I were out doing errands and spoke to our waiter again. Yes, they are terrible, he said; they send customers away; the other day one of them even put his hand up a woman's leg, a woman he did not know. Che bei occhi, he continued, looking into Fran's eyes.

Online photos from Venice this month

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dinner in Transylvania

Sibiu, June 1983:

A nice band, too: alto sax, guitar, organ (!), bass, drums; and decent food, the best I had in Romania, I think. Curious place, lost in the woods as I recall. Waiters and musicians in folk-costume. Those were the days.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

… (we've been busy)…

An excellent test:
Bring everything to silence
In the midst of noise.