Sunday, January 30, 2011

Circling Venice, Circling New York

Along with all its other advantages, New York City offers its residents an excellent course of preparation for living in any other place in the world with a reputation for inefficiency and nightmarish bureaucracy.

My Italian relatives and friends almost can't wait to hear of the frustration stirred up in me by the Italian system. It seems like a point of pride for them: an essential element of the Italian experience--like visiting the Doge's Palace or Roman Coliseum--that they'd really hate for me to miss. They're eager to commiserate, to offer their support. I'm afraid I've disappointed them because, in fact, my experience with the Italian system hasn't been too bad.

On the contrary, I was amazed by how easily I was able to obtain my codice fiscale (tax ID), enroll Sandro and myself in the National health service and get him the one vaccine he lacked, file for a residency permit, enroll in a state language course for stranieri. At no point did I encounter long lines. Never did I feel shunted aside by some bureaucrat so flush with job security that work was the last thing he or she did while at the office.

Perhaps I've been taken in by the famous charm of the Italians that writers like Beppe Severgnini warn all of us newcomers against. But charm is nothing to sneeze at in a state employee, especially when they're actually helping you. In either of the two US post offices near our apartment in Brooklyn you could almost swear that you'd been dropped into one of those old prison movies--and you were the one wearing stripes. Gray, dirty, gloomy, these are places where you do your time and the exchanges from one side of the bullet-proof glass to the other often teeter on the edge of contempt, ready to tilt into open hostility.

Of course it hasn't been entirely smooth sailing. My pursuit of a Carta di Soggiorno for my wife Jen (allowing her to stay in the country for an extended period of years) has evolved into the circular route that, according to my architect cousin, is typical of Italian public life. You begin at Office A and are immediately directed to Office B. But your matter falls outside the jurisdiction of Office B, which must direct you to Office C. At Office C you find out that had you arrived 2 months earlier they would have been able to help you, but now you must go to Office D, to which responsibility for such things has been transferred. At Office D no one knows what in the world you're talking about and after a protracted discussion among the staff it's determined that Office A is where you should be...

Maybe someone from some place other than New York City could join with my cousin and that old American spaghetti sauce commercial and exclaim, "Now that's Italian!" But I've been through similar scenarios when I attempted to obtain (unsuccessfully) a copy of my mother's Brooklyn birth certificate. When I needed to obtain a copy of our marriage certificate and have it apostilled. When I sold our 1997 Toyota Camry and needed to cancel the insurance on it.

Or perhaps--though I certainly hope not--everyone everywhere has some experience of this same dizzying route. For my recent attempt to change my American health insurance coverage followed this path as well--and the company was located in North Carolina.

Maybe this route is universal wherever one must deal with large business entities, whether public or private, and varies only by degrees or intensity from place to place, country to country.

Or maybe the only difference from place to place is people's response to this inescapable contemporary experience. Italians, with perhaps a fatalism quite foreign to most Americans, accept it as a defining part of their national experience, while Americans insist with indignity that it is a glaring anomaly, a rupture in what should be, or could be, a perfectly efficient system.  

Maybe, that is, Italians sacrifice almost all hope for improvement and gain a sense of fellowship. While Americans maintain their hope in something like perfectibility by isolating the experience--and inevitably those who undergo it--as atypical.

Each country's attitude has its advantages. Each could gain by adopting a bit of the other's.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sunset on the Lagoon

I was sitting outside on a bench near the lagoon, writing something for this blog, and the lower the sun sank the more I lost interest in what I was writing, what I might write, what I had ever written--or ever read, for that matter. 

Hopefully the pic below suggests a little of the reason why.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Fog City

The weather forecast for the last 5 days showed a hearty sun keeping company, and only minimally obscured, by a modest cloud. Like a big florid-faced man holding his white toy poodle up before him to be photographed. In fact there was no hint of that round-faced man, and after three days of unbroken fog I began to have serious doubts not only about whether he'd ever return but whether he'd ever actually existed.   

The fog of the Venetian lagoon is, I discovered, nothing like the tule fog of California's San Joaquin Valley where I grew up. It is not, like the majority of visitors to this city, a day tripper--nor even an overnight guest. No, it checks in for extended stays. It makes itself at home. It takes over the whole damn place.

Like one of the countless replicas of itself taken home by countless tourists, when the fog moves in Venice is packed up in cotton and boxed away out of natural light. Where are you, and where are you being taken? There's no way of knowing. Even the most basic sights vanish: the comforting to and fro of the vaporetti on the lagoon seen from our windows, the delivery boats, the lighted pilings that mark their path. The islands of the Lido, San Servolo, San Giorgio Maggiore: all gone suddenly like abducted classmates.

When, or if, the fog lifted, in what awful suburb might we find ourselves?

The fog, in other words, was getting to me a bit--even if it didn't seem to affect Jen or Sandro, who tore around the parco giochi (playground) after school as if it were bright June.

I recalled something I'd had reason to recall years before, during a long winter in New York, from Thoreau, who noted that even in the dead of winter, when the progress of time itself seems to be at a frozen standstill, there are countless changes to be observed. In the January snow of Prospect Park these changes, these hints of spring, I can tell you, are not so easy to find. But here, at the very least, the Giardini Pubblici are largely green year-round with oaks and laurels and evergreens of some sort and a few palm trees and bunches of bushes I know nothing about. That would cheer me up.

Remarkably enough, though, there were bushes of some kind doing more than just hunkering down beneath the cold fog. On one kind of bush, whose name I've never known and can't tell you right now, there were actually shoots! I think that's the word. Shoots, buds, new growth. On another there were actually some tiny flowers. This surprised me so much I took a picture.

Now Venice is actually a little bit further north than New York City and I don't recall seeing even the smallest of flowers opening up in NYC in January. Maybe I missed them. Maybe for those who know something about plants this will come as no surprise whatsoever. Perhaps there are tiny flowers of just this sort opening to a new day in Minneapolis even as I type these words. 

Maybe that's one of the good things about certain kinds of ignorance: the routine appears miraculous.  At least the first time you experience it.

Then yesterday morning, after a night of hard rain and wind, I woke up and the fog was gone, revealing everything to be where I guess it must always have been, but looking, nevertheless, quite brand new, even dazzling.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tourist City

When I moved to New York City in 1993 from the Santa Cruz coast of California more than a few people thought I'd lost my mind. 

The morning I left Santa Cruz for good I shared a shuttle van to the San Francisco airport with a number of other locals, all of them amiable and easy to talk to--until they found out where I was moving. At which point their easy sunshine-y manners became clouded over by puzzlement and, I believe, pity. They were too polite to press me much, but the unasked question that furrowed each of their brows was a disbelieving "Why? Why abandon paradise for a dirty stinky crime-ridden city?"

It would've been easy enough to tell myself "Well, that's just Californians for you," except that when I arrived in NYC I got a similar disbelieving response from New Yorkers. And New Yorkers rarely hesitated to put it into words: "You left the coast of California to come here? What are you, nuts?"

Now that NYC has been born again as a major tourist destination, charged with all  the "shopping and f---ing" fantasies of "Sex & the City" and the fluffy sit-com-araderie of "Friends," it's almost hard to remember, or believe, that there was a time not so terribly long ago when Manhattan was still considered more intimidating than Orlando, FL. 

Now Manhattan has become, well, rather like Venice.

A slightly odd thing for me to say, as I now live in Venice, and I like Venice, but I'm well aware of the knocks that can be laid on Venice. Flooded with tourists, devoid of actual Venetians, littered with mask and glass and lace shops whose "traditional Venetian goods" originate in China & whose employees commute from the mainland... Ugh, I can't go on.

But with just a few slight word changes wouldn't the above also describe the Manhattan neighborhoods of the West Village, Soho, Nolita...?

The artists who once inhabited the cold-water lofts of Soho seem almost as long absent from that scene as Tintoretto from his crumbling house in Cannaregio. The plaque on the townhouse to the east of Tompkins Square where Charlie Parker once lived commemorates a time that seems as impossibly long ago to me as that recalled on the church of La Pietà in Castello, where Vivaldi used to churn out his hits. The epoch of the young Bob Dylan playing in the low-rent West Village's Kettle of Fish is as foreign as that of Richard Wagner holed up in his palazzo on the Grand Canal.

I guess I find it easier to calmly regard a past period of creative ferment, of thriving (and affordable) neighborhoods, from the distance of a few centuries than a few decades. Easier to accept that I missed a "golden age" of one sort or another by 300 years than by 30. It's not surprising that it's hard to comprehend the life of someone you've never met, never seen; it's rather more unsettling when that of your father or aunt seems to have no relation to yours.

Or maybe it's just that observing evidence of great changes over long periods of time makes one philosophical; over short, nervous.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bad Words in 2 or More Tongues

Both of my parents were born in the United States but neither of them spoke a word of English when they started school in California.  They spoke Italian.  More than 70 years later things have been reversed: it is now their grandson, our son, who has started school in Italy speaking only English.

It's not the first time he's attended school in Italy.  Last winter we lived in the Piemonte region for 3 months and he went to asilo nido (or basically, "bird's nest"), which ranges from the age of 6 to 36 months.  He's now in scuola materna (from age 3 years to 6).  His teachers, last year and this, speak only Italian in and out of the classroom.  Because of the limited Italian knowledge of my wife and I this sometimes presents teacher-parent communication challenges, but none for Sandro.  After two months his teachers now report that Sandro "capisce tutto" (understands everything), even if he is not yet speaking much Italian.

Alas, when Sandro does speak Italian to us at home neither Jen nor I can claim to capisce tutto.

Combine a 3 year old's developing pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical skills in what at any given moment may or may not be two different languages with parents who are comfortable in only one of those languages and things get rather confusing.

Last year when Sandro suddenly addressed the three syllables non si fa to his mother we didn't catch his meaning, though he'd accompanied them appropriately enough with a shake of his forefinger.  Italian friends had to tell us that what he was saying was "One does not do that"--a phrase that I'm sure gets a lot of air time in asilo nido.

Last night just before bed he told us that his classmate Giovanni "is NOT nice, really not nice."

"Why?" we asked.  "Does he hit or take toys away from kids?"

"He says bad things, bad words," Sandro replied.


Last year in Piemonte, Sandro had learned the mother of all bad words--no, worse, the mother of all bad two-word phrases--and exactly the tone in which to say it--in English--from a pair of 9-year-old Italian boys.  He wandered into the living room of the house we were sharing with an Italian family while the boys were locked in an extremely frustrating round of Super Mario Brothers.

Later that night he struck a pose in front of the full-length mirror on a large armoire and, like some livid toddler version of Travis Bickle, let his reflection know in no uncertain terms what he could do with himself.

"What kind of bad words?" we asked last night.

"Um, I don't know...  ka-ka....  And... bombalone."

Bombalone?  Or bambolone?  We weren't sure how he meant to pronounce it.  Nor could he tell us what the word meant.  Our Italian/English dictionary didn't help.  Bambola means "doll".  With mammone ("mama's boy") on our mind, we wondered if bambolone was some sexist pre-school insult suggesting that one played with dolls?   

Today I asked an Italian friend, the mother of one of his classmates.

Bombalone is a kind of pastry, kind of like a jelly donut, filled with chocolate or cream or marmalata.  She thought it also could conceivably have something to do with a water heater.

Bambolona is slang, she told me, laughing, and I'm not likely to find it in a dictionary.  Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita--she's a bambalona.  It's something like "big doll," in a literal sense, but it's intended to suggest, or describe, with lascivious if adolescent undertones, a big bountiful sexy woman.

But neither word, she concluded, is actually "bad" or "dirty."  

The worst that can be said about them is that each relates to the indulgence of an elemental human appetite--and Sandro is hardly ascetic enough at the age of 3 to censure his classmate for that.

Though he insisted again today that the word--with whatever the peculiar meaning or connotation it seems to have for him alone, beyond both Italian and English--is "a bad thing to say."

At this point the only thing I can do is, as they say, take his word for it.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Giostre on the Riva

About 10 days before Christmas my three-year-old son got an early surprise present: trucks appeared on the Riva dei 7 Martiri to the west of Via Garibaldi. It's unusual to see any vehicle with wheels in Venice proper--even adult bicycles are prohibited--and these were big rigs! With trailers!

Now my son's interest in boats had been growing stronger--especially in those that carried cars or heavy machinery--but he was thrilled to be able to walk around these huge things again, his first loves (don't ask me why), parked atop planks to protect the stone walkway. The fact their trailers carried carnival rides was of little interest to him at that point. He didn't care what they carried as long as it was large and mechanical, and when almost all of the trucks disappeared one day leaving only the rides behind, the mini-bumper cars and little roller coaster seemed scant compensation for the loss. 

He has however come to appreciate the rides themselves or le giostre, which is also what the carnival as a whole is called. As the rides aren't especially close to San Marco they are frequented it seems almost exclusively by local kids. According to our neighbor who has lived here since his birth in 1941, le giostre have appeared every year for many years and will remain through Carnevale.

Below are some photos I took of le giostre from the vaporetto one recent evening.

Friday, January 7, 2011


I moved to Venice with my wife and our then-almost-3-year-old son on the first day of November 2010 and if we'd somehow forgotten how radically different our son's sense of a place could be from our own he quickly reminded us with 4 emphatic words he repeated nearly every time we stepped out of our rented apartment: "I DON'T LIKE VENICE!"

Actually, I don't think we had forgotten how different his take on the city could be. We had all visited the city for the last week of last February and he'd been singularly unimpressed by all of the things that were created to be nothing but impressive. One evening we three were walking around a deserted Piazza San Marco, appreciating the church in a way that can be hard during the crowded day...  Or rather, my wife Jen and I were appreciating the church, looming phantasmagorically in the fog--our son, Sandro, was appreciating the screechy sound made by an empty half-crushed Coke can he kicked across the old stones, echoing around the space Napoleon called the grandest drawing room in Europe. He was not aware the church existed; that Coke can was easily the greatest thing he'd come across in days.

In any case, for the first two weeks after our arrival in Venice this fall Sandro never let us forget how much he hated our new home. Why? we asked. It was "yucky" he said, definitively. He didn't like its "towers" (campanile), he didn't care for its domes, and the buildings were "too old." One afternoon he and I were out for a walk and happened to see a cormorant emerge from the lagoon nearby with a fish in his beak, which he held out of the water until its thrashing subsided then gulped down whole--the outline of the fish distending his thin neck on its way south. "Birds don't eat fish," Sandro objected to me. "They eat worms."

"Birds that live on the sea do," I told him.

But he refused to accept this idea. And when the cormorant disappeared under the water of the lagoon again, he shouted at it, "No, no more eating fish!"

And thus, the next day, another reason for hating Venice was added to his list: "Too many birds here eating fish!"

Jen and I weren't surprised he'd miss his friends and two cousins back home in NYC. We talked to him about that before we left and after we arrived. But the intensity of his feelings for those first two weeks were sometimes still a little surprising for a kid who'd moved around so amazingly well in his young life.

It's easy for adults to think of all the unique opportunities a new location might offer a child. I would sometimes wonder what it would be like if one's first hazy conscious memories were of a place that, like Venice, could seem so unreal, so dream-like. Perhaps the most ordinary of settings (like the agricultural California one I grew up in) all seem a little mysterious when they return to us from early childhood. Or perhaps even the most fantastical--like Venice--will seem ordinary to Sandro if we end up staying here long enough for him to feel that it's his home. I don't know. But I do know that all of the things we talked about with other adults--how wonderful for Sandro to learn another language from such an early age, to see such sights, such art and so on--were all nothing compared to the pleasure of kicking a can.

And of course, of feeling secure in his family, and, soon enough, among new friends. Knowing how active Sandro was and how much he liked parks, we chose where we wanted to live in Venice based upon the two major (and really only) city parks nearby. We'd visited them since arriving, but now we also put extra effort into making the small 1 BR apartment we rented for the month of November the coziest play space possible for all of us. And the more we played together inside at night, the less he seemed to be bothered when we ventured out during the day.

We made friends at the playgrounds. He started scuola materna, preschool, here on November 10. And Venice ceased to seem so loathsome. We secured a one-year lease on a warm dry apartment near a playground (heavy rainfall had caused water leaks in the little 1 BR), and near his school.

He is his usual happy self again now. He'll sometimes exclaim at some architectural sight in Venice with almost as much enthusiasm as the sight of a big rig or "digger" or other piece of heavy machinery regularly drew from him when we lived on terra firma. But remembering the Coke can, I have no illusions about how much "culture" does for him these days. Luckily, there's a lot else here besides.