Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Acque Alte Particolari

Acqua alta is of course synonymous with Venice but I was surprised to learn the other day that not all visitors have the same notion of what the term means.

A Venetian friend who deals with tourists all day in his shop mentioned last week that lately a number of Japanese visitors have expressed a very particular concern about acqua alta here. Still reeling from the recent disaster in their own country, they conceive of the danger to Venice not in terms of subsidence or rising ocean levels caused by Global Warming, but as sudden flash calamities--basically, little tsunamis. He says he reassures them that acqua alta is fortunately nothing like that, but can't help but be saddened by how profoundly their sense of the world has been altered, by how they carry images of the disaster with them thousands of miles from home.

Then he said that he'd once met an American couple who--well, he didn't know what they imagined acqua alta was like.

"After the tsunami in Japan?" I asked.

"No, no, a couple of years ago," he said. "Nothing to do with tsunamis. They asked the strangest question. When acqua alta comes, they wanted to know, what happens to the pigeons in the Piazza?"

My friend shook his head, as incredulous and helplessly bewildered, still, by the recounted question as he was when he was first asked. He shrugged and opened his eyes wide, saying, "I mean, I don't know, they were afraid maybe they all drowned... I explained, they are birds," he flapped his arms demonstratively, "they fly away."

Monday, April 25, 2011

Pasquetta Voyage


On the day after Easter--which is a holiday itself in Italy known as "Pasquetta"--it is a tradition for Italians to leave the town or city where they live and go for a picnik in the countryside. In Venice the tradition is for families who live in the city to take their boat and picnik on one of the less populous, rural islands in the lagoon.

But as the photo above shows, it's not so simple for a family in their little boat to get away from it all these days in the lagoon... Just as on terra firma, there's traffic to contend with.

(There are no less than 9 vessels in this photo.)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Myth & Medicine

If you really want to experience something of Venice as it was 400 years ago just get into a discussion of health with a local. Immunology, microbiology, virology, all of these remain as foreign to most Venetians' thinking about illness and health today as they would have been to Titian.

Recently a virus has been making its way through our son's scuola materna; half his class has been likely to be absent on any given day. Yet last week when Sandro came down with the fever and all the other symptoms his peers have been manifesting and had to be kept home from school for three days my wife's friends were unanimous in tracing the pathology to two hours he spent playing on the Lido's beach one day after school. It was windy that day, and the wind gave rise to the fever.

My wife objected that their own kids (in the same scuola materna) had also had the illness. Well, yes, the mother of one admitted, her daughter had gotten it from being too long in the sun one day. She had not gotten sunburned, nor any color at all from the exposure, but the child wasn't used to the sun yet and thus the fever. The other mother offered no explanation for her own daughter's illness, but stubbornly adhered to the too much wind/sun diagnosis for the other kids.

My wife mentioned something about viruses as the cause of illness: her listeners enjoyed a good laugh.

And so it goes here... I haven't had so much exposure to something like the ancient science of the four humors since the Shakespeare course I took in college. One day in February at the height of flu season  we mentioned to our very intelligent well-traveled neighbor that Sandro had been up vomiting the night before. He nodded sympathetically and said, "Ah, yes, his stomach must have been exposed to a cold draft while he was at school."
This summer when we go to the beach with Italian friends we are steeling ourselves to confront "The Three Hour Rule." This is a theory--no, wait, the law--that states that any child who enters the water less than three hours after eating lunch will die almost instantly. A friend insists upon this law and has even, at our urging, explained its scientific basis, which goes something like: if a child enters cold water while his or her stomach is still occupied with digesting lunch the swift change of temperature will instantaneously cause a fatal congestion in the stomach, causing all of his or her other organs to also instantly seize up and cease functioning.

Our friends are completely in earnest about this; absolutely nothing we say will change their minds.

Yet the same parents who keep the toes of their children out of water for three hours after eating allow them to ride bikes and scooters without helmets. And in the very same country where an emergency alarm cord dangles above every public toilet and in every single shower, you can't find a single smoke alarm (though the number of lives saved by smoke alarms has been well-documented).

It's funny, and sometimes exasperating, but, alas, as an American I have no room to be smug. For if you ever want to experience something of life in America as it was lived 120 years ago amid the most destitute and unschooled of shoeless, toothless dirt farmers you need only ask almost any contemporary American in a mall--or Republican politician--about the origin of life on earth. Well over half of them (61% according to a recent Gallup poll) are likely to tell you that old Charles Darwin was full of beans and that God, wearing a long white beard, created the earth wholesale in 6 days exactly 10,000 years ago. They are also likely to reveal a stubborn belief that the earth is the center of the universe, regardless of the work of that famous resident of the Venetian Republic, Galileo.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Burano Lace: The End of the Line

The first day I met A., in his father's lace shop not far from Piazza San Marco, he tossed off in passing: "This place will be a museum soon, not a store."

The location of the store seems a little museum-like as it is, composed of two separate showrooms (on slightly different levels) tucked away, grotto-like, off the worn stone entrance halls of a 16th-century palazzo. A's father has owned and operated the shop in this same location since 1958.

Recently his father, Signor L, stated things more explicitly: "In about ten years there will be no more Burano lace being made."

The youngest of the masters who make the lace for their store, he explained, is 75 years old.

"What about the lace schools I see advertised?" I asked. "Aren't younger people learning to make it?"

He shook his head, said, "Those people are learning a hobby. It is not the same."

He estimated that 98% of the lace, and 60% of the glass, for sale in Venetian shops is made in China. He carries Chinese machine-made lace in his own shop because sometimes that's what people want, but he keeps it sequestered in a windowless, almost closet-like space all its own far from the main showroom, and does not pretend it's something it is not. At first, he said, the quality of such lace wasn't too bad for being machine made, but it has gotten worse. However for those who want to buy a lace tablecloth in Venice, such lace is often the only type they can afford. Though he does carry some smaller tablecloths and table settings partially hand-made in Tuscany that are quite reasonable.

A restauranteur I once met while working in a New York bookstore advised me never to eat cheap sushi or sashimi because the quality of fish needed for it does not come cheap--and he said he'd hate to know the origin or age or state of the cut-rate stuff.

Real lace also does not come cheap.

A circular work of Burano lace just large enough to serve as a coaster for a beer bottle costs 200 euro and represents a week of labor. A work of Bobbin lace--a different method practiced on the island of Pellestrina south of Lido--about the size of a small salad plate costs 150 euro. The small 30 euro pieces displayed with signs of "Hand Made" in shop windows around the Piazza and elsewhere (including Burano itself) may in fact have been made manually, but far far away from the Venetian lagoon.

No matter how high the cost of Burano (or Pellestrina) lace, the economics simply don't work out anymore.  There's just not enough money in it for the skill and time put into each piece. There aren't enough people around who appreciate the craft enough to pay for the labor.

My friend A. says that Japanese visitors to Venice are an exception. They're familiar enough with Chinese lace to recognize what makes Burano lace so special. And of course there are the very rich, like international art star Mathew Barney and his Indie-rock star/actress wife, Bjork, who can spring for an authentic full-scale Burano tablecloth (which they had dyed black).

Something that always catches my eye when I visit the shop are the small framed pieces of old Burano lace. They are floral elements, ranging in size from just a bit larger than a man's thumbnail to just a bit smaller than the palm of one's hand, cut out of damaged remnants made in the 19th Century or earlier. The gauge of thread used back then has not been manufactured for quite some time. It's truly gossamer.

The other day Signor L noticed me peering at one of these small scraps and motioned me over to a display table. He opened a drawer, took out a small bundle, then carefully unfolded a perfectly-preserved 200-year-old Burano lace table runner.

"You almost never find a whole piece like this anymore," he said. "They have all been cut up."

He had acquired this one about a dozen years ago from a local woman selling off the possessions of a recently-deceased elderly relative.

It was amazing, with all the complexity and depth of design for which Burano lace is famous. It was impossible to take it all in at once. You had to read it like a novel, taking the time to follow out the development of each of its main themes. Finally I found myself fixed on the most attenuated line of floral ornamentation stretched like a spider's trail between major motifs: garlands of tiny flowers made of that thin-gauge thread long unavailable. Each three-dimensional flower just four tiny petal-shaped loops of a single airy thread around a spherical center formed, incredibly, of smaller rounder loops. It was hard to imagine the person who had worked on such a scale.

I wondered about the cost of this piece, but couldn't bring myself to ask that. Instead, as a preliminary, I asked, "Will you sell this?"

"No, no," Signor L said quickly. "Never. This is mine."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Venice's Ways

Of central importance through all of Proust's long great In Search of Lost Time are two very different paths that the narrator and his family take when they go for walks in the country. The shorter route, which the narrator (a boy at the time) knows well, is called the Méséglise way (also Swann's Way by the family). The much longer route, with a very different landscape and inhabitants, is the Guermantes Way.

Upon the simple facts of these two different routes layer upon layer of meaning accrue for the narrator (and reader) over the course of the book. They become for him (and us), not just very different paths and landscapes and experiences and fantasies of his childhood but a kind of template for all of his life that follows--orienting the development of his psyche and imagination well into his adulthood. We, like him, become used to seeing the world of the novel in terms of what seem to be these two irreconcilable "ways" and it is a distinctly gratifying shock when after some 3,000 or more pages he discovers that the old paths of his childhood are actually not distinct at all, but connected.

I'd never had any experience that even remotely resembled this in the real world until the other day in Venice. For in Venice, like no other place I've ever lived, one's entire sense of the city, of how one sestiere relates to another, of the distance between two points, of the city's entire size and shape, can be magically reconfigured by the flukey discovery of some narrow previously unnoticed series of calli linking a certain campo to another. All of sudden the very campo that had seemed so definitively anchored within the bounds of Castello--the focal point around which so many of my ideas of that sestiere arranged themselves--turns out to be just a short easy stroll from a church that had uniquely embodied for me what I'd thought of as the obscure center of the sestiere of San Marco.

Ever since cities have existed writers have exclaimed at--in indignation or joy--the sensory overload that assails a visitor to them. Venice isn't unique in this regard. But as everyone knows, Venice can easily seem like the most illogical city one is ever likely to visit in the West. When you are really lost in Venice the map you hold your hand is as worthless as a car to get you where you really want to go.

One is so rarely in the clear in Venice, it's difficult to orient oneself. In most cities you can look for a landmark, peer down an avenue to figure out which way is north. In Venice the Grand Canal could serve a similar function--if only it were straight.

Learning your way around Venice is like learning a language. You can learn some essential routes like you learn essential grammar, but fluency comes only with unexpected whole-body experiences. The well-trod path that runs between the Rialto and Piazza San Marco, or between the Piazza and L'Accademia (following Via XXII Marzo), are like the utterances of a phrase book offering the most limited of communications, the narrowest of experience--like the well-known path I'd come to rely on to get me home from my Italian class in a predictable amount of time.

During those very rare very brief times when I feel I've really learned some bit of the Italian language my memory, my mind recedes far into the background. It's not that I'm translating what I've heard or consciously remembering a phrase, it's just that my ear instantaneously catches what's said, and my mouth miraculously produces the response seemingly all on its own. And so too at those times when I feel like I've learned a bit of the city, my eyes catch every significant detail without thought, and my feet themselves seem to feel the way forward.

Perhaps because there are so few really useful street signs in Venice, so few of the things that our sense of logic depends upon to orient us in other cities, imagination can, if we have the time to let it, come to the fore. Associations come thick and fast. We remember our way because of the way the sun falls upon a certain facade at a certain time, the way the cobblestones become uneven just at this stretch, the way a certain group of people seated at an outdoor table once caught our attention just before the calle where we must turn left.

Venice: the city of many ways.

Monday, April 4, 2011

On Finding My Way--Then Losing It

Everyone writes and talks about the experience of losing one's way in Venice but today I was struck more forcefully by the experience of finding it.

In Venice, more than in any other place I've ever lived, I always feel like I'm missing out on something-- or on a lot of things--when an appointment forces me to take a familiar route from point A to point B. No sooner do I congratulate myself on resisting the allure of some flashing vista down one calle than a few steps further on another major threat to punctuality appears: a church I've never seen or never seen open before, a low sottoportego as curiously inviting as Alice's rabbit hole, a certain tint of plaster or pattern of brickwork or shape of doorframe glimpsed in the corner of a corte. In Venice there always seems to be another way to go, another path to take, of potentially remarkable splendor, or splendorously remarkable decay--even if it does turn out to be a dead end. To a person with hungry eyes, the city offers a feast of infinite courses; to give into just a few of them is to risk never getting to your intended destination.  Of sacrificing any claim to social or civic responsiblity--leaving your friend or the officer at the Questura waiting forever--for the sake of following out just one more calle. Of ending up utterly exhausted and lost, led far astray by curiosity and desire.

And oddly enough, as I've just discovered, you need only try to describe your very literal experience of making your way through the city to suddenly find yourself completely lost in what appears to be some treatise on morality, psychology, or the unconscious. Like so many other writers over the last 1,000 years...

Maybe we Western descendents of Plato and the Judeo-Christian monotheistic tradition--distrustful of sheer multiform appearance, believers in some true path--can't help but get lost in the metaphorical implications of literal old Venice. 

Though, alas, my point was not about getting lost. But having wandered far off enough already I should wait till the next post to try to re-find my intended path.