Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Round and Round at the Turn of a New Year

Luna Park, or what everyone who lives in Venice refers to as simply "le giostre" (or, "the rides"), has returned to the Riva dei Sette Martiri for its annual stay until 1 February. There's a ride I don't recall from prior years that's quaintly retro even by the not-exactly-cutting-edge-standards of the other giostre, consisting of small chairs suspended from chains that, as you can see above, spin around a broad two-colored base beneath fluorescent tubes.

Because being swung around the same circular route doesn't seem to be an adequately goal-oriented activity for children--not even in Italy, whose notorious bureaucracy regularly sets its adult citizens on just such endless circuits--there's something to grab for. On the equestrian-themed carousels of America a kid reaches--as the character of Phoebe famously does at the end of The Catcher in the Rye--for a gold ring. ("The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it is bad to say anything to them.")

Here, the child in the spinning chair is encouraged to reach for a stuffed plush serpent suspended from a rather make-shift stand just outside the ride's path.

Additionally, while the American child, alone on his or her mount, is encouraged to rise high and solitary in his or her stirrups and grasp for the shiny ring, on the ride here a child can't even get within grabbing distance of the dangling snake without the aid of a friend seated in the chair behind him or her.

That is, Sandro's friend "C" only had a chance to reach the snake if Sandro, seated behind him, pushed C's chair a bit further out of the chair's typical centripetal orbit. (Successfully, as you can see in the image above of C flourishing his captured snake.)

Now, I suspect there are any number of social, cultural, anthropological, philosophical, and religious reflections likely to be inspired by such differences between the carousel Sandro knew as a toddler in Brooklyn and the spinning chairs of this year's Luna Park, but I leave them to be worked out by those readers so inclined and, for my own part, settle instead for wishing you all a Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Lost in a Sudden Fog on the Feast of Santo Stefano

The first signs of fog to appear during an otherwise sunny afternoon out on the lagoon seem almost sentient, I noticed yesterday: advance parties of frolicsome sprites--always seen, it seems, only out of the corner of one's eye--gamboling across the surface of the water.

It had been a bright blue Feast of Santo Stefano yesterday, people out strolling, enjoying the sun on their faces, kids playing soccer/football/calcio/whatever-you-call-it. It all changed very quickly, as I know conditions in the lagoon are prone to do (though more often in summer than winter).

I knew the sun wouldn't be setting for more than two hours; I was in our boat near Fondamente Nove, not far from our mooring place on Certosa, and in no hurry to head back to it. Though after those first evanescent bands of merry sprites, various divisions of light cavalry began trotting past. This was fog with something serious on its mind, but what did it have to do with me? The sky was still high and Tiepolo blue, the sun imperious, the clouds fluffy and smug.

Then, with my camera, I followed the course of the sanpierota sailing past me: from the broad open horizon of the west, to the view northward of Murano (the image above), northeasterly toward the cemetery island (below), and all the way east--to an invading army swelling thick and dark.

That--the scene you can see directly below--was a little worrisome. And of course the expert sailor of the sanpierota (which you may recognize from my post of 23 November) seemed to be heading home. But I wanted to go down the Grand Canal on this quiet holiday and, surely, I thought, the fog wouldn't get too heavy there.

A half hour or so later, after motoring down the Grand Canal from Ca' Pesaro, I arrived near the mouth of the Grand Canal to find that the Dogana da Mare had vanished off the face of the earth as far as I could tell, as had all the famous buildings of the Molo that everyone comes to see. To avoid completely losing my way if I strayed out into the basin of San Marco, I puttered along as close as I could to the area in front of the Molo roped off for the use of gondolas, but still couldn't see the Palazzo Ducale. In fact, I could see no building anywhere along the riva as I motored cautiously toward Sant' Elena, though I was not much more than a few yards distant from the dockside for most of the way.

By the time I tied up our boat, the vaporetti had stopped running. I caught a ride home with one of the marinai of the marina, who was polite enough not to ask what in the world I'd been doing out in such weather.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Flock of Santas in Sant' Elena

Many ran, some walked, some alpine walked, all of them were dressed as Santas--in greater or lesser degrees of verisimilitude. Once again, unfortunately, I'd missed the Regata dei Babbi Natale (of which you can see video here:, but these I couldn't miss. I looked out my window and there they were.

I didn't concern myself with what exactly they were doing, or the official title of their endeavor, or who participated in it or sponsored it. I was struck more by the fact that if you put enough Santas together in one place they began to look as whimsical and perhaps even (because of sheer number) almost as vaguely wanton as the gangs of Pulcinellas that Domenico Tiepolo liked to paint and draw (, Which I intend as I high compliment.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

3 Views of Sunset's "First Act", From a Boat Ride Home from School

All three of these images are taken looking west, toward the mainland, before the "2nd Act" of sunset began to the south
Sandro is disappointed when I don't pick him up from school in the boat, which, in truth, is most of the time, especially these days when the sun sets shortly after 4:30. As I use the boat to pick him up on one of his two long days of school each week, when he gets out at 3:45, this means it's typically pretty dark when we get home. And cold.

At this time of year the days disappear fast in the west, the light, color and special effects changing second-by-second as the sun slips downward like a rain drop on a car windshield. But hardly had the western horizon gone dark the other day and Sandro and I set off homeward in earnest from the detour we'd taken out behind the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, my camera safely stowed in its water-proof bag, than we noticed all at once behind us an encore, blooming in broad ragged folds of electric pink from the southern horizon beyond Isola Santo Spirito almost to the top of the sky's dome.

On many winter evenings, even at the close of days when the sun has seemed too weary and infirm to shuffle out from behind a thick gray velvet curtain of clouds, sunset still turns out to be a two-act performance, with more to come--and often the most drama of all--after you think the show's over. The sun has surely vanished below the horizon line, you think, and only then, after the big headlining star has left the building, so to speak, does some obscure chorus line of clouds in some forgotten quadrant of the sky--way off to the east over Lido, even--cast off their coverings and put on their own closing number, flushing all over with their effort.

It's almost hard to believe your eyes, which had just been adjusting to the featureless dark, yet the width of the lagoon before you mirrors the sky's flaming pageantry--as did, the night before last, Sandro's face.

Living here and seeing the sky every day and night you realize that the great architects of Venice did not, as is sometimes suggested, construct drama in a wide waste of water otherwise devoid of it, but in the face of the stiffest natural competition. The lagoon was not merely the flat, passive, perfect foil for architectural effort, but a potentially overwhelming stage whose own natural effects were likely to make any uninspired efforts of builders look very small indeed.

All of which are reasons for me to take the boat to pick up Sandro from school more often, even in the coldest weather, even in the supposed dead of winter. Or, if you're visiting the city, to seek out an unobscured vantage point at the end of each day from which to take in the sky's theater.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Boating Home a Christmas Tree: Tradition or Folly?

The view from behind the tree on our way home down the Grand Canal
It was not a mototopo (large work boat). It was not even a patana, or snub-nosed medium-sized work boat common to Venetian canals. Nor did it contain a gru, or hydraulic crane, as Sandro used to insist was absolutely necessary for the task. 

But after more than two full years of our son's tireless advocacy, exhortations, and frequent kvetching, we did actually transport the Christmas tree we purchased last weekend home in a boat. And, just as he'd insisted it would be since he was no more than four years of age (,, it really was the most enjoyable experience we've had getting the tree home.

At the helm on the Grand Canal: all business and sober vigilance--in spite of the Pimpa cartoon character life vest
There was nothing to argue about this year. We had the boat, and we were all united in our plan to drive it to pick our tree from among the small potted forest of them in the seasonal lot beside the church of San Felice in Cannaregio. Then Saturday morning Sandro announced, just as we were about to leave the apartment, that our plan was "stupid."

"Stupid?" I asked, completely thrown.

"I don't think that" Sandro quickly replied. "It's what Tomaso said. That using a boat to get a Christmas tree is stupid."

"Who is this Tomaso?" I demanded.

"A kid in my class."

"Well, do you agree?"

"No," Sandro said. Then he added, "And he said you were stupid."

"I'm stupid? How does he know I'm stupid, this kid I've never even seen?"

"Because you thought of getting the Christmas tree with the boat."

"But you were the one who always wanted to use a boat to get the tree!" I reminded him. "Do you not want to now?"

"No, I do. Let's go! Tomaso is stupid!"

I include the above exchange not to suggest anything about "how sharper than a serpent's tooth is the ingratitude of a child" (or not much, anyway), but to illustrate that getting a Christmas tree in one's own boat may not exactly be a venerated and widely-practiced Venetian tradition.

Of course, given the fact that Sandro, like many kids, has been known to boast in the most annoying way, Tomaso may simply have labeled the whole enterprise "stupido" as a means of cutting him down to size. Though I don't know how I got dragged into it.

But the fact is that, as picturesque as the practice might potentially be, I don't recall seeing people transporting Christmas trees in their boats. The simple reason for this may be because of how many Venetians seem to favor artificial trees.

Or it may be that for some reason unknown to me, many Venetians really do consider such an idea to be as foolish as Tomaso said it was. (Though I'd give the kid's opinion more weight if he bore the distinctly Venetian name of Alvise or Iacopo.) 

In any case, one of the great benefits of being a foreigner of no standing whatsoever is the freedom from the worry that plagues those locals who are known, and who (as an Italian man once lamented to me) grow up with a heavy sense of the gossip likely to bubble up among their neighbors in the wake of being seen, for example, dashing off to the local green grocer in a shoddy outfit.

Or to put it another way, those video cameras one sees around the city are superfluous (and often non-functioning) shams compared to the system of surveillance already long- and securely-established here.

But I come from an entirely different tradition....

When I was a child, infected with popular images of what was supposed to be a distinctly American Christmas, I fantasized feverishly about going to get a tree in a station wagon. According to everything I'd seen, there was supposed to be snow on the ground, and, whether the tree itself was to be purchased from a charming seasonal lot warmed by an outdoor fire and the good cheer of its proprietor or chopped out of some friendly forest, it would be transported home all prettily atop the station wagon's roof rack.

Of course, as I grew up in the middle of the flat, temperate, agricultural San Joaquin Valley in California, snow was out of the question. As were forests.

We also lacked the station wagon.

It never occurred to me to think of going to get a tree in a boat. And, back then, even world-famous Venice itself was an undiscovered and entirely unsuspected country well beyond the constricted horizon of my family's near-sighted world. I could never have foreseen getting up on a cold gray morning and taking a vaporetto to the island of Certosa where we keep our little boat. I never had any childhood experience even remotely resembling that of heading out into the lagoon last Saturday as the sun squinted between clouds, casting a silvery sheen over a hazy fantastical silhouettescape of towers and cupolas, roof-line statuary and abundant ornamentation.

All of which is to say something like: That as much as we may long to be secure in our sense of the world and our place in it, knowing what we think we want and what's expected of us by those around us, I often find that the best experiences of my life are those I never knew enough about to even desire. That if we are lucky, some of the best gifts we get are those it never even occurs to us to ask for: those experiences, and those people, we stumble into quite stupidly, as Tomaso might put it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Sunday at Teatro Goldoni with Jack and Some Beans

The jewel box interior of the Teatro Goldoni
The Teatro Goldoni, a short walk from Piazza San Marco, has been reconstructed many times since it first opened in 1622, but it remains a magical place to see live theater. Yesterday we attended the first production in a new Sunday series of five performances for kids entitled Domeniche in famiglia.

A magnificent bean stalk conjured from humble materials
Jack e il fagiolo magico (Jack the Magic Beans) was a two-person production by the Bologna-based children's theater company La Baracca, that used music, video and simple but evocative staging to conjure a "great world above the clouds" where the most extraordinary rewards await a boy who seems to have gotten a bum deal on earth below. 

In addition to touring productions like the one we saw yesterday (and which have ranged all over the world), La Baracca maintains an extensive program of performances and activities at its home base in the Teatro Testoni Ragazzi in Bologna, which you can read about (in Italian or English) here: If you're planning to visit Bologna with kids, it's a resource worth checking out.

And the remaining four productions at Teatro Goldoni in this winter's Domeniche in famiglia series may be worth checking out if you're going to be in Venice in January or February with kids even if they don't speak Italian. At a cost of just 6 euro per seat, the spectacle and music and the overall experience may, for certain kids, make the language irrelevant. (Sandro sometimes likes to watch a certain Russian cartoon about a bear, though he doesn't understand the language.) A complete schedule of the series is here:

Coaxing a golden egg from a freshly-stolen hen

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

On Practical Beauty in a City Famous for Artistic Ones

NOTE: As I'm still recovering from the flu and haven't yet seen of any of the city's holiday preparations, much less written about or photographed them, I hope readers won't mind if I re-post below a seasonal piece from a year ago that seemed to be quite popular. Fresh posts due soon. 

When it came time to buy our Christmas tree this past weekend we once again had to do so without the use of a boat, which Sandro, who seems to have a native Venetian's strict sense of life's essential proprieties, found to be a galling (if not downright humiliating) lack last December ( You see, like many good Venetians, Sandro fervently believes that anything one needs to do should be done in one's own boat, and that for every job or errand there is an appropriate boat.

Last Christmas season he declared that nothing less than a mototopo--one of the long workboats you see transporting pallets of groceries or a mountain of hotel laundry bags or a ton of construction materials--would serve to carry home our five-foot-high tree. Of course, as we didn't (and don't) even have a small outboard motorboat, there really wasn't much chance we'd spring for a mototopo to perform this annual errand, no matter how many other tasks Sandro assured us it would be extremely useful for.

This year, however, in spite of our continuing lack of any boat at all, he didn't complain. For while we still didn't have a mototopo, we did have a brand-new bright red heavy-duty carrello, or hand truck, which is the primary accessory of every mototopo--and at least as important as a pair of shoes for anyone determined to really get things done in this car-free walkaday world of Venice.

For hardly less picturesque to most visitors than the fact that the "streets" here are canals and the "cars" and "buses" are boats, is the sight of grocery store inventory and garbage collection being delivered and picked up, respectively, with hand carts. It's something that even the hurrying hordes of day-trippers to the city can't help but notice in their few hours here, but none with the detailed observation Sandro has devoted to such human-powered trolleys for the last year. He notes (and comments on) not just general differences in size, shape and color, but variations in the circumference and number and position of wheels, between rounded tubular construction and solid steel frames, and between the different lengths and styles of nose plates and how they're mounted.

Visitors have long made pilgrimages to Venice as a realm of Art, looking to leave behind the ordinary and everyday and earth-bound, but most Venetians I've met are far more practical-minded. Sure, you can wax rhapsodic about Tintoretto or Monteverdi with them if that's what floats your own boat, but Sandro seems to have bonded far more genuinely with most Venetian men we know because of his profound interest in every single step in the process of getting real solid objects from one place to another.

I see, for example, a neighbor in the street, the grandfather of one of Sandro's closest friends and the owner of a trasporti (freight moving) company, and ask him how he's doing. "Bene," he replies, "sempre bene." I see him another time and remark upon the extreme weather of recent days. He replies simply that he takes things as they come. On yet another day I encounter him as I'm walking with Sandro and then, finally, we actually have some common interests to discuss: mototopi and carrelli and the like. Or, rather, he and Sandro do.

It's a marvelous life here for Sandro: physical and material in a way that no other city I know could, on a regular matter-of-fact un-fetishized basis, offer a child his age. At this time of year when we're supposed to reflect on our blessings, I consider this one of mine: that in this ever-more virtual and disembodied world my son has the chance to grow up in this odd car-less city, where a 5-year-old boy can make a convincing argument that a real hand-truck is exactly what he needs, not just as a toy, but as a necessity. As he did argue for the last year.

Posing with his new hand-truck in front of SS Giovanni e Paolo

True, the helpful man at the hardware store near the basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo where we bought it last week suggested a slightly lighter tubular-framed one, with a load capacity still far greater than any Sandro would be able to manage for a good dozen years. But Sandro insisted on the solid steel-framed one he'd settled upon weeks before as being solely adequate to the demands--many of them make-believe--that he'd place upon it.

Of course he struggled to pull it up the steps of the large Ponte Cavallo in front of the basilica and ospedale civile just after we bought it, for it weighed not much less than he did. And there were some challenges getting it down the other side as well, as the weight of it threatened to get away from him and pull him flapping behind it like a flag tied to its hand grips. But once this first substantial obstacle had been bested and we paused for a rest, he leaned against his hand truck and sighed, "This is a dream come true."

So the dreamy red heavy-duty hand truck we used to pick up our potted Christmas tree and transport it the long distance home from the seasonal tree market beside the church of San Felice in Cannaregio was the one he'd just gotten for his sixth birthday and it did, indeed, prove to be quite useful. I pulled the tree-laden hand truck up and down the bridges we crossed, but Sandro managed it the rest of the time, pulling it behind him down Strada Nova and then through Sant' Elena after we got off the vaporetto as though he were a cart horse. A very happy cart horse.

He was happy, too, to be seen laboring in this way by the guys at our neighborhood fruit and vegetable stand. Guys for whom, like him, hand trucks are a daily part of their lives. Practical hard-working Venetian guys, like him. But who, unlike him, probably don't sleep with their hand trucks standing snugly against the side of their beds.

Originally posted: December 9, 2013

Saturday, December 6, 2014

In the Soup

                                                                       My driver and I in healthier days                          photo credit: Davide Gerardi
I apologize for not keeping up with the blog in the last week, like many people here (and elsewhere) Jen, Sandro and I have all been--and still are--flattened by influenza.

For three straight days it was enough of a challenge to get out of bed, much less walk out of our apartment. But on the fourth I ventured outside the short distance to the butcher shop around the corner and the fruit and vegetable stall. I'd decided we needed chicken soup. In America, for simplicity's sake, I would have bought it prepared. Here, I knew the best I could do was buy some broth already prepared and then fill it out with other ingredients.

This, at least, was my fevered plan--which I mentioned in Italian to the husband and wife proprietors at our regular butcher shop.

"Brodo?" she asked me, not understanding.

Yes, I repeated, broth. I was sure I was using the right word for it, but the way she repeated it made me doubt myself a bit. I woozily tried to explain what I meant.

She looked at her husband, also behind the counter, no less confused. Then another customer in the store came to my assistance and said, Yes, as I was saying, the bread and salami store nearby carried ready-made broth in "boxes" (or tetrapaks).

Both butchers finally understood: matching looks of comprehension dawned on their faces, then, a moment later, perfectly synchronized expressions of utter disgust.

It was as if the helpful customer had explained that the foundation of the soup I was planning to prepare for my ill family was going to be mosquito-clotted pond scum. Or a liter of petrol.

The customer herself looked no less appalled, even as she explained. She was willing to be helpful, but wasn't about to pretend she approved of such a reprehensible plan.  

The disapproval of Italians in such matters is ecclesiastical. The influence of the Church may have faded in daily life, yet its forms, its manners of expression persist in secular contexts.

The judgement of these three fell upon me as if issued by a synod of bishops.

I wobbled where I stood. It was far from pleasant to be standing up at all. All I really wanted to do was crawl back into bed. I did not want to cook. I felt like I was going to die. And, I suspect, I looked like it: pale, with dark sunken-eyes and three days of beard.

But, those three bishops seemed to be saying to me: On the verge of death do you dare commit such a transgression? Ready-made broth?

The instructions and ingredients for making home-made soup turned out to be so simple, as the butchers explained them to me. It's about all we've been eating ever since.