Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Memories of Venice

The following blogs, meaning this one and the ones above, (strange things these blogs) are memories of Venice from that first trip to Italy and afterward. My apologies to my friends who have already read these before. Well, I've got to shuttle some things in here.

Like a lot of Americans I always thought of Italy as one place with the differences from region to region owing more to geography than anything else. That is, until I first went there. I had always seen photos of Venice and knew of canals and gondoliers, but had no idea the overall sense of mystery, history and beauty of the place. How can you possibly know before going? This city reveals itself in a different way than other places and it has its way of turning you around and back in time.

I was in graduate school (a bit older than the average student) and was primarily in Florence for six weeks. My professor took a small group of us for a weekend to La Serenissima. When we reached the lagoon beyond Mestre he motioned us to get up and look out the windows on the left side of the train and said, “You’ll always remember your first sight of Venice”. I could just make out buildings and towers off in a light mist that was being burned off by mid-day sun. It didn’t seem real. The sense of suspension of reality always hangs close to me in Venice. Now, when I bring students with me there and we are crossing the lagoon I tell them to get over to the left and look out. I say the same words he did.

One thing I always think about when remembering the experience of Venice is the traveler’s movement from very narrow passageways (nearly scraping your elbows) to wider (relatively speaking) streets and then quite suddenly into wide open spaces. It is like traveling through an organism. Then back into a small walkway, in the shade, the paths taking you where they want you to go.

A friend of mine, when she found out that I was going to Italy for the first time, suggested a book for me to read. “It’s called Invisible Cities, it’s by an Italian author named Italo Calvino.” she said. “It’s a bit hard to describe, really… but, DON’T read it until you’re there! You HAVE to wait until you are in Italy to read it!” What great advice.

My teacher knew Venice very, very well. He had, at that time, spent time there probably every summer for twenty-five years. His wife is an expert on Giambattista Tiepolo and she regularly spent time there doing research. He would be leading us around and turn to us, and say, “Oh, there’s a place over here, you’ve got to see it, it’s incraydeebilay” We would follow him through a door of some building, up some stairs and show us a fresco painting that I’ll never see again. He wasn’t completely fluent with the language (a LOT further on than me) but knew a lot of the ins and outs of the city.

Later he brought us to his favorite restaurant- I wish I could remember where- seafood was something he craved and, living in the Midwest, something he waited to have until he was in Venice. He ordered Frutti di Mare, I ordered Spaghetti alla Seppia; we all shared a bit of this and that. It seemed that my teacher gave away the bulk of what he had on the plate because he wanted us to try so much of everything. My cuttlefish ink sauce tasted like the scent of the marshes and the sea distilled down to a liquid. Very good, very different for me, but I could only eat a bit of it, not the huge plate in front of me. Sharing comes in very handy. Afterward someone suggested grappa. I’d heard of it before… why not? When I got my shot glass I threw it back. Big mistake. This is not Jack Daniels. This, at least for me, is not anything to trifle with. Something deep inside decided immediately to set the gears in reverse and I made a very loud, embarrassing and unintentional sound. People three or four tables away were laughing! It took me thirteen years before I entered into a semi-comfortable truce with grappa.

Italy is for sipping.

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