22 February, 2010


Languages, languages. Is there anything more satisfying than arriving in a foreign land, hearing familiar but strange words flowing all around, and reaching into your brain, back to the past when you could speak those words yourself, and finding a way to express yourself? I simply love it.

When I was 21 or so, I spent a summer in Florence trying to become an artist, learning to appreciate real food for the first time in my life, and beginning a lifelong love affair with the Italian language. Sadly, I was told in no uncertain terms by my various art teachers that I had absolutely no talent whatsoever at making anything. I tried sculpture, I tried printmaking, I tried drawing. My printing teacher was no less a luminary than Leonard Baskin, amazingly, and while he was very, very nice to me, I will never forget his disbelief at my lack of ability. "Until I met you, Kristen, I would have said that I could teach anyone to make a decent print." Just awful. But I did turn out to have a talent for appreciating what other people made, and explaining it. My ambition to teach art history raised its tiny head, and many happy years were spent doing just that.

Even more lasting, though, were my new love of food - tortellini alla panna, millefoglie con cioccolato, you name it, I ate it - and my absorption of the Italian language. To be able to fit in, to produce whole sentences in a proper accent, to slide under the surface of a foreign culture, to bridge the gap between the local and the visitor... it's addictive for me. If I weren't so inherently lazy, I'd be a serious linguist and actually accomplish something with my tiny talent at picking up languages. As it is, I just get a kick out of arriving in Venice, reaching into the shadowy corners of my brain where all those words are sleeping, and waking them up, for three days.

We arrived on Tuesday afternoon at lunchtime, and jumped onto a vaporetto, a waterway bus, along with all the other visitors for the last day of Carnevale. We'd packed very lightly, so the short walk from the Ca' d'Oro "bus stop" to our hotel was a total pleasure, and we were the Compleat Tourists, our heads cocked at that unmistakable tourist angle, looking up, up, and around. And the hotel! The Ca' Vendramin, former palazzo home of a 16th century art collector, Gabriele Vendramin, whose artworks are now in the Accademia, the British Museum, all over the world.

We were completely silenced by our arrival at the hotel, across a tiny stone bridge from the main street of the neighborhood, the Strada Nuove. The magnificence of the ornate doorway, the vast stone winding staircase to the first floor, the marble terrazzo floors! Our room had a soaring trompe l'oeil ceiling, enormous windows opening out onto small balconies overlooking the tiny canal "street" below, gorgeous tapestry bed hangings. And not outrageously expensive! In fact, the price dropped on the second and third nights because Carnevale had ended. A lovely, lovely place. Avery and I fell in love particularly withe the green glass doorknobs, and the tiny but beautiful bathroom, forever toasty with its heated towel rack.

We unceremoniously dumped our bags, grabbed my Italian dictionary and the guidebook, and headed out. "Let's buy some meat and cheese and bread and have a picnic lunch," John suggested, which seemed brilliant. Why wander around looking for a restaurant when we could plop down by the Grand Canal with an assortment of mouthwatering Italian delicacies?

We dropped into the local, totally ordinary and therefore fascinating supermarket, and picked up salami alla erbe (salami with herbs), an amazing cheese, Camoscio d'oro, and a packet of all the components for a perfect carpaccio salad: slices of tender raw beef fillet, shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano, and a scattering of incomparable Italian rucola: you know me and my obsession with rocket! And the Italian version, bought and eaten in Italy, puts to shame the imported bags we get in London.

With a little focaccia, some senape classico (just plain mustard, but it tasted better in Italian) and a bottle of olives, we were in business. "Posso accettare una forchetta?" I somehow managed to ask, thrilled at producing a whole sentence! But no, I could not buy a fork, they had sold all their forks. We crouched down on a pier by the Grand Canal, surrounded by other perfectly happy tourists (lots of teenagers in love), and had our picnic.

From there were wandered over to Piazza San Marco, to see all the Carnevale-goers, so many of them dressed up extravagantly! Full 18th century costumes, one group of four ladies not only dressed, but with their faces AND hair painted gold, sitting at a cafe table, inclining their gilded heads to all the gaping onlookers. "Complimenti, complimenti," the Italians would say to them, and the ladies would say, "Grazie, grazie," complacently.

We were virtually the only Americans in Venice, it seemed: almost everyone was Italian, although there was one Russian man shouting into his mobile phone in a particularly serene campo. Where were all our fellow countrymen? And very few English people. Which made for a very foreign atmosphere, and motivated me to produce my Italian for Avery and John, who were gratifyingly impressed. But as always happens to me, I'm much better at speaking than at hearing, so I found myself asking complex questions very adequately, and then standing there open-mouthed as a completely incomprehensible answer flowed toward me!

We wandered around San Marco, admiring the masks and finally buying one for Avery, covered with musical notes. How pretty she looked! We bought a bag of confetti and pelted her with it, as the sun set.

Back to the hotel for a cocktail and to put our feet up. The sound of boats, of waves splashing against the hotel, the shouts of Carnevale revellers - "va bene, ciao, ciao," and terrible 1980s music from a nearby disco, "Y-M-C-A..." Lovely Federica behind the welcome desk had made a reservation for us at a local and perfectly forgettable restaurant, Hosteria Al Vecio Bragosso, where Avery had spaghetti carbonara and French fries! I had a carpaccio of tuna and rucola, John had a nice veal chop. It was our first experience with what seems to be a universal phenomenon in Venice: adequate, but not memorable restaurant food. I hated to admit it: adequate. Now we've come home, everyone we know who's been to Venice raves about all the things we loved too, and then we say, "The food? Not so much." Catering to tourists means just that, I suppose. Next time perhaps we could find the hidden, local treasures.

A quite perfect first day in what's now become one of our favorite cities in the world. Day Two? Even better. Watch this space.


Casey said...

One of my favorite Venetian memories:
We were walking to dinner one evening during Carnevale and a group of people dressed in hooded black capes and white masks drifted out of a doorway and then disappeared into the fog. Magical.

Kristen In London said...

What a mysterious and fantastic image... I always thought Carnevale sounded cheesy, but not at ALL. Magnificent!

Casey said...

I was amazed by the quality of most of the costumes--gorgeous fabrics and detailing

Kristen In London said...

Me too. Do you suppose people wear them year after year, so it's worth it to put a fair amount of money and effort in?

Bee said...

Have you ever read Where Shall We Go For Dinner, by Tamasin Day-Lewis? There is a chapter about eating in Venice . . . and her efforts to winkle out extraordinary meals in a place associated with mediocre dining.

It must have been nice to be in Venice without many tourists (Brangelina aside, of course). We went to Florence in August; probably not the best idea, especially as so many of the Italian restauranteurs were on holiday!