Postcard: The Stoned of Venice

It was hot and it was crowded: Venice in August was just that far from perfection.

We walked, we shopped, we ate. We popped into a few old churches just to cool off, my companion and I, taking in the Doge's palace and St. Mark's tower. We walked through the Accademia, Dorsoduro, and the tiny Jewish quarter. There's no place like Venice – especially if you’re hungry, terraphobic, or looking for a life partner. (My friend doesn’t fit the bill, being of the male persuasion; he could perhaps qualify as my traveling psychiatric nurse, except that he drives me crazy: no matter how insolent, inefficient, condescending or just plain different foreigners are, he never complains.)

We were on a budget, but getting by in Venice is simple if you're resourceful. You walk into the Danieli, one of the city’s ultra-chic hostelries. There you find a worker up near the ceiling, a latter-day Michelangelo, applying fresh gold leaf to the ornate moldings. The gold comes in thin sheets like cellophane and “comes” is the operative word here. He’s applying it with a brush, and about four-fifths of the gold fails to adhere to the ceiling and comes fluttering down to the floor where we happen to be standing. It's a windfall, without the wind. Una abbattuta dal vento, as the locals say. I’ve seen such flakes in a drink called Danziger Goldwasser; but frankly, I prefer them as currency.

Discreetly, we collect the gold flakes, making sure to look like we're on staff. (A helpful touch: a clipboard containing some National League box scores, which to the locals is gibberish, though to me it’s Holy Scripture.) It’s important not to catch the gold in the air or lunge for it as it flutters down, as this marks you as a casual tourist-prospector.

Finally, our pockets discretely full, we proceed to the gold exchange where we trade the gold for what the locals call “Eh-oo-ros.” Lots of them.

Then we slip on ties, and, at 7 p.m. sharp we arrive back at the Danieli’s slip on the Grand Canal just in time to hop aboard the launch heading across to the ultra-chic Hotel Cipriani, where a nice American couple stand us to drinks as we regale them with accounts of our recent positive arbitrage in metals. Then we relate the story of our near-fatal balloon crash in Tuscany a few days earlier. And wouldn’t you know it, dinner is on them, too.

Speaking of two: two things in Venice are absolutely predictable. One, you can’t get a bad meal anywhere; even finding mediocre cuisine is a chore. To eat well on a gold-leaf budget requires no more effort than tucking in your napkin wherever there’s a white table cloth (checked simply won’t do) and pronouncing "pesce, per favore." I especially recommend the razor clams at Alcovo, followed by Prosecco and chocolate cake. Afterwards, a nightcap in the ornate, really over-the-top (but not for Hemingway, after all) bar at the Gritti Palace is, as the locals say, de rigeur.

Nasty smells are the other certainty in Venice, and as prevalent as the fine cuisine, unless you can find roads or walkways leading away from canals (I’ve never seen any). Another pretty sure thing is that if you hear gondolieri singing, the passengers are Japanese. No one else has the nerve to request “Santa Lucia.” You might think they're doing a re-make of "Summertime," and Katherine Hepburn is about to fall into the canal once again; but no.

It makes me glad there are no gondolas in New York, where we have the Gowanus Canal. (I’ve never actually seen it, but it’s on some maps.) But the Japanese are, after all, indefatigable and well-mannered tourists, unlike some of our less constant allies. (Oui, mes amis: vouz!) They herd together attentively as guides chatter away in Italian, seemingly comprehending nothing. In the museums they flock to the masterpieces but don’t block one’s view comme les autres. In fact, Europe could do with more Japanese people – except at certain places, like the fountains of Rome, where they already constitute the overwhelming majority.

I'm not much of a tourist myself, and after a few dank churches with ostensibly great paintings of the Ascension or the Annunciation I'm as ready for a gelato as the next visitor. Art-wise, I actually prefer Piero della Francesca’s tryptich of the “Madonna del Parto,” a few towns over in Monterchi. But Giorgione’s “The Tempest” at the Gallerie dell’Accademia is well worth the wait, and Peggy Guggenheim laid in a few good paintings at her swell palazzo.

Unlike most visitors to Venice, I don’t particularly enjoy shopping, though I must admit the wares here are terrific, especially leather and cloth. And I am very fond of fish markets, of which the one near the Rialto Bridge is a specimen, chock full of unnamable sea creatures that one is delighted to discover, and the freshest, most palpable (and often faintly disgusting) proof of life's complexity and variety. Who needs a musty house of worship when a fish market will do? Just look, never buy.

Why Venice? For the unique beauty of this watery exercise in kitsch and class. For the light, and the locals. And of course, for the food. I like to pick up a few new Italian words each time I go, but that’s a personal idiosyncrasy. I know a lot of folks who can’t be bothered, or who think they should be able to talk like us.

Given limited time, one must carefully select the phrases one chooses to learn. After all, one doesn’t have a photographic memory or hours to waste conjugating verbs, does one? Riffling through my phrasebook on the dock while waiting for a Vaporetto, I at last hit upon what seemed a sure bet to pierce to the very heart of things. It took several tries before I could actually say it -- possibly missing, along the way, some interesting opportunities.

Finally, at an excellent little outdoor restaurant off the Riva degli Schiavone, I seized the chance. The maitr'd was somewhere between a waitress and a goddess. She described the evening's selections in lilting Italian, pretending that she couldn't spot an American tourist a mile off. So I let loose the question:

Mi vuole sposare?

I figured Italian women weren't total strangers to impromptu proposals. And if this one was as wonderful as her razor clams… well, she graciously agreed to consider the idea; but it soon developed that she was Diane (as in: Dah-anne) from Texas, and married to the restaurant’s proprietor. Nobody’s perfect. My yellow rose of Venice, like everything else in this wonderful city, was worth a try. So was her pasta alla vongole.

Originally posted on http://whenfallsthecoliseum.com/2009/09/18/postcard-the-stoned-of-venice/