Lost in Venice
I was looking for a new home. Home used to be Kentucky, with its hot hot sun, heady smell of horse sweat, and burly bouquet of drying tobacco; then it was France where I wolfed down tons of good food and fine wine, and Switzerland, with its snow-capped mountains, always there, hugging me and making me feel secure like a mother’s embrace.
After my mother died last year, I no longer knew where to call home. Home became an abstraction, because without Mama’s heart beating in Kentucky, it no longer fit the description. Even with the horse sweat and Burley tobacco.
I used to say I’d call my imaginary memoir From Biscuits to Baguettes, so much did I feel like France was my second home, even though the first time I set foot in Venice over 30 years ago, I felt I’d come home. How that could be I still don’t know, since I don’t have an ounce of Italian or Venetian blood in my veins. I’ve visited it many times for both short and long periods, and every time, I’ve felt the same, so after my mother’s death, it was a natural enough decision to spend six months here and try it out.
My husband Peter and I are trying hard to live like locals in our working class neighborhood of Cannaregio, where that is still possible, at least in the winter. The canals are full of plumbers, carpenters, builders, and electricians going about their jobs. We wake in the morning to the syncopated rhythm of the builders downstairs sawing and hammering away and the clanging of wood and metal as the workers load their boat with supplies and tools to go off to their job site for the day.
In Cannaregio — spelled Canaregio in Venetian dialect — apart from the Strada Nova, one can actually feel far from the madding crowds of tourists during the winter months. We live across the canal from the Venetian Ghetto — the first one after which all others in the world are named — which is preparing for its five hundredth anniversary celebration, so the history of Venice is ever-present. One of the best Carnival costume makers is located down the street. We lunch every day at Cantina Azienda Agricola, a wine bar and cichetteria serving up scrumptious homemade fare similar to Spanish tapas.
Cannaregio has not yet been taken over by Made in China merchants and it’s a few minutes’ trot to the Rialto market where we buy extra-fresh fish and local vegetables from the nearby island of Sant’Erasmo, famous for its artichokes, but providing us with a variety of winter vegetables right through the cold months. It’s a healthy lifestyle. We source virtually all of our food locally and walk for miles every day, never tiring of the mystery, photo shoots and secret history Venice has to offer. The air is clean, the noise pollution minimal, since there are no cars, just a few motor boats. It’s a little like residing in a living museum.
Despite having traveled extensively in Italy and spent much time in Venice, in the beginning, I couldn’t help comparing everything food and wine to French. French wine making is a world apart from Italian, and French taste in wine is, too; Venice is a fish-lover’s heaven. Venezia held the monopoly on trade with the Middle East from the 8th to the 15th century. Spices were one of the many goods that made them wealthy so Venetian cuisine uses more spices than in France and the rest of Italy, which suits me well. Venetians probably prefer risotto to pasta, and they eat loads of New World goodies like pumpkin, squash, beans, corn and, of course, tomatoes, making it feel a little like my old Kentucky home. After three months, I’ve settled in and love everything Venetian. I’m ready to ask for a Venetian passport (unfortunately, I think those disappeared when Napoleon arrived, ending the Venetian Republic forever).
As Henry James said, there is nothing new to say about Venice. It has all been said, every photograph taken, every painting painted. That does not change its profound and lasting effect on the many thousands of people who love it, and every individual experiences it a bit differently, depending on their state of mind and the weather’s mood, as painters like Turner showed us so clearly. The fog comes in and goes out, sometimes several times a day. The sun glistens through the mist and eats it right up. The mist dampens my face and my camera lens, which I promptly wipe dry so as to always be ready for the next shot. I take the same photos time and time again, each in a different light. That is the beauty of Venice and that is what draws people to it like a magnet. The same canal changes “faces” every time you walk beside it; you see a different reflection, the color of the water is different, the color of the brick redder or more yellow than the last time. No, there is nothing new to say about her except that she carries her age so well, in such a noble fashion, with her chin up and a few curls out of place, offering the mystery and intrigue of a beautiful young woman in her prime.
How do I love Venice? Let me count the ways. I love her in rain and sun and snow, in fog and in mist; I love her in acqua alta and in low tide; I love her grunginess and her perfect yellow and orange façades on a sunny day; I love her beat-up, flat-bottomed transport boats and her elegant gondole. I love her because she is capricious though ancient and crumbling, yet ageless and constant, giving back more than I could ever give her.
I’ll continue writing about French culture and food, the longest loves of my life, but I’ll start sprinkling The Rambling Epicure with a little Venetian spice as I ramble in search of a new home, which I might well have already found.
As Henry James said about Venice in Italian Hours:
It is a great pleasure to write the word; but I am not sure
there is not a certain impudence in pretending to add anything
to it. Venice has been painted and described many thousands of
times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to
visit without going there. Open the first book and you will find
a rhapsody about it; step into the first picture-dealer’s and
you will find three or four high-coloured “views” of it. There
is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject. Every one
has been there, and every one has brought back a collection of
photographs. There is as little mystery about the Grand Canal as
about our local thoroughfare, and the name of St. Mark is as
familiar as the postman’s ring. It is not forbidden, however, to
speak of familiar things, and I hold that for the true Venice-
lover Venice is always in order. There is nothing new to be said
about her certainly, but the old is better than any novelty. It
would be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to
say. I write these lines with the full consciousness of having
no information whatever to offer. I do not pretend to enlighten
the reader; I pretend only to give a fillip to his memory; and I
hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love
with his theme.