Tuesday, December 8, 2015

From Venice

In Venice, we saw a striking image. The near distance in the haze looked entirely drained of depth, and we thought it for a moment a matte painting or overlay. The Rialto, unfortunately, under repair, featured such a fake archway, with a gender-bending Asian fellow posing in a full-frontal (if clothed) stance, under a Diesel slogan "This is a guy sitting on a bridge." For me, that lost a helluva lot in translation. None of the thousand (!) photos I searched demonstrates this flattened perspective, but I tried to mimic it if slightly at the left, via this photographic view.

At Santa Croce in Florence, Stendhal had a similarly unsettling sensation. Overcome by the art, he fell into dizzy disorientation, called since then the Stendhal Syndrome. If you ever want to earn credit for this malady on an insurance form check off the box "hyperkulteremia." When reading his account, earlier this year, however, his psychosomatic reaction in his narration for me so muted that I had to check when in his tale it happened. A modest endnote referred to it offhandedly. Our encounter was probably less bewildering, but still, gazing out in the open on a vast sight you are not sure is real or contrived remains memorable. Venice, for many, appears a mirage, a place conjured up from magic.

Certainly, this city, built on sticks and marshes after refugees fled Attila, has no roots of its own from ancient times. No ruins, no Roman forum, no archaeological treasures. Instead, a true creation of the collision between Byzantine and Romanesque, the blur between Renaissance and Baroque, these islands separated from the normal cause of events cause its residents as well as its tourists to mingle. As Mary McCarthy's 1963 Venice Observed remarks, cohorts must jostle, and there's no place that is undiscovered and left only to the locals. I would pass the shop girl who with a British accent sold me a shirt, and the man who ran the gallery where we'd find our souvenir mask, both later walking along from work, to a meal, or to their home. With no cars, all are pedestrians, for once, reduced as equal.

Well, to a point. She also loosely links the flight of the founders of Venice to that of the Exodus, to another people who seek to start over, to another group involved in trade and mercantile enterprise. But, in the Old Foundry where the word ghetto originated, as we visited there our first full day, the situation of the Jews confined there nightly, as the gates and bridges closed them up on their island, attests to the other legacy of this realm. While the theme-park air draws all, permanent or transient, to jostle its dank passageways and navigate its funnelled paths over the Rialto magnetically, the isolated ghetto represents the hidden Venice. Not one only the locals know, but one the Most Serene Republic for centuries contended with, the raspy underside, the irritant beneath carnival masks or gilt mosaics.

This raspiness hit me on arrival. A loud woman materialized out of the Piazza S. Bartolomeo, the first stop in our video pilgrimage (see the paragraph after the next). She zeroed in on pale blue-eyed me, tugging two suitcases and hoisting a backpack, bent over like Simon of Cyrene helping Christ carry his cross. Somehow I was selected out of the crowd to sign her petition against drugs. A second day, she accosted me, this time mocking my disdain in Italian "insegnate" and then in broken English, "teacher" (how did she know?) and "No terrorist" post-Paris. A third time, she singled me out. By now, I let loose, telling her this was the third time (as in Jesus falls, although by now I bore no burden on my trudge through streets recalling those of old Jerusalem I imagined), and that I was not interested. She apologized slightly, and then Layne chirped "We like drugs." Believe it or not, on our departure that same day (we get around the same places, this being Venice), a man now accosted me, this time with a British accent. I speculated silently if this was not part of a certain "church" founded in Hollywood and part of a tax-avoidance scheme filling its coffers in ways that made Peter's Pence look angelic by comparison. The "faith communities" may change, but a pilgrim's still an easy mark.

Back to the other center of a far older faith, we saw scowling rabbis on a Chabad poster, a windowed guard kiosk, a few shops selling Judaica or kosher snacks, and plaques to those murdered. A series on a stone wall, faded in bronze to verdigris, depicted the torment of the Shoah. One portrayed two figures crucified. We traversed the center square where schoolchildren ran to visit, and we went the whole half-circle into and out of the district barely speaking. It seemed, as we'd seen in Siena and Florence in miniature, a testament to European Jewry today. And after the recent Paris murders, it felt stained. (When I got home, I learned on the radio that the Bataclan was targeted as its Jewish owners had hosted pro-Zionist gatherings. Why this was absent from any press, BBC or CNN coverage we'd been inundated with for a week was somehow telling. I add that snippet here, to an funereal litany. Even as I revise this, headlines of more innocents targeted by fanatics, perpetrated an hour's drive away, near the college my wife and older son attended, fills airwaves, papers, and the Oval Office.)

Our stay had begun with a video we'd watched over and over, downloaded to the Kindle. The hotel warned one had to learn the way to it, and we did. So much that over three days, we could traverse it on our own. But one false turn and you end up at St. Mark's Square. Instead, after a train from Florence and hauling our luggage a ways, we made it at nightfall to the Ca' Bragadin Carabba, where none other than Casanova lived from 1746 to 1755. Strangely, only a plastic sign in the bare lobby on the first floor told of this connection, and there was no other context. Talk about underselling a place.

Curious, on arriving home, I sought to find out more. My Penguin Classics abridgement of Casanova's voluminous memoirs lacks an index or timeline, but a visit to Wikipedia reveals that the young libertine saved the life and came under the patronage of the household of a scion of the noble Bragadin family. Perhaps he used their quarters largely as a base, for in this decade he roamed Paris, Dresden, and Parma among other locales. 1755 marks of his arrest as a Mason and freethinker by the tribunal and his incarceration in the Leads atop the Doge's palace, from whence he escaped to Paris.

The Ca' overlooks the small square of Santa Marina, nearer the Rialto than San Marco. As with the nearby Santa Maria Formosa church and square, these appeared neglected (even if the restaurant on the former was overpriced yet full) much of the day and night, and bereft of allure. A logical novelty of Venice is that it often lacks visible landmarks. You wind around alleys, under tunnelled passages and suddenly it's a tiny piazza or a vast square, a dead end at a canal with no railing, or a memorable vista of gondolas, water taxis, and motorcraft under clouds or gray skies, full of churches and fading facades. While many illustrations, painted or photographed, display Venice as very colorful, we encountered chillier weather, so I was glad for the change in temperature, although the humidity as I expected persisted. We even had to bundle up for the first time since Ireland. Around us, whether sporting man-buns or scarves, mini-skirts and leggings or wool overcoats, chic pedestrians strutted.

We ate at Mani, a little pizzeria that turned out once we got our bearings on the same route we came in on. Full of tourists as anywhere, but the food was fine. Lots of British, lots of noise. By the time we ate, and left, the lines were out the door and we were glad that the stereotype held for early birds.

I tried finding other news, but except for a BBC segment that kept covering Africa, no matter the language, news seemed all about Paris. Instead, I peered at the two maps I had, as they did not match in the streets covered, as they changed every twist and turn across the city's labyrinth, and tried to get a spatial sense. Once I imprint this, as elsewhere on my thousand miles driven in Ireland and the thousands of steps in Italy, I can function better. Not that I don't make a first-timer's mistakes, still.

But these were fewer. After the ghetto, we crossed a bridge and went into the flow. Look around you and see where the others walk. Out of a square, therefore, you get the hang of the main direction, even if it is a three-foot-wide cranny, it will expand into a street lined with shops and restaurants. The fish market offered a lot I'd have loved to try, and the vegetable vendors enticed Layne's eye too.

The stickiness of the climate persisted even in cooler times, so we headed back to our room. Later, we sought out the Basilica of San Marco and marvelled in the dim twilight at every inch covered in gold tile. The present structure is over a thousand years old and claims to have the body of the evangelist, stolen back from Alexandrian infidels. As in Florence and Siena, the darkness inside made the church more rather than less appealing, although to the finicky smartphone snapper, probably not. We sat in the side chapel awhile, taking it in, among worshippers. No craned neck or diligent archivist could do it justice. Plastered and fussed over, it symbolized the enviable position the city occupied, a portal for the plunder from the failing Greek empires and Ottoman successors, combined with the crusading avarice and the financial acumen under the Doges, and their uneasy terms of rule.

Somewhere along our walks, we'd seen on the Calle Guerre a cat mask that reminded us of Gary. That proved too big and too pricy, but the owners ran a studio making such for carnivals and movies. Ron Wood had shopped there, a small cutout of a newspaper on the front door noted. We were able to give a photo of our black-and-white feline to the painter, and she a day later produced a small papier-mache replica, sans green eyes, of our companion. Layne had to protect it, so she bought an owl-patterned bag to do so, and with the room left over, found an orange leather purse to suit her. I completed my magnet collection; Venice was by far the best and the cheapest of vendors for souvenirs. Even if I supposed all else was much ore, as all had to be brought in by dolly carts and porters. We made the same check-out mistake at another CONAD, forgetting to weigh the onions and tangerines, but a stop at the grocery stand across the lane on St. Lio near our hotel made up for that.

That second night, we had intended to find a more Venetian place to eat. But the "oldest" such restaurant near the cat artists did not appeal as much as the Osteria Antica ai Tre Leoni. The fish there was outstanding, and the gnocchi the tastiest we'd had. Layne watched through a gap at a Chinese couple. They never looked up from their phones, they slurped their noodles, they never conversed.

We talked, and she asked me if I'd live in Venice. The waiter at that moment came with our food, but if you want to know, I'd say, yes, if I had a lot of cash for upkeep. I'd also "divide my time" with Siena. Or maybe Lucca and Ravenna but they must wait for a return ticket and a cheap exchange rate. I'd read in Tim Parks about his adopted Verona, and Layne wants to visit the fashion and design mecca of Milan. For me in my romantic daydreams, the seaside of one location and the hilltop of the other balance well. As for Ireland, I keep responding that I have not as yet seen enough to call it, but somewhere in na Gaeltachtaí entices me. I'd take classes there to bring my Gaeilge up to fluency--even if my Californian accent would likely never vanish. So I imagine an ideal retirement.

Layne remarked from the moment we saw the Campo dei Fiori in Rome how the country instantly resonated with her. She warmed to its food and its ambiance, and indeed the weather did her well. She looked radiant, walked until she could no more, and loved window-shopping and dining (well, sometimes, but far more often than in Ireland). For me, I guess it's as atavistic as it is Layne as she surmised to her "swarthy" complexion ("olive" may be more anodyne) and her Levantine attraction. My skin enlivens and my nose sniffs out the turf. My older son, as I entered the house back home the other night, marvelling how it smelled outside of fires and chill like Ireland, sniffed, "you mean, like shit and sheep"? Deadpan. Perfect timing. He inherits my mordant wit and his mother's culinary joy.

Our final full day in Venezia, although we were "churched out" as Layne accurately diagnosed our affliction, we walked to the Scuola de San Rocco with its splendid fifty-plus Tintorettos. Too much for me, but Layne admired their contrasting colors and imposing angles. The wood carvings in the choir stalls intrigued me more, each contorted and realistic. The church across the lane, where we'd later reward the fiddler who'd been playing all day into the night, featured more of the same, as well as the Basilica dei Frati. Since about 1230, Franciscans have preached there, and the mish-mash of tombs, plaques, paintings, and ornament proved engaging if confusing, as again, the efforts of centuries combined into a jumble. Consider the reliquary, with so many tiny labels affixed to so many little bits of bone and skull that they were illegible. Some lacked any identification. Oblivion is their fate, perhaps, as holy relics and pious crafts, unless scholars better skilled than I summon miracles.

For the quotidian demands, pizza and pasta satisfy me. At our second pizzeria, Pommodoro, as avoiding beasties and birds means carbs abroad, we sat next to an Antipodean couple with a very well-behaved and articulate two-year-old, Rowan. They told us they'd been holed up in a Paris hotel for days, and were glad to have gotten out. In retrospect, I am glad Layne and I made it out of Istanbul before the subsequent tensions between Turkey and Russia. But I might see Turkey one day. U.S. security currently advises travellers now to avoid "crowds": how a tourist does this is a mystery.

Our departure, this time with a porter, and the train proved smooth. Again I contended with an Italian newspaper on political parties and Parisian terror, and we stayed in Rome at an Hilton airport hotel. Its plugs had been bashed into the wall by countless chargers, its staff seemed indifferent, and its ambiance was undistinguished. But unlike in Dublin, we could walk to the terminals. I watched a channel from the Middle East. Women in hijabs praising Tide. Pampers. Pert. KFC. "Pearl Harbor" played, as I tuned in on a scene of American sailors drowning under CGI Japanese bombardments. It seemed ill-timed and ominous, given the global jitters. Layne and I found a Cuban station. A young woman with a lovely voice even as an opera-phobe I liked sang as cats (again) or kids in masks (again) as such cavorted without reason. A video followed, an elderly folksinger with "Amigos" as his pals kissed the camera lens to show off their certificates from school or work, not sure which. B/w photos of them as younger comrades on labor details or at parties contrasted with them now. This was followed by a documentary on native plants. I wondered how long such fare will fare in today's Cuba.

Up early, we left on Turkish Airlines. Layne had calculated that one-way fares saved us a lot, so we flew counter-intuitively from Rome to Istanbul, and then back from Istanbul over the polar route to LAX. Our layover plunged us into a maelstrom, complete with a vast bazaar as chaotic as that outside the terminal, I feared. I later read that a Detroit woman on a layover here in 2013 had vanished, found dead in time, or not in time. (She "scuffled" with passport officials there, never a wise idea in this Midnight Express realm.) For my needs in time, there was one unisex toilet open in the whole wing. It had the standard functions and it was clean enough. Around me, half the world trundled past, until the near El-Al-level of a security triple check slowed us to board. I stared out a window by the gate, the strait not far away, trying to find which of the minarets and domes signalled Hagia Sophia.

On the flight, I learned from a documentary that there are at least eight grand mosques in the city. So, I had no idea which I surmised. I needed to stay awake to fight jet lag, so much of the marathon fourteen hours were spent gazing at the screen. A documentary about invisible Rome, another on Istanbul, another on owls. I chose rather than Skyfall to watch Goldfinger. Layne called up Boyhood for the fourth viewing, but I opted for the one Irish film, Jimmy's Hall, Ken Loach's biopic about leftist James Gralton's attempt to import jazz and modern mores into 1935 Leitrim. It tried, but could not rise above its conventional showdown of scandalized parish priest and indignant activist. To its credit, it did feature Jimmy back from Depression NYC to lecture his flock on the dangers of what we could relate to as avaricious bankers and precarious labor, and it attempted to complicate a simple story of good rebel vs. evil clerics with finally a little nuance. But I realize the love scene, that had been rapidly terminated with "the other woman" lamenting in gauzy dusk, cut to the next day without transition. Turkish censors made sure everything we watched was "formatted." I wondered what the well-upholstered, glaring old women under scarves watched on their little screens under hawk eyes.

We came home to find a dead bonsai (Nestor could not handle SoCal drought) and a dying cat. Gary had held out but three days before our arrival, he lost his appetite and retreated away from humans. We spent the equivalent of a flight and took him three times to the vet, but the fourth time was his last. I held him until the end. His green eyes gazed out, and his fur remained soft and sleek. One of the best memories of my Venetian promenade was seeing a cat-and-dog chess set, all hand-painted.

Window displays in Venice's small lanes prove magnificent. Paper, pens, fashion, glass, leather, crafts. I kept lingering over the faces on the little porcelain pets. They almost made me cry. They conjure up innocence and play, childhood and dreams. Impractical as a chess set nobody even would play with against me, expensive as it was, it represented a loving attention to art and beauty--even dignity. So, our mask in Gary's honor proved prescient. It will hang in the room where we loved him. 

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