Saturday, November 5, 2005

Venice notes from a broad

For a month in the fall of 2004 and another in the fall of 2005, I passed a particularly glorious time in Venice; taking pictures and getting to know the city and its resoundingly wonderful residents. I am happy to report that after only two months (well, maybe approaching three in total, if you count my first two, too short trips in the fall of 2000 and that of 2003) Venice now feels for me like a genuine home away from home, complete with family, friends, pets, enemies, likes and dislikes, all. I hope to collect many such second homes over the course of my travels and my life, but even if I do, I am certain that none could or will compare to the unique culmination of beauty, warmth, and generosity that I have found in Venice. Once you come to know the place (and therefore the people) intimately, Venice takes on an air of charming delight so thick and wholly enveloping that you can't possibly satiate your senses, self, or soul on a single, standalone visit. And that's when you know you'll be back again—and again—as often as your pocketbook (and employer) will permit, for the rest of your days. Yadda, yadda, yadda, Venice is a place that I deeply dig. If you've never been before and are on your way for the first time, I hope you're delighted with what you discover.

Get Lost

In Venice, the best advice and probably the oldest advice anyone can give you is to get lost. Don't take offense. Take it literally! One of the safest cities in Europe, you should feel free to wander the streets day or night without a shred of fear. As a woman who often travels solo, Venice is a heavenly experience for this reason alone. Be wild. Leave the map in the hotel room. "If you don't know where you want to go any road will take you there," is a traditional African proverb that will work wonders for you in The Serene Republic of Venice. With that hot tip out of the way, I can get to sharing with you a few of my less profound thoughts and experiences with La Serenissima. Enjoy.

Great Expectations
The first time I visited Venice was also my first trip to Europe, in the fall of 2000. It was a whirlwind trip; Paris to Verona to Venice to Florence to Marseilles and back to Paris with a friend who'd lived and traveled extensively throughout Western Europe and who had ceased to sigh or be impressed. Having spent 25 years dreaming through travel magazines and coffee table books about what certain cities around the world must be like in person, I had high expectations for this place called Venice. It looked hopelessly romantic and a true timeless beauty, despite the crumbling facades and water-logged ground floors. I wanted it to be as pretty as the pictures and to make my spine tingle with glee at the first sight of it. And to her credit, she did not disappoint. Referred to often as a woman, I'll go with the historical flow and do the same. Though I am not a lesbian, this is most certainly a lady that any girl could fall in love with. And so I did. Stepping through the doors and down the steps to the square outside the train station, I think I actually had to choke back tears of delight and boundless joy. It was love at first sight and after four trips, two of which were for a month at a time, I don't have a bad thing to say about this long distance relationship. Venice is a city to adore, and so she has been by countless numbers over her long history. From her youth into the graceful charm of old age, people come to see, people come to stay, people come and fall in love. And if they're lucky as I have been, they come back. Again and again until they don't know if this is the sixth time or the sixteenth. Because there is always more. More shortcuts and dead end streets to discover. A museum you didn't have time for last year. Another gelato from Da Nico. Another print from Bac Art and some quality time with the owners' adorable Jack Russells, Stella and Ottone. And maybe just a few more sheets of handmarbled paper from Alberto Valese or Paolo Olbi.

Mary McCarthy said essentially the same thing in the 1960s: "Nothing can be said here, including this statement, that has not been said before." Ditto that, indeed. With all that's been written and all the photos that have been taken, you'd think there was nothing special to see or feel here that you couldn't cull from an existing book or picture. And still people take pictures and pen prose about the old girl. A fact which screams how special this city is in all its redundant, touristic, and historic glory. Don't skip it and don't breeze in on a day trip. Give it the time and the attention that a city of its stature and allure deserves. Spend at least a couple nights or more, at a minimum. Although Venice is a quintessentially expensive town, remember that this is Europe and it's often possible to strike a deal with smaller hotels, pensions, and B&Bs. If you're staying for a total of seven nights or more in any season, you can more than likely score a discount of 10% to 20% or even more. This might not pan out in high season, but it never hurts to ask. And offer to pay in cash. That can also net you a discounted rate. Too bad wheeling and dealing like this isn't more common Stateside. Oh vell. Back to Venice before I veer off into a diatribe about the cost of accommodations in Hawaii these days.

Is That a Fact?
Did you know that in 18th century Venice, masks were an integral part of the daily attire? Like wigs, fans, and beauty spots, Venetians sported masks on a daily basis. Such was the custom from October to Lent, except for the nine days before Christmas. Everyone wore a mask: from the doge to the market maiden selling vegetables. It might also interest you to know that Venice is composed of 118 islands, 200 canals, and 400 bridges. It was an independent republic for the thousand years between 697 (the year of the first Doge) and 1797 (when Napoleon strolled in and abolished the republic, then sold it to the Austrians); a record for independent rule that may well remain unbroken. Of the 66,000 residents in Venice proper today, 28,000 are over 60 years old and 3,768 are children (these figures were current as of 2003). Or how about this. In 16th century Venice, at the dawn of tourism, the city had 11,654 registered tax-paying prostitutes. Pretty pazzo, eh? 'Pazzo' is Italian for crazy, by the way.

ESL Entertainment
CNN World News Italian weather correspondent on Hurricane Rita: "The sea is upset, it is getting much worse as the hours come by."

Boldest Beggars on Earth
A bold and fearless pigeon nearly pecked my eyes out in a crafty peck-to-kill operation to eliminate me and then enjoy my two thin crust slices of spinach and ricotta pizza for himself. Shaken at first, I wasn't having it and he sauntered off in defeat; only to attack someone else further down the way for a sandwich.

Unwanted Affection
I was meandering back to my hotel after walking a friend to the train station and I was exhausted. I got lost and caught up in a crowd of people made to wait while a group of drunk and singing young Italians took a photo or five. When they finally allowed the crowd to pass through, one of the drunkest (and least attractive) grabbed me from behind and swung me around to kiss me sloppily on the cheek. *Snap* Someone took a picture. I let it go and asked him the time. I had to be back at a certain time to meet another friend for dinner. "For you, my Polynesian principessa, the time is 6:35 in the evening." Great. Thanks. He then grabbed me for another kiss, but seeing that he was aiming closer to the bocca I pushed him away and remarked, "Ma dai. Cazzo. Che sboro!" From the look of horror in his eyes, I could tell that this was not the response he'd expected. His friends and I had a good laugh and I went on my way. (I can barely speak a lick of decipherable Italian, but boy can I curse like a proper Venetian sailor; which is, to say, like the typical gondolier.)

Cursing up a Storm
One of the fun things about really getting to know a place that you're visiting overseas is making friends and learning the language. I took junior high and high school French, three years of high school German, and a year of college level Spanish. I've managed to retain enough French and Spanish to get by comfortably, but my memory of German was vaporized at some point between high school graduation and my 30th birthday. Although I have no prior experience with Italian, I've developed a basic understanding and can generally feign my way successfully through most conversations and Italian television programming. The one bit of Italian that I have come close to mastering, and would indeed consider myself to be something of an expert on, is cursing. In learning the language and local dialect from my Venetian friends, I inevitably honed in on and asked questions about words or phrases I heard them using but could not translate or understand. I happen to have quite an ear for the profane, it would seem. Here's a brief look at some of the dirtier bits of Italian that I picked up (and at times put to good use):

Cazzo: Cock.

Cacchio: A "softer" version of cazzo; perhaps more like dick or prick.

Fica: Vulgar euphamism for the female cazzo counterpart.

Figlio di puttana: Son of a bitch.

Merda: Shit.

Testa di merda: Shithead.

Minchia: The Sicilian version of cazzo.

Che Sboro: Something so graphically and specifically crass with regard to the male anatomy and its reproductive functionality, that I'm too shy and prudish to even translate it for you here, online. But I'm sure you can find another site that does. In fact, has a great Italian adult slang dictionary. The entry you're looking for is sbrodare. Enjoy.

Vaffanculo: Fuck off! Fuck you!

Vacca: A vulgar way to call a cow or a woman.

Stronzo(a): The rough equivalent asshole or bitch.

Quella vacca di tua madre (Italian) / Quea vaca de to mare (Venetian dialect):
Need I translate this, really?

Rompipalle: One who breaks the balls. A ball breaker.

Andate tutti a 'fanculo!: You can all go fuck yourselves!

Nessuno me lo ficca in culo!: Nobody fucks me up the ass!

Tua madre si da per niente!: Your mother gives it away!

The Marine Gigolo Has Lost His Marbles
I overheard a group of Canadian tourists talking while we all waited for the vaporetto back to Venice, on Murano. This one guy said, "I've traveled around the world three times as a marine gigolo... I teach bridge or dancing for a few hours a day and the cruise is free, for me. I've been doing this since I retired 20 years ago. It's a great exchange. I'm going on a three-week cruise of the Greek Islands next week... Bridge? Oh, anyone can play bridge so long as you've got at lease a few marbles left."

All in the Familia
On the vaporetto home to Lido, these three 16-year-olds got on and sat in front of me. The boat was packed to overflowing. It was the end-of-day commute hour. The three adolescents in question comprised a guy and two girls; twins. The guy was on the left end, then the twins to his right. He starts making out with the one sitting next to him, his hand affectionately stroking the hair of the twin on the far end. Everyone was staring, confused. The twin on the far end was massaging his back. At first I thought, "Girl in the middle, you haven't got a clue what's going on. You poor, pimple-prone thing! Your scampy sister and your man are going at it, behind your back. Literally!" Then I thought, "Well, Europeans are more affectionate in general, so maybe this is normal." But then, a few minutes later the boy leans over to kiss the twin at the far end as the twin in the middle necks her sister. Everyone on the vaporetto was mortified, and riveted; men, women, and a large under-age audience of varying ages—the whole lot of us. You just don't see something like that every day.

Will this really inspire people to go out and breed?
CNN correspondent and expert discussing France's recent tax-break to couples having a second or third or fourth (or fourteenth) child: "But Charles, is this recent move by the French government really going to have an impact on the dwindling population in France? Will this really inspire people to go out and breed?" They went on to discuss similar attempts to inspire "breeding" throughout Europe, as the population replenishment across the continent continues to plummet. "Charles, in your expert opinion, can Europe or will Europe ever recover?" Without hesitation, Charles: "No."

Kinda Cannibalism
I watched a seagull eat a dead pigeon one afternoon. Technically that's kinda cannibalism, yes? Like a gorilla eating monkey brains. It made me kinda queasy.

Sobbing Stilettos
All of the women on all of the soap operas here wear spikey toed, three inch+ heeled stilettos. And all of them are crying in every other scene.
I don't know how it happened, but I got hooked. I just had to know what was upsetting all these women. You know? Lucky for me the lady on the plane ride home had become similarly addicted over her vacation and we were able to compare notes and fill the other in on missed episodes. Too bad we'll never know how all the drama ended. We have our hunches though.

Cycling Stilettos
I went to Padova for the afternoon one weekend. Sitting and eating a gelato I counted no fewer than 36 women on bikes cycle by me, in stilettos. No helmets.

Just Passing Through
I've always been fascinated with the phenomenon of "passing." Historically, light-skinned Blacks were occasionally able to "pass" for White and reap the social and economic benefits therein, in pre and post Civil War America. It's an odd state of being, sometimes, when you realize that you don't to fit neatly into the racial or ethnic boxes that so many people hold up as the standard or only options. While I have been known to encourage an erroneous ethnic assumption or two (most often in Hawai'i to enjoy various kama'aina discounts and privileges), I more often find myself inadvertently "passing" for a whole host of racial and ethnic groups, or some combination thereof. I don't find this out, often times, until I get asked "the question" (as I like to call it).

According to Merriam-Webster, race may be defined as, "a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock; a class or kind of people unified by community interests, habits or characteristics ; a division of mankind possessing traits that are transmissible by descent and sufficient to characterize it as a distinct human type." Ethnic, as in an ethnic group or minority, may be defined as, "of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background." I give you these definitions here because I find that they are generally silly and of no use when discussing, in particular, someone (like myself) of mixed race or ethnicity. Both at home and abroad, the most common question asked of me by a stranger after, "Pardon me, but do you know what time it is?" is undoubtedly, "What are you?" Well, of course, I'm human. But that's not the reply they're hunting for. "No, I mean what race are you?" Depending on my mood and whether or not I think the inquisitive individual in question is worth the time of day, I might answer in any number of ways. Lately I've just been offering up, "Black." To which a flurry of follow-up questions usually flow, something like this: "Black? But your hair is straight? I thought you were Mexican, or Native American—you know, Red Indian. Or maybe Polynesian or maybe even East Indian. No? How about West Indian? Really? Not even close, you say? But where are your parents from? Where were you born? What ethnicity are you?" It goes on and on as the person proceeds to rattle off all of their various theories and uneducated guesses as to my racial and ethnic origins. The vast majority of the time these intensely curious folks have no idea what the difference between race and ethnicity really is. Not that this knowledge would help them to pull my background any more successfully out of their proverbial ass. After 20+ years of this line of questioning, I'm not annoyed by the need for strangers to know the details of my DNA so much as I'm just tired of it. Who the fuck cares where I'm from or "what" my parents are? What difference does it make to you? When you're traveling you always meet strangers and it's perfectly normal and even polite to ask where someone is from. But to ask "what" they are—which is exactly the way the question is phrased 9 politically and grammatically incorrect times out of 10—is just not kosher. At least rephrase your question so that my being descended from humans is a given. That's all I ask. And, to answer your question, I'm a fun fusion of race and ethnicity. A mélange. A medley. I'm multiracial. My mom's White and my dad's Black. But if you simply must know more, I'm the end result of the following groups of people marrying, sexing it up, and producing children: African-Americans (I prefer the term Black), European-Americans and Europeans (let's just do the blanket thing and refer to these groups as White), Native Americans (Choctaw Nation and who knows what else), Ukrainian Jews from the Kiev region (racially White, ethnically Russian Jews). That's as detailed on the DNA as I'm willing to delve, for the general public. So no more questions, please. It was nice to meet you, too.

California, a Nice Town
One of the Senegalese faux bag peddlers asked me where I was from. "Ah, California. A nice town."

Niggers are Dangerous
I don't know that I would call it a benefit, but another odd feature of both intentional and innocently mistaken racial or ethnic identity is the off-color comments and opinions that one overhears or, in exceptionally weird situations, is the direct recipient thereof. You find that you are like a secret agent of sorts; when people don't know "what" you are—whether or not you know that they don't know—they can feel very comfortable (sometimes too comfortable) and free to engage you in an open and frank discussion wherein they express any number of sentiments or theories relating to one of the peoples who makes up your person in such a manner that you might find highly offensive (and often do). I will give you two examples. In college, I had a lovely group of East Indian American friends who, I found out a year or so into the friendships, assumed that I too was of East Indian origins. I only discovered this because out one night having a good time, the mood turned hostile when a series of not-so-nice jokes about Black people were casually shared and received with howling laughter and follow-up comments in equally poor taste. In a silent furor, I tried to decide whether to say something and what. Before I could decide on a plan of action and assemble a collection of carefully chosen words, the group noticed my changed demeanor and inquired as to what might be the matter. And so it went. (They were all quite shocked to learn of my actual, largely West African American slave origins and the small Red as opposed to Yellow Indian elements. Yadda, yadda, yadda, all was eventually forgiven, but not forgotten, and we managed to remain good friends.)

On this trip, however, I had my first encounter with the n-word. I truly didn't see it coming. I was having a pleasant enough conversation with an Italian girl about cities in Italy that I have yet to visit. I simply said that every Italian I'd met had warned me never to venture to Naples without a friend or a small posse because it is so exceptionally dangerous in Naples, in their Northern Italian opinion. The girl with whom I was pleasantly conversing then said, "Naples is dangerous? Milan is dangerous." Milan? Why Milan? How is it dangerous? "You see all of these people selling the fake bags in Venice? The niggers from Africa? Well Milan is full of niggers. And niggers are dangerous. Very dangerous." Reeeeally. You don't say (well, you wouldn't have said that to me if you'd known I was part
nigger, myself—nearly 50% by blood and 100%-so according to the American "one drop rule.") Frankly, the girl was lucky I'm not fully Red Indian (or what's more offensive, In'jun?); I was very tempted to locate the nearest sharp object and pull a Pochahontas (i.e., scalp her). Or, it was later pointed out to me, I could have simply beat her ass and walked away without so much as a word. Leaving her on the floor in the fetal position bewildered and confused at how such a sweet brown-skinned, but non-nigger-looking girl had suddenly become so violently dangerous. Instead I just let it go. It was my last day in Venice and I didn't want it further marred by taking this ignorant chick to school. For all I know she wasn't even aware that the word is offensive. To say nothing of her statement that Black people are dangerous. Anyhow. You see how things can get a little dicey in passing, so to speak.

Dwarfing the buildings by several stories, watching cruise ships roll in and out of Venice is certainly something to behold. Never gets old. Always surreal. And always fun to stand on the Riva degli Schiavoni with a crowd of other onlookers, waving a warm welcome or bidding a fond farewell.

Under Construction
One good reason to revisit Venice as often as possible is that something you want to see is always, inevitably going to be closed or scaffolded for renovation. A few of the pictures I was hoping to take are therefore impossible, on this trip. For the last three years (and thus the last three trips), for example, the bell tower in Piazza San Marco has been blocked by scaffolding. Midway through this trip, scaffolding went up to envelop one of my favorite churches, that of San Zaccharia.

La Biennale di Venezia
The Venice Biennale is an international art exhibition-competition-festival, citywide-megaplex-museum sort of thing. Although I've been in Venice during several Biennale's, I'd never been to the main exhibits at the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini or the other large exhibition space at the Arsenale. In addition to these two main event spaces, there are artists from all over the world on exhibit all over the city. It's insane and overwhelming and a few of the smaller satellite exhibits are typically all I've been able to handle (I'm not a big big-museum person, I prefer smaller museums; been to the Louvre twice in total for maybe two hours in all). The satellite exhibits are usually free. The two main events are not free. This year, due to a foul week of rain, I splurged and spent 15 whole Euros to see some of the most disturbing, hilarious, and nightmare-inducing art around. Most of it is unworthy of mention. But there were a few highlights: a hilarious faux trailer for a faux remake of Gore Vidal's Caligula, a video titled "Skin" in which a woman shaves herself head to toe (eyebrows, hair, pits, beaver, legs; everything) and then proceeds to walk around town (strangely there was a large congregation of men "appreciating" this particular piece d'art), a 20-plus foot chandelier fashioned entirely of (unused) tampons, an elevated walk-through tunnel covered entirely (both walls and the ceiling) in (used) teabags, a walk-through wind tunnel that all of the perfectly coiffed women (except me) avoided, the Guerilla Girls.

Shitty Art
A Venetian friend asked me how the Biennale was and I told him it was a collection of weird, quasi-artistic curiosities, at best. He shook his head and rolled his eyes in complete understanding and told me that he went once, many years ago, and has never ventured back since. One year, he said, scandal ensued when an artist used actual excrement as the material for a sculpture. What did this brilliant, cutting-edge sculptor fashion with all of the merde he'd collected, you ask? A huge pile of shit, of course. That's definitely worth 15 Euros to see (and likely to smell, as well; although my friend assured me that by the time of the exhibition, it was a dry and odorless pile of shit). Don't you think?

The same friend then told me that another year there was a similar stink because some equally quacky artist used live, nude men and women in his piece de perfection. In some cases the men and women were just posing as fleshy sculptures, but in other cases... and keep in mind that the Biennale is a non-rated art event, allowing children of all ages, with or without adult supervision (during my two-day visit there were in fact international packs of teens running wild through the whole thing yelling and screaming with laughter, in many cases)... In other cases the men and women were doing the freak nasty for everyone to "appreciate" and ponder, under the guise of "art." Since when are live sex shows art and not plain old porn? Anyway, I had a good laugh with my friend and noted that the teens likely had a good time at the Biennale that year.

Public Art and Expression
While Venice is undoubtedly a beautiful city, it is nonetheless a city. As a major tourist center and a living, breathing town full of life, one should expect all the charms and disappointments of an urban landscape. Venice may feel rural and removed at times, but do not be misled. Venice is a major city. Like Paris, New York, London, et al ad nauseum, Venice is home to that international adolescent who finds it perfectly acceptable to go against the grain (and the law) in the name of public self-expression. Meaning graffiti. Sometimes achieving the profound or the surreal, most often these displays are loud and awful, unartistic and ugly. After so many visits to Venice I have accepted it as a part of the city and even, at times, found it to be the subject of my photographs. Graffiti in one form or another has existed since the time of the Romans, the Egyptians, and probably even earlier. No longer chiseled or carved into stone walls, it's now painted on in bright, vivid colors. Love it or hate it, graffiti is going to be a part of your experience in Venice.

Si, Sono Americana
One thing that traveling has taught me is that I am undoubtedly (for better or worse) American. Although I enjoy these three to four-week photo-extravaganza stints elsewhere, I no longer have regrets about not doing a study abroad trip in college or the desire to pack up and move to Italy. A month at a time without access to kitchen facilities of my own, here and there, elsewhere, is often plenty for me. There have passed overseas moments, for example, when I would have happily paid as much as 50 Euros for a single taco or a burrito or some good Thai, Chinese, or Indian food (if said fare were to suddenly materialize). I'd even do cartwheels for Japanese food at certain points (not my favorite world cuisine, but when it's good it is good). If I could afford it I'd fly to Paris just to have a falaffel on the Rue des Rosiers at L'As du Falaffel. At least in France you have a bit more variety in the way of food available. Italy is just so... blandly Italian (when you're hungry and wanting something spicy and non-Italian, in particular). We're spoiled by the variety of good food available, every day; especially in California. My Venetian friends are (understandably) afraid of Indian and Chinese food; only having tried both once or twice here in Italy. I urged them to come visit me Stateside one day and promised them that the Far East eats would be better (edible) in California. They remain skeptical.

Caffé Culture
Two hundred years ago Piazza San Marco had 27 coffee houses. Florian's and Quadri's are the only two surviving 18th century coffee houses on the square.

Caffé Quadri
I'd never sat at Quadri's or Florian's (too expensive for a still-establishing-herself-and-intermittently-starving artist), but a friend trained in from Verona to spend the day with me and we splurged. The tab came to 26,50 euros for a moro (coffee, hot chocolate, and cream, for me), a cappuccino (for her), and the "fee" for the privilege of sitting at a Quadri table (as opposed to loitering in the square for free, like everyone else) while listening to the live, outdoor orchestra. I have to say that in the end it was a decidedly delightful experience that we managed to stretch out over a number of warm, sunny hours. If you're going to spend that much on liquids and music, you may as well take your sweet time and truly enjoy it with a friend or a good book.

Snippets and Bits
I overheard these things either walking around, on the vaporetto, at a caffé, or outside my window at the Ca' del Dose. For whatever reason they amused me and/or are typical of what you overhear all the time, in Venice.

"Two more bridges and I'm done." (American)

"We'll make it if we go slowly." (American with a Texas-sounding accent)

"They've got mirrors to hold so you don't have to crane your neck in order to view the Tiepolo's and Tintoretto's and such on the ceiling. Isn't that lovely, dear?" (British accent)

"I think we got ripped off by about 15 euros, each. Maybe 25. I hate this city. I'm so fucking ready to go home. No. I take that back. I hate Europe." (American)

"I had no idea Venice was so big." (Australian)

"What a beautiful city," says a woman.
"Yes, the most beautiful," replies the man. (Italians speaking in Italian)

"I haven't a clue how to get back." (American)

"Dude, maybe we should go back the way we came." (American surfer-sounding teens)

"Frank, pull out the map for god's sake. We're lost." (Americans)

"Sharon, it could be midnight before we find the hotel and it's pouring rain. We're screwed. Completely screwed." (Americans at approximately 11PM, outside my Ca' del Dose window)

Better Late Than Never
I was sitting and reading in the late afternoon sunshine on the campo at the end of the Calle del Dose and two women sitting on the next bench asked me the time. One introduced herself to me as Sophia from Ontario, Canada and we got to talking. She told me that she and her best friend were on the "European Tour" which, I learned, means a whirlwind trip across Europe in the span of about three weeks (London-Paris-Barcelona-Nice-Venice-Rome-Vienna-etc.) "I should have taken this trip when I was 40, not 70. But better late than never, right?" Instant fans of my financially unstable, photographer-artist, globe-trotting lifestyle, they demanded my email address and pledged the desire to buy a copy of the handmade limited edition book on Venice that I'd begin working on when I returned home. "I'm sure this is the one and only trip in my life that I will take to Venice, to all of these cities most probably. I'm old and I'm tired and I really should have traveled more when I was younger. I don't know why I didn't. But what you're doing is wonderful and I would love to share a few of your memories and make them my own. I'm so glad to meet you." Very nice women and confirmation that it's okay to both follow your dreams and live today, rather than postponing some of the best bits of life until you're too creaky and exhausted to enjoy them as you would have liked.

Friday the 17th
I learned from an Italian frend that 17 is the unlucky number in Italy, not 13. "I don't know why, but it's 17 here. Only in Italy. Thirteen everywhere else. Even in Spain. Here we do not have number 17 apartments or floors in buildings and such, for the most part. That is why. It is very unlucky. But I was born on the 17th of May, so I know it is a silly superstition!"

"I was stoned in Berkeley, once."
I was standing in line for the campanile in Piazza San Marco and the straight-laced, late 40-something couple in front of me asked if I knew what time the campanile opened. They were from Seattle. I said I was from Berkeley. The man immediately informed me, "I was stoned in Berkeley, once. I was in the navy, stationed at Alameda. My friends and I had gone to a movie in Berkeley, I think it was a documentary on Woodstock. This was in 1970 or so. Anyway, we were all stoned and there was an earthquake during the movie. This big chandelier overhead was shaking and everything. But I was so stoned I thought it was the guy in the seat behind me, kicking my chair. It was really trippy." His wife had this look of horror on her face, and just said, "I didn't know him then. And I was a good girl." Sure, sure.

Censorship in Italy? Fuck that!
There is in fact little to no censorship on Italian TV or radio, I've learned. I watched the Italian movie Natale sul Nilo one night on regular (non-cable) TV and was both proud (my Italian needs more than a lot of work, so the following is for me a feat) and shocked to pick out "cazzo," "cacchio," and "va fan culo" from the more titillating bits of dialogue. This, however, did not compare to the shock and lack of pride I felt on numerous trips to the supermarket and to a small card shop in picturesque Bassano del Grappa where the radio belted out the latest British and American hits, in uncensored English. In Bassano I was the lone tourist and therefore the only one in the shop to take in and appreciate the tasteless misogyny, set to a catchy, toe-tapping beat: "Fuck you you hoe, you treated me wack. Fuck you you bitch, I don't want you back…" In the grocery stores though, on more than one occasion, I overheard Americans or Brits or Aussies express a similar state of appall that such music would be played a) on the radio, uncensored, and b) in a supermarket, of all places. But then, we're in Italy and the average Italian is far from possessing a fluent command of the English language. So really, they could care less. (I have a sneaking suspicion that the kids know what this stuff means and think it's "cool." Like their similarly lost and vapid American or generally English-speaking counterparts. Egads.)

Headbands... For Men
One particular style (passing fad, I hope) here that I couldn't help but notice (and dislike) is headbands on men. Not fabric headbands like the soccer players or other athletes sometimes wear. I mean the hard plastic colored headbands of varying girths that I wore when I was in elementary school. It's a not uncommon accessory here for the men with that stereotypically Italian long, but not too long, but not short haircut. Renaissance-retro, I call it. You know what I mean. Think David. But with a headband.

O' Madonna!
I told you early on that Venice has just over 60,000 residents. Guess how many tourists Venice sees each year? No fewer than 14 million. Mamma mia that's a lotta people!

Pee for Free
If you find yourself in Venice and needing to use the WC but don't want to use one of the 70-cent or 1+ euro paying sort found about town or at the train station, relax. Dart into Quadri's if you're in the San Marco area (far nicer than Florian's loo, across the piazza) or into the cafe bathroom at the train station. Generally speaking, cafes with a bustling business won't ask you any questions because they won't know for sure if you're a paying customer or not. So look as innocent as possible and just... go.

Even the Blind See the Beauty
I was walking, strolling quite slowly, really, down a street and admiring the doors and the bricks and the random beauty. There was a smallish crowd of three people huddled in front of a majestic old door with visibly worn brass fixtures. A silver haired woman was fondling the door knocker that I could plainly see was the head of an old, brass lion. A split-second later I noticed her walking stick and the way her friend was holding and guiding her arm up to the lion. "It's so delicate, the face and the mane. He's beautiful. Exquisite," she said. She was blind, but only in the obvious way. Like me, she was a tourist in Venice. Come to see, come to experience, come to appreciate the beauty. It was one of those unexpected and poignant lapses in time that instantly effects you and you won't soon forget ( i.e., I started crying and had to continue on, on my walk).

Lunch on a Bench
I went to the store and bought a bit of a particular Italian salami I consider to be a little slice of heaven (15 slices, to be exact), along with fresh bread and cheese. I picked a bench and a campo and parked it there to eat my cardiac-arresting lunch. A boy and girl of about 9 and 10 sat down next to me and, prattling in German, proceeded to feed several slices of bread to an increasingly large flock of winged rats. Several minutes later after I'd completed my picnic and started scribbling notes in my journal, some asshole (a teenager) came bolting into the square with the aim of scaring away the pigeons. He succeeded in his mission and the three of us, the two kids and myself, screamed in unison as the birds flew directly at us in a rabid flurry of fear. Luckily no one was bird-bombed in the process and (so far as I'm aware) we also (narrowly) escaped infection from a bout of the latest strain of avian flu.

Buried Alive
I witnessed three (quite stupid) boys of about 12 or 13 lie down in the middle of St. Mark's Square while a fourth young man (stupid, but clearly slightly smarter as he wasn't among those lying in pigeon shit) proceeded to pour bag after bag of corn over his friends. Covered in corn, the three idiots were quickly covered in pigeons. Buried in pigeons, in fact. Being pecked to death, it appeared, by each and every bird who could get a beak within striking range. You couldn't see the boys, for the pigeons. And myself an idiot, I didn't have my camera.

Blame the Chinese
I think the Chinese are blamed both jokingly and in earnest for more than a few things, in Venice. I've encountered many shopkeepers who say that more and more of the glass items are not made on Murano or in Venice, but are imported fakes from China. Glass shops are bought or opened by Chinese merchants and they do not support the local glass workers; they import the cheap crap from China. And then there's the curiosity about what's happened to Venice's cats. Molin, the cat who frequents the campo behind the Ca' del Dose and who all the locals of the 'hood know and love was missing for three days. One such local was asking everyone if they'd seen him, recently. "Marisa, have you seen Molin? I hope the Chinese didn't get him." She laughed when she said this (in Italian), but I got the feeling she was only half kidding. On another occasion I was talking to another Venetian friend about some of the wonderful cats I'd met and photographed on this visit and he told me that 10 or 12 years ago Venice had a significantly larger population of miniature lions. "I don't know what happened. All I know is that the Chinese started moving into Venice in large numbers around that time, and the number of cats then plummeted." He smirked and said he was only kidding, although these are the facts and no one knows why the feral cat population (always fed and loved by the Venetians) has dwindled in recent years; coinciding with a spike in the Chinese immigrant population.

Amore Mio!
In a small quiet canal near the Via Garibaldi on a Sunday morning, a father and son were walking to grandpa's house. The little boy couldn't have been more than 3 or 4. "Nonno! (grandfather)" he started yelling, when he saw his grandfather standing in his boat. "Amore mio!" the grandfather bellowed, at a very high volume; he sang it moreso than he said it. The grandfather kept singing, "Amore mio! Amore mio!" in a bellowing base.

Ciao Papa
One morning while I was out wandering in search of my next photo-opp, I heard a chirping "Ciao, papa! Ciao, papa!" from a balcony above. I craned my head upward to see a boy and a girl (twins about four or five years old, I think) leaning through the marble balcony and calling down to their father who was preparing himself to float off to work in his little blue boat, below.

Campari Red Passion
Thanks to Michelle Marcos and David James, to kind and attentive random readers of my travel drivel who took the time to find and email me a link, you can now view for yourself my favorite Italian commercial from this particular trip to Venice. It's an ad for Campari Red Passion. Check it out. But be warned: it's a bit racy.

Walking on Water
The rain was so heavy for so long one morning that nearly every corner of the city seemed to hover at the brink of biblical flooding. Along the Grand Canal I got off the vaporetto at San Zaccharia and walked down the wooden plank pier thing to "land"; slightly scary and remarkably akin to walking on water. The water was exactly level with the pier. Just beginning to slosh over and submerge it into the murky green canal. Then there's the acqua alta catwalk action one has often to maneuver in such situations. Walking on those planks they set out when flooding occurs is no walk in the park. With only one long series of planks for all traffic both coming and going (and when you factor in all the people with suitcases and generally oversized luggage it really gets hairy) to say that it's an accident waiting to happen is, if you ask me, the understatement of the Venetian year.

Cashing in on Superstition
Before I left for Venice, an Italian-American friend suggested I refrain from killing any spiders on my trip because Italians are very superstitions, she said, and believe that arachnids equal earning power. This would be a tall order because my own personal superstition about spiders is that they equal bites. While I did unfairly assassinate one such creature in my hotel room over the course of my month afar, I also spared one when I got home and spirited him out of doors, to safety (for the both of us). My change of heart was inspired by a Venetian friend who, on my last night in Venice and my last dinner at her house, saw a not-so-small spider tiptoeing across the TV screen and instantly scooped him up in her bare hands and dropped him out the nearest open window with a cheerful, "Oh, a spider! They bring money." So to test this theory, I'll now be doing the same. I'll let you know how it works out. Lord knows I could always use help where the replenishing flow of currency is concerned.

A Venetian's Life
Life in Venice is expensive and intrusive. Around every corner there likely lurks a tourist or two (me being one of them), at the very least. Many armed with the latest high-tech camera or video recorder, ready and aiming to capture anything and everything that passes before their electronic eyes (my photography isn't quite so brazenly invasive, or so I hope). Your laundry, your life; you (and anything you may have once displayed in the public's field of vision) are destined for someone else's photo album and holiday DVD. The privacy we take for granted elsewhere is nowhere to be found in a city such as Venice. It is no wonder that the Venetians are a seemingly cold bunch, apt to hide and quick to dart down the nearest alley and out of view.

Questions? Ask away! Please use the comments feature to ask questions rather than contacting Marisa directly. That way everyone can learn a thing or two, too.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Paris notes from a broad

In the spring of 2005 I ventured to Paris for three weeks with a dual purpose: Take pretty pictures and turn 30. I traveled with a good friend (American) in addition to meeting up with another good friend (French). About half the time was spent with friends, the other half alone. It was a lovely trip and a picture perfect place to pass the final hours of my 20s as I (forcibly though pleasantly, in the end) entered my 30s. This is a small and carelessly edited selection about the more (as well as less) titillating bits of my trip that I emailed home to family, friends, and foes. Bon appétit.

In an old house in Paris - That was covered with vines - Lived twelve little girls - In two straight lines. They left the house at half-past nine - In two straight lines, rain or shine. The smallest one was Madeline | Ludwig Belemans, 1956

Paris Dreams
Without consciously knowing it, I've been dreaming of Paris since I was a little girl. Perhaps your mother read you bedtime stories about Madeline, too. It's a funny thing to discover a whole city lodged in one's subconscious and not even know it'd been thriving there since before you can remember. Venice is different because I sought it out quite consciously and lavished it with daydreams. The pictures I found in my mother's coffee table books and magazines weren't accompanied by sweet little stories for sleepy little girls. Paris on the other hand had been ingrained. And deeply so. Not only did my mother lull me to bed with fictional Paris, but from time to time she'd talk about her experiences and memories of visiting the city and traveling through Europe. In the end it wasn't quite the way I'd imagined it for Madeline or my mother, I suppose. But then, it wasn't all that different either. At some point, childhood fantasy and photographic reality meet to comprise a city that is just what you would expect it to be: Magnifique.

Haute Drame at SFO
When I went to check in at SFO the nice Air France clerk suddenly morphed into mysterieuse mode and excused herself with an "I'll be right back," before disappearing behind a large set of compound-caliber double doors. Ten to fifteen minutes later she emerged with a blank look on her face and I asked if there was anything the matter. "No, there's nothing wrong. I had to photocopy your passport." Uh, come again? What legitimate reason would require that you need a copy of my passport? She mumbled something. What? She mumbled again. What? "You're on the FBI list." (!!!!!) What the fuck? Long story short, if one is a photographer who travels with any degree of frequency outside of the continental U.S. you're evidently automatically put on the/an FBI list. This is what a reliable source told me and I haven't done the follow-up footwork of my own to verify it as fact. I don't particularly see how or why my photo trips to Paris and the like would be of interest to the Feds or why a filed photocopy of my passport would come in handy, but there's a lot about my government's various rules, regulations, and policies that strike me as, well, odd. Anyway, Big Brother is watching. Now that I think about it, I've always had "special" treatment at customs in Europe where they require me to crack open my suitcase and any other bags in my possession to inspect absolutely everything. On the way home it's real cute when they even demand to see what's inside the bag that I assure them is just an uninteresting and dirty assembly of socks and underwear. Nice.

Captive at CDG
I couldn't have been happier when the plane finally landed at Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris. It was a long, direct flight from San Francisco and I was more than ready for it to be over. It was clear that my fellow passengers shared my enthusiasm for the end of our journey and couldn't wait to get the hell off the plane, too. Seatbelts were unbuckled and a cramped combination of milling and scrambling to collect carry-on bags began even before we parked at the gate. Stupid, anxious us. There was some kind of "probleme" that kept everyone on the aircraft without the flow of chilled, recycled air for 45 uncomfortable and excruciatingly molasses-like minutes. Five minutes more and there would have been a riot. I say this sincerely because I'm relatively sure I would have been the one who started said display of onboard civil disobedience.

Heavy Petting
This little tidbit is nearly just as I typed it from an Internet café to my friends and family back home. I've preserved this long paragraph in its original form because there is no better way to enjoy a startling side story that arises in said Internet café. Enjoy.

Senegalese men really think I'm hot. Apparently. (Apparently this segment of the male population is in dire need of some serious corrective lens disbursement—asap.) While I might have considered going out for a drink or even to dinner with a particular Senegalese gentleman that I met on this trip to Paris, the desire instantly disappeared the instant he pulled me close to him, mere minutes into a seemingly harmless and quite normal getting-to-know-you conversation (Where are you from? I am from Senegal. Oh, I thought you were from Mexique or Morocco, perhaps.) I suddenly found myself in a position far too similar to a chokehold with my head to his chest and him petting—yes, petting—my hair. Under other circumstances I would quite enjoy a fine-ass man stoking my hair, but in this instance it was definitely petting and was absolutely unwelcome. I halfway struggled to get away, but decided that it couldn't last for another moment or two so I should just "go with the flow." (Oh wow, pause—a guy just sat down next to me and logged on to a hardcore porn site! I only looked over because of the mumbled moaning noises he's making as he types and looks at the page. Good fucking lord. It's 10:26AM and we're in a hugely public Internet café. Get a home computer and an ISP buddy). Sure enough the forced and awkward affection passed soon enough and then he had the nerve to ask me out. I decided he had to be semi crazy to behave in such a manner in front of his coworkers and all the clients (he worked in a different Internet café from the one I'm currently patronizing), so I opted for the "Oh I can't. I have a boyfriend back home and it wouldn't be right." story. My imaginary man usually comes in handy and successfully wards off all unwanted suitors, but it didn't seem to phase this guy. He wouldn't take no for an answer so I followed up with "Well, maybe. I'm here visiting friends for my birthday and I have to check with them first. They have made wall-to-wall plans for me and so I really can't say when I'll be free next." He accepted the maybe and rejected my simple goodbye with more forced affection—this time a very over-the-top, more-than-friends, far too long and loving kiss-kiss on each cheek (Euro-style). I'm not sure now what's worse. The porn palace I'm presently writing from or the petting zoo down the way. Dare I try a third time to find a decent G-rated Internet café in this city? Does one exist??

The Louvre
It's not that you should skip the Louvre. Not entirely anyway. The museum is just so massive that you should skip the majority of the galleries and just focus on one or two that you really want to see. I've only been to the Louvre once in three visits to Paris. I'm a huge fan of Ancient Egyptian art and so this was the collection that I focused on. And this alone wore me out in a single afternoon. I managed to squeeze in the Winged Victory of Samothrace and called it a day. Personally, I like my art overload in smaller doses and settings. This time around I chose to OD at the more intimate Musee d'Orsay. Like several other museums in Paris, the Musee d'Orsay and the Louvre are admission-free for tout-le-monde on the first Sunday of each month. I took advantage of this on my last visit and got to the museum first thing that Sunday. Getting there early before the crowds made all the difference. My friend and I got to roam around for free with many of the galleries all to ourselves. It was really nice. And because the d'Orsay isn't a behemoth like the Louvre, we were able to breeze through the entire museum in time for an early lunch. Parfait.

Fun with Fondue
In general, I love French food. I've never ventured to try escargot or some of the other fare that I'm quite convinced would require a sprint to the nearest toilette for an upchuck, but whatever. Southern French food is my personal favorite. But I'm generally always willing to try something new. One night with a Parisian buddy as my guide, I had some typical French food that was absolutely atypical to me—fondue. It's not the way I'd always thought of or known fondue, with warm bread and gooey cheese. It was this other thing (I've already forgotten the name) where you're delivered a platter of raw beef and another platter of yummy potatoes. You cook the meat yourself in a little pot of boiling oil. Quaint. Dangerous. Disgusting? The meat wasn't seasoned at all (quelle dommage) and instead you spiced it up by dipping your questionably cooked chunks of cattle in two unmarked sauces, which both looked to be mayonnaise-based (C'est ou les toilettes, s'il vous plait?). It wasn't half bad and I left happily stuffed, in the end. If I ever go back to a place like that I want to try yet another kind of fondue where you cook your meat not in oil but on a small hot slab of stone. Several other tables had chosen that method of culinary French flair, and it looked equally, adventurously, fantastique-ly fun.

The French Grill
I'd like to comment now on French dentistry and oral hygiene, or lack thereof. My friend and I had a waiter one afternoon whose grill rivaled that of the infamously gnarled and tea-stained choppers of the British. I was prepared to write it off as a freak occurrence, rather than make a sweepingly generalized assumption that this was a prime example of the standard French or perhaps specifically Parisian smile. But after two weeks of so many jacked smiles I began to wonder how much worse teeth in the UK really are, or if in fact that's just a myth that the French created to deflect attention away from their own dire need for twice yearly cleanings and a mouthful of orthodontia.

Email, Porn, and a Little Self-Gratification au Publique
I ventured back to the super cheap Internet café and although no one sat next to me looking at porn there was a guy in front of me looking at porn with his right hand and with his left... Unbelievable. And there was a girl at the end of his row who was totally oblivious. Suddenly the 2,50 Euro per 15 minute Internet café looked attractively affordable.

Rue de Rodents
There's a pharmacy off the Rue de Rivoli that has a huge window display of rats in old steel traps caught in Paris in the early 1900s. I laughed out loud in passing because not ten minutes before I saw a strikingly similar rat the size of a well-fed kitten strolling down the gutter. I guess they haven't set out too many of those traps for a while.

Prelude to the Paris Riots
On the way to drinking, after a movie, my friend and I had to walk through Les Halles, which is supposed to be a bit unsafe at night. We made our way through about 20 police officers swarming around to ask any and every Black, African, or Arab looking teenager for his or her papers. My friend said this is typical and of course, unfortunate. A couple of the officers were eyeballing me, but I just started speaking English louder with my White ami and we strode through without any trouble. Sigh.

Age Ain't Nothin' but a Number
When my American friend was in town she kept commenting on how youthfully dressed the geriatrics are here. I always seemed to be looking the other direction at a monument or something, and missed these freakish episodes of over 70 French fashion. But one day, finally, I came face to face (or back/ass to face, as it happened) with one of these hip older ladies. I was walking home (I fell in love with my hotel. It genuinely came to feel like home.) from the Place des Vosges and found myself admiring the shoes trotting along in front of me. They were what I like to call mini-stilettos—about one inch high as opposed to three or six—and they were to die for. Then I noticed the ultra chic jeans and began mumbling to myself in disgust at all the tiny figures here who sport overpriced denim. I gave the coif a look and thought that was pretty amazing too—professionally colored the most delightful multi-faceted blonde—and just when I was about to speed-pass this twentysomething fille, I noticed the hump. She had a hump in her back to rival Quasimodo's and it was really protruding quite unfortunately underneath her fancy white rabbit fur coat. I was so shocked that I almost tripped and catapulted myself into her bobbing hump. But thankfully I didn't because surely I would have taken her down with me and inevitably broken her 90-year-old hip! I raced ahead to get a glimpse of this lady's face and sure enough, to my utter shock and dismay, she looked to be days, perhaps hours, from a rapidly approaching death. I think the pope looked better his last few days than this woman did. Despite the layers of Lancôme, there was no hiding the fact that 80 was well over ten years ago for this grande dame. I thought about asking her to stop and pose for a picture, but couldn't think of a way to do it without laughing and inspiring her to beat me with her oversized Louis Vuitton handbag.

Black Like Me
In talking to my mother about my trip, I realized that I forgot to include one interesting aspect of the chokehold-petting story. The headlock took place right after I answered the question about my nationality and then my ethnicity/race. I should really give more consideration to just sticking with a claim on Hawaii as a place of origin, I guess. When I explained to the Senegalese Frenchie that my father was Black and my mother White it was at that precise moment that he went for the affectionate, if not affectionately scary, embrace (peppered with petting) as he mused, "Ahhh! You're Black like me!!" Yes, yes I am. Sort of. But after he released me and before I bolted for the door, we had a brief exchange about my father. "Where in Africa are his people from?" Uh, are you kidding me? Hello, slavery! I can't be any more specific than somewhere in West Africa. "But he does not know where his people are from??" he replies in utter shock and confusion. No, no. He does not know where his people are from, as is the case with the vast majority of Black Americans.

A Stroll in the Gutter
I really had to rely on my Berkeley jaywalking skills here. I don't recall this from past visits but in trailing my friend from bar to bar, much of the trek took place in the middle of the street it, seemed. Parisians walk in the road, in the gutter, and are constantly being missed (just) by speeding cars. It reminds me a bit of crossing streets in NYC but a pinch less life threatening, though it appears to be far more dangerous. Go figure.

La Tour Eiffel
Third visit and I still haven't made it up the tower. Not even half way. For some reason, it just never happens. And now I can't decide if it would be more interesting or somehow romantic if I never ventured up. You know? Or maybe I roll the dice and save that treat for some sad visit in my old age when I think I'm seeing Paris for my last time. That would be kinda cool, too. Or maybe I finally go up and the dashing man on my arm proposes to me when we get to the top! Okay. Now I'm just getting carried away. Leave it to Paris to get you dreaming up all of the most idyllic or ironic scenarios.

Vacating in France
It's fun listening to French people lament their short vacations of 25 to 27 days, respectively. "It's just not enough! I should find another job where the employers are more reasonable. My friend Jean-Claude has 32 paid days off." So the conversation went as I laughed. French people that I've met generally agree that although it might be fun to work in the States for a few years, they couldn't handle the inevitable lack of paid leave and so they stay in France, where life is more livable. Even with only 25 paid days off in a calendar year. C'est la vie, indeed!

Questions? Ask away! Please use the comments feature to ask questions rather than contacting Marisa directly. That way everyone can learn a thing or two, too.


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