Sunday, January 3, 2010

Of Freezing Nights and Pine Nut Gelato

Venice puts on no show for Christmas. Postcards and shop windows stuffed with colored masks advertise the real show that’s coming – carnivale. But Christmas in Venice is understated: a few more colors of Lindt truffles in the candy store windows, piles of pannetone at the bakery, a string of lights glinting through the fog from a balcony hundreds of years old.

We arrived in Venice by stealing a ride on a waterbus at 10 pm. We had been in transit for two days, after a series of weather-related disasters that prevented us from taking our planned one-hour flight. Wearily we wrapped our coats around us and watched bridges disappear over our heads on the way to the Rialto, hoping no one would come along checking for tickets. We had leapt on while it was leaving, and didn’t know and hardly cared anymore how to purchase the ride we were taking. It was the coldest night Venice had seen in 20 years, and my breakfast, lunch, and dinner of crackers didn’t seem to be insulating me against it. Still, I couldn’t ignore the magic of the lights on either side of the Grand Canal, and the candy striped gondola posts announcing restaurants, casinos and palaces.

Venice is a city alive in its past. At every turn, visitors are confronted with the handiwork of generations: towering domed churches, bridges criss-crossing canals, palaces with water lapping on their front steps. The tower bells clang each hour as visitors clamber on wooden planks stretched over the ever-rising aqua alta in the square to get a look at the Doge’s former private chapel – the basilica of St. Mark. Though modernity does its best to weave in here and there with a display of Gucci purses or an “ I heart Venezia” t-shirt, it is nothing but a light coat of new paint on an ancient city. Gondoliers in striped shirts stand near the academy bridge, proffering the grandeur of another era.

It’s amazing how much Italian food you can buy in Venice. I’m used to Italian food; I even love Italian food. I’ve eaten it in California, Oxford, Middlebury, Budapest and Sofia. But it’s kind of overwhelming to go from having one treasured Italian restaurant in one’s own city to finding three on every block. In Venice, I could hardly turn my head without seeing stacks of rosemary focaccia, flatbread pizza loaded with salami, round pizzas under glass waiting to be sliced into oblivion, piles of gondola-shaped pizza boats, rainbow-colored bow-tie pasta, giant pasta shells, bread shaped like faces advertising yet more pizza and pasta. And then there is the gelato. Though most places were closed for the season, Brett and I managed to stumble into one little den of ice cream iniquity about ten minutes before it closed for the holidays. As the final customers of a very kind lady, we had a six-course gelato meal. It began with layers of pistachio, pine nut and straciatella and was soon followed by individual sample spoonfuls of everything else the lady thought we should try – ciocolatto, amaretti with candied almonds on top, mascarpone cream - all made fresh on the premises. I thought seriously of buying her out of amaretti and freezing it in our little apartment, and I think Brett felt the same about creamy rich pine nut, but logic won over our taste buds.

When it rains in Venice, navigating its narrow alleys and ancient courtyards becomes something like a video game. As each new pedestrian approaches, you must make a series of rapid decisions: should you push your umbrella up or pull it down, lean it to the right or the left, dart to one side and risk collision with another alley of pedestrian traffic or dodge an awning. You must always watch out for two enemies in particular: walkers who have invested in the dreaded giant umbrella, and villainous couples hip-to-hip sharing an umbrella and the entire walkway. Meanwhile, you have to watch your feet, leaping over puddles as you maneuver your bright shield in the flow. Bridges in the distance appear to be nothing but rivers of umbrellas, their currents pulling in both directions.

When it’s sunny in Venice, the city glows. Rich reds, blues, oranges and creams reflect perfectly in the canals, and the sun sparks off the lagoon. As the previous day’s snow melts or the shopkeepers sweep the overnight flood out their front doors, the streets buzz with smiling traffic. Camera-toting Asian, European, and American tourists stand side by side on bridges, sometimes posing accidentally in each other’s pictures.

We left Venice on another waterbus, this time having dutifully paid our outrageous 13 Euros for the 10 minute ride. The bells over St. Mark’s were chiming for Christmas morning, reminding us of the late night service of haunting Latin music and candle-filled chandeliers we had risked the high water to attend the night before. Gondoliers were polishing the golden interior of their boats for the coming day’s holiday traffic, and the bags of our fellow passengers were stuffed with Italian Christmas bread and packages. As we turned away from Italy and toward Slovenia, I began to think that maybe I just didn’t recognize the many strands of a Venetian Christmas at first glance. Perhaps I had just been looking for it in the wrong places, and it was there all along, in the “Bon Natale” of shopkeepers, the rim of snow on the Plaza San Stefano and the spoonfuls of gelato handed across a gleaming glass counter.


Anonymous said...

****** (six star review from Duluth)

Anonymous said...

I really liked these contrasting posts by the two of you about Venice, but the photos that got my attention were of the flooding. Is this a long-time phenomenon or a side effect of global warming... or won't we know for few more years?

Anonymous said...

Oops... the two writings I liked were both Betsy's (sorry Brett) and then the flood photos and commentary were Brett's. I needed Joan to straighten me out. bam