Venice Reflections


messages to friends from Italy,

May-July 2001


1. To Milan


This is the first of seven groups of reports written from Venice in  June 2001.

The entire account is available as an 88-page book.  To order, contact the author.


Charles Shere

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One day before we leave. The credit card company called today: You're not in the habit of spending a lot of money at florist shops, they said, so we thought we'd check with you about this charge for ten thousand, five hundred dollars on your card.

No, Lindsey said, I don't think we've charged anything like that.

No problem, the company said, looking at their fingernails I imagine, we'll just cancel your card and send you another.

Great, we said, but you'll have to send it to Venice, and preferably in a hurry.

It's just as well. My card was pretty well worn out anyhow. The supermarket had pretty well fried it, although they claim it's not their fault, it's mine, for carrying it in the case with my handheld computer. A computer can't be good for a magnetic stripe, they complain.

We've been busy getting the place in shape not to be here. You wouldn't want it looking ratty for Houseguest and the mice. So the garden is sparkling and the litter's all picked up around the house and the automatic watering system is working now that I've connected some wires I'd forgotten about.

We stop to catch our breath and look at it and wonder why we're going someplace else, when the people someplace else would probably like it here just fine. We'll miss the hollyhock from the Ile de Ré, finally growing all by itself years after we thought we'd planted it. We'll miss the black poppy, the sour cherries, the nectarines.

Oh well. Good luck for Houseguest, bad luck for us. We'll make do with prosciutto and prosecco. We leave tomorrow for three days in Milan, then a month in Venice. You'll get the usual dispatches, unless you e-mail me that you don't want them.

Have a nice summer!

1. Morning in England

Scraa-a-aamble deggs er baycn rowll, she whined pleasantly through a nasal smile, as I tried to recall the Italian for "where is the...".

I know they say that England and the United States are two countries divided by a common language, but I can hardly understand these London ladies, and it isn't only the stewardesses, though the muffled roar of the engines doesn't help.

Scrambled eggs wiv grilled taMAHter, she further elucidated, and I went for 'em. In a biscuit, they was, like a SAMwidge, with grapes and melon to remind you this was any season, any place.

After all you're on an airplane, I unnecessarily remind myself, you're not here to eat well or to be entertained by the staff.

In fact it was easily possible to sleep, as Virgin Atlantic puts teeny LCD screens on the back of each seat, so you're not distracted by a huge mute inscrutable movie flickering in the distance ahead of you, causing an insignificant number of the party to laugh aloud at unpredictable moments.

I speak of economy class of course. Upstairs the upper class lounge at their bar, drinking responsibly and thinking on polo standings.

It was time to leave, yesterday. As I'd written to Giovanna, the vital fluids were ebbing away. The gin bottle was empty after the Saturday martini (though the vermouth was holding out). We finished the orange juice later that day. Sunday morning we exhausted the milk supply.

I realize, writing this that the morning milk, Straus organic, is something I'll miss. We'll be in the land of extended-shelf-life dairy products, and even in a cappucino that makes a difference. But Virgin's British coffee makes me look forward to Caffe Goppion, my current favorite in Venice.

Outside it's clear enough to see we're crossing the first land I've seen since central Canada, where endless lakes put me to sleep. We're over the Hebrides, flat and bleak from five miles above. In Boswell's day it took days to move among them, and the lairds of the isles owned the tenants, could even order them to die.

Cool, Emma says, with the indifference of the centuries.

Is there more coffee, I wonder, I'll get you some as soon as I finish this, says stewardess, clearing away the breakfast rubbish and offering a sweet, a mint-flavored hard candy at nine'oclock in the morning, Rule Brittania.

Our longitude is five degrees thirty; we're narrowing the gap; here come the Energy Hand & Face Towels, with a unique Mood Enhancing Complex with essential oils of grapefruit, ginger and eucalyptus to give you a real kick start. We fly over Scottish whisky distilleries and banks of clouds.

* * *
The plane to Milan was a half-hour late, but pleasant enough once in the air. Crisp British cabin purser and all that. The Alps were far-ranging and white, but once in Milan the taxidriver announced that it was trentasette gradi, 37 degrees Celsius -- body temperature.

But our cheap little hotel, not far from the Fernet Branca distillery, is pleasant and quiet; the girls are in a room with a balcony overlooking the garden where the spare mattresses are no doubt stored and burned when past using; and after a nap it'll be time for a decent meal.

* * *
Which was maybe five minutes' walk away, a place recommended by Slow Food Osterie: Sadler Wine & Food. Three of us had brandade croquettes; Emma had tagliarini with leeks and cotecchino sauce; grilled vegetables for the table; desserts: zabaglione, chestnut semifreddo, and berries with ice cream; a bottle of Grignolino Prunotto '99. I'd go there again in a minute; as good as Cafe Chez Panisse.

See you tomorrow or so.

2. Morning in Milan

We wake slowly to the sound of blackbirds, I think, softly discussing another dawn. I wonder what they make of it. Do they recall the previous one, I wonder; if so, are they connecting this one to that; if not, is it all a complete surprise?

Long flights and new surroundings derange the hours. We sleep, wake, doze, walk, adapt or don't adapt. We're in a mood, at least I am, between routine consciousness, the everyday life, and complete disengagement, like that area between fluent speech and complete inability to communicate -- which sets in all too frequently.

We chose the hotel quickly, from an Internet listing, as the cheapest available in Milan. I was dubious about the location: it's near the Feria, the huge area for commercial exhibitions. But it turns out to be on a sort of interface between that kind of area -- whatever it is; we haven't explored it -- and an older but still desirable residential section.

I don't know if it has a name, this area, but it must. As Lindsey pointed out it's a neighborhood, perhaps a bit like the upper East side. There are blocks of stately and handsome old buildings, many with extended balconies curving around from the facade to confront a shady side garden. There are good bakeries and quiet cafes.

There are busy avenues, of course; and they have the usual shops: clothing, shoes, travel agencies, camera stores. The gelateria is competent though not stellar. A subway stop is less than five minutes away, even in this heat.

The swifts and swallows soon take over from the blackbirds, whistling down on their prey, and by eight o'clock there are sparrows chirping, and the motor traffic has picked up a bit. Perhaps the girls, our girls, will be up soon; I'm a little eager to start the day, knowing we'll want to call a halt by one; it's too hot to keep going much longer.

But I like the idea of another desultory day. Yesterday we simply strolled -- the cathedral, the Galleria, down to San Babilo and back, stopping for drinks in the quiet Liberty Piazza, returning to the hotel for a four-hour nap.

Dinner was in a local pasta-house, one outlet of a huge chain -- twenty-nine of them in Rome, sixteen or so here in Milan!. The food was okay, not impressive; but it was plentiful -- huge platters of pasta (tagliatelli in tomato sauce for Grace, gnocchetti or ravioli in butter and sage for the rest of us), equally huge bowls of salad (greens for the ladies, beans tuna and onions for me). We sent back far more food than we ate, I'm afraid.

Now, eight-fifteen, the church bells begin, and I look at the waiting croissant, and think about another cappuch' -- the girls ask for another two hours of sleep, but Lindsey is pitiless -- and I think I'll collect the e-mail.

3. Masculine-feminine

Two men at the table across from us, both in white painter's overalls, one big and balding in a green shirt, the other big and walrusmustached in a red one.

Did you see that guy, I said, the guy in the red shirt, holding up his empty waterbottle like a telescope and looking into it.

It's not red, it's orange, Emma said.

It's red, I said.

No it isn't, Emma said. He can't help it, Grace said, he's a man. Men can't see colors.

It's going to be a long summer, I said soberly to myself, picking up my wineglass and looking moodily into its bottom.

What fun it is to ride the trams and watch the people watch the girls. Emma, ten, hanging from the grab bar, her feet six inches off the floor, straight and skinny as a fishing rod. Grace, fourteen, svelte and beautiful under her straw hat. The old men look at Grace and smile; the old women look at Emma and smile. Something for everybody.

On the sidewalks I walk along purposefully; Lindsey and the girls troop along behind. I'm big and hairy and wear a seersucker shirt and light-colored pants and a straw hat: all around me are small thin neat men in dark clothes and tiny shoes, no hats.

The women string out behind me like a troop of white-skinned squaws. We speak English.

Tomato, I say to the girls, reminding them unnecessarily, pomodoro, tomato. It must be true that I talk too loud, for the guy in the green shirt, it isn't green, it's turquoise, says Si, terMAYtow, smiling. E che vuol dir' cetriole, then, I ask him? Eh, ebben, he says, clearly he doesn't know, and he goes into the same routine the waiter had:

Long, (business with the two hands forming cylinders and moving apart), green outside, white outside, you cut them in slices...

Oh, Lindsey says, it must be leek. Like an onion, I ask? No, no, not an onion. Long, green outside, white inside. It isn't sedano, I ask, celery? No, no, not sedano. Cetriole, long, white inside, green outside, business with the hands.

It isn't orange, I say, it's red. Maybe chinese red, but not that blue.

No, they say scornfully, orange. It's going to be a long summer.

In the Castello Sforzesco, more specifically the elegant Ducal Court with its Portico d'Elefante (1473), as I muse on what fun it is to ride the trams, I see a look on Lindsey's face I haven't seen since three weeks ago when she realized she'd left her camera in the door-pocket of a rental car in Saint Louis.

What now, I wonder. What's wrong? Have you lost your camera?

She stares blindly, dumbly, into the air, waiting for God to send her an answer to some unspoken wish.

My hearing aid, she said, how could I have lost it, I must have lost it when I put my hat back on.

No one has seen Lindsey wear a hat until this trip. It is the most unaccustomed thing; you might as well hope to see me clean-shaven. But there it is: she's bought a straw hat, a big pretty round one with a chin-strap, and she's not used to putting it on.

Quickly came the realization that it was gone, gone, gone; it cost a lot of money; it'll be impossible to replace it here in Italy; there's nothing to photo: Emma Monradbe done about. We all look at her with blank incomprehension.

There it is, Emma says, in your hair, and indeed it's clinging for dear life to her ponytail, not two hours after we'd jokingly discussed her cutting her hair to accommodate Italian heat.

It's going to be a long six weeks, full of unforeseen eventualties.

Then bus and tram back home, stopping for lunch at a neighborhood trattoria whose menu had caught Lindsey's eye.

We eat at a sidewalk table, the painters in their overalls across from us. They are visited for a few minutes by a strange woman who has a lot to say in an apparently very familiar manner, but she is finally sent on her way by the patrone. Via, via, he says, and she clicks unsteadily off on her heels. A number of women seem to work these streets at lunchtime, I suppose for the fellows who man the commercial exhibition space.

Red and green shirted they look over at me and raise their shoulders, then look at my women and smile.

4. Tenuous

 Do you know Milan, the taxidriver asked, Not really, I answered, And the little I know is twenty years ago.

We were driving away from Giannino. You can't always go back. I'd so looked forward to dinner in the old-fashioned Art Nouveau restaurant, the salads and charcuterie and desserts displayed at the entrance, the book-length menu of traditional dishes arranged course by course, the correctly dressed waiters and captains, the elegant diners; and while much was the same the menu had changed, was now only two pages (changing, we were told proudly, with the seasons), and the displays were gone, and the food itself was up-to-date and much like any other post-nouvelle cuisine restaurant of the '90s.

Oh well, twenty years, that's not much in Milan, the driver said. Do you know the history of this street?

We were driving along near the Marghera, so I hazarded a guess: It was formerly a canal, I said, filled in before the war. Yes, he said, moodily, And at one time there was a lot of fighting here.

Like the red sea, I said, but without a Moses. Red, yes, he said, it ran red with blood. Better the red of the communists, I hazarded, and the driver fell silent a while, perhaps contemplating my utter misunderstanding of his narrative which was after all in Milanese.

An irrational disjunction brought another conversation to mind, from three weeks ago as we drove through the Oklahoma countryside with my father's aunt, looking for the old farm and reminiscing about a past we shared, really, only conceptually.

It'll never be like that again, Aunt Hazel said; times will never be that hard again. (A few nights ago we saw John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, and were haunted by its evocation of the outcome of those terrible times.)

It'll never be like that for our children and theirs, she repeated, and I said Yes, but some people had to be unspeakably cruel for those times to be overcome. I was thinking of my grandfather, who abandoned my grandmother and their three children, and who I knew only from a few stern and cruel-looking photographs, and my own father's refusal ever to speak of him.

Aunt Hazel was silent a while: then, with the sudden insight of apparent irrelevance: The one thing we must always cherish is gratitude.

It's all so tenuous, this human continuity, we're reminded of that every moment in this tourist Italy of medieval castles reconstructed as best they can be; Mussolini's brutal Hall of Justice across from a lovely Romanesque church; the Rotunda with its deconsecrated church, turned into an art gallery in the 1960s, now in disrepair and again being restored, with children playing among the construction debris; canals filled in and walls taken down, their silent slow commerce and pointless defense sacrificed for rushing taxis, motorbikes, and Smart Cars.

As we were waiting for our plane at Heathrow, Tuesday noon, Franco suffered a brutal tractor accident in his vineyard. I wrote about him last fall; he and his charming Gabriella have worked hard at making a successful farm and B&B out of what had been broken-down and dilapidated. They'd left a business in the city, unhappy with the kind of life the twentieth century was leaving behind, and made a promising new return to basics, combining tradition and the real substance of life with elegance and style and generosity.

Yesterday morning the e-mail came from poor Gabriella. My adored husband Franco had an ugly tractor accident while working among the vines, she writes, and describes his being taken first to Asti, then by helicopter to Torino, where he clings to life in intensive care.

Gabriella is heartbroken; it is the worst moment of her life; though there's hope, the fear of losing him is immense.

We've known them only since last November, and have seen them only those few days; but their simplicity, intelligence, diligence, good-heartedness and grace are always in our minds; they represent the hope that must always continue, the hope that humanity can always survive crisis, that the love and work of individuals can always overcome the stupidity and greed and triviality of the times.

I prayed, as best I could, which wasn't very well, for poor Franco and Gabriella, when we were at Santa Maria delle Grazie, where two old women sat quietly conversing in the quiet little cloister while a couple of teenagers made their own noise outside on the sidewalk.

And much of this sleepless night, after too indulgent a meal at Giannino, was spent contemplating these interruptions, these isolated insights into the private meanings of unpredictable events.

Perhaps this is what haunted Chirico, whose mute dumb concrete sculpture -- I think it must be his -- seemed so irrelevant and inexplicable in the Parco Sempione yesterday. The Melancholy of Departure. Italy is full of scars and widows, along with the geraniums and Prosecco and the sudden glorious blondes in their miniskirts on their motorbikes.

Amor omnes vincit. Work for the night is coming. The cries of unknown voices in the city night, voices of people we'll never know, and can never console.

The one thing we must always cherish is gratitude.

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