Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

Where the streets have no name September 25, 2008

Sorry for the silencio yesterday, kids. No internet access to be had in Venice…at least without an act of God.

I tried. The super nice guy who owns the hostel gave me a hot tip on a cafe with free wifi (so long as you buy a drink). However, he was a little cloudy on the exact whereabouts of said cafe. As with any oasis, you’ve gotta in search with nothing but hope, instincts, and desperation.

Thus, with only the name of a Campo (like a square) in the general vicinity, I went in search of the Cafe Blue. This is a tough game-show worthy challenge in any European country. In Venice, you need a cartographer and a psychic. I’m neither, but I actually found the Campo de Frari pretty easily. Actually, if you’ve ever been here, you’ll find this as weird as I do: It must be the wacko way my mind works, but I’m really good at zipping around Venice. I look at a map, make some vague plan like “go right, cross a bridge, go left for a while, cross a bridge, go left” and this things keep working out. Part of it is my reliance on ‘un-maps’. Since losing my guidebook, I keep ending up with these maps where only about a third of the streets are identified. I have a so-so sense of direction innately, but this lack of information – although initially wildly frustrating – seems to be helping me somehow.

Basically, I only have major landmarks at my disposal, so I just identify the primary direction and start my wandering. I’ve learned the hard way that getting home (sans map) can be a trick, so powers of observation and recall are also relatively crucial. Thankfully, I’m pretty good (and getting better every day) at noticing little details, so although I couldn’t tell you the name of a single calle, via, or campo name in all of Venice (except Calle Zen where my hostel is), I could explain to you how to navigate to the main sights or the one grocery store or the Guggenheim museum. Granted, these ‘directions’ would require navigation based on the position of the sun (and I’m useless at high noon), but that kind of advice is are arguably more useful here than actual street names.

Anyway, I get myself to Campo de Frari, and no Cafe Blue. So then I thought I’d see if anyone left their wireless access unplugged and wandered around with my computer open, hitting ‘refresh’. Nothing. I finally gave up and started to head back, when I came upon a “Blues Bar.” Could this be it!? Unfortunately, I’ll never know, because it was shut down due to a ‘problemi idreci’. By then it was pretty late by my ‘wandering around at night alone’ standards (21:30), so I headed back.

Today, I was hell bent on getting a blog up. I went in the heavy duty tourist area o the train station, and I’m now at “Ae Oche” waiting on my artichoke pizza, prosecco (I’m digging the prosecco. Champagne for no reason feels like a party!) and paying 8 euro (food and drink excluded) to post this. Oh well! Such is breathtakingly expensive Venice! It’s kind of a magical place, provided you can not worry about how much you’re paying for the basics and get away from the two zillion tourists. On the other hand, if it weren’t for the tourists, there would be no Venice.

You see, virtually no one lives here (on the island. All the residents are on Mestre – the mainland). This is because (according to the Italians I’ve talked to) it’s crowded and hard to get around and super expensive. And sinking. Lots of the homes are abandoned. So those who do live here, do so more or less do so because they are involved somehow in tourism (‘or very, very old’ one guy added). So in that sense, the whole place is a venture in make-believe. Welcome to the REAL magic kingdom!

As you walk around in the evenings and people are out on the gondola rides, there are two men that accompanies three or four of them in their own boat, singing Italian love songs (quite well, in fact). However, in all actuality no one really lives this way. There aren’t any native Venetians out on the boats for an evening sojourn or anything! You realize that the whole island is sort of an idea of the ancient Venice mixed with some tourist-based moneymaking ideas that stuck.

That doesn’t bother me. We could all use a little magic – real or fabricated, and there is no denying it’s a gorgeous, gorgeous city. I kind of like the confusing labyrinth of streets. It reminds me of a big hedge maze – and people pay good money to wander through those! Moreover, if you have any need for a photo of a stunning or quaint or spellbinding Venetian canal, drop me a line, because I’ve taken at least 50 of them!

As for today, I’m off to the islands of Lido, Murano, and Burano. Talk to you tomorrow from Trieste (hopefully!)

(p.s. HOT TIP: If you want to attract skads of attention in a Venetian cafe [from people speaking Italian, predominately] bust out a mini computer and work on your blog. I just had a small crowd gathered here. Who’d a thunk? You’d think I was demonstrating a time machine or something!)

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Kaleidescope of phlegm

Let’s talk about eating AND gross bodily emissions, shall we?

Well, there are a lot of different kinds of Italian food and they change up rather dramatically depending upon the region. However, where I’ve been, it all seems to center around the four basic food groups: milk, cheese, oil, and wheat. As near as I can tell, most Italian recipes evolved from the concept of, “I wonder if I could stuff cheese in this?” As in, “Hey, here’s a tube-like pasta, I wonder if I could stuff cheese in it?”

Check out these big squash blossoms, I wonder if I could stuff cheese in them and then deep fat fry them?”

Hey, look at this spare tire I found abandoned on the freeway, what do you say we coat it in oil, stuff cheese in it, and bathe it in a cream sauce?”

Not to say they don’t do it with a lot of panache. One of my favorite offerings was the artichoke Roman style – they take a whole artichoke, dip it in batter, and deep fry it. It’s like the “awesome blossom” of artichokes. Sounds like a good idea, but it leaves you feeling like you’ve gone swimming in the wake of the Exxon Valdez.

Anyway, whether you love or hate the super rich food is probably more a matter of one’s own palette and mucous situation. And right now, thanks to the southerly progression of my cold, I have a pretty serious phlegm crisis playing out in my chest right now. You don’t need a medical degree to figure that all this dairy ain’t helping…although it has introduced some interesting forms and color variations that someone out there may want to document and study, if only they knew how to find me.

As for the Big G – GELATO – I have sampled. I figured you can’t come here and not eat gelato, so I have had two smallish cups with two flavors each time. For these samples I sought out the (alleged) two best purveyors in Florence, the birthplace of getato. First off, it’s high quality and impressive and the first bite is beyond amazing, and your head swims a little…but, for me anyway, it’s all downhill from there. It’s just too much. Frankly, it’s like eating a bowl of cold batter. And while there’s nothing wrong with a finger scoop of batter, I draw the line at a quarter cup.

So at the risk of offending all the sugar junkies, sweet tooths, and chocoholics out there, I offer up my own translation guide on the gelato flavors I tried:

  • cioccolato mousse – cold brownie batter enriched with melted chocolate bars

  • nocciolo – the beige side of those Nutella-like spreads where the chocolate and hazelnut are separate, only higher quality…and cold

  • cioccolato arancia – cold brownie batter with melted chocolate bars and orange liqueur

  • crema – cold yellow cake batter made with plenty of yolks and loads of butter

I tell you what, I wish they offered a painter’s palette where they would give you a taste of each flavor. Like two mini-gelato spoon’s worth. Enough that you can try them all, and get an impression, but no more. That would get me in the door. When they start selling that – even if it’s at an unfair and clearly inflated price – I’ll be the first in line.

That stated, my hands down favorite thing I’ve had thus far in six days in Italy? Bruchette. little grilled toast rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil with a heap of fresh chopped tomatoes and arugula or olives or anchovies or basil or some other fresh and wonderful thing piled on top. If only I could have one with a nice plate of sashimi or maybe some oysters and a gin martini, a little tiny bit dirty… (Now I remember why i don’t talk about food. Not that I’m starving to death or anything, but it makes me hungry for things that aren’t available or out of my budget if they were! This is the same reason I never mention dogs.)

As for my time in Florence, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am an un-tourist. In fact, rather than criticize, I’m suggesting we celebrate it I am not the person whose giant head is blocking your photo of Boticellis Birth of Venus. that’s because what I like to do is walk around, people watch, see the architecture, and get the feel for a place. If there’s something amazingly ancient (as in thousands of years old) or a particularly good zoo or aquarium, then I’m probably in. I love modern art, and I get sick of the ‘church art’ pretty quickly. I’m starting to resent the zombified tour groups as much as – or more than – the locals do.

Similarly, there’s a certain march of cities that everyone seems to follow, and once there, they all flood to the same three or five or ten places. At times, I’ve been as guilty as the next guy, but the other day it occurred to me: It’s not (at all) like this is the only trip I will ever take. It’s not like these places are going anywhere. I should do what I want to do (or not), and see what I care to see (or not) and whatever with the status quo. That’s the clearest upside to traveling alone – you can go to China and not see the Great Wall if that’s your prerogative.

Thus, as I’ve seen both the Accademia and the Uffizi before, and the wait for each was two hours and three hours, respectively, and I had a killer migraine headache…screw it. I went to the Museo di Storia Della Scienza (science museum with Galileo’s tools and telescopes), hiked up to the Piazzale Michelangelo and took in the view, and then found a place to hang out and observe the spectacle of it all.

And that’s why, despite all the old art and old churches and old buildings to see in Venice, and provided I can figure out how to get there in this maze of a city – you will find me this afternoon at the Collezione Peggy Guggenheim looking at the Pollocks and happy as a clam.