Friday, 27 April 2012

In Which I Cry in the Jewish Quarter

Filled with delicious gluten-free pizza eaten just meters from one of Venice's lovely canals, we threw away our map.  Finding specific spots in the city is a nightmare - streets twist and there are only so many bridges across watery thoroughfares, street names are often inconspicuous and - well, it's just way more fun to take whatever path beckons the most, if you have the time.

Our feet led us to an amazing adventure.

Before too long, we realized that the signs had changed.  No longer were they only in Italian.  They were also in a script that looked  a lot like - yes, it WAS - Hebrew!  We had noted earlier  that our map of the city had described the Jewish Quarter - and here we were.

At once, our eyes were drawn to a large section of wall on one side of the square upon which were bronzed plaques.

The plaques commemorated in artistic form the atrocities of the Holocaust.  Even the beauty of Venice couldn't hide the ugliness of racial hatred.

I have never seen a Jewish Memorial of this sort in person.  Whether the walk or the square or the pizza or the subject matter or my sensitivity - I can't explain why I reacted as I did.  But as I solemnly gazed at these remembrances of horror, Canadian tears spilled and mixed with Italian dust on the cobblestones.

I was struck by the horror, the humanity, the suffering.
It took me a few moments to regain control of my face and heart.  Only meter away stood a rail car, which had transported hapless Jews from this very spot so many years ago to camps of annihilation.  I felt the sorrows of the years as they congregated in those bricks and mortar, and hung about the square.

What a low, low point in our human history...

Across the square stood the Jewish museum and bookstore.  We were able to book a tour of 4 local Synagogues.  Unfortunately, no photos were allowed within these amazing buildings, but it was a thrill to be invited inside nonetheless.
The synagogues were all built on upper stories of existing buildings in order to hide them from prying eyes.  The only outward sign to a seasoned eye was a set of 5 windows in the space designed for only 4 along one wall.

Each synagogue, being built for and by a different ethnic population, was unique in design.  We were able to see the German and Spanish sites, the Spanish being the most elaborate.  There was an incident in this synagogue in which a bomb landed on the altar, undetonated.  Every year on the anniversary of this remarkable event, the local community celebrates the escape from disaster.

While most of the activity in the Jewish Quarter today is business-related, it was still a unique opportunity to peek inside a world within a world, a community representing a people of rich, diverse, ancient roots, and I am grateful for the chance that led our feet into that square.  It was fascinating to read signs indicating a 'Kosher Deli' or a 'Rabbinical School'.  The shops flaunted art, jewelry, and artifacts of Jewish design.  And everywhere were the conspicuous Hebrew letters - on and over doors, in shops, on placards and menus and newspapers.

It was yet another richly satisfying cultural and historical experience, one that you hug inside and allow to worm its way into the way you think and see the world.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Venice Goes Gluten-Free

We set out with determined steps to find the gluten-free pizzaria, further down this quiet street.  As we passed the glorious structure on the right, children burdened with official-looking backpacks streamed out.

At that moment, we realized that this gem of a building is an elementary school...

Dainty pig-tails swinging, twirling and prancing footsteps marching, they were like any other school-age children I have seen making their way home after a day of learning.

Except that these children go to school in Venice..

I wonder if they realize that their lives are being molded in one of the most famous cities in the world?

We reached the restaurant while musing on the peculiarities of transportation for Venetian students. The menu was filled with endless options for gluten-free meals, and endless choices of pizza toppings.  I found that I just couldn't decide on my own, and ordered the 'chef's whim' special.

As we contemplated our sustenance, boats cruised by on the canal just feet from our table.  Many were loaded with boxes of cargo, handled my men with bored-looking expressions.  Accustomed to the beauty of their passageway, they motored along at the pace of their errands.

My pizza arrived.  Mushrooms, onions, artichoke hearts and cheese lay shimmering on top.

In the center was an egg.

An egg!

Canadians don't put eggs on their pizza - this was a novelty!  A delicious addition to the ambiance of where we sat, and the excitement everyone dealing with gluten issues will understand.   It was a delight to be able to order something healthy, tasty, and not likely to cause stomach uproars.  Yum!
How do you describe the thrills of eating a gluten-free pizza in Venice?

You don't.

It was simply a great moment to be alive

The canal, the boats, the quiet side street far out of the beaten tourist track, the sensory stimulation of European cobblestones and Venetian arched windows were each every bit as delicious as that unusual and delicious pizza.

Gluten-free has never tasted so good...

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Weeping with the Saints

San Marco's Basilica stands solemnly facing St. Mark's square.  A delightful example of Byzantine architecture, it was formally completed  around the year 1071.  The art clinging to every orifice of its structure is dizzying.  Every square inch of every pillar, cornice, floor tile, doorway, boasts a standing ovation to the intricately detailed creative genius of artists long gone.

Attached to the Doge's palace, it forms one wall of the box-like courtyard of the residential dwelling of Venice's most powerful guardian, the Duke (Doge) of days gone by.  The Venetian sun strikes its spires and turrets and ornate curves and corners with a religious penetration that showcases its highly decorated surface to perfection.

  Inside the vestibule, a hush descends over the growing crowd of tourists, milling and craning and snapping with cameras on necks and wild wonder in eyes.  I strained to name the stories as ancient characters played out Biblical history on ceiling and floor and pillar, a curtain-call to the Pentateuch.  I noted a naked Noah as his sons backed their way toward his couch, cloak slung over their shoulders.  I spotted prophets caught in the act of scribing on golden scrolls.  Here David with a flute, there a mighty battle enacted with glaring detail, they paraded their moment in archived era, surrounded by curly-cues and mosaic whimsy.

My sister is the well-travelled one. At every new stop in our adventure, she searched my face to glean there the wonder, the awe, the delight she had come to expect.  So as we entered the venerable halls of that spiritual site, her eyes sought mine to ascertain my reaction.

She wasn't disappointed.  The tears rolled freely down my cheeks, spilling from eyes wide with reverent and humble pleasure.  I shuffled in time to the tourist dance, looking, looking, always looking.  I was trying to memorize not just what I saw with my eyes, but also what my heart was seeing.  Feeling.  That sense of veneration, of history, of seeing God in the carved strokes in wood, the polished curve of marble, the brightly-clothed figures solemnly proclaiming allegory from their perch on the ceiling and walls.

I won't soon forget the emotion that gripped me that day.
 Behind the altar lies a box.  It is said to hold the remains of Saint Mark, whose winged lion emblem adorns so many Venetian structures.  I am not Catholic, but again I was moved.  Here was a man who lived to serve His Lord - and I felt a quiet reverence in thinking thoughts about his life, his calling, his service to his world.

Emerging into the sunshine was like breaking out of a chrysalis.  I felt as though my egress marked a 'me' in a new form - a butterfly floating on new knowledge, new experience, new air.

I felt as though I walked taller.  Strode with more purpose.

Perhaps weeping with the saints had washed some of the dust from my soul.

It felt good...

Sunday, 15 April 2012

San Marco Square Meets Starry Eyes

Sur-real adj.1 of, related to, or characteristic of surrealism 2 bizarre; fantastic; grotesque 3 pertaining to a consciousness of being;  usually associated with intake of incredible views, exclusive to a brilliantly blue Italian sky crowning the San Marco Basilica in Venice

Surreal, indeed...

Only the unique combination of events, times, seasons, and DNA could create the surrealism within the heart of a small-town prairie girl gazing at San Marco Piazza on that day, at that moment.

The sky was bluer than blue - a rich tapestry woven from Italian arias, Tuscan vineyards, and Umbrian hillsides, it set off the fantastic spires of the basilica to perfection.

My neck was hurting - craning my head this way and that, it complained of the agitated use it was put to, and reminded me that to slow down, inhale, ingest, feel, and process was not to be rushed or taken advantage of.

No, these moments were to be savored, like the last piece of chocolate cake in the pan - a lingering sweetness to feed the senses for a lifetime, stored in the memory like faithful photographs.

Sensory much to view, ponder, memorize, like trying to choose only one flavor for your cone at a 500-variety ice cream stand.

The infinite variety of infinite details in each carved post of the Doge's Palace, the intricately designed biblical figures racing around each pedestal, performing their histories in mute artistic appeal, the pigeons and people and vendors, all combined into a melody of operatic proportions.  I wanted to learn its notes.  I wanted to sing along.  I wanted to become one with its cadences and structure, rise and fall, pathos and energy.

I loved it all...

There were sections of walkways, trusses, gangplanks if you will, lined up in preparation of fall floods, which plague the square in November and December.  The floods themselves were absent - they held off their appearance, perhaps for the sake of one small tourist on her virginal journey, nodding a sage wise head, holding her waters behind her skirts, delaying the deluge for the day.

So instead of treading water, I placed my Canadian feet on ancient stones.  I gaped like a school-girl.  I snapped pictures like a frenzied maniac.  I quickly learned to say "Excuse me!" Italian style - for in my slack-jawed tourist guise, I was so starry-eyed, looking about with such intensity that I never saw my fellow tourists (until I had inadvertently stepped upon well-groomed shoe or brushed their broad backs).   And for once, this Clumsy Traveler didn't care.

I was in Venice...

Friday, 13 April 2012

I'm Here!

The vaporetti chugged along at a snail's pace (whatever that is).  We rounded the port where the cruise ships were docked - and I scorned the passengers disembarking.  They were going to get to see everything before me at the rate we were going!

I ogled the tiny tourists across the water's expanse as the taxi stopped at every... single... possible... stop.  The fingers clutching the metallic ledge in front of me turned strange colors as my grip became more and more ferocious.

 A transit stop
I wanted to swim across so badly!
Good thing I have superior impulse control.

And like all things in life, that vaporetti cruise came to an end.  Just as I was beginning to appreciate the journey, along with anticipating the destination.


We arrived in Venice from the sea.  How very appropriate, after all.

The Doge's Palace

When I stopped to listen - and heard the babble of so many tongues - and when I stopped to feel - and sensed sea and salt and sun - I was in Venice!  When I opened my eyes, and perceived palace and tower and square, I knew I had truly arrived.

It was well worth the wait.

I felt like screaming, "I'm here!  I made it!  I'm finally in Venice!"

But I didn't.

(I think my sister was especially grateful for that famous impulse control...)

Thursday, 12 April 2012

I Finally Get to See It!

You have NO idea how badly I wanted to jump in and swim.
The water may have been icky, or deep, or slightly over my swimmable distance ratio.  Or all of these.  But I wanted to jump in anyway!

Maybe I should just back up a bit here.  I assume you have no idea what I am talking about.

I have spent my entire life waiting to go to Europe.  Every time someone I knew went, I was eaten alive by the Jealousy Monster.

I hate to admit it - I was getting green.

So when my sister offered to take me to Croatia (you can read about my Croatian adventures here: The Clumsy Traveler: Croatia ) AND Venice, you can imagine my delight!  (If you don't have an imagination, just picture a billion party balloons exploding or something.)

We arrived at the our Venetian land-side destination in the evening - and strain as I might, I couldn't see a blasted thing.  I went to bed but shook too much in anticipation to sleep.  In the morning, we drove out along the ribbon of road connecting Venice to the mainland - and I had to be careful not to get so close to the window that my eyeballs would stick.

We parked - another story entirely - and lined up to get the appropriate transportation tickets.  I have never wanted to bite someone in line ahead of me so much as that day.  I had to repeat the mantra "I'm a nice Canadian, I'm a nice Canadian" over and over to retain some semblance of outward decorum.  

Inside, I was mentally kicking every last tourist out of my way and tossing them into the canals.

We waved our magic passes and boarded a vaporetti (public water taxi).  I could taste Venice!  I could see one sliver of it between the shoulder of a large man in a business suit and the ear of an enthusiastic Asian photographer.

The vaporetti chugged into action.

My face was splitting from the huge vapid tourist grin plastered on my face.  I usually try to at least look a little bit classy - but I was beyond that now.

I was in Venice!

It's over there - swim!

The vaporetti unaccountably started in the wrong direction, heading out to sea instead of into the sliver of canal I had seen.

We had taken the wrong one.

We were going to get to Venice - but would be taking the 'scenic' route.

Hence the distinct urge to jump in and swim to shore.

(To Be Continued...)