Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pizza Fish

There are times when a person does not want what is said in one language to be lost in translation into another, and ordering food is one of those times. Anyone who has traveled in Europe knows that sometimes the translation on the menu is not 100%. It may be a transliteration, but it is not a proper translation. One example that comes to mind in Italy is the translation of “prosciuto crudo” as “raw ham.” In the U.S. we call what the Italians refer to as prosciuto crudo simply as “prosciuto.” But in Italy, prosciuto means ham, and it comes in two varieties: cooked (cotto) and cured (crudo, which literally means raw). So, instead of saying “cured ham” on the menu, it usually says “raw ham.” So far as I can tell, this is universal.

Just as the restaurants have made an effort to translate the menu, the waiters in touristy places such as Venice generally have made an effort to learn English to the extent they are able to take orders in that language. But one must use care. Recently while giving a tour, one of our clients told the waiter that he would like a “nice juicy piece of fish.” I heard this and understood it, and did not give much attention to what was actually ordered. All of our meals came in a timely manner, including this man’s, which was a pizza covered with various and sundry critters of the lagoon. What the waiter had heard was “pizza fish,” not “piece of fish.” It was topped with calamari, mussels and clams still in their shells, and a whole scampi (miniature lobster), shell and all. I have eaten pizza all over Italy, and I have never seen anything like it. We all looked at it in disbelief.

There are three ways to react to this. Either one eats it and tries to be more precise the next time, one orders something else, or one neither eats it nor orders something else. We explained the problem to the waiter, who did not seem particularly sympathetic, so I asked for the menu. I looked for a nice grilled fish and ordered it. It was brought after a short time and the man enjoyed it very much. The moral is that when you order in a restaurant in a foreign land, be sure to refer specifically to the menu, pointing it out to the waiter what it is you want. Do not rely on your skills of pronouncing the foreign word, and definitely do not rely on the waiter’s skill in understanding a general statement as to what you want.

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Friday, July 4, 2008

Alla Madonna Review

We were very interested to try this restaurant, as it has a reputation of being a favorite with the locals, and we have had clients sing its praises to the extent that they ate there three nights in a row. We wanted it to be good, and expected it to be good, but it’s not. The service is quick and attentive, but it’s too quick. There is no time between courses, meaning that they must have your next dish ready and waiting before you finish your first. This also leads me to believe that things may not be freshly cooked, but prepared ahead and reheated. This may be expected with the rice, I suppose, but it does not work with a grilled fish.

Karen had the seafood risotto and the mixed fried seafood, and I had carpaccio of cured beef and grilled red mullet. With the dinner I ordered a bottle of white wine.

The seafood risotto was ok, but not the best around. The mixed fried fish came with a long hair in it. The dish was promptly replaced, but the damage was done. The beef carpaccio was served as it always is on a bed of rocket, but that’s all. There was no cheese, as is standard, and for some reason the greens were not that good. The dish was unexciting, but tolerable. The greatest sin, and what probably contributes most to the poor rating, is that my fish were severely overcooked. This is a city where fish is king, and even the most backwoods restaurant can grill a fish to perfection. I do not know whether this was done in the original cooking process, or done in the process of reheating, but the fact remains: they were virtually inedible.

The final factor for me was that the wine, which was not the house wine served in a jug, but a bottle of wine, was boring and almost without flavor. The total bill was about 87 Euros.

With all the restaurants in Venice, one expects more from one with this reputation. Take away the hair, give me a fish that is properly cooked, and a decent bottle of wine, and I can overlook the hurried service. But as experienced by us, we cannot recommend it.

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Ristoteca Oniga Review

We had walked past this restaurant since the first time we came to Venice, and never went in. This mistake was corrected a few days ago.

They call themselves a “Ristoteca,” which is a combination of Ristorant and Enoteca, I suppose meaning that it is somewhere in between. This distinction is lost on me, as it is on most Americans, but no matter; they can call what they please.

Oniga is located on the corner of Calle Longa in Campo San Barnaba, in the Dorsoduro section of Venice. I had mussels and clams as a appetizer, and a steak as a main course, and Karen had pumpkin lasagna with ricotta, and a mixed salad. I also had a bottle of red wine. All were delicious.

Karen’s salad was fresh and one of the best she has had in Italy. The Venetians do a lot with pumpkin, and this dish was delicious and obviously homemade. My mussels and clams were cooked to order, and were very tender (i.e., not overcooked). They were served in a large bowl with crusty bread, and were delicious. The only criticism I could offer is that they were a tad salty. In their defense, however, I have made several dishes while in Venice using the local mussells, and they tend to be much saltier than those I’m used to in the U.S. The steak did not come the way I expected it, but was already sliced, and served with a bit of greens and potatoes. It was so good, though, that I do not fault them for slicing it. The wine was a cabernet, which was one of the best wines I’ve had, and it was reasonably priced. The service was attentive and well-timed, and not hurried. This place is not white linen, but you can get excellent food and wine at a decent price. The tab was about 84 Euros for the two of us.

Dorsoduro 2852 in Campo San Barnaba; Tel. 041 522 4410;

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Monday, May 5, 2008


Karen: “What are you doing?”
Mike: “Huntin’ skeeter.”
I spotted one of the little minions of Satan on the wall right behind Karen’s head. “Shh - don’t move” Whak! “Skeeter dead, one each.”

I was walking about the bedroom looking at the walls and at the 15' ceiling looking for any variation in the pale color that could be a mosquito. They seem to sit on vertical surfaces, such as the wall, or curtains. I found one or two and sent them to their reward, which I am sure is in the fiery underworld.

Since I have been here, starting even in January, there has been one or two mosquitoes in the house almost every night. Sometimes it can be attributed to leaving the doors and windows open which, like all such openings in Europe, contain no screens. Other times there is no explanation for their being in the house. Normally, the only time the apartment is open to the outside is for a few seconds at a time to let the dogs in or out. One may infer that they come from the canal, or from the garden. But I have never been bitten by a mosquito while walking around Venice, and I have only seen one in all the time I have been out in the garden. I was in the garden for a few hours solid the other day when it was sunny and warm. No mosquitoes came near me. In Maryland I would have been carried away by them.

The visitor to Venice must understand that there may be mosquitoes in their room, or in other places, such as roof-top decks. This, however, is no different than other places in the world where it is warm and humid, and should not put you off from coming to Venice. The mosquitoes here are of moderate size, light in color, and are nocturnal. This is contrasted to those in Maryland, which are small Tiger Mosquitoes, having black and white stripes, and which attack in number at any time of day or night.

My suggestion is that the traveler bring a small bottle of odorless mosquito dope in a spray bottle. The stuff is very expensive here, and having a little may help you enjoy your stay here.

Karen: “Turn out the light and go to bed.”
Mike: “I shall find and eliminate skee-tor.”
Karen: “You are a nut.”
Mike: Whak!

Coming to Venice? Visit our website at

Monday, April 21, 2008

Restaurant Review: Al Giadarnetto

This restaurant is located in Dorosduro on the Fondamenta del Forner, and is easily identified by the large red sign on the building next to it that point you to San Rocco and Tintoretto, and by cages of song birds around the place. I found this place on a nice sunny day, and it looked very inviting. There were a few tables sitting outside, and there were cages of parakeets singing sweetly. So we decided to try it for dinner.

The restaurant is obviously family owned and operated, and it did not look touristy, which gave us great hope. It also has a wood fired grill, that was interesting to me. It turned out, however, that it lacked all of the basics that make a dining experience pleasant. The bread was stale. I consider it a personal insult when a restaurant brings stale bread. Karen ordered a prosecco that seemed to me to be corked, and the house wine was undrinkable. The service was chaotic and disorganized; it seemed that they were unprepared and almost surprised that they had to serve people dinner.

To their credit, they had a limited menu, rather than four thousand dishes, which is usually a sign that the food will be good. I ordered an appetizer of smoked beef carpaccio and for my main course linguine with salmon and black olives. Karen ordered a mixed salad and lasagna. Karen's salad was brought immediately, and she reported it to be fresh and good.

One of the things I hate most in a restaurant is when they bring the main course before the appetizer, which is what happened to me here. This is a fundamental failing and is inexcusable. So I had two plates at the table. The carpaccio was served on a bed of rocket that was not horribly wilted, with shaved cheese and some oil. It was not bad. The linguine was homemade and decent.

The failings of this restaurant overcome any benefit to be gained from decent food, and seemed to be systemic. The total tab was 46 Euros. For this kind of scratch, eat somewhere else.

Coming to Venice? Visit our website at

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

La Fenice Concerts

La Fenice Concerts

As those of you have who have been subject to my charms for more than 30 seconds know, I consider Beethoven to be the second coming. I do not wish this particular edition of my blog to be a dissertation on my theory of Beethoven’s importance to musical history, so suffice it to say that I believe he took music from the 18th century to the present, and that musical history has yet to move past him. Although given to hyperbole and lying, I do not consider this an exaggeration. The only proof I need offer is the Grosse Fuga, opus 133.

Once my friend and art teacher George Goebel put forth the absurd notion that Debussy was the father of modern music. Now George and I had the habit of discussing topics all high and falutin, we both having good intellect, and he being liberal, and me being the opposite, we often diverged in our opinions, and had fun doing it. But when I heard this I could not let it rest, or kindly ignore it, as I usually do opinions that differ from mine, which is to say that are ridiculous or absurd. As I believe it to be a crime to give a Frenchman a pencil and staff paper at the same time, I said “no, brother George, it was not Debussy, but rather Beethoven who was the father of modern music.” At this George did guffaw, but I felt it my duty to enlighten him on this topic, lest he finish his life with this notion still in his brain, or lest he spread this idea to the more pliable minds in his school of art. So I lent him a copy of the Grosse Fuga. The following week he brought it back and said “you are right.”

This illustrates the fervor with which I regard Beethoven, a fact well known to my beloved wife, Karen. Consequently, for my most recent birthday, she purchased tickets to a series of concerts featuring Beethoven symphonies, all to take place at the La Fenice theater in Venice.

La Fenice theater, which was gutted by fire in 1996, has been rebuilt to its former glory, and is quite beautiful. It is really an opera house in the grand style of the age, full of painted and gilded walls and ceiling, and many carvings of a most decorative and ornate style.

The first concert was Beethoven’s second and third symphonies conducted by Eliahu Inbal. Our seats were located at the upper most echelon in a box seat, from which I could see nothing. Now, there is really nothing to see, other than the gestures and histrionics of the conductor, but this arrangement would never fly in the U.S. Why does it fly here in Italy? My theory, based on no historical or scientific data, is that the place was originally designed for operas, and people came to the opera as a social event to listen to the music, and to have a sort of party, so that it was not necessary to see from every seat. Similar to a sky box at a football stadium. One may be in the back having a shrimp cocktail rather than watching the game.

When the concert started, however, I was extremely impressed with the quality of the sound. I am used to being at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore where the acoustics are so bad that there are all sorts of things hanging from the ceiling, and plexiglass panels here and there, to try to improve it. The sound at La Fenice, however, even in seats where I could not see, and where I could nearly reach out and touch the ceiling, was astounding. It was a different and pleasant experience listening to such good sound and not being distracted by the conductor. I enjoyed it thoroughly. The performance was very good, though not ground breaking, making for a very pleasant evening of Beethoven.

The second concert was conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, who was the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) for the past few years, but no longer. I went to very few concerts during his tenure because he played mostly horrible Russian music, rather than Beethoven. On the other hand, while David Zinman was the conductor of the BSO, I went many times and spent lots of money on good seats because he had the wisdom to play lots of Beethoven, and had very interesting interpretations of his works. Our seats were not much better at this concert, and we could not see, either. The performance and the sound were just as good, though again the interpretation was not Earth shaking; basic textbook and safe. I did not expect more from Temirkanov. The evening was again quite pleasant and enjoyable, except that Karen was very ill. In spite of being essentially bedridden for the prior few days, she troopered through, but it was clear as the concert wore on that her condition was deteriorating. I suggested we leave and get her home, but she would have none of it, and I have learned over the years not to argue.

Tonight I heard the 4th and the 7th symphonies, and the concert was different in every respect. Firstly, Karen could not make it to the concert because she is in San Pietro Terme to get her citizenship, on which the continuation of this little fantasy of ours depends. It would have taken a Herculean effort and a lot of money to get here for a two hour concert. So I sat through it by myself.

The other thing that made the night different, and made it the more painful for Karen to be absent, was that instead of bad seats we had seats in a box in which there were only 4 chairs. This is how I like to roll. And the seats were one level above the orchestra level, and I could see everything. It was wonderful.

On top of that, the performance was the best yet. It was again directed by Eliahu Inbal, who this time put on a much more energetic performance. I thought that the first two performances, including the one by Temirkanov, were technically satisfactory, but ordinary interpretations not played with much real energy or enthusiasm by the orchestra. Tonight’s performance, however, was vastly better, particularly the 7th, which actually showed some creativity in interpretation, and was played with energy, as though the orchestra really wanted to play it.

Let me add one thing about Mr. Inbal. During the first concert I could not see the conductor, but I was sure I could hear someone singing with the orchestra. Either there was a kooky member of the audience singing along, or it was the conductor. I asked the man in front of me whether he heard it, and he acted like I was crazy. I did not hear it during the concert conducted by Temirkanov. But tonight I could see the conductor and I again heard the singing. And I saw him do it, particularly, it seemed, when he was trying to get something from the orchestra that they were not delivering. I found it a bit distracting, and it could account for why he is not known in the U.S. - we don’t allow our conductors to sing during a concert.

If you are coming to Venice, you should look at the La Fenice schedule and see if there is a concert you could make. It would be very much worth your while.

And finally, I would like to thank my lovely wife, who is the brains of this operation, for probably the most wonderful birthday gift I have ever had, with the possible exception of when she took me to beer camp. (Yeah, you heard me, beer camp).

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Locked Out

The gods are a vengeful and cruel lot. I bragged about how they bestowed a 50 Euro note upon your most humble and downtrodden author. Seeing my joy at this, however, they took it back with interest at a most usurious rate, while at the same time causing me to suffer a most frightful ordeal: they caused me to be locked out of my house with my dogs in the middle of the night in Venice.

Our apartment in Venice has an entrance with an electric lock, and then another lock at the top of the stairs leading into the apartment. Each has a key. At about 10:30 p.m. I decided to walk the dogs. I intended to simply go around the block (rather than stop in Campo Santa Margherita for a bit-o-wine, as I normally would) and come right home. I suited up, got the crazy acting dogs downstairs, and closed the door to the apartment. I immediately realized that I did not have my keys. The dogs were going ape shit, as they are wont to do when about to go out, and broke my concentration. I thought “well, I’ll deal with this after the walk.” Mind you, I was in the hallway and had locked only one door. I proceeded to go out the door to the street, and let it shut behind, me before I realized the gravity of what I had just done. Now there were two locks between me and my bed, and Karen was in Bologna.

So I walked the dogs. While doing so I did not panic, but used the time to think about what I might do to solve this problem. Of course, I had no money and no means to get any. I couldn’t even go to Santa Margherita and have a beer while I thought through my predicament. It occurred to me that perhaps I could find some wire, like a coat hanger, and jimmy the lock, or push the button that would unlock the door. I found no wire. I had in my possession, however, a notebook with a wire spiral binding, and two covers that were relatively rigid. I dismantled the notebook and tried for some time to get the door open with this combination of things, all to no avail. I had me a bona fide problem. My enemy now was not only the gods, but time.

There are two hotels right around the corner. I thought perhaps they would take pity on an old man with two dogs, in the dark and cold of night and let me use a phone book to find a locksmith. At the first hotel, the clerk looked in horror as the dogs and I came through the door, and he of course had no phone book. It is worth noting at this point that Venetians are not a particularly helpful breed, especially when it comes to tourists, and most particularly if they may be caused some inconvenience not involving the gouging of tourists.

I left that hotel and went to the next. There was a large black man talking on the phone. He appeared just as horrified to see me as the last guy, but was willing to produce a phone book. Although appearing helpful from that act, he gave me the white pages, and had no yellow pages. It was getting late. I tried to call the landlord’s agent, but no answer.

I decided to go to the police station. Although a law abiding citizen, I loathe to involve the police in my affairs, and avoid them as unto a plague; they are an unsympathetic bunch, and generally dangerous, at least in the U.S. The officer here, however, was helpful and friendly, and he had the yellow pages, which he gave me. Now my lack of Italian was painfully apparent, as I did not know the Italian word for locksmith. I somehow communicated this fact to him, and he looked up a locksmith and gave me the number. He also suggested that I call the fire department. Since I had visions of the firemen coming with the jaws of life, or a battering ram, I decided to first try the locksmith. There was no answer.

So I gave in and called the fire department. Of course, they spoke no English. I believe I got across the nature of my problem, and they told me to call the police. The police told me to call the fire department. Welcome to Italy.

Now it was about 1:00 a.m. Although I have referred to the gods as vengeful and cruel (and so they are), they at least had the decency to make the weather relatively warm and dry this night. My situation was desperate, but I would not freeze to death, even if I had to stay out all night.

I decided that the only answer to my problem was to convince the firemen that they needed to come, which meant I had to find a Venetian who would be willing to help a nasty tourist with two dogs and no money communicate with the firemen long enough to get them to get in their little boat and come rescue me. This Venetian would have to be young (i.e., not mean as piss), speak English (i.e., not old), and be willing to do something for nothing (i.e., intoxicated). But it was now after 1:00 a.m. Where would there be such a Venetian? Thankfully, I have not wasted my time in Venice, and I knew exactly where such a person would be: the aforementioned Campo Santa Margherita. The bars are open late and frequented by those of college age, who tend to be more flexible and enlightened. At this hour there was bound to be one or two Italians meeting my requirements sitting at an outside table.

The dogs and I walked around for a few minutes until we found a table of four young men drinking beer who looked like they would meet all my requirements. I asked if any of them spoke English, and they said “yes,” all at the same time, and then pointed to one of their number whom they claimed to be a master. And so he was. I explained my problem, and he got the guy at the bar to call the firemen. After a series of questions from the firemen, such as did I have proof that it was my house?, where was it?, what was my phone number?, and was I willing to shell out about 200 Euros or so for the service?, they said they would be there in five minutes. The dogs and I trotted home and took up a position on the bridge by our house.

After a few minutes a boat with five or six firemen came up and docked. I was relieved when they got out with a tool box, rather than a battering ram. I showed them the only ID I had, which was my boat pass, and told them I had more documentation in the house. That satisfied the leader, who seemed to be very nice, as did they all, and they proceeded to get into the first door. This they accomplished by pushing a piece of plastic sheeting between the door and the jamb, which took about 30 seconds. This enlightened a brother as to how easy it would be to get through a door I thought to be impregnable. We then went up to the entrance door, which took a bit longer, and a few more tools, but they managed to get it open without destroying it.

They came in, filled out a form and gave it to me, which I would need to take to the post office the next day to pay the 207 Euros, and then take to the firehouse with proof of payment. It was now after 2:00 a.m.

There is a deep philosophical lesson to this story, which may be what the gods were trying to teach me in a effort to tame my arrogance. I was out in the cold, in a most literal sense, with the dogs, who rely on me for their care and maintenance, without a penny in my pocket, broke and helpless. I could not speak the language, except at a most rudimentary level. I could buy no food or drink, and would not have been able to rent a room, even if I could find one that took dogs. I therefore needed the help of others, and I had to ask for it, and they had to be willing to give it. I recognized that there is only one demographic group from which I could expect to get any help: young beer drinking men. This group cares not that you come from a foreign land, as they do not recognize national boundaries, except as it might relate to the quality of beer. While drinking beer they pass no judgment and will help you if they can. Thank the gods that I knew this group and where to find it.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Slip and Fall Case

I knew that if I stayed in Venice long enough I would see it. I did not really want to see it, and I hoped that when it did happen it would not happen me, and but I knew that I would see it, sooner or later. The “It” being somebody falling into a canal. Actually, I did not see it, but came along immediately after the fact. When I came to the scene I at first saw a woman in her 60's along the side of the canal drying something off. Then I saw that that something was a camera, which was obviously very wet. I was puzzled at first, because it was a very nice sunny day. Then I saw some other we things, including a jacket that was obviously soaked. Next to all this was standing a man of similar age to the woman. I had not seen him until then, who was wet from head to toe. He seemed to be alright, but he had obviously taken a tumble down some steps into the canal. It was clear that he had done something that I have always had the wisdom never to do, or at least never had the courage to do, which is to venture down a couple of steps toward a canal in order to take a picture.

I fancy myself an able photographer. I will venture into out-of-the-way places to get a picture, but I will not put myself at any substantial risk, and will not put myself in danger of falling into a canal. I have often come to the end of a street in Venice that terminated at a canal. At the end of these streets are always steps down to the canal so a person can get in or out of his or her boat, whether the canal be high or low. These are tempting for the earnest photographer, but when approaching them and considering stepping down, my good sense, or my fear (there is a thin line) has always said: “no, stay back,” and I have always stayed back. I attribute my not having fallen into a canal to this.

If you are reading this it is most likely because you went to our website through an interest in coming to Venice. If you have an interest in coming to Venice you may already know that there are many canals in Venice; the city is cris-crossed with them in an arrangement that can only be described as medieval. They are a unique color of green and very beautiful, and one cannot help but to want to photograph them. But I point out that they are, really, part of a vast sewer system. Katherine Hepburn suffered from a chronic eye infection, which she attributed to falling into the canal while making the movie “Summertime.” So, as a public service to those of you who speak the King’s English sufficiently to be able to read and understand this blog, there are thousands of places from which one may take pictures of the canals in Venice without going onto the steps leading to the water. They are slippery, being basically wet and often moss-covered marble, and you will fall in. If you are lucky, you will only get wet, but there is a good chance that you will also break your crown.

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Found Money

Bretheren, from the time I undertook to join the ranks of that part of the animal kingdom known as humanity, which infests a large portion of this planet, the gods have been working against me. But today there was a ray of sunshine.

I was born trash, poor and white (although with a taste for things high of brow, for reasons unknown, and which may be discussed later). I have been forced to labor in this veil of tears for next to nothing, and have been subjected to ridicule and derision from the time I spewed forth from the motherly juices that carried me about for a proper gestation period, until the present. (I know there will be a certain element among my readers who harbor no sympathy, as I live in Venice, and they do not) Although the gods allowed me to attend law school, and through some miracle graduated and passed the bar, I had to go at night among the old and infirm, and owe more in school loans than I can ever repay. But yesterday the gods saw fit to smile upon your humble servant, and placed a 50 Euro note on the ground for me to find.

We had to take a train from Venice to Bologna to meet with a lawyer to see if he could pull enough strings to get Karen citizenship in Italy. Upon our return we left the train, and there on the ground was a funny looking colored piece of paper. Ever the curious one, I looked closer, and for the love of all that is holy, it was a 50 Euro note. For those of you ignorant of the value of such a thing, it is worth about 80 clams U.S. I picked it up. Nobody said anything. I could not tell what poor ignorant SOB and dropped it. So it became the property of your author. At first I felt guilty. Some poor person is now short 50 Euros. I can see him or her blaming their spouse. “I gave it to you.” “No, I aint’t seen it, you so-and-so . . .” Then I thought, to hell with them. What is the great injustice that they, through carelessness, lost it, and I, in my poverty, staring at the ground as the downtrodden are wont to do, have found it? Not only was there no injustice to it, it was justice itself that I should find it. So I took it joyfully, and proceeded home with a little more spring in my step. I subsequently pissed it away on the worst meal we had ever had in Venice, as those cut of my cloth have no propensity to hang onto money or to choose restaurants.

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Monday, March 3, 2008

Hendersoni Resumes Painting in Venice

Those of you who know and love me, or at least don’t despise me more than I deserve, know that I fancy myself a painter. In Baltimore I had a setup in the basement with a nice big easel that would go to any position, and lots of painting accoutrements. I was able to bring some paints and brushes with me, but not the easel, and no canvases. Now being in Venice I had to find a place nearby to supply me with such things, and I did. There is a lovely little art store in Campo Santa Margherita, right next to a very well stocked wine store (which even comes with a clerk who knows something about wine, and speaks God’s English). I bought an easel that, although not as good as the one I had in the U.S., was quite adequate, particularly in light of the limited space I had in my Venetian apartment. I shelled out the soldi and carted the thing home.

There is a substance in this world known as Venetian Turpentine, which can be had in small quantities in the U.S., and which has a consistency similar to warm honey. In Venice, however, the stuff is sold in hardware stores in a jar of about 8 or 10 ounces, and has a thick consistency, more like cold honey. This substance I like. It makes the paint dry to a very glossy finish, and when applied in heavy doses, runs very slowly down the canvas, entraining other paint that might be under it. This I have used to very interesting effect, which can be seen in the picture at the top of this page. There comes a time, though, when the running of the paint is to my satisfaction, and I need it to stop. This can be accomplished only by laying the painting down on flat surface. I started to do this by placing the first such painting on the drying rack used in this country to dry clothes, even on top of clothes that were then drying. Karen seemed to have a problem with this system, for reasons I cannot even now fathom, and gently relocated the painting to a drying place less offensive to her, and kindly suggested that the clothes drying rack was not where I should dry my paintings. I have observed this rule since.

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Quest for Internet in Venice

The dog and I had some work to do . . . Not really. I had some work to do. All the dog ever does is beg for food and generate filth, a pattern he continued in Italy. I, on the other hand, needed to put my stuff away, figure out what was in the apartment, and what we would need. I was then to transmit a list to Karen, and she would bring what we needed if we had it at home.

It turned out that the apartment was completely furnished, and had everything we would need, including towels, sheets, pots, pans, dishes, and so forth. These were things that the prior occupants had used for years, and we might want to switch some of them for our own, but the stuff was here and we could function.

One of the big things I had hoped to accomplish prior to Karen's arrival was to get internet in the house. We both intended to work at our jobs from Italy, and that would require high speed internet. This proved to be a task that I could not complete. After weeks of trying I gave up, defeated by what, I don’t know, but the Italian Telecom company won that battle. I am taking some time here to tell the story, but if you wish to spend any time in Italy, and need to connect regularly to the internet, you will learn from it, and if you are able to read at any reasonable pace, will have spent only a few minutes of the time left to you on Earth.

Originally, I asked the owner to have internet service installed and make it part of the utilities. I had tried to contact a carrier from the phone book, but I could not get past the recorded message. It seems that I needed a phone number, which I did not have. (I had a cell phone, which is what I using to call them, but no residential service). I tried all the tricks I know to get past a recorded message and to an operator. I pushed “0," I stayed on the line without entering anything, and I entered garbage numbers. Rather than kicking me over to an operator, as it would have for such foolish people in the U.S., the message would jabber something in Italian that I construed to mean I had entered incorrect information, and it would hang up. No mercy, and no operator. I reported this problem to the owner, who promised to call the company and have them call me, which they ultimately did, but I had already made other arrangements, or so I thought.

In the mean time, I found a nice internet place not too far from my house, and which was not too expensive. After a while of trying on my own I asked the man there to help me get internet in my house. I saw the irony of this, but he didn’t seem to mind, he spoke very good English, and gladly helped me. He called a different company for me and arranged for me to get service and a DSL modem. They sent a text message to my phone with a code number, which I punched into the phone at home (there was a phone, but no service). This activated service and caused the modem to be sent to me. I got the modem, hooked it up, installed the software, and . . . nothing. That was as close to having DSL service as I ever came.

There is a help number, which I called. I got somebody who spoke a little English, and they told me it would take ten days. After ten days, nothing. I tried to call them several times after that, and either got someone who spoke no English, or got a story about what the problem was. “You are scheduled for March 1st” (this was the beginning of February), “there is a problem in your area.” And then they would say “goodbye” and hang up. No opportunity to inquire further, just goodbye.

I went back to the internet place and had one of the other people there call them again. This time, it turned out that no request for internet had been made, and that there was a problem in the area with the wiring, or something. At this point I knew that they had won. I resigned myself to going with plan B.

In the middle of all this, Karen had arrived. She was kind and understanding about the internet situation, as she always is in the face of my failings, and was even sympathetic about my struggle. But I could not help feeling guilty about it, and feeling that my failure had something to do with my lack of ambition and drive, or to a defect in my intellect, which not only contributed to my past failures, but also to the present one. We needed internet to do our work. We were dragging ourselves and our laptops to the internet café at least once a day, and sometimes more, and paying one Euro (about a buck and a half) for each 15 minutes. But I had tried to get a person well versed in the process of getting internet in Italy help me, and he could not. The internet man told me that it took them two months to get theirs hooked up when they were starting the shop. This was another factor in me losing hope.

Plan B was to go to the Vodaphone store and get service through their wireless network using a gizmo that attaches to the computer. Upside: one can connect to the internet from anywhere; Downside: it cost a boatload to buy the gizmo, and then you have to buy minutes. Well, we had no choice. We made an appointment and trotted down to the store and, after some technical difficulty with my computer, we each got a wireless do-dad and were in business. Moral of the story: if you plan to use the internet in Italy, just bite the bullet and go to the Vodaphone store, open a vein, lay out about 400 Samoans, and get the wireless thing. You will in the end, anyway, and your life will be much easier if you just do it at the beginning.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Arrival and First Month in Venice

After a couple of years of talking about it, and shooting our mouths off to our friends and on our website about doing it, we finally did it. On this topic people are divided into two camps: those who understand it, and those who do not understand it; those who think it’s a marvelous idea and exciting, and those who think it is insane and will lead to our ruin. I’m pretty sure I’m in the first camp.

Without belaboring the point or the history behind the decision, which I may undertake to do later, we picked a day for our departure and did it. For logistics reasons I arrived ten days before Karen and tried to set things up a little, and to make sure the apartment was fit for the two of us and our dogs. I arrived in Venice on January 15, 2008, with Leopold the Corgi in tow, along with four suitcases loaded with my stuff, including a fair number of cook books and cooking utensils.

Getting the dog there was a lot less trouble than one might think, and was certainly less trouble than I expected. We had done everything we thought we were supposed to do with respect to getting the dogs into Italy, but I am a skeptical old man, and I had visions of some irate Italian bureaucrat refusing to allow the dog in. (It had never occurred to me until now that the opposite might have happened, that is, they let the dog in, but not me). I spent considerable time thinking about what I might do were they not to let the dog in. As it turned out, my fears were unfounded.

Upon arrival my luggage came out without a problem, but I did not know where to get the dog. I wheeled my stuff toward a man in a nice suit who looked like he might know something. Before I could say anything, he asked me what was in my suitcases. This question surprised me, as I was obviously a tourist, although I might have had more suitcases than the average visitor. So, I took the question to foretell trouble. Slightly worried, I told him that they contained clothes and personal items. He said OK, go ahead. This was the extent of Italian customs. There was not even a passport check, which I attributed to having first come into the EU through Frankfurt.

But he had not addressed my question, as the question was not yet asked. I told the man that I had a dog, and asked where would I be able to pick him up. He told me back behind the luggage carousel where my luggage had come down. I went over there and saw a roll-up type metal door with a little ramp out of it, with a sign saying something to the effect of “oversized luggage.” After a couple of minutes the door opened and out slid the crate containing one fat Corgi.

A word about the Corgi, Leopold (Leo). I have had a total of three Corgis. One liked to eat and play ball, the second existed only to play ball and did not care about food, but this one cares only about eating, and does not play much. I can get him to do anything for a biscuit. He insists on having food in his bowl, even if he is not hungry, and will push it around the kitchen until somebody does something about it being empty. Quite simply, he is fat. Too fat. He has his own gravitational field, and I have seen things orbiting him. But he is cute and I spoil him, I reward bad behavior, and I am an enabler. But I know it and acknowledge it, and isn’t that the first step?

I digress. I put Leo, still in his crate, on a second luggage buggy and wheeled it and the one with my suitcases on it to the door. The same man who gave me directions before stopped me and asked for papers for the dog. I had papers, of course, but I never had a rosy feeling that there would be all the papers he would require. I took them out of the envelope and gave them to him. He pretended to look at them for about five seconds and waived me through.

Waiting for me on the other side of the door was the father of the owners of our apartment, and a woman with whom I was not familiar, but I took her to be the rental agent. I am not sure even now what her role is, but she has been generally very helpful. One more aside: this woman is a real estate agent, and has a cell phone and an office phone. I have called her on both, and there are times when she answers, and times when she does not. In any case, I was never able to leave a message. She has no voice mail. I learned later that voice mail is not really used in Italy. This, like the fact that there is no take-out coffee, is an example of the hardships that an American needs to come to terms with in Italy. There are others, which I shall describe later.

The people who met me were very nice and very helpful (not an Italian personality trait I had hitherto observed), and they had a car waiting to take me to the apartment. The man even had a nice big station wagon, instead of the usual Italian car, which is something one would expect to see clowns popping out of at the circus. We took Leo out of his crate and headed for the car. My host was able to load all the stuff, including the dog (which we put back into his crate), into the car, and off we went. There was going to be one problem, however. The auto workers were on strike, and to make their point, were blocking the roads. After a while of driving around looking for an alternate route, we arrived in Venice at the Piazzale de Roma, unloaded my stuff into the hands of some men with a big boat, and got it to the apartment, which was only a short walk away. The men delivered my stuff about fifty yards from where they had picked it up for the modest sum of 50 Euros. We got the stuff in the house and went up to look at the apartment.

Remember that we had never seen the apartment in person. We had seen pictures of it, and we had sent our Venetian acquaintance Marco to see it, who said it was ok, but that was it. I was apprehensive, but hopeful. I was pleasantly surprised. It was a little shop-worn, not having been renovated in a few decades, but it did not smell, there were no unusual noises, and it had character. We were used to living in an old house with uneven floors and a little shabbiness here and there, so those features did not bother me. In fact, I liked it very much. And to add icing to the cake, it has a huge garden that is only accessible by us. After a big process of showing me how to work things, and making sure the keys worked, my hosts left and Leo and I were on our own. I promptly reported the good news to Karen, and took some pictures with my cell phone and e-mailed them to her.

Now the dog and I had some work to do . . .

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