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.

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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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