Read A Thousand Days in Venice Online

Authors: Marlena de Blasi

A Thousand Days in Venice

A
LSO BY
M
ARLENA DE
B
LASI

Regional Foods of Northern Italy
Regional Foods of Southern Italy

A Thousand Days in Venice

AN UNEXPECTED ROMANCE

by Marlena de Blasi

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

FOR

W
ALTON
A
MOS'S BABY GIRL
, V
IRGINIA
A
NDERSON
A
MOS
,

WHO GREW UP TO BE A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN FULL OF GOD'S

GRACE AND LOVE WHOM
I
AM HONORED TO CALL

MY DARLING FRIEND

AND

FOR
C. D., L
ISA, AND
E
RICH
,

MY FIRST AND FOREVER LOVES

AND

FOR THE BLUEBERRY-EYED
V
ENETIAN WHO WAITED

Contents

PROLOGUE
—Venice, 1989

1.
Signora, the Telephone Is for You

2.
There's a Venetian in My Bed

3.
Why Shouldn't I Go and Live on the Fringes of an Adriatic Lagoon with a Blueberry-Eyed Stranger?

4.
Did It Ever Happen to You?

5.
Savonarola Could Have Lived Here

6.
If I Could Give Venice to You for a Single Hour, It Would Be This Hour

7.
That Lush Moment Just Before Ripeness

8.
Everyone Cares How They Are Judged

9.
Have You Understood that These Are the Earth's Most Beautiful Tomatoes?

10.
I Knew a woman, I Knew a Men

11.
Ah, Cara Mia, in Six Months Everything Can Change in Italy

12.
A White Wool Dress Flounced in Twelve Inches of Mongolian Lamb

13.
Here Comes the Bride

14.
I Just Wanted to Surprise You

15.
The Return of Mr. Quicksilver

16.
Ten Red Tickets

FOOD FOR A STRANGER—
Recipes

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Prologue
VENICE, 1989

I sit in my seat long after the train swooshes into its berth at Santa Lucia. I paint a fresh coat of ruby red on my lips, pull a blue felt cloche down to my eyebrows and try to smooth my skirt. I think for a moment of the tale I'd told the taxi driver in Rome earlier that morning. He'd asked,
“Ma dove vai in questo giorno cosí splendido?
But where are you going on this splendid day?”

“I have a rendezvous in Venice,” I'd said slyly, knowing the image would please him.

Watching as I'd pulled my fat, black suitcase with its one crumpled wheel backward into the curve of the station doors, he'd blown me a kiss and yelled,
“Porta un mio abbraccio a la bella Venezia.
Carry an embrace from me to beautiful Venice.”

Even a Roman taxi driver is in love with Venice! Everyone's in love with her. Everyone except me. I've never been to Venice, having always been indifferent about wandering through all those iridescent torpors of hers. Still perhaps what I'd told the taxi driver is true. I
am
behaving curiously like a woman on her way to a rendezvous. Now that I'm finally here, though, I wish I could spurn the Old Woman of Byzantium once again.

Exiting the now empty train, I tug my suitcase down onto the platform, giving its evil wheel a kick for encouragement, and stride through the tumult of the station, amidst vendors peddling water taxis and hotels, travelers in the anguishes of arrival and departure. The doors are open and I step out into wet rosy light, onto a sweep of wide shallow steps. Shimmering water glints from the canal below. I don't know where to put my eyes. The Venice of myth is real, rolled out before me. In straw hats and striped shirts, the gondolieri are sculptures of themselves fixed on the sterns of glossy black boats under a round yellow sun. The Bridge of the Barefoot is off to the left and the sweet façade of the church of San Simeone Piccolo hails from across the water. All of Venice is tattered, resewn, achingly lovely, and like an enchantress, she disarms me, makes off with the very breath of me.

I wait for the
vaporetto,
the water bus, line number 1, and embark on a boat that moves
, pian, piano
up the canal, stopping fourteen times between the station and San Zaccaria near the Piazza San Marco. I stow my bag in the great heap of luggage on the deck and make my way out onto the prow, hoping to stay outdoors. The benches are occupied, except a few inches where a Japanese woman's purse sits. I smile, she moves her Fendi, and I ride amid crisp winds up the astonishing highway. Strange now to think that this boat was to become my habitual transport, this water my daily route from home to buy lettuces, to find a wedding dress, to go to the dentist, to light a candle in a thousand-year-old church.

Along the
riva
totter the palaces, fragile Byzantine and Gothic faces, the
Renaissance, the baroque all in a melancholic row, each one leaning fast against the next. The better to stifle secrets I think. As we approach the Ponte di Rialto, the exit nearest my hotel, I am not ready to leave the boat. I stay on through to San Zaccaria and walk off the landing stage toward the
campanile,
the bell tower. I wait for a moment, listening for the clanging of la Marangona, the most ancient of San Marco's bells, the one whose solemn basso has signaled the beginning and the end of the Venetian artisan's workday for fifteen centuries. Once it warned of enemy approach, saluted a visiting king, and announced the death of a doge. Some say it rings by its own will, that if one arrives in Venice to its great, noble clanging, it is proof of one's Venetian soul, proof the old bell remembers one from some other time. When a friend first told me this story years ago, I asked him how, if six hundred people were passing by at any given moment, anyone would know for whom the bell was ringing. “Don't worry,” he said. “It will never ring for you.”

La Marangona is, indeed, silent as I stand before the tower. I don't look at the basilica sitting there behind my shoulders. I don't walk the few meters into the grand piazza. I'm not ready. Not ready for what? I tell myself it's only that one can't wander into what is touted as the earth's most divine drawing room, bedraggled, shackled by a rickety suitcase. I turn back, take the next boat going toward the station, and debark at Rialto. Why is my heart flailing against my chest? Even as I am now drawn to Venice, so am I suspicious of her.

1
Signora, the Telephone Is for You

The small room is filled with German tourists, a few English, and a table or two of locals. It's November 6, 1993, and I arrived in Venice that morning, two friends in tow. We speak quietly together, sipping Amarone. Time passes and the room empties, but I notice that one table, the one farthest away from us, remains occupied. I feel the gentle, noninvasive stare of one of the four men who sit there. I turn my shoulders in, toward my wine, never really looking at the man. Soon the gentlemen go off, and we three are alone in the place. A few minutes pass before a waiter comes by to say there is a telephone call for me. We have yet to announce our arrival to friends, and even if someone knew we were in Venice, they couldn't possibly know we were lunching at Vino Vino. I tell the waiter he's mistaken. “No, signora. Il telefono è per Lei,” he insists.

“Pronto,”
I say into the old, orange wall telephone that smells of smoke and men's cologne.

“Pronto
. Is it possible for you to meet me tomorrow at the same time? It's very important for me,” says a deep, deliberate, Italian voice I'd never heard before.

In the short silence that follows it somehow clicks that he is one of the men who'd left the restaurant just moments before. Though I've understood fairly well what he has said, I can't respond in Italian. I mumble some linguistic fusion like,
“No, grazie
. I don't even know who you are,” thinking that I really like his voice.

The next day we decide to return to Vino Vino because of its convenience to our hotel. I don't think about the man with the beautiful voice. But he's there, and this time he's without his colleagues and looking more than a little like Peter Sellers. We smile. I go off to sit with my friends, and he, seeming not quite to know how to approach us, turns and goes out the door. A few beats pass before the same waiter, now feeling a part of something quite grand, comes to me, eyes direct:
“Signora, il telefono è per Lei.”
There ensues a repeat of yesterday's scene.

I go to the phone, and the beautiful voice speaks in very studied English, perhaps thinking it was his language I hadn't understood the day before: “Is it possible for you to meet me tomorrow, alone?”

“I don't think so,” I fumble, “I think I'm going to Naples.”

“Oh,” is all the beautiful voice can say.

“I'm sorry,” I say and hang up the phone.

We don't go to Naples the next day or the day after, but we do go to the same place for lunch, and Peter Sellers is always there. We never speak a word face to face. He always telephones. And I always tell him I can't meet him. On the fifth day—a Friday—our last full day in Venice, my friends and I spend the morning at Florian mapping the rest of our journey, drinking Prosecco and cups of bitter, thick chocolate lit with Grand Marnier. We decide not to have lunch but to save our appetites for a farewell dinner at Harry's Bar. Walking back to the hotel, we pass by Vino Vino, and there is Peter Sellers, his nose pressed against the window. A lost child. We stop in the
calle
a moment, and my friend Silvia says, “Go inside and talk to him. He has the dearest face. We'll meet you at the hotel.”

I sit down next to the sweet face with the beautiful voice, and we drink some wine. We talk very little, something about the rain, I think, and why I didn't come to lunch that day. He tells me he is the manager of a nearby branch of Banca Commerciale Italiana, that it's late, and he has the only set of keys to reopen the safe for the afternoon's business. I notice the sweet face with the beautiful voice has wonderful hands. His hands tremble as he gathers his things to leave. We agree to meet at six-thirty that evening, right there, in the same place.
“Proprio qui
, Right here,” he repeats again and again.

I walk to the hotel with a peculiar feeling and spend the afternoon lolling about my little room, only half celebrating my tradition of
reading Thomas Mann in bed. Even after all these years of coming to Venice, every afternoon is a ritual. Close by on the night table I place some luscious little pastry or a few cookies or, if lunch was too light, maybe one, crusty
panino
which Lino at the
bottega
across the bridge from my Pensione Accademia has split and stuffed with prosciutto, then wrapped in butcher's paper. I tuck the down quilt under my arms and open my book. But today I read and don't read the same page for an hour. And the second part of the ritual falls away altogether, the part where I wander out to see images Mann saw, touch stones he touched. Today all I can think about is
him
.

The persevering rain becomes a tempest that night, but I am resolved to meet the stranger. Lagoon waters splash up and spill over onto the
riva
in great foaming pools and the Piazza is a lake of black water. The winds seem the breath of furies. I make my way to the warm safety of the bar at the Hotel Monaco but no farther. Less than a few hundred yards from Vino Vino, I'm so close but I can get no closer. I go to the desk and ask for a telephone directory, but the wine bar is not listed. I try calling
assistenza
but operator number 143 finds nothing. The rendezvous is a wreckage, and I haven't a way to contact Peter Sellers. It was just not meant to be. I head back to the hotel bar, where a waiter called Paolo stuffs my soaked boots with newspaper and places them near a radiator with the same ceremony someone else might use to stow the crown jewels. I've
known Paolo since my first trip to Venice four years earlier. Stocking-footed, fidgeting, drinking tea, I sit on the damp layers of my skirt, which sends up the wooly perfume of wet lambs, and watch fierce, crackling lights rip the clouds. I think back to my very first time in Venice. Lord, how I fought that journey! I'd been in Rome for a few days, and I'd wanted to stay. But there I was, hunkered down in a second-class train, heading north.

“A
RE YOU GOING TO
V
ENICE
?” asks a small voice in tentative Italian, trespassing on my Roman half-dream
.

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