One hot stormy afternoon in the 1970s when my siblings and I were being difficult little brats, my mother caved and uncharacteristically turned on the TV in the middle of the day if for no other reason than to get us out of her over-permed hair for at least a half hour. But when the little black and white TV hummed into life and the picture finally came into focus, she stopped dead in her tracks, dropped her basket of laundry and plunked down on the footstool behind her. And, for the next 45 minutes, my workaholic mother didn’t move.
We were stunned. The only time that woman EVER sat down was for dinner and mass, so to see her immobile on a midday afternoon was shocking at best. And what, pray tell, drew her attention away from chores and children? It was the site of Katherine Hepburn strolling the moldering alleyways of Venice, with Rossano Brassi in tow, in that classic movie, Summer Time.
The movie was already half over when we stumbled upon it that day, but even as a child, I took in enough to realize that Venice was the central character. Whether it was the canals or Rossano that held my mother’s attention I’ll never know for she still won’t tell, but as a lover of all things nautical, I was hooked. The fact that a city of canals actually existed ignited my boat-obsessed imagination like never before and I vowed then and there to visit her someday, preferably sans annoying siblings.
But now I’m the mother of chores and children myself, and Venice remains as elusive to me as a pair of size four jeans and a single chin somewhat resembling a right angle. I still hold out hope that I’ll get there before she sinks forever into the ocean and when I do, I’ll make the most of it by:
1) Becoming a temporary permanent fixture in Piazza San Marco.
As tourists, we Americans seem to prefer quantity over quality, rushing headlong from one landmark to the next, fanny packs a swinging, barely taking in all that each has to offer. But Venice is worth lingering over, and linger I shall, preferably in the Piazza San Marco. Getting there well before sunrise, I’ll stake out the perfect table, order a café late and sit. For to sit is to see, and to see is to be enthralled as the everyday life of Venice unfolds like a multi-tiered wedding cake tipped over by a drunken groom. Pigeons will be fed and locals will be observed and tourists will be spotted. Books will be read, bell towers will be sketched, pictures will be taken, and I will sit and I will breathe and I will enjoy and I will wear Depends. *Sigh*
2) Dressing like it means something
Standing in line one Friday night at our local Wal-Mart, behind what I can only guess were three generations of one family all clad in flannel PJs, I felt decidedly overdressed in my blue jeans, turtleneck and brown leather boots. One can only hope they were of Scottish heritage and overly proud of the family plaid. But I’m thinking no. In short, a fashion Mecca Indiana is not. Rather, ours is a blue jean and t-shirt kind of comfortable world, but oh, not so in Venice.
In Venice, one dresses for the occasion that is life, for to be Venetian means to embrace the spectacle that good clothing paired with the right accessories has to offer. For in Venice the theatricality of its food, fashion and atmosphere enable her inhabitants to glide beautifully over the ugly realities of life, whether it be poverty, taxes, earthquakes or war. So I will wear a flowing floral dress as I shop her cobblestoned streets for handmade sandals, and my jaunty Jackie O sunglasses will beg the question, who’s behind those gleaming dark lenses? A silk scarf will frame my face – hiding the stubborn gray, mind you – and no one will look at me and assume for an instant that I own a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “Who’s Your Mama” or that I live in stretchy but forgiving polyester yoga pants the better part of the year.
3) Becoming one with the peach bellinis at Harry’s Bar
As a Hemingway fanatic, hitting Harry’s Bar for a peach bellini is a given, no matter how much of an overblown touristy ritual that may be. Yes, I’ll admit it. I want to sit at the bar and drink them by the pitcher full, but not so much so that the toilet smells like a fruit salad afterwards. No, I only want to get just tipsy enough so that when I close my eyes, I can realistically pretend, if even for a moment, that it’s the 1920s and I’m a colorful ex-patriot writer starving my way across Europe on the Grand Tour.
4) Making like Mario Batalli and whip up a seafood feast
As a seaport city,Venice is dripping with creepy crawlies fresh from the ocean, just waiting to be devoured with splash of wine and a squirt of lemon. And traveling with “Go With Oh” means the potential for stellar access to a kitchen – a tempting combo calling to my inner chef – hence I will make like Mario and cook, cook, cook! Much as I love having someone else clean up the mess, experimenting in the kitchen is one of the few everyday rituals I don’t consider to be a chore. Thus, inVenice, I will hit the markets for every conceivable slimy crustacean imaginable and experiment. And then I will sit on my balcony, pop open a bottle of pinot and make like an American and pig out. And, for that, I may even break out my yoga pants.
5) Kayaking my way up the canals
While I will definitely wile away at least one afternoon in a gondola – singing Oh Solo Mio as off key as the next tourist – paddling my own rented kayak on a guided tour is an even better option. With kayaks come a certain level of freedom not obtained in a pole driven gondola and, what I lose in the attractive Italian gondolier, I gain in the ability to paddle close and really observe. There are sights to be seen in Venice that one can only appreciate from the water, and paddling my own craft, I can compose the perfect photo op that will forever capture my version of Venice.
It’s said that before filming the Summer Time scene where she walks backwards off of the pier into the canal, Katherine Hepburn plugged up every hole in her body to avoid infection from Venice’s dirty waters, going so far as to fill her ears and nose with waxy plugs, doing God knows what down below, and clamping her lips ever so tight at the last moment before taking that fateful plunge. But she forgot about her eyes and is said to have picked up an infection that stayed with her for weeks.
While I too wish to bring home ample memories of Venice, a lingering infection isn’t high on the list, though for this floating vision of heaven, I’m willing to risk it. Whether it be handmade shoes, Murano glass or an imported bacterial bug, I’ll take it, because to bring home a little of that magnificent city is to keep her in your heart all year long.
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By Robin Fritz, writer, artist, photographer and owner of bad American clothes.