Friday, May 30, 2014

Mangiare (v.): to eat, to tuck in

It’s silly to get excited about grocery shopping—it truly is—and yet those mundane errands we take for granted at home suddenly seem novel when we’re traveling abroad. Perhaps it’s the language barrier, or maybe it’s the promise of new and unfamiliar foods. Whatever the reason, it’s the first thing on my mind when I wake up this morning.

There’s a small shop just up the street from my apartment, with a blue and white awning that reads: Sapori & Dintorni, il Supermercato da Gustare e deGustare. It’s part of the Conad chain of grocery stores and as best I can figure, the slogan means “flavors and surroundings, the supermarket to taste and taste,” but really, it sounds best in Italian, far more elegant than the local Price Chopper in Vermont.

Inside, there’s a rush of customers speaking in rapid-fire Italian, and an imposing queue that snakes through the aisles on the way to the cashier. As I reach for a cart, I remind myself that I’ve done my homework, so I know something about what to expect:

Bring a cloth shopping bag. Check.

Remember to use plastic gloves before handling produce. Check.

Bag your own groceries. Check.

I also read something about ordering meats and cheeses over the counter at the salumiere, but at the moment I’m feeling too meek and too overwhelmed to try, worried I’ll get the fractions wrong and end up with a mezzo-kilo of ham instead of an etto.

By the time I make my way to the end of the line, I’m quite pleased with myself. I’ve found all of the essentials on my list—latte scremato, spremuta di arance biande, sacchi nettezza, and carta igienica—and as I examine the labels and let the words roll over my tongue, I’m amused that the things I’m about to buy sound so much more impressive than milk and juice, trash bags, and toilet paper.

I’ve managed to fill my cart with an array of other appetizing things, too, including focaccia bread and chocolate biscotti, as well as a few small custard tarts. My apartment has a tiny kitchenette with a two-burner stove and no oven, but there is a microwave, so I’ve also picked out a few packages of prepared pasta for quick and easy meals. Yes, I feel a teensy bit guilty buying such things here in the cradle of Tuscan cuisine, but let’s be honest… I’m no Mario Batali. Besides, I’m on vacation.

Buoyed by the morning’s adventure, I drop off my bags at the apartment and head outside again, this time over the Ponte Vecchio and into the historic heart of the city, along Via Calimala and its plush shops, past Piazza dell Repubblica and its carousel, all the way to the Duomo. There’s a Vodaphone shop nearby and I need to recharge the SIM card I bought last year for my iPhone, as well as purchase another so that I’ll have access to data on my iPad mini throughout the month. Afterwards, I head to Eataly, where I pick up a few more staples for the apartment, and then to the Mercato Centrale, where shopping succumbs to browsing and I spend a happy hour exploring the new first floor, with its artisan food vendors, wine shop, and cooking school.

By the time I make my way back to Piazza della Signoria, it’s late afternoon. My legs are wearing out, but my list is nearly complete. I spy a black “T” in the window of a caffè facing the square and duck in to buy a few bus tickets, then I walk to the corridor next door to buy an Amici degli Uffizi card, which for €60 will give me unlimited access not just to the Uffizi itself, but to many other sites in town, including the Accademia and the vast complex of museums at the Pitti Palace.

Back at the apartment, I warm up some pasta and sit down for dinner at the dining table facing the window, which I’ve improved with a vase of fresh sunflowers from the market. Afterwards, I take a slow stroll down to the Ponte alle Grazie and across to a well-reviewed ice cream shop on Via dei Neri. As I wander back, enthralled by the warmth of the setting sun on my face and the taste of dark chocolate and salted caramel gelati on my tongue, I think about how this is my fourth trip to Italy and how on each of the previous three, I had stayed in “tourist” Florence, where everyone smiles and speaks English, and there’s always a concierge to do the hard things for you, like booking tickets at the Uffizi, or calling to make a dinner reservation.

This time, I’ve made a point of striking out on my own. It may seem like a trivial thing, but I’m proud of my success. All of the mundane tasks I’ve accomplished today—the grocery shopping, the SIM cards, the bus tickets, and museum passes—have been a good investment. I’m preparing myself for the next four weeks, getting to know my surroundings, and gaining confidence in my skills. In short, I’m learning to survive outside of captivity, and all of the sudden, the possibilities of life in the wild feel endless and intoxicating.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

It’s a glorious morning in Venice. I know it is because I can see sunlight out the window of the plane as we approach Marco Polo Airport. I catch my breath when I spot the campanile in Piazza San Marco rising high above the skyline and the dome of the Salute church at the far end of the Grand Canal. The island is beautiful from a distance, but also small, like a tilt-shift photograph that renders the cityscape in miniature.

My flight lands on time and before long I’m stretching my weary legs on the long walk out to Pier 14 where there’s a water taxi waiting for me. This is a great indulgence of mine—I’ve always taken the bus before—but after all that’s happened in the last few weeks, I figure I deserve a break.

As the boat pulls away from the dock, I sink back into the seat and exhale deeply. At the touch of a button, the driver retracts the tinted roof and I close my eyes as rays of morning sun warm my face.

We gather speed as we make our way across the lagoon, and as the boat begins to skip across the choppy waves I can feel a fine salt mist on my skin. I had left my luggage upright on the floor of the cabin and now it’s starting to slide slowly on its wheels, back and forth.

We enter Venice proper through a square of open water in the sestiere of Cannaregio, near Fondamenta Nuove and the 14th century church of Madonna dell’Orto, and from there head south towards the Grand Canal. It’s just a short distance to San Stae and there the driver makes one final turn and pulls up to the water entrance of the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo. I’ve stayed here before—twice, in fact—but I’ve never arrived in such grand style.

Walter greets me warmly at the door and hoists my luggage out of the boat. It’s still early in the day, just 10:30 AM, so my room isn’t ready, but he invites me to sit for a while in the hotel’s courtyard and kindly offers to bring me a cappuccino. I feel exhausted from the flight and more than a little seasick from the bobbing of the water taxi. At the same time, though, I’m exhilarated to be here and comforted by the sight of familiar surroundings.

I leave my luggage behind and walk out the gate, following the signs that point to Alla Ferrovia and Piazzale Roma. It’s a pleasant walk through tiny alleyways and along quiet canals. I’m heading to the train station to buy an ACTV pass for the vaporetto and a Venice Card to cover my admission fees to a wide range of museums and churches. I’m trying to be optimistic about what I’m able to do.

It’s noon by the time I return to the hotel and my room in the Annex is waiting. It’s a lush space, with an open beam ceiling, dark silk walls, a carved headboard, and damask bedspread. High overhead there’s a Murano glass chandelier and I stare at it as I lay back and rest for the next two hours. I’m still not feeling well and I need to pace myself.

It’s 2:00 PM by the time I venture out again in search of a late lunch. I stop at Ostaria al Garanghelo and order a plate of ravioli with a sage butter sauce that tastes good, but settles hard in my stomach. There are two young women sitting at the table next to mine and I amuse myself by listening in to their conversation. One hands her phone to the other and says: “Look, you got a picture of that famous house and whatever.” Sophisticated travelers they are not.

Soon, however, their inane commentary is drowned out by two street musicians who settle in across the street. With a guitar and violin they smile widely as they play “Cheek to Cheek,” an Irving Berlin tune from the 1930s that has me envisioning Fred Astaire in white tie and tails with the lovely Ginger Rogers in his arms.

Heaven, I’m in Heaven,
And my heart beats so that I can barely speak;
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek.
And the cares that hang around me thro’ the week
Seem to vanish like a gambler’s lucky streak
When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek.

With no particular destination in mind, save one minor errand, I wander down across the Rialto Bridge to a Vodaphone shop, where I wait in line to buy a SIM card with a data plan for my iPhone. I press on, all the way to Piazza San Marco, where at long last, restoration work on the base of the campanile has been completed, freeing the square of five years worth of fences and construction debris. It’s been a nice afternoon, but my legs are tired and I’m ready to head back on the vaporetto.

I’ve been to Venice twice before, and as the water bus passes the colorful and crumbling palazzos that line the Grand Canal all the way back to San Stae, I think about how this releases me from the burden of expectations. I’ve seen nearly all of the major sights and tourist attractions in town—St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, the Accademia museum, and the Bridge of Sighs. I’ve been out to the islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello, and to San Giorgo Maggiore with its majestic views of the city proper. With so few boxes left to tick, my time is my own, to wander and explore, and I’m quite looking forward to it.

By the time I leave the hotel at seven in search of dinner, the deep blue of the afternoon sky has given way to a brooding canopy of gray. A light rain is starting to fall as I slide into a comfortable seat at Trattoria al Ponte, just around the corner. I sit and relax through a bowl of bean soup and a fine plate of tagliatelle with tomato, eggplant, and smoked ricotta cheese. I had hoped to go back to Piazza San Marco tonight to listen to the orchestras play, but the gentle patter of raindrops on the awning overhead tells me it would be best to tuck in early for the night.

Venice may be sinking, but it will still be here in the morning.