Decorative Gourd Season
A few random tidbits, Covid, the Catholic Church, and lavender jumpsuits...
Two pazzino (garbage collectors) kicking back enjoying smokes and glasses of red wine at 10 am on a Tuesday morning; their carts parked haphazardly in the middle of the pathway.
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Cleo sitting at the kitchen table attempting to translate her history textbook. The assignment includes answering questions about the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’s birth. One of the questions asks why Jesus’s teachings had such a powerful effect on people in Judea. The answer she finds in the text: Pagan religions failed to address the bigger questions of existence —Why are we here? What does it all mean??? —and had instead (big mistake!) focused on the corporeal and material. Then Jesus arrived, awakening a people formerly too wasted on wine and polytheism to ponder existence, and Christianity won! We all have a good laugh at the utter insanity of that claim while she dutifully writes the “correct answer” in her notebook.
The self checkout area at a busy Coop market in Venice. At first there is only one woman in charge of both the traditional checkout lane and the self checkout kiosks. No one, including the Venetians, seems capable of successfully using the self checkout. People simply abandon the machines when the going gets tough and proceed on to the next machine. It’s complete and total chaos. The checker is yelling “Mama mia!” over and over again, dramatically clutching the sides of her face as she rushes from machine to machine. The machines spit out receipts that she hurriedly collects one by one, placing them fastidiously in a red envelope stowed behind a counter. At one point she collapses into a chair, one hand on her forehead, and mutters about 15 more subdued “mama mias” to herself before she decides to get back in the game. She notices me waiting patiently at the register to pay for Cleo’s textbooks (they’ve arrived!), and calmly asks in Italian if I speak English. I reply, “Si,” and she proceeds to yells at me to fix the self checkout machine that is stuck in a cycle of English commands. I do it. She gratefully rings up my purchase and slumps back into her chair.
Fall arrived suddenly and definitively in Venice this year. A dramatic storm came barreling through, pushing out the last of the summer heat and humidity and ushering in the change of seasons in a single day. Now the light is silvery in the morning, the salicornia is turning red in the lagoon, and a lot of people are cruising around with Covid. Venice is a perfect petri dish for the virus.
First Cleo reported that there was a lot of coughing and sniffling going on in school, and that tracked on the vaporettos as well. For some reason I thought that we all might be traumatized enough by the pandemic to make an effort to cover our mouths when we sneeze or cough in crowded public spaces, but apparently a certain population of men over the age of 60 didn’t get that memo. By the end of that week Cleo had tested positive.
Thankfully she was not too sick, and recovered fully by day 6. Covid hit me harder, taking me on a fever-induced voyage of existential despair and extreme physical discomfort. The strangest part was the way I could feel the virus moving through my body, as if it was branching out through my cells, maliciously seeking refuge. For days I laid in bed unable to sleep, too sick to watch tv or read much of anything for more than a few minutes. Andy fortunately never showed any symptoms.
At some point in my feverish haze I decided to read an article in the New York Times Magazine about the babies who were systematically stolen from their families by members of the Catholic Church during Franco’s fascist regime in Spain. (Fantastic light reading for when you are sick with Covid. Highly recommend.) The mothers —mostly poor or political dissidents—were told their babies were stillborn, while the nuns negotiated their sale to wealthy Catholic families and members of Franco’s political elite.
The Catholic Church! Amirite?
I first visited Italy when I was 20 years old. It was February when I arrived in Rome with my terrible boyfriend, too-large backpack and litany of reasons why the Catholic Church should be condemned. For the most part I avoided churches, too disgusted by the excess and ostentatious displays of wealth engendered by the exploitation and annihilation of other cultures throughout the world. I couldn’t reconcile the actions of the Church historically or in the present, and I wanted no part in celebrating an institution that had caused so much human suffering.
When I returned to Italy with Cleo and Andy in 2018 I surprised myself by seeking out churches in Venice, utterly captivated by their physical beauty. Each mosaic, inlaid piece of marble and figure depicted in contrapposto felt astonishing. I was cowed by the sheer volume of it all, lost in my imagining of whose hands made what, how long it took each person to work on each element of the structure and whether they died before their contribution was installed.
This time around I find myself drawn to the churches in the same way that I am pulled towards wilderness. Much like meadows speckled with wildflowers or groves of redwood trees, the dizzying and excessive beauty of these spaces has a quieting effect on my otherwise noisy brain. The complexity of my feelings about the Church remain, but I allow myself to exist in the dissonance without any moral reconciliation. Because they are built by humans, they also contain all of the human mess: the sacred and the profane, the sublime and the terrible. Kind of like the self checkout lanes in an Italian grocery store.
While I’m on the subject of Catholic churches, here’s some fun history about St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) in Venice!
During the 4th Crusade, the Doge of Venice, Enrico Dondolo (blind, cunning, and mostly evil), gave the order to sack and pillage Constantinople in retribution for the murder of a group of Venetian traders. Priests were murdered, nuns were raped and the city was looted. Venetian soldiers destroyed the Great Library and stole just about everything they could get their hands on.
The spoils were brought back to Venice, and ultimately installed at the Basilica of Saint Mark, the most famous of all Venetian churches. Some of the looted bounty includes: the 4 bronze horses, the 4 Tetrarchs, the ancient bronze doors at the entrance of the Basilica, and many of the jewels and gold on the Pala d’Oro, the insanely beautiful altar piece you have to pay extra to see (it’s worth it).
After a week sequestered in our apartment I was stir crazy and ready to get back into the world.
Our first little adventure was accompanying our friends Roberto and Katie on their boat to the island of San Erasmo (we call it Venice’s Sauvie Island) for the “Festa del Mosto.” The festival is a celebration of fall and the harvest of the grapes, and also an excuse to stand in long lines in order to procure copious amounts of ribs and polenta — the culinary staples of all festivals in the Veneto. We drank the barely fermented wine (vaguely reminiscent of Manischewitz) bought some vegetables and lazed around in the grass, a novel experience in a city where there is very little green space.
Last week I went to see an art show in the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory of Music which is located in an old palazzo. In my humble opinion the best part about art shows in Venice is that many of them are held in palazzos. For fans of real estate open houses, this is a peak two-for-one experience. Not only do you get to poke around amazing palaces (this one being the Palazzo Pisani), but you get to see art as well. Often times the palazzo is far more impressive than the art. This show happened to be great on all accounts, including the extra added bonus of the music being played by the students at the conservatory. Looking at contemporary sculpture while a frenzy of piano or an aria wafts eerily through a 500-year-old building is my idea of a good time.
Afterwards, I sat down on a curb outside of the palazzo to drink some water and decide my next move. I’m doing my usual ‘casual voyeurism’ of pedestrians near the Accademia Bridge (one of the major bridge crossings across the Grand Canal) when I notice an astonishingly beautiful woman in a skin tight lavender jumpsuit moving towards me. She’s by herself with only a map in hand, and she seems to float. It’s undeniably Padma Lakshmi. I stare at her with a big, dumb smile on my face as she makes her way towards the bridge. I immediately text my dad (he’s a big fan) and Andy (also a fan), neither of whom seem to really believe me. But, just to make sure, I checked her instagram today and guess what I found…
Andy and I went to the Biennale again last week, this time to see the show at Arsenale. My review: More great art, some not-so-great art, more fancy eye glasses in all the shapes and waaaaay too many people to truly enjoy the experience.
To be honest, I find the scale of the shows a bit overwhelming. It took us two full days to see most of it, and by the end of each day we were both pretty worn out. I am, however, pretty fascinated with observing how others interact with the spaces and respond to some of the more challenging work. Lots of very pinched and displeased faces and so much seriousness! A fair amount of the art is playful and totally bizarre, and yet very few people seemed to be having any fun. C’mon people! Lighten the fuck up!
This past weekend we sprung Cleo from school on Friday afternoon in order to visit Bassano del Grappa for the weekend. We stuck our feet in the Brenta river, ate porchetta and candy, hiked on paths made by partisans during WWII and generally had a fantastic time. It felt good to get into the mountains — all three of us really miss trees.
And that’s it for now. We are still looking for a renter in our house in Portland, so if you know anyone, drop me a line. We are open to a range of possibilities at this point.
What I’ve recently read/what I’m reading:
I am currently reading I Love you But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Clare Vaye Watkins. It’s autofiction in a similar vein as two of my favorite authors (Jenny Offill and Patricia Lockwood) and I am really into it so far. What can I say, I cannot get enough of literature written by self-professed Bad Mothers™.
I just finished this book by Amy Bloom about her husband and his descent into Alzheimers and eventual decision to die by suicide at Dignitas in Switzerland. It reminded me a bit of Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. It was tender and awful (not the writing, the tragedy of it) and I wouldn’t recommend reading it if you’re in a fragile place.
I also read Intimacies by Kate Kitamura, a short novel about a translator who works at The International Court at The Hague. The writing is sparse and incisive, and I was fascinated to know more about how interpreters deal with problems of language and translation. Not sure how I felt about it, but I was compelled to finish it.
I loved, then disliked, then completely abandoned (after 300+ pages) Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen. That guy. Sigh.
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