La Dolce Vita

First impressions of a place really do last and they are a wonderful thing in retrospect. Having lived in this marvelous city for ten days already I have to remind myself not to take for granted the majesty and delights Venice has to offer. It’s probably the same for Sydney-siders who cross the harbour bridge each day and see the sparkling waters and opera house without being conscious of it’s beauty. The same could be said for those who live amongst breathtaking nature. Perhaps being in awe of other places that are so normal to those who live there can remind us to stop more often and appreciate the uniqueness of where we ourselves live, to see it with fresh eyes and get lost in the wonder of it again.

Crossing the little bridges, some made of stone, others iron or marble, we cross the many canals of tourmaline waters, gasping at the architecture confronting us at each turn, this city where the streets are water. Different campos, or squares, are fringed with apartments painted in tumeric, ox-blood and caramel hues and adorned with shuttered French doors, window-boxes filled with purple, pink and red flowers spilling over wrought-iron balconies and our favourite Moorish peaked windows. The green Venetian blinds mirror the colour of the waters and you can now understand why they are so typical to Venice as sometimes the distance between your window and that of your neighbour is a mere thirty centimeters, so narrow are the calles.

Our breakfast usually consists of buttery brioche and and Illy coffee at the table in our sunny apartment. As Ben has started working we leave with him early in the morning and see the secret Venice in the hours before those tourists are unleashed. We feel like locals now as we navigate the calles, sometimes without the aide of a map, winding our way around and to the L’Ospidale where we wave daddy off in his fluro orange get-up as he awaits the drama of Venice to unfold each day. Occasionally we stop at the old Rosa Salva for a coffee and a naughty pastry as we sit on the huge campo marveling at our surroundings.

Paloma, not content to hang around the apartment demands we leave whenever she is awake. And each day the adventure through those calles, the alleyways of Venice, are like getting lost in a giant maze of beautiful walls. Some calles are so narrow we have to press ourselves up against the wall to let others pass. Even these walls fascinate me, bulging as they do from years of living and rising tides. Ancient rendering is peeled back revealing the old brick structure and layers of time. Once you have been in Venice for a while you are struck by how very different the lifestyle here really is, for so many reasons. The local population is only about 60,000 so it’s no surprise to see people stop and greet each other in the street, as if this grand city, once the gateway to Europe, is really just a country town. Italians are well known the world over for their style but I have to say the Venetians are the most stylish and best dressed I have ever seen, the cherry on top of the fashion cake, and locals can be easily distinguished from the American tourists. Ben and I stop in the street, scrutinizing them as they pass. ‘Did you see those two blokes in matching pastel orange and lemon gelato-coloured shirts with white chinos? They must be in their ‘50’s? You’d never see men that age in Sydney wearing that with such panache!’ Ben is shocked and impressed with the freedom of expression men have in Venice, how well groomed and stylish they are. Men doing the same in most parts of Sydney still risk being labeled gay or weird, such a shame and so backward. I too keep a look out the corner of my eye. Just yesterday an 80 year old lady in front of me in the super-mercato had on a bright violet 1930’s drop-waist dress with bright ruby-red glasses frames and matching red shoes, sparkly glitter belt and massive glass bead necklace. Amazing! I love this kind of OTT, especially in a grandma. It’s like they all shop at Marni and I wish I could stop them and take photos.

Venice is built over a lagoon and the shallow canals provide the roads leading in and out and around the city. There are no road taxis, cars, trucks, vespas or even bicycles. In the early morning before the calles get packed with tour groups meandering annoyingly everywhere, it is possible to see the locals out, chatting away, men pulling carts laden with goods up and down the stairs over the bridges, delivering necessaties to the shops and local businesses, garbage boats mooring on the main canals with their huge crane pincers lifting Venice’s rubbish into their hulls and whisking it away. After the morning rush of deliveries is over the Gondolas come out and from our apartment up high we can hear the sloshing of the oars as they glide past our window with their cargo of tourists. We hear the loud drawl of American voices echoing perpetually with profound surprise at everything they see, as if shocked that anywhere would be more beautiful than home. In the narrow canals, only few people can own a boat in Venice, as ‘parking’ is a problem and occasionally you can hear one put-put past. You can actually hire a taxi, for 50 euro that is, a trip that is always short and as with so many other things, a total rip off. But they are gorgeous boats to admire, their lacquered blonde-wood and white leather interior reminiscent of the glamorous French Riviera boats than Venice taxis.

No matter what you need or where you need to go, you do it on foot. After consulting our map before we set off, thinking it will take ages to get from one place to another, we are often surprised at how small Venice really is. Probably no bigger than Surry Hills I suppose, from Cleveland St to William St, College St to South Dowling.

Packing Paloma in the ever faithful ergo, as the stroller gathers dust under the bed, I pick a Museum, Church or Gallery and we set off for the day, getting lost in the backstreets, stopping for a Macchiato at the bar or the Venetian lunch standard, tramezzino sandwich along the way.

Venice is a city of churches, and as we walk around I have one finger in Paloma’s ear most of the time when she is asleep on account of all the clanging going on, those big beautiful bells resounding at random, regardless of it being the hour or half past it, they seem to ring at any time they like. One hot and balmy night as we steal through the streets we are drawn into a church by the angelic voices of a rehearsing choir. Boys and girls are singing in this cavernous and ancient place and the sound fills our body with holy euphoria. The domes are so high that, although we can hear the organ it is concealed somewhere behind tones of marble. Blood red Murano glass orbs hang from the ceiling ornately shrouded in filigree gold cages. Huge marble sculptures depicting Christ and Mary are lit spookily from below with cobwebs the size of a small sitting rooms veiling their faces. Above the doorway ebony-faced Moorish slaves in tattered garments hold up the marble plinth entrance way as they have done forever. An ugly mottled white skeleton leers down too, flanked by two dragon-dog like creatures, weirdly demonic figures for a church. I feel like a beetle in the jungle surrounded by such awesome and dramatic proportions.

In the middle of the day the sun pokes right into the calles and sears the shadows away. The heat becomes unbearable, even for an Australian. Paloma and I are constantly stuck together with sweat. There is no breeze here and it’s hard to find a plaza or a seat that is not an expensive tourist café. Luckily after an age of wandering I find my favourite place in Venice, Saint Toma and it’s surrounding area. As everywhere in Venice, it is touristy, but there are friendly locals too and it’s very arty, with cute and unusual stores. I chance upon a retro 50’s style café called Dersut, serving twenty different styles of coffee combinations. My favourites til now are the Caffe Coco with fresh grated coconut and the Caffe Menthe with green mint foam on top, delicious! The window filled with homemade cakes are to die for. In fact, it’s rather the perfect place for a girl like me to spend the afternoons, in air-conditioning, reading a book, playing with Paloma and occasionally treating daddy to an ice coffee too when he gets off work.

Never before have I seen, or perhaps noticed, so many sculptures and paintings depicting mothers in breastfeeding positions. Perhaps it’s because so much of my day is spent doing this in weird and wonderful locations, I’m surprised. In L’Accedemia the galleries are filled with Venetian art history, a painting ‘The Tempest’ features a mother half-clothed, bent over in a strange position feeding her child. In The Modern Art Gallery is a bronze sculpture capturing beautifully this same tender and unspoken bond shared by mother and child. Even in the two dollar shop is a reproduction of some renaissance sculpture of a mother feeding her baby. My life mirrored in art through the ages, some things can’t ever change.

It does feel like all I do is feed Paloma. By the end of each day I’m exhausted from carrying her, walking for hours, singing the made-up songs about all the things we do, with a few Guns n Roses solos thrown in. For days on end I may not have a ‘proper’ conversation with anyone. I feel like madness is just around the corner. It is half way through our adventure, and its not that I am ungrateful, but I sometimes wish my sisters or friends we here to share the day with. The sound of relief comes when Ben arrives home and I can once again converse with an adult.

You will be surprised to know that I am quite shy, which makes it hard to meet people here, on top of that the ‘tourists’ are transient and mostly annoying. The locals keep to themselves and the average age is mid 60’s, not that I am ageist, my very good friend Beverley is 86, but its hard to break in with the locals anyway. The few young people here come out at night when Paloma has to be in bed. I think about my mum and sisters, Lisa and Ainsley, who can ‘talk the leg off a chair’, as my dad would say. They would have corralled a whole community fete together if they were here. I guess it’s just you and me Palomi! Of-course having a baby in Italy is like a people magnet, to her. Venetians have an aloof exterior on first glance but if you make an attempt to speak Italian, which I do after having studied it at school centuries ago, they appreciate it. In Italian Paloma is Colombina and they coo when they hear her name, ruffling the few strands of blonde hair she has, which has finally started to grow, which I’m so proud. ‘Bello! Bambino!’ and ‘A! A! Bambina!’ I would retort. I never in my life thought I would have a blonde haired blue-eyed girl.

Since Istanbul, Paloma has been ‘Rolling! Rolling! Rolling everywhere’ progressing from this to attempts at crawling. Yet we were taken by surprise one morning when she got off her tummy to rock like a little horse and then to crawl. It cracks us up to see her squirming round like a pink piggy, searching for ways to get up and move. A super vigilant eye and lots of pillows are required now. I don’t know if it is this age or just her but she cries every time I put her down now. Ben says I look like an old fashioned add for motherhood when he gets home, with a baby on one hip and my hand in the sink or washing machine trying to be a domestic goddess and have dinner ready on time too. Like every other woman with or without children round the globe I guess. Luckily Ben takes us all out for pasta in our local Osteria on regular occasions.

Dinners at home have been the most fun. Every Saturday over the crowded Rialto Bridge at the fish market we buy fresh sea bass, bunches of herbs, lemons, flowers and veggies. Laden with these delicacies, up the stairs, armed with a recipe I memorized from a bookshop a few days ago, I cook my first whole fish. We pop a bottle of prosecco to celebrate, then finish the meal off with fresh and naughty panna cotta. The supermarkets here are like enormous delicatessens. Twenty types of meats and melt-in-the-mouth proscuitto, which you would go broke buying in Sydney, are cheap as chips here. Ben has gone mad for it and constantly cries out for proscuitto. A plethora of different cheeses, olives, breads, wines, pesto, deserts are laid out and makes it possible to have a 5-star feast every night. Fresh rock melon slices wrapped in cured meats, funghi risotto and pancetta. Buffalo mozarella and tomato with basil and fresh crisp bread. They all compliment the summer nights and Italian wines we indulge in. Years ago when we lived in Paris, our fetish for Martinis was born. Joy oh Joy to find tall bottles of it in Venetian supermarkets, not to mention my favourite little mini ready-mixed Martini-and-soda bottles, four in a pack. Molto Cute!

Finally, in the home of gelato, we treat ourselves occasionally at the best icecream parlours of the city. And for Paloma’s birthday, she gets her first taste – and just a taste – of Italian chocolate gelato.