The old black dog

The old black dog knew his customers. Despite the still early hour, I was tired from walking the back canals and alleyways but determined to see a truer Venice than the one that surrounded the preposterously busy Piazza di San Marco. No gondoliers in the back part of town, no Africans hawking fake Armani and Louis Vuitton products, no street performers, jugglers, hustlers, sidewalk portrait artists, no battalion-sized tour groups, no pricey boutiques, no trattorias back to back to back.

This was the part of Venice where the year-round populace lived. There were a few bakeries, an occasional bistro and several neighborhood Coin grocery stores carved out of the ancient tenements. Every couple of blocks was an open square, sometimes with a tree and benches, sometimes just sun parched buildings with shuttered windows and thick wood doors.



One slightly larger square had trees, benches and a café. Seating was al fresco although there were tables inside for inclement weather days and those winter months when the temperature can dip into the low forties. Not much English spoken in the periphery but, communication was not difficult. I was pointed to a table and was handed the menu.

A few feet away, perched against an ocher colored building, was a large black dog, probably some kind of Lab mix, although I don’t know dog breeds very well. He was basking in the warm sun, tongue hanging, head swiveling, eyes darting, tail twitching. He paid me no heed and dogs aren’t very conscious of human gaze. Soon, his tail speed increased, he drew himself up and quickly strolled, head down, towards an approaching young woman. She greeted him by name, Cupid, patted him on the head a few times, and went inside for her morning cappuccino.

Other customers followed, each time the dog rose and walked over to greet, was patted on the head, with an occasional aside conversation from older men who might well have been greeting their pastor or a life-long confidant. The dog seemed pleased to be on intimate terms. Perhaps some of the daily clientele came because of the friendly dog. When an occasional tourist stopped by, Cupid paid them scant attention. I suppose one needed to make the initial contact to get in his good graces.

I asked the waitress if the dog belonged to the owner. She said no, the owner was afraid of dogs, even Cupid, and he was never allowed inside the café. I gathered from the waitress’s unsteady English, Cupid belonged to someone who lived on the square and was let out each morning and called in each evening. “It has been that way forever,” she told me. I knew enough Italian colloquialism to translate that “as long as I have worked here.”

Then I asked how the owner managed with Cupid constantly outside. “They avoid each other,” she said, “never look at each other. For each one, the other does not exist.”


Much too old

Venice is much too old for its own good. It’s falling apart, it’s sinking, it’s population is dwindling, it’s overrun with tourists, it’s swamped with monster cruise ships, it’s buildings are largely dilapidated, it’s glory as an empire has been in decline for half a millennium, it’s a caricature of itself, it often smells bad, yet, it’s a glorious city-state with matchless charm, mystery, art, food, music, architecture, color, history, ambiance, and enchantment; a good place to go to die (but not Thomas Mann’s version in Death in Venice, more like Henry James The Wings of the Dove way of passing), or have a clandestine affair with a Dangerous Beauty, or, as I do, prowl around the backsides, the undersides, the places tourists don’t want to invest time walking to, the tiny neighborhoods that zigzag around one crazy blind corner after another.



I love that part of Venice. The big island, so to speak, the biggest of the 117 islets that constitute Venezia. Around the corners, past the restaurants, across a maze of bridges, 409 bridges in all that cross the 177 canals, perhaps the biggest labyrinth in the world, if not now, a billion centuries ago when Marco Polo departed for China, and points East. It’s easy to loose one’s bearings, passageways are often tight, buildings loom above, and no alley runs more than fifty feet before dead ending into a brick wall necessitating a ninety degree turn left or right, there is always a choice but not always a marker to lead one back to San Marco, or the Rialto, or Harry’s Bar.



In those deep recesses of antiquity, scents and sounds abound, echoing, caroming, bouncing off walls and doorways, sliding across still canals, and creeping ever so silently from behind penetrating your soul. You swear there is someone just ahead of you, as you round a corner, a flash of a sleeve or boot or skirt disappears around the next corner, and the next, cajoling, teasing, or is that sound behind you? Night plays tricks on the senses, faint noises are amplified, it’s surround-sound from unidentified sources. Then, the sweet scents of dinners being prepared descend like a cloudburst: baked cheese, roasted lamb, bread, sweet desserts.


There are little piazzas, tiny parks here and there, with a tree or two, benches where neighbors chatter, kids play, dogs and cats bask in the sun, old ladies parade in well-worn black coats regardless of temperature, the opposite side of the city where Armani, Paciotti, Cavallini, and Prada hawk their wares to the ricca e bella, but back on our side, where real Venetians survive on tourist’s euros except for the expat writer, painter, composer, or dreamer, existence is mellower, aged well beyond perfection, but not quite putrefaction, more an elegant state of petrification that will linger on for another score of centuries. At least, I hope so.




Intro to Venice

It was as if I had wandered onto a life-sized page from a Richard Scarry children’s book. You know, the ones that have eighty million different things going on at once. When I walked out of the Venice train station and faced the Grand Canal, fifty different shaped boats, including gondolas with stripe-shirted gondoliers jockeying for position, thousands of people stuffed into bars and cafes, souvenir vendors, people awaiting transport, scratching their heads in wonderment, hanging off the Rialto bridge, poking their heads out of the windows of decaying but magnificent buildings, police directing traffic, answering questions, tourists taking photographs, chattering on their iPhones, locals nonchalantly reading on sunny steps.




Meanwhile the sky had turned sapphire after rain dogged my train all the way from Florence, the boat traffic churned up the Grand Canal water and the sun’s rays turned wavelets into instant prisms, flags and banners of every Venetian society, past and present, flapped in the gentle breeze, an Airbus A330 soared overhead departing from Marco Polo airport, a score of churches up and down the canal chimed at four o’clock, a police boat blared a shrill horn at a maverick vaporetto (water taxi), tall poles embedded in the muck beneath the Canal were decorated in stripes of red or blue or green which signified something to the throng of boatmen.


The sensory overload caused me to gasp. I didn’t know how to get to my hotel, a vaporetto was suggested by the hotelier unless I didn’t mind pulling my luggage over a half dozen foot bridges. I did. But, where were the vaporetti? I learned long ago, if in doubt, cue up in any line and start asking those around me. I was directed to a vaporetto stand twenty yards up the Canal. The ten minute ride through ever narrower canals cost me a hundred dollars. By the next day, I had learned how to use the public vaporetto, or water busses, for transport.


Nonetheless, that short ride on the taxi exposed me to the wonders of Venice: the magnificent colors – aquamarine, brick red, cerulean, mulberry, ocher, steel blue; the magnificently decaying architecture; the tangle of gondoliers in tight-fitting canals who yelled “oy” to announce they were coming round a blind corner; splendid old doors with beveled glass; miniscule alleyways that I didn’t want to attempt passage on a foggy night; chic shops with expensive ingredients; strolling musicians; gaggles of Russian, Indian and Japanese tour groups, massive churches with either huge domed roofs or spires that extended halfway to heaven.





Arriving at my hotel, the taxi driver heaved my bags into the lobby, fleeced me of my euros, bid me arrivederci, gunned his engines so he couldn’t hear my song of protest, and floated into the infinite labyrinth of canals.

“Benvenuti a Venezia,” I heard behind me from an instantly materializing bellman. “You will fall in love with Venice,” he continued in English. I did.