Friday, December 31, 2010

Italy Days 9-10: New Year’s Eve

In the morning, my mother and sister finally were successful in their attempt to visit the Doge's palace, greatly enjoying the original horse sculptures and the views over San Marco, and being appropriately depressed by the prisons across the bridge of sighs.

But we spent most of New Year’s Eve on Murano. As you probably know, Venice is built on islands, most of which have been built upon so much that they meld together. A few notable outliers remain, though, one of which is this famed glass-making island, historically kept apart because of the fire hazards of its industry. It was neat to be away from the main island, to get a sense of Venice being amidst a lagoon, and to see some of the fishing culture that still abounds.

After a quick boat ride over, passing the cemetery island, we stepped off onto an unassuming brick quay and into a world of glass consumerism. The wall shrines had glass Madonnas, the window boxes had glass flowers, the piazzas had glass statues, the churches had glass baptismal fonts. I’m sure most of you have seen Murano or Murano-styled glass objects before (knowingly or unknowingly), and we’d certainly been seeing them hawked around the city since arriving. While clunky glass animals, ugly girlish jewelry, and obvious Chinese rip-offs abounded even on the island itself, it was fairly easy after a bit of adjustment to start to pick out the real quality items from amidst the schlock. The colors bloomed, the twists of abstract objects intrigued with whimsy, the delicacy and exactness of the details astounded my understanding of the craft. A number of small shops had the artists worktables in a corner of the shop, allowing us a glimpse of their handiwork in action. The project that most intrigued me was watching one man hand-blow a series of hollow matched glass beads for a necklace. We also enjoyed putting the contemporary items in historical context by visiting the small but thorough museum of glass at the center of the island. We managed to return to the main islands of Venice without having bought too many trinkets.

We dined at a restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet, which humorously had an “American” décor theme though thankfully a thoroughly Italian menu. The pizza was mouth-watering, chewy and moist with fresh ricotta, fresh mozzarella, and roasted zucchini. Our second course was a satisfying artichoke risotto and a tender steak sliced over arugula greens. I enjoyed watching the table of oh-so-hip young Venetians behind us tuck into their four-course meal with joy and vim: I like participating in a culture that includes no guilt or body hang-ups for women dining.

As it was New Years Eve, the day had really just begun. Venice is famously a party city, and as soon as the sun went down the celebrations began. Much to my mother’s fright, one of the main forms of public exuberance turned out to be randomly setting off extremely loud firecrackers in the middle of crowded streets. And I mean really, really really ear-ringingly loud with a big flash, dropped surreptitiously right into packed throngs, making people have to scream and run away from it as soon as its initial smoke and fizzle were noticed. It’s a wonder nobody lost an eye, and I’d hate to imagine what the experience would be like for survivors of war.

Not that it was all terrible. Lisa and I left our cowed mother at the hotel and set off for Piazza San Marco (like Venice’s Times Square for the night). In a move that would absolutely never happen in the US, the evening’s party planners, knowing how to please a crowd, were handing out free bottles of bubbly to absolutely everyone there. Though claiming our bottles meant braving a lung-compressing mob of fellow revelers in the densest part of the piazza, my sister and I both successfully snagged a Bellini Canella each, though they sadly only had the peach flavor left by the time we got up to the table. We then put our crowd-threading skills further to the test and wended our way to an absolutely prime fireworks-watching spot right on the edge of the waterfront.

The fireworks themselves were quite pretty, with a dominant theme of white and fizzley. A nice effect was achieved by mirroring each display, with two of every firework going off next to each other. The show seemed more interested in ornament than American-style bravado, lending quite a different feel to it from the fireworks to which I am accustomed. I was also unused to fireworks being set off quite so close to the crowd, and at such a low angle to the ground/water: many arched out like a fan, causing large chunks of burning matter to fizzle fiercely into the water despite many boats dotting the lagoon.

Thankfully, the finale overcame the show’s relative reserve and was appropriately overwhelming. High on the spirit of the crowd, the splash and drama of the fireworks, the moment of the new year, and those bottles of Bellini, Lisa and I decided to race home, as we knew that the tiny walkways and bridges would quickly become impassable from the dispersing throngs. As the last firework fizzled, we took off ducking and speeding through the tight maze, successfully avoiding being blown up by additional random crowd fireworks, dodging into the neighborhood northeast of the piazza, across the Rialto bridge, and successfully to our street, where we were temporarily waylaid by our succumbing to the temptation of one of the ubiquitous vim brule/mulled wine carts (Can we please, pleaes have these at home?).

We proudly brought our mother her own cup of hot spicy wine, sure that she would be sitting huddled terrified by all the explosions, but were astounded to find her sleeping like a baby despite the frequent booms of what sounded like cannons exploding right below our window. I was sure that, given the excitement and the noise, I, too, would never sleep, but apparently was out before my head even hit the pillow.

The next morning (Italy Day 10) we were disappointed to find that no water busses would be stopping at our dock given the holiday, leaving us to have to drag our bags halfway across the city via the aforementioned narrow walkways and bridges, up and down countless steps, and in the process helping a nice lost young German man find his way. Then onto another fast posh train barreling towards one of my favorite places on earth…

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