Diaries‎ > ‎

Travel: Italy, Summer 2002

27 June -- Venice

The flight over wasn't unusual. The expected lines and idiots. I got clubbed over the head by a minimum-wage moron with a metal-detecting wand. The scorns that patient merit from th' unworthy take. The insolence of gormless.

Business class was comfortable. The food was still Delta food-like substance, but the free wine was imported and I even scored a single-malt with dessert. Non-peanut nuts and sparkling wine before, too. And seats you can really sleep in, though Gay's required the services of a technician to recline and, in the morning, uncline.

Walked through customs and onto a waterbus which we didn't know was going the wrong way. After we got that figured out, we got off and went to a little cafe where we got water and wine and directions.

Finally found the Hotel Rialto and our room, which is disappointingly small for $235 a night. I'm typing in the bathroom, the only place with a table large enough for a laptop. We have the view of an alley and airconditioning that doesn't work. That was no problem in Samoa, but here they've left off the ceiling fan and ocean breeze.

But it's Venice, and Venice is gorgeous. We dropped our stuff in the room, obeying the guidebook and hiding cash and valuables in the safe, and hit the streets famished. Made the mistake of going in the first place that looked cheap. It was a self-serve cafeteria which specialized in a cuisine that in America is known as "school food." Gay got a literally inedible piece of chicken and I a pile of bland meatballs on rice, for twenty bucks. Well, it was on the Grand Canal.

Better luck afterwards. Following signs to San Marco, we strolled through the Mercerie, a chain of streets full of glitzy shops. Most of them weren't interesting to me, jewels and furs and blown glass, but one really made me wish I'd sold a movie recently. A whole store full of leatherbound blank books. They ran from about $20 for a little address book to $100 or more for one useful for novel-writing. There was a too-gorgeous one full of high-quality watercolor paper -- would I be able to paint in it? I might be paralyzed by the fear that the painting wouldn't be worthy of the book! 

San Marco

The church, the Basilica di San Marco, is astounding, both as an affront to architectural taste and a monument to money and pillage. Its scale and confusing lack of unifying style make it beautiful to some, like me and John Ruskin, who called it a "treasure-heap." Built on a site of ninth-century ruins, the cathedral was sort of finished in 1094, but its special charm is due to the add-ons that doges stuck on over the ages -- the church is not the cathedral of Venice, but rather the chapel of the doge, so all kinds of stuff that was pillaged in various wars is now integrated into the junkyard facade of the place.

We didn't go in, reserving that for later, but walked around window-shopping, and wound up sitting in a charming plaza between the basilica and the Canal, listening to a good jazz trio while drinking our ten-dollar coffee and beer. Yes, we could have eaten for a week in Samoa for what that cost, but we wouldn't have had millions of pigeons.

It was good jazz, and the woman leading the group played a soprano saxophone, which connected to Gay -- in school she had wanted to play the sax but they told her she wasn't big enough. Actually, their sax wasn't _small_ enough.

We went back to the hotel to nap off a couple of hours' jet lag, and then caught a vaporetto (water bus) to Accademia. A little smarter now, we got sandwiches at a sidewalk joint for a couple of bucks, and enjoyed the canal and people- and dog-watching for awhile. Lots of exotic dogs in Venice.

We were at Accademia to pick up a music boat, which only plays on Wednesday nights. If we don't do anything smarter all week, that made it a smart week. We joined a group of about fifty people, mostly German tourists, to listen to the Gruppo de Camera del Collegium Ducale play chamber music whilst plying the Grand Canal at sundown.

We were at the back of the line, and so were seated pretty far back in the boat, but after the first number I complained to Gay that I couldn't really hear the violincello, and there were two seats empty right in front. So we moved down there, which was a wonderful change. I was close enough to the first violin to turn the pages for him (though I refrained); I could hear the light finger-slaps of the violincello's left hand. It was like being in the middle of a string quartet, which I've only experienced once before (as a temporary guitar addition).

The guys were more than good. I guess the competition for gigs like this is pretty fierce in this city. They were delicate and powerful and so completely together it was like one person playing an impossibly complex instrument.

Refreshments were served throughout the ninety-minute concert. Sitting and sipping strong sweet coffee laced with grappa while four experts celebrate Vivaldi, drifting down the Grand Canal in a cool breeze while Venus presides over the deepening dusk -- well, you could be in Cleveland poking yourself in the eye with a stick, but this was better.


28 Jun 2002

We had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel. The guidebook cynically says all the hotels give you bad coffee and a croissant and slap ten dollars on your room price, but we were more fortunate, good coffee plus lunchmeat and cheese and fruit cocktail.

Armed with a rough map, we set out in search of American Express and a cybercafe. A rough map won't do in Venice, though. Too many of the streets are a block or two long and wind up in a watery grave. We did find American Express, eventually, and along with a fairly good exchange rate, we got a map about a third the size of Venice, with at least a tiny squiggle for every street.

The four cybercafes in the city are marked with an "@" sign on the map, so we set off in the general direction of the closest, and only got hopelessly lost a few times. But that was all right! Venice is so uniformly gorgeous that you can stop anywhere and look around, and in some direction there's a sight of truly arresting beauty. (Sometimes it's a female policeman, but that's the next topic.) It does present a problem to a painter, because most of the scenes are pretty complex, all those churches and buildings with windows and boats with people standing up in them, but I'll just have to face it. Find a shady space to sit and give myself a few hours.

Venice isn't Rome, and the difference isn't just all the water in the streets. When we were in Rome for a few weeks writing Robot-Jox-not-my-title, you couldn't help but notice that the women tended to be absolute knockouts until about the age of thirty. Then the pressure of marriage and children and the fact that your husband had a mistress across town and couldn't divorce you without going to hell all tended to put about twenty kilograms of mama mia on your frame.

In Venice it doesn't work that way. Even middle-aged women are lithe and sexy and tend to dress like fashion models or professional women, take that as you will. The ones who are girls are All Girl, and not for the faint of heart. (Gay points out that some of them inexplicably speak French or German. How talented!)

Interesting that there were more cybercafes in Samoa, in the tiny town of Apia, than in Venice. Of course a cybercafe in Samoa is any joint with a computer and a phone line, and the down-payment on one is a chicken and half a pig. In Venice you have to compete with a hundred thousand businesses who can't relocate; the land is all taken.

It was a pleasant modern place, about fifty computers, all chrome and cool music. The computers were pretty new, the keyboards crisp if a little confusing -- Euro layout rather than American -- and the default screen was Bill Gates Standard, annoying but easy to handle. I'd been surfing for five minutes when one of the abovementioned pretty girls came by and asked if we'd like something. I limited myself to a glass of white wine, and Gay had a latte. It was nine bucks an hour, twice what we'd paid in Apia, but worth it.

Afterwards we wandered out with no plan other than to find an affordable nice place for lunch, and in an hour or so we found one on a back road called something like Assassins' Avenue. It was a cool shady alley where I suppose it wouldn't be that hard to assassinate someone at night, but all we killed was a few bucks for lasagna and penne carbonara, both excellent. Read the newspaper over a half bottle of Chianti, and then set out for the afternoon target, the Basilica di San Marco.

I won't say anything about religion here except to note that the current pope is not a child molester and reads all my books. The Basilica di San Marco is a huge monument to wealth and tastelessness, and would be if it were Moslem or Christian Scientist. I found it somewhat depressing to wander through it and think about legions of children slaughtered or starved to provide its treasures through the adventures of cruel professional murderers, but I'm just an old poot. Lots of people prayed there, and paid good money for the privilege of being in such a holy place.

We paid a few bucks, too. They let you into the church for free, but all the goodies are sequestered here and there, and cost you a euro or two to get through the turnstiles. Like the wonderful bronze horses that were stolen from Constantinople in 1204 -- they were a thousand years old then, Roman masterworks, the only such _quadriga_ to have survived. There are copies outside, but the real ones are only $1.50 away.

The place must generate money like Disneyworld. A constant surging line of people squeezing through from morning till night, each of them dropping five or ten bucks to see the various treasures. I got to see a tooth that belonged to St. Mark, or someone.

The Pala d'Oro, Golden Altar Panel, is worth mentioning. It's an altar screen about the size of a garage door that took 339 years of looting to accumulate. Basically an artistic ground for the display of thousands of jewels taken in the various Crusades. It's garish but impressive, especially if you don't think of airplanes crashing into buildings 700 years later in revenge.

Afterwards we had a cool drink in a coffeehouse that used to be the hangout of Richard Wagner, and then back to the hotel for a nap before confronting the evening.

We'd found a dinner place in our morning wanderings (it was also written up in the Rough Guide), Le Bistrot de Venise. Despite the foreign name and French ambience, its unique attraction is that it serves dishes based on authentic ancient Venetian recipes, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

It was absolutely fantastic. We both had a bean soup with pasta and fish, more delicate than that sounds. It's actually a puree of red bean soup prepared with fish broth, with diamond-shaped fresh pasta cooked al dente. A delicate herb combination similar to herbs Provence, and a splash of red wine. Then I had a stunning sturgeon filet baked with plums and prunes, served with a dark rich sauce of same, and Gay had delicious sauteed squids stuffed with cubed potatoes and crisp bacon. We had salads and a reasonable ($14) bottle of Pinot Grigio. The whole thing came a little shy of a hundred bucks, more than we'll normally pay for dinner unless we want to row home, but worth it.

Then we set out to walk off a couple of hundred calories. Passed through the San Marco piazza to the water, and walked along the Grand Canal for an hour or so. Some marvelous oceangoing vessels moored in an area apparently reserved for same, including wonderful sailing vessels with complex tall rigging and a streamlined rocket boat that looked like a George Lucas fantasy.

Grey Boat

We got to a monument to Garribaldi, our turn-around point. It's a wonderful sight, the usual monument to the guy standing up there looking intrepid, but he's standing on a small mountain of rock, with live plants growing out of it. One of his musketeers keeps watch below. Small bats flutter through the light after bugs. Totally charming, but perhaps not in the best part of town. So we moved on.

We wanted to cover new territory, so we went inland, sort of following the map. A tiny ancient alley of the ovens, Forni, led us to an irresistible outdoor cafe looking out on the Arsenale guarded by anthropomorphic lions. Had to stop for a Campari, of course.

Hoofed an hour or so back into the main drag, and then a block from the hotel had to stop at a jazz bar for a beer. It had a Spanish/Cuban motif, so we also had to split a mojito, less authentic but perhaps better than the ones we had in Havana.

And so to bed, tired but happy.


29 June --

A wandering day. After breakfast we crossed the Ponte Rialto to the other side of the Grand Canal, where the Rialto Market was revving up for the morning crowd. Carefully arranged and brilliantly colorful displays of vegetables, but more fascinating was the fish market, with huge swordfish on display, swords and all, and eels writhing around in shallow trays, and lots of other creatures still disturbingly alive, but undoubtedly fresh. Hundreds of small snails were slowly making a dash for freedom in one corner. Huge scallops snapped restlessly.

I went on a holy crusade to find a tube of mustard, but after about ten stores had tubes of mayo, ketchup, anchovy paste, and even toothpaste, I gave up and bought a small jar. Meanwhile we dallied at a lot of interesting shops on the other side of the canal, prices consistently cheaper than the trendy San Marco side. (The women were also less spectacular; housewives out shopping, of course, rather than the glitz 'n' glamour crowd.)

Found the best blank book and calligraphy shop in the world. The books were too expensive for me to use writing novels, I guess, beautiful heavy paper in hand-made bindings, a hundred bucks a throw with two or three necessary for one novel. Maybe we'll sell a movie before we leave.

We went to the Church of San Palo, which had some good paintings by Tintoretto and an impressive set of stations of the cross painted by Giandomenico Tiepolo when he was only twenty. Otherwise it's a big old dreary church with an interesting achitectural feature, a wooden ceiling that was "discovered" in the 1930's. I'm not sure what they thought was up there the previous 500 years.

Our vague ambition was to find the railway station and straighten out our tickets to Stresa for the Hemingway conference. It was a few miles of wandering around in random directions, a touristic Brownian motion, but with delightful scenery everywhere.

(You don't need a map to get to the central parts of Venice; there are signs with arrows at every large intersection that point toward the rairoad or, on our side, the Rialto, San Marco, or Accademia.)

(I was shocked to find out that our swanky Rialto district used to be one of the major fleshpots of Europe -- in the sixteenth century there were 11,000 prostitutes registered here. "One Rialto brothel, the Casteletto" (says the Rough Guide) "was especially esteemed for the iterary, musical, and sexual talents of its staff, and a perennial Venetian bestseller was a catalogue giving the addresses and prices of the city's most alluring courtesans.")

We spent about an hour in the railway station getting information and tickets. Gay did that, while I practiced my specialty, thumbing through the guidebook looking for a place to eat. It steered us well, to a place that used to be called Alla Pallazina, situated right by a beautiful bridge on the Cannaregio Canal. We got a table outside and ordered, but lightning and thunder drove us inside. The power went off just as our food was served, but it came on just in time to keep me from eating my fish's eyeball. It was an absolutely delicious grilled sole, along with grilled polenta. Gay had an inky bowl of squid, the eating of which gave her a trendy black-lipstick look. I had a second five-dollar half liter of house wine while we waited for the rain to abate, and we split a scrumptious tiramisu dessert. Venice is home of that confection, and I've never had any like it elsewhere in the world -- feather light yet rich with cream. The waiter gave us each a shotglass of ice with some limoncello in it--"All Venetians drink this," he said.

We picked our way through the light rain to a small internet cafe, up to date but not as nice as yesterday's, and after getting our business done proceeded through new territory north of the city center, back to Rialto, where we napped for an hour, awakened by a phone call from Brandy and Christina, our Gainesville buddies who had just driven up from a Joyce conference in Genoa.

We met them out on the terrace to catch up and help them work on a bottle of single-malt -- Brandy had been driving forever, and was ready for some alcohol. Then we went off down the twisty lanes in search of pizza, which we found with little enough trouble. The "individual" nine-dollar pizzas were actually big enough for two, but we all managed to choke them down. I had a "spicy salami" one, and Gay had six cheeses, a more tasty choice, one of the cheeses being Gorgonzola.

We walked around for awhile. Found Harry's Bar, of Hemingway fame, but they wouldn't let us in wearing shorts. So we went back to the Piazza di San Marco and sat with our Camparis and lattes and listened to music for awhile. Then back to the hotel, with only a tiny 200-calorie stop at an ice-cream (gelati) pusher.


30 June --

After typing on this and sorting through the previous day's digital photos, it was almost dawn, so I hit the bricks, looking for a 24-hour cafe.

Not easy to find. I went all around the alleys surrounding San Marco, and then down to the waterfront. Finally found one that was just opening at six.

Wrote for a couple of hours and then set off in a new direction, thinking I could just follow the "Rialto -->" signs home. Wrong. I was in a residential neighborhood, and of course all the residents know where they are. But I used dead reckoning, ducking down little streets and alleys. Unfortunately, most of the avenues going in the right direction were canals, and I didn't bring my gondola.

Finally I circled around to where the directional signs started up again, and hurried home, not wanting to delay everybody's breakfast. Everyone had overslept, though. I unleashed my new-found mustard on the breakfast salami, to some people's alarm.

We took the vaporetto out to the Peggy Guggenheim art museum. On the way found another great blank book store -- Venetians must be real diarists -- and Brandy bought a couple as presents. I found a gorgeous portfolio for carrying watercolors, but didn't want to shlep it through the museum. (So of course the store would be closed when we returned.)

The Peggy Guggenheim is a wonderful small museum of modern art. All the big names are represented, but the pieces by relative unknowns are arresting in their uniform high quality.

She inherited a small fortune, and through a circuitous route wound up using a lot of it to buy up modern art, usually on the basis of personal taste rather than consensus. For three years she was married to Max Ernst, and although the marriage was tempestuous and didn't end well, she credited him, along with her friends Chagall and DuChamp, with giving her taste in art.

She had said of Jackson Pollock that "Mr. Pollock has many problems, and one of them is painting," but Ernst convinced her otherwise, and she wound up underwriting Pollock's career, and has some wonderful examples of his work on her walls.

Her collection of Surrealism is especially strong, with instantly recognizable paintings by Dali, Cezanne, and Chagall. A lot of Mondrian, Picasso, Klee, Calder, and of course Ernst. A Futurist I'd never heard of, Boccioni, had two stunning paintings.

We had a good lunch at the museum cafe, Gay and I both enjoying duck salad. Then we went off to the internet cafe and arranged to meet later.

First order of afternoon business, since we had long pants on, was to get into Harry's Bar. A nice high-class joint that surprisingly doesn't have any Hemingway mementoes.

Then we spent a couple of hours examining the treasures of the Ducal Palace, where centuries of doges made their homes. Lots of conspicuous wealth without conspicuous taste.

Through Wall

A couple of the rooms were interesting. One, the map room, had two huge globes, easily two meters in diameter, Earth and the heavens, and interesting old maps on the walls -- one with California warned that there were cannibals there. Of course, they still eat you alive in Hollywood.

The arsenal was interesting, lots of armor and swords, pikes, crossbows, maces -- enough for the small army that would defend the wealth against foreigners or peasant uprising. Some primitive firearms were fascinating, including a kind of matchlock Gatling gun. A "Bridge of Sighs" led to a medieval prison. (The name was actually made up by some Romantics, after the prison was no longer in use.)

We went back to the Bistrot de Venise, so Brandy and Christina could sample the 14th-century cooking. My soup was excellent, fennel with pine nuts, but the main course was a disappointment. Various seafood grilled and then served with a sour sauce, but it arrived cold (perhaps it was supposed to be served at room temperature), and the eel especially was kind of unpalatable. Service and wine good, though, and everybody else liked their meals.

We walked a bit after dinner, sightseeing on the other side of the bridge, and crashed pretty early.


1 July --

I was determined to get a watercolor done, so after I typed up the diary entry, instead of writing I went down to San Marco Square, about sunup. I had a subject in mind, a chimera poised atop a tall column, and a piece of paper just the right format, tall and narrow.

It was too cold and windy to sit there, though, so I went for plan B: we had left a disk at the internet cafe, and it was open 24 hours, so I thought I'd go try to retrieve it. But I was thwarted by the Sunday vaporetto schedule -- two of them came on time, but discharged a bunch of passengers and then went on empty.

So plan C: cross the Rialto Bridge and try to find another scene to paint, out of the wind. I finally did find one, sitting in front of a restaurant that hadn't yet opened. But once I had all my gear out and started to draw, the owner came out and shooed me away for some reason.

By then it was almost 7, so I came back to our hotel restaurant to write and have my free meal. Then I went back to the San Marco chimera and, after a detour to find a place where I could dip some canal water without falling in, finally did the painting. It turned out pretty well.

(There's a companion column to the chimera, with a statue of St. Theodore. The space between them used to be the site of public executions, some ingenious, like being buried alive head down. It's supposed to be bad luck to walk between them.)

I joined the gang for their breakfast about 9:30 , after which we set off for the island of Murano, which specializes in glassblowing. The hotel arranged a free water taxi, which was an interesting experience. Basically a speedboat that holds eight or ten passengers, it zoomed us across the lagoon in a few minutes. Of course there was a catch to the "free" part; we were delivered into the clutches of a glass manufacturer, and more or less obligated to sit through their sell, which was not so bad.

First we had a demonstration of glass-blowing, amazingly fast. A grizzled middle-aged guy whipped out first a vase and then a model of a horse. I've seen it done before, in America and Mexico, but never with such panache.

Then the pitch began. The salesman was at first disconcerted to find out we weren't from a cruise, but he soldiered on, escorting us through room after room of large decorative pieces that cost thousands or tens of thousands of euros/dollars, the prices edging down until we were in a place reserved for hoi polloi -- chandeliers that went for only six to nine hundred; pitcher-and-goblet sets that only cost more than my car is worth.

Finally, having resisted everything of quality, we were released into a little shop on the ground floor that dispensed gimcrackery for mere dozens of euros. Gay bought a family of tiny pigs for a friend who collects them, six euros. The rest of us waited to see what less fancy stores had to offer.

I was sunk when we found one that specialized in pens, dip pens with points of spun glass. I have one in my collection, but not as nice as the ones they were selling, and not with a matching blown-glass inkwell. I also got a pen holder of exquisite glass with a steel nib that writes a good italic line. It holds enough ink for a moderate paragraph, so I can use it as well as admire it.

We visited a couple of other stores, mostly buying gifts, and then hiked over to the Glass Museum. It had rooms and rooms of blown glass items from the past two thousand years. The ancient ones were fascinating, but what was startling was finding, from the 14th century on, occasional pieces as delicate and "modern" as a Brancusi sculpture.

There was a good room about the science and engineering aspects of glass manufacture. It revealed the secret of the _murine in canna_, which is like a coin made up of hundreds of impossibly small circles of glass with tiny patterns inside. What they do is bundle lots of glass rods into a cylinder and heat them up, then carefully draw out the cylinder until it's a small fraction of its original diameter. Let it cool and then cut into cross-sections.

After an hour or more of that we were all getting glassy-eyed, so we retired to a cafe for sandwiches, and then deciphered the vaporetto schedule. We were discharged on the other side of the island, and so walked about a mile through new interesting territory.

Took a little rest and then met Brandy and Christina on the terrace for a drink, watching the crowds below celebrate the World Cup -- lots of Brazilians in Venice, it turns out. Then we all went off to the internet cafe to catch up on the world.

Across the square there was an interesting sidewalk place called The Cafe, which specialized in crepes and seemed to have reasonable prices. I had a lovely beef salad that was like a carpaccio but made with spiced cured beef, sliced paper thin, and then a dessert crepe of birberry, which tasted like wild blueberries. Gay got a miniature fondue of melted chocolate with various sinful things to dip into it, and let us all sample it.

Before turning in, we went off in search of a gondola ride, eventually winding up in the Rialto, by our hotel. The ride was $100 for about a half-hour -- we didn't pay extra for bad music -- and it was a wonderful experience, quietly gliding through the small back canals as the sky darkened to black.

Gondola at night


2 July --

I wandered the streets about sunup for an hour, looking for something (a) easy to draw and (b) was in view of a place to sit out of the wind. None was obvious, and I did have The Restless Urge to Write, so I slipped into a cafe and drank coffee and beer and shifted my mental bearings from the chill beauty of a Venice morning to the relentless malignant heat of the Bataan Death March.

Today Brandy and Christina wanted to be on their own -- they've been with other people since the Joyce conference -- so after breakfast we went separate ways. Gay and I took the vaporetto over to the Galleria dell'Academia, one of the best art collections in Europe, which traces the development of Venetian art from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

It's a stunning array of works of genius, of course, with some of the best of Titian, Tintoretto, Bellini, Carpaccio, Veronese -- but two that stand out for me were by people I'd never heard of. Rosalba Carriera has a small room of delicate portraits in pastel, mostly beautiful people made more beautiful by her skill -- but the last piece is a haunting self-portrait of a woman on the edge of what she called "a total loss of reason." A few years later she was blind and insane. Also striking is a photo-realistic piece by Lorenzo Lotto, "Portrait of a Gentleman in His Study," which captures a pale young man looking up as if he has fallen into a reverie, holding his place in a book, surrounded by symbols of lost love and mortality.

There's an interesting matching pair of huge canvases by Veronese. One was originally called _The Last Supper_, but it was rejected by the Court of the Holy Office as being too vulgar and heretical. Given three months to "fix" it, rather than repainting, Veronese kept its brilliant vigor and retitled it _Christ in the House of Levi_, which was acceptable. In stark contrast is his _Crucifixon_, done nine years later, somber and conventional. In between the two was the disastrous plague of 1575 and a marked shift in the authorities' religious and political attitudes, even further to the right.

There's a room and a hall full of marvelous "capriccio" architectural renderings by Canaletto and Marieschi, completely realistic in detail and perspective, but of nonexistent fantastic ruins. There are a lot of similar paintings in a hall called "Trial Works by the Academicians"; for a certain period an artist had to produce a credible architectural fantasy to be admitted to the Academy.

There's a huge painting, 13 meters long, by Tiepolo, which was taken down after the Napoleonic suppressions, and spent sixty years rolled up in a corner somewhere, causing the paint to crack. It was left in that vandalized condition, which adds to its total weirdness: _Punishment of the Serpents_, it shows hundreds of people writhing in agony as they're attacked by a herd of snakes God sent down to demonstrate something. There are also painted copies of beautiful wall and ceiling frescos Tiepolo did for a church that was destroyed in 1915 by a bomb meant for the adjacent railway station. The pieces were retrieved and pieced together and reconstructed by various artists over the next seventy years. He won the Hugo for "Unluckiest Painter of the Late Renaissance."

We spent about four foot-numbing hours there and then went over the Accademia bridge to the store that had closed on us a couple of days ago, where I picked up a couple of beautiful hand-made portfolios, one for me and one for Judith Clute, just the right size for quarter-sheets of watercolor paper, the size we most often use. Then we returned to the "mainland" to sit in a cafe and split a delicious four-cheese pizza, and then go do our email.

We got the sad news that Gay's Aunt Betty had died, after a long battle with cancer. The funeral's tomorrow, and if we were anywhere in the States, we would go to it. Hardly do-able from here. Instead, we'll visit the family as soon as we return.

Feet somewhat restored, we returned to San Marco to go through the National Archeological Museum, full of interesting Greek and Roman (and Roman copies of Greek) statuary. I love the busts of famous or wealthy people -- looking at the faces and trying to decode through culture and time what the anonymous artist has revealed about them. There's a startlingly explicit "Leda and the swan," where Leda is obviously enjoying the experience.

There's a stunning huge aerial rendition of Venice, dating from 1500. The basic layout of the city is unchanged; most of the buildings (including our hotel) seem about the same. Our Rialto bridge is the only one over the Grand Canal at that time; there are four others now.

There's a room dedicated to the supersecret Arsenale; lots of weapons and a few blueprints and maps. We were surprised to see that we happened to stop there a few nights ago, just to rest our feet and have a Campari. We noted the interesting lions in front of an old building, not knowing that they guarded the center of Venice's military might.

There was a temporary exhibit about "Science, Magic, and the Arts," which was dense with written material, basically about the suppression of science during the Middle Ages and its preservation through the offices of astrology and alchemy, transmitted back to Europe through the Arab world in the early Renaissance. Dense but fascinating.

Lighter and equally fascinating was a section devoted to everyday life in those days -- the crafts and sports and festivals. Games that prefigured things like roulette and parchesi. The grotesque bull-baiting, where bulls ran around restrained by heavy ropes while dogs attacked them -- men taunting them with red capes and then, when they were worn out, decapitating them with swords. I wonder how Spaniards take that. They also had huge ritual fist-fights, one neighborhood versus another, meeting on a bridge and trying to beat each other senseless, tossing the insensate into the canal to recover, or not. Well, they didn't have television.

We came back to the hotel to make the necessary phone calls about Betty's death -- nothing but answering machines, which was just as well -- and met Brandy and Christina on the terrace for a sundown drink. Then Gay and I managed to wend our way to a restaurant I'd been impressed by, Trattoria La Scala -- just a nice facade and beautiful display of fresh fish on ice. Gay had an assortment of lightly fried seafood and split an order of artichokes, Roman style, with me. I had grilled sole with "Miller's sauce," a delicious concoction of lemon and butter and herbs. We split a piece of gorgonzola for dessert, and then took our weary feet home.

Off to Stresa in the morning. Wish we had another week or month in this wonderful city!

3 July --

Going to the railway station on the vaporetto, we saw a new section of the Grand Canal, as marvelous as the part we'd been appreciating, going the other way. The suitcases were a bit of a burden, but not as bad as down under. No snorkel gear or telescope and only one climate to dress for.

We hung around the station for an hour, reading the papers, and then got aboard our first-class car. Not fancy; I think the seats may be bigger and they're reserved. I settled in and started re-reading _A Farewell to Arms_, the central work for the Stresa conference.

Changing trains at Milan was a hassle. I didn't correctly obey the cafe protocols -- you pay at one place, then go to the sandwich place, then go to the bar. I did all of that okay, but then was evidently standing in the wrong place; the server took my receipt but just yelled at me rather than getting my order. Eventually I realized that I was standing at the part of the bar where the waiters picked up their orders. So I let them keep the four bucks and sat down with the suitcases, sending Gay outside to find a restroom and a sandwich. A waiter came by and, rather than serving, threw me out.

Standing outside with the suitcases, I was accosted by a drunk leaning into my face. He was possibly not quite as drunk as he seemed to be, and tried with no success to pick my pockets. He could see I was stranded, not being able to move three suitcases at once, and I told him in three languages to go fuck himself, but he pretended not to understand. When Gay came back, sandwichless (with a similar experience outside the station), he still clung to us, trying to "help" Gay with her suitcase, as we maneuvered toward a food stand. I finally grabbed him physically and pushed him in the direction of three policemen, who watched with no interest. We got a couple of dry sandwiches and a beer and found our way to the train to Stresa, not eager to revisit Milan, at least the railway station.

We sat with some Americans, a couple in their forties with sons about 11 and 17, hungry and cosmically bored, respectively, and talked with them for the hour or so to Stresa. Got out at a picturesque little stop after a glimpse of huge mountains and a lake through layers of fog. Polite cab ride down the hill to the hotel.

What a hotel, the Astoria. First class, looking over the lake. It cost the same as our crackerbox in Venice, but the bathroom is larger than our bedroom there (and has a Jacuzzi big enough to do laps in). The bedroom/sitting room is modern and huge. Panoramic windows look out from the fifth floor to the lake and islands and mountains; motorized curtains draw either gauze or totally opaque blinds. On the walls, instead of reproductions, expert Chinese paintings on silk of exotic birds. Not a bad place to spend a few days, right next to the conference center.

We went over to register and it was Old Home Week, sort of like the Fort Lauderdale ICFA conference -- pals who've been getting together every other year for the past twenty. Of course the Hemingway conferences are usually in exotic places like Sun Valley or Venice or Provence. Anyplace where Hemingway wrote at least one paragraph is eligible.

We'd invited our friends Phil Anderson and Judith Summerfield to join us -- they're not Hemingway scholars, but they're avid readers and both academics, deans at New York colleges, so we figured they'd fit in. (They were in Geneva the past week, with family, anyhow.) They caught up with us at the welcome reception, held on a lovely terrace while the sky glowered but didn't rain. They'd motored over to Stresa a couple of days before, and guided us toward the restaurant part of town.

The downtown area of Stresa is very much a tourist place, little but food and drink and souvenirs obviously available. (I later found side streets with things like grocery and hardware stores.) They said that as far as they could tell, there weren't any bad places to eat, so we just picked one at random. We ate with Jackson Bryer and his wife Mary Hartig and daughter Margaret, and John Lowe.

The prices were pleasantly low, about half what we had been paying in Venice. I had a delicious plate of fried lake fish, perch, and a big salad, for about ten bucks. Then we went back to the hotel and shmoozed for a little while, turning in early.

4 July --

Happy anniversary, all you Yanks. I hope nothing interesting happens today.

Decent "free" breakfast at the hotel, cold cuts and cheese and fruit cocktail, and then off to Hemingwize. Scott Donaldson, the society prez, gave a pro forma welcome at 8:30.

They have two-track programming, which of course means that if there are two panels you want to see on a given day, they're always at the same time. I had to forego Linda Miller's "The Lost Generation" for Susan Beegel's "Hemingway and Italy I."

I mainly wanted to see Stoney, H.R. Stoneback, a leonine eminence grise whose presentations are always outstanding. This one had the challenging title "Hemingway's Stresa -- Getting it Right: Actual and Symbolic Landscape, Deep Structure, and the Borromean Subtext." ("Borromean" is not some obscure literary term; the area around Stresa was defined and controlled by the Borromean dynasty in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,)

It was actually pretty practical stuff. He talked about EH's description of the city and the lake, the accuracy and hidden depth of the research behind _A Farewell to Arms_. People have wondered whether the antepenultimate chapter, with Frederic Henry rowing manfully for eight hours to escape with his pregnant bride from Italy into neutral Switzerland, was physically possible -- it's a long way, on water that's described as rough and usually is. Stoney interviewed fishermen and members of Italian rowing clubs, and they confirmed that eight hours was right, if you left at the right time of night, because you'd have a strong wind coming down out of the mountains, pushing you toward the border.

(I have experiential quibbles with that. Henry was hospitalized with wounds similar to my Vietnam ones a month or so before, and by that time I was still walking with a cane and bedrest-weak; I couldn't have rowed for one hour, let alone eight.)

Characteristically, Stoney dropped a bombshell at the end. A nineteenth-century Italian novelist, Manzone, wrote a novel that was immensely popular at the time, _Betrothed_, that had the same plot as _Farewell_: A soldier is disillusioned with combat and has made a woman pregnant, and to escape the Italian army he rows with his bride across Lake Maggiore to neutral Switzerland. Key scenes are repeated, and both characters quote Julius Caesar. When EH's main character is in Milan, the only street he identifies by name, and he does it several times, is Manzone.

The other papers on the panel were good, all about social and literary influences on _Farewell_. One showed the relationship between EH and the Italian Irredentist movement, a political party dedicated to reclaiming captured parts of Italy. One was about Italian Futurism, which aligned with EH's views on technology, war, and sex. The last was about the connection between _Farewell_ and the conventions of courtly love -- his editor, Maxwell Perkins, had complained to EH that the novel was two novels intertwined, one about love and one about war, which was very much in the "courtly love" tradition. EH was reading the chronicles of Crusaders and Petrarch at the time he was writing the novel. A lot of the Aeneid ("I sing of arms and the man") shows up in _Farewell_.

(I can just visualize a critic in 2102 saying "While Haldeman was writing Chapter 22 of _Sea Change_, he was reading _Bizarre_, _Sky and Telescope_, _American Watercolor_, _New Scientist_, and a James Lee Burke novel.")

The linchpin of the day's activities was a reading by GoH Tobias Wolff from his novel in progress, _Old School_, a very amusing scene about a boy in a private school who leaves his sickbed to go to a lecture by Ayn Rand, one of his idols. EH is the other, and Rand denigrates him, not to her credit. The boy has an apotheosis.

Had a quick pizza lunch (apotheosis and anchovies) and then returned for _Hemingway and the Arts_, an interesting set of papers, the highlight being Jim Nagel's investigation of EH's connection with Impressionism. There was an amusing paper on Cubism in EH's style, but I think it was a stretch. You want Cubism, go to Gertrude.

Then there was a "War Stories" panel, which didn't give me much I didn't already know, except for an interesting study of the parallels -- very close in surprising ways -- between _Farewell_ and _For Whom the Bell Tolls_. (I'd have to plead guilty on that kind of connection, too, with strong parallels among _The Forever War_ and its sequels, _1968_, and Mindbridge_.) A writer keeps going home.

Went off to dinner at another random place, where I followed my basic "Don't become a blimp in Italy" strategy: no pasta, none of the delicious fried potatoes; just grilled fish and vegetables. See how long that will last.

Hung around the hotel bar until about midnight, largely talking about the day's papers -- just like any old science fiction convention -- and reluctantly crashed.

5 July --

Today was truant day. Skipping classes. Phil and Judith joined us on a boat trip to a nearby island, Isola Bella, which was just a rock until Count Carlo III Borromeo spent zillions of lire in the seventeenth century to turn it into a Monument to Wretched Excess. The architect Crivelli brought over tons of soil and whatever they used for jackhammers in those days, and turned it into terraces of exotic gardens surrounding a huge palace.

The palace is four tiers of weirdly melodramatic glitz, mostly variations of cherubs and unicorns and more or less realistic animals goring one another. There are a few good paintings and some sexy statuary. (One painting is covered over with a cloth, too high to peek under. You gotta wonder.)

The lowest level is made up of coral grottos with some interesting exhibits of old weaponry and armor, and a prehistoric rowboat they found preserved in the mud. There's a fascinating collection of bizarre marionettes.

The ten percent of the island that is not palace is shops and cafes. We picked up a nice cruet set and settled in for a light lunch. The others went off to further explore while I sat and did a watercolor of the mainland and the neighboring island, Isola dei Pescatori, once an island of fishermen, EH's favorite.

Back from the island, we walked north along the shore to a place where we'd heard there was an internet cafe, next to the funicular that goes up almost to the top of the mountain. Turned out that the establishment consisted of one broken computer, so we just hopped into the next cart and allowed ourselves to be cranked up about 5000 feet.

It was in interesting, slightly scary ride. By coincidence, we took it along with Tobias Wolff and his wife. We got off and walked on up to the top together, trading Vietnam stories. Our tours overlapped; he went there in 1967 after having done language school, and trained South Vietnamese soldiers, who he said were no braver than they had to be, which suited him.

It's a fairly arduous climb to the top, but worth it. We were blessed with a crystal clear day -- the only rainless one since we'd arrived -- and could see Alps upon Alps ranging off into Switzerland, and networks of interconnected lakes down on the ground.

We had to hurry back to the hotel to meet Linda Wagner-Martin and others for dinner. We wound up with a party of nine, but that was no problem in this touristy town. I had tasty Lago Maggiore fish and a salad too large to finish.

Then we went off to the 8:00 "Remembering Ernest Hemingway" panel. There was a fascinating filmed interview between Donald Junkins and Hemingway's 90-something sister Carol, but the high spot was a reading of family correspondence by John Patrick Hemingway, son of Hemingway's son Gregory. It was a series of letters where EH tried to persuade Gregory to listen to Papa about an upcoming safari, which became increasingly patronizing (EH) and rancorous (G.), and exceedingly funny as insider gossip.

Hanging out in the bar afterwards, we talked with John Patrick and his wife, both interesting people. John has lived in Milan the past 18 years, and has become so Italian he reads English as a foreign language. He's into amateur bicycle racing, so we had that kind of gear talk. His wife has been seriously studying ceramics for some years, art as well as craft, and is drop-dead beautiful as well as intelligent and charming. So it was a pleasant evening, into the wee small.

6 July --

We said goodbye to Phil and Judith after breakfast; they motored on back to Geneva and family.

The 9:00 panel was "Hemingway Biography I," starting off with our friend Rose Marie Burwell talking about Mary Hemingway and her African safari diary, subtitled "The High Cost of Not Being Taken Seriously." It was fascinating stuff about Mary realizing that EH was trying to chase her off, as he had the three previous wives, and how she hung on with grim determination, to have decades of revenge after he died.

Then there was an interesting paper about Agnes von Kurowsky, the nurse EH fell in love with while he was recovering from wounds in WWI Italy. There's evidence that she actually did fall in love with him, at least for awhile (contrary to the canon), but she was kind of an adventurous lass, and EH was far from the only one. (She was all-but-engaged to an older man back in Chicago, a doctor she called Daddy, but that ebbed while she surrendered to the excitement of being overseas.)

Kaimei Zheng talked about Hemingway in China, an interesting short period that has been all but ignored by scholars. Just before WWII, EH and his temporary wife Martha Gellhorn went to China on separate magazine assignments. They were taken (blindfolded) to Chou en Lai, and conversed in French for an hour or so. An interpreter who was there noted that EH did ninety percent of the talking. There are a couple of ways to see that. I suspect Chou was the kind of guy who uses silence well.

We had a quick lunch with a few pals and then went down to the dock to board a boat that was going up Lago Maggiore, to follow the route of Frederic Henry and Cat[herine] Barkley, escaping from Italy to neutral Switzerland.

The weather was gorgeous. Smooth sailing and grand scenery, mountains and islands drifting by. There was a slightly drunken sing-along with Stoney and his wife Sparrow, mostly spirituals and 60's folk songs, which Gay and I and another hundred enjoyed. Stoney had a Voyageur (sp?) travel guitar, the kind that looks like a small lute, with a pickup voiced by a battery-powered tinny speaker. A good travel kit, actually.

Gay in the Isola Bella shell room.
Gay in the Isola Bella shell room.