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Winner of Contest 2006

Postcard - A Remo (by oar), Sweet Venetian Evenings

Nan McElroy (venexiananan)

I never thought life here would be particularly easy. I don't think Italy is a perfect country, nor am I in search of one. There have certainly been some extremely trying, difficult, not to mention humiliating, experiences in the process of adjusting to a foreign culture in a famous, beloved, yet ultimately small, remote island village; difficulties to be expected with such a drastic change, in fact. But then, along comes a singular type of experience that you understand can only happen here, now, with these people, in this in this place, completamente al improvviso (without any semblance of planning); and you also understand that to become a part of the flow that creates these occurrences is precisely one of the reasons you've been willing to move heaven and earth in order to live here.

It began as perfectly pleasant but unexceptional evening. I went to meet a friend to nail down some specifics on a project we've got going. It was still oppressively hot and humid at 7:30pm when I arrived at his studio (I told him I felt like I was walking through water - bath water). We had planned to work for a couple of hours, then go grab a bite.

Bata Burana

Batea Buranea

At about 9:30pm we headed out, and I can't say the air was much lighter, or cooler. A five minute walk lead us to a favorite eatery, and as my friend smokes, we sat outside. We ordered a light dinner, and come il solito, we were still eating at 11:30pm. And normalmente, this would have been the end of a very nice evening.

Instead, sta sera was the last night the proprietor would be there for three weeks, as he was getting married the following Saturday, and wouldn't be back until after the honeymoon. The resulting amount of allegria in giro was significant, and it seemed like an appropriate time for us locals to toast our friend with a select bottle of the Franciacorta (the prestigious, firmly structured sparkling wine and recent phenomenon from Lombardia, made from chardonnay and pinot noir and produced con metodo classico, or methode champagnoise: in the same way as Champagne, with a second fermentation taking place in individual bottles which are rotated as they age.)

When he brought out the bottiglia, and I knew how he planned to open it: held at the base with one hand, a heavy-bladed cleaver in the other, he'd run the blade up the seam with a little velocit, and whack! off would come the top of the bottle at the collar, clean as a whistle, cork, schiuma, and all. I'd seen this more than once, and must admit that although it's simpler that it looks, it's quite impressive, and adds a delightful touch that makes the celebratory bubbly taste just that much better.

Tonight though, il promesso sposo offered me the bottle, and the blade. O Dio, I was dying to give it a try, of course, but immediately had visions of shattered glass, injured patrons, et. al. But it was too enticing not to give it a shot (so to speak); so after mustering a bit of confidence and a little false bravado, whack! it worked like a charm. The contents of the decapitated bottle were immediately divided expertly and equally across an expectant line of ten or so glistening calici, which were swept up and passed among us in what seemed like one motion, then toasted, cin cin, e viva!, eye to eye, each one to each one. And yes, the Franciacorta tasted just lovely, thank you.

Now, in the middle of all this allegria had arrived a Venetian couple, friends of the proprietor, by boat. O meglio, in barca a remi: by row boat. (This is not the rowing we're familiar with, but instead la voga veneta: Venetian style rowing, standing up while facing the front of the boat, pushing forward to propel it). Out comes another celebratory bottle, this time of Billecart-Salmon 1997 (it was the proprietor's turn to whack this one, I didn't want to press my luck), and during the brindisi, the toast, the couple offers un giro in barca to anyone who's interested. Now, we ask? Ma certo, certainly now! The only ones who weren't on their feet immediately were the two artist-friends, deep in some involved, highly philosophical conversation that could not be interrupted for a silly boat ride.

Venetian couple arriving by boat

Venetian couple arriving by boat

The boat was a bata burana, one of the leaner transport boats of Burano; black on the outside and wood on the inside, about 18' long, and equipped with two massive oars at least half as long as the barca itself. It easily held the eight of us, with il capitano standing behind, high above us on the poppa, gently guiding us out onto the Canal Grande.

It's after 2 am, and there is no traffic on still, silent Canal except the occasional vaporetto and the Casino taxi that runs from Piazzale Roma gratis. Daniela offers the front oar to the proprietor, Vuoi provare? He sure did, and set the oar in the front forcola, the carved wood fulcrum that cradles the oar as you row. It popped out immediately, and again, and again; this is not so easy as it looks, maybe.

It isn't, and it doesn't matter. I can only tell you that - holding onto that heavy oar, watching it spoo-ish rhythmically through the pitch-dark water, with the humid lights of Venice gliding noiselessly by, the misty moon suspended above the shoulder of il capitano on high, our muffled, emotional comments barely containing our delight - if I wasn't already convinced that this was the place from where I wanted to live my life, I was now presa completamente, completely overtaken: forte, forte Venezia.

The experience of rowing down the canal contributed to my ebbrezza easily as much as any of the bubbly, and when we were offered another boat ride to Piazzale Roma at the end of the evening, I giddily accepted, even though it was in the opposite direction I needed to go (I couldn't perdere l'occassione, miss the opportunity). We headed up the Canal at about 4:30am in the dark; by the time we reached Piazzale Roma it was daybreak. We all waved goodbye and I boarded the vaporetto at 5:30am to head for home. I don't think I'd seen 5:30am from the after-midnight side in about twenty years.

Vale la pena, I thought, as I snuggled between the cool sheets. This won't be a weekly occurrence, but I don't expect it will be the last time, either.

The locale mentioned here is everyone's beloved La Cantina, run by Francesco and Andrea, at Campo San Felice on the Strada Nova (just across the bridge above the Calle Ca' d'Oro).

Nan McElroy lives in Venice and is the author of Italy: Instructions for Use: the practical, pocket guide which launched the Instructions for Use Travel Series (now including France: Instructions for Use, and Greece in the works). http://europeinstructions.com. Read more on her Living Venice Blog.

© Nan McElroy, 2005

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