Missing Venice? Visit With Donna Leon!

Many of us are stuck in our homes thinking of all the places in the world we’d like to visit.  Why not take an armchair tour of Venice with my favorite detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti.  The fictional Italian detective,  is a commissario in the Italian State Police, stationed in Venice.  He is proud to be a native Venetian. The creation of Donna Leon, Brunetti becomes our eyes and ears in Venice. His wife, children, family life, upper class in-laws, obnoxious boss and the other detectives all become part of our tour.  We peek into the worlds of Counts and Countesses, immigrants, Venetian middle class and the very poor.  What I love about Leon’s books is the way they draw me into  the social, political and historic fabric of the city, and region.  With Brunetti, we hop on a traghetto (think bus in the water), a police boat, sometimes even a car, but most often on foot to wend our way through canals and neighborhoods tourists don’t see.

 And then the air was just as suddenly filled with the sweetness of springtime and buds and new leaves, fresh grass and nature’s giggly joy at coming back for another show
As they turned into the broad stereet, Brunetti saw evidence in support of his belief that this was one of the few areas of the city still filled primarily with Venetians.  It was enough to see the beige woollen cardiagans and short carefully permed hair to know the older women were Venetian; those children with their skateboards were not there on vacation; and most foreign men did not stand so close to one another during aconversation.  The shops, too, sold things that would be used in the city where they were purchased, not wrapped up and taken home to be shown off as some sort of prized acquisition, like a deer hunted and shot and tied to the top of a car.
“By Its Cover” 2014

The Venetian inspector also editorializes on the not so positive transitions that have occurred in Venice over the past fifty or so years.  He often speaks of the changes that all of us who have been fortunate to visit Venice over the decades have seen. The enormous cruise ships that displace tons of water and toss thousands of back pack smashing tourists all at once onto the island.  Like whirling dervish they twist and twirl over bridges.  Made in China faux Venetian glass, masks and more have taken over bakeries, butcher shops and vegetable stands.

Brunetti — I had the good fortune to grow up in a different Venice, not this stage set that’s been created for tourists …  Venetian families, especially young ones, are driven out because they cannot afford to rent or buy a home.

“Earthly Remains” 2017

Picking up travel and life hints while binge reading Brunetti is also a great way to plan your next visit to Italy.  There are so many food references that fans demanded and were rewarded with the Brunetti’s Cook Book.

The first time I had a prescription filled in our villages local pharmacy I was mesmerized watching the farmacista peel and stick labels from boxes.  Leon’s accurate description of the action had me smiling.  There are many more bits and pieces of everyday Italian life sprinkled in the books.
She took the boxes, peeled off stamps from the backs, and pasted them on to the prescriptions the woman gave her.  Then she ran the prescriptions over the sensor plate next to the cash register, put the boxes in a plastic bag, and accepted a twenty-Euro note in payment.  She rang up the sale and returned the woman’s change, added the receipt, thanked her, and wished her a pleasant eventing.
“Temptation of Forgiveness,”  2018
Take a walk with Donna Leon’s Brunetti and become a part of  Venetian life.  Just be wary when and where you walk.  Once we were trying to get over the Rialto Bridge and cross the Grand Canal.  A wild large tourist group of where could they be going in such a hurry, came galloping over the bridge.  Jack and I clung to the sides.  No, even though I thought it, I didn’t stick out my foot.
Brunetti’s first response, given that it was a warm day in early spring, had been to calculate the easiest way to walk from the Questura to the Palazzo without becoming entrapped in the by now normal migration paths of the herds of tourists.  Because of the clear sky and benevolent temperature, walking hip Riva Degli Schiavoni would be impossible, crossing Piazza San Marco an act of madness.
Brunetti walked home quickly, paying almost no attention to what or whom he passed, deaf to the sound of the returning birds, the only tourists no one resented.
“Upon Us a Son Is Given,” 2019
Donna Leon is incredibly prolific.  I think there are twenty-nine Brunetti novels. But there may be a new one coming soon.  She is my literary work ethic idol. Besides the cook book there are television shows, a Brunetti walking tour, even stories with music!  But hey – she IS a Jersey girl! Born in Montclair, New Jersey, she lived and worked in Venice for over thirty years.  Her Commissario Brunetti series has won countless awards.  I would love to award her the Midge’s Favorite Author of All Things Venetian award.  Would it be stalking if I just sat outside her house and stared???
“Trace Elements” is the latest book.  I can’t wait to get mine and see where Brunetti goes next. Why not pour a glass of Prosecco and visit Venice with Guido Brunetti. You will be so happy you did.
Ci vediamo!!

PS. Stay safe and wear a mask.

Walking and Talking – Communication Simplified

This morning I was reading a book of essays by Donna Leon, author of the addictive novels featuring crime solving Venetian Commissario Guido Brunetti. In My Venice and Other Essays she writes about all things Venetian – all right I will admit I was a little jealous – her little tales of daily life were wonderful and I’ve decided she is my idol.  The first essay, My Venice, reminded me about why I enjoy Pontelandolfo and scowl at the car I am forced to use to do anything in  suburban NJ.  Here read this: (p.3)

Much of the joy that I find in living in Venice results from this fact: there are no cars… Because we are forced to walk, we are forced to meet.  That is every morning the people of Venice are constrained to see, walk past, walk along with their neighbors.  This leads to casual conversation, to the exchange of information about the world or about their personal lives…

Thanks Donna, I totally get that.  Every morning when I walked down the hill from our house in Pontelandolfo to the piazza for that incredible cappuccino, I would pass the same older woman dragging out drying racks and hanging her laundry.  The first day, I smiled at her and she looked at me quizzically.  By the third month she was telling me quick stories about the son she lives with and her grandchildren.  When we go back next week for our six month visit, I hope she is still out there hanging the wash.

2013-05-12 12.42.25
If I walk at the same time, I’ll see the same women hanging laundry every day.

Pontelandolfo has one main piazza – Piazza Roma.  This is the central social and shopping hub of daily life.  People stroll, chat, have a caffè in one bar or another and actually smile at the strange American lady – me.  They communicate – it might be tossing their hands in the air and grunting “bo” but it is the sound of people talking to people. Wednesday when the market comes to town, people swap tales, comment on purchases and catch up on local lore.  They aren’t racing through the big glitzy glassed-in mall from one equally redundant store to the next.  They are walking and talking.

2010-06-15 12.00.19
That slight incline in the upper left corner is the beginning of the steep hill to the church. I’m huffin’ & puffin’ and everyone else is chatting.

They walk down to the bocci court or calcio field.  They walk up the hill to the church.  On Saint days, they walk in processions.  They walk and talk – OK sometimes they repeat the rosary too.  No necks straining under the weight of a bobbing head tilted down at hand held devices.  Walking and talking – direct communication – who knew it was still being done!

IMG_0649
Saint’s Day Procession – You are right – I need to walk more because I can’t remember which saint.

I’ll tell you who else still walks and talks – my Aunt Stella.  Stella, in her 90’s,  lives in Brooklyn and walks to the market, botanical garden, museum, well just about everywhere.  It keeps her mind agile and body strong.  She looks at the city as her home and relishes every moment she can be out and about and talk to folks.  She never had a car and loves the buses and subway system.  Sure, sometimes she calls a car service but not too often. Who can she meet from the backseat of a car?

Then there is my  90 something young Aunt Chris, living on the fahkackata mountain in Hillsborough, NJ. She used to drive everywhere – dancing, senior club, exercise classes, lunch.  She moved from her little house to what seems like miles from civilization and gave up her car.  No sidewalks, no easy way to get to all those senior activities she used to love, no way to just bullshit with people.  Granted, she is in a safe and loving environment with her son – but where is the action.  Where is the drama she used to love when she was able to drive her car all over the place?  She grew up in lower Manhattan and still remembers her sidewalk days.

86950-PH-PA95-024
Wednesday Market Day Strolling.

I look at those two aunts that I absolutely adore and I look at the elderly women in Pontelandolfo who still walk everywhere. These women are older than I am and I’m getting medicare in May.  Women dressed in black carrying flowers to the cemetery walk along the highway.  Women walk down and up the mountain daily to get chow for lunch and dinner.  Women who are strolling with their friends during passeggiata and still have that evil gleam of girlhood in their eyes.

That’s who I want to be – a woman who walks, talks and listens.  Healthier for the physical activity and happier for the conversation.