Aliza Wong is an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University. She lives in Lubbock, Texas, with her son and husband, but hails from Portland, Oregon.

Eating — and living — in Venice

A daily ritual

July 23, 2009

There is a certain practiced beauty to the idea of ritual — the familiar movements, the age-old processes, the fluidity of repeated action. And while certainly this can quickly become automatic, thoughtless routine, what separates habit from ritual is the very deliberate nature of choosing to participate, to engage in the act of tradition.

As I see more of the world, become more impassioned about the humility of humanity, become more scandalized at the cruelty of inhumanity, it is these moments, these active, empowering moments of deciding to embrace elements of the past, of harnessing the strength of common familiarity, that draw me inward.

This past March, when I was on sabbatical in Milan, Italy, I decided it was time to revisit Venice. It is interesting to me to see the reactions of people to Venice. To me, the city of Venice represents one of the most entrancing, enchanting places in Europe. It is no longer a “lived” city. There are no longer Venetians in Venice, the Italians lament. But there are tourists. Hordes of them. All moving in herds to the sites of pilgrimage, to Piazza San Marco, to the Bridge of Sighs, to the Rialto.

Venetian men at the end of their day.

And some are so disturbed by the commoditization of Venice as a site of commercial tourism — of mindless visiting, of overflowing canals, sewage, algae, overpriced traghetti, menus, masks — that they fail to see the Venice behind Venice. The Venice lost among the bridges, the Venice of wanderers, the Venice of the ghetto, the Venice of decaying decadence, the Venice that is slow, private, silent, quiet. That is the nostalgia of Venice that I feel when I need solitude, when that solitude is shared with those I love the most.

Our sojourn in Venice was one of new familiarity. They were the same streets, the same incredible architecture, the same sacredness of form and aesthetic and beauty. But they were also new, as Venice is every time, upon every visit. As Venice becomes more and more a lived place for me, the visitor, I arrive in recognizable corners, known smells, reflective melancholy. And yet it is always a new city.

The shop where I bought lithographs that hang in my home has been replaced by the atelier of a designer. The little pastry shop with the powdered sugar air, smelling of crisped ribbons of dough fried in olive oil, the candied citrus of yeasty hot rolls, has been replaced by a store selling candles, bath soaps, shampoo. But in its newness, there are pockets of incredible oldness.

Aimlessly wandering, one finds oneself in Venice.

As we went wandering this time, we happened upon a little bar next to a bridge (as all the little bars are) with red framework, prosciutti hanging from the ceiling, and baskets of bread on the counter, surrounded by hunks of gloriously fragrant cheese, the milk of cow, sheep, goat. It was fast approaching dusk, and as the early evening waned into the late, the little bar began to glimmer, to glow. From the window, from the open doorway, the warm embrace of light emanated.

And slowly, the pellegrini, the pilgrims, arrived. We watched as the last of the Venetians who live in Venice came to participate in the dying ritual. The older Venetians, mostly male, hats on their heads, walked slowly toward the bar, led to the light, guided by the shine. As they entered, they were greeted by the man slicing the prosciutto, swish of the slicing blade, faster and faster, whisper-thin sheets of pink brininess.

A little bar in Venice.

They were welcomed by the woman behind the counter, folding the cured ham into chewy, crusty, floury rolls, just enough meat to soften, moisten the bread, just enough bread to give substance, significance to the prosciutto, just the size to nibble on with your right hand while nursing a glass of red wine in your left.

And as they arrived at their shrine, these Venetians ended their day, sharing their news, listening to their stories, fostering their community. They laughed, they roared, they paced, they trembled. They nodded in agreement, raised their voices in discord. They shared that moment, that familiar moment of recognizing and acknowledging the end of yet another day.

And they sat in the small space, stood where they could, letting the salumi melt onto their tongues, working on the chew of the bread in the backs of their mouths, relishing the sliiiiiiiiiiiiide of the red wine on their palates.

And just as quickly, just as deliberately, they put down their glasses, paid for the whetting of their appetite, said good-bye to the man and the woman behind the counter, and, hats back on their heads, they tumbled out of the bar, into the street, to take the short walk home to where a hot, home-cooked meal awaited them to welcome the night.

We watched this nightly ritual, once even daring to enter the bar, to order our plate of cheese and ham, to drink our wine, to fumble our way through the practiced acts of these veterans of ritual. And how I envied them. I have been too much a creature of habit and not enough a practitioner of ritual. While I have my coffee shop and my bookstore and my marketplace and my roads well traveled, my visits are too often automatic, too much routine, too usually regular, too infrequently deliberate. I long for thoughtfulness, I covet premeditated purposefulness, I desire to make the conscious and intentional choice to engage.

All it takes are two slices of pink, salty ham on a small, crusty bun, a glass of house red wine, a little bar painted red, a bridge, a canal, and a city that still, to this day, chooses to live and breathe.

There are 3 comments on this item
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1. by kudzu on Jul 23, 2009 at 7:07 PM PDT

This is really so lovely and heartfelt. I haven’t been to Venice for years and I am sure I would also find changes. But it remains one of the most seductive places, always just on the edge of being lost to the waters, always mysterious. I slept in a tall bedroom on Giudecca, with a magnolia tree in the garden outside that reminded me of my Southern childhood, and in the middle of the night I was very aware of a ghostly presence in the summer night. My young daughter who was sharing the room experienced the same sensation -- though each of us lay still and didn’t tell the other until the morning.

I love what you wrote about the old men and their habits with wine and food. And it’s certainly a habit worth cultivating.

2. by anonymous on Jul 29, 2009 at 2:05 PM PDT

Venice is most definitely still a living, breathing city. Not the way it was in days past, perhaps, but not dead yet, either. Mille grazie for this heartfelt, firsthand account that confirms the patient’s pulse.

3. by cafemama on Jul 29, 2009 at 6:39 PM PDT

Aliza, your post makes me both mourn the Venice that was and long for the Venice that is. what a fitting tribute to the power of food rituals (and salumi and red wine). perhaps we can help Venice live with us by adapting and teaching our children to savor and honor food as a daily celebration of artistry and community.

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