Thursday, May 14, 2009

Piu Venice

Marisa already wrote a pretty good description of Venice, but I feel obliged to add a few tidbits.  I'm probably more naively enchanted than she is, since as she likes to point out, I have a fascination with all things maritime.  I'm not sure if this will be interesting or not.

Venice is bizarre.  It is 1000 years old.  Built on former glory and filled with booty stolen from its former mediterranean empire, it exemplifies the greatest irony of the crusades, in which the blood and booty thirsty crusaders decided to sack a *christian* city, Constantinople (now istanbul).  They got a little sidetracked from the Holy Lands, evidently.  They carried the treasure back to Venice.  With that treasure they built an improbable city literally on the middle of the ocean, by paving over marsh and canals in a series of low-lying islands.  Many paved streets in Venice are called "Rio", which to those familiar with latinate languages will easily recognize as meaning "river".  (Think Rio Grande.)  That's because that particular street used to be a river, but was slowly converted to land.

I don't think this improbable city would have really been able to continue without tourism.  It is quaint and gorgeous but extremely impractical.  You have to walk everywhere within the city, unless you have the advantage of having a boat.  We'd regularly see delivery men struggling to move pallets of food and drink up and down steps over canals to get to their restaurant or business.  I personally am not sure I'd even want to live there.  Besides it being so clearly expensive, the other problem was that it's a very contained space.  From our hotel I'd need to run nearly a mile to get to a park.  Everywhere else in the city the only place to walk or run were tiny lanes about 5 to 10 feet wide.  It felt pretty trapped and oppressive, despite being so beautiful and appealing because of the canals and the buildings.  It would be impossible to train for a marathon in Venice, unless you like running 1 mile loops for 3 hours.

Still, it was awesome, which I mean literally.  It's awe inspiring to be standing in such a strange and improbable city, which is in true fact slowly sinking into the marsh beneath, while tourists roam above buying $3000 coats at the Armani store.  (We did not buy any $3000 coats, although I kept pointing at them in the display and joking about buying them to Marisa.)  The boat transportion was also very exciting.  One thing that would have made it better was if we were able to rent boats.  We like to canoe or kayak around and have done so in many places.  It didn't seem possible in Venice, though, which was very surprising.

Those are my additional impressions besides those which Marisa has already written:

Hard Rock Cafe

Our hotel, by happenstance, was about one block from the Hard Rock Cafe in Venice.  We discovered it because our first night in Venice we walked from our hotel to Piazza San Marco.  After crossing one canal bridge and one block, we saw the Hard Rock.  We've traveled in more than 15 countries together but have never gone into a Hard Rock before, but for some reason this one was very inviting.  Partly it was because it seemed to have reasonable prices, as opposed to the rest of Venice.

We went in and expected to order only one drink before heading back quickly.  However, we were instantly entranced by the rock music videos on the wall behind the bar and the incredibly friendly waitress.  It's hard to explain, but when you've been away from the good ole' USA for 3 months and there's a video of "I can't drive 55" with Sammy Hagar wearing a 80s jumpsuit and goofily doing battle in a Mustang with the California Highway Patrol on I-5, followed by his arraignment in a courtroom and the subsequent rescue by his bandmates, you can't turn away.  The videos kept coming, and we kept getting more excited.  Assuming it wasn't a dream, at one point they played Hotel California, and we sung along shamelessly.  They also played some U2 (ok, this isn't american), Scooby Snacks (by the fun lovin criminals), and LA Woman (The Doors).  I guess we were missing home and didn't even know it.

Most surprisingly, the Hard Rock didn't even seem to have other Americans in it.  We were shocked that it was packed, and it was packed with Europeans of different varieties.  It seemed like the hip place to be for younger people in Venice.

On a final note, supposedly the hard rock chain was created because the owners couldn't find good american food outside of the US.  However, their menu is pointlessly limited to stuff that is actually quite easy to get all over the world:  burgers, steaks, etc.  The one thing that any self-respecting American should love and that is hardest to find outside the US is Pancakes/Flapjacks.  I crave them practically every morning.  We didn't have good pancakes for 2 months until Marisa made them in one of our hostel kitchens as a special treat.  (Yay Marisa!)

The Watered Down Sherry, or how the New World encounters the Old World

As Marisa described, one of the adorable features of Venice is that on the main piazza there are many cafes at which paid musicians wearing full white tuxedos play classical and other types of music in classical formats.  Many people simply walk up and stand to listen.   The setting itself is also beautiful because it's on Saint Mark's Square (Piazza Di San Marco).  Despite it being really old, the major view on the square is of the Cathedral, which is so ornate and covered with Byzantine paintings that it looks like it's fake.  We felt that if we walked up to it and smacked the rock, it'd be fake plastic that would sound hollow like at Disney, and if we walked around to the back we'd see plywood was holding it up.  (The walls were in fact rock and hurt when you hit them, and the building was 3 dimensional.)

Of course, you need to buy something to sit at a table or a seat at one of these cafes with the music.  One time after dinner we decided we'd buy one drink at an outrageous price (so large I would feel embarassed to share here) just so we could sit and listen in comfort.  We planned to nurse that drink for as long as we dared.  It was lateish (10pm), so we decided to order a Sherry for dessert.  Sherry is a fortified (extra alcohol) white wine that should appear yellowish to dark orange in color.  When it arrived we took a few sips and grew suspicious.  It was unlike any sherry we had before.  While we are not sherry experts, Marisa uses sherry in cooking, and we've indulged in a few previously, so we have some practical experience.  Plus, Steve took Wines 101 at Cornell Hotelier School Pass/Fail, in which they did a unit on fortified wines, including Sherry.  He passed, which may or may not mean anything.  This particular sherry tasted watery and was only pale yellow in color.  When we rotated the glass and let the sherry fall down the side of the glass, it left very small fingers, implying low alcohol content.  All previous good sherries we'd had were darker in yellow, and had viscous and thick fingers.  Also, very weirdly, it was not sweet, which most sherries are.

We debated for a couple minutes.  Normally we wouldn't say anything.  After all, when you're in a foreign country it's hard to know what's normal.  Still, in this case we felt pretty confident someone had watered down the sherry and the owner should know and that possibly we should get our money back.  We called the waiter over.  "This sherry is weird.  It's not viscous."

"Yes, sherry is viscous."

"NO.  This sherry is NOT viscous."

The waiter became flustered.  "No, no, sherry is viscous."

"si, si, capisco.  But this sherry tastes like it has aqua in it."

"Please.  Prego.  I will get my manager."

He went to fetch the manager, and we walked up to the bar to talk to him.  It felt pretty stupid to make a big deal about the drink, but it also feels pretty lame to be cheated with something crappy when you pay a lot for it.

The manager walked up all haughty.  "This is good sherry."

We explained that we felt like it wasn't viscous enough.  He said, "Where do you come from?"

We cringed, fearing that by revealing we were Americans he would dismiss our "ignorant" concerns about Sherry.  I prepared to deal my Cornell Hotelier School Wine Class ace card, should the need arise.  We told him, "The United States, America"

He said, "Where do you get the sherry you have in the United States?  This is Good Sherry."

I replied, summoning old memories from class and the back of wine bottles, "Spain or Portugal."

He paused, apparently realizing we weren't complete idiots, "Well, this sherry is Tio Pepe.  It is the most popular Sherry in Europe."

"Why is it not sweet?"

"Tio Pepe is a dry sherry."

Marisa said, "Can you try it?  It tastes watered down to us.  I use dry sherry in cooking, and this does not taste like dry sherry."

He hesistated and scowled at us.  He seriously didn't want to try it and acted like we weren't worth his time!  He repeated, "This is perfectly fine sherry."

Marisa repeated, "Please, can you try it?  It tastes weird."

He poured himself a little glass, tasted with a scowling pinky hold, and then insisted it was perfect.  He eventually said that if we didn't like it we wouldn't have to pay, although he was clearly not happy while saying so.  Not knowing if we were right or wrong and worried about making a fuss over nothing, we said thanks and sat back down to enjoy the music.  We eventually left the money for the drink because we weren't sure if we were just being paranoid.

Later that night we googled Tio Pepe, and it is indeed quite different from normal sherry.  It is dry and is quite popular in Europe.  It has less alcohol than normal sherry.  However, the next day we bought another glass of it (for much cheaper) elsewhere just to check if it was the same, and we're 80% sure the second glass was much more viscous, had broader fingers, and tasted stronger than the glass we had bought that night.  Psh, it doesn't really matter, but it feels ridiculous because it seemed likely that cafe charges so much for things and then adulterates them.  Still, we got to listen to wonderful music in front of a 1000 year old Cathedral, so we didn't feel that bad about it the next day.  I guess ultimately this is another example of getting duped in a foreign country because you aren't sure of how things work.


  1. Wow-what an information packed post. I'm not sure what to say; boys with their toys v all things maritime, cities built on landfill, old cities like Venice and new cities like the one in Germany in the NYT reducing CO2 emissions by not using cars. I think I'll comment on the sherry. You should forward this post to Cornell just in case they need vindication for allowing students to 1) take pass-fail courses and 2) sign up for courses that are outside of their colleges. Just think, 6 years later, you're putting your learning to good use.

  2. Great post! America misses both of you too.

  3. hahahah I love how you guys switch perspectives about who is narrating without even giving a hint that you're doing so!