Friday, March 8, 2013


Mr Tabubil and I have just returned from three weeks holiday – a week in Holland, so that I might see a bit of his country and meet his family, and two weeks together after that in Italy.  Right now, we're in Venice.

Murano is the island in the Venetian lagoon where the Venetian glass is blown. Glass-blowing was exiled to this island in the thirteenth century – about a kilometer and a half offshore from the city, mostly for reasons of fire-protection.  Glass blowing involves fire, and keeping that fire contained away from the big city was sensible.
            The last time I was in Venice, I had stayed in a little hotel where the room charge included a boat ride out the island.  The night ahead, I went down to the front desk to confirm -
            "We run the tours every half hour, from nine till eleven thirty in the morning."
            "Will ten o’clock be all right?"
            "Perfectly, madam."
            "I don't have to reserve a place?"
            "Not at all."
            "I'd like to reserve anyway.  Ten o’clock sharp.” 
            "Ten o'clock, madam."
            At ten o'clock the next morning, I presented myself at the front desk, and the Concierge, looking faintly irritated, told me that I'd missed the tour.  It only left once a morning, at nine o'clock sharp.
"That's not what you told me last night!”  I said.
"Oh Yes it is!" 
            But it wasn't, because just as we were both gearing up really good stink-eyes, he turned away to make a whispered phone call and within seconds had adjusted his voice and face and was saying smoothly "But we'll be happy to run a special tour just for you.  Your guide will be here in five minutes."
            And he was.

He gave me a sleek wooden Indiana Jones speedboat all to myself – just me and the pilot.  He took me past tipsy, painted, sliding-sideways Palazzos, and little stone houses whose front steps stood a foot below the ice-blue water - no seaweed or slime or mussel shells, just smooth white steps leading down into the sea.  We motored past Isola San Michele, whose shores are brick walls plunging straight down into the water of the lagoon.  Behind them are cypresses and poplars and acres of graves, and I wondered how the trees grew and how the graves were dug.  Did the coffins float in their plots, rising and falling with the tides? 

There is another, much larger, much older Venice under the surface of the lagoon.  Drowned buildings and drowned streets lay one hundred feet below my keel, ten centuries of churches and palaces, drowned markets and butchers and tanners and brothels and houses.  They lived silently, with a languid, liquid, tidal pulse, but alive - not buried in silt and muck and shipwrecks, but luminous and shining.

We moored on the loading dock of a glass factory, where an artisan and his team of apprentices were building a chandelier, blowing incandescent blisters as thin and delicate as soap bubbles, cooling them to a liquid that was solid and a solid that was liquid, moving slowly as a geological age, hot as the surface of the sun or cold as old, sea-slick stone; glass like frozen waves, salt tipped, faceted and sparklingglass like the ooze of extruded lavaglass like a Georgia O'Keefe painting, limpid colors layered shade upon shade. The ambiguity of it is compelling – air, earth, fire and water, all syllables of the same word.  

This time around, the Indiana Jones speedboats were unreasonably expensive, and we took the vaporetto out to the island of Murano. 
            Murano is a smaller, squarer town than Venice.  The houses are lower, and there are trees and gardens, and squares of green grass.  The buildings are flat squares of color, glowing and glaring against a flat blue mid-day sky. The water was high here as well – Murano was another drowned city, with waves lapping over the sidewalks and villagers stepping carelessly through the waves.

We walked up and down the canals of the sleepy residential half of the island, but Mr Tabubil wanted to see glass blowing.  As Murano is kept apart from Venice, so the glass-blowing half of Murano is separated from the residential part of the island by the simple fire-protection expedient of a large canal.  On the glass-blowing side of it we walked up and down the streets, but every studio we entered turned us away. 
“Closed to visitors.” We were told. “Tour groups only.”
            There were glass shops by the dozen - show-rooms filled with melting abstracted bricks of color and tall, swirling things like fevers after too much Disney television and ice-cream.  All of it was very beautiful.  But the only glass we saw being blown was an apprentice blowing glass Christmas balls at a low-rent tourist shop next to the vaporetto shop.  There was nothing of art or magic about it – only earthy heat and glass smashing as he sweated through blowing bubbles, and cracked their sides against his bubble pipes.
            Back among the glass shops, I bought a string of blue bead with the flat Murano midday light inside them, and we rode the Vaporetto back to Venice and walked round the edges of things in the low dusk.

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