Monthly Archives: January 2015

L’inverno/ Winter in Venice

Snowy gondolaWinters in Venice can be extreme—exquisite and dangerous! In my brief excursions during this season, I’ve admired powdery snow dusting piazzas, gondolas, and bridges. Icicles hang from churches, and glassy sheets of ice form on the edges of canals.

Venice becomes mysterious when la nebbia (fog) descends in wintertime. A few weeks ago, the fog lasted several days, and I couldn’t even see across the canal. What a chance for criminals, when their misdeeds can’t be seen or heard!

Then there’s acqua alta (high water), the floods that happen in the winter when warm scirocco winds push tides and waves into the city, especially in low areas like Piazza San Marco. When the waters rise, I’m glad I live on my palazzo’s second storey.

Winter sickness frightens me here. With people living so close together on these islands, I’ve heard more coughing and sneezing than in Verona. My physician father tells me many people die of breathing problems here, but body lice bring an even more deadly disease in the winter—tifo (typhus). It progresses from fever and red spots to infected sores, delirium, stench, and an awful death. Tifo strikes especially the poor as they huddle together for warmth under infested blankets, and have no change of clothing. I wish I could help them, but Papa says it’s dangerous to go near.

As I glance out my frost-etched window, I pray that all Venice’s residents will survive to enjoy Carnival, Easter, and spring.



Venice’s geto: The World’s Oldest Ghetto

Venice Ghetto woodcut
Venice Ghetto woodcut (public domain)

I’ve learned to relish each time my father asks, “Are you ready for an adventure, Lucia?”

He grinned as we walked out of church last Sunday, and my drowsiness vanished instantly. My sheltered life in Venice meant I rarely left our palazzo (and never by myself), so any opportunity to explore the city thrilled me.

When Papa told me he needed to buy supplies for his medical practice, I burst out, “But it’s Sunday! Shops are closed.”

“Not where we’re going.” He began to stroll in the opposite direction from our home, and we ventured along unfamiliar walkways and crossed bridges into the Cannaregio district. Finally, he pointed to a nearby building. “Notice anything unusual?”

I squinted at the inscription above the door. The strange characters weren’t letters, and I had no idea what they meant. Next to us in the crowded piazza, I heard people talking, but in languages I couldn’t understand. I turned to my father. “Are we still in Venice, or have we walked into another country?”

“In a way, we’re in both places. Welcome to the Jewish geto.” He smiled and glanced toward the building. “Jews keep coming here to escape persecution in their homelands, so they keep adding new floors to house them.”

So began my tour of the world’s oldest ghetto, the former foundry site set aside by Venice more than a half-century ago to protect Jews after the pope banished them from most of Europe. Before stepping into a pharmacy to make his purchases, Papa led me past spice, jewelry, and fabric shops, as well as banks, and showed me the four completed synagogues (for Germans, Italians, Levantines, and private families) and the one under construction for Spanish Jews.

He explained that the high walls surrounding the geto keep Jews in at nights, but also keep this community safe.

What luck for me that my father’s supply of medicines had run low! Our Sunday afternoon shopping expedition gave me a dose of the medicines I needed most—new sights, sounds, and knowledge.



3 Kings Day/ La Befana

The Good Witch
The Good Witch

In Italy, the three kings holiday (honoring the kings who visited Baby Jesus and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh) is also a celebration of la befana (the good witch). This seems mysterious unless you know the connection.

When my mother bounced me on her knee, she told me about la befana, an old woman who flies on a broomstick on the night before Epiphany, bringing presents to children.  As the story goes, the three kings asked the old woman where Jesus was born.  She didn’t know, but sheltered them overnight.  After they left, she flew off to find the baby Jesus, carrying gifts.  She still flies around with gifts for children, filling their stockings with candy and gifts if they’ve been good, and coal if they haven’t. (What an encouragement to behave!)  Before she leaves the house, she sweeps the floor.

In Venice, not only do people dress up as the la befana, but they row in the Regatta delle Befane (a race on the Grand Canal)—how brave or foolish in this cold time of year!  I pity anyone who falls in or even gets splashed.

However this dual celebration came about, I’m enjoying it!