A Ship of New Jersey Fools
Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
After 500 pages of making fun of other countries and their peoples, and muttering how much better Lake Tahoe is compared to the Sea of Galilee and Lago di Como, Mark Twain wrote that little phrase a year after his trip across the Mediterranean on the Quaker City. That sentence comes after one of my favourite quotes: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”
Before he gets culture shock, Twain discovers the charm of European life that still resounds with us europhiles today. Here he is in Milan:
Afterward we walked up and down one of the most popular streets for some time, enjoying other people’s comfort and wishing we could export some of it to our restless, driving, vitality-consuming marts at home. Just in this one matter lies the main charm of life in Europe—comfort. In America, we hurry—which is well; but when the day’s work is done, we go on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for the morrow, we even carry our business cares to bed with us, and toss and worry over them when we ought to be restoring our racked bodies and brains with sleep. We burn up our energies with these excitements, and either die early or drop into a lean and mean old age at a time of life which they call a man’s prime in Europe. When an acre of ground has produced long and well, we let it lie fallow and rest for a season; we take no man clear across the continent in the same coach he started in—the coach is stabled somewhere on the plains and its heated machinery allowed to cool for a few days; when a razor has seen long service and refuses to hold an edge, the barber lays it away for a few weeks, and the edge comes back of its own accord. We bestow thoughtful care upon inanimate objects, but none upon ourselves. What a robust people, what a nation of thinkers we might be, if we would only lay ourselves on the shelf occasionally and renew our edges!
I do envy these Europeans the comfort they take. When the work of the day is done, they forget it. Some of them go, with wife and children, to a beer hall and sit quietly and genteelly drinking a mug or two of ale and listening to music; others walk the streets, others drive in the avenues; others assemble in the great ornamental squares in the early evening to enjoy the sight and the fragrance of flowers and to hear the military bands play—no European city being without its fine military music at eventide; and yet others of the populace sit in the open air in front of the refreshment houses and eat ices and drink mild beverages that could not harm a child. They go to bed moderately early, and sleep well. They are always quiet, always orderly, always cheerful, comfortable, and appreciative of life and its manifold blessings. One never sees a drunken man among them. The change that has come over our little party is surprising. Day by day we lose some of our restlessness and absorb some of the spirit of quietude and ease that is in the tranquil atmosphere about us and in the demeanor of the people. We grow wise apace. We begin to comprehend what life is for.
Chapter 19: Who Glorifies Poor Mr. Laura?
In Venice, Twain describes the charming gondola parties:
Many and many a party of young ladies and gentlemen had their state gondolas handsomely decorated, and ate supper on board, bringing their swallow-tailed, white-cravatted varlets to wait upon them, and having their tables tricked out as if for a bridal supper. They had brought along the costly globe lamps from their drawing-rooms, and the lace and silken curtains from the same places, I suppose. And they had also brought pianos and guitars, and they played and sang operas, while the plebeian paper-lanterned gondolas from the suburbs and the back alleys crowded around to stare and listen.
Chapter 22: Gondolas are Water-Hearses
Before he even gets to Rome, Twain begins to lose interest in travelling and begins complaining more than enjoying. In Rome, he is utterly full from art overload. Twain explains his bout of museum fatigue:
I suppose the Academy [of Fine Arts in New York] was bacon and beans in the Forty-Mile Desert, and a European gallery is a state dinner of thirteen courses. One leaves no sign after him of the one dish, but the thirteen frighten away his appetite and give him no satisfaction.
Chapter 28: The Good-natured Brother of Skulls
Among the horrors of Twain’s European tour is how many countless dogs died to amuse tourists testing out Vesuvius in the centuries leading up to the (slightly more) progressive modern day:
Everybody has written about the Grotto del Cane and its poisonous vapours, from Pliny down to Smith, and every tourist has held a dog over its floor by the legs to test the capabilities of the place. The dog dies in a minute and a half – a chicken instantly…..I longed to see this grotto. I resolved to take a dog and hold him myself; suffocate him a little and time him; suffocate him some more, and then finish him.
Chapter 30: The Rags and Riches of Naples
Luckily Twain’s party forgot to bring a dog and that lucky, unbrought dog lived for one more day.
Then there is this quote on tiresome know-it-alls:
…They are those old connoisseurs from the wilds of New Jersey who labouriously learn the differences between a fresco and a fire-plug, and from that day forward feel privileged to void their critical bathos on painting, sculpture, and architecture forever more.
Chapter 33: Constantinople the Bewildering
Twain gets a few things right. One of those things is that exertion makes relaxation so much better. Here is Twain and his fellow travellers in Damascus:
We lay on those divans a long time, after supper, smoking narghilies and long-stemmed chibouks, and talking about the dreadful ride of the day, and I knew then what I had sometimes known before—that it is worth while to get tired out, because one so enjoys resting afterward.
Chapter 44: I Drink out of Ananias’ Well
Finally, where I do agree with Twain is the humour in the repetitive abundance of saints’ relics in Catholic churches:
We had heard so much of St. Veronica, and seen her picture by so many masters, that it was like meeting an old friend unexpectedly to come upon her ancient home in Jerusalem. The strangest thing about the incident that has made her name so famous is, that when she wiped the perspiration away, the print of the Saviour’s face remained upon the handkerchief, a perfect portrait, and so remains unto this day. We knew this, because we saw this handkerchief in a cathedral in Paris, in another in Spain, and in two others in Italy. In the Milan cathedral it costs five francs to see it, and at St. Peter’s, at Rome, it is almost impossible to see it at any price. No tradition is so amply verified as this of St. Veronica and her handkerchief.
Chapter 54: Jerusalem – We are Surfeited with Sights!
Some good quotes hidden within the morass of culture shock and arrogance.
Perhaps the best part is the list of nineteenth century drinks (chapter 15: Down with the Dastardly Abelard!) that Twain’s group tried to order in a place that advertised “ALL MANNER OF AMERICAN DRINKS ARTISTICALLY PREPARED HERE” (all caps are Twain’s). Sherry cobbler, brandy smash, Santa Cruz Punch (no idea what it is), Eye-Opener, Stone-Fence and Earthquake (probably not this recipe as its purported inventor, Toulouse-Lautrec, could not have whipped up the concoction at three years old).
From Adorable Alphabets to Poorly Considered Karaoke Fantasies
As I am working towards my goals of reading a French and a Chinese book this year, I read a few articles on how to
study languages. (I hoped some reader would share their study tips in my last post but I guess this blog has so few readers no one answered. So I had to look for study ideas elsewhere.)
One article pointed out the difference between having a vague idea of studying some language and having more measurable goals as to what one wants to do with that language. I gave this a lot of thought.
Turns out I have definite ideas of what I want to do with the languages I am studying or want to study. Maybe I did need to write them out. Thus, for my future reference, here are the reasons for learning my target languages:
Romanian: to read one Romanian book every year, for ease in travelling and for less laborious reading. Basically, Romanian is a jokey and warm language that boosts my self-esteem; I just want to have more of it in my life.
Chinese: to read at least one Chinese book every year, for ease when travelling in Taiwan. I also want to read more comic books from Taiwan and Hong Kong. As well, I want to write more beautifully in Chinese, maybe hiring a tutor to help me with Chinese calligraphy. I want to write a lot of letters in Chinese to my friends in Taiwan.
Japanese: to read the occasional Japanese book or article on cultural topics that interest me (mostly onsens, food, games, arts, crafts and literature). To be able to understand my favourite Japanese tv shows and movies without subtitles. To be able to research new onsens for subsequent trips.
French: to read one French book every year and to read a few nineteenth and twentieth century novels or other books in the original. I also found French very useful when travelling in Tunisia, so I want to be able to use it in other Francophone African countries like Senegal and Rwanda. I want to read more French and Belgian comics. Of course there’s also the extensive travelling in France I want to do and possibly living there.
Spanish: so much great Spanish literature to read in the world! Plus, Spanish is just a fun language to speak. One of my goals is to spend the Mexican Days of the Dead in Oaxaca with a family there. Then there is a personal research project I want to do in South America.
Italian: for reading more Italian comic books, some literature and mostly for ease of travelling and of travel research. I also want to rent apartments there for month-long trips. It would be nice to have long conversations about Italy with my future neighbours.
German: because I want to live and work in Austria. I also want to read some German literature in the original language and I want to play boardgames in the original languages.
Russian: for speaking and some reading. I suspect there’s a whole world of cool, wacky children’s literature I need to read in Russian. I want to watch Cheburashka without making up my own dialogue (my Cheburashka DVD set only has Japanese subtitles).
Swedish: I want to read all of Tove Jansson’s books in the original language, as well as any biographies. Also, I want to travel to Sweden. Hopefully I’ll find more reasons to study Swedish once I start learning about the culture.
Inuktitut: mostly I want to learn to write in their cool alphabet. I don’t know any Inuit people, but it would be cool to try some out when I visit Iqaluit. Plus, I believe that one should speak the language of the country one is in. Canada has a lot of aboriginal languages yet all the annoying white people here snarl “Speak English!” to poor immigrants trying their best to speak English, when really English is not the original local language. Ideally, Halq’eméylem would be better for my needs but I like the Inuktitut alphabet so much.
Taiwanese: for speaking when I visit Taiwan. I also want to learn at least one Chinese dialect to see if it’s really a dialect or if it is a separate language. Plus, Taiwanese sounds so bad-ass.
Cantonese: to order dim sum in Richmond for starters. Also, to watch Hong Kong movies in the original, to chat more when I visit Hong Kong or when I meet grandmothers at friends’ houses here in Vancouver. Chinese grandparent types have lived through an amazing and dramatic century – they must have incredible stories.
Hungarian: like with Swedish, I hope that I’ll find more reasons to study when I start studying Hungarian. Mostly, I want to be able to have conversations when I travel to Romania and Hungary (Hungarians are such nice people), and especially to be able to do research on Romanian history.
Kinyarwanda: for travel when I go to Rwanda. I want to ask questions and be a good enough listener so I can understand the stories about life in Rwanda and the genocide. I bet too that there are some great etiquette lessons the Rwandans have, which, once I learn what they are, I’ll write about.
Amharic: also for travel. Plus, I want to learn the Ge’ez alphabet. Again, I want to be able to listen better to conversations and to meet the people who don’t just speak English. We’re also lucky in this part of Canada because we have a lot of Ethiopians. It would be nice to understand Ethiopian songs too. I can’t sing but I have a secret fantasy of going into an Ethiopian karaoke bar and wowing everyone. If there are karaoke bars for Ethiopians.
Arabic: mostly I want to conduct some history research in Syria. Maybe once I know a little Arabic, I would find some good literature to read in the original language.
Finnish: for ease of travelling and it is the language of the country where Tove Jansson was born and where she lived. Now that I have started studying it, it turns out Finnish is incredibly beautiful and melodic. No wonder they and their Baltic neighbours are such good singers. I want to trill like those Finns. There are also more and more Finnish comic books I am discovering that I want to read. Another reason I want to study it is because, like Hungarian and Estonian, it is not in the Indo-European language group.
Norwegian: I want to travel there. I also had a Norwegian penpal who sent me a book on his country and in the book it said that by law every library in the country must own a copy of every Norwegian book. With a government that supportive of Norwegian writers, they must have a few good ones. I want to read these authors in the original.
Dutch: I love travelling to the Netherlands and I loved Flanders. I want to chitchat more in Dutch/Flemish with the people there. I also want to research a WWI topic.
Estonian: because it’s another beautiful, trilling language. Mostly my goal is to learn from cover to cover the one Estonian textbook I started. I have no hope of speaking Estonian when I am not travelling there. But I can read and master this one book.
How Many Venices Are There?
Has anyone else noticed the proliferation of Venices?
The Venice of the north could be Amsterdam, Saint Petersburg, Bruges or, as I just found out, Haapsalu in Estonia. There’s even a Wikipedia page on all the Venices of the North. I have been to three out of these seventeen Venices:
- Borås in Sweden
- Bornholm in Denmark
- Bourton-on-the-Water (also known as the Venice of the Cotswolds)
- Giethoorn (also known as the Venice of the Netherlands)
- Maryhill in Scotland
- Saint Petersburg
- Wroclaw (note to self: visit this place when you finally get to Poland)
Another page that inventoried the Venices adds Bydgoszcz from Poland to the list. Bydgoszcz’s Wikipedia page certainly has plenty of landscape photos with water to possibly merit its Venetian nickname. Dresden, the Florence of the Elbe, was also the Venice of the Elbe.
However, there are many other Venices around the world. In Africa, for example, there is Ganvie in Benin, called either the Venice of Africa or the Venice of West Africa. When I looked up Ganvie, I found references to other Venices of Africa: Zanzibar and, formerly, Cape Town. There’s also Mopti, the Venice of Mali, which has cleaned up some of its plastic bag choked waters with a recycling plant.
The Venices of the East also merit a Wikipedia page, with another seventeen contenders (so far I have been to Suzhou, Bangkok and Osaka). They are:
- Alapuzzha in Kerala
- Barisal City in Bangladesh (also called the Venice of Bengal)
- Basra (possibly the location of the Garden of Eden and sister cities with Venice)
- The Kampong Ayer neighbourhood of Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan, called the Venice of the East by a sixteenth century Venetian, Antonio Pigafetta
- Lijiang City in China
- Malacca in Malaysia
- Nan Madol
- Osaka (is sister cities with Hamburg and Saint Petersburg, two other Venices)
- Palembang in Indonesia (appropriately enough, Palembang’s sister cities are Den Haag and Venice – does Venice only ever sister city other Venices?)
- Srinagar in Kashmir (not sure if there are any sources that call it the Udaipur of Kashmir)
- Tongli in China
- Udaipur (also known as the City of the Lakes and the Kashmir of Rajasthan, among other films Octopussy and Darjeeling Limited were filmed here)
- Wuzhen (near Suzhou)
- Zhouzhang (also near Suzhou)
Missing from the Wikipedia list is the Venice of Hong Kong, Tai O, or Da’ao in pinyin, on Lantau Island. Lantau is one of the really calm, pretty areas of Hong Kong as these photos attest.
Also missing from the list are other Japanese Venices. Nicknaming places seems like such a Japanese thing, I couldn’t imagine why there would only be Osaka. A quick search revealed the other Japanese Venices:
Kagoshima,or the Naples of the Eastern World, is in fact sister cities with Naples
- Kurashiki in Okayama is not only gorgeous (check out its tourist site), it has its own specialty paper, peaches, a cotton industry, its local version of the pancake and now muscat wines!
- Matsue in Shimane Prefecture has a medieval castle (other castles like Gyoda Castle, Osaka Castle and Shuri Castle in Naha were rebuilt after their destruction in WWII)
- Otaru (Japan’s Venice of the North or the Wall Street of Hokkaido gets extra points for not just recreating a Venetian canal but also for being really into Venetian glass)
- Sakai, which also has kofun burial mounds and was famous for its samurai swords, competes with Osaka for the title
- Yanagawa down in Fukuoka has a walking tour map (PDF) for nitwits like me who didn’t learn Japanese, which includes the monument at a hand washing area (?), and a 1980s Studio Ghibli documentary, The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals, that has English subtitles.
In addition to these places, there’s another Venice of the East or South, depending on where your point of reference is: Tawi-Tawi in the Philippines (which also has a seaweed festival, more info on this area just off Malaysia’s coast here).
There are not many other Venices of the South. Zakynthos in Greece used to be one. Sete in France is also the Venice of Languedoc.
One of the so-called Venices of the South is Tarpon Springs on the west coast of Florida. Built around a Greek immigrant sponge industry, I am not really clear if this is merely a coastal town and not a city with canals and bridges like the original Venice. However, there is at least one photo of accurate gondolas in Tarpon Springs dated to 1927. Even cooler is that this photo comes from a gondola blogger called Greg Mohr who lives in California. The internet is awesome for that. I love living in a world where some dude thousands of miles from Italy can be an expert on gondolas and is making an online archival resource for the rest of us researching niche topics.
A better contender for the Venice of the South would be Nan Madol, which is on the list as a Venice of the East (and is also sometimes called the Venice of the Pacific). Nan Madol was a city of islands in Micronesia; the kingdom collapsed about 500 years ago leaving some photogenic ruins. Locals are wary of the place and superstition has it that you will die if you try to spend the night there.
On its own is Recife, the Venice of Brazil (sister cities with another two Venices, Amsterdam and Nantes – see below).
When it comes to the Venice of the West, there is Galway (blame Yeats for this), Nantes and San Antonio (also the Venice of America, the Venice of the Plains, the Venice of the Texas Plains, the Venice of the Southwest, and the Venice of the Drylands). Interestingly, it could be that San Antonio pushed for the Venice of Texas nickname when Waco threatened to take it in the 1890s. Speaking of the Venice of America, Fort Lauderdale and Venice, California also market themselves as the US Venice.
The Venice which became part of Los Angeles in 1925 was founded in 1905 and modelled on the original Venice, with even its own lagoon. Unfortunately Los Angeles paved most of the canals in 1929. The Venice Historical Society’s website sells postcards with what looks like the Doge’s Palace and plenty of gondolas.
So how many Venices are there? I counted 58. Are there any other Venices that need to go on the list?
Update: Oops. I forgot the real Venice. Make that 59.
“When something is everywhere, it paradoxically becomes invisible and its value diminishes in our minds,” says Courtney Humphries in Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan…and the World.
One night many years ago*, I was in the hostel by the Paris Opera and one of my dorm-mates had researched pigeon behaviour as part of a study on brains. “Pigeons are smarter than chimps,” she told us. “We taught the pigeons to use a computer to speak to us. They pecked at a keyboard to spell out words. They talked up a storm.”
I liked pigeons before I met the pigeon scientist in Paris. I like their cooing sounds on spring mornings. I appreciate their resourcefulness. Plus, feeding them is the only thing I can ever afford when I visit the Piazza San Marco.
Turns out pigeons are not the only avian urban warriors. With starlings and sparrows, pigeons are a new arrival to North America. I’d known about the Central Park Shakespearean bird project in the 1850s, when a literature fan tried to populate the park with all the Bard’s birds, including the now ubiquitous starling. I didn’t know that sparrows immigrated to this continent only from 1851.
I’m only on page 15 of the book and Humphries provides some amusing trivia so far:
- The standard Italian villa has a small belvedere or tower for the pigeons.
- In the 1700s, pigeons as food were in decline in England, but dovecotes remained a part of architecture: near Wroxton Abbey in Oxfordshire, there was a gothic-style dovecote, outfitted with battlements and “slits for shooting arrows at imaginary enemies” (page 11).
- The now extinct passenger pigeon made up 25-40% of the total US bird population. (While domesticated animals are killed sustainably, the passenger pigeon “belonged to no one” so “it was no one person’s responsibility to care for their welfare” (also page 11).
- Squabs are 4-5 week old pigeons. I see them in my local supermarket but I had no idea they were pigeons.
- Pigeons in Persian dovecotes served mostly as poop producers. Their waste made good fertilizer.
- Pigeon poop can also tan leather.
- In the 17th and 18th centuries, pigeon dung provided the saltpeter for gunpowder, which was then used at least some of the time for shooting pigeons.
- Pigeons were also a popular sport bird: “they maneuvered adroitly in the air and made challenging targets” (page 15).**
*It was 1996, Matt.
**No word about Dutch parrots, Matt.
The Last Great Age of Venetian Cooking
Tuesday July 15th 2008, 8:46 pm
Filed under: Italy
Venice is one of my favourite cities in the world. It is the perfect pedestrian city. Even if a car wanted to bulldoze its way on the islands, it wouldn’t make it far before it’s sardined in some alleyway. Quite honestly, I would love to know how the Venetian branch of the Ferrari store got its floor models down those little streets.
I also love Venice for the beautiful old buildings – I want to sneak into them and look about. I snuck into one museum, the Palazzo Correr, overlooking the Piazza San Marco. I was 20, just before my 21st birthday, and the museum, damn it, was closed the day I wanted to visit it. So I visited anyhow, in the dark, forgetting that there were probably security cameras around the place. Yet there are so many other buildings in Venice and I am not as daring as I once was.
Venice’s thoroughfares also make the city into a great labyrinth. The signs pointing, in two different directions, toward the Rialto, simply add to the fun of getting lost. Garden mazes always disappointed me because they weren’t challenging enough. Not so with Venice. When we stayed there last year for a few days, we could never retrace our path back to the hotel each night on the morning route.
When Matt and I took our honeymoon in Italy, I couldn’t wait for him to see one of the great cities of the world. Maybe I was overly excited as our train crossed the big bridge from Mestre across the lagoon, or maybe he really didn’t like our 18th century villa and its fading rococo wallpaper. Whatever it was, Matt, within hours of our arrival, developed an enduring hate for Venice.
We eventually cut our trip there short and went back to his beloved Rome.
Venice was also partly to blame. The tourists swarmed the place (us as bad as the rest). Every second store sold glass baubles; there were none of the wine shops I told him about. A thunderstorm trapped us in the Salute church. The front door of the Basilica San Marco had a long line across planks swimming over water. The Basilica itself was too gaudily ornate for Matt’s more austere American tastes.
Worst of all, Venetian food sucked. Having no kitchen access, we were trapped at the mercy of the restaurants. All of them staffed and managed by Turks, mainland Chinese and Romanians, the food was a dismal disappointment after the epicure’s dream in Rome. We had starved in Padova, where Matt refused to condescend to the Italian buffet I remembered from my first wonderful afternoon in Padova in 1996, and none of the restaurants served food except at awkward times.
Unfortunately, I came to understand, Venice no longer has any Venetians. The Italians who still work in the city’s tourist industry all live across the lagoon on the mainland. Because the restaurants don’t cater to locals, they can serve whatever dead pigeon washed up in the canal that morning. It’s not like the tourists will take their business elsewhere.
I flipped through my book on the city’s history, trying to find some redeeming snippet of Venetian lore that would make Matt fall in love with the city I liked so much. Then I came across some bad news.
Venetians, apparently even in the time of Casanova, were notorious for hosting very poor parties. Guests would chat politely. Their stomachs would begin grumbling. The hosts would eventually wise up and bring out a plate of watermelons.
The excuse was that Venetians just didn’t do dinner parties. Or that sumptuary laws prevented shows of gastronomic exaggeration. Whatever.
Now Matt always shudders at the mention of Venetian food. He’s come up with some allergy excuse just so he’ll never have to go back.
A Telegraph review of a recent Casanova book has this quote hidden in it:
He was born into the ‘last great age of Venetian cooking’, he liked his macaroni sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar…..
So there was a great age of Venetian cooking.
Most likely destroyed by that bastard, Napoleon.
Now Matt and I have to make a make-up honeymoon to Venice and hunt down this elusive good Venetian cuisine.
A planned hi-tech driverless underground railway line set to bring desperately needed transport links to the historic heart of Rome has run into a minefield of Roman remains.
(From the May 14 online edition of the Guardian.)
There’s a scene in Fellini’s Roma where a subway crew finds Roman ruins and calls in the film crew. The delighted visitors crawl through holes to see a fresco with colours as fresh as if they had just been daubed on the walls. Yet, within seconds, the fresco disintegrates into dust and floats off the wall.
Matt didn’t care much for this movie, but after riding the Roman Metro, he changed his mind and wants to watch it again.
What we didn’t know while we were there, is that we stood above the proposed Largo Torre Argentina stop.
This area, near tourist hot spots like Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, is to be one of the stops on Rome’s third subway route, Line C. City planners estimated that 30 metres deep should just about miss the pesky ruins. But they’ve found amphorae that could be part of an villa’s garden and, just as annoying, some imperial era building. The nerve of those ancient Romans!
Instead of pondering all this, we admired the cats:
The ruins are also home to the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary.
Soon after the ruins were discovered in 1929, the cats moved. Roman cat lovers, derisively called gattare, began feeding leftover pasta to the homeless cats. Though the current batch of felines are (mostly) fixed, irresponsible pet owners still dump cats in the area, resulting in a population of around 250 cats. We counted about 18 from the fences high above the remains of the four temples.