Tuesday, October 26, 2021

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Joe's Neighborhood

Lost in Venice


Just walk to the edge.

I’ve been lost as a child. It was in an Iowa cornfield. You know, you’re young, you’re playing around with your cousins, running and hiding and yelling, and then, suddenly, you are completely lost. Green stalks block your vision in every direction. Is that the decaying remains of an old cornstalk, or is that a child-eating snake? Of course it is a snake, and of course you look like a Tasty Tater from Tasty Tacos. One more statistic in the declining rural population.

I’ve been lost as an adult. It was driving to crime scenes as a prosecutor. There was no such thing as a cell phone in those days. I’d find a phone booth somewhere on Ingersoll or Hickman or wherever and call police dispatch. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine the conversation after I hung up. “It’s Weeg again. Lost. He’s at that phone booth on Ingersoll. I don’t know how he’s going to write a search warrant when he can’t even find the crime scene. He’s a dope.” And then a little while later, I’d call from a phone booth on Douglas Avenue, still lost. I was always thankful my wife, who whole-heartedly agreed with the dispatchers’ assessment of my abilities, was home asleep.

But lost in Venice?

Lord, Des Moines is 12 hours away by plane. I am lost. My wife is lost. Our GPS on the phone is lost. And the water is rising. So much so, they’re selling plastic-bag booties to walk across St. Mark’s Square.

“Come into my restaurant. The best food in Venice.”

We stumble out of a dark alley and see a well-dressed man in the middle of the street, hands outstretched, large smile, ushering us into his restaurant.

He pulls the chair out for my wife, he smooths the tablecloth, he helps with the coats. He stands at attention in his white-pressed shirt and tightly tied half-apron. Waiting for us to settle. Then his hands take flight to explain the Italian-only menu and life in general.

Dario has been a server for 46 years. This is his profession and his love.

“I started when I was 14. An old waiter from a restaurant trained me. He taught me: tie the cloth on the wine; greet the guests; go and open the door; say goodbye. It must be personal. It is always personal.”

And Dario smiles, steps to my right. Pours the wine. Wipes the side of the bottle with a white cloth. And with a small flourish, ties the cloth around the bottle.

“There is no quality now. Some places cook pasta before and warm it up. Homemade pasta must be cooked on the moment. Only fresh vegetables. Broth with the head of the fish, not powder.”

Dario shakes his head, befuddled at the notion of a microwave for anything.

Dario, you are not a young man, where does this all end?

“Maybe I don’t stop working. Maybe I go on a trip. I think I would do this when I am very old. Maybe a small house in south Italy by the sea with a garden and grow tomatoes.”

Dario, before we go, I must admit that we are lost. How do we get home?

“Venice is a very small city. If you want to go anywhere, just walk.”

So we do. Until we are again lost in the narrow alleyways.

We cross a bridge into a small neighborhood. Ah, the Jewish Ghetto of Venice. Hidden away among the buildings are five synagogues, beginning from the 1500s. Their story is the precarious story of the Jews worldwide. The word “ghetto” is thought to have first originated in Venice. On March 29, 1516, the Venice Senate issued a decree:

“The Jews must all live together in the Corte de Case, which are in the Ghetto near San Girolamo; and in order to prevent their roaming about at night: let there be built two Gates. . . and [they] shall be closed at midnight by four Christian guards appointed and paid by the Jews.” – Riccardo Calimani, The Ghetto of Venice.

Yup, not only were the Jews imprisoned, but they had to pay for the guards. Unbelievable. Now we are both lost, and sad.

We stumble out of the Ghetto and wander for blocks until we come across Giorgio. A complete change of tune. Giorgio Galasso works in a tiny shop down a narrow street as a mask-maker.

“My family lived in Venice since the 16th century. Before this I was an artisan of wood. There is no school in Venice for the mask. To learn, it is necessary to find other people who do the work.”

And Giorgio found those people and became a master mask-maker. He now teaches mask-making workshops around Italy and elsewhere. Although, with his malleable face and striking features, it is tempting to think Giorgio might have become one of his creations, like dog owners become their dogs.

“The mask exists because a segment of Venetian people used to be very rich. For 50 days, there was carnival. All the people are the same during carnival because everyone wears a mask — the rich and the poor. The mask is really democratic. Everyone is equal during carnival.”

Good to know. But, Giorgio, with all your experience of Venice, how do we get unlost?

“You cannot get lost in Venice. It is an island. Just walk to the edge.”


Sure enough, Giorgio is right. There’s the edge.

Now, is that Des Moines in the distance? Got me. What’s that number for police dispatch? ♦

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.

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