Sunday, June 23, 2013

How to Be Good Company

As an introvert who was always more comfortable with books than people, I've had to learn the hard way how to be good company. I don't always succeed, but I have learned some general guidelines.

1. A good conversation is never about one person. 
If I'm talking too much about me, just interject and draw the conversation back to you. And expect me to do likewise. If I notice myself (or someone else) dominating the conversation, I'll pause and ask someone else a question.

2. Never interrupt someone else's story. 
(Unless they violate rule 1.) If you only have a few minutes and there's something you're dying to tell, go ahead--but that isn't really a conversation. It's more of a confession. In a conversation, you're probably spending several minutes, maybe an hour, with the same set of people. Expect give and take. There will be time to bring the conversation back around to your story.

3. Avoid starting or ending with something serious. 
Conversations have a natural rhythm and flow. The first bit gets the conversants comfortable before the real work can begin in the middle. But don't wait too long for that moment! There's a point when people want to withdraw, and then it's too late. If people are yawning or talking about plans for the morning, those are signals that they want to withdraw. Also check to see if they are looking around for other people to talk to. No matter how much people like you, there's a limit to how long they want to converse.

4. Bring something to the conversation. 
Sometimes it's difficult to know what to say, especially to someone you've just met or someone you see all the time. That's when you draw on your prepared topics. What have you done recently? Have you eaten at a good restaurant? Heard an interesting new song on the radio? Started a new gym class? Saw something funny on the internet?

4a. Elaborate and help out.
I offer this classic interchange from L.A. Story:

Trudi: Sheila has been studying the art of conversation.
Harris: Oh, you're taking a course in conversation?
Sheila: Yes.
[long pause]

Sheila should have said something about the class, even if it's "but it's nothing." Then maybe Harris would've asked a follow-up. Similarly, if someone says they've heard an interesting song, ask something about it, even if it's just what station.

What other advice would you offer?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Learning to Love Venice

Santa Maria della Salute
"It is a great pleasure to write the word; but I am not sure there is not a certain impudence in pretending to add anything to it. Venice has been painted and described many thousands of times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there. Open the first book and you will find a rhapsody about it; step into the first picture-dealer's and you will find three or four high-coloured "views" of it. There is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject. Every one has been there, and every one has brought back a collection of photographs. There is as little mystery about the Grand Canal as about our local thoroughfare, and the name of St. Mark is as familiar as the postman's ring. It is not forbidden, however, to speak of familiar things, and I hold that for the true Venice-lover Venice is always in order. There is nothing new to be said about her certainly, but the old is better than any novelty. It would be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to say. I write these lines with the full consciousness of having no information whatever to offer. I do not pretend to enlighten the reader; I pretend only to give a fillip to his memory; and I hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love with his theme." --Henry James, Italian Hours
Inside the Doge's Palace

It's fair to say that I knew next to nothing about Venice before this year. Somehow, the centuries that La Serenissima ruled the Mediterranean were skipped over in my Western Civilization course (perhaps not "Western" enough?). I didn't know of its artistic heritage. I had a vague sense of its importance in the Grand Tour and a suspicion of some nineteeenth-century fighting with Austria. Of course I knew of the canals and gondolas, but I didn't even know that Venice was a grouping of islands. 

My experience was, then, the exact opposite of Henry James'. When I read the above opening paragraph to Italian Hours, I felt out of the loop. This feeling persisted in my other readings about Venice, especially the prose of the Ruskins. I decided that my goal in Venice would be to discover why people love it so. 

I didn't succeed. Love isn't something rational that you can set out an argument for. Love creeps in on you, unawares. I arrived at Venice skeptical of its charms and seeing exactly what I had been prepared to see. I was unimpressed and distant. But leaving Venice was hard, and even though I'm back home, part of my spirit is still there. How did this happen? 

Maybe it's all the water. Water is an incredible force, and Venice has managed to accommodate the demands of the sea. The gentle rocking of the boats, necessary for getting around town, also has a lulling effect on the psyche. 
The Grand Canal
Maybe it's the clarity of the light. In summer, Venice has 5 or 6 days a month of precipitation. I arrived on one of the overcast days; once the sky cleared, the spell began. 

The Grand Canal, early morning.
Zoom in to see the art on the side of the building.
Maybe it's ancient architecture. There's an amazing wonder to standing exactly where someone 500 or 1000 years ago stood, and seeing essentially the same buildings. And I love the pointed arches of the Byzantine Gothic. 
Inside La Salute Church

The Doge's Palace

Maybe it's that there's art everywhere. Even on the outside of buildings, where the elements gradually destroy everything. And yet no place better exemplifies the saying, Ars longa, vita brevis
Detail outside the Basilica
Inside the Basilica. Isn't that amazing?
Part of the altar inside the Basilica
I don't think it's that I conceive of Venice as being in the past, as a museum. Reading Donna Leon's excellent mysteries, set in the present and concerned with permanent residents, deepened my affection for the city. 
Accademia Bridge and traffic on the Grand Canal

The chemistry of this love is complex. All I really know is that I would like to go back, and this time bring my husband. Because Venice is a city of love. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Local and the Global: Venice 2013

"State of the Field" panel
My excuse for being in Venice was a Victorianist conference coordinated by three excellent organizations: the North American Victorian Studies Association, the British Association of Victorian Studies, and the Australasian Victorian Studies Association. The conference theme was "The Local and the Global." Paper topics included cosmopolitanism, tourism, attitudes in Britain towards Italy, transportation, historicism, Dickens, Ruskin, and the Brownings. Attendees ranged from the top scholars in the field to promising graduate students, some of whom (like Kat Powell, whose thoughts on Venice can be found here) were fortunate enough to participate in a professionalization workshop the week before.

Victorianists in line for dinner
The conference was held on the beautiful island of San Servolo. This walled island was once the location of a monastery and an infamous insane asylum, but now it houses Venice International University, which is a consortium for Study Abroad programs. It's incredibly beautiful, which at times can be distracting, but overall it's an excellent venue for a conference. The meals I ate at the conference, both catered and at the cafeteria, were the best I had in Venice.

I had meant to write a blog entry on a single panel, but looking at my notes I found a problem: I seemed utterly unable to stay awake for every paper in a panel. I would be really engaged at the start but then drift off and have no notes. I blame jet lag. I should have excused myself for a moment after the first two papers to get some fresh air so that I could be ready for the third. Nothing else seemed to work.

I was able to hear some excellent papers at the beginnings of panels, anyway.

  • Chris Ferguson showed us early photographic experiments in which London was flooded and buildings were separated by canals, making London into Venice. 
  • Richard Pearson, of the Victorian Plays Project, discussed Kiralfy's "Venice in London," an 1891 spectacle in which a lagoon was built inside the Olympia Theatre and gondola rides could be had for 6d
  • In the "Writing Italy" panel, Emily Allen shared her experiences teaching a Study Abroad class in Venice, in which her greatest success was treating scholarly articles about tourism as primary texts and having students reflect on their own experiences as a tourist. 
  • Claire Horrocks analyzed travel writing as a genre in Dickens' Pictures from Italy and in a maid's memoirs. She suggested that in addition to James Buzard's categories of "traveller" and "tourist" (The Beaten Track, 1993) that we add "sight-seer" for those travelling with another purpose (like a conference).
  • Mary Armstrong also discussed Pictures from Italy from a rhetorical perspective, especially the role of quotidian elements and the treatment of reality.  (I'm afraid I started to become less focused here, and was semi-conscious by the start of the final paper.)
And these were just on the first day!

The "Writing Italy" panel is the one that most moved me to blog because it made me reflect on my own role as an anti-tourist and on my perceptions of Venice. For Dickens and Ruskin and James, Venice was a place of mourning for something always already lost. But for Effie Ruskin, Venice was a place of plenitude and freedom. John would work on his projects and she would socialize. She loved people, and she loved learning the language and the city. Reflecting on Henry James, it occurred to me that his experience of Venice was also highly social. In Italian Hours, he writes, "If you are happy you will find yourself, after a June day in Venice (about ten o'clock), on a balcony that overhangs the Grand Canal, with your elbows on the broad ledge, a cigarette in your teeth and a little good company beside you." That "good company" is often an overlooked element. I reflected that perhaps a "genuine" experience of a place is necessarily a social one. To consume the present and not the past of Venice, one must meet people. Even if those people are other tourists.

This attitude made me much more patient with all the tourists in Venice. They are part of the nature of the place. Without tourists,  there.  is.  no.  Venice.  And yet, there is also a Venice that transcends the daily steps of transients. The museums, the city's routine, the people's daily life, even the weather, they are essential to Venice as well.

I think it is safe to say that, as resistant as I initially was to Venice's charms, it continues to haunt me.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Communicating in Italian

One of my favorite things about being in Venice was the experience of being in a place where I didn't speak the language. I found that I was quieter and self-conscious, and it occurred to me that this is how many people feel when they come to America. I could be quite voluble when I ran into a conference-goer, but otherwise I spoke very few words.

People in St. Mark's Plaza
I learned some basic Italian to smooth the way. I took a 4-week night class, studied a phrase book, and listened to a CD. I typed out some phrases I might need. Things like, "Dov'e la toilette?" and "Vorrei un bichierre du vino" and "il conto, per favore." I could say I'm lost, I don't understand, and ask for my room key. I also knew my basic numbers.

Everyone says that you don't need to know the language when you go to Europe, that "everyone" speaks English. That just seems rude to me. I saw this as an opportunity to expand my knowledge, and I'm glad I did it. Not everyone in Venice speaks English, and many that do have limited vocabularies. My hotel staff were pretty fluent, for instance, but they didn't know "Advil" (if I had said "ibuprofen," they would have gotten it, since the Italian is "ibuprofene"). The merchant in a paper shop in Dorsoduro didn't speak English. Even those that spoke English well were amused by my attempts to speak and tried to encourage me. I learned from the hotel staff to say "Vado fuori" when I was leaving and that I had to put the "cento" into my room number, "due cento settante sette."

Ultimately, Italian is a beautiful language that was a pleasure to speak. I wish I had another month there so that I could become more comfortable with it.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Food in Venice

Going overseas always changes my eating habits in some way when I return. After visiting England, I started eating toast. After Scotland, I added tomato to some of my breakfasts. It isn’t just that I’m trying to hang on to the experience, though that's part of it. It’s also that the food I eat there seems more satisfying than my regular, American food. The effect so far that Italy is having on me is wanting more fruits and vegetables.

Yes, those are fries on the pizza
 Almost every meal I ate in Italy had several courses. The exceptions were when I grabbed something quick at a bar or ate at a pizzeria. My first Italian “meal” was a brioche and latte—I was sight-seeing and couldn’t decide on a place to eat, so I got a snack at the Correr Museum café. On the second day, my dinner came from a bar: a Panini that I ate as I window-shopped, followed by gelato after a tour of the Basilica. My favorite meals were on San Servolo for the conference. Lunch at the cafeteria (fixed price) was pasta salad, quiche, vegetables, fruit, bread, and drink. The catered lunch was similar but also included dessert and wine. The best dinner I had was Monday night at the conference. The appetizer was thin slices of ham. The first course was an incredible cheese crepe. The second course was turkey medallions with sautéed vegetables. The dessert was a lemon cake with fruit. And let’s not forget the bread and wine!

2nd course

But perhaps what really made those meals great was the company. I had a tasty 2-course plus tiramisu dinner at a restaurant on my last night, and it was just an  okay experience. By contrast, the mediocre meal I had in good company in Dorsoduro I enjoyed much more.

My best food advice for Italy is that if you’re eating alone, just grab something from a bar. If you’re eating with friends, choose a fixed-price menu at a restaurant and linger.