Epistle from Italy: Pellestrina
Perhaps it’s wrong of me to begin with what I’m about to say, since it may sound like bragging, or gloating, but with all my luck right now, I feel like I’m living an absolutely charmed life. Sometimes I can’t possibly grin wide enough to express how unbelievably happy I am to be here in Italy. Most everything I’m doing is part of an amazing succession of good fortune: the people at the Accademia and the Tipoteca are incredibly kind and generous; my apartment is beautiful and perfectly located in Venice, not in the tourist zone, but near to everything important; I received free passes to the preview of the Biennale (a mixed blessing, see below); and I keep stumbling into the right place at the right time to meet the right people to do things that no tourist could ever find or do. For example yesterday, at the suggestion of Diana Ferrara the professor I’m working with at the Accademia, I went in the afternoon to the island of Pellestrina to see the largest piece of lace in the world.
People who know Venice will know that one of the islands in the lagoon, Burano, is famous for the production of lace. For hundreds of years the women in this small fishing village have made beautiful, intricate lace, to generate additional income for their families while their husbands were out to sea. Today you can still go to Burano and, though it is rather touristy, you can find shops with piles of relatively inexpensive lace.
Well, Pellestrina also has this lace-making tradition, but nobody knows about them. There are no shops, no tourists—just a small fishing village on the spit of land that is one of the thin islands that forms the Venetian lagoon and helps protect it from the open sea.
Two years ago a group of art students organized all the lace makers on Pellestrina to participate in creating the longest piece of lace in the world: over 400 meters long. The unveiling of this work of art was scheduled as part of the annual Festa di Sant’Antonio, in front of the local church. The work was displayed along the wharf, in front of the area where the fishing boats moor. In the square in front of the church they set up tables for eating, a bandstand, and along the dock were carnival rides and booths (as they say here—a “Luna Park”).
Getting to Pallestrina is no easy matter. First you take a boat to the Lido, the famous beach island. On the Lido you catch a bus (unlike in Venice there are cars on the Lido), which travels the length of the island and then continues via ferry to the next island in the chain—Pellestrina.
I arrived in Pellestrina a little late in the afternoon and quickly found Diana with a group of students and friends sitting at one of the tables in the square. They shifted over and made a place for me, I ordered some food, and then sat down and started to look around and take in where I was. I’m tempted to say it was like being in a Fellini movie, except this would give the wrong impression, like it was caricatured or bizarre. It wasn’t like this at all. It was normal people having fun in a way that is very particular to this place. While not caricatured, there certainly were a lot of interesting characters.
A wonderful quality of Italian life is how social people are. Unlike in the US where everyone comes home from work, closes the automatic garage door behind them, puts something in the microwave, and flops down in front of the TV, people here spend the evening in the public square in the company of other people. Even in Venice, which is so cosmopolitan, the little Campos in the neighborhoods are buzzing every night with people of all ages. In Pellestrina it was like this times ten. I’d estimate there were close to 400 people there: talking, laughing, eating, walking up and down the length of the wharf looking at the lace, kids running about playing—and I’m fairly certain I was the only American, and possibly the only foreigner.
The food was amazing: fresh steamed mussels, fried shrimp, sardines, calamari, and octopus, polenta, bread, and pitchers of white wine. For dessert, grappa (a strong regional liquor made from grape skins), espresso, and biscotti. How perfect is that?
As the sun set the lights came on in the Luna Park, and the band started playing (alternating between American pop songs, performed well but slurring the English words they didn’t know, and traditional folk music such as polkas and line dances). People immediately started dancing: older people knew the traditional steps, younger people tried to follow along, women without partners danced together, and mothers with their young daughters held hands and bounced around in the middle. Once again, I can’t grin wide enough to express the joy.
On the way home the bus was jammed full of Italians, laughing and singing. When we boarded the ferry everyone piled out and stood along the boat railing as we crossed the channel. In the distance you could see heat-lightening flashing in the clouds above the sea. I thanked my lucky stars to be in such a wonderful, magical place.