I’ll tell you a story about Venetian glass. It’s something very typical for my family, with all the randomness and weirdness of it. So here’s how the story goes:
Years ago my dad happened to be in Venice on a filming trip. I believe they were filming the “Orthodox Encyclopedia”, a documentary commissioned by Russia’s main TV channel about the lives and stories of Orthodox Christians all over the world. I mean, they went to Australia to find some. And Japan. And almost went to Alaska, but the director cancelled last minute, and the next thing they know is that the airplane they were supposed to go on crashed somewhere in the wild.
So yes, Venice.
One of the few free evenings in the city, so film folks go out and get respectively buzzed. Misha and a buddy of his did too, and then drank some more, and then went for a walk. They ended up in a fancy Murano glass shop near San Marco. They didn’t leave empty-handed: Misha was carrying a 5.000 euro vase and a pair of 100-euro glasses, and his friend bought something too. And no, they didn’t pay the price tag. I don’t know how the conversation went, and Misha sure doesn’t remember (he mentioned swiping his finger over the vase, which was really dusty, and asking how many years it had sat in the shop). In any case, he paid ten times less, and both the heavy vase (which had delicate shreds of gold incorporated into the glass) and the glasses (which had a web of bubbles inside the walls) became a much beloved part of our home interior.
Some years later one of the glasses fell victim to my mom. I mean, it’s a family thing. In this case, the only difference is that I was prohibited to touch the glasses because I could break them, so she broke one herself. In any case, minus one. It was a sad time for our family. You can’t just pour campari into one normal glass and one bubble glass, you know.
Last year me and mom went to Venice. We were given specific instructions to find a replacement glass, and how to find the old shop. Of course, the shop was there no more. Or maybe there was never a shop and it was, in fact, somewhere else. Go figure! Needless to say that in all the Venetian glassware shops we never saw anything resembling our bubble glass. We even showed the picture to an old gentleman in the biggest and fanciest store we found, but he said it was hard to know without a craftsman’s seal. Alas, we failed the mission, and went on with the rest of our Italian trip glassless.
Of course, when a few weeks ago I mentioned that I wanted to go to Venice to rest my weary soul, the whole glass affair was brought back into the spotlight. The remaining glass and vase were thoroughly examined and photographed. I found a seal on the vase, but not on the glass – however, many smaller items lack the seal, as I later discovered. I also did some research on the bubble technique: it’s called “controlled bubbles”, or “pulegoso” in Italian. It’s a really difficult process, and that’s why not many craftsmen bother with it.
On I went to the foggy, but oh-so-beautiful Venice. I popped into every Murano glass shop I saw. Nothing. And on my last day I decided: basta. I need to go to the very Murano and continue my investigation there.
It wasn’t a bad idea altogether: I’ve never been to the islands, and the weather was promising to be a little less cold, foggy and dreary than usual. So the only thing left to do was to get a vaporetto (water bus) day pass, because each trip sets you back 7 euro. What could be easier? All along the Grand Canal there are vaporetto stops, and ticket machines on each one.
Well, imagine my disappointment when the nearest stop had only one machine, and it refused to accept any kind of payment. I mean, maybe it thought I was corrupting it or something. Maybe it was too proud to accept money, or deep inside it yearned for Swiss franks. Perhaps it had a grudge against Russians whatsoever as many do these days, who knows? In any case, I had to walk to the next stop. Fifteen minutes later I’m greeted with a similar machine… which won’t accept any kind of payment. And no, it wasn’t just me!
After the third machine pulled the same trick on me, I gave up and embraced the idea that I’d have to walk all the way to San Marco. And I mean, I can walk around Venice for hours, just walk, walk, walk until my feet refuse to carry me any longer. But in winter it gets dark at half past four, and in the precious hours of daylight I hoped to visit at least three islands. If I could get there, of course.
I walked on and enjoyed my Venice. Something even made me get up that tower in the midst of San Marco square, the tallest viewpoint in the city. So I didn’t just go, but stayed up there in the raging wind for half an hour, gaping at the bay, at the chaotic pale red rooftops, at the fog creeping from the mainland, and listened to the cathedral chime two. I could see the smoke coming from people’s chimneys, and the battered old walls of the palazzos, could imagine people sipping their wine on the little rooftop terraces. Could imagine myself on one of those terraces in the spring, with a notebook and a cup of fragrant coffee, wrapped in a blanket and the rays of the morning sun.
Of course I didn’t find my vaporetto straight away, even after purchasing the pass from a businesslike ticket woman. The reason was simple: the vaporetto I kept looking for, the one which goes straight to Murano, only runs in high season, which pre-Christmas December is not. There was an alternative. With about ten stops. Well, money paid, no choice.
A cute British family shared the boat with me and a bunch of sleepy Italians. The dad was excited about everything. Each stop we reached, each corner we turned, he had something to say about what we saw thanks to his little guidebook. The son soon moved to a seat behind me and fell asleep. The young kid dozed off on his father’s shoulder, and the girl put her head on her mother’s knees. The dad was enthusiastic as ever, even though I was likely his only audience.
We went by the huge Biennale garden, my favorite; by the docks where they used to build the famous Venetian ships; the boat jumped on the waves, and I felt at home. I could close my eyes and find myself on the deck of the MV Explorer, sailing somewhere between Ireland and Portugal, salt wind in my hair, the rumble of the engine under my feet, like a giant’s heartbeat.
The stop before last was a cemetery, the historic cemetery where the famous Russian poet in exile, Joseph Brodsky, found his resting place.
We floated towards the cemetery. It was a dreamy sight: an island in the fog, high fortress walls, a lone pier with wooden posts creaking in the water, and white shapes of graves in the distance behind the iron gate. I almost decided to get off and explore it when the saner part of me intervened.
“Look, darling, – it said. – There’s a little over an hour left before it’s dark. No one else is getting off. Are you completely, totally sure that you want to get stuck on an island full of graves, in the middle of nowhere, in total darkness, with the cold and the fog, and no food or water?”
“Yea, maybe next time”, – resigned my more adventurous part, and I went straight to Murano.
Murano was empty.
I mean, really empty. There were no people on the streets. Half of the shops were closed. The city looked a lot like Venice – I heard Burano’s the hip and colorful one, but it was to be my next stop. First I had to solve the pulegoso puzzle. So I went from shop to shop, comparing, exploring. Nothing of the kind, anywhere. The vase? Yes, same technique used aplenty. The glasses? None.
I ended up walking into a big factory store. A charming old gentleman opened the doors for me which led to rooms full of priceless glass art: vases, chandeliers, cups and glasses, tropical birds and other sculptures of all shapes and colors. He showed me a few items that somewhat resembled my glass, but they were all thin and light, unlike our solid glass. My glass, he said, didn’t look so Murano as a whole. I was confused.
I kept walking down the main street down the canal, and the island kept shutting down. Sunday, no business day, they said. I was tired. I had some bread, procshutto and cheese in my bag, so I just kept walking nibbling on a chunk of cheese. All the shops looked the same, not counting the factory. Nothing in them looked exciting or anything like my glass.
Suddenly a shop window caught my gaze. The glassware there was different, simple and elegant. I stuffed the cheese back in the bag and walked in.
The woman who greeted me was in her forties. She was a designer: women in her family were not allowed into a factory building. It’s a man’s job; making up beautiful things was a woman’s. We started chatting, and I told her the whole glass epic. She looked at the pictures long and hard. “I tell you what: it’s not Murano. I don’t think it’s Italian at all, more like Czechoslovakia. We use a different technique. Look”, – she picked up a glass from the shelf. It weighted nothing and was very thin-walled. There were bubbles incorporated into the glass, but you could feel them with your fingers. “It’s a vintage technique, – she explained. – They don’t do it anymore. The bubble technique is “buble”, just that. Pulegoso is different”. She picked another glass and showed it to me. Among the tiny golden particles there were bubbles in the glass, but very very small. They didn’t look forced and they didn’t stand out. In fact, you could only see them when you hold the glass against a source of light.
Great. Now I was ashamed and confused. How could Misha buy a non-Italian glass and a true Murano vase in the same fancy shop? Or what did he buy after all?
I wanted to take the entire store home. It was beautiful. I had to remind myself that traveling with a tightly stuffed backpack doesn’t allow for such luxury, and buying just one glass makes no sense. I got the craftswoman’s card and decided to go look for a wifi spot to figure out my next steps.
There was none. Everything was closed. Darkness crept in, spreading along the cobblestone streets and canals. I took a wrong turn and ended up in a little yard by another glass factory. There were huge containers full of glass shreds, blinking under the dim lanterns. I put some in my pocket as a souvenir, cutting my finger.
As I walked back out, I noticed a patch of grass full of cats. It clearly was feeding time – the locals brought out the food in metal bowls and stood on the porch smoking. Cats came in all colors, lean and wiry. They looked at me with obvious contempt. Well, I might have deserved some.
I walked on, frozen and miserable, and came upon a lively bar. The crowd there was having a blats, talking loudly by the bar stand and sipping on their wine. It was cheap, too, unlike anything I saw on Murano. I got a glass of classy Venetian spritz and savored it, together with the smells and the sounds and the warmth spreading through my body. Going to Murano to drink spritz. And why not, may I ask?
How I got home that day is another story.