Margo Sorenson is an author of over thirty traditionally-published books for young readers. She spent the first seven years of her life in Spain and Italy, devouring books and Italian food and still speaks (or tries!) her childhood languages. Her novel, SECRETS IN TRANSLATION (Fitzroy Books, October 2018), takes place in Positano, with heroine Alessandra, whose being able to speak Italian helps her to feel at home in Italy where she grew up, and helps her solve a mystery. Find out more about Margo’s latest updates on her website www.margosorenson.com
We were looking forward to another return trip to la bella Italia, where I’d spent my childhood. Our first stop was Venezia; together, my husband and I had never been to Venezia, nor had I, by myself, having grown up in Bari and Napoli. Crossing our fingers, and having been vastly entertained by reading Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series, we made our plans to visit this legendary city. Of course, I was hoping that my speaking Italian would bridge a gap and make me feel at home in Italy, once again, even though Venezia was an unfamiliar city. We enjoyed Leon’s tales of life in Venezia, seasoned with humor and warmth, and hoped to see in person what she wrote about so vividly. As a sidenote, this included being able to indulge ourselves in some of the meals that she described so well that it made us hungry just to read about them. So much of the beloved Italian culture revolves around food, and we were willing participants. We were definitely ready to soak up the atmosphere of this venerable and historic city, which had been the powerful hub of Mediterranean and European commerce for centuries.
We knew that canals were the lifeblood and connective tissue of Venezia, but to finally see them in real life, and haul our own luggage over cobblestones and small bridges—no cars allowed—was a revelation. Venerable palazzos stood shoulder-to-shoulder with apartment buildings, their lowest floors often submerged in water—no sidewalks—overlooking campos and piazzas, and everywhere, was the smell of water. The gondolas and vaporettos were ubuiquitous, and we soon learned the etiquette of how to board and debark.
We met our knowledgeable and lively guide, Bruna Caruso, and she was delighted to find that I spoke Italian; we enjoyed speaking together (she graciously abandoned her veneziano dialetto for me) and she translated for my dear husband. She led us through the campos and into St. Mark’s Square and the Basilica San Marco, walking on plywood risers above the aqua alta, the high tide that had recently overtakenso much of Venezia, and does so from time to time. There was water everywhere—in the square, over the mosaics on the church floor, and lights illuminated the gold mosaics inside the darkness of the basilica, a hushed and sacred space, even with the tide’s encroachment. During our tour, Bruna affirmed for us the communal nature of Venezia that author Leon had described throughout the Brunetti books. Bruna whimsically told us that everyone knows everyone else’s business in Venezia—there are no secrets, she said, because everyone lives so closely together. Each island has its own basilica and campos, and there were secret channels among the waterways, she related, and that was why no foreign power had ever been able to conquer Venezia.
Our hotel, the ancient Palazzo Priuili (Castello) was a delight. The marble stairs had been worn in the centers by hundreds of inhabitants and guests for decades. The furnishings were elegant and in concert with age and history of the palazzo, and we had a lovely view of a canal from our room. That night, we dined at Al Giardinetto, in the dining room that had been the ancient family’s chapel, and the spell of Venezia was firmly cast upon us.
Our last day in Venezia, we took a water taxi to the island of Murano and were amazed by the craftsmanship and artistry of the glass blowers. Naturally, the spell Venezia had cast upon us prompted us to buy a beautiful plate and vase, in a style called “Avventurina.” It was first mentioned in a document dating from 1614 as “a kind of stone with gilt stars inside,”at which point it had already delighted people with its unusual style. The technique’s discovery happened by chance, according to the story, when a glassblower is said to have accidentally dropped some metal shavings into the glass mixture. Italians say it happened “all’avventura,” which in Italian means “by chance”—a “happening,” the glassblowing artisan explained to us. He didn’t know precisely how it was going to turn out, until it was finished.
The owners and craftsmen were more than gracious, explaining how carefully they would ship our prizes over six thousand miles to California, and their faces were wreathed in good natured smiles at my Italian. Our precious Murano glass artistry miraculously survived the trip without a scratch or nick (thanks to heavy crating and Styrofoam!) and graces our living room in places of honor—a lovely memory of my Italian childhood home—in my American home.
Being able to speak the Italian language had done its magical work, once again, and the living link of language was able to make us feel at home in Venezia, even though I’d never lived there.