Friday, September 16, 2022


Let me tell you about my lovely trip to Venice during the first week of May.

Not Venice, Florida, like my first online search for tickets tried to guide me to. VENICE Venice, as in Italy.

I've been to Venice before. The first time was with my now husband when we were backpacking around Europe after college. That was fun, but involved a youth hostel, and we spent much of that trip dirty and hungry. (We once offered our Venetian Boat Pass--with a clear picture of a boat on it--on a bus to an official checking tickets just outside of Venice, and that guy simply shrugged and punched it anyway.)

The second time was with my parents and brothers in 1999. That was a much different trip to Italy where we stayed in actual hotels and ate in nice restaurants and showered regularly. (Here's my dad on that trip to Venice. He would have loved this trip. I miss him.)

No matter how you see Venice, though, Venice is beautiful. That's just undeniably true.

But both those earlier trips were also short, and left an impression that the place was too overrun with tourists to truly enjoy for more than a brief period. It was crowded and seemed geared to take your money more than anything else. If you'd asked me if I planned to return, given other options in Italy to visit, I would have said probably not.

However, the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra was presented with the opportunity to play in Venice as part of a 2022 mandolin orchestra festival, and how could we not want to go? And this time, not only did I get to spend a full week in the city of canals, but I got to go with my mom, and we stayed in a neighborhood off the beaten path where locals reside, and it made all the difference. This was the first trip to Venice where I couldn't get enough, and fantasized about living there. It was magical.

This post is overdue since life has been busy, but I still want to remember as many details of my trip as I can before they all slip away, so this will be long, and will likely get tedious for anyone who isn't me. I won't be offended if you simply skip ahead to all the pictures. (Because the best part of any Venice post is always going to be the pictures.)

My trip started by leaving directly from my varnish workshop in Chicago for Detroit where our flight was going to depart two days later. It seemed silly to drive as far as Chicago, only to turn around and do that part of the drive again the next day on the way to Michigan, so a friend in the workshop staying at my house agreed to take all my instruments and supplies back with her to Milwaukee, and I could hit the road to my mom's house after lunch from Chicago. I was excited about saving some time and getting to Detroit early, but then I managed to get lost on a route that I have driven more times than I can count. Even with a GPS I can do this! (It's a gift.) After a lot of unnecessary driving in Indiana I arrived at my mom's, where there is always an amazing meal waiting, even when I'm late.

The extra day in Detroit was to accommodate an online Pitch-O-Rama in San Francisco that I was signed up for, to try and find an agent for my new novel. I thought that event would take maybe an hour, and then I could spend the day with my mom. But it was five! That's a lot of time on Zoom telling people over and over again about a book. (I did learn some interesting things, and one agent did want to see the first fifty pages of my book, but turned it down, so that saga continues.)

Trip starts from the porch in Michigan!

A friend dropped us off at the airport the next morning, and Mom and I had fun with air travel. First leg of the trip was to Toronto, and we enjoyed our snack of pretzel/bretzels on the plane. The snarling mess of delays in Canada was impressive, confusion with Covid vaccination cards and passports, the annoyance of being in masks all day. . . Eventually we found mandolin orchestra friends in a LONG line for our flight to Italy.

Mom and I settled into our middle seats in the middle section of an enormous plane where we sat on the runway for over THREE HOURS. We watched the world's most boring movie. (If anyone out there has seen the highly acclaimed "Drive My Car" and can tell me what was good about it, I'd love to know.) Once in the air, we watched things and ate stuff and dozed uncomfortably all the way to Marco Polo Airport in Venice. The long, messy "line" to get our passports checked took forever and was weird. But it was weirdness in Italy, therefore exotic.

Next task was to navigate our way to the Airbnb without any helpful language skills. I found a kiosk to buy a boat pass to where my Airbnb host instructed us to go. We managed to get on the right boat, and after maybe twenty minutes ours was the first stop at the Madonna dell'Orto. We carefully GPSed our way through some tiny streets, passed an impressive church, and in a little square our host managed to spot us and lead us the rest of the way to the pretty front door.

View from our window

Odd details about getting around: Preferred communication (with the host, with water taxi service, etc.) was with WhatsApp, which I don't want, so we had to do that through my mom's phone. My phone only worked where I had wifi. My mom's phone had service everywhere, but Google Maps was a giant confusing mess on it. It took us so many odd directions! And often when we were close to our destination, it would pause, delete the actual map, spin everything so we were no longer sure of our orientation, and leave us with a line of dots to follow like playing Pac Man but without the walls of the maze. Then it would usually tell us we were now at least twice as far from our destination than we had been seconds before. For one restaurant I wanted to go to, it took us to a dead end and announced we were there. Thankfully Venice is small and confusion is traditionally part of its charm.

Also, if you haven't been to Venice, every path is some kind of street. There are single-file only spaces between buildings that here wouldn't even count as alleys that there are labeled calles and are on the map. 


There are paths that run alongside canals, and there are places with no pedestrian access that are only canals. Many bridges. Everything is on foot or by boat. The city is completely impassable if you cannot walk and do stairs, with the exception of one bridge with a ramp near San Marco's Square in the most heavily touristed stretch of Venice. I wondered a lot about how locals managed if their bodies failed them at some point.





The place we stayed was the best! Interesting combination of old and new, great bathroom, lovely view. . .  I just wanted an affordable apartment with two bedrooms in Venice proper, not someplace outside we'd have to commute from every day.

Our apartment door inside the building



Other than that, I didn't really care where, so we ended up in this lovely old place at the north end of Venice, very close to the Madonna dell'Orto, which was the stunning church we passed when we first got off the boat. It could not have been the more perfect spot. It was far from the crowded tourist areas, and we got to see regular people walking their dogs, going to work, buying groceries, and little kids in soccer uniforms laughing and running. It was originally on the other end of town where we were supposed to be rehearsing and performing, but then that church had to cancel (due to a priest with Covid), and it all switched to the church right next to us! I couldn't believe our luck.

Traveling with my mom was a treat. She sees the world as an artist, and she told me it was fascinating to tour a historic place as a musician would, considering spaces for their acoustics not just their visual attributes, and scheduling events around rehearsals and concerts, factoring instruments into logistics, etc. We saw beautiful things at every turn and ate wonderful food. Couldn't have asked for better company.

We started our flight from Detroit on Sunday, May 1st, and arrived in Venice early on the 2nd. That whole first day we simply got our bearings, got instructions from our host about the ins and outs of where to put garbage, how to lock to doors, and how to find the lights and the wifi.

We wandered about and got a sense of how to return home, what restaurants were nearby, what kinds of shops were easily available, etc. We also learned that even though phone booths are becoming rare in the US, they still have them all over Venice. I have no idea why since everyone from everywhere has a cell phone.

Anyway, day one in Venice we wandered, ate, and just enjoyed the wonder of it all.

On Tuesday (the 3rd) we wandered about in the early part of the day and visited a lovely print making shop next door to the the former home of Tintoretto. It was a space crowded with books and art and puppets where artists were busy at work, and you could leave a small donation at the door and look around. I wound up buying a print I liked that someday I will get framed here at home.

(I was quite spoiled growing up that my parents ran an art gallery and would frame things for us regularly! I had to find a new framer once my mom retired but no one will ever be as good.)

In the afternoon I finally met up with the mandolin orchestra in the church. What a spectacular venue! Tintoretto paintings on the walls behind us, fabulous floors, high ceilings, and just knowing it was a space where Vivaldi himself once played made all of it thrilling. We did a lot of enjoyable work making adjustments in terms of tempo and balance to ensure our pieces weren't swallowed in all the reverberation of the room. Our esteemed director Rene Izquierdo remarked that it may have been the first time those walls ever housed anything like jazz.

For this trip, I asked a friend of mine to make me a real strap for my mandola. I've been using a cheap guitar strap for years and decided for Italy I wanted something special. Elaine came up with a unique strap that I love.

During rehearsal, someone mentioned that they'd been kayaking in the canals the day before! What an idea. And the place was somewhere in our neighborhood. So that evening my mom and I looked up kayaking, discovered a place that was open very close by, popped over, and it turned out they were leaving with another tour in five minutes and they still had slots open.


Kayaking in Venice was fascinating. Not only did we get to see things from a completely different vantage point and explore areas we could not have on foot, but we got a sense of what navigating a city of canals means in a practical sense. Our guide explained that kayaks in Venice functioned the way bikes do on city streets. We were asked to keep left, and make way for real traffic. There were a couple of big intersections where we really had to pay attention and move quickly. All my experience with kayaking prior to this was far more random, where you paddle around a lake or estuary as you please. Urban kayaking, even in a place that looks the way Venice does, is different.

After kayaking, we tried a restaurant on the corner called Osteria DaRioba, which was lovely. (And also had pretty glasses.)

Wednesday morning (the 4th) we had an extra rehearsal. It wasn't on the initial schedule, but it made sense to gather in person one more time and work out some problem spots before we had to perform. I was the only regular mandola player who was able to come from Milwaukee, but I got to play with Tonia and Kristin, both wonderful musicians from out of state who had practiced along with us on Zoom to prepare. (It's the first time I've played in a mandola section where everyone preferred to read in alto clef, so that was fun!)

The rehearsal was in the attic of the place where Rene was staying, very close to the Grand Canal, and a short walk from the fish market and the Rialto Bridge. Space was tight, so my mom wandered on her own for a couple of hours while we practiced.

(And these are just more random shots from along our walk to the rehearsal because why not? And look at how nice and not crowded Venice can be!)

It's hard to overstate what an enjoyable group of musicians the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra is to play with. There are plenty of people I would not want to be jammed in an attic with, trying to coordinate music in a cramped space for hours while all the rest of Venice lay outside the walls. But I have fond memories of everyone doing their best to make it work, and laughing our way through the odd circumstances.

After rehearsal, the rest of the day was ours! We visited the Rialto Bridge because it was there. But it was overwhelmingly crowded with tourists from everywhere, and packed with overpriced and often peculiar souvenirs.

Ugly painting on an ugly severed foot! Who doesn't want that?

We did stop for gelato, however, and gelato makes everything better.

But after a little while in that tourist heavy section of Venice, we fled past shops full of glass and candy back to our own little neighborhood.


A couple of doors down from where we were staying was a shop of some kind of nautical supplies that had a little dog in the doorway all day. We would see him follow the owner home at closing. (That dog was very cute, but had no interest in being photographed.)




Here are more random shots of Venice. Because this is what it just all looks like in general and it's hard not to keep taking photos. Plus I bought sunglasses.

We strolled about trying to find a restaurant we'd been to many years ago called Gam Gam, which is a fantastic kosher place there in the old Jewish ghetto section of town. Google Maps failed us spectacularly, and we ended up simply picking up things to go that looked good at a couple of shops and bringing them back to our apartment. All of it was delicious.

Later that night, we headed out to San Marco Square. Rene wanted us to get a video of us playing somewhere in that space at night, despite it being a slightly dodgey thing to do. The police are quick to shut down anyone performing without a permit in that area, but we weren't doing anything for handouts. We just wanted cool footage of us playing in a cool place. Because we had to gather on the sly, I actually didn't find our group until the last few numbers, but was still able to join in. I'm particularly pleased that I made it in time to play Mandolins In the Moonlight, there in the literal moonlight. The small crowd gathered there loved us. That was all really really fun.

Mandolas unite!

And on the midnight walk home, why not more gelato?

Thursday (the 5th) I didn't have any orchestra obligations, so Mom and I did all our own stuff. We saw San Marco in the daylight this time...

...and grabbed a boat out to Murano island, which is a place of wall to wall glass shops. I adore the tiny dishes more than I can describe. 

But this time instead of buying one of those tiny dishes, I picked up what I can only describe as a small bar-of-soap-sized piece of glass creation. I love it so much. It serves no purpose other than to delight, and I've kept it on our dining room table since I unpacked it upon my return from Italy, where I stop and hold it briefly nearly every time I walk past.

That was a good day for picking up souvenirs in general, including some tiny things for my kids, and a beautiful cup for my mom. (Look how pretty that cup looked in the sunshine back in my mom's dining room!)


Back in Venice we found a restaurant for dinner right near the opera house, and then saw Griselda by Vivaldi. I was unaware that Vivaldi had even written an opera, but there it was. The staging was peculiar, and there was more simulated rape than I was prepared for, but the music was beautiful. Despite my affordable but obstructed view seat, I was able to see clearly into the pit, which I always find interesting. The conductor played on one of two harpsichords during the performance, there was a guitar/lute player, and a surprising number of players in general for a pit. I think the opera doesn't get performed often because of the number of male parts that are in a high register, but they simply had women play those roles. The story was ridiculous, but then it's hard to find an opera story line that isn't.

On the walk home it rained lightly. We learned from this that Venice is also beautiful in the rain at night.

Friday the 6th was concert day! My mom and I being so close to the venue were among the few to arrive at the church relatively dry on that rainy day. We were able to just relax in the apartment until the last minute.



This is the point where I will mention that the organizational element of this mandolin orchestra festival was a mess. A frustrating, frequent-changes-all-at-the-last-minute-all-the-time mess.

We were told we could do our dress rehearsal at a particular time, and then that got moved back, and then the group rehearsing before us ran very late. And our concert start time moved as well, and we were told we had to be finished promptly to make room for the 5:00 mass. It was honestly rather nerve wracking, because several of our pieces have tricky roadmaps, and the bass player we were borrowing from a different orchestra was seeing them for the first time. We needed all that rehearsal time. To add to the fun, there were no printed bass parts, so Rene had to give up his iPad to lend to the bass player, and then conduct everything from memory. Which of course he did beautifully, but we really didn't need one more thing.

Tonia, Kristin, and me in our mandola lineup!

A group from Austria played before us, and while we were gathered in the makeshift green room off to the side, Rene led us in a series of stretching and breathing exercises to get everyone focused. I think it helped.

And then we played really well.

Live concerts are never perfect, and the one piece where we had some hesitations was appropriately enough the Hesitation Waltz, but overall, I don't think we've ever played better. The audience was enthusiastic, and even though we had to cut a piece I had been excited to play due to the unexpected time constraints, it really went very well. My mom was right there in front, and it's a performance moment I will always be proud of. 

Afterward, a pair of mother-daughter musicians joined us for a bit of relaxation in our nearby apartment, and then we all went out for dinner.



Mom and I then spent the evening just wandering some more. Because Venice is a perfect place to simply be.

Our last full day in Venice was Saturday (the 7th). The big event planned for that day was our evening performance in a palace as part of the Gala end to the festival. So Mom and I took it easy in the morning, worked on arranging things for our departure the next morning (lining up a water taxi back to the airport, etc.), and then splurged on a wonderful lunch where we had reservations at a little place we'd passed every day called Vini Da Gigio.

So good. The best thing I ate the whole trip was their fried artichoke hearts and prosciutto.

After lunch, we went back to the apartment to change, pick up my mandola (and music, and stand) and start walking toward the palace way on the other side of the map.


It was a confusing trek, but we left ourselves plenty of time to get lost. Which is good, because somewhere in that last little stretch we got impressively lost, until we spotted other people carrying mandolin cases, and tagged along with them.


The walk took us past grand sights, along a park, and through all sorts of interesting neighborhoods with surprises here and there, including our first glimpse of cars in several days. It's amazing how fast you can get used to not seeing cars. (Less amazing how little you miss them.)


We were asked to keep the palace location and Gala a secret, lest the locals were to crash the event. That sounded bizarre to me, since what are the odds of the average person wanting to randomly hear mandolin orchestras play? But apparently that can happen, because while trying to figure out the location of the secret palace, we asked a random man for help, and he didn't know either, but accompanied us all the way to the venue despite our not needing assistance at that point. And he was there as I was leaving, telling me how great it all was. So apparently that happened.

The Gala event was somehow even more poorly planned than the concerts were. The palace couldn't hold all the festival participants, so we were divided into two groups, the first to enter at 6:00, and the second in another round later. So almost no one got to hear all the music, which was really unfortunate. Our group was supposed to include performances of Japanese pieces by the Venice Festival ensemble, duos performed by Rene Izquierdo and Carlo Aonza, and finishing up with the Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra, where we planned to play the piece cut from our original concert, along with Summertime In Venice and an encore number. We were really excited!

The palace was beautiful. There were costumes on display, and palace dancers on hand to teach people traditional steps at the buffet following the concert.

The seating was weird, though, because they needed the chairs from the first several rows in the audience for the orchestra to sit in. It seemed unfair for people who had staked out front row seats early to be suddenly displaced and sent to the back or off to the sides. But then those chairs returned during the duo performance, and those of us looking forward to being closer to the front were now in the middle. It was unnecessarily disruptive.

The first group played for at least 20 minutes. Then the duo played many things for about 45 minutes. 

And at that point, an announcement was made that there would be no time left for the Milwaukee group, please go eat, and promptly leave so the next group could come in.

We were really confused. At first we couldn't believe we'd been bumped from the Gala, and wondered if we'd been moved to the next group of performances. But no, we were cut entirely! We came all the way to Venice and were then summarily dismissed from the final event!


We went down to the floor with the uninspiring buffet spread, sipped our drinks, and grumbled in disbelief as musicians played background music and accompanied the dancers. We started saying at the very least we could be playing the music during the food and at least get a chance to play in the palace! 

My friend Laurie took that to heart and said she would go back upstairs and grab her instrument and would play with anyone who would join her. We decided to run it past Rene to make sure he wouldn't get in trouble, and he gave us our blessing. So off we went, back upstairs to collect our things, and we simply set up at the end of the room, and we made music.

The festival director was NOT HAPPY. But once we decided to go rogue, we stuck with it. We played Tango of the Roses to much applause, and launched into Summertime In Venice over the director's protests. But what was he going to do? Cut us again? The audience loved it.

Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra goes rogue

Defiant mandolas!

We loved it! Best part of the trip, and the closest an old-time mandolin orchestra gets to feeling like a punk band. Much more fun than if we'd actually played our originally scheduled set.

My mom and I made the lovely walk in the night back to our apartment where we packed up our things for the morning.

Always so much glass!


The water taxi arrived right on time outside our door. We watched Venice get smaller in the distance as we approached the airport. 


We spent the last of our Euros tipping a man who helped us get to the Covid testing station and wheeled our bags inside.


All the airport stuff in Italy was efficient and fine. The flight was good, and we watched the excellent documentary "The Conductor" about Maren Alsop, which I can highly recommend. All the airport stuff in Newark was stupid. Lots of confusing lines that looped around pointlessly, and our gate changed FIVE TIMES, never with an announcement. Once we had to find gate 99 only to discover the numbers stopped at 98. I asked a pilot for help, and he pointed us underground for that one. I did get a text from the airline at a random moment saying that we needed to switch gates (two gates ago) and that we should allow 77 minutes to get there. The last little flight to Detroit was blissfully uneventful. A friend picked us up and delivered us home where we slept very well.

For no real reason, I will share that in the Italian airport were confusingly large Mentos, and this peculiar feminine higeine waste can in the ladies room

So tired.

Good to see Detroit again.

It really was an excellent trip all around. I'm beyond lucky that we got to do it.

And the Austrian group that got to hear us play? They liked us enough to invite us there next spring. Can't wait to show those pictures! (My mom says she's already got her bag packed!)

If you got this far, thanks for sticking it out on my recap of my Venice trip. If you ever get the chance to go, do it. (And share pictures!)

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