I bought this book, A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi, several years ago when I longed especially hard for Italy. Just by sitting on my shelf it comforted me, as if I could go there any time.
But, a friend of mine is going in August, long before I will have a chance to return, and so I gave the book to her. Today we are meeting at her home to cook tilapia, and discuss A Thousand Days in Venice.
If Marlena’s life hadn’t mirrored mine in many ways, I never would have thought this story could be true. Like me, she has curly brown hair, wears red lipstick, and feels a sense of separateness from this world. “I didn’t have the language to tell her it wasn’t sadness she sensed in me. Only separateness. Even in English it’s difficult to translate “separateness.” I broadened my grin, but she was still looking beyond it. I raced off, and she yelled at my shoulders, “Allora, sei almeno misteriosa. Well then, at the least you’re mysterious.” (p. 174)
Unlike me, she’s a chef and an editor for an unnamed magazine, and she traveled to Europe frequently to review restaurants and write articles.
One day, she is sitting at a cafe with two friends when she notices a man looking at her. He gets up and disappears. Then, a waiter comes to Marlena and tells her she has a phone call. “How could I?” she asks, “I don’t know anyone here.” Nevertheless she goes to the phone and discovers it is this man who had been staring at her from across the room. He invites her to dinner, to which she declines. When she goes to the cafe the next day, he is there again. He is always there because he loves her, and he is determined to marry her.
The love of an Italian man is very intense. I suspect that at first they are drawn in by looks. Once I was walking in Milan, when I was twenty four and much more fetching than I am now, when a red Fiat stopped suddenly in the middle of the street. Two young Italian men came out. “Come with us!” they begged. “We will have a wonderful time!” Probably we would have. But, I am much too timid of a person to get into a red sports car with men I’ve never met. And anyway, this is not the love of which I speak, only the initial attraction part.
So, Marlena meets him, and this is what he tells her, “I saw you last December. December 11, 1992, ” he says…You were walking in Piazza San Marco; it was just after five in the afternoon. You were wearing a long white coat, very long, down to your ankles, and your hair was tied up, just as it is now…I began to follow you, but I stopped because I had no idea what I’d do if I came face to face with you. I mean what would I say to you? How could I find a way to talk to you? And so I let you go. That’s what I do, you know, I just let things go. I looked for you the next day and the next, but I knew you were gone. If only I’d see you walking alone somehwere, I could stop you, pretending I mistook you for someone else. No, I would tell you I thought your coat was beautiful. But any way, I never found you again, so I held you in my mind. For all these months I tried to imagine who you were, where you were from. I wanted to hear the sound of your voice. I was very jealous of the man who was with you,” he says slowly. “And then, as I was sitting there at Vino Vino the other day and you angled your body so that your profile was just visible underneath all that hair, I realized it was you. The woman in the white coat. And so you see, I’ve been waiting for you. Somehow I’ve been loving you, loving you since that afternoon in the piazza.” (p. 15)
What else is there to do but marry him? Marlena sells her home in St. Louis, comes to Venice and moves into his apartment sight unseen. It’s almost a fairy tale, but for the fact that she is very honest about her adjustments to life in Venice as well with her new husband.
That is what makes the story great. One feels one is actually living in Venice, riding the gondolas, shopping the markets, walking under the bridges, eating the food, dealing with the Italian mentality. There are huge compromises each must make, and the unpretentious way she has of telling her story makes it all the more compelling. It is a marvelous read. (Not to mention all the recipes included in the back which I want to at least try.)