A Thousand Days in Venice

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Overview



He saw her across the Piazza San Marco and fell in love from afar. When he sees her again in a Venice café a year later, he knows it is fate. He knows little English; and she, a divorced American chef, speaks only food-based Italian. Marlena thinks she is incapable of intimacy, that her heart has lost its capacity for romantic love. But within months of their first meeting,...
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Overview



He saw her across the Piazza San Marco and fell in love from afar. When he sees her again in a Venice café a year later, he knows it is fate. He knows little English; and she, a divorced American chef, speaks only food-based Italian. Marlena thinks she is incapable of intimacy, that her heart has lost its capacity for romantic love. But within months of their first meeting, she has packed up her house in St. Louis to marry Fernando—“the stranger,” as she calls him—and live in that achingly lovely city in which they met.

Vibrant but vaguely baffled by this bold move, Marlena is overwhelmed by the sheer foreignness of her new home, its rituals and customs. But there are delicious moments when Venice opens up its arms to Marlena. She cooks an American feast of Mississippi caviar, cornbread, and fried onions for the locals . . . and takes the tango she learned in the Poughkeepsie middle school gym to a candlelit trattoría near the Rialto Bridge. All the while, she and Fernando, two disparate souls, build an extraordinary life of passion and possibility.

Featuring Marlena’s own incredible recipes, A Thousand Days in Venice is the enchanting true story of a woman who opens her heart—and falls in love with both a man and a city.


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Editorial Reviews

Forbes
Eleven years ago I began sharing with the readers of this space my insights on some of the books I read during summer "vacation." Summers have expanded because of my somewhat lighter load of FORBES traveling, speaking and columns. In short, "summer" reading now goes on most of the year, particularly during long flights to Asia, of which there are still several each year.

First I call your attention to 2001's Churchill, a Biography--by Roy Jenkins (paperback: Plume, $18). Of all the works on Winston Churchill (and the list of books about him is approaching the length of the list of Abraham Lincoln biographies), I would nominate Jenkins' biography as one of the best--although William Manchester's unfinished study is great, too.

Jenkins, who performed similar services for prime ministers William Ewart Gladstone, Herbert Henry Asquith and Stanley Baldwin, as well as for others of historic significance, was superbly gifted with experi-ence (50 years at or near the top of British and European politics) and had the opportunity to observe Churchill during the 16 years they served together in the House of Commons. Jenkins' recent death has deprived us of the further biographies we were all anticipating.

Churchill is, on the whole, admiring, but it is certainly no hagiography. The last sentences disclose the fairness and the fullness of this great biography: "When I started writing this book I thought that Gladstone was, by a narrow margin, the greater man, certainly the more remarkable specimen of humanity. In the course of writing it I have changed my mind. I now put Churchill, with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, histenacity and his persistent ability, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful, to be larger than life, as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street."

Next I want to call attention to two books that have two things in common: both are by Buckleys--father and son, respectively--and are therefore distinguished by first-rate writing, great narrative skill and a splendid appreciation of the historic and the comic.

Getting It Right--by William F. Buckley Jr. (Regnery, $24.95)--continues Bill Buckley's series of turn-ing the history (perhaps too narrow a canvas here) of 20th-century American politics into exciting novels. And, of course, the author himself is a participant in many of the incidents. In Getting It Right we see what Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, and the impressive, puzzling and enormously influential (for a short time) Ayn Rand were really like. Rand's novels about the beginning of the conservative movement rivaled the Harry Potter novels in sales. Now it's hard to know quite why, as Rand's writing was unexceptional. Probably her loss of fame is be-cause conservative thought and philosophies--so unusual at the time--have become so much a part of the conventional wisdom that her writings have lost their shock value. Welch and Rand had offshoots that had to be exorcised and dealt with before conservatism could be accepted. Buckley was the major force behind making conservatism appealing, un-derstandable and respectable.

Washington Schlepped Here--by Christopher Buckley (Crown Journeys, $16)--is an incredibly good guidebook to our nation's capital. Even the most ancient of Washington's cave dwellers who are reputed to know every-thing will have a lot to learn about their city from young Buckley. Christopher, a comparative newcomer, has mined the sources assid-uously, without ever losing his extra-ordinary comic talents. There are few--if any--better descriptions of the Freer Gallery of Art's Peacock Room. And I'd be surprised if many Lincoln scholars are familiar with Lincoln's cas-ual dismissal of criticism of the Gettysburg Address: "Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a differ-ence of purpose between the Almighty and them." When it comes time for your children or grandchildren's school class to visit Washington, the best preparation they or anyone could have would be to read this book.

Then I read two too short books with similar themes: An Italian Affair--by Laura Fraser (Vintage Books, $12) and A Thousand Days in Venice--by Marlena de Blasi (Ballantine Books, $12.95). In both of these books an American woman, each an excellent book, has her dreams of romance in Italy come true--at least for a time. Ms. Fraser's book is far superior, probably because of a general lightheartedness and her obvious joy in her love affair. In both books, the local color and the descriptions of the mouthwatering Italian dishes are superb. These books are among the best recruiting weapons Italy's tourism authority could wish for.

And last I read a truly small, delightful book for dog lovers: Why Dogs Do That--by Tom Davis (Wil-low Creek Press, $13.95). An earlier Davis work, Just Goldens, chronicles the lives and skills of golden retriev-ers. Why Dogs Do That answers several puzzling questions, such as why dogs bury bones; why dogs insist on sleeping in bed with their masters; and why some dogs howl. (Sadly there's no reasonable explanation for the blood-curdling noises emitted occasionally--usually around midnight--by my golden retriever.) This book is a splendid addi-tion to dog lore. It should enable you to understand at least some of your dog's puzzling, but always lovable, behavior.
—Caspar Weinberger

Publishers Weekly
On a visit to Venice, de Blasi meets a local bank manager who falls in love with her at first sight. After "the stranger" (as she coyly calls him throughout the book) pursues her back to her home in St. Louis, Mo., she agrees to return to Italy and marry him, leaving behind her grown children and her job as chef and partner in a cafe. Although the banker, Fernando, lives in a bunkerlike postwar condominium on the Lido rather than the Venetian palazzo of her dreams, and some of his European ideas about women clash with her American temperament, the relationship works. She survives his criticism of her housekeeping and his displeasure at her insistence on remaining a serious cook (in modern Italy "No one bakes bread or dolci or makes pasta at home," he tells her), and they marry. Then one day Fernando surprises her by announcing that he is quitting his job at the bank where he has worked for 26 years. They leave Venice, he espouses her interest in food and they now direct gastronomic tours of Tuscany and Umbria. De Blasi's breathless descriptions of her improbable love affair can be cloying, but she makes up for these excesses with her enchanting accounts of Venice, especially of the markets at the Rialto. She conjures up vivid images of produce "so sumptuously laid as to be awaiting Caravaggio" and picturesque scenes of the vendors, such as the egg lady who keeps her hens under her table, collects the eggs as soon as they are laid and wraps each one in newspaper, "twisting both ends so that the confection looks like a rustic prize for a child's party." In a final section entitled "Food for a Stranger," de Blasi (Regional Foods of Northern Italy) includes recipes for a few of the dishes with which she charmed the stranger. (June) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Venice is almost synonymous with romance, and in this charming account de Blasi spares no detail in telling us how she fell under its spell. A journalist, restaurant critic, and food consultant, de Blasi left her home, her grown children, and her job as a chef in St. Louis to marry Fernando, a Venetian she barely knew. In defiance of the cynics who think true love in middle age is crazy, her marriage flourished, as these two strangers made a life together. Food comforted the newlyweds when their conflicting cultures almost divided them, and in the end marital harmony reigns. Is this book a romance, a food guide, or an exhortation for us to come to Venice and experience the magic? Ultimately, it is all three, and there is even an appendix that includes recipes for dishes described in the text. Recommended for larger travel, biography, or cooking collections. Olga B. Wise, Compaq Computer Corp., Austin, TX Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A luxurious story of sudden love, done properly, from cook/journalist de Blasi (Regional Foods of Northern Italy, not reviewed, etc.). Middle-aged and divorced, with two grown children, living in St. Louis (Missouri, that is), de Blasi goes to Venice and meets the gaze of a man while having a drink in a restaurant with friends. He asks her for a rendezvous, and she agrees, unexpectedly, touched by the same whatever that has moved him. The rest is history, and a great story. The man, Fernando-no smooth-talker, a bit of a frump, awkward, yet a romantic-comes for a weeklong visit to St. Louis, and by the time he leaves, de Blasi has promised to move to Venice to be with him. She has few second thoughts, and her friends urge her on: "If there is even the possibility that this is real love," one of them asks her, "could you dare to imagine turning away from it?" She doesn't, and what follows are the next 1,000 days, her game immersion in Italian culture to her wedding to their move south to Tuscany. De Blasi relates it all in a voice at once worldly and sensuous, unsentimental and aware of what it means to have such good fortune. Not all is as rosy as the Venetian morning light, though; she suffers a loss of her natural ebullience, "the quick strangling of spontaneity for the sake of a necessary deception that Italians call ‘elegance'," though she doesn't allow it to dampen her vitality, nor does she let Fernando-who eats like a bird and whose kitchen is "a cell with a Playskool stove"-diminish her love of food. Rather, she binds her love of Fernando to her love of food, like a bouquet garni, in one long delicious engagement running throughout this ode, from cappuccino and apricot pastry topumpkin gnocchi in cream and sage. Love stories are easy targets, but no one will scoff at the genuine and cheering affection depicted so generously here.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345457646
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/3/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 7.10 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Marlena de Blasi
Marlena de Blasi has been a chef, a journalist, a food and wine consultant, and a restaurant critic. She is the author of two cookbooks, Regional Foods of Northern Italy (a James Beard Foundation Award finalist) and Regional Foods of Southern Italy. She and her husband, Fernando, now direct gastronomic tours through Tuscany and Umbria.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview with de Blasi, she shared some fascinating insights about her background, her inspirations, and her life in Italy.

"Everything is inspiration to write. A writer never stops writing, even if it's in his head or on paper napkins. I've been desperate enough to scratch half phrases on my bedsheets, not finding paper and fearing to lose a thought should I get up to look for such."

"I don't think writers can be raised up in a creative writing class. I think it's a bold, bad lie to convince someone he should -- or can -- be taught to write. I think writers' groups can sometimes be helpful, but I'm mostly wary even of them. Writing is a private, solo, isolating, and very lonely job. But if you're a writer, it's all you ever want to do."

"[My first job] was as a radio voice and TV voice and face. My best contracts were with Peugeot -- (‘the best-kept automotive secret in America -- Peugeot') -- and Coty perfumes -- (‘if you want to capture someone's attention, whisper') and other sort of soft-sell products."

"I taught cooking on a PBS channel for a few years. I was very passionate about this opportunity and wanted the audience to not just learn formula, but to be inspired by the beauty and sensuality of the raw food itself. My first show was live. And not understanding my gaffe until the producer explained it to me, I opened by holding up a single, great, and splendid leek. Camera in for a close-up. I smiled my TV model smile and said: ‘First, you take a leek.' I know someone has since written a book with that title, but I can assure you my traffic with those words came long before it."

"Since I live in a 14th-century palazzo on the via del Duomo in an Umbrian hill town, there's not such a great deal from which to unwind. Our life is simple and full of rituals such as sidling up to the bar in our favorite caffè -- Montanucci -- at least four times a day for cappuccini, aperitivi, pastry, chocolate, and sympathy; I write very early in the morning for a few hours, and then at about nine we go to the morning markets, shop for lunch, sit in the caffè and talk to our friends, come home to cook and put our bread in the oven. We sit down to lunch at one, get up from the table at about two-thirty or three, nap for an hour. I write until about seven-thirty, when we take the passeggiata -- the evening stroll -- the moment when the whole town is out and about. We pick up a few things for supper, take an aperitivo with our friends, head back home, where we'll dine at about nine-thirty, or go out to dine at one of the typical, tiny osterie for which Orvieto is famous."

"How wonderful you ask about dislikes, though I'm not certain this sits in that category or in the one labeled ‘things that hurt.' But I find readers who judge style -- my style -- tiresome, presumptuous, often using the critical forum to air barely disguised ‘issues' of their own. And is there some glint of jealousy in their criticism? I'm not sure. That I see and feel life in a certain way and then write about it in my own voice, well, that belongs to me. Also I think it's that I find sarcasm, in all its tortured forms, to be simply naked insecurity. It's grand whenever a person states their sentiments. Better, if done so with a fine set of civil manners."

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    1. Hometown:
      Orvieto, a hilltown in Umbria
    1. Education:
      B.A., State University of New York at Albany; graduate studies in political science, New York University

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1
Signora, the Telephone Is for You

The small room is filled with German tourists, a few English, and a table or two of locals. It’s November 6, 1993, and I arrived in Venice that morning, two friends in tow. We speak quietly together, sipping Amarone. Time passes and the room empties, but I notice that one table, the one farthest away from us, remains occupied. I feel the gentle, noninvasive stare of one of the four men who sit there. I turn my shoulders in, toward my wine, never really looking at the man. Soon the gentlemen go off, and we three are alone in the place. A few minutes pass before a waiter comes by to say there is a telephone call for me. We have yet to announce our arrival to friends, and even if someone knew we were in Venice, they couldn’t possibly know we were lunching at Vino Vino. I tell the waiter he’s mistaken. “No, signora. Il telefono è per Lei,” he insists. “Pronto,” I say into the old, orange wall telephone that smells of smoke and men’s cologne.

“Pronto. Is it possible for you to meet me tomorrow at the same time? It’s very important for me,” says a deep, deliberate, Italian voice I’d never heard before. In the short silence that follows it somehow clicks that he is one of the men who’d left the restaurant just moments before. Though I’ve understood fairly well what he has said, I can’t respond in Italian. I mumble some linguistic fusion like, “No, grazie. I don’t even know who you are,” thinking that I really like his voice.

The next day we decide to return to Vino Vino because of its convenience to our hotel. Idon’t think about the man with the beautiful voice. But he’s there, and this time he’s without his colleagues and looking more than a little like Peter Sellers. We smile. I go off to sit with my friends, and he, seeming not quite to know how to approach us, turns and goes out the door. A few beats pass before the same waiter, now feeling a part of something quite grand, comes to me, eyes direct: “Signora, il telefono è per Lei.” There ensues a repeat of yesterday’s scene. I go to the phone, and the beautiful voice speaks in very studied English, perhaps thinking it was his language I hadn’t understood the day before: “Is it possible for you to meet me tomorrow, alone?”

“I don’t think so,” I fumble, “I think I’m going to Naples.”
“Oh,” is all the beautiful voice can say.
“I’m sorry,” I say and hang up the phone.

We don’t go to Naples the next day or the day after, but we do go to the same place for lunch, and Peter Sellers is always there. We never speak a word face to face. He always telephones. And I always tell him I can’t meet him. On the fifth day—a Friday—our last full day in Venice, my friends and I spend the morning at Florian mapping the rest of our journey, drinking Prosecco and cups of bitter, thick chocolate lit with Grand Marnier. We decide not to have lunch but to save our appetites for a farewell dinner at Harry’s Bar. Walking back to the hotel, we pass by Vino Vino, and there is Peter Sellers, his nose pressed against the window. A lost child. We stop in the calle a moment, and my friend Silvia says, “Go inside and talk to him. He has the dearest face. We’ll meet you at the hotel.”

I sit down next to the sweet face with the beautiful voice, and we drink some wine. We talk very little, something about the rain, I think, and why I didn’t come to lunch that day. He tells me he is the manager of a nearby branch of Banca Commerciale Italiana, that it’s late, and he has the only set of keys to reopen the safe for the after-noon’s business. I notice the sweet face with the beautiful voice has wonderful hands. His hands tremble as he gathers his things to leave. We agree to meet at six-thirty that evening, right there, in the same place. “Proprio qui, Right here,” he repeats again and again.

I walk to the hotel with a peculiar feeling and spend the afternoon lolling about my little room, only half celebrating my tradition of reading Thomas Mann in bed. Even after all these years of coming to Venice, every afternoon is a ritual. Close by on the night table I place some luscious little pastry or a few cookies or, if lunch was too light, maybe one, crusty panino which Lino at the bottega across the bridge from my Pensione Accademia has split and stuffed with prosciutto, then wrapped in butcher’s paper. I tuck the down quilt under my arms and open my book. But today I read and don’t read the same page for an hour. And the second part of the ritual falls away altogether, the part where I wander out to see images Mann saw, touch stones he touched. Today all I can think about is him.

The persevering rain becomes a tempest that night, but I am resolved to meet the stranger. Lagoon waters splash up and spill over onto the river in great foaming pools and the Piazza is a lake of black water. The winds seem the breath of furies. I make my way to the warm safety of the bar at the Hotel Monaco but no farther. Less than a few hundred yards from Vino Vino, I’m so close but I can get no closer. I go to the desk and ask for a telephone directory, but the wine bar is not listed. I try calling assistenza but operator number 143 finds nothing. The rendezvous is a wreckage, and I haven’t a way to contact Peter Sellers. It was just not meant to be. I head back to the hotel bar, where a waiter called Paolo stuffs my soaked boots with newspaper and places them near a radiator with the same ceremony someone else might use to stow the crown jewels. I’ve known Paolo since my first trip to Venice four years earlier. Stocking-footed, fidgeting, drinking tea, I sit on the damp layers of my skirt, which sends up the wooly perfume of wet lambs, and watch fierce, crackling lights rip the clouds. I think back to my very first time in Venice. Lord, how I fought that journey! I’d been in Rome for a few days, and I’d wanted to stay. But there I was, hunkered down in a second-class train, heading north. “ARE YOU GOING TOVENICE?” asks a small voice in tentative Italian, trespassing on my Roman half-dream.

I open my eyes and look out the window to see we have pulled into Tiburtina. Two young, pink-faced German women are hoisting their great packs up into the overhead space, thrusting their ample selves down onto the seat opposite me. “Yes,” I finally answer, in English, to a space somewhere between them. “For the first time,” I say.

They are serious, shy, dutifully reading the Lorenzetti guide to Venice and drinking mineral water in the hot, airless train car as it lunges and bumps over the flat Roman countryside and up into the Umbrian hills. I close my eyes again, trying to find my place in the fable of life in the Via Giulia where I’d taken roof-top rooms in the ochered-rose palazzo that sits across from the Hungarian Art Academy. I’d decided I would go each

Friday to eat a bowlful of tripe at Da Felice in the Testaccio. I would shop every morning in Campo dei Fiori. I’d open a twenty-seat taverna in the Ghetto, one big table where the shop keeps and artisans would come to eat the good food I’d cook for them. I’d take a Corsican prince as my lover. His skin would smell of neroli blossoms, and he’d be poor as I would be, and we’d walk along the Tiber, going softly into our dotage. As I begin putting together the exquisite pieces of the prince’s face, the trespasser’s small voice asks, “Why are you going to Venice? Do you have friends there?”

“No. No friends,” I tell her. “I guess I’m going because I’ve never been there, because I think I should,” I say, more to myself than to her. I have hopelessly lost the prince’s face for the moment, and so I parry: “And why are you going to Venice?”

“For romance,” says the inquisitive one very simply.
My plainer truth is that I am going to Venice because I’m being sent there, to gather notes for a series of articles. Twenty-five hundred words on the bacari, traditional Venetian wine bars; twenty-five hundred more on the question of the city’s gradual sinking into the lagoon; and an upscale dining review. I would rather have stayed in Rome. I want to go back to my narrow green wooden bed in the strange little room tucked up in the fourth-floor eaves of the Hotel Adriano. I want to sleep there, to be awakened by powdery sunlight sifting in through the chinks in the shutters. I like the way my heart beats in Rome, how I can walk faster and see better. I like that I feel at home wandering through her ancient ecstasy of secrets and lies. I like that she’s taught me I am only a scintilla, a barely perceptible and transient gleam.

And I like that at lunch, with fried artichokes on my breath, I think of sup-per. And at supper I remember peaches that wait in a bowl of cool water near my bed. I’ve nearly retrieved the pieces of the prince’s face as the train lurches over the Ponte della Libertà. I open my eyes to see the lagoon.

Back then I could never have imagined how sweetly this
ravishing old Princess was to gather me up into her tribe, how she would dazzle and dance the way only she can, exploding a morning with gold-shot light, soaking an evening in the bluish mists of a trance. I smile at Paolo, a tribal smile, a soundless eloquence. He stays near, keeping my teapot full. It’s after eleven-thirty before the storm rests. I pull on boots all hardened into the shape of the newsprint stuffing. Damp hat over still-damp hair, still-damp coat, I gather myself for the walk back to the hotel. Something prickles, shivers forward in my consciousness. I try to remember if I’d told the stranger where we were staying. What’s happening to me? Me, the unflappable. Even as I am drawn to Venice, so am I suspicious of her.

It seems I did tell him the name of our hotel, because I find a sheaf of pink paper messages under my door. He’d called every half hour from seven until midnight, the last message letting me know he would be waiting in the lobby at noon the next day, exactly the hour we were to leave for the airport.

Morning brings the first sun we’ve seen in Venice during that stay.

I heave open my window to a day limpid and soft, as if in apology for all that weeping the night before. I pull on black velvet leggings and a turtleneck and go down to meet Peter Sellers, to look him in the eyes and to find out why a man I’d hardly met could be so disturbing to me. I don’t know how I’m going to find out very much though, because he seems to speak no English and the only clear discourse I can carry on in Italian is about food. I’m a bit early, so I walk outside to feel the air and find I’m just in time to see him climbing over the Ponte delle Maravegie, trench coat, cigarette, newspaper, umbrella. I see him before he sees me. And I like what I see, feel. “Stai scappando? Are you escaping?” he asks.

“No. I was coming to meet you,” I say, mostly with my hands.
I had told my friends to wait, that I’d be half an hour, an hour at most. We would still have plenty of time to take a water taxi to the Marco Polo airport and check in for our three o’clock flight to Naples. I look at him. I really look at the stranger for the first time.

All I see is the blue of his eyes. They are colored like the sky and the water are colored today and like the tiny, purply-blue berries called mirtilli, I think. He is at once shy and familiar, and we walk without destination. We stop for a moment on the Ponte dell’Accademia. He keeps dropping his newspaper and, as he bends to retrieve it, he thrusts the point of his umbrella into the crowds that pass behind us.

Then, holding the newspaper under one arm and the umbrella under the other, its evil point still a thwart to the strollers, he slaps at his breast pockets, his trouser pockets, in search of a match. He finds the match and then begins the same search for another cigarette to replace the one that just dropped from his lips into the canal. He really is Peter Sellers.

He asks if I’ve ever thought much about destiny and if I believe there is such a thing as vero amore, real love. He looks away from me out over the water and speaks in a throaty sort of stammer for what seems like a long time and more to himself than to me. I understand few of the words except his final phrase, una volta nella vita, once in
a lifetime. He looks at me as though he wants to kiss me, and I think I’d like to kiss him, too, but I know the umbrella and the newspaper will go into the water and, besides, we’re too old to be playing love scenes. Aren’t we too old? I’d probably want to kiss him even if he didn’t have blueberry eyes. I’d probably want to kiss him even if he looked like Ted Koppel. It’s only this place, the view from this bridge, this air, this light. I wonder if I’d want to kiss him if I’d met him in Naples. We take a gelato at Paolin in Campo Santo Stefano, sitting down at a front-row table in the sun.

“How do you feel about Venice?” he wants to know. “This is not your first visit here,” he says, as though flipping through some internal dossier that tracks all my European movement.

“No, no, this is not my first time. I began coming in the spring of ’89, about four years ago,” I tell him brightly.
“1989? You’ve been coming to Venice for four years?” he asks. He holds up four fingers as though my pronunciation of quattro was muddled. “Yes,” I say. “Why is that so strange?” “It’s only that I never saw you until December. Last December. December 11, 1992,” he says, as though eyeing the dossier more closely. “What?” I ask, a little stunned, rummaging back to last winter, computing the dates when I’d last been there. Yes, I’d arrived in Venice on December 2 and then flown up to Milan on the evening of the eleventh. Still, he’s surely mistaken me for another woman, and I’m about to tell him that, but he’s already lunging into his story.

“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. You were looking in the window at Missiaglia, and you were with a man. He wasn’t Venetian, or at least I’d never seen him before. Who was he?” he asks stiffly.

Before I can push out half a syllable, he is asking, “Was he your lover?” I know he doesn’t want me to answer, and so I don’t. He’s talking faster now, and I’m losing words and phrases. I ask him to look at me and, please, to speak more slowly. He accommodates. “I saw you only in profile, and I kept walking toward you. I stopped a few feet from you, and I just stood still, taking you in. I stood there until you and the man walked off the piazza toward the quay.” He illustrates his words with broad movements of his hands, his fingers. His eyes hold mine urgently.

“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 somewhere, I could stop you, pretending I mistook you for someone else. No, I would tell you I thought your coat was beautiful. But anyway, 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 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.” Still I have said not a word.

“That’s what I was trying to tell you on the bridge just now, about destiny and true love. I fell in love with you, not at first sight, because I saw only a part of your face. With me it was love at half sight. It was enough. And if you think I’m mad, I don’t care.”

“Is it okay if I speak?” I ask him very quietly and without a notion of what I want to tell him. His eyes are now deep blue bolts, holding me much too tightly. I look down, and when I look up again his eyes have softened. I hear myself saying, “It’s a very sweet gift, this telling of your story. But that you saw me and remembered me and then that you saw me again a year later is not so mysterious an event.

Venice is a very small city, and it is not improbable to see the same people again and again. I don’t think our meeting is some sort of thundering stroke of destiny. Anyway how can you be in love with a profile? I’m not only a profile; I’m thighs and elbows and brain. I’m a woman. I think all of this is only coincidence, a very touching co-incidence,”
I say to the blueberry eyes, neatly patting his arcadian testimony into smooth shape as I might a heft of bread dough. “Non è una coincidenza. This is not coincidence. I’m in love with you, and I’m sorry if this fact makes you uncomfortable.”

“It’s not discomfort I feel. It’s only that I don’t understand it. Yet.” I say this, wanting to pull him close, wanting to push him away. “Don’t go today. Stay a little longer. Stay with me,” he says.

“If there’s to be something, anything at all between us, my going today won’t change it. We can write to each other, talk. I’ll be coming back in the spring, and we can make plans.” There seems a forced syncopation to my words before I hear them falling away into near paralysis. Still as a frieze, we sit there on the edges of the campo’s Saturday fracas. A long time passes through our silence before we shuffle to our feet. Not waiting for a check, he leaves lire on the table under the glass dish of his untasted strawberry gelato, rivulets of which drip onto the paper money.

My face is burning, and I feel startled, flush up against an emotion I can’t name, one eerily like terror but not unlike joy. Could there have been some gist to my old Venetian forebodings? Have the pre-sentiments spun out into the form of this man? Is this the rendezvous?

I am drawn to the stranger. I am suspicious of the stranger.
Even as I am drawn to Venice, so am I suspicious of her. Are he and Venice the same thing? Could he be my Corsican prince masquerading as a bank manager? Why can’t Destiny announce itself, be a twelve-headed ass, wear purple trousers, a name tag, even? All I know is that I don’t fall in love, neither at first sight nor at half-sight, neither easily nor over time. My heart is rusty from the old pinions that hold it shut. That’s what I believe about myself. We stroll through Campo Manin to San Luca, just making small talk. I stop in mid-stride. He stops, too, and he wraps me up in his arms. He holds me. I hold him.

When we exit from the Bacino Orseolo into San Marco, la Marangona is ringing five bells. It’s him, I think. He’s the twelve-headed ass in the purple trousers! He’s Destiny and the bells only recognize me when I’m with him. No, that’s rot. Menopausal gibberish.

Five hours have passed since I left the hotel. I call my friends who are still waiting there, and I vow to meet them and my baggage directly at the airport. The last flight to Naples is at seven-twenty. The Grand Canal is improbably empty, free of the usual tangle of skiffs and gondolas and sandoli, permitting the tassista to race his water taxi, lurching it, slamming it down brutally onto the water. Peter Sellers and I stand outside in the wind and ride into a lowering, dark red sun. I pull a silver flask from my purse and a tiny, thin glass from a velvet pouch. I pour out cognac and we sip together. Again, he looks as if he’s going to kiss me, and this time he does —temples, eyelids, before he finds my mouth. We’re not too old.

We exchange numbers and business cards and addresses, having
no more powerful amulets. He asks if he might join us later in the week wherever we might be. It isn’t a good idea, I tell him. As best I know it, I give him our itinerary so we might be able to say good morning or good evening once in a while. He asks when I’ll be re-turning home, and I tell him.
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Interviews & Essays

Author Essay
Plan to be in Venice on the third Saturday of July for La Festa del Redentore, when Venetians thank the Redeemer for delivering their ancestors from the plague. When you book your lodgings, ask if the pensione (hotel) can help you rent a rowboat for the evening of the festival or, better yet, book seats for dinner on one of the larger boats. Being a spectator, rather than in the midst of it on the water, is only fun if you're lucky enough to be the guest of a host whose palazzo (palace) has an altana (rooftop terrace) from which vantage you can see and feel the spectacle. Enjoy the moonlight, fireworks, food and wine, and mandolins on the earth's most splendid waterway.

Fill a picnic basket with bread and zaletti (cornmeal cookies) from Colussi, a bakery in San Marco; cheese and cold meats from any one of the no-name shops gracing every Venetian neighborhood; wine, pastry, and chocolates from Rosasalva -- and take the vaporetto (water taxi) to the Lido where you can board the number eleven bus for i murazzi, the immense rock wall that protects the island from the sea. Walk a hundred meters, find a flat rock on which to spread your meal, then dine to the accompaniment of crashing Adriatic waves.

At crepuscolo (dusk) head for the terrace bar at the Monaco Hotel, housed in the seventeenth-century palazzo of the noble Vallaresso family. It looks out on a particularly glorious section of the Grand Canal, proving that the Venice of one's dreams is the real Venice. But first, check to see it's not Paolo's night off. Let him concoct aperitivi for you. Just say, "Ci pensi lei" (you decide).

Stroll in the Dorsoduro, the Venice neighborhood that some have likened to Paris's Left Bank. Tucked here and there you'll find boutiques, cafés, and restaurants. Begin at Venice's only wooden bridge, the Accademia, constructed in 1932 to replace the great iron monstrosity built by the Austrians during their mid-nineteenth-century reign. Along the way, you might be inspired to renew your marriage vows at la Madonna della Salute. Afterward, secure a table in the jasmine-scented gardens at Locanda Montin: start your meal with canoce, thin, sweet shanks of Adriatic shellfish; next consider a silky risotto alla zucca (risotto with pumpkin), or try the roasted lagoon duck stuffed with local sausages and wild herbs. And when you've emptied that bottle of Bianco di Custoza, crisp white wine from the nearby village of Bussolengo, call for due sgroppini, the classic close to all Venetian suppers. What will soon appear are two flutes filled with lemon sorbet, vodka, and sparkling wine whipped to a thick, icy cream.

Go early, about 7 a.m., to the Rialto markets and watch the "getting ready" drama. Then follow the farmers and merchants to their favorite bars for cappuccino and hot cornetti filled with apricot jam. Walk back through the open-air stalls of cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and meats as more shoppers begin to arrive and by 9:30 a.m. make your first stop at Cantina do Mori, the oldest wine bar in Venice, where the extraordinary circumstances of your visit might make it possible to drink a glass of simple wine from the barrel along with panini ripieni con prosciutto crudo e uove sode (crisp buns stuffed with cured ham and hard-cooked eggs), just as all the contadini (farmers) are doing.

Pack a blanket and head for the nearby island of Torcello. Take the motonave (ferry boat) from Lido, preferably the one that departs at 8:20 a.m., and sit outside sipping the cappuccino you picked up at Chizzolin on the Grand Viale. On Torcello spread your blanket in the tall grasses on either side of the main path and just stay quiet, feeling the ancient stillness of the place. When you're ready to move, visit the bedizened basilica, the site on which the original seventh-century church was erected, then head to Ponte del Diavolo (Bridge of the Devil) for lunch. Ask for a table where the waiter with the salmon-colored cravat and the pomaded hair parted in the middle can take care of you. If it's May, don't forget to order risotto con i bruscandoli (risotto with hop shoots).

Go late, after supper in the summer, to sit outdoors at Florian, sipping cold moscato, sweet, amber-colored wine, and listen to the orchestra. Dance to the last piece of the evening and have a nightcap with the musicians before you and your companion wander back home.

Watch the sunset on the vaporetto Number One. Board the boat at the San Zaccaria landing stage just as the light is beginning to change and head out to the train station. It is essential to sit outside and drink champagne from a pair of crystal flutes! Debark at Santa Lucia and reboard a Number One heading back toward the center of Venice. You'll be starving by the time you reach the Ca' d'Oro stop, but la Vedova waits only a few meters away just off the Strada Nuova. Have a simple supper there, and please give Ada, one of the best cooks in Venice, a hug for me. (Marlena de Blasi)

Copyright © 2002 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

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Reading Group Guide

Our Book Club Recommendation
Both a travel memoir and a bold argument for following the heart, A Thousand Days in Venice is above all a book about new beginnings -- about finding true love and a new life, a bit later in life. This tale of an unlikely romance is sure to captivate reading groups with its colorful version of the age-old question: What is it like to "start over"?

The first few chapters alone provide a feast for discussion, as they relate how author Marlena de Blasi -- a successful food and travel writer, chef, and mother of two grown children -- impulsively agrees to pack up and abandon up her life in the U.S. to move to Venice and marry a "blueberry-eyed stranger" whom she has just met. But that is only the beginning of this story of culture clash and new love.

Although the colorful Italian scenery provides constant entertainment, the author's real concern is the drama of personal transformation. Her memoir explores the realities of such a momentous leap, and how we reconcile our dreams or hopes about the unknown with imperfect reality. De Blasi relates her struggle to express her "own ebullience" in limited language (when they met, her husband spoke scant English, and she had only food-based Italian), a scenario that demands a truly imaginative response. Both in middle age, Marlena and Fernando repeatedly ask themselves if they are "too old for love" -- a concept that raises fascinating issues about the benefits and challenges inherent in a mature approach to relationships.

A Thousand Days in Venice also highlights the change in Fernando, as he blooms from a reserved and proper Venetian bank manager into a man who begins to test his own limits and truly embrace a new life. At the same time, Marlena describes the fears of abandonment that surrounded expressing herself to her "stranger." Their dual transformation provides the thematic backbone for the story of the evolution of a new partnership in life.

There are a thousand reasons why A Thousand Days in Venice will appeal to book clubs, but the most important one is that, in the midst of its exotic setting and romantic interludes, its author asks and discusses essential questions about how we discover who we are and what we truly want from life. Reading groups may well find themselves doing the same. (Elise Vogel)

Discussion Questions from the Publisher
1. “Even as I am drawn to Venice, so I am suspicious of her.” Why did this well-traveled author deliberately shun Venice for so long? Why was she so suspicious?

2. The author’s family and friends respond in many different ways to her decision to move to Venice and marry Fernando. Without the benefit of hindsight, what do you think your initial response would be to a friend or a relative planning such a drastic life change?

3. When she and Fernando first kiss, de Blasi recognizes that they “are not too old” for love. Yet her love affair inspires awkwardness, suspicion, and even embarrassment in many of those around her. Discuss the internal and external barriers to love found later in life.

4. In the midst of a quarrel with Fernando, the author wonders “why there always hovers, just an inch or two above love, some small itch for revenge.” Discuss this statement. What other emotions and reactions hover just above love?

5. Throughout the novel, de Blasi refers to her partner and then husband as “the stranger.” How well do you know those you love? Do you ever consider them strangers?

6. The author and her husband both struggle to keep their personal demons in check to make their relationship work. Do you agree with de Blasi that this can be easier to do later in life? Why or why not?

7. Why does de Blasi move to Italy as opposed to Fernando moving to the United States?
8. The author is forced to jettison most of her material possessions upon her move to Italy, which she finds liberating. Could you or would you do the same? If you could keep only what could be shipped overseas at a reasonable cost, what would you choose?

9. The author’s friend Misha warns her that she will “neither understand nor be understood” in Italy. How does she navigate the cultural barriers that threaten to isolate and overwhelm her? What role does her love of food play?

10. In the end, do you think de Blasi has found a satisfactory means of communication in her new culture?

11. Discuss what places in the world inspire you the way Venice inspires de Blasi. Is there a culture different from your own you can imagine immersing yourself in? If you have done so, how does your experience compare with de Blasi’s?

12. The author chooses to embrace the complications involving her wedding. Discuss the expectations surrounding such special events and the potential for disaster.

13. On the impact of her life-changing decision on her adult children, de Blasi muses “that their childhood was ending and…in a strange way, my childhood was beginning.” Discuss the meaning of this statement.

14. Like Fernando, have you ever felt imprisoned by the expectations of others? Have you lost track of dreams you once had?

15. De Blasi makes her husband feel connected to the world. Who or what makes you feel connected to the world?

16. Cooking for a crowd, real or imagined, helps the author stave off the loneliness that plagues and frightens her. What staves off loneliness for you?

17. The author argues, “Too often it is we who won’t let life be simple.” Do you agree or disagree?

18. Do you think “a little suffering sweetens things”?

19. How do you think this narrative would unfold if told in Fernando’s voice? How might it differ and how might it remain the same?

20. How do you think Fernando would describe his wife in his own words?

21. In the final line of her acknowledgments, de Blasi hints that another memoir might be forthcoming. Would your group be interested in reading another installment of this memoir? Do you want to learn about her life in the Tuscan village of San Casciano dei Bagni?

22. Did you find this memoir to be a satisfying read? What are the benefits and drawbacks of this literary genre?

23. How would you describe this book to prospective readers?

24. If you were to write your own memoirs, what story would you tell?

25. Is your group satisfied with this selection? Why or why not? What is your next selection?

26. Have you or will you try any of the recipes found at the end of this novel?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 16, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Perfect for foodies and romantics who love great writing!

    I loved this book! It transported me to Venice, letting me remain to enjoy not only the food and romance but experience the beauty of Marlena's writing - which was so beautifully written - it often brought tears to my eyes. I savored every word!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 3, 2009

    Good description of Venice!

    A little slow moving but extremely interesting if you have visited or are about to visit Venice.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2007

    Okay

    Read this book for the purpose of learning more about Venice and the food. If you're reading it for plot and storyline you will end up disappointed. I enjoyed this book when I opened my mind to learning about the culture and the beauty of food and wine.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    A great sory

    In St. Louis, Marlena lives alone having been divorced and her two adult children out from the roost. She is a successful chef and food writer, but has little to show in her recent personal life. Marlena travels to Venice where the Stranger stares at her as if she is Miss Italy. Banker Fernando believes that he has found his soul mate. They talk and share a romantic interlude before she returns to Missouri.<P> Surprisingly, he travels to the States to persuade Marlena that this is love. She agrees to go to Venice because this may be love. Neither understands the desires of the other except for the passion between them, yet a warm relationship forms as love, indeed, flourishes. However, will her spontaneity and her love for cooking die or will she bring her beloved into the world of the gourmand.<P> Marlena de Blasi provides uses the novel format to explain how she and her beloved met, fell in love, and forged a relationship. The true story simmers slowly so that those who demand instant gratification will want to pass. Those readers who relish a tasteful morsel (and a few recipes) will appreciate this true eternal love story found during the author's middle age when society catalogues folks as part of the over the hill gang.<P> Harriet Klausner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 23, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Fun to Read

    What a fun book. Great descriptions of Italy. This should be a book on tape also. I would love to hear her read it. Great for a flight or beach.
    Easy and follows well. Just fun.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2006

    Bellisima!

    Marlena de Blasi is truly a sensual romantic. Her accurate and gorgeous descriptions of Venice, the people, the climate and especially the food transported me back to the wonderfull times I spent there. Marlena is a woman who experiences life through all of the senses, especially taste and she so generously shares her excellent recipes with us. I greatly admire how Marlena takes risks and gives up what's safe and conventional in life, and follows the instincts of her heart. Lucky for us, she shares her experiences as an inspiration to seek our own la dolce vita. Brava Marlena!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 24, 2005

    One Cup of Fun

    I had a hoot of a good time reading this little 'real romance.' It's not rocket science, but it was fun to read about Italy.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2003

    Romancing Venice

    This book captured me from the start. By the end of the first chapter, I was in tears, reading it to my mother, explaining about this amazing true story of true love. Captivating writing by a woman who finds love in a stranger, trusts the fates and jumps head first into romance, and a new life in Italy. Take me to Venice so that I can absorb all the romance this sinking city eminates. I cannot wait for the continuing story of Marlena and the stranger.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2003

    Poor, very disappointing

    I expected this book to be so much better. I did read the whole thing, even though the writing wasn't very good and it wasn't romantic at all. Basically it was somewhat interesting to hear about Italy since I've never been there. But this food writer is not good at this genre of writing. The more I thought about it after I read it, the less I liked it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2003

    Just the main course

    The story could have been interesting; however, the author left out very pertinent details. She is obviously very good at writing about food and travel as I thoroughly enjoyed the details of her surroundings. She talked about food, cooking and Venice in a very sensual manner but I found it somewhat awkward that this supposed romantic tale had little to no references to emotions that are normally so obvious when you meet someone, fall in love and decide to spend the rest of your lives together. She gave more information about neighborhoods, local merchants, restaurants, etc. than she did about her husband. I also thought it was odd that she continued to call him the stranger throughout the book. That was fine at the beginning, but needed to go by the time they got married. It's a good story, but only half of it is in the telling. The comparison made by the Philadelphia Inquirer to 'Bridges of Madison County' is way, way off.

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    Posted February 23, 2009

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    Posted March 28, 2010

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    Posted November 23, 2009

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    Posted March 20, 2010

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    Posted January 10, 2010

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