LA SERENISSIMA – October 3rd

A mid-morning vaporetto (#1) ride up the Grand Canal from San Marco; past the baroque extravagance of La Salute and Peggy’s collection and then under the Accademia bridge and, around the next turn, under the Rialto. Vessels of all sorts replicate of every kind of land-based activity you could imagine. Observing them as they weave in and out among one another is mesmerizing. Not a personal flotation device in sight. We stand by the port side railing, gazing as this vision of unspeakable loveliness drifts by. Our vaporetto stops at every local juncture, which makes the journey all the more fascinating because of the people watching.

“Jesus Fucking Christ,” I mutter and point to a passing barge. Joss chuckles. The barge is a floating advertisement for a brand of hotdog called – WUDY. Oh, the language of love.

Our destination is Venice’s Ghetto, a place of great historical and emotional resonance. It’s the oldest Jewish ghetto in the world, instituted by the Venetian Republic in the early 16th century. Jews were confined to an island called ‘Ghetto’. Locked in at night, during the day they were free to move about the city, though always with some identifying mark, perhaps a yellow hat or shawl. The origin of the word ‘ghetto’ is disputed; most commonly, it is suggested to derive from ‘getto’, the Venetian word for ‘foundry’. It seems more likely to me that ‘ghetto’ is abbreviation of ‘borghetto’, or ‘little neighborhood’.

We cross one of the Ghetto’s two bridges and step into the main square, the community being encircled by canals. The entrance to the museum is a modern gray one-story addition to the front of an otherwise nondescript building. Security. We thrust our bags into the x-ray device and receive a wand-down and couple of pats. The tour begins in fifteen minutes, so we hurry through some exhibits upstairs and proceed to wait.

There are five synagogues in the Ghetto, three in the New Ghetto (which is actually the old ghetto) and two in the Old Ghetto (yeah, the new one). We are shown the German or Ashkenazi Synagogue, the first built in the early 17th century, and the Spanish/Portuguese Synagogue, built a hundred years later, and then, in the Old Ghetto, the Levantine synagogue. They have been restored and are quite evocative and beautiful. Restrictions required that the German synagogue be constructed wholly out of wood. These were relaxed over time and later ones had ornate, almost baroque, marble elements.

When Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, he did away with the restrictions on the Jews and they began to disperse throughout the city. During the Second World War, two hundred Jews from the Ghetto were taken to the camps by the Germans. Eight returned. Venice’s Jewish population considers this the center of Jewish life. The two synagogues in the Old Ghetto still hold regular services, while the others do on the High Holy Days.

Joss’ precision guidance is confounded by the crypto-grid of Canareggio’s canals and byways. Finding the Church of the Madonna dell’Orto involves first being drawn to the vaporetto stop of that name. The church is unremarkable, famous mostly for the Madonna and Child painted in 1480 by Giovanni Bellini and stolen in 1993 and for being the final resting place of Tintoretto.

We could use a resting place ourselves at this point. Our fitful efforts to locate a suitable lunch venue finally bear fruit and we land at an outdoor café. Two pizzas are ordered for sharing purposes. As the meal progresses, a plague of aggressive asshole pigeons completely freaks the couple eating next to us and after they flee, the birds start hopping on the backs of unoccupied chairs and scuttling under the table in an attempt to get us to abandon our meal. Fuck you, lizard brains. Joss finishes her last slice and places the crust on the tray when a ballsy bird jumps on the table. We leap up. Outta there.

Finding the Ca’ d’Oro (the House of Gold) requires maybe five minutes. We don’t fall for the ol’ vaporetto stop trick this time. The Ca’ d’Oro was built around 1430 and after centuries of use and misuse, was purchased by Baron Franchetti at the end of the 19th century expressly to restore it to its former glory. Its façade facing the Grand Canal may be the most beautiful of all the palazzos facing it. Our next ride up the Grand Canal (tomorrow on the way to the train station), we will get to savor the façade. We find ourselves inside, in the entrance hall that opens through a loggia to the Canal itself. The floor is covered with intricate geometrically inlayed marble. The galleries with the Baron’s art collection begin on the piano nobile (the 2nd floor).

Our final stop in Canareggio is Santa Maria dei Miracoli. This small church is unremarkable in every aspect save for its exquisite beauty. Clad in marble of various pale shades and roofed with a barrel vault, it is truly breathtaking. Here is where George Clooney should have gotten married.

We’re pretty footsore, yet efficiently hoof it back to the digs using our internal GPS. Our last night, we have reservations at a Michelin-starred restaurant, Il Ridotto, very near Aquamare. We both get the meat and fish tasting menu. It is fun being treated to cuisine, though the final dessert course is unsettlingly medicinal.

LA SERENISSIMA – October 2nd

Good Day! Sunshine! At Fondamente Nove, we board Vaporetto 12 for Murano, Burano, and Torcello, daytrippers on the blue-green lagoon. We glide past Isola di San Michele, the cemetery of Venice, where apparently your entombment will only last for a decade unless you’re Ezra Pound or Igor Stravinsky. We disembark in Murano, the famous island of glassblowing. Venice ‘exiled’ the industry in 13th century because of the risk of fire and it became a world-renowned industry. Its buildings are only two stories high, and the thoroughfares wide, so much more sky intrudes. Countless shops feature the same touristic shit. Scoff as we might, to our surprise we find Xmas gifts for both Kif and Alice.

We reconnoiter the island pretty quickly, where the glass museum is and where the recommended lunch place is. The Museo del Vetro covers the history of western glassmaking in general and Murano’s contribution specifically. Videos of the techniques are mesmerizing. Some examples of glasswork really capture the imagination, but quite a bit is just gaudy or clunky or both.

At this point, we’re running on breakfast fumes. In a square or ‘campo’ featuring a lame Chihuly ripoff of Lame Chihuly, is the Busa Alla Torre Da Lele, an outdoor café under yellow umbrellas. We snag a table after replenishing our cash situation. Both of us, hankering for clams, order Spaghetti alla Telline, assuming telline to be basically vongole except from the lagoon. Clam Surprise! Telline are micro-clams the size of your thumbnail. This presents a challenge we meet without comment. Delicious. I snap a shot of the pile of shells.

Slowly, we stroll back to the vaporetto stop for transport to Burano and Torcello. The boat goes to Torcello first. We disembark and wander up a brick fondamente of small canal with fields on either side. Torcello is home to the oldest church on the Lagoon, a Byzantine structure begun in the 9th century and completed in the 11th. It has a striking mosaic that covers the west wall – the Harrowing of Hell and the Last Judgment. Nothing murky here like so many frescos and paintings; the colors and imagery are bold, insistent. You are fucking damned.

There are pieces of random stonework in the yard in front of the church/basilica. Most prominent is a chair reputed to the ‘Throne of Attila’ – real or just a fucking photo op. We take turns, trying to conjure up the ‘Hun’ vibe to no avail. We have the documentation. Be aware of the upcoming Attila Off. Who is most likely to storm the gates of Constantinople?

Back at Aquamare, a little downtime, then dinner in the neighborhood. I’m determined to find the mysterious gelato and we do. We also locate the costume shop that designs for theater. Joss buys a mask that adheres to your face by way of the device you hold in your teeth. The gelatoria, La Mela Verde, has exotic flavors. I try pine nut, while Joss sticks with hazelnut.

LA SERENISSIMA – October 1st

Another not-on-the-terrace breakfast at Aquamare: this time due to foreboding cloud cover. We had planned a trip to the islands today – Murano, Burano, and Torcello – but I’m discouraged by the weather. It should always be sunny when one crosses a lagoon. So, I say to Joss – Let’s stay inside-ish and hoof it to some semi-faraway museums, over the Rialto Bridge and deep in San Polo e Santa Croce. I’ll bring my umbrella. We’re underway by 10am. Threading our way through alleys clotted with distracted folk, we cross over the bottleneck of the Rialto again. The ‘sound’ of Venice is the wheels of the rolly suitcase on uneven pavement, just as the ‘smell’ of Venice is that oddly startling canal aroma. To stop on the Rialto for any reason is high foolishness. Aiming for the Frari and Titian’s famous Assumption of Mary altarpiece, we arrive to find services ongoing. Sunday, of course. Recalculate.

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is ‘around the corner.’ As far as I can tell, a ‘scuola’ is a sort of local organization (of men) dedicated to charitable deeds in the name of St. Roch, an inspirational dude of his day. They are not only good-deed-doers, but enthusiastically aggrandizing in a spectacular way. The first floor of the scuola consists of a very large hall surrounded by very large Marian dramas. We ascend a grand double staircase. The most prosaic aspect about the hall on the second floor is the folding chairs set up for a concert or lecture. Wooden allegorical sculptures line the walls, setting off a series of balloon-like lamps, then up the walls and over the ceiling, acres of Tintorettos, basically the whole Bible. The renaissance at its most rococo. An unassuming door with the word ‘Tesoro’ above it leads us to San Rocco’s treasury. The weird stuff, mostly reliquaries, some containing thorns from Christ’s final headgear and others holding two or three finger joints from assorted saints. The single relatable thing is a beautiful candelabra constructed from pieces of coral joined together with gold. Fully saturated with godly geegaws, I follow Joss down the stairs, pausing for a moment to glance at some shiny thing, and when I look up, she’s gone. Disappeared. We spend the next twenty minutes not finding each other. Joss strides up and down the grand staircase a resentful number of times. I sit by the restroom, always the glum default location, then park my butt on a bench outside the front door. Joss and I find one another soon enough and recriminations evaporate.

Scavenging for lunch can be the most viable option while waiting for the church services to end. And they do. The Frari is magnificent, if a bit daunting, even after San Rocco’s scuola. Titian’s famous altarpiece, The Assumption of Mary is too far away to really appreciate, so we take its glory for granted. A divided u-shaped choir stall of exquisite proportions and workmanship embraces the Assumption. Canova’s striking pyramidal tomb is against a wall near the front, one of the most melancholy sculptures I’ve ever beheld. He originally designed it as a posthumous monument to Titian. It went unbuilt until his students raised the money after he died. It contains an urn with his heart: the rest of him is elsewhere.

The Palazzo Mocenigo purports to be a textile museum, but its current exhibit surveys the history of perfume, not exactly a topic of interest. Odor – pfeh! The rooms are sort of period and some of the details are interesting, but we don’t linger. Hey, look! Not far! A Natural History Museum! Dinosaurs in Venice! This turns out to be the most intriguing stop of the day. There are no English subtitles anywhere, which gives evolution an enigmatic Italian twist. The walk through earth’s earliest times is very contemporary, but we’re ultimately deposited among many cabinets of curiosities, all manner of preserved vertebrates and invertebrates. Particularly curious are the small sharks with mammalian eyes. One room features elaborate displays of taxidermy illuminated by a grand murano glass chandelier.

We spill onto the fondamenta in desperate need of gelato. Amazingly, one of Venice’s best, Alaska Gelatoria, is a short walk. We’re finished today.

LA SERENISSIMA – September 30th

Today, we have an 8:15am ticket to the Accademia, Venice’s Renaissance art museum. Can we rise to maybe the foothills of consciousness? Fuckin’ A. Piazza San Marco is deserted at that time of morning: even pigeons need a rest. Gone, too, are the nocturnal noodges who ceaselessly importune us with a rose or one of those illuminated heli-things that shoots high into the air and drifts down boringly. During the day they sell these balls of puke that reconstitute themselves into spheres after you hurl them onto a piece of cardboard. Like I’ve never been to Times Square.

I digress. We know the way to the Accademia, but we time it poorly and arrive too soon. Thus thwarted, we walk some more. The Lagoon is visible, barely two hundred feet off. We follow the fondamenta along the small canal. Suddenly, we turn to each other – “Whoa.” Passing in front of the entry to this canal is a giant cruise ship, not unlike a ten-story building floating on its side with a great blue ‘C’ on its yellow smokestack. “Gross. Really gross.” We turn away and across the water we spy a workyard with four or five gondoli (gondolas) in various states. Some very, very old frame buildings surround the yard and on one wall is a collection of straw gondolier hats. This, it turns out, is Squero di San Trovaso, a gondola maintenance shop, one of the last remaining.

The Accademia is open. It houses the world’s largest collection of Venetian art. Many many Jesuses and Biblical stories told frontwards and backwards. The highlight for us is a series of paintings, recently restored, by Heironymous Bosch. The man was so dark and funny. But not enough, really, to keep us Accademizing. We are beaten.

A short walk and a double espresso away is Peggy Guggenheim’s museum. She bought an unfinished palazzo on the Grand Canal in the late 40s and made it her home. Now it is home to her wonderful collection of 20th century art. Many (heretofore unseen by me) masterpieces to behold. Particularly fascinating was Picasso’s On the Beach, both eerie and lighthearted. What’s left of Peggy’s household furnishings includes a gorgeous silver filigreed headboard fashioned by Alexander Calder. Heeding the call to lunch, we partake of a very cosmopolitan salad in the courtyard café.

So, trailing a nimbus of sheepishness, Joss and I show up at the appointed time and place for the 12:45 tour of the ‘secret’ passages of the Doge’s Palace. Well, yeah, not so much ‘secret’, as not trod by the usual hordes. We mount narrow stone stairs to a series of rooms under the eaves that served as the bureaucrats’ offices, the state archives, and special prison cells that housed, for instance, Casanova. Also, the torture chamber. Our guide then squired us through the Basilica San Marco. We gape at the brilliant mosaic glory above. Particularly eye-catching was the right hand lunette on the church’s façade that depicts the escapade by which two enterprising Venetians stole the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist from the Muslims of Alexandria in order to present Venice with a patron saint worthy of its ambition. They packed Mark’s old bones in a wicker basket and then covered them with pork. What? Another dramatic mosaic involved the Genesis stories of Creation and Adam & Eve swirling inside a small dome in the narthex, much like panels in a comic. It’s still a bum’s rush through the church, no loitering, fifteen minutes and you’re out, unless, of course, you pony up another five euro to climb a steep flight to see the original Greek horses that overlooked the piazza (replaced now by replicas, to save wear and tear on the antiques). The tour finally ends at four.

Is it physically possible to pull ourselves together for the AA meeting? We’re elementally bushed. The dogs are barking. We find dinner at a busy nearby trattoria our hosts had recommended where we eat ‘family style’ crammed into a corner. Food’s good, though.

Yet another fucking tour. This one is a nighttime visit to the Basilica of Saint Mark. We are to be the only people in the Basilica. Our guide is genial, repetitive, and charming. In the dimmest light, we are seated in the nave and slowly the lights come up revealing the five vast golden domes and countless ecclesiastic luminaries. Utmost grandeur in absolute silence. I have rarely been privy to such magnificence. Behind the high altar, where the bones of St. Mark reside, we are shown an enormous screen with ordinary church portraiture, which pivots revealing on the other side, row upon row of enameled saints and angels, encrusted with precious stones. Our guide then takes us down into the crypt (Venice has a crypt?), where church muckety-mucks have been interred (since they drained the crypt and installed a pump system).

What a day! My crypt has been drained.

LA SERENISSIMA – September 29th

Slumber my sorry ass. Oh, lagging jets. Describing a night’s erratic sleep is like describing a lame date. No one gives a fuck. Breakfast at Aquamare occurs up on the terrace, but there’s a German couple on the terrace. I step back inside. No Buongiorno. No nothing. At ten o’clock I have booked us a ‘special’ ticket to the Doge’s Palace. No line waiting. The Doge had an apartment, a small one, in the building, but the palace served primarily as the seat of government. Venice called itself a Republic; not in the 20th century way or even the Roman way. Only noble men could participate. Nevertheless, the Doge was elected for life. Many many committees – Justice, Customs, Military, etc – all elected, all served the Republic. Somehow it worked. Venice was incredibly rich and powerful, dominating the eastern Mediterranean commercially and militarily as the Byzantine Empire went into protracted decline. We make our way through a seemingly endless series of enormous rooms paneled to a fare-thee-well or adorned with portraits of red-robed, white-bearded eminences and, in the Greater Council Room, Tintoretto’s Il Paradiso, the longest canvas painting in the world, some eighty feet. Many rooms of renaissance armament lead us over the Bridge of Sighs to the “New” Prison, a stark hellhole devoid of stench and lamentation.

At last, we stumble back onto Piazza San Marco, which teems with a kind of humanity dismayingly assured that they are worthy of selfies. I’ve scheduled another tour for us that doesn’t leave for an hour and a half. Let’s hydrate on the piazza and people-watch. No. Not after a quick scan of the menu. No fifteen euro iced tea. Instead, we show up at the pre-arranged meeting place early only to discover that our tour is for Saturday, tomorrow. Recalculate.

Restored by a slice of pizza and Coke, we readjust our sights toward the minor basilica of San Zanipolo (Santi Giovanni e Paolo). Joss navigates with hand-held confidence. Nevertheless, it’s incredibly easy to get turned around. Still we persevere. The crowds dwindle, then we turn a corner and they’ve vanished. The sun sparkles. The air is crisp. We have found Venice’s second most important church; towering brick walls held together with delicate cross beams. Light suffuses the interior through great leaded windows made of rondels of clear glass. Four simple, breathtaking chapels flank the altar.

Outside again, we can see the lagoon. Walking along, the cool breeze invigorates us. All manner of nautical vessel glides past. The island of San Michele, across the way, is Venice’s cemetery. We duck into a Biennale exhibit (the Iranian Pavilion, I think). Oh, Biennale, you are everywhere. “Let’s go find the Rialto; it can’t be far.” “Sure, Dad.” We stall out in a piazza, footsore and grouchy. I see a red bench. A place to drop our weary asses. We settle next to a Venetian woman in deep conversation on her smart phone. “Where to next, Joss?” “There,” and she indicates with a wave of her phone, “Saint South Chicken Road.” It must lead to the Rialto.

The Rialto Bridge spans the Grand Canal at its narrowest part. It is jammed with gawkers, dalliers, wavers of selfie sticks, and other folk whose progress has incomprehensibly come to a standstill. “Now that we’re on the other side of Grand Canal, let’s go find where that English-speaking AA might be,” I suggest lightheartedly. The directions from the website were measured in paces from Campo San Barnaba and I have a childlike belief in our proximity to Campo San Barnaba. We cannot fail.

From the vaporetto stop, Ca’ Rezzonico, walk along the alleyway to Campo San Barnaba. When you reach the square, look for an archway between two shops on your left. Walk under the archway, over a bridge and turn immediately to the right. Walk about thirty paces, then turn left and walk another ten. The entrance to the Institute is on the other side of the canal, opposite you. Walk a little further on and then turn right to cross the canal. Then turn right and walk a few paces to the entrance.

 There it is. We found the meeting! Sure, it meets tomorrow, but this may be as good as it gets. And now we must traverse the Grand Fucking Canal again, but since we’re right near Ca’Rezzonico, we can visit the baroque palace and take in its treasures. The ballroom is an airy space of frescoed columns and pilasters that rise to a putti-fest of airborne, naked bambini. I want to have a party there, but it’s time to navigate back to Aquamare. The nearest bridge is the Accademia, a graceful wooden bridge not as clusterfucked as the Rialto. From there, it’s a straight shot to our lodgings.

We rest before we must forage for pasta. I have picked out a place. We share a plate of heavenly cheese, then dig into gnocchi (Joss) and grilled octopus (V.). On our way back from the Accademia, we had picked up a pair of tickets to a concert of Vivaldi, Handel, and Bach at Chiesa San Vidal that would start at nine o’clock. Finding it again is easy. The church’s acoustics are remarkable and the music is just bliss. Venice after ten o’clock at night is nearly empty. It is a dream.

Bedtime. Tomorrow begins at dawn’s crack.

By the way, remind me, if and when I’m ever filling out an online dating profile, that my preferred type is ‘gondolier’.

La Serenissima – Thursday, September 28th

Joss and I converge on JFK despite typical traffic bullshit. She was late and I was a little later. Not a race. We wait with the rest of humanity on cusp of trajectory. Escape velocity arrives in a timely fashion and we are aloft. Passengers are weird. They have quirks and needs that magnify when hurtling through time and space in a metal tube. Like the young woman who won’t stop talking to her mute companion or the guy who gets out of his seat at regular intervals to bounce on the balls of his feet and stretch his lanky frame in the aisle. I manage to sleep: Joss not so much. Immigration and customs pass in a blur. A ferry, which we locate with ease, transports us over the lagoon. Our ship maintains a stately pace as water taxis buffet our craft with their wakes. We approach Venice from the north – first stop Murano, the island of glassmakers. The journey winds around the city, passing the Arsenale, Venice’s enormous shipyard, where in the 13th century a galley could be built in a day. This was the first instance of mass-production on a scale not duplicated until Henry Ford devised the assembly line. I point this out to her, feeling the self-consciousness of internalized guidebook knowledge for the first time. We debark at San Zaccaria, the Piazza San Marco stop. Our B&B is up an alleyway and down another and behind a not very well-marked door. Many flights of stairs, toting valises. We are offered water and coffee on a terrace overlooking rooftops and the crosses atop the Basilica. The color scheme throughout our lodgings relies heavily on lime sherbert green.

After a blessed shower, we hit the pavement. I suggest it might be a good idea to find Piazza San Marco in order to theoretically give us a sense of location. It’s not far. Jesus, is it congested. They tell you, but words cannot convey the mass of not-moving humanity. At least in Times Square, there’s some tectonic movement to the crowd. Still, the vast scale of the plaza strikes awe. The façade of the Basilica. The shimmer of the Doge’s Palace. The majesty of the Campanile, replaced in the early 20th century when the Renaissance one collapsed. The glitz of the high-fashion shops lining the narrow streets that radiate from the piazza. Gradually, we leave the touristic maw behind, arcing on footbridges over nameless canals, catching vistas of listing campanile blazing the setting sun, slowly copping to our epic hunger. “Where do you want to eat?” “Any place.” We just stop at the café we will never deliberately find again for a semi-adequate meal and the promise of future gelato.

More wandering. Then, attempted slumber.

CUBA LIBRO, Volume Two – May 5, 2017

I wake up before dawn has had a chance to crack with a song from The Great Comet stuck in my head. Goodbye, my gypsy lovers. / All my revels here are over. A quick breakfast is scarfed and suitcase reorg accomplished. Mas cafe, por favor. Alden and I duck back over to Parque Central for cafe con leche. Sweet. The appointed driver appears at 10:30, escorting Linda and me to the airport for our 1:35 flight. In the terminal, members of our genial group come and go, waiting or milling or boarding, as does an apocalyptically black downpour. And then we’re aloft. The flight is asshole-free. Customs at JFK consists of a lot of walking, but no hassles. I bid Linda a dulce adios. She’s going into Manhattan and I to a Hooters in Queens to catch the jitney to Greenport.

CUBA LIBRO, Volume Two – May 4, 2017

Hey! Today we will board the Chinese Bus to the Bay of Goddamn Pigs, because no one ever wants to go swimming again. Ever. ‘Sea nettles’ are really sea lice, the larval stage of some fucking jellyfish. Really. They bob along the surface of the water like invertebrates and sting like motherfuckers. In our group, this menace manifested in a garland of raised red welts from chin to mid torso, however the folks who floated on the bosom of the Caribbean had to contend with a flare of private welts. This is grim. Michael Ruhlman and Nancy Ashkin have particularly grievous cases.

So, Bay of Pigs it is. Stopping at the Bay of Pigs is a chance to place an overlay of reality on the anxieties I had when I was ten, eleven, and twelve. This ill-fated invasion and the construction of the Berlin Wall, followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis and doomsday the following year, was the hottest the Cold War would get.

The landing site for the CIA-backed band of 1,500 Cuban exiles is Playa Giron. The paramilitary brigade chose this beach because it is one of maybe only two on the Caribbean side with a straight shot at Havana. Much of the Caribbean shore in Cuba is just mile after mile of limestone bluffs. In the Museo Giron we watch an astonishing ten-minute b/w propaganda film about the invasion. It is a remarkable piece of film. Images of dead children and women and the haggard, desperate faces on the captured invaders will stick with me. Nowhere is the US mentioned: the invaders are called Yankee imperialists. A hundred yards away is the Soviet-era Playa Giron Resort. We stroll on the beach in a cove protected by a disintegrating, still formidable, concrete barrier that stretches across to prevent any further incursions by Yankee imperialists.

Earlier on the bus ride heading toward Playa Giron, Orelvis draws our attention to men with rakes spreading something over the right lane of the road for many yards, a long carpet of gold. This is rice drying.

Further up the Bay of Pigs, in the town of Playa Larga, we stop at Casa ZunZun, where the Zunzuncito Whisperer lives, a guy who charms bee hummingbirds outta the trees. The Zunzuncito is the smallest bird in the world, two and a half inches from head to tail. True dis. Playa Larga is also the home to Café Don Alexis. It’s a very plain aquamarine space, part prep room, part kitchen, part dining area, every inch inscribed with ‘Kilroy-style’ graffiti. The thatched roof does not meet the walls, allowing a fan-augmented breeze through. Everything is ultra fresh. The fish we’ll eat came swimming up to the table. The man preparing it has to handle two small cats leaning down the wall above him from opening under the roof. Every once and a while, he tosses them a chunk of flesh. Alexis himself is merry and enthusiastic about feeding this drop-in multitude. He presents each dish with the single word – “More!” There are many head-scratching mysteries in Cuba and here it’s the sink housing perhaps a half dozen large turtles. The rather pertinent question ‘Why?’ was never asked. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Don Alexis has cooked us a feast, our best meal. From here, it’s a straight shot to Hotel Telegrafo.

We will enter Havana from the east, so Tim detours us to La Cabana, the ‘cañonazo’ fort, before we tunnel under the harbor to the city. The most complete rum-and-cigar store is there. A looming, life-size statue of a man who rolled cigars at a little table at one side until he died scares the bejesus out of me. We’ve not been there five minutes when a busload of hideous people led by a screechy, vaping guide-ess fills the fucking place with pink flesh and covetousness. Time to hit the highway. Everyone of our group who needs to has bought their booty of sin. Our rooms in Hotel Telegrafo are ready and I am ready to shower. Before I step in, I mutter a prayer for water pressure.

Our celebratory and bittersweet final meal takes place at San Cristobal, one of Havana’s best and most memorable paladars. We’re seated at a long table in a narrow two or three story covered courtyard. A thunderstorm breaks over our heads with a crash. There is enough of a roof overhead to keep the usual elements at bay, but this rain comes down with such force that a light and misty veil of precip descends upon us and we are glad.

Will Smith does not show up.

They offer us a postprandial shot of rum and a cigar, which they won’t light for us, because we’d be f-o-r-e-v-e-r and they have a business to run.

CUBA LIBRO, Volume Two – May 3, 2017

A daylong excursion has been planned which means boarding Chinese Bus #5050 promptly after my casa particular breakfast. First, I’m served a daunting fruita plate with a pineapple smiley face, however, the coffee’s pretty decent even though the eggs, in crepe form, come with a side of ‘Disk o’ Spam’.

Our first stop is the Atkins plantation, Soledad. Until La Revolucion, this place had been the island’s largest sugar grower and processor. Despite its derelict condition, Soledad tells a long story of ‘enlightened’ exploitation. Cuba’s complex relations with capitalism, colonialism, slavery, America, and a host of smaller, fascinating, but no less important, issues contribute to the feeling that Soledad is still somehow inhabited by ghosts. The woman who shows us through the main house seems to have singlehandedly taken on the project of preserving the plantation and telling its story. This is an enormous undertaking against ridiculous bureaucratic and cultural odds. The story she tells just compounds the inescapable time-machine qualities of this visit.

The Escambray mountains are piled to the left of us as we travel through their foothills. Our destination is a government resort, Villa Guajimico. It’s a bungalow colony essentially, perched on the limestone cliffs that gird most of Cuba’s Caribbean coastline. After lunch, Tim leads most of us off on a hike to a snorkeling lagoon. I do not feel like it, so I find a breezy table under a thatched cabana and type away while hydrating. Ann Hood displays a similar reluctance to tromp through the tropical dry forest for the sake of decorative fish. We are snarkelers. Secluded al fresco napping is also possible. I feel like I’m resting in big hand. The walkers and snorkelers return from their hike complaining of being bitten by something they call ‘sea nettles’. Many have unhappy welts about their necks and chests.

We’re supposed to eat dinner at our casa particular, but since I’m solo in my casa, I feel disinclined to dine alone. I complain my way into eating with Brandon at his casa particular, on the second floor terrace with visible sea over both shoulders. This may be one the best meals of the trip so far. We just keep ticking them off. Certainly the cutest chef.

At eight o’clock we rendezvous at our headquarters, Angel y Isabel, for student readings. We have three minutes apiece. I read ‘Up N. Monroe St.’ and ‘Enchantment under the Sea’, two new poems. Brandon records the evening, ostensibly for his podcast. My peers praise my set of burlesque tercets.

CUBA LIBRO, Volume Two – May 2, 2017

Following a brief and boring breakfast, we once again cluster in the lobby of the Telegrafo poised for travel. Chinese Bus #5050 is all set to transport us to Cienfuegos, a three-hour road trip. I’m looking forward to Cienfuegos. We chug along the highway while Orelvis holds a call-and-response discussion for about an hour on current conditions in Cuba. Many questions are answered and many pieces of the Great Cuban Puzzle fall into place. Particularly intriguing is the Special Period, the time of great stress following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its long-term subsidy.

Of course, upon entry into Cienfuegos we must immediately attend a cultural event – Orquesta de Guitarras, an ensemble of eight musicians, six attractive young men and women and two old guys, their ‘dear teachers.’ The concert takes place on the roof of the Hotel Union, which provides a splendid vista of the roofs of Cienfuegos. All the players received their first twelve years of education at the Beny Moré School where we stopped last year. Beny Moré was a famous Cuban musician in the 50s and 60s and his name is now attached to one of the finest schools of music and art in the country. They’re masterful and self-possessed to the point of leading some of us in a spirited line dance. I buy the CD.

Just as I’m about to descend into the black hole of peckishness, we arrive at Café Lagarto on the bay, our lunch destination. Their specialty is roast pork and the restaurant is tarted up with all kinds of semi-tacky, theme-parkish statuary created from found objects, however, it sits right on the bay and is thus susceptible to breezes. There will be no time to relax into unconsciousness, for we’re due back in Cienfuegos’ main square to visit Vladimir Rodriguez’s art gallery. He is still charming and his English is idiomatic and almost accent-free. Also there, are two Cuban writers who offer their impressions of their genres, poetry and YA, and the literary vocation, and the Cuban literary community.

Last year, Tim and I were able to sneak away in the early evening to listen to an all-female string orchestra at Teatro Terry, Cienfuegos’ exquisite 19th century concert hall. An inquiry at the box office reveals no programming either Tuesday or Wednesday. Damn.

This year, our lodgings are scattered throughout the La Punta neighborhood of Cienfuegos; a species of accommodations called casas particular, the Cuban version of AirB&B. Casas particular were one of the first signs that the economy was adapting to private enterprise. I’m installed in Villa Tyta, a modest, pink house with a patio right on the bay that features a sandbox with Smurf statuary. I would love to put my head down on a pillow for twenty minutes, but there’s an insistent banging, the byproduct of the man of the house installing some new windows. Suddenly, time for our last fucking workshop, and I am Very Grumpy.

We dine as a group in at our main casa particular – Angel y Isabel. Before dinner, Michael Ruhlman, Ann Hood’s tall, handsome, and accomplished brand-new (married a week) husband, gives us an inspired talk on food writing and the writing life in general. I eat dinner with Ann and Michael and Brandon, the genial wiseguy who works for Great Courses. My attempt at an early snooze is disrupted by stealth mosquitoes. Thus, I am able to catch up on this journal thing, all the while fitfully scratching and fretting.