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Helping Marco Polo

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1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

The courtyard of the decommissioned hospital/orphanage near San Marco where we were dressed, made up, and retained until time to go to the set. I have no idea how many pictures the other extras took while hanging around. There wasn’t much else to do.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

Helpful signs were everywhere, and scrupulously obeyed, as you can see.  The center sign says “For security reasons, this door must always be closed.”

Perhaps you missed this recent bulletin from “Entertainment Weekly”:

The previously announced, highly anticipated drama from The Weinstein Company about the adventures of Marco Polo has begun production for Netflix.

The show, which will have a 10-episode first season and premiere on Netflix in late 2014, will follow the famed explorer’s journey as it takes him to the center of a brutal war in 13th century China, “a world replete with exotic martial arts, political skullduggery, spectacular battles and sexual intrigue,” according to the press release.

What it didn’t mention, but which was relatively reliably reported by a cast member, is that the production will cost 120 million dollars, the most expensive TV series in the history of Marcos, Polos, and any number of fabulous khans. When you hear somebody say, “After Venice, we’re going to spend five months in Malaysia,” you begin to get an idea of where some of the money is going. Ditto when you hear that the cast and a batch of the crew are staying at a multi-star hotel whose cheapest room is called “Deluxe” and costs $750 per night.  Perhaps they were bunking 18 people per room, like sweatshop immigrants.

But I like our no-star hovel. I could get room service there, too, if I really wanted it.

The world to be depicted will also be replete with scenes staged in Venice two weeks ago, which were made even more replete by Lino and me as extras.  As was the case two years ago with the still-MIA film “Effie Gray,” we were engaged  to row some old boats and give some credible watery backdrop to whatever was happening on center stage, or street or square.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

First, they dressed us. (Note: This is not Pippo — see below).  Then they put makeup on our faces or hands. Then they put makeup on the costumes. She had a bag full of dust which she tapped on various spots, when she wasn’t streaking dirt-like colors or otherwise distressing our garb. I know the fabric is  supposed to look worn, but I am skeptical that people, even in that soap-challenged era, would have liked walking around dusty and streaked. But it might have been a class thing. We were near the bottom of the social scale, where everybody knows we don’t care about being clean, or healthy, or knowing that the earth isn’t the center of the solar system.

To be an extra essentially means either moving (walking, running, rowing) or standing still.  You might be called on to fake conversations or other normal activities (conversations, I mean — I don’t mean faking them is normal) for a few seconds at a time.  I wouldn’t call it acting, but the real actors with lines to speak were faking just as much as we were, when you think about it.

Lino got in a few extra days of work before filming began because somebody needed to teach young Marco Polo (played by a certain Lorenzo Richelmy) how to row in the Venetian way.  He says Lorenzo was not only a good sport but not a bad beginner.  This is high praise, considering that a ferocious bora (northeast wind) was blowing all week.  Not the best weather for learning how to do anything except hold onto your hat.

Here’s what’s fun: The costumes make you look like something from the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event that’s been dug up from under a dead tree.  Ditto the make-up.  And it’s extreme fun to get up at 3:30 AM to be ready for makeup at 5:00.  After which you do nothing for hours.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

It was 6:00 AM. I don’t think I need to say anything more.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

They put no makeup on my face at all, but the makeup people put their hearts into making my hands look like I’d been trying to excavate Tulamba.

It’s also fun to try to climb around in a big heavy boat, and even row it, when you’re swaddled in three layers of fabric, plus a long piece of cloth on your head which falls everywhere, especially in front of your face, when you’re trying to do real work.  I still have green-gray and dark-brown bruises all over my legs from encounters with wood, stone, wickerwork, and other things that got in my way when I had to get from here to there while also fighting with my personal drapery.  I felt as if I’d been wrapped in Miss Ellen’s portieres, before they were made into dresses.

It was less dramatic, but also less interesting, to spend an hour or two out of the boat, joining a small group required to walk over a small bridge, then walk back over it, then walk back over it, then walk back over it, then walk back over it….

But I’m happy. At times in my life I’ve been paid very little to work really hard.  To be paid (also very little) to do scarcely anything, and even to do nothing, seems like an excellent way to spend some of my time.  In my normal life, I don’t get to stand still and do nothing for any reason, and I certainly don’t get paid for it.

So thank you, Marco Polo, Harvey Weinstein, and all the ships at sea.  I can’t wait for the next chance to play dress-up and do nothing.  At 3:30 AM.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

Apparently every period film requires a market scene. As far as I could tell, the market served only as a funky setting through which young Marco had to run at top speed. That’s all I saw. No horses or cars in pursuit, which usually are required to decimate the market. So we pretended to buy things and he ran. All that setting-up was just for that.  If you ever see this opus, please tell me we were TOTALLY CREDIBLE.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

While all the marketing and running was going on in the campo, Lino was awaiting his assorted cues in the canal. That is not his hair, by the way, but a wig.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

There was plenty of downtime to go around. We occasionally stopped to let boats or people pass, but the sun was shining, so I don’t think anybody cared very  much.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

What’s really interesting about this scene isn’t the boat — though of course it’s excellent — but the wooden wall stretching above it. That was installed in order to conceal the modern wrought-iron railing. They covered drainpipes, windows, boats, lamps. You don’t think Venice is so modern until you try to make it look like it was 700 years ago.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

Another day, another market — this time, masses of cargo piled up on a small dock near the Punta della Dogana. The activity was hectic, to create the atmosphere of the port of Venice (at the time, the number one port in Europe) in full swing. The white-bearded man isn’t just any old walk-on. His name is Benito “Pippo” Garbisa, and he is the oldest lifeguard in Italy, still showing up at the beach on the Lido every summer. He has saved more people that anyone could count (though I suppose he knows exactly how many he’s pulled from the drink). He started his work in 1949 at the beachside operation belonging to his family, and which everyone still calls “Garbisa” even though it’s got a different owner and name now. For his exceptional achievements, he has been awarded both a silver and a bronze national medal for “civic valor.” He has two medals from the Carnegie Foundation, and is an official Cavalier of the Republic of Italy. To sum up, one heck of an extra to have in the mob.  Or, now that I think about it, I wonder if he was a costumed security agent.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

Lino, Antonella Mainardi, and I rowed this ponderous hulk of a caorlina to the “port” for our moment of glory: being the centerpiece of loading/unloading action, plus actually rowing away as the cameras turned, while exchanging loud comments with some extras on the dock. Happily, we only had to do that scene once; the boat must weigh 157 tons, even being so lightly loaded. By the time they were finished with the scene, the boat was full. Full, that is, of things designed to damage my legs.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

“Il Nuovo Trionfo,” the only trabacolo still floating, was the perfect vessel for giving that ocean-going vibe. That and its sails, which were crucially important for blocking out the 21st century just beyond.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

This is what “backstage” looked like, in the meantime. This is only part of the panoply of technicians and equipment of every sort. Just think, even boring movies require much of the same level of labor. Gad.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

Two days later, we were on the night shift, rowing a slightly smaller boat which we rigged with two masts and sails to conceal the reality lurking even in the smallest canals. If anyone might wonder why a boat would be moored in a canal with its sails up, I will have to arrest them on a charge of “unwilling suspension of disbelief.”

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

For some reason, we looked relatively more human later in the day.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

Not to brag or anything, but I think I look like a genuine mammal here. It was impressive progress from Day One.

1x1.trans Helping Marco Polo

The boats and their people (us) clocked out at about 10:00 PM and made it into the canteen just in time to eat some hot food. Out in the campo, the lighting was already blazing for the next scenes, which we were told would continue till 4:00 AM. Seeing light this bright surrounded by darkness gave me a strange sensation, but part of it was admiration for whoever invented this apparatus to simulate daylight. If I’d stayed under it, I might even have started to grow.

Categories : History
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1x1.trans Cuttle cooking

The fish market and an early scene of the invasion of the invertebrates: Calamari on the left, seppie in the center, octopus on the right. Choose your weapon.

A super-sharp friend has just written to me, and apart from remarking pleasantly on my prose and panache, and admiring my musings on cuttlefish and the meaning of life (I think that was what I was doing), asked me why I didn’t explain how to cook them.

This blast of practicality was just what I needed, the perfect antidote to wandering around discoursing on how the once-delectable and desired seppie had become, through exaggeration, just Something Else to be Dealt With in Life.

I will now describe the process, in the style of Mrs. Beeton and others of her era, who were not too precise about quantities of ingredients (example: “a wine glass” amount of something.  What wine?  Bordeaux?  Chardonnay?). But I will approximate as best I can.  Here is the recipe according to Chef Lino of the Trattoria Bella Venezia, otherwise known as our kitchen:


2 pounds of seppie, cut in bite-sized pieces, with the ink sacs removed and put aside

extra virgin olive oil

1/3 cup chopped onion

1/2-3/4 cup of tomato sauce (not seasoned, just cooked strained tomatoes) OR

a big squirt of tomato paste, diluted




Saute’ the onion in a biggish pot.

Add the tomato sauce.

Add lots of water (1 1/2 quarts, more or less).

Add some salt and pepper (the seppie need to cook with some salt, but I suggest putting a minimum amount because as the sauce cooks down, the salty flavor will become stronger).

Bring to boil.

When the liquid boils, add the pieces of seppie, and the “latti” also (see below).

Take the ink sacs one by one, gently tear them to release the ink into the water, and drop the sacs into the water.

Simmer the seppie in the blackish liquid until the sauce is reduced to a thickish consistency and the pieces are tender.

Eat with pasta, eat as risotto, eat with polenta.

Two notes:

Watch the heck out for the ink as you work with it (and the inky sauce, too) because it makes a stain which is virtually impossible to remove from fabric.  Or wear black clothes.

Whether you prepare pasta or risotto, you not only are permitted, you are essentially required, to add grated Parmesan cheese.  Venetians don’t put cheese on any fish dish, as far as I know, but seppie requires it.  I’ve tried seppie without cheese, and it has a wan, Little-Match-Girl sort of flavor.  Try it yourself if you doubt me.

1x1.trans Cuttle cooking

I find their Mr. Magoo eyes strangely appealing. Too bad I know how voracious they are, which does mitigate their drowsy charm.


This section is a public service.

I suppose that whatever fish market sells cuttlefish in your neighborhood will have someone capable of removing all the inedible bits before you take them home.  But Lino does the operation himself, and if you were ever to want to see a perfectly happy man, you would have to see Lino cleaning seppie.  But he can’t clean yours, so if any brave reader wants to chance his or her arm, here is how you do it.

Press outward on the head so that the mouth comes forward.  Pull it out.  Be careful, because there is a very sharp little “beak” in there.

Make an incision with a sharp knife in each eye, then press behind them in such as way as to make the whole eye apparatus come out.

Taking the body of the seppie in both hands, press against it toward the head, in order to push out the solid white cuttlebone.  If you have any friends with birds, you can give it to them and make them happy.

Make an incision in the back of the cuttlefish and open it.  You will see the ink sac.  Remove it v-e-r-y  c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y. Of course, if you don’t want to put ink in the sauce, just throw it away, but I think eating seppie without their ink is like writing without verbs.

Put each ink sac into a small container for the moment; Lino uses an espresso cup.

Inside the seppia you will see two smallish white globes with a small red mark on them. These are the “latti,” or “latte,” and are the ovaries, if you want to know.  Remove them and keep them to add to the pot.  (Or, you can boil them, add some salt, pepper, and olive oil, and you’ve got one fantastic little antipasto.)

1x1.trans Cuttle cooking

Latte di seppie (Wikipedia, by Sepp). As you see, these morsels are often for sale all by themselves,. Convenient, if this is the only part you really like.

Now tug on the edge of the seppia’s body and pull off the skin.  It may come off in pieces.  Persevere.

Cut the flayed seppia into bite-sized pieces.

You’re done.  Go give yourself a reward.




Categories : Venetian Food
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Swamped by the seppie

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1x1.trans Swamped by the seppie

The sign says they’re alive and they’re marvelous, which we’d know without a sign. This abundance is beginning to approach the appalling.

I realize that cuttlefish do not loom large on many people’s culinary must-eat lists.  Nor, if you’re a sport fisherman, on your must-catch list.

Excuse me if I bring them up again, because contrary to any impression I may have given that I’m obsessed with them, I’m not, no matter how many times they undulate their way into my blog. They’re always here for a reason.  And the reason just now is because of their quantity this season, which is exceptional.

The plethora of seppie this spring is approaching the level of annoying. (Think of the brooms-with-buckets multiplying exponentially  in Fantasia‘s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”  The situation here would be brooms-with-buckets-sloshing-with-seppie, more and more, on and on.) That’s what it looks like to me.

My delight — and I think Lino’s, too — in seeing (A) dazzling fresh seppie in the fish market and (B) dazzlingly low prices has been fading for a while now due to the sheer quantity of the tentacly treasures.  Something that once was a special treat has become a freaking fardel, a burden, practically a punishment. It’s become something like finding ourselves overwhelmed every day for weeks and weeks with Almas caviar, Wagyu beef, Swedish moose cheese, all floating on a high tide of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982.  Even all that would lose its appeal. We’d start dreaming of scrambled eggs. The seppie are proof of it.

First, we bought them, and we were happy in our simple pleasure.  Then the indefatigable fisherman upstairs gave us a bag.  And we rejoiced.  Then he gave us another bag, and we smiled.  Then Lino went to the rowing club and discovered buckets of the critters just removed from the fishing net; several people urged him to help himself, but he said, ”No, but thanks just the same.”

1x1.trans Swamped by the seppie

I came home one afternoon and I could see by the ink by the front door that another gift of seppie had been bestowed on us. That was back in March, when such a sight still made me smile.

Now the phone rings, and it’s his son.  The nets that he and his friends put out by the fondamenta where he works have yielded up another major haul, and he says he’s got a bag ready just as soon as we can come by.  What could Lino say? Of course he said “Great, I’ll be there tomorrow morning.”  (I’d have preferred hearing him ask, “You don’t happen to have a kilo of Alba truffles, by any chance?” But that would have been so rude. And pointless.)

We put the last batch in the freezer, for Lord’s sake, something we never do because you can’t freeze the ink.  Only God knows how we’re going to eat all this.  Sandwiches.  Hash.  Croquettes.  Casserole surprise.  Parfait.

Lino says the next time he hears our neighbor’s boat returning, he (Lino) is going to close the shutters and turn out all the lights.  But I think we’d start hearing strange knocks on the door, and  look out to find a herd of seppie on the steps waving their tentacles and saying “What’s wrong with us?  You loved our parents.  Let us in!  Throw us in the pot!  Hurl us onto the griddle!  Send us to Valhalla with the seppie warrior-maidens!”

There are two sayings here, which mean the same thing:  “Piove sempre sul bagnato” (It always rains where it’s wet) and “Quando sei ubriaco tutti ti danno da bere” (When you’re drunk, everybody offers you a drink).  The seppie now need their own proverb.  I’m working on it.  It will be essentially the same idea, but squishier.

1x1.trans Swamped by the seppie

Our hardy seppie-slayer came back the other day and we paused to admire his haul. He said he’d taken 30 seppie in just 15 minutes.  It’s like the massacre of the buffalo out there.  Several in this bucket were making squishing and sucking noises which I sensed were not exclamations of esteem for his skill.


Categories : Food
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1x1.trans If those were bedsheets, what are these?  Quilting squares?

The color: Easy to discern without being objectionable. The size: Adequate. The clarity: As glass. The provenance: Mother Unknown. Father, too.

Everyone has been so busy recently dealing with the nizioleti and washing and bleaching and ironing them, so to speak, that there hasn’t been much time to worry about anything else.

But now that we’re looking at the walls, we can see that something is going on that’s almost as disconcerting as the rewriting of the bedsheets.

It has to do with the yellow signs attached to assorted walls around the city whose arrows indicate the right direction to take in order to reach the major points of interest: San Marco, Rialto, Accademia, and a few other points near and far. There aren’t enough of these signs, and they’re not always positioned at the really necessary spot, though admittedly the intentions are good. But that isn’t the problem.

Unlike the nizioleti, which were in danger of being un-Venetianized, their yellow cousins represent a bureaucratic convolution which is much knottier than whether to use double or single consonants.  And these yellow cousins don’t even have a cute nickname, unless you want to call them “mystery” (giallo, in Italian — the same word as yellow).

The problem is that they too need therapy — to be repaired, cleaned up, made uniform throughout the city, and generally titivated.  But they have no parents, no guardian, no adult supervision.  Nobody is responsible for them.  Nobody even knows who put them up, or when.

1x1.trans If those were bedsheets, what are these?  Quilting squares?

When you think of it, there are millions of intersections in the world where a choice would be useful, and even desirable. Here it mainly looks funny. (Photo: Bill Marsano)

This more than usual strangeness came to light when a merchant wrote to the city to complain about another merchant who had made a little personal project of blacking out the words on certain normal signs, and installing a new yellow sign — example: “Per Rialto” — with an arrow pointing in the direction of his shop. This had been going on for six years, which I think demonstrates an amazing forbearance on the part of his competitors.

There’s a saying which describes this kind of behavior: “The devil makes the pots, but he doesn’t make their lids.”  Which is to say that something skulduggerous might very well succeed up to a certain point, but it cannot remain concealed forever.  You may be cooking along at a great rate on some sketchy project, but it will boil over, dry up and burn, catch fire, develop botulinum toxin, or otherwise eventually be discovered.

However, when the annoyed merchant wrote to ask the city to intervene to correct this delinquency, the city did not reply with the traditional comment no ghe xe schei.

Instead, the particular department (Urban Maintenance) informed him that “The Department of Public Works doesn’t install the yellow signs, and they don’t conform to the current regulations.  In all of the Historic Center a signage indicating the most usual touristic routes are the object of continuous variations and tampering. It is impossible to determine the pre-existence, provenance, or eventual proprietors of these signs.

“Whatever intervention,” the reply continued, “requested by citizens or commercial operators for maintenance, cleaning up, renovation, or new installation, can only be made after a decision shared by the assessori (councilors) of Public Works, Commerce, Tourism, and Productive Activity” (the same thing as commerce, but different).

To sum up:  We don’t know whose they are, but they’re not legal. We don’t know who put them there, but you can’t touch them. These are deep waters, Watson.

1x1.trans If those were bedsheets, what are these?  Quilting squares?

Sometimes there are so many they essentially cancel each other out in the typical tourist’s overloaded brain. Here we have four, one being also in Hebrew. (Photo: Bill Marsano).

But Alessandro Maggioni, the assessore of Public Works, wanted to clarify the situation. ”All of the public signage belongs to the administration, that’s a certainty,” he said, showing admirable pluck.  “If there is damage, the Public Works substitutes the individual signs, but it’s true that to touch their indications we have to have the approval of the relevant department, that is, Tourism, and I know that for a while now they’ve been proceeding with a project of reorganization of the old signage of the city.”

After the epic adventure with the nizioleti, I am waiting with my follicles tingling to see what this might turn out to mean.

Meanwhile, follow the arrows with more than your usual caution.  That, or just don’t buy anything along the way.

That’ll show everybody you’re not to be trifled with.

1x1.trans If those were bedsheets, what are these?  Quilting squares?

And then there are the locals — presumably shopkeepers — who rebel against being treated as information centers, and put up their own signs.  (I noticed this as I sat waiting in the hair salon.) These are extremely helpful, but after a few big rains begin to lose their luster, or fall off. I have also seen names and arrows applied to walls with spray paint, which is more durable, but the words can be hard to make out amid the other graffiti. And so it goes. Citizens try to resolve problems on their own but the fact that they have been driven to do so makes the city look — what’s the word I’m looking for? — silly.


1x1.trans If those were bedsheets, what are these?  Quilting squares?
Categories : Venetian-ness
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