I was awake before school children singing songs came barreling down the lane.
Closing the door quietly behind me, I entered a labyrinth of laneways without a map. I crossed bridges over still water, peered into cheese shops with the shutters still down. On this February morning, Venice was still very much asleep.
The few souls that were awake, crossing piazzas with sleep still in their eyes, might have shared my intention: to be first at the morning fish market for the best of the daily catch.
Summer images of Venice are filled with bright colors and beautiful women wearing white lounging on gondolas. I had arrived in Venice in the foggy month of February searching for a different energy – to witness what happens in Venice before the tourists arrive and after they go home. For this trip to Venice, I was going to trade the restaurants, museums, and crowds for a rented apartment with a kitchen. I wanted to slip into the regular daily routine – starting with shopping for the evening meal.
My first morning in Venice singing school children rumbled past my bedroom window. When I woke again a couple hours later, clean winter light was filling the apartment. Original wooden beams in the ceiling hinted at the history of the building, while modern conveniences included a brand-new kitchen with all the tools a budding cook could desire. I lingered over coffee in a little courtyard off the kitchen, reading and repeating out loud vocabulary I would need to secure my dinner at a good price.
On my walk to the fish market tourists milled around gazing at Carnival masks in windows and trying to decipher maps. Kids playing soccer didn’t pay them any attention — all focus was on the skills required to control the ball’s pace over stone. Boats bobbed gently in slim canals, free of summer traffic.
As I rounded a corner and saw the first Mercato di Pesci sign, my heart sank. All that was left was a whistling fisherman with a broom sweeping up the morning’s trash. Another man was hosing down cement, washing away any last remnant of the market.
I took a deep breath of brisk winter air: it didn’t even smell like fish.
The next day as I dressed in the dark, I heard my mother’s voice: the early bird gets the worm. While locking the door behind me, a woman in a black housedress appeared. She stepped out of her door wearing clunky black shoes and a scarf tied tightly over a tan jacket. This was the first time I had seen any movement from neighbors: and it happened at 6am. After a brief buon giorno, I walked about 30 feet behind her all the way to the market.
At this early hour the fish market was electric with action. Men were stuffing the mouths of the fish full of ice shavings, carefully arranging shimmering scales and long octopus tentacles on ice. Women studied a filet of fish or individual scallops and haggled over prices. Superlatives like buonissimo and bellisimo were as plentiful as clams from the lagoon.
For my first purchase I settled on ruby red tuna, and in my broken textbook Italian, mimicked the local ladies in describing the precise size slice I wanted cut from the larger beast.
I cooked dinner in the early afternoon and napped at dusk. When I woke, it was time to see the opposite end of the daily routine: Venice after dark. The owner of this rental apartment, Mathieu, a French pilot, had offered to show me the city after the tourists go home. He had a craving for the local drink, a spritz, and knew exactly where to take me.
The lanes were just as quiet at midnight as they were at 6am. As we approached Campo di San Giacometto, I could hear a faint hum, then laughter, and finally music. Where souvenir stands exist by day, locals fill a few bars by night. They go inside to listen to live music, spill out onto the sidewalks to chat with friends over a fiery red spritz. Before my first sip I asked Mathieu about the ingredients of the drink.
“Some people don’t like local bitter liqueurs like Campari or Aperol, but add a splash of white wine or Prosecco and some soda water and it becomes much more agreeable.” This drink was another burst of color – in addition to the fish and hearty winter vegetables at the market — beneath the grey winter blanket of winter in Venice.