Friday, March 28, 2014

Sophie & Casey: The night before

Here are just a few quick shots from a rehearsal dinner that I was recently asked to capture.  I was lucky enough to meet these two last year, capturing their actual moment of engagement in Audubon Park.  I was immediately made to feel like family.  You really couldn't ask for two nicer people.  I hope to see more of them in the future.  

And in case you're wondering, the restaurant was Arnaud's in the Quarter, along with their famous French 75 cocktail bar.  The food had me salivating all night long!  Arnaud's has quite the history, dating all the way back to 1918, and it's still the largest restaurant and kitchen in New Orleans.  That's saying something.  It was also the first restaurant to open after Katrina.  It's clearly an institution, and it ain't going anywhere.

I don't always share stuff like this, but I love how they came out, so here they are.  Best of luck to Sophie and Casey, may the future treat you well!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Venice is Sinking

Venice is the most beautiful, mysterious, and frustrating place I've ever had the privilege of visiting. It is also the most terrifying. I thought, for the first time in my life, that Riki and I were going to be homeless, sleeping on the streets of Venice with the winos and crackheads. This was no joke. This tale is no exaggeration. 

We arrived in Venice at 11:30 on a Sunday night, but we weren't actually staying on Venice. We were staying on Murano, an island just next to Venice- about a 5 minute boat ride away. We had no idea where to go to catch our boat across. By the time we figured it out the last boat for Murano had left. Luckily there is another boat station all the way across the island- the (now infamous) Fondamenta Nuevo. We start on our 15 minute hike and soon realize that we are utterly lost. Venice is a maze of dark alleys and crooked streets, none of which seem to be properly labeled. 

Confused, we stop and ask random people for directions to Murano. "Yes, go to the train station, there you can catch a boat to Murano."  While true, by the time we got there we had missed the last boat by a mere 20 minutes.  There were no water taxis available. It is late, dark, and few people around.  At this point I start looking around the train station for a cozy spot to sleep for the night.  I'm not kidding.

Ok, get it together Shaw, we just need to ask people.  Not having much choice, we interrupt two young men sharing a joint.  "Yes, there is a station across the island that will take you to Murano. It couldn't be easier. Just head straight, over 5 bridges, until you get there to Fondamenta Nuevo.  Very easy." 

Ok, that sounds familiar. Five bridges...easy enough.  Fifteen minutes and five bridges later and we're back at square one, the exact spot where we started. Water is nowhere in sight. The station is nowhere in sight. We don't have google maps. We don't have a real map. (Which, oddly enough, wouldn't have helped a bit. Even with a map I was utterly lost and constantly turned around- which is unlike me.) At this point, it's well past midnight and there are very few people left in the streets. Nothing is open. Venice is shut down. It is now that I'm truly starting to panic on the inside. We were going to be sleeping on the streets. Riki is breaking down. I'm staying cool, but just for the sake of appearances. 

 I see one lone girl walking the streets. In one last desperate attempt I ask her where Fondamenta Nuevo is. "You're very close, it's right around the corner. Couldn't be any easier." I was starting to hate that phrase, but whatever, we're almost there! 

We start heading down the street where she pointed. In a matter of seconds we're lost again...there's about three different ways we could go. We're lost again. I'm literally about to scream/cry in frustration. Then we received our first miracle of the night.  A young couple was heading down our small alley. 

"Hello, we're lost. We're looking for Fondamenta Nuevo."
"Ah, yes.  You're heading to Murano?"
"Yes! Yes!"
"So are we...we live there. Just follow us, it's right here." 

Our prayers have been answered!  "It's right here" turned out to be about three more crazy turns (how was this "easy"?!)  Never in a million years would we have found it on our own. Loooong story short, we end up talking to this couple in broken English for the next half hour as we awaited the last boat across. They even told us which stop to get off for our bed and breakfast.  They were awesome. 

We get off at our stop and wave goodbye to our new friends, flush with relief. They have given us some pretty rough directions to our Bed & Breakfast, but I thought I knew well enough where we were heading.  It couldn't be any easier.  I was wrong again. We were lost again. By the grace of God there was another young lady who was walking home who led us right to the door.  Miracle number two.

But our adventure wasn't over yet. We were staying at a little Bed & Breakfast, not a hotel. It doesn't offer 24 hour front desk service. We don't have a key. Its well past 1:30AM. You can see where this is heading. 

We finally arrive at the gates of our B&B. It's locked, as expected. We ring the buzzer. Nothing. Ring again. Nothing. Fantastic, our bed is 30 feet away but we're still going to be sleeping outside. I was trying my hardest to make this know, like camping. Riki wasn't exactly seeing eye to eye. 

In one last effort, Riki pulls out the number to the B&B. My phone is the only one that can theoretically work. Mind you I haven't made a single call while I've been in Europe. I don't get cell service, and when I do it's approximately $500/minute. At this point I don't care. I dial the 38 digit number. It's ringing. Victory number one. They answer. My heart drops. We woke them up in the middle of the night and they came and let us in.  The couple who ran the place couldn't have been any nicer.  I've never felt so lucky in my life. We had just been on the receiving end of no less than three miracles, and quite frankly I couldn't believe we'd be sleeping in a bed that night. Let's just say it was the best night's sleep I've had in quite some time. 

The moral of the story? Never be afraid to ask. More than likely you'll actually make a friend or two. 

A map of Venice from 1572.  Murano is at the top.

Our quaint B&B, the lovely Ca' del Pomo Grana.  

New Orleans and Venice actually have a lot in common. Both are sinking and both like to celebrate Carnival.

Let's start with the sinking. Like New Orleans, Venice is built soft silty mud banks...hardly the ideal substance for the brick and stone foundations of a city. To be perfectly honest, I've never really thought about how Venice was built before. I just knew what little I had seen or read about it. It is won't be here floods on an almost daily basis...etc.

So I begun to do some research on just how this city was formed, and why. The why, as it turns out, was for protection against the Germanic and Hun tribes that continually invaded the area. Turns out, the shallow waters and muddy islands were perfect. The water is so shallow in most parts that big ships simply cannot come near, and when they do, they get stuck, making for a pretty easy target. So we've established the why.

How did they build Venice? This part is, in theory, easy to understand, but almost impossible for me to comprehend. Wood is the answer. Like New Orleans, wooden stakes have to be driven deep into the soft mud. Then all of these stakes (sometimes up to a million for the foundation of just one building) are flattened to a universal height, so that wooden planks could be laid on top of them, so that giant stones could be laid on top of them to form the foundation of the city. Like I said, easy enough to understand in theory. The part that boggles the mind is the execution of such a formidable task.

We're talking like 900 years ago. How the hell did they drive the stakes into the mud? If you've ever witnessed pile driving in New Orleans, you've seen the huge cranes and teams of men to bury just one. How did they do this 900 years ago? In the water? How were the boats strong enough to haul all of those stone blocks to make the foundation of the city? How did they make the planks perfectly level? How?!?

Anyway, time and water and salt have all wreaked havoc on the place, and it shows. They've mostly done a great job over the years of repairing and maintaining foundations, but it is undoubtedly sinking. Just a little at a time, just like New Orleans. This is not to say that one day it will be completely abandoned, just that one day the first floor will be under water. Somehow I hardly think most Venetians would even notice. The water is just a part of their everyday lives.  (More on that below.)

And if you're really curious about Venice and how it works, this is the best video I've seen on the matter:

On to Carnival. It technically celebrates the same thing as Mardi Gras, but in a vastly different way. While you could sum up Mardi Gras in one word -- debauchery -- you can't say the same for Venice. It was classy. I'm talking 15th century classy. It's more about getting all dressed up and just being noticed. There is no public intoxication. There is no public urination. There are no nipples. While all of those things (among others) make Mardi Gras great, it's just not needed here in Venice. As you'll see, the average reveler is well into their retirement.  If it weren't for the annoying photographers like me, you'd think you were partying in 1599.

This place would end up being our little secret.  Bottles of wine were €9!  Specialty cocktails €4!  Beers for €1,50!  This would be cheap anywhere.  And this was a €300+ a night hotel.  We hit it up every night, obviously.    

Squid ink pasta...very interesting.  It turns everything jet black.  Everything.

We also learned from a favorite local bartender just how used to water they are. It appears that flood insurance is not necessary in Venice.'d think that would be a requirement. Anyway, turns out that the Italian government gives pretty accurate warnings as to just how high the water will rise on high tide. It is the people's responsibility to act accordingly to save whatever they want to on the bottom floor. If the official government report is 1.35 meters, anything below that mark is your responsibility. Anything damaged above that (very liberal) estimation and the government will replace it.

We also learned that a friend of our bartender learned this the hard way. After an all night bender, he passed out in the comfort of his own room only to learn the next day that a high tide warning had been issued the night before. The next morning he put his feet down in about 3 feet of water. Everything was ruined. TV. Stereo. Playstation. The government did not reimburse him. Talk about learning the hard way. It's a funny story, and it provides a nice glimpse into everyday life in Venice.

Venetian traffic jam.

Perhaps the best pasta I've ever eaten in my life.  If you're in Venice, check out Luna Sentada.  
(It was recommended by a local.)

Another good thing about staying at a B&B is that you can really get to know your host.  This is Med playing us some tunes.

So sad to leave.

Carnival dominated our trip...we did nothing else.  We just walked around and enjoyed the people, sights, and sounds. We fell in love with the place though, and we can't wait to get back.  We've already planned another trip in May when it will be a little sunnier and we can catch some rays.

In short, no other place I've been to can compare to Venice. The whole place is just a mystery to me, and I can hardly understand how it all works. That being said, it's still just a big island and I feel that I would start to go crazy after awhile. Give me a jet ski and I might reconsider, but I doubt they'd make an exception for me. Venice is a magical place, a wonder of mankind's ingenuity, but it's got to be really hard to live there.