For those of you who don’t know Nan McElroy, she is an American expat living in Venice, Italy (jealous, maybe a little!). Matter of fact, her website is called Living Venice. How appropriate!
I have had the pleasure of getting to know Nan. I consider her a friend and a colleague. Most notably, Nan has published a wonderful series of travel books-which I highly recommend to you and to clients.
Nan agreed to do an interview to kick-off my new website and give away a free copy of one of her books to a lucky reader! But, you’ll have to stick around ’till the end of the interview to find out which one!
Here is our chat. Enjoy!
MM: Nan, why Italy? How did you end up living there?
Nan: It’s odd…I’m not one of those people who always wanted to live in Italy, or who, upon my first visit (in 1995) swooned and went home to pack thinking I’d return to live some storybook version of La Dolce Vita. I had no delusions about the difference between being on vacation here and trying to be productive. I do remember thinking, “I can’t believe this country has been here my whole life and nobody told me.”
Being from the Southeast, I’d had little exposure to Italian culture of any sort, and the difference between Pizza Hut and Olive Garden and the country itself was stupificante, to say the least. I continued to return yearly for a month or more at a time, in ’96 to learn the language, then to travel, research and write “Italy: Instructions for Use.” In the end, the supreme effort it took to leave a stable life as a video editor behind and relocate at cinquant’anni, was motivated purely by what I wanted my daily life to consist of: less time in the car, and more in a less-manic, more-forgiving, arts-investing, food-based culture that’s as agile as it is gracious. Perfect? Macché(certainly not!). But then less face it: neither am I.
MM: And how did you land in Venice?
Nan: It’s Europe’s (and Venice’s) intimacy that suits me. The scale of the city. The water. The absence of cars, and the built-in walking. Being in constant contact with the outdoors. The food. The wine. The prevalence and appreciation of art and artisanship. All facets of daily reality, face-to-face, undeniable. The fact that every relationship is personal, no matter how short-lived, from the bank teller to the restaurant owner to a member of the remiera (boat club) or my singing companion, the barista, the president of the association or the lady from the post office to the ex, all of whom, prima o poi (sooner or later), I’m likely to run into on the street or the vaporetto.
Maybe it’s a quick “ciao,” maybe you’ll stop for a chat (Tutto bene?), maybe it’s a promise to get in touch, but it’s incredibly sustaining…just like the fresh vegetables that arrive by boat from Sant’Erasmo weekly…it creates a tangible “we’re all in this together” atmosphere. And of course, the voga. But we’ll get to that.
MM: What do you love about Venice?
Nan: Going somewhere else and coming back home. I waited ten years for this sensation to wear itself out…and now after fourteen, it still hasn’t. There are times I do feel I live in a sort of Lilliput…in that the rest of the world can have a tendency to recede…but I try to keep things in perspective. Also, no matter where you are in the city, in any sestiere, whether out walking, on a boat, or at home with a window open…you can hear the grand marangona in the San Marco campanile, toll the stroke of midnight. I never tire of hearing it.
MM: Can you share a Venice secret with us, perhaps something not in a guidebook?
Nan: The secret is there aren’t any. If you sit at La Cantina, half of the folks there will have a guidebook talking about that unknown cafe with no menu, marvelous food, great wines and friendly service (I call it Venice’s version of “Cheers”). If you are a local living in almost any remote campo, a writer (with her photographer) will stop you almost daily telling you she is writing a book on “Secret Venice” and then asking to confirm some detail of the oddity that occurred there.
If there are secrets about Venice they have to do with how, rather than what or where. I wish visitors would spend less time worrying about booking the perfect hotel (there are lots) or determining the ideal location (anywhere but San Marco), and more time reading just a smidgen about Venice and her story…it will bring you a whole other awareness of everything you take in when you are here. Keeping in mind that Venice was not originally created as a resort can make a big difference in how you enjoy the city, no matter how little time you have.
That…and spend more time here. It is a cumbersome city and simply takes more effort than others to become orientated to. When you don’t allow that time, you cheat yourself, I think…and frankly, risk wasting money solely due to lack of knowledge of how the city functions.
I will tell you one secret, I think: Orsoni Mosaics. It’s the Other Venetian Glass. Signing up for a class there (three days or a week) is a wonderful way to really connect, literally, with the city’s artisan history…and slow you down enough to really live it. The other “secret” is the voga…but I’ll get to that in a minute.
MM: Do you ever get homesick for the US?
Nan: I miss friends, family, and colleagues, of course…and I am always amazed at how inexpensive things are in the U.S. compared to Europe. I am not homesick for living behind the wheel of a car, though…I love having trains and mass transit, and someone else to do the driving while I read, or work, or nod off…
MM: You and I are alike in that we wear many hats. Can you tell us what you are involved in?
Nan: I do organize travelers time here in Venice; however, I work more often as the “Venice connection” for Italian Travel Consultants as opposed to working directly. One of my most popular services is “Venice: A Welcome Introduction,” a unique, on-arrival orientation that’s marvelous for helping folks get their bearings. I sit people down in a calm location with maps (Venice and vaporetto) and other materials, marking them for booked activities, my suggestions, dining recommendations, and otherwise noting all their options according to interests and the time they have. People seem to find it extremely helpful.
Otherwise, my catch-phrase is “vini, voce, e voga.” For pure pleasure, I study la lyrica (lyric opera) with Sara Bardino (thus the voce, voice), and team up with mezzo-soprano Valentina Borsato and a few other for the occasional concert. (When it goes well, it yields what we refer to as soddisfazione, such satisfaction…)
As for the “vini,” I *should* be an AIS sommelier by February (the exam is not easy and the course is in Italian, so…pray for me). But with all this wonderful wine at a stone’s throw it seemed a shame not to immerse myself in it…so to speak. I’m particularly enjoying getting to know wines made from native varietals by small producers who don’t export, made with as little “correction” as possible; I’m hoping to help clarify the maze for the everyday wine enthusiast through writing, offering visits to local wineries, and on-site introductions to regional wines here in Venice. (I bet €50 you do too like white wine!).
MM: You have a deal, Nan! And speaking of wine, what kind of wine do you prefer?
Nan: I like good wine. That’s all. Good. Balanced, complex. Good. Red, white, French, Italian, any country, sfuso (on tap), invecchiato (aged) , I don’t care. A Corolla for lunch or a Lamborghini for an occasion. Good wine.
I will say that generally, I prefer lower alcohol wines. Complexity seems to shine through more easily, I think. And…you can also enjoy more wine with less risk of negative effects. So…good French wines, when I can get my hands on them, make me absolutely swoon. As a friend puts it, they are the undisputed masters at the techniques to pull every last nuance out of a grape…they have to, being so far north. And unlike high-alcohol “jammier” wines from super-mature fruit, they can have an overall elegance that’s hard to beat. I don’t think you have to be an expert to sense it either (i.e., if I can…).
However, Italian wines are simply smashing for their extraordinary variety, excellence of production, and sheer enjoyability – if that’s a word. Many of the wines produced in the Tre Venezie are in fact low in alcohol, and I’ve really come to appreciate them…they’re just compatible with the way I consume food and alcohol…so it works out great!
MM: Tell us about your Instructions For Use series and which countries we can look forward to seeing next?
Nan: Illustrata Press publishes the Instructions for Use Travel Series (Italy: France: , and Greece: Instructions for Use, and now the new Vap Map Vaporetto Guide). I would love to follow up with Spain, but the truth is that both the travel and publishing industries are undergoing enormous changes almost daily. I’d like to get my bearings a bit before launching into another country. I’m very proud of these pubs though…they serve exactly the purpose I was hoping for: to keep all practical info at folks’ fingertips (because they’ll never remember it all, or have time to locate where they read something on a website when they’re on-site).
MM: What is Voga?
Nan: My all-consuming passion is vogare: to row, Venetian style. If there is a “secret” that lives – or perhaps is disappearing – right under the nose of every single traveler, this is it. “Vogare” in Italian means “to row”: the voga alla veneta is the style unique to Venice and her lagoon, performed standing up, facing forward. “We row with our heads,” one guy tells me. “The rest of the world rows on its ass.” It’s the method the gondoliers employ (look closer, they do not pole); and it has propelled Venetian craft throughout its long history fin dall’inizio: when Dandolo sacked Constantinople, when Bellini and Titian and Tintoretto were painting, when Casanova escaped from the Piombi, and even when Napoleon arrived, up until after WWII, Venetians vogavano, they rowed.For us foresti, we never feel so Venetian as when we row the voga alla veneta.
I am the president of a non-profit cultural association called VIVA (Voga per l’Identità Veneta) formed by five women vogatrici: three “Veneziana DOC,” or Venetian by birth, and two by choice). VIVA is dedicated to the celebration, salvation, conservation, and documentation of the voga and its culture, including returning the oar-powered traditional craft to their rightful place in Venetian canals. This amazing core group of women numbering over thirty and still expanding is determined not to let the motorcraft monopolize the canals and the lagoon.
Along with their supporters , VIVA is collaborating with other organizations like Arzanà, Pax in Acqua and voga boat clubs like Settemari, and is co-producing a documentary film, “Grit and Grace,” that will help spread the fascinating story of the voga, past and present, and the women’s efforts to maintain it as an integral part of Venetian life. If you’re looking for “hidden Venice,” this is where you’ll find it.
Can you contribute? I thought you’d never ask! Of course you can…and we need you. (10 minutes, €10).
Why is it important? It’s less about the money, and more about letting the City of Venice and our potential funders know how many people to whom this is an important cause.
To lend a hand…from wherever you are, surf to:
* VivaVogaVeneta.org and join VIVA – just €10 per year, then
* pass the word to other Venice lovers, rowers, and wooden boats builders – we need them too.
Then, when in Venice:
* keep an eye out for traditional craft and particularly us women rowers (feel free to express your appreciation vociferously. “Bea barca!”).
* for a larger contribution we will row you in our sandolo so you can have a truly authentic experience.
* and please…ask your taxi driver to SLOW DOWN!
Thanks so much Nan, for answering my questions!
And now for more fun, Nan has been nice enough to give away one of her fabulous books to one of my lucky readers! It’s my favorite in the series (I have previously reviewed it), Italy: Instructions for Use.
So, all you need to do is leave a comment on this post about Venice. It can be anything really. A helpful tip, your favorite memory, a different food you tried while there or even what you dream of doing in Venice if you haven’t been yet!
You have until December 5th at midnight EST to comment and then I will pick a winner, who will be announced on the blog the following day.
In bocca al lupo!
All photos in this post are copywrite Nan McElroy and cannot be used without express permission.