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Brenda Butler


Brenda ButlerThe Eggplant of Murano

When making a trip to Venice, friends, family and acquaintances all barrage you with the same advice.

“Do you know about Venetian glass, it is very special.”

“You have to go to Murano.”

“You have to watch some glass blowing,”

“You can’t leave without seeing the famous Venetian glass.”

Armed with this important advice we arrived in Venice. We planned our trip for months. We had maps and tour books. We had notes on slips of paper from friends that had been there before us. We even had the secret for getting to the very exclusive Cipriani Hotel…for free.

Our Venetian agenda included endless walking through plazas with churches, piazzas and museums struggling to stay above water. The gondola ride under the Bridge of Sighs was planned, as was a visit to the infamous island where the stray cat population lounged, sunned and thumbed their noses at tourists. We couldn’t miss the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Cathedral with the golden horses leaping out in every direction high above the grandest and most spectacular pedestrian area in the city.

As tourists, our shopping mission was clear:  we wanted handmade paper, Venetian masks, and a wine opener made from Campagnolo bike parts. Not on the list, not even considered, was that glass. The advice of friends and foes, the visit to a glass artist, was taken into serious consideration. It was decided that while we were not crazy about owning glass, we definitely loved to watch artists at work. We needed to find a venue for glass blowing.

Approaching the desk of our hotel, we intend to ask for assistance. We had sought the concierge’s advice all week and we’d been deeply satisfied with every museum, restaurant, and promenade they had recommended.

”Where can we see glass blowing? “
“Ah, glass blowing, you must see it. I know a place. I will take you there. I will take care of this for you!”

One hour later, our hotel guy, Tipo Italiano, pushes us up and over quaint canal bridges, into one plaza and then the next. Quickly, quickly, quickly we rush through the streets. . We are not sure what the hurry is, so we follow at a jog. We must be late, or he is.

Out we pop from one last covered corridor, through an archway to a dock. It might have been more like a stoop hanging over the narrow canal. With three baci et abbraci (kisses and hugs) between Tipo Italiano and the boat chauffeur and a string of grazies (thank yous), we pull out to navigate the mysterious canals of Venice. Without the luxury of Italian to acquaint us with the driver, we listen politely as the he goes on and on, about what? We don’t know. We assume he is telling us about the exciting glass factory we are headed for.

We are left on the curb, so to speak. Dropped off. Abandoned. We are not sure. The boat leaves, and we are alone on Murano. A new strange island to us, looking much like Venice, without the comforting throngs of tourists we have become accustomed to spending time with. We do see a sign for a glass blower and we assume from the gestures and the friendly directions given to us in Italian, that we are to enter this door. So we do.

We join one other pair of tourists here. This couple also looks a bit clueless.

We wonder to one another, “Are they from our hotel?”

“Maybe their hotel guy knows our guy and they dumped us all here together.”

“Is this the tour?”

“I wonder if there even is a tour?”

Momentarily, a lovely man, dark, well dressed in a suit, handsomely groomed, sweeps our group into a room with a glass blower. This man speaks English and explains to us about the glass blowing process. He explains what the artist is doing and why. Enlightens us about the rich tradition of glass, well know in this part of Italy.

Mesmerized, the four of us watch. As if glued to the Glass Network on TV. This artist is amazing. A long rod connected to a small colored glass bubble raises to his mouth, he blows through, spinning the rod as he does this. The bubble grows in size now. He waves, spins and dips this piece before sliding it back into the furnace. The heat is intense and we can feel it’s stifling glow from far across the room. The glass is removed, the blowing and spinning and waving resume until a small and elegant bulb for a chandelier is gently tapped off the end of the rod.

Our host, now nudges us away from this fascinating show, the attraction we came to see.  The only reason we are here. The Glass Fates have lured us into this artists’ studio and now their cruel joke lassos us, pulls us, and laughingly imprisons us in this glass factory with a… Salesman. That is who he is. We should have seen this coming. We should have known better. The other hapless couple is prodded into a showroom on the left of the long hallway, as we are pushed into a showroom to the right.

I still can hear the click of the door. Trapped. The room was a vast, silent, glass house, filled with the beautiful and vulgar, the ostentatious and simple, the neon-electric colors, the swirling, curling, millefiori designs that connoisseurs love and lay people can’t stand the sight of.  At least one city block was filled here with giant, gaudy chandeliers hanging from every inch of ceiling, dangling their bits and bobs that twirl, reflect, and reach down around the room to snatch at your hair. Amazingly crafted three foot wide bowls, with undulating fluted edges, waiting to hold mammoth watermelons or cantaloupes, stretch across tables that are long enough to fit a party of twelve. Price tags also appear with these monumental pieces of art. They do match the size and the quantity. We cannot even look. The anxiety is building to such a point that we are both sweating. Our eyes dart around the room, longingly looking for rescue, together we seek deliverance from this ordeal.

“What do we do?”

“Say something.”

“No, this was your idea, you say something.”

“Look at this stuff, can you believe people would actually buy ANY of these?”

Immediately, we have understood what is to become of us. We are here to buy glass. We must buy glass. We may not leave this room until we buy glass. We will be given the hard Italian sell. The one saved for gullible Americans who are dumb enough to be dropped off in a boat on the curb of a Murano street expecting to be entertained by a glass blower and then free to move on to the next tourist attraction.

And he does. The sell. We listen, we nod, and we walk in the opposite direction, muttering to one another while trying to escape. Our panic increasing by the second, we know we will not leave without glass. Maybe we’ve watched too many episodes of the Sopranos, but wonder if the glass mafia will do us in if we attempt to exit empty handed. We do fear this unreasonable idea, as truth. We are in Italy. Like the Renaissance glassblowers who, under penalty of loss of a hand, were not allowed to leave Venice; we too may suffer such a consequence if we attempt to leave without a purchase.

When all hope has been lost, we find it. Off to the side, almost buried under the other larger, pricier, garish items.  A small grouping of unwanted objects, mistakes made by the artist perhaps. I’m sure the Salesman doesn’t even know they are here. I’m positive he doesn’t want us to even walk into this section, but we do. Nestled together in a bowl are three or four glass vegetables. Tomato, zucchini, onion and an eggplant. They speak to us. We are drawn closer. They have been placed there like a magic key for us to unlock the door this of nightmare. We rush over, argue briefly.

“Tomato or eggplant, which one?”

“Why not both?”

“No no, only one.”

“Did you see the price on that?”

“I don’t even want one, just grab it.”

We are approached one last time. We let him know what our purchase will be. His dissatisfaction is evident, we have toyed with him, wasted his time. He now wants us out. Considers a call to the glass mafia, but instead wraps our purchase and shows us the door.

Murano is quiet, kind of like the Cinderella of Venice. We walk the streets, cross the bridges; enter the open plazas alone, we seem to have the place to ourselves.  With a brown paper package in hand, we dizzily wander looking for signs of life, looking for a refuge, a place to collapse and thank the stars above that we were spared and that our vacation will continue. We jump aboard a vaporetto (water taxi), pay our fare gratefully, and sit on the bench with others anticipating their re-entry to Venice. Safe and sound with our glass eggplant, we’ve all survived a day on Murano.