Joie de vivre revisited

VENICE — There’s no direct English (American or continental) translation for the French notion of joie de vivre. Merriam Webster’s  ‘joy of living’ doesn’t quite cut it. Nor does the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘exuberant enjoyment of life‘, but that comes a little bit closer. (My definition is a work in progress, and I’ll keep you posted.)

To Pablo Picasso, the notion apparently included a frolicking mix of giddy smiling goats, mischievous satyrs and fauns, a centaur playing a lute, and a voluptuous dancing brunette, all gathered together on a sandy beach on the south of France and all energetically depicted in various light shades of blue. His definition, or this particular one, was painted in 1946; considering what Europe had just gone through, it has to be said that his vision wasn’t a bad one.

It’s a beautiful painting, charmingly yet harmlessly hedonistic, and certainly an appropriate one to give an exhibit of Picasso’s immediate post-WWII works its name. It was apparently a busy time for the man: while the rest of France was busy rebuilding, he was in Antibes, churning out hundreds of paintings, drawings, ceramics and sculptures; enjoying the company of his latest muse, Françoise Gilot; and working on his tan. (If you’ve seen Surviving Picasso, you already know the part about how he left Françoise and the kids at home while he was out frolicking and expanding upon his own definition of joie de vivre.)

Much of the exhibit, which ends tomorrow, seemed a bit academic for casual observers and taken part by part, didn’t do a lot for me. This one, Ulysse et les sirènes did, mainly because I wondered if he was one of the handful of people who actually finished reading Ulysses. Pêcheur oisif, didn’t, although I really liked the shirt.

But one floor down, The Francois Pinault Collection – a Post-Pop Selection was an overwhelming airy hit. From Maurizio Cattelan’s miniature wax Hitler-in-school-boy-garb kneeling towards a corner of a large room, to Damien Hirst‘s disected cow, enshrined and floating in five separate formaldehyde-filled displays (or was it six?) the exhibit was a breezy eclectic blend of pure low-key fun. (Sorry, ends Sunday as well, but if you show up on Monday, don’t be shocked if you see pieces of a cow being transported on a gondola next to yours.)

Venice notebook…

— Really, don’t touch the exhibits in the Palazzo Grassi. You’ll be firmly scolded and thoroughly embarrassed by a vigilant museum employee with eyes in the back of her head. (For a moment, it appeared as though she was preparing for a dive tackle.) I promise, I’m always well-behaved at museums and always keep my hands to myself. In this particular case I was simply overcome by the uncontrollable urge to touch and feel something, and the nearest, or at least the most appropriate thing at that moment was this tractor sculpture by Charles Ray. If you’ve ever been told non toccare by an Italian woman, you’ll know how humiliating this experience was. (Nope, not joie de vivre.)

bird.jpg— More than 10 million people visit Venice annually, meaning the crowds can be horrendous. But not on this particular late Spring day, a sunny Friday when the temperatures were nearly Summer-like. I’ve visited in each season now several times, and Spring is definitely the time to go. (In nice company, definitely joie de vivre.)

— If you find yourself attracted to a hunk of formajo imbriago, a chunk of cheese dipped in cabernet franc, don’t bother. Obviously, fine cheeses should certainly be included in anyone’s definition of joie de vivre, but not this one. While I’m sure some very good drunk cheeses exist, the aroma of this one is akin to grape bubble gum, and the flavor just doesn’t live up to my lofty joie de vivre expectations.

— The Italian plural form for monkey is scimmie. Primates have a joie de vivre all their own.

— A few budgeting items of note: If you arrive by car, note that parking in the nearest lots will set you back €20 for the day (Not joie de vivre.) Maps at the small tourist office in the Santa Lucia train station cost €2.50, so grab a free one from your hotel if you’re staying in the area. Canal bus fares start from €6 per hour. (Could be included in joie de vivre.) Walking is free. (Definitely joie de vivre.)

— There are hundreds of restaurants in Venice, among them numerous forgettable, regrettable and overrated tourist traps. But, in the spirit of joie de vivre, don’t let yourself get too wrapped up in the search for that perfect spot. In one of the world’s most intriguing cities, location –say, alongside the Canal Grande in the shadow of the Rialto Bridge just as the sun begins to set– is everything. Overpriced? Probably, but who cares. A nice meal with a tasty glass of wine in delightful company– that’s most definitely joie de vivre.


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