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My Most Enchanting Evening

They say truth is stranger than fiction. What I will describe in the next few paragraphs is an incredible evening I will never forget. While I've wished for this night to be repeated, I know it can never be. All I can do is to attempt to share this experience with you in words, but there is no way I can express with mere words what it meant to me when it happened one magical evening in Venice.


Venice at twilight.  Norman HarrisonCarnivale de Venice is the mother of all carnivals, pure madness shrouded in mystery. Venice, the magical city of dreams and romance, famous bars, and narrow, undulating streets, for centuries has been the subject for countless artists, poets, musicians, film producers, and novelists. Often called the city of mirrors because the mirror was invented there, Venice is unarguably the most picturesque city in the world.

Two months prior to the February carnival, I was lucky to get a reservation at the San Fantin Hotel, a small, inexpensive hotel near Piazza San Marco, the principal area for the Carnivale. From the hotel, I could easily walk to Harry's Bar and Café Florian.

After hours of shopping, I discovered a specialty shop where I rented a costume for the event. One particular costume leaped out at me. It was a Phantom of the Opera costume, with a huge black velvet cape, a felt hat and black velvet breeches complemented by black and red shoes. My accessories consisted of elaborate bejeweled canes, rings with gaudy red Marillo glass, white stockings, white gloves, handkerchief, and a white mask. In one hand I carried an artificial red rose made of silk.

Revelers from all reaches of the world pack the Piazza, expressing their exuberance in garish plumage. Oh it is a sight to behold. On this particular day, a fine silvery mist fell from low gray clouds on the frigid afternoon. Thousands of umbrellas in every color of the rainbow accentuated the festive atmosphere, a golden moment for photographers and artists. Because my costume was unique and romantic, it was a big hit from the moment I made my debut in Piazza San Marco. Hundreds of photographers follow revelers dressed in elaborate costume wherever I went.

The author as the Phantom of the Opera.  Norman Harrison. Once the festival was a six-month-long event, but during WWII Mussolini put an end to it. It has made slow steady progress since it was renewed in the fifties and now once again it is the carnival of carnivals.

Gondolas and ornate street lamps form the background as many people in costumes pose at the pier for much of the afternoon. Slowed by photographers, it was late afternoon before I got to Harry's Bar.

Since I was in costume, the maître d’ led me to a special table where he told me Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sinclair Lewis, and Henri Matisse had been known to sit in another time. I ordered Harry's world-famous hamburger with fries and a glass of Roederer Cristal. The waiter brought a chilled flute and filled it with the amber champagne. Pure class is the only way to describe the experience. Where else can you buy a fifty-dollar hamburger and champagne? Worth every cent, I can assure you.

After the most expensive hamburger in the world, I strolled to the Café Florian, the meeting place for people in costume from every corner of the world. At eight o'clock, the throng outside the famous café was packed four deep, with hundreds of people straining to get a peek inside. Only costumed revelers and very patient patrons are allowed to enter. As was the custom, those in dazzling costumes went to the head of the line and were immediately led to a table. An apparition in gold on the Piazza.  Norman Harrison

The atmosphere inside the famous café sizzles with energy as brilliant flashes from hundreds of cameras illuminated the dimly lit, ornate bar. Most patrons wore elaborate costumes costing thousands of dollars. For several nights running I had visited and drank with the famous American artist, Leroy Neiman, as he sketched costumes for an upcoming series of paintings.

The café is a meeting place for costumes. I met two of the most dazzling people in the world while in that café, Pola Briget and her lovely daughter. Pola, a very youthful and lovely 83 year-old French singer, still sings as lovely as she must have in the thirties and forties. This fabulous woman can sing in 23 languages. The two women were so taken by the Carnivale that they flew back to France only to board another plane and fly back a few hours later. The Carnivale has a surreal, almost magical effect on people.

Pola Briget could not tear herself away from the Carnivale celebrations.  Norman HarrisonAfter several hours and two bottles of Prosecco, I strolled to the Hotel San Fantin and went up to my room.

I had no idea how long I had slept when I was awakened by the strangest haunting sound. In the stillness of the early morning, I clearly heard the mellow sounds of a beautiful alto-saxophone playing "My Funny Valentine." It seemed the musician existed for me alone, as if he had magically popped out of another time and place into my world.

I jumped up from the bed and ran to the window, drew open the curtains, and opened the window. Peering into the dense fog below, I could not even make out a shape. Faint yellow light from a street lamp merged into the darkness. For several minutes the music floated into my room surrounding me with those precious notes. Then, as quickly as it had begun, the music and the apparition faded into the fog and out of my life. Awed by the experience, I sat in silence for the next few minutes wishing for the phantom sax player to return. For a brief spell I had been given an almost miraculous experience that I'm certain nobody else in the world has ever experienced.

Never before or after, have I heard anything so lovely as that song played on that solo sax. It has become a fading memory of a very special night in Venice. Since that moment I cannot get enough of that song and find myself collecting every CD I can find with a sax playing that song.

I can only urge the reader to take my word. This evening did happen. Go to Venice and let its magic come into your life as it did mine. If it does, your life will never be the same again. Bon voyage.

For more information about traveling to Italy contact the Italian Government Travel Office at 212-245-4822 or visit their website at http://www.italiantourism.com.