A smartly dressed lady walks into the lace shop. She is Signora Olga. For more than three decades she has run ‘Merletti dalla Olga’ on the island of Burano, just east of Venice.
I first met Olga in the 1980s when I was working in Lido di Jesolo as a tour guide. It was one of those gap year jobs that I just fell into, it was a job that changed my life. A friend asked me what I was doing before heading to university, I replied that I really didn’t know what to do. The friend suggested that I write a letter (it was long before e-mail) to a British lady who worked for an Italian travel company. Each year the company recruited young British students to work as tour guides in and around Venice. I wrote the letter, had an interview in Manchester and a few weeks later I was offered a job. The next thing I knew I was on a flight from London to Venice. I was one of a dozen students hired for the summer season.
First of all the young recruits had to be trained. The company did a great job of teaching us the history, geography, art and culture of the region. As I’d just left school and loved history I was in my element. We learned about the Roman cities that existed in the Veneto, we learned about the rivers that flowed through the area and had created the Venetian Lagoon. Best of all we learned about Venice, the most beautiful city in Europe. I was hooked, my love of Venice has been part of me ever since. Every day, apart from Sunday, I was at the front of a coach, or the front of a boat, with a microphone, talking about the history, culture and architecture of Venice and neighbouring towns and villages. I loved it, I loved every minute.
If I had to single out one experience, one element of that summer that had the most profound effect on me it would have to be the kindness and generosity of the Italian women. The older tour guides, mostly women, were always keeping an eye out for us ‘new recruits’. They shared their knowledge with us, showed us the cutest little cafes, directed us to the best value shops and recommended doctors to us if we were sick. Ingrid was the senior guide and I looked up to her from the very first day. Her knowledge of Italy was incredible, she could discuss Venice in the sixteenth century all day long. She was just as good on Palladio, the architect, or the Renaissance in Florence. I’d never met anyone before who knew so much and shared so generously. She introduced me to a special kind of white bread in Asolo, the best ice cream in Padova and the most delicious cakes in Jesolo. She took me to her favourite tea shop in Bassano for a proper cup of English tea. Most importantly she introduced me to the wonderful Signora Olga.
Signora Olga was the owner of a lace shop on the island of Burano. Her shop was conveniently situated on the right hand side of the piazza just a few paces from the jetty where the boats moored. Once a week I’d arrive in Burano with my tour group and we’d walk into the piazza where I’d point out the church, the leaning bell tower and the statue of Baldassare Galuppi, a musician and one of Burano’s most famous citizens. Immediately behind me as I talked was Olga’s shop. Every time I paused in that square Olga would come scuttling out to welcome us to Burano and to invite the visitors into her shop. Inside there would be tea and biscuits, offered free of charge. She sold handkerchiefs, tablecloths, napkins and clothing. Everything was embroidered by hand and usually an elderly lady would be sitting in the corner making lace. We were welcome to watch the lace-making process for as long as we wanted. Olga was always friendly and welcoming. On every visit she gave me a gift, a small lace mat, or a fan, if it was hot weather.
I hadn’t seen Olga for years and years. Then just a few weeks ago I was in Burano with some clients and I heard a voice behind me. Please come into my shop said the voice, we have some lovely things for you to see. I turned around and there was Signora Olga. Welcome she cried. I’m 83 years old now she informed me. I still come into the shop every day, I just love to meet the customers and to show them our beautiful lace. I selected a small number of linen handkerchiefs to buy – each beautifully embroidered.She insisted on giving me a gift for my mother. She wanted to know my mother’s name, Mary, so that she could select a hanky with the initial M embroidered on it. I gladly accepted the gift.
As I walked away from the shop and towards the jetty I reflected on Signora Olga’s vitality and joie de vivre. She has been delivering the same level of friendly, generous service for probably half a century. They say that it is in giving that we receive. If Signora Olga is anything to go by this is most definitely the case.
PostScript: I was in Burano today – in the pouring rain. Signora Olga was having a day off, but the lovely Paula was there inviting people into the shop. I bought half a dozen handkerchiefs as usual. The lace making lady was sat in her chair – as usual. Authentic, wonderful, Burano…
- The island of Burano is in the Lagoon of Venice a few miles to the north-east of San Marco
- Burano is also famous for its restaurants – Da Romano Ristorante is my favourite!
- Da Romano – Burano, Italy
- Burano is also known for it’s colourful fishermen’s houses.
- For more on Venice read my article about the lagoon: The lagoon of Venice
- A Perfect Weekend in Venice
POSTSCRIPT – New photos: I came across a little bag today – I opened it carefully, nervous of what might be inside. Out came a brand new, perfect, pristine, hand embroidered handkerchief. A memory of Olga – right here in England! The photos are amateur – but you get the picture!