My Italian friends are astonished at my fixation with Venice. Venice, Italy, that is. And I am rather astonished myself. If you live in Italy, Venice is a tourist Mecca, a beautiful, unique, unparalleled place to stay away from. It’s crowded, it’s hot in the Summer, it’s packed with bad restaurants and too many souvenirs stores and on and on. And it is all true. I wouldn’t want to compare it to Disneyland because it would be blasphemy but, to many visitors, the experience is not that dissimilar: astonishing sights, long queues and unpalatable prices.
Italy is full of quaint, even some remote spots far from the prying paws of Russian and Japanese tourists. Most Italians wonder how Venetians can stand to live in Venice. After a few months in Florence, I was ready to maim any out of towner who came my way so I understand that living in a tourist attraction does have many drawbacks. Such as having to go to the mainland if you need anything from nails to a movie.
But I was drawn to Venice not to see St. Mark’s Square once again or sit at Harry’s Bar or buy glass figurines but to experience what kind of real life is possible in a city of a beauty so intense, so perverse and so historically alive that it tears at your heart. The best time to see Venice is in the bone chilling winter, when the humidity permeates every inch of your body and the mist rises from the lagoon and the buildings look spectral and whispers their secrets even more loudly, in the absence of Babel’s cacophony.
The secret to the Serenissima, though, is to just skirt away from St. Mark’s, where the boatloads of daily tourists direct themselves en masse – it’s remarkable how easy it is to enjoy the emptiness in Campo S. Margherita and stop for an aperitif while watching housewives come home with the shopping or finding a church with a couple of Titians where you are one of five other visitors.
Italy is a treasure trove of historical landmarks, many of which we take for granted while going about our daily business. But no other place offers you an untainted slice of history as Venice – it might be sinking, aging and disappearing but it stayed true to itself by the impossibility of allowing certain segments of progress to intrude: no cars, no new buildings, no shopping centers, not many visual reminders 300 years have passed since its heyday. The only other place where I was afforded such an experience was the old quarters in Jerusalem.
Last time I was in Venice, I took a gondola ride, against my better initial judgement. It was 10:30 at night and I haggled with a gondolier who couldn’t make head or tail of the not so quite American lady who seemed well versed in the art of haggling. He gave me a steep discount because I was going to be his last ride, before crashing home with a bad cold. He wanted to regale me with platitudes about the buildings on the Grand Canal while I wished to know about the 2 year gruelling process of becoming a gondolier. Finally, when he offered to sing I had to ask him to shut up. And that is when I had the chance to listen to the city go to sleep, the water lapping against the decaying walls, lulled by the oar in the tiny and dark canals, and it wasn’t so difficult to imagine what life used to be. Strangely, it wasn’t hard to imagine how life could still be.
When I took the conscious decision of planting roots in Los Angeles, I was aware that giving up the history that surrounds you at every turn if you live in the old Continent, of not being able to walk in the footsteps that countless generations had marked for me, would have been, at times, excruciatingly hard. As much as I love the pastel tints splashed on the walls when the sun sets in Venice, California, I miss the constant reminder of centuries past.
Which is why I am leaving to go back to Venice. To get my fix I suppose.
PS – Although, yes, they do have internet in Venice, it is not widely available – definitely not at my apartment. Apart from the occasional post, I will see you on July 6.