One step to the left, or to the right, and I am in the water. I keep incredibly still, on my marble raft, perfectly alone and exquisitely at peace. Not to mention a little scared. An unbeliever, face to face with a marble Madonna nobody can get to, short of wading to it. Outside, just around the corner, Russian girls in miniskirts negotiate the tricky pavement on impossibly high heels and map equipped masses waddle their way to San Marco.
Inside the crypt underneath San Zaccaria’s Church, alone and without any hope or belief that I will be heard, I murmur nonetheless a secret wish to the Virgin. The organ above gently announces that Sunday mass is about to begin. When was the last time I attended Sunday mass? The occurrence is lost in the Dark Ages of my youth. Ashamed of my cropped t-shirt, I join the small and ancient congregation, where I stand out more for my relative youth than my inappropriate attire.
To my left, a Bellini masterpiece, restored to its colourful perfection, is floodlit to ease my contemplation.
The priest talks of life without God leading to death as if the end of life was not a foregone conclusion. I linger until it’s time to admit my sins, which I mumble following the pamphlet I found on the bench for absent-minded Catholics like me but I feel like a fraud. I might be a sinner but I don’t expect any higher Being to absolve me – I only have my conscience to deal with, a master in itself at fuzzing the truth to suit my purposes and let me sleep at night.
To escape the relentless crowds around S. Marco, after briefly considering a coffee at Cafe Florian where the prices are as sublime as the beauty of the interior, I walk against the flood of pedestrians along Riva degli Schiavoni, until it’s time to veer left on Calle della Pieta’. Trying to reach St. Francis of the Vineyard, I enter the Sestier of Castello, where the Arsenale is. Here the houses are more modest, the shops are shuttered and I appear to be wandering in the only neighbourhood where not a single restaurant or cafe is open. Not even a local to ask for advice: they are all sitting in front of their Sunday pranzo. A man shuffles towards me, a plastic bag in his right hand but his gaze is too lecherous and I walk on. At this point I am famished and in need of a toilet. A plain osteria finally comes into view in Campo de Pozzi, run by two charming women, happy to make me a basic ham and cheese sandwich and a coffee.
When I finally reach St. Francis of the Vineyards, that a Venetian suggested I visit, I am welcomed by a large church dating back to the 15th century (built over a previous basilica) – the smell of lilies, bunches of which are along the nave, is a touch overwhelming, as is the sacred music that plays on a loop. Both elements are incongruous to the otherwise peaceful refuge, for which I am mercifully not charged an entrance fee. A monk is tidying up mounds of red candles. I nearly venture to ask whether he could show me the famed vineyard but I chicken out, in fear of being questioned on my catechism. I repair to the beautiful cloisters, the only ones I have seen with grass and plants, and to a dark room with yet another Bellini. To see it in all its glory, I would have to switch the light on by dropping 20c inside a box but I am out of coins. I sit quietly and, again, in complete solitude, on a bench along the wall where a black pen sits abandoned. I pick it up – a cheap pen that still writes and, moved to save it from eternal oblivion, I pocket it.
All of a sudden, crying seems the right thing to do, in this dark chapel, under a masterpiece I can hardly make out, the only light streaming from a high window of yellow glass.
Time is running out. My time, that is. The childish morning enthusiasm brought upon by the flinging open of the bedroom shutters and the light rushing in, is being replaced by a low-grade melancholy and the reality of choices to come. Maybe Venice is more like Disneyland than I thought. The magic gets checked at the door when leaving the lagoon. Could it be that this city of sailors, explorers, libertines and refugees has succeeded in bestowing onto me the courage to just be? If Venice lives and thrives on impermanence, who am I not to accept such a fate?
I sit for a long time before stepping in the sunlight, tiptoeing to a Vaporetto stop that only exists if you will it to be. I press the button that will alert the next boat that a passenger wants to get on. Centuries have gone by but a blinking light is still heeded by sailors when someone is in need.