Venice’s welcoming embrace turned out to be hot and sticky. The pigeons outside the bathroom window of my apartment in Dorsoduro were looking for respite from the sun under the eaves of a rooftop, too exhausted to take flight again.
When the vaporetto turned the corner and I saw the silhouette of Mulino Stucky on Giudecca island, I knew to drag my suitcase near the exit because the S. Basilio stop was near. The Zattere embankment, on the Southern part of the island, drenched in sun at 2 pm, felt like the inside of an oven. No matter. The unprecedented heat wave that hit Italy early this Summer was not going to deter me from enjoying every minute of my precious time here.
It felt important, this year, to celebrate my 50th birthday, such a milestone, away from home and in the arms of my other home. Finally tired of fighting the duality of places and the sense of not belonging in either, I claimed them both home and called it a day.
It’s hard to contextualize Venice when visiting, so wrapped up the tourist is in taking in the sights, especially the ones that have graced paintings and photographs for over five centuries. It wasn’t until I started spending some serious time here that I forgot about the Byzantine art and the treasure troves and started asking myself questions about how life is here, how things work, how living on the water changes your daily experience. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to an extraordinary Venetian, Dr. Vaccher, who has lived his 7 decades in Venice and who is a mine of information, historical and practical, and who willingly will use his boat to show me those places where the tourist will not go or, simply, cannot go because of lack of adequate transportation. He has been my personal Cicero and has opened my eyes to much more than meets the eye.
Venice, once built on trade and the maritime industry, now derives most of its income from tourism. The tourist is revered, catered to and sometimes swindled but that doesn’t mean that every singe Venetian operates in the tourist trade. Public sector employees, doctors, firefighters, they all live here alongside this chaos of cruise ships, multitudes of people from all over the world – they battle high water in winter, keep their cars on the mainland, go shopping trailing little trolleys that will have to be dragged up long flights of stairs (there are no elevators). No such thing as stocking up at Costco’s here, way too impractical. An ambulance will pick you up by boat and a fire will be fought from a boat. But Venice is not just San Marco and the six sestrieri (neighbourhoods) that make up the main island. It’s part of a large lagoon, with a rich and varied history that predates by centuries the birth of the Most Serene Republic of Venice .
Visiting the other islands will give you a measure of the different facets of this mysterious city that is so easy to categorize as a floating museum: Giudecca, quiet and originally working class, still boasts vast shipyards where all types of boats get repaired. St. Lazzaro of the Armenians hosts an Armenian monastery and library – the Armenians being a protected minority in Venice who used to own vast swaths of land cultivated to feed the main island. Murano is still famous for its glass while Burano’s lace making ladies have all but disappeared. San Michele has a beautiful cemetery and on San Giorgio the wealthy Mr. Cinti opened a foundation in the name of his dead child, with a wonderful garden anyone can visit. Many of the minor islands that dot the lagoon were fortified in Napoleonic times to defend the city and many forts, ammunition depots, cannon ramps and the like can still be seen. The outer isles were the seats of sanatoriums, plague lazarets and a madhouse where, in centuries past, more than one woman ended up when her husband was displeased with her or, simply, desired to marry somebody else. Like in many other countries in Europe, it wasn’t hard to bribe doctors that would declare a woman mad and ship her off to a lunatic asylum for the rest of her natural life. Or else, there was always a convent at the ready and convents, around here, seem to be a dime a dozen.
I gave up on maps early on in my time in Venice – too difficult to read. Walking around requires a large amount of faith, a general knowledge of the desired direction and a willingness to get there. Addresses are not helpful as they are distinguished only by the name of the neighbourhood and the civic number – not a street name. Landmarks are given when asking someone for dinner for the first time, whether they be where two canals meet, a church or a bridge. The vaporetto system works pretty much like an underground and it’s very easy (if not cheap) to navigate.
One night, at midnight, munching on an ice-cream cone while walking home from a tango night in a campo I was not familiar with, I just followed the moon to get myself back. Near my door, a couple of youths from Montenegro were staring at a map and, at my welcome apparition, asked me how to get to Campo S. Margherita.
“Walk over the bridge, turn right, make a left on Campo S. Barnaba, left on the Bridge of Fists and keep on walking. You are not far.” They were trying to follow my directions on the map, to not much avail.
“Trust me. Walk over the bridge, make a right and just follow the noise”.