Fresh off the boat, you are in Disney World. You have arrived from across the laguna on a vaporetto, a public bus that is a boat, reminding you of the ride across the lagoon to the front entrance to Disney World. And, suddenly you are in Disney World. The clear not-yet-noon Italian sun impersonating the Florida light, casting simple shadows across the packs of international tourists, paired together in twos and fours. The villas’ facades, certainly imitation, line the streets. It is too perfect, the way the stucco crumbles in all the right places, revealing the brick beneath. The sidewalk cafes with 2 or 3 tables here, 40 or 50 tables there, are surely staffed by happy-faced interns. Your eyes scan the walls about the narrow cobblestone calles. The graffiti expertly placed and quarantined in a neat rectangle, the advertising posters imperfectly plastered on blank walls and perfectly peeling, cannot be accidental. The cute Italian telephones placed next to the violinist entertaining the Italians and Americans and Germans passing by. Certainly this city is not centuries old, but made to look that way.
But as you continue, you see Venice in its imperfections. This is not Disney, after all. You step over a smear of dog poop, where an innocent traveler soiled his shoe before you. The shopkeeper stands outside his store, cigarette in one hand, cell phone in the other, speaking a language you don’t understand. You stop at the foot of a bridge overlooking a canal, and catch the gondolier pulling his sweater over his t-shirt, when he should have finished dressing in the team member locker room. There is too much scaffolding. There is too much orange construction fencing. No, this is not Disney, but it is close.
You walk through the winding streets, jumbled like pillars from a hurricane-toppled home. Before you left the hotel, you had planned your route on the map (or tried). Your street ends at a bridge, so you cross it. After 50 yards, you end up in a four-walled plaza (a campo) at the intersection of 5 streets. Which church is this? Which campo is this? You know you need to head left (north and south have already been thrown to the wind on an island shaped like a fish, criss-crossed with curving canals), but which of the streets do you choose, for there are two streets (or are they just alleys?). Here, a street is an alley, an alley a street. Some of the narrowest streets continue for 5 or 6 blocks. Some of the large streets end after only one, abandoning you at a quizzical intersection, which leaves you with a mystery not easily solved by your map. How big would a map have to be to name all of these little streets? How do the Venetians know the way to school? The way home? You keep encountering bridges, some small, gently arched over backstreet canals, some large enough to need two dozen steps to the top, allowing enough height for standing skippers to pilot their ships below. You recognize some of the names: Rialto Bridge, Accademia Bridge. Do you remember them from a picture you saw in an art museum long ago or perhaps just from the travel guide you picked up last week?
The gilded Liberace gondolas, all velvet and sparkle, share a canal with construction boats, carrying pails of paint, lumber, or construction barricades. The gondoliers, dressed in black & white striped sweaters stolen from Monopoly-game jailbirds, linger nearby, waiting for passengers, talking amongst themselves like the taxi drivers who queue outside a Chicago hotel. You read that the gondola rates are set, which makes you happy, for you have hassled for fares with taxi drivers in foreign countries before. Heck, you have hassled with cab drivers in your own city before–the cabbie trying to add a buck by taking you on the scenic route home. You vow to take a gondola ride before you leave. You are in Venice. At home, 80 Euros sounded like an investment. Here, it sounds like an experience. For you do not want to tell the story ten years from now about how you didn’t get to take the gondola ride. You will save money in other ways, you decide. You will pick up a foccaccia sandwich of tomato, mozzarella and basil from one of the walk-up sandwich shops. You will eat pizza con proscuitto standing up instead of pasta sitting down. You will resist buying a Carnival mask (when was the last time you went to a masquerade party anyway?). But you will not, you cannot, resist the gondola.
You walk. And walk.
You gaze in the windows of the galleries – some with classic Venetian landscapes, painted in the style of the masters, Canalletto or perhaps Felix Ziem. Some showcase bright, primary-hued surrealist interpretations of canals. Some display Carnival masks, other paintings of carnival masks. But there is more, for Venice is nothing if not inspiring to artists. There are galleries like those in Chelsea, showing any manner of contemporary art & sculpture. You walk down to the entrance to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The Guggenheim heiress lived here, hosted dinner parties with husband Max Ernst, and died here, leaving her home as a museum. But you don’t go in. You don’t need to see a Jackson Pollack or a Picasso. There is too much art about you on the streets. All about you are artists, painting as you watch them, displaying their watercolors clipped onto easels in the plazas, the campos. There are artists in the windows. You see students carrying sketchpads. You want to be an artist. You want to learn to draw. Venice does this to you. In the 18th century, Canaletto painted masterworks for the rich and famous of England to hang on their walls, to remember their time in Venice. The tradition continues, as you desire something to bring home to decorate your wall. You want an artifact to remind you of Venice. You want to be inspired to walk up to your living room window, overlooking your ordinary life, and see the sun sparkling off the canals, the boats passing by, the columned Renaissance villas and bold and majestic church domes reflecting in the water. You don’t really want to move to Venice; you just want to take it with you.
When you left this morning, you had picked out a place for lunch, but as the streets come and go, you give up on trying to find it. Instead, you decide to settle somewhere in the general area, looking for more Italians than Americans at the tables. In most cities, that is a rule of thumb to eat where the locals are. Here, it is just wishful thinking, for most everyone here is a tourist. You sit down at a restaurant, where wine costs less than Coke. You could get used to this, you decide, so you order a half carafe of the house white and a pizza, which arrives perfectly crispy on the edges, tasting faintly of the wood-fired oven that is not all-the-rage, but just the way things are done here. You order your water with gas, frizzante, not particularly because you like it that way, but because you like having the option.
Walking after lunch it occurs to you that there is not a building here that has not been photographed. No canal, no street sign, no shop window. For children, it must be like growing up on a Hollywood studio set, cameras blazing about them day in and day out. You wonder how many tourist photos they are in. You wonder how many strangers have taken pictures of their laundry hanging on the clotheslines outside their third floor windows. You wonder how annoying it must be to live here, in a city people dream of visiting, in a city far too small to be visited by 20 million people per year.
Likewise, there is nothing about Venice that has not been written. After you booked your trip, you checked out books from the library: Judith Martin, John Berendt, James Morris. You read them until you were bored. Then you took them all back. There is too much history here to absorb. Too many doges and conquerors and patrons of the arts. There were too many popes and too many empires, which faded before America was colonized. When you get home you will rent movies set here. You want to see Katherine Hepburn in Summertime and Heath Ledger in Casanova walking the same streets that you are. At night in Venice, you dream of more Venice.
Early morning is a different time. The tourists are sticking to their beds or their hotel breakfasts, and the canals are yours. You see the city as it really exists, all the bare bones, the reality replacing the romance (or compounding the romance–you cannot decide).
At home, you see the bread trucks and the newspaper delivery men at this hour. Here, the activity is on the canals. You see a barge carrying two entire cement mixers, tumblers rolling, ready to pull up to a dock, to start fixing something old that needs fixing. That should be easy enough to find. You see the garbage boat navigating its way through the labyrinthine canals, its blue mechanical arm reaching out to pick up the trash bags left unromantically alongside.
You hear more Italian now than you did yesterday. You see people picking up cappuccinos on the way to work, just like we do at home. But here, they can’t hide behind their steering wheels in the drive thru. They greet their neighbors; whether by choice or necessity, it doesn’t matter. You see a few tourists like you, taking pictures of villa reflections in the early morning light, free of onlookers. You are a little embarrassed to take photos, though, because you feel out of place. With ten thousand tourists around it is natural. Today, you feel like an intruder. Yesterday, you tried to capture a photo of the real Venice: someone maneuvering their dog through a German tour group, a large Italian drinking coffee from an improbably small cup. At this time of day, it is too obvious. If you lived here, would you wake up early to see the city for yourself, to see your friends? Would you need to do this to set your sanity for the day, knowing you will be crowded, tripped, and slowed the rest of the day by those who come here and spend their money in order to provide you a means of survival, to provide you with the gift of living in a city of the water?
When you arrived, the vaporetto was amazing to you. They don’t have city busses, but they have public boats, which pull up to shore to disgorge and board new passengers. You saw the vaporetto stops, with their digital signs and timetables posted, just like in Washington or Atlanta or Denver. You were amazed by how unique this was, so you just had to ride it. Boarding with a mixed bag of locals and tourists, standing beside the Venetians, with their blue plastic bags of freshly purchased groceries and kids headed out with their parents, you realized just how normal this all is. This is no different than the MTA, the lines designated by number and color, the manner in which people exit the boat before people get on. Once you disembark, you are left with sea legs. The lagoon, shared with Minoan Lines cruise ships, power boats, and ferries, is much choppier than would be evident in a photo. The on and off is easy, but the waves would certainly take some getting used to. Now, it is time to try a gondola.
You have seen Venice from above, walking along the canal-side lanes, peering down from the bridges. You climb into the gondola, and now you are of the canal, looking up through the canyons of buildings. You float along gently, feeling the wake of the passing motorboats, peering up at the vaporettos, seemingly massive compared to your narrow black boat with its single striped oarsman. You are Britney Spears, on view for the world to see. From everywhere cameras are peering at you. Strangers are taking your photo from the top of the Accademia Bridge, from the portico of Ca’ Pesaro, from the alleys and plazas and even from other gondolas. You cannot resist taking out your camera to take pictures of the paparazzi (what a perfect Italian word for today) snapping shots of you. And then, like Britney, you start to ignore them, because this is your life, not theirs. You marvel at how four boats can pass in a narrow canal without touching, how difficult it must be to turn a corner without hitting the concrete banks. By the end of your journey, the gondolier begins singing in Italian, like in a trite romantic comedy, and you know your journey is complete. Soon you must leave Venice.
The bus to the airport takes less than 15 minutes, the ferry over an hour. So of course you take the ferry, for you do not want to leave this place yet. You choose the longer journey, the milk run, which stops at Lido and Murano and Fondamente Nove. You follow the journey on your map and turn toward the window to watch the gentle sunset melt this island city once again into the Adriatic from which it came. This is the Venice you want to remember, silhouetted domes in the orange sky, fading reflections under the rising moon. One last peek and you see it melting into the darkness, Atlantis-like, and you wonder if it will still be here when you are gone, as if it was just your personal dream that you alone created and that cannot exist without you.
by Matthew Stone
Travel to Venice, Italy