Venice: A City, An Experience

sillage n. A scent that lingers in the air; a trail left in the water; an impression made in space after something has left.

 Whenever it is possible for something to go wrong for me, it always seem to, but I’m lucky enough that it generally stops short of being anything catastrophic, just anxiety inducing. Such was the beginning of our journey to Venice. Having taken only trains to travel up to this point, my mother and I were a bit unsure of how the bus system worked, especially since the EuroLines bus company seems to place its stops at random places and painful times. Though we had sought out the bus stop the night before and found it to be only about a five minute walk from our budget hotel, we arrived at the stop at 4am where another American traveller was waiting but no bus. As fifteen minutes late turned into thirty, the prospect of it being simply late became more and more bleak. Our only solace was in the other American traveler and French couple also waiting for the bus, as we told ourselves we could not all be wrong, but there was also a nagging voice in the back of my mind that sought to remind me how frequently humans are indeed wrong as a collective. An hour late, we were beginning to panic and I sprinted over to the nearby airport to possibly locate a phone to call the help number on our tickets. With no one there at the information desk at 5 am, I ran back and, just my luck, the bus had pulled up in my absence. My reappearance spurred the biggest look of relief on my mother’s face who had previously looked like she was entirely ready to fight the bus driver if he chose not to wait for me.

Having gotten what we hoped to be the biggest stress of our journey out of the way, we settled into the overcrowded bus that reeked of body order and impatience. Yet for an eleven hour ride, it was surprising pleasant, and time rolled by like the green hills sloped with little villages and leafless vineyards. Occasionally they would be peppered with medieval castles or set against a backdrop of the dramatic snow capped alps in the northern distance. It became even better as we began to slowly unload people at our stops in major cities like Torino and Verona (which didn’t really appear all that fair to me). Nevertheless, by the time our bus sped across the long land bridge to Venice, we were ready to be off it.

Yet our struggles were not quite over. As an extremely expensive tourist attraction, none of the hostels in Venice itself were really in my price range and thus I book one just on the mainland, a short bus ride away, or so I hoped. Unfortunately, the bus station in Venice where our bus had deposited us is fairly separate from the main city so after a great deal of confused wandering, we discovered we needed to take something aptly called the People Mover into Venice where we could hop a bus to take us to the mainland. Fine. Simple enough… Except for when the bus dropped us off on the mainland in an area from which I had no idea how to get to the hostel. Making it over another obstacle, I was able to find our location on my iPad map and mentally draw a route to where the hostel should be. Again, it should have been simple and it would have been had the route not led us through a pretty sketchy area of town and, at its lowest point both metaphorically and physically, under a bridge littered with garbage and who knows what (or who) else. Finally, we made it to the hostel and we’re pleased to find its sign greeted us in large green letters from a good distance away- our first stroke of luck of the day.

Our second stroke was a nearby cheap Italian restaurant at which we could not only stuff our bodies with Italian food after eating nothing but fruit and granola bars all day but also drink an entire liter of wine between the two of us for only 5€. For you Americans who aren’t really subjected to liters outside the 2 liter bottles of soda we seem to love so much, it’s a lot of wine. We returned to our hostel feeling pretty good to find the third bed in our room occupied by an older man. After talking a bit (and by talking I mostly mean listening because man did he love to talk) we soon discovered he was a private driver originally from Iraq now living in the Netherlands. He told us of all the travels he had gotten to do by hiring himself out to be a private driver for driver, offering us advice and all sorts of funny stories. We somehow eventually ended up in the restaurant cafe joining him for coffee at 10pm… In our pajamas. Though we were tired and desperately wanted to go to sleep, he had been so kind for inviting us that we hated to turn him down and so we went. As interesting as his stories were, we were not particularly sad when the cafe owner informed us it was closing and we were forced to retire to our rooms. It was unfortunate that our new friend was leaving early the next morning but that’s travel for you.

The next morning we wastes as little time as possible and immediately hopped on board a bus to island Venice, which for all touristic intents and purposes, is the only Venice of importance. We were thankful when we discovered a different bus line actual stopped right down the street from the hotel meaning we wouldn’t need to be going under the Great Troll Bridge ever again. My first impression of Venice (not counting my chaotic experience the previous day when I couldn’t even really look at anything anyway) was that the city seemed very romantic, not in the sense of couples and public displays of affection as in France, but as though the city holds secret of stolen kisses on bridges and midnight trysts along canals. How many balconies behind walls were climbed, how many rocks thrown at windows, how many love ballads echoed down the stone corridors? It is this quality which led Venice to capture the hearts of many literary legends like Mary and Percy Shelley and Lord Byron and seen the broken hearts of others. Henry James, who also loved Venice and referred to his visits there as his perpetual love affair, had a girlfriend at one point who threw herself out a window to her death in the Dosodur district of the city (a house I never managed it find). George Eliot experienced a disastrous honeymoon there but returned later and subsequently changed her opinion on the city: “An enchanting city where the glorious light… Makes a Paradise much more desirable than that painted by Tinoretto.”

Muriel Spark said, “Venice is a city not to inspire thought but sensations. I think it is something to do with the compound of air, water, architecture, and the acoustics. Like the effect of these elements on the ear, there are acoustics of the heart. One can think in Venice, but not about Venice. One absorbs the marvelous place, often while thinking about something else.” Having been in the city and had time to think about it subsequently, I understand exactly what she means. Venice is a city that inspires so much thought. It is an overload to the senses and because of that, I found myself unable to organize or really ruminate on any of those thoughts. My observations were hastily scribbled illegibly, often becoming rambling conversations I wrote while attempting to both write and walk without falling in the canal (a great accomplishment that I did not, I assure you). There simply wasn’t time to do much more. There was so much to see, and though we pursued no destination in particular, there was still the pressing feeling to keep walking, keep seeing what was around the next corner. But everything was something to see, and just as I found a train of thought about one thing, I found myself distracted by the next building, only a slightly different shade of rose yet somehow still appearing utterly new. Venice is a city which steals many a poem and pretty line, hiding them among its sparkling channels and warm facades.

In the above quote, Muriel Spark mentions the emotional acoustics of Venice, yet she fails to mention the literal acoustics of the city as well. Composed entirely of stone and water, noise has nowhere to go and so it echoes down the concrete alleys in indiscernible ways that give its sources a strange and slightly maddening inability to be traced. Often times, music, sometimes Vivaldi, sometimes some jazzy hurdy gurdy, would drift over the tiled rooftops and I could not tell whether it was drifting from an open window or whether I would stumble upon a street performer upon rounding the next bend. Other times, there is complete and utter silence. Having no streets and thus no cars, the sound of motors ceases to exist save for the occasional delivery boat buzzing by on the canals. It’s a peaceful silence, a relief from the modern buzz of traffic, and incessant and pervasive in any city. Yet for every peaceful moment of silence, there is an another of utter chaos, flapping birds, screaming kids, a cacophony of voices in languages from all over the world. Venice is an orchestral movement, with streets as measures, crescendoing and decrescendoing, adagio to alegro, in a matter of steps. From constantly changing sounds to the variety of scents, Italian leather, the stale smell of cigarettes, jasmine blossoms, and the briny corrosive air, it is an assault on the senses but not an unpleasant one. In fact, it all blends together a in a hazy experience of wandering the city, being absorbed at all times. In Venice, one cannot help but get lost. For us, it became outer goal to just walk without looking at a map and see what we might find. The city is an endless maze that sometimes spits you out where you’ve been but almost always offers new things at ever turn. We discovered we felt no panic in our being lost like we had in Seville and other cities but rather that it was a feeling of bliss, a relieving separation from the maps on which we had become so dependent. Perhaps we have simply gotten used to the feeling by now, but I like to think it is part of Venice’s magic.

Through our aimless wanderings, we engaged in various random things we happened to stumble upon: eating breakfast and drinking coffee in a near deserted outdoor plaza listening as a street accordion player performed for us, browsing through the gothic 14th century fish market by Rialto Bridge, eating pizza alongside the Grand Canal, enjoying some gelato (which has become a staple in our diet) along a quiet canal, shopping here and there (surprise), and eating a genuine Italian three course meal (pasta first, then fish or meat, accompanied by the vegetable of the season). Of Italian dining, there is a quote by Marcella Hazan I rather like: “Nothing exists under Italy’s sun that is not touched by art. It’s food is twice blessed because it is the product of two arts, the art of cooking and the art of eating… An Italian meal is a story told from nature, taking its rhythms, its humors, its bounty and turning them into episodes for the senses. As nature is not a one-act play, so an Italian meal cannot rest on a single dish. It is instead a lively sequence of events, alternating the crispy with the soft and yielding, the pungent with the bland, the variable with the staple, the elaborate with the simple.” Having actually experienced the meal, I see her words are not mere hyperbolic exaggeration but quite true. As an American, however, think we are so bombarded by strong tastes in all our food that we lose appreciation for the balance of an Italian meal which led both my mother and I to be rather unimpressed with our second first course. To us, it was rather bland, but that is apparently tradition for genuine Italian dining.

On that not, suffice it to say that Venice is filled with art, but not just the traditional architecture and famous paintings. It is everywhere you turn, in the food, in the street musicians, and in the artists that sit and paint the canals all day then set up stands to sell their wares in the evening. I came across a beautiful oil painting I desperately wanted to buy but having no practical means of preserving and transporting it, I had to resist the urge. As I looked at these artists, I couldn’t help but think how nice it would be to sit and paint all day long. But then I am also forced to wonder, would what you love simply become another job, monotonous and necessary, removed from pleasure?As an aspiring writer, it’s a question I frequently find myself asking yet it’s ambiguity never deters me from pursuing what I love anyway. If these people did not do so, Venice would not be what it is today. Now it is a canvas, splattered upon by all the various forms of art on its shores. Venice is art in itself. Each scene is something from a painting or a fantasy. For example, while the sunset is not the vivid blood orange I had desired to see setting the already warm buildings on fire, it instead cast a white wine haze over the city, accompanied by the same warmth the drink burns at the cockles of your sternum. In this light, the bright buildings reflect in the water so that is becomes a new canvas, a mirror image of the original yet so entirely different, fresco against watercolor, each medium wholly unlike in experience and appearance.

One of my favorite and typically insignificant things to see in the city were the laundry lines of bright colored clothing strung across the alleys. My mother couldn’t understand why I was so fascinated by what she sees as a chore, but I think my fascination stems from their betrayal of a simpler lifestyle. As I walked the streets, I often wondered about the people who actually lived there, who actually resided day In and day out behind closed walls and battened shutters. It seemed such a fantasy that the concept of living there almost seemed impossible, but the laundry was a reminder that it was indeed the case, and I find you can learn a lot by looking up at someone’s laundry, who has kids, and what age they are, who is fashionable and who doesn’t really seem to care. I don’t mean this in a creepy way, though I’m sure it comes off as such, but I only mean that sometimes the menial proofs of our existence are the most powerful.

Even the birds are charming and beautiful here. Over my journey, I’ve come to grow quit find so pigeons, which is a phrase I never thought I’d hear myself utter.. But they are a chord of familiarity in all cities I’ve visited and thus ask greet each pigeon with a brief little, “Hi, bird!” before they wobble on their way. Here in Venice, however, the pigeons are taken to new levels, I mean like Alfred Hitchcock level. Pigeons are actually considered safe to Saint Mark and thus it was once illegal on pain of death to kill a pigeon in Venice. Mary Shelley wrote, “They lead a happy life, petted by all citizens.” While much has changed from the days of Mary’s Venice, considering it now costs 80€ for a half hour gondola ride (hence why we didn’t take one) when it cost her £4 to hire a gondola driver for an entire month, some appear to stay the same. In one particularly busy plaza, the pigeons practically swarmed people and if you offered them a bit of food or made them believe you were, they’d perch right on you, something both my mother and I were happy to experience.

Yet for all this art and beauty, Venice is also not the overly picturesque city it’s painted to be either. While the water is a beautiful deep turquoise, if you look closely enough, you can see shades of brown underlying the blues and oil slicks that glint when the sunlight hits them just right. The beautiful bright buildings, cameo pink, straw yellow, and teal, are marred by graffiti and black mold from the constant damp air. I’m many ways, it is amazing they still stand with the clear corrosion of concrete by the salty air. Yet there is certain charm in this veil of antiquity and neglect and to me, only sought to make it more beautiful. Mary Shelley, who loved not only Italy as a whole, but Venice especially, showed how it is possible to love a place not in spite of its flaws but because of them. Even in her day, Venice was not perfect but she saw it in terms of lightness and darkness much like her own complex life history.

And Venice is nothing if not encompassing both light and dark- dark narrow canals unvisited by tourists because they offer little in the way of excitement and the wide a Grand Canal whose waters sparkle no matter if the sun is out; cramped, bustling squares with queues of people waiting to get photos in front of significant buildings for which they probably don’t know why and empty, ivory stone plazas as breaks of daylight in the maze, utterly empty save for the echoing of your footsteps as you walk across it. Even the Ducal Palace (or the Doge Palace, not to be confused with the popular internet meme), has a sinister history though it is popular for its beautiful exterior and Tintoretto’s “Vision of Paradise” inside. This depiction of Canto XXX Dante’s Paradiso is said to be the largest oil painting in the world and those who admire it probably don’t know that during the Inquisition, the building was used to torture political prisoners, holding them in rancid water or roasting them to death or madness before taking them to the Bridge of Sighs for interrogation. Mary Shelley’s husband Percy held a fascination for this palace’s history.

Overall, our two days in Venice blurred together, both of them comprised of mere wandering, aimless and peaceful. Despite the many miles and large percentage of paths we wandered, we nowhere near unlocked all of Venice’s secrets. Even Mary Shelley herself could not know all of its secrets, and she had spent a month there. We had only two days. But I believe it is better to leave a place wanting more than to leave tired and bored of it. And after two days, I was ready to get away from the crowds and gross display of tourism at its worst. Mary McCarthy wrote, “There is no use in pretending that the tourist Venice is not the real Venice.” While perhaps she is right in the literal and cultural sense, I disagree with her on the whole. Mary McCarthy’s tourist Venice as not today’s tourist Venice and I have to believe even she would scoff at it. In all the rush and crowds, the desperate need to snap selfies in front of major buildings without really understanding what their original purpose was, is taking historical value away from this beautiful and magical place. Water and tradition, it appears, cannot keep all degradations at bay.

Yet despite all this discouragement, I was also captivated by the things I didn’t get to see, the churches and palaces I didn’t enter because I didn’t have the money to pay the ridiculous fees (and I am of the belief that the experience of history and culture should not be capitalized upon and made into a commercial product but rather observed unobtrusively). One day, perhaps, when I’ve become a best selling author (yeah, right) I’ll return and delve even deeper into the mysteries of the city on the sea. I realize I’ve used a lot of quotes in this post, but when Venice has inspired the words of so many literary greats more eloquent than I could ever hope to be, it seems only appropriate to incorporate their words. I’ve always loved quotes, some might say a bit too much, as I possess the fairly useless talent of being a walking quotationary, but I think being able to connect with the words of another, apply them to your life, and expound upon their meaning is a great gift to the literary heart. As a side note, many of these quotes from a lovely little book I stumbled upon on the free book exchange shelf of our hostel titledDesiring Italy, a great read if you plan on traveling there. And so I’ll end with one final quote by Elizabeth Barren Brown that, considering both the good and bad, nicely sums up Venice: “Nothing is like it, nothing equal to it, not a second Venice in the world.”