I visited Venice after a 36-year hiatus and expected to remember my way around that complicated jewel box of a city. It didn’t seem unreasonable to me. Venice is a walking city and the routines of daily life had enabled me to learn about five ways to get home, how to walk in a narrow street in the rain with an umbrella, and how to choose an alternate route when there was someone too slow in your way. Guess what. I’m the slow one now.
What was evident when I descended from the train and walked down beside the train, I easily spotted my dear friend, Caro, and she me, waving wildly at each other. I remembered the first time I walked through the doors of the train station in Venice at dusk and the magic of the city struck me as I watched the first Vaporetto (water bus) skim by, the huge lantern of Ca’ Foscari twinkling as my own Vaporetto powered past it. When I lived there in 1983, it took me a little while to meet and make great friends like Caro and her now-husband Alberto, but we then quickly became fast friends. And now, 36 years later, we picked up where we left off, during my recent five-day visit to Venice.
Caro graciously agreed to carry my heavier than death suitcase from the train station (Ferrovia) to their house in Cannaregio, my old neighborhood, too, and where they’ve lived for the last eight years or so.
The heat in Venice was pretty strong, and the humidity combined with the press of bodies in all the streets made for a sweaty arrival. Nevertheless, after Caro’s son Leo helped hoist the suitcase up to their flat, we embarked on an afternoon walk where I got even more befuddled by the city I used to know as well as the back of my hand.
As mentioned above, the physical infrastructure hasn’t changed much. Yet many buildings have been repurposed to meet the insatiable demands of the tourists in Venice. This building was a post office when I was last in Venice and is now a department store. Caro and I went up to the shoe and bag department tried to imagine an alternative life where 700 euro shoes were the norm. We laughed a lot. These were the kind of things we might have done years ago when our lives were simpler and we had everything ahead of us. In 1982, there weren’t that many tourists, and the beautiful Fondaca Dei Tedeschis was then utilized as a humble post office with great bones where I waited in line to buy scores of stamps (francoboli) and those gossamer aerogram fold up letters where I poured out my heart and soul to my friends back home. The change is stark. In 1982, the Rialto market filled the whole space below. But with an ever-diminishing local population and cruise ship daytrippers who eat on their boats after clogging the streets of Venice, such an evolution was to be expected. But it is sad to see.
I spent a lot of time at the Rialto market, and have very fond memories of being there and shopping for our daily foods while chatting with the local vendors. The infrastructure of my aging brain didn’t allow me to snap back to remember the relation of streets to bridges, to campi (courtyards) to fondamenti (streets bordering the larger bodies of water in Venice). It was upsetting for the first day or so, then I succumbed to the mystery of the city which I remembered well, that part seared into my plastic twenty-two-year-old brain. All the bridges were beautiful and with my trusty guides, I never got lost (a memory of which I cherish-purposefully getting lost).
Italians are always so generous with people who aren’t idiots (and even sometimes with those of us who are….) when they visit from a variety of countries. Traveling alone, I always try to start by speaking Italian, no matter how rocky it is. In 1982, the Italians weren’t as eager to jump to English and so it was easier to immerse yourself in the language and thus improve. On the train from Orvieto to Venice, I was struck by how much English I was hearing in the car (carrozza). It felt like the train to Anaheim. Later, in Rome, I went to order gelato and within about ten seconds, the scooper had reverted to English. I had flattered myself as to being fluent in Italian, but I also experienced that trepidation about opening my mouth to speak that gripped me upon my arrival the fall after graduating. That time it only took me about a month to overcome it. This time, I didn’t have that long. The graciousness of Italians to help us by speaking English, compounded with the economic reality of moving onto to the next transaction efficiently makes it hard for us Americans to improve. Americans also perform loudly or something. I haven’t figured out if it is cultural. Of course others have large booming voices, but it is as though we feel unheard. I can tell you that’s not true. A wonderful technique for addressing this was recounted to me. Caro’s husband, when confronted with a loud one, inquires in his infectiously friendly way, ”Where are you from?” They inevitably reply with the answer of some American place, to which he responds, ”Do you speak that loudly there?”
Other radical changes from what I will fondly refer to as My Venice:
There are very few cats left in the city. In the early 80s, there were dozens of cats in every camp, and they were fed by local women, who’d bring out plates with scraps from their kitchens. All those cats and cat ladies are now gone. We had to go to the Ospedale (hospital) to see some cats, all of whom remind me of my old cats, Woodward and Bernstein. My Mom had left them to me, and she was, as you might infer, a journalist.
The other thing that has changed about Venice is the aforementioned cruise ships, one of which smashed into a dock on the Giudecca just last month on June 2nd, causing obvious consternation to the residents and authorities in Venice, who immediately implemented a three tug policy for cruising up the Grand Canal. A few windows around Venice sport a sassy banner which says No a Naves and a threatening wedge of white representing said cruise ships.
While there, I witnessed two huge cruise ships toddling up the Grand Canal, confirming my suspicion that Venice has been made into a huge theme park for tourists.
And yet, in spite of these changes, my heart skips a beat whenever I think of Venice. We spent two days exploring the 58th Venice Biennale, the annual international contemporary art festival which features artists from all over the world in pavilions (padiglione) scattered through both the large Gardens, but also in the Arsenale, the military fortress and ship yard just before you reach the gardens. A few of our favorite things we found in the Arsenale were the study and actual realized bridge of hands by Lorenzo Quinn, and nearby, outside the Arsenale, the Lithuanian Pavilion’s evocative Sun and Sea, challenging us about climate change.
So much of the work in the Biennale was directed at the environment and our casual and total destruction of it. Artists from all over the world are challenging us to think hard about it and BTW, America, Italy is way way ahead of us. At least my friends have indoctrinated themselves to eschew anything that is single use plastic. But it seems much broader than that and how could it not be when this is what greets them in the morning when they take their dogs for a walk? We need to wake up.?
My five days flashed by in an instant, but I will ever be great full for our adventures and the missions we undertook there. What a beautiful spot to be in. I hope to return soon but understand the irony of my desire to venture there with regard to our climate peril.