Ah, Venice, Again
There’s nothing new to say, nothing more pleasing said Henry James, than to hear it said.
-from “Of Venice” by Robert McNamara
Everything has a beginning, a time when it wasn’t what it is. The universe was born out of the Big Bang, and before that there was no space, and there was no time. Our galaxy and solar system have a beginning. The earth has a beginning.
And you have a beginning, an origin point before which you were not anything at all. But one can hardly say this about Venice. Perhaps it is the one true exception, or rather it is exceptional, the exception’s exception, the city that was a nation,
the swampy mud flat that is a marble island, the dwarf that is a giant. And it has always been so. You can never come to the end of Venice, the way you can never come to the end of Shakespeare or Mozart. So why bother with this great theme, why tap out yet another story of this place out of time? Good point. But the point isn’t that anyone will say something new about Venice (certainly not me), but that its vastness allows everyone to say something.
I approached Venice from the north.
Before that, however, I was in the south, in Seville, Spain, teaching travel writing in my university’s study-abroad program.
It was all going swimmingly—our group kept hours in the university center for classes, then roamed the Spanish south on weekends, tossing in a rogue journey to Lisbon. It wasn’t until Semana Santa when all my students and colleagues
fled for northern climes (Paris, London, Rome), and I (what was I thinking?) hung around Seville like a starving dog. I did spend a few days with two Hungarian brothers who were two years into a six-year walk around the world (another story, really), and spied on the endless robed processions proceeding
through town, but otherwise I was feeling a bit pent up. A bad case of cabin fever blew in over me.
I couldn’t sleep. I had already watched a half-dozen DVDs on my laptop, read a wonderful book by Laurie Lee, and written
page after dull page in my journal. It was midnight, one night, maybe it was Thursday, when I found myself pacing back and forth in my little flat from the window to the door. What was I to do? I put on my shoes and grabbed a hand-full of cash. I thought I might walk about town to gas off, but I’m not a night person so much, not a city boy, not a barfly. I made a few turns around the cathedral, passed through the old Jewish quarter and across the tip of the Jardines de Murillo.
I hungered for something natural, a bright star overhead, a tree to sit under, an empty land out in front of me. All that was back home in the west. I made a nod in that direction, and did the only sensible thing: I bought a bag of potato chips and ate them all. I couldn’t make a habit of this, what with the dangers of chemical preservatives and high cholesterol. So, when my friends Carmen and John, along with their young daughter, Maria, invited me to join them on a trip to Venice, I saw some wisdom in saying “Yes.”
It was raining as I entered Venice from the north, the north I say, because if you take the shuttle bus in from Marco Polo International, step out into the Piazzale Roma on the north end of town, northwest end really, and it is raining, then the first thing you do is buy an umbrella. You’re going to walk to your hotel of course, wander is more like it, across the ancient city through ancient streets and along ancient canals, and if it is raining, then you buy an umbrella. My friends would be in late that evening, as we had booked different flights, and I had the entire day to myself. Oh, glorious! What would I do with it? What could I do? I bought an umbrella at the first kiosk I found, a spring loaded shade of a goodly size with a nice tartan pattern, red and black, a pattern I’d never consider if I were traveling in Scotland. But this wasn’t Scotland, and in the way that things are hip when out of place, I sauntered off through the rain.
The umbrella is an ancient tool, older than Venice herself. It likely grew out of Egypt some 3,000 years ago, as many things did, for royalty, as usual, a symbol of those beings living on a higher plane and over-shadowing the lower worlds—a “vault of heaven” over the pharaohs. In ancient Greece, the umbrella became associated with Bacchus, and the sexual reveries of his followers. It soon lost that symbolism and was used as a pedestrian shelter from sun or rain (call it parasol or umbrella). Later something very exciting happened. In 1177, so the story goes, Pope Alexander III blessed the Doge of Venice,
Sebastiano Ziani, with the honor of bearing his umbrella upon arranging a meeting with Emperor Frederic of Germany. So, I carried my umbrella boldly through the city, neither pope nor doge nor pharaoh, just an ordinary guy from Oregon, lifting it high over a sea of umbrellas, mostly tourists probably, a gangway of bright colors fustering down the narrow streets.
There are no cars in Venice, no bicycles either. The pace of Venetian life is at walking speed, slow and of the body, the feet and knees and quads, the hips moving in their gentle gate, the shoulders squared and the head up, an outward view, a bright and peaceful forward progress at about three miles per hour. We don’t know, don’t realize, how the speed of modern things—our cars and trains and planes, our iPods and iPhones and emails, our enslavement by the clock—takes us away from ourselves, hurries us along to death. In Venice, I felt alive and easy, happy and hungry, maybe even young, part of something larger than myself, like Big Bang all over again. I guess in summer the canals stink of mortality, a thousand
years of human refuse at slow decay in the black mud at the bottom. Yet on this day, the rain freshened the city and my sheltering sky. I was perfectly in my element—no nothing to do but saunter along, explore museums and buildings and waterways, have a coffee, gaze at people and their shoes, watch the clouds roll in, roll out, and the ancient waters of the black lagoon cover over the smooth Piazza San Marco.
My map foretold my way. I decided the Museo d’Arte Orientale
was just my style, and I might as well have a look at its companion, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna. The latter I breezed through as I thought I might, an expressionist this and that, a modernist such and such, a Dadaist doodad—I didn’t really get it. In the oriental collection I found weapons, any boy’s dream, spears and swords and daggers. I wandered the corridors with a dozen other dreamers slavering over those gleaming blades. I wondered, as anyone would, which one of these points, inert behind a glass casing, had pierced a man’s heart. But there was too much of it, and it wore on me, slowly, slowly, and so I turned to other things: scrolls and bowls, armoires and porcelain delicates, lacquerware, a row of instruments: the koto and shamisen. I guess some madman,
Prince Henry II of Bourbon-Parma, Count of Bardi, collected
all this stuff, some 30,000 items, on his travels in Asia between 1887 and 1889. Imagine setting out on a journey and carrying a museum home. Do I need to say it: “travel light, or don’t travel at all.” But then, the collection is one of the most important from Edo period Japan. I suppose we should say three “Hallelujahs” in praise of the wealthy and obsessed.
Enough of that.
On I went along the Grand Canal, headed for the Pescheria
and the Rialto Bridge, only I did not know it then. I didn’t have a guidebook, and had read virtually nothing about Venice.
That came later. I had but my little map, and knew only that I had to reach the piazza to find my hotel. Carmen, who was somewhere in the sky with John and Maria, was reading
Venice is a Fish by Tiziano Scarpa, and later I did too. By chance, as it turned out, I was doing it right. “The first and only itinerary I suggest to you has a name,” Scarpa writes. “It’s called: at random. Subtitle: aimlessly . . . Getting lost is the only place worth going to.” Amen.
I wasn’t so much as lost, but I certainly didn’t know where I was, and where I was turned out to be the fish market. It’s a produce market too, and maybe first, only who can deny the smell of the fish, and the great wet eyes ogling you from their briny ice beds. I cruised through the bustling aisles to survey
the goods, the fishmongers taking names and cutting off heads. The floor was slick with slime, and my shoes became like sliders on a curling sheet. I moved effortlessly, lilting along in a lope. Nothing much happened here except the surging energy and excitement of buying a dead fish, coupled with my awareness that people have been doing so in this very market for about a thousand years. When I reached the produce I became entranced by the shining fruits, the rounded hard mounds arranged like sins for the taking. I bought three apples, I don’t know which kinds, all different, and took one of them into my mouth without washing it. I was fascinated by the coconut pieces at various stands, broken at random and set up on little tiers with fresh water running over them. Why I didn’t buy one, I will never know.
At the Rialto Bridge I thought I’d reached a major monument,
and of course I had. Perhaps you are more worldly than I, so forgive me, but I knew nothing about this place, this point, this high bank of Venetian culture, apparently one of the oldest parts of the city. But I know about it now. The marble bridge runs up over the Grand Canal, a major point of crossing, where people pause at the pinnacle to have a look at the forever city down its main waterway. You’ll remember that Lord Byron loved this city too, and lived here in his self-exile from England, from 1816 to 1819. He called it a “fairy city of the heart.” He was famous for his prowess in swimming
(among other things), and passed under this bridge more than once. In his third famous swim he was in contest with an Englishman, Alexander Scott, and a blowhard, Angelo Mengaldo. I suppose Byron was a blowhard too, but on this day at least his lusty strokes spoke for him, outracing his two opponents over a distance of four and a half miles from the Lido up the Grand Canal. Only Scott was still swimming when they reached the Rialto, and after that Byron swam alone. In a letter to a friend he wrote, “I was in the sea from half past 4—till a quarter past 8—without touching or resting.” I suppose we might say three “Hallelujahs” in praise of nobles who are physically fit.
Gazing out from the bridge in the light rain, I found that the day was wearing on. I descended the other side, walking the smooth marble steps where, from the time of the bridge’s completion in 1592, countless shoes (and I imagine the number
is nearly uncountable) have worn away every imperfection
in the stone. It wasn’t too far or too long after when the light came tumbling in, the clouds parting in their seams, and though is sounds like I made it up, I stepped out into the Piazza
San Marco in the splendor of the midday sun.
Can you imagine it? At heart, I’m just “a mountain man trapped in a paved over world?” as I heard it, or at least, “isn’t it pretty to think so,” but I do give thanks for the beauty of the world’s cities I have seen. This is, as you’ll hear or read over and over if you visit, the only piazza in Venice, with its cornerstone the Basilica di San Marco and its five stately domes, consecrated in 1094. It was the private cathedral of the doges until 1807, when it finally opened to the city. Most buildings in Venice face the canals on which they were built, but the Basilica faces the center of the piazza. If you’ve seen other cathedrals in Europe, as I have—especially Saint Peter’s in Vatican City, Saint Paul’s in London, and the Cathedral of Seville—you may be tempted to pass this by, reasoning that if you’ve seen the three, you’ve seen them all. But have a look at the façade, the dazzling mosaics, and know that inside even greater splendor awaits you. All places of worship pale in comparison, except perhaps the sun setting on the Grand Tetons.
I sat down on a moveable gangway, used in the square to make a path when the water rises. The water was rising after the rains, and in places across the piazza floor it bubbled up from the underground and pooled. These gangways were for walking on, of course, but everywhere they had become benches for weary walkers like me. I sat down, the Basilica at my fore, the Torre dell’Orologio over my left shoulder with its two bronze Moors who strike a bell with great hammers on the hour, the ninety-nine meter high campanile over my right shoulder, and beyond that, statues of the city’s patron saints—Saint Mark and Saint Theodore—who show the way out to the waterfront and the sea.
This is where my story stalls, where I met this splendor at early afternoon and sat idle in the center of it for more than one hour. I really had no idea what to do next. I could sit here, perhaps, and take it all in. And so I did, but it was far too much, and it wore on me, slowly, slowly, I turned to other things. Scarpa is right again: “Too much splendor seriously damages your health.”
To repair that, I went for a walk, out between the two saints and up the Riva degli Schiavoni toward a park at near land’s end. I still had some five hours, maybe more, before my friends arrived, and I was in no hurry. So I wandered, as is my habit, up along the waters and out along the ways. I saw various lovely sights: statues forgotten in the trees, green grass and black waters, happy faces at stroll, the outline of San Giorgio Maggiore beyond the quay, a puppy straining against its lead. I returned to the piazza the way I had come, and crossed back over the footbridge whereon stood a collection
of teenagers smoking and laughing before the Bridge of Sighs. Then I did all that was left to do. I went up town a few streets to pay too much for food I could cook better at home, checked into my hotel, and settled in for a short rest. Ah, Venice!
At near 11:00 pm there came a knock at my door. My friends, obviously. “Hola!” and out I went with them, for they hadn’t eaten. This time, they paid too much for food that was modestly fair. Ah, Venice, again.
Morning in Venice is the finest hour. I woke before my friends and popped out to a little café on a corner, ordered coffee with milk. This wasn’t the sort of place you’d find a seat, in fact there were no seats at all, but little shelves scattered about the walls where you might set your cup for the three seconds you need a place to set it between the three seconds you need to drink it. I stood near a pillar on the outside
of the café. The place was jam-packed, lots of men and women in suits, nary a tourist anywhere. I felt not like an insider, but not quite like an outsider, so happy and welcoming were the baristas. I knew my friends would be up soon, so I returned to the lobby of the hotel.
From this point, let’s skip the boring parts of the day, and let me introduce you to my friends. John is a tenured professor of Spanish language and literature, specializing in the Golden Age. He’s an American, from the Midwest no less, whose boyish
good looks compete with his professional pragmatism. I like him well enough. Carmen is a Spaniard, a Galician to say true, and also a professor of Spanish language and literature. She is slight, like a willow bow, but she is mighty, like Toshiro Mifune. She knows something about everything, or everything about everything, take your pick. So usually when I travel with these two, we will make our way through a museum of this or a gallery of that, and all look to Carmen for answers. She has the kind of mind that holds on to everything she reads, so after taking on Scarpa’s book, we’re on the lookout for everything she read. The number one dish, for example, bigoli with salsa. The anti-pee devices in the street corners. The fact that the city itself is built on millions of piers, which are upside down trees, “larches, elms, alders, pines and oaks,” driven deep into the slime at the bottom of the lagoon. “How do you lay solid foundations on slime?” Scarpa asks. That’s how. Even the basilica is supported by such piers, which, and after all this time, have mineralized and turned to stone. So Carmen knows all this from her reading, and John now knows it from Carmen. Not wanting to leave me out, bless his heart, John lectures me on these points as we make our way about the city as if he invented Venice himself. But why, I ask, referencing
Scarpa’s title, is Venice a fish? Neither Carmen nor John seems to know.
We head south and west with the day, Maria complaining all the while of the great toll the walk is taking on her soul and body. She can be the hardiest of trekkers, as I once climbed a mountain with her in New Mexico, but today we drag her about the city from museum to café to museum, and she’s just about had enough. She does this little thing, because she’s eight years old and bored to death, where she steps in front of me, walks a few steps and trips me up. So I stumble to keep from knocking her down, regain my composition, start again, and walk now out on the edge of the four of us in the main stream of the crowd. She’s just not paying attention is all, and it’s not her fault. So, on we walk, and there she is again, tripping
me up, me tripping up, and finding a new space now to walk without knocking her down. Then it happens a third time, a fourth, and I realize the little rascal is doing it on purpose.
She loves this game. She mostly considers herself a Spaniard like her mother, so the game is, as I take it: “trip the American.”
“Look, Maria,” I say, trying to distract her. “You’re in one of the greatest cities in the world. Imagine all your friends back home who will never see such gorgeous palaces, such solemn
temples, such great works of art! And here you are seeing
them all, and you’re only eight.”
She turns and gives me her how-did-you-get-so-dense stare, looks back at the amazing city before her and says: “But they wouldn’t want to.”
We went our way through the crowds, headed for the Gallerie
dell’Academia, Carmen and I stopping here and there to consider various glass trinkets from Murano to take home to friends. For John, spending money is like bleeding. When Carmen stops near the front doors of a shop and says something
benign like, “Shall we take a look?” you can see in his ashen face that he is a dying man, the bloodletting so severe his head swoons and he has to turn in circles to keep from passing out. You would think John a saint, however, when even at such peril to himself, he opens the shop door to let Carmen pass. We finally reach the bridge over the Grand Canal,
both Maria and John near death’s door. I expect to see the ferryman waiting for them, but no, they’ve survived it, and we pass over.
This gallery is a must for anyone who likes art, so say the guidebooks, and so I’m optimistic as we go up the stairs into the first exhibit. It’s the usual splendor and beauty of famous galleries in Europe, and we walk about looking at one priceless
thing after another.
“Look,” John says, his excitement audible, “this is the lion of Saint Mark!”
As God is my savior.
“Look,” John says, “you can see how the angels are flying up to heaven here. Remarkable!”
And so let’s re-mark it.
“Look,” John says, “there’s a dog in this one. See it right here? A dog.”
And by god it is. John has a particular affinity for dogs in paintings, as he’s written an entire book on the subject, focused especially on that one painting in the Prado you probably
didn’t miss, but now don’t remember: Las Meninas by Velázquez.
“You see,” John starts in, “I like dogs in paintings. And now that I’m on to my next book, this stuff here is really important
to me. I’m writing about the ‘beast within.’ Do you follow me? You look at all these paintings, look at all this art, and there is this representation of ‘the beast within.’”
“I see,” I said.
“It’s really hard what I’m doing,” John says, trying to provoke
me, “because I’m inventing a new language to talk about it. We don’t have a language to talk about it.”
Had I any measure of dangerous spontaneity, I’d have doled out that wonderful line from the Brad Pitt movie, Snatch: “In the immortal words of the Virgin Mary: ‘Come again?’”
And then John does, without a prompter: “I’m inventing a new language,” he says, “a language that doesn’t now exist to talk about ‘the beast within.’”
“John,” I said. “I don’t understand. How can you be inventing
a new language? Do you mean the topic is unknown, or new, or obscure? What does it mean to invent a new language?”
“I mean I’m inventing a new language. We don’t know yet how to talk about ‘the beast within.’”
“Sure we do,” I say. “The idea has been around for ages. We’ve been talking about it for near forever. Vampires. Werewolves.
Tarzan. Isn’t it the oldest story in books? What about Enkidu? Besides, this beast within is really just a deep part of the mind. It’s the unconscious, where the dragons live. All those stories of heroes—Beowulf, King Arthur, The Lord of the Rings for pity’s sake, are just retelling the same old damn story.”
“Well, yeah, I suppose you can say that. But what I’m doing
“John,” I say. “It’s not new.”
“Yes it is.”
“No it isn’t.”
“Yes it is.”
You get the picture.
To be fair, John knows exactly what he’s talking about, and I have a nasty habit of 1) arguing for the sake of arguing; and 2) never admitting that I am wrong. So perhaps it was the saint in John again that moved him to accept the ignorance of his friend: “Let me explain . . . ,” he said.
Sometime later, Carmen cruises by with Maria at her arm and interrupts John’s focus by rolling her eyes as if to say: Really,
boys. Can’t you just shut up? You’re ruining my day. Then she turns back and says over her shoulder: “Really, boys. Can’t you just shut up? You’re ruining my day.”
“But Carmen,” John protests. “We’re having an intellectual
“Pull-ease. Just have a look at the art,” Carmen says. “This is gorgeous in here, and you two are talking about nothing.”
“It’s the place,” John asserts. “We’re inspired by the art!”
“Somebody help me,” Carmen says.
Our conversation goes on for a bit longer, carries on into the next gallery, John claiming he’s inventing a new language, me claiming he isn’t, until Carmen, so utterly disgusted, disappears
with Maria through the maze of rooms.
Half the day goes by, and we’ve moved halfway across the city, on into the galleries surrounding the piazza, the Museo Correr, looking on an exhibit of gargantuan paintings which are maps of Venice. They’re beautiful, and I like maps. Maria is utterly bored, and so exhausted she can hardly stand up. She crawls around on the floor picking at imperfections in the ancient tiles, lolling about in her lethargy. I’ve been carrying my umbrella all this time, and a security guard chastises me for it, the hard steel point which must not touch the priceless floor. Then she’s after Carmen for the same thing, and so we decide to head for the Caffè Florian, one of Byron’s favorite haunts, to bolster our energy.
Maria is now poised in front of a great map of Venice as Carmen calls for her to come along promptly, we’re leaving. The map shows the city from above, its outline and the outlying
waters. No wonder, you realize, that the splendor of Venice
and its great power arose from the sea. The city itself is stationary, planted in the black mud of the lagoons, while its navy and merchant vessels go anywhere and everywhere at all speed. Some of the world’s great explorers, don’t forget, are Venetians: Giovanni Caboto, Niccoló de’ Conti, and of course Marco Polo. And don’t forget the Festa della Sensa, or the marriage of Venice to the sea. Every spring, the mayor of Venice (the doge in the old days) rides a barge to the Port of San Nicolo where he flings a gold ring into the bouncing waves.
We don’t notice it yet, but it’s obvious, so stupidly obvious when we look at the map, that the shape of the city is, yes, kinda like . . .
“Ma-ma. Look!” Maria says. “Venice is a fish!”
At Caffè Florian, Carmen and I each pay thirteen dollars for a coffee with milk, and John and Maria choose a tea service
with little sandwiches light as air which runs about forty bucks. But since Byron did, we do too. Apparently Byron took his breakfast here, and I go about the café interior in search of his portrait. Established in 1720, Caffè Florian was already 100 years old in Byron’s day. I wonder if some of the furniture doesn’t date from that time. Did Byron sit in this chair, or that chair? Did he sit in my chair? Or rather, me in his? But then my modest family history rears up, and I ask: is one place better than another because someone who thought they were better than others ate there? I don’t find the portrait I’m looking for, so I return to the table for my coffee. It’s good, but not that good; I make better coffee at home.
What about Byron in Venice, anyway? I’ve read some of his story, and it’s sad and desperate and rounded by folly. He fled England on charges of incest and sodomy, never to return again. He loved Venice, it seems, and boasted carnal pleasures
with over two hundred women. He swam the canals home at night after carousing until the second cock. He was unusually productive, and life here seems to have transformed his artistry. He wrote much of his great poem Don Juan in Venice, and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Beppo, and Ode to Venice are all works set in and inspired by the place. Despite his grand adventures and endless exploits, in his private time, it seems, he loved his dog best, a Newfoundland he called Boatswain. In his poem “Epitaph to a Dog” (Boatswain died in 1808), Byron writes:
Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
These are wonderful qualities indeed, and perhaps Byron aspired to them himself. But he was his own enemy in this, as any student of literature knows. We have in Bryon’s work, and the work of many others after, the Byronic Hero, a great talent ringed with admirable passions, but flawed in the grandest ways. The usual description goes thus: a distaste for society and social structures which includes an absence of respect for rank and privilege (both of which Byron possessed), thwarted by love, death, rebellion, exile, a dark secret past, arrogance and overconfidence, and a lack of foresight, all rolled into a poetic self-destruction. Ah, Byron!
Perhaps the most fascinating part of his life was his death. In 1823, he traveled to Greece to support the independence movement from the Ottoman Empire. After investing
a great sum of his own money to refit the Greek fleet, he planned to help the politician Alexandros Mavrokordatos attack the Turks at Lapanto. But he fell ill to fever, recovered, and fell ill again. The usual remedy of the day was a good bloodletting to exercise the poisons from the body. Covered in leeches and pierced by the doctor’s needle, he died on April 19, 1824. There was a great storm blowing afoul over his final days. Byron moaned and shivered, and came in and out of delirium. He muttered to himself in Italian and in English as the rain fell ceaselessly and the wind banged at the windows. As he realized his great life was flying off he came to desire the end. He wanted to die. A friend reports that he considered asking God for mercy, but then spoke clearly: “Come, come, no weakness! Let’s be a man to the last.” Not long after, he was gone.
I wanted desperately to resist the tourist’s silly love affair with the gondola, which was in its day the primary means of transportation in and out and around Venice. The city once supported some 10,000 gondoliers, but there are a mere 500 or so now, and most of them cater to tourists. You can take a traghetti, a gondola serving as a ferry, across the Grand Canal for minimal cost, but you can walk over a bridge too. I happened to be on this bridge or that as gondolas passed under, and looking down upon the sleek black boats, I saw fine couples enwrapped in each other’s company, a family of four, a single man or woman, an empty boat too. They came smoothly under me, the long lovely line of them cutting a brave path through the glassy water, the gondolier calling out to the other boats beyond his blind spot, pushing the gunwales
away from the canal walls with his foot. It did look, if I may say so, romantic, and quintessentially Venetian. I guess Byron had a private gondola and gondolier, as the wealthy and famous keep a stretch Hummer and driver these days. Would I ever have another opportunity? Unlikely.
And so it came to pass that upon passing a handsome young wheeler-dealer near the Rialto, Carmen stopped, was drawn aside by his angelic face, and struck us a deal. I don’t recall the price. It was expensive, but not offensive, and so we took it. John, though his veins were nearly dry, offered up his Euros, smilingly.
We got in.
“You speak Italian?” the gondolier said in English. He wore all black—black shoes and trousers, a black vest—but for his black and white striped shirt, the shirt you’ve seen in movies and so want to see on your gondolier. His face carried a stern look for the way his cheeks were drawn down by creases along each side of his nose. His arms were beautifully shaped, long and muscled beneath his snug sleeves, and his hands hardened by the soft-wood shaft of his oar. He had hair, you could see that, the peak coming in tight to the brow, but he wore it shaved, right down against the dark bone of his head.
“A little Italian,” John said. “Carmen speaks it best. No we don’t speak Italian” he said. “We speak Spanish.”
“Oh, Spanish,” he said, in English.
“But he doesn’t,” Carmen said in Spanish, indicating me.
“German?” the gondolier asked.
“English,” John said.
“Then I will speak to you in English,” he said, as he was already.
“Ah, this is Venice,” he said pushing off from the moorings. “For one-thou-sand years, this city has been alive! It should NOT be here. But it is here. Why is it here?”
He paused, adjusting his oar in the forcola. We looked at each other. Did he want us to answer? “Well,” John said. “I guess—”
“—it is here,” he said, “but it should not be here. This black lagoon. These canals and waters mean that no city should be here. But one-thou-sand years ago we built it. The Venetians built Venice! Out here on the Grand Canal you will see it for yourself. One-thou-sand years of architectural splendor! You will see it here.”
“Right,” John said. “But how did they build it? Who built it? Where did the labor come from?”
“We built it, of course,” he said. “We Venetians built Venice in this black lagoon. Why here?” he asked again. “How did we do it?”
“Well,” John ventured again, “it seems to me that—”
“—Out here on the Grand Canal you will see it for yourself. One-thou-sand years of architectural splendor! You will see it here. Just a moment. There!” he said, sweeping his hands out in front of him. “Venice! You see the different style of architecture
here. One-thou-sand years of Venetian history all here on the Grand Canal. Byzantine. Renaissance. Baroque. Functionalism.
Modernism. Post-modernism. Byzantine-Baroque. Baroque-Byzantine. Renaissance-functionalism-modernism. Post-modern-Baroque-modernism. Post-modern-modernism.
And Byzantine. It’s all here.”
“So you see this as a Byzantine city?” John asked.
“This is Venice,” the gondolier said. “Venice. It should not be here. But it is here, here in this black lagoon. It is because of this black lagoon that the Venetians built it. This black lagoon
protects the city. It is safe here, in these waters. You may think these waters are a problem. YES, they are a problem. But they are not a problem. You see, when the water comes up and floods the houses and shops, the people let the water pass. They get some warning, and move everything from the first floor to the second floor to let the water pass. The water must pass,” he said. “If water not pass, water destroy.”
We turned now onto the Rio San Giovanni Grisostomo, where we’d do a little loop back to the Grand Canal. We passed under a bridge by the same name and the hearty gondolier
called out in his deep voice to warn other boats of our coming.
“You see here,” he said. “This was the house of a very wealthy man. It is here because he let the water pass. When the water came, he let it pass. Water must pass,” he said again. “If water not pass, water destroy!”
On around we went, the canal narrowing, the houses and shops close on each side, Maria futzing with a decorative golden winged lion, then with the little knob on her seat; and John with his long arm around Carmen, me sitting opposite, starring into the murky waters. We came to a corner again and the Teatro Malibran, an important outlet for opera during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the crossroads with the canal which leads to the piazza, our gondolier called out again as we turned the corner to complete our circle.
“Ah,” he said. “Here used to be the great palace of a very rich man! It is still here,” he said, “because he let the water pass—”
I know, I thought. Water must pass. If water not pass . . .
In the morning, I would take the early vaporetto to Marco Polo to fly back to Spain, and after a few days more, back home to the American West. My friends would be headed by train to Pisa before returning to Spain, where they would stay on for the rest of the summer. We had the evening for a final hurrah.
Carmen, the intrepid, was on the hunt for a local place for supper, something out of the way and into the breach of real Venetian life. We set out on an explore down the Via Garibaldi and into the Arsenale. We happened upon a little place along that wide street, busy with mostly everybody in town, a place between places. Since we were not sure where we were going,
Carmen said, “We might as well have one drink.” And so we did, a beer and a few snacks, settled in among the local people. We roused and toasted to friendship, to the holy interlude
between then and after, to this easy moment without cares. What more could anyone want, really, but a moment, just a moment in Venice with his friends? It didn’t take long, and we were afoot again, wandering beyond the Arsenale and into Castello, God knows where, lost really, again, among the winding streets from this plaza to that, all of us feeling suddenly
hopeless but Carmen.
“I’m hungry,” Maria complained.
“I don’t think we’re going the right way,” said John.
“We’re not going to find anything out here,” I whined, certain
the universe was bent against us.
“How about here,” Carmen said in her unshakeable optimism,
as a little restaurant rose up out of nothing. “Looks like we can have the bigoli with salsa. I want to try that before we leave.”
Over supper we played a spelling game, in English thank goodness, as unlike my companions, it’s the only language I know. It’s so hard to be trapped inside one language when your friends command several more. But do I go around feeling
sorry for myself? Of course I do, when even Maria, who is a quarter my age, is fluent in two and working on a couple more. No wonder she trounced the lot of us at our game. I suppose we might say three “Hallelujahs” in praise of the young and cerebrally fit.
John and Maria turned in, while Carmen and I thought we might make a visit to Harry’s Bar. Everybody who is anybody, so the saying goes, finds their way to Harry’s Bar, and so being nobody at all, we found the front doors closed. Closed? It was just after 11:00 pm. Not quite the hours I was used to keeping in Spain, where, as John loved to inform me, this is the time most Spaniards are wondering what to have for supper.
It was stop and go. Stop and go. Stop and go, turning through the streets until we happened upon a bar with tiny bright lights and modern furnishings. It wasn’t really my kind of place, but as Carmen likes to say, “We might as well have one drink, no?”
She ordered a grappa and I a sambuca. When the time came for a second round, we each ordered what the other had had. Grappa, a kind of brandy made from pomace (the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes left over from winemaking), has a powerful kick, and this was but the second, maybe third time I’d ever tasted it.
“This grappa is really strong,” I said.
“This,” Carmen said. “This? We Galicians drink this from our mother’s breasts!”
Oh glorious, thought I, this really is a fairy city of the heart.
And what about this story? What of Venice? You can’t arrive at grand conclusions. You can’t capture it in a phrase or sentence. In an image or dance routine. You might do well enough to repeat what others have said. Maupassant: “Venice!
That single word seems to send an exaltation exploding
in the soul . . . ” Nooteboom: “a paradise of beauty that was driven out of itself because the earth could not endure so much wonder.” Mainardi: “There can be no better place than this.”
But even then, everything that has a beginning also has an end, a time when it will no longer be what it is. The universe was born out of the Big Bang, and it looks like it will expand outward forever until the stuff of it is so spread apart as to benothing at all. Before that, long before, our sun will run out of fuel. It will expand and expand and consume our little earth and the inner planets before collapsing into a white dwarf. You and all your precious things, your photographs and iPod, your favorite movies and coffee cup, your Ford pickup and backyard garden will vanish into the oblivion of black space. Not a remnant will remain, not even a memory of human life, as there will be no one left to remember. But take heart. One can hardly say this about Venice. Perhaps it is the one true exception, or rather it is the exception’s exception, the city that was a nation, the swampy mud flat that is a marble island,
the dwarf that is a giant. And it will always been so. You can never come to the end of Venice, the way you can never come to the end of Shakespeare or Mozart. So why bother with this great theme? As I said, its vastness allows everyone to say something.