Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Postcards from Venezia (Venice)

"So now, thank God, Venice is no longer a mere word to me, an empty name, a state of mind which has so often alarmed me who am the mortal enemy to mere words". 
So wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the late 1700's in his travel diary which is now published as a book called "Italian Journey".  I had loaned this book from the library months before we left for Italy and it struck me how travelers from the world over through the centuries have been drawn to Venice.  And one can see why.  It is just magnificent. 
We nearly skipped Venice on this Italian trip and on hindsight, I am thrilled that we didn’t.  I’m not one for hyper-touristy places.  To me, a thick crowd of tourists, and the ensuing trade that bend themselves backwards to cater to these money-spenders, dilute an authentic experience.  I did not travel all the way across the pond so I can buy tacky souvenirs or eat the way I do back home, thank you very much.  I jumped on a transcontinental flight to experience something refreshing and real, to be fascinated by something foreign and unknown, to be astounded to learn something I did not know yet.  But Venice, tourists notwithstanding, was magical.  Cars are not allowed in the city and in their stead are boats and gondolas.  If you really pay attention, there is a kind of a hush in Venice.  Like the rest of Italy we have seen on this trip, it is old, yet has retained its beauty and elegance. 

Yes, Venice is a madhouse for tourists.  I read an article on National Geographic how the local population is dwindling and that the locals are being driven out by tourism.  It is a sad, sad affair and it makes me remorseful that I did not take a snapshot of an old Venetian man we met at a courtyard close to the Casino di Venezia.  He must have been eighty years old and he was out walking his dog.  He stopped me and The Dutch, and in Italian, gave us unsolicited directions on how to get to San Marco (which we were not trying to find).  As if longing for conversation, he then immediately volunteered in Italian that he was born in Venezia (“Io nato qui”) while motioning to an old building nearby.  I had to resist that urge to snap up a photo of him, his tawny face, leathery with age, because although the locals were facing extinction, I couldn’t muster up the audacity to treat them as if they were already in a diorama.  If I spoke a little bit more of Italian beyond the rudimentary, I so wanted to invite ourselves to his house and make him cook Venetian supper for us.  But I did neither.  Should I have? 
I had half a day to myself and I did what I always tend to do when I travel:  amble around aimlessly and get lost.  And in Venice, it was the best way to discover local life where it still exists!  Venice is one of those cities where it is perfect to do this sort of thing, you see.  The main sections of Venice are like little islets connected by bridges.  You literally could walk the entire city if you wanted without the fear of getting lost.  It is compact and if you ever feel the need to orient yourself, it is quite easy to see where you are relative to Ponte Rialto or San Marco.  Or jump on one of the vaporettos (water taxis) to take you there.  Seriously, anyone could figure it out.            

The narrow sidestreets,  signs of local life – these are what makesVenice magical for me.  In my wanderings, I peeked into a restaurant just wrapping up lunch hour.  It looked my type of place so I did not hesitate to snag a table.  The waiter was so impressed with my Italian, however little it was, and my bravado to go about on my own, he kept coming back my table to make conversation, and if he had a camera phone, I swear he would’ve taken a photo of me as though I was THE relic. 

I mainly walked about on the Cannaregio and San Polo districts, away from San Marco.  It was beautiful at every turn!
The Dutch and I converged later in the day and we wandered on nameless streets, got lost in alleys.  We walked by an enoteca and we were lured in.  We shared an Amarone (one of the best and expensive wines that come from Verona, another region in the Veneto) and later, cicetti (traditional Venetian counterpart of the Spanish tapas) at a place he recommended away from the crowds.  We shared another glass of red wine which we sipped while standing outside, following the lead of the locals around us.
One of the things I loved most about Venice is that we did not have any desire here to do anything than just be.  No museums to go to (although for next time, I wouldn't mind the Peggy Guggenheim Museum and the Opera), no sightseeing on the agenda.  At one point, we sat on one of the canal banks with our gelato, writing postcards, shooing away pigeons, and just basking in the beauty of everything around us.  It is these rare moments of calm when traveling that offer a respite from the whirlwind the past two weeks and allow for attention and observation, watching gondolas cruise by, watching young Italian boys try to decode locks on a bridge.  
Caught in the act!  An Italian boy decoding a lock!

Venezian rush hour
Local life in the San Polo neighborhood

I am not sure I will ever see another place like Venice in my lifetime and find myself echoing von Goethe's sentiments. Before, I only knew of Venice having heard of other people's travels or shamefully, Hollywood. And I would have been content with the vicarious nature of acquainting myself with Venice.  It is a place like nothing I imagined.  It does not come close to the vignettes of all the films, even if you amalgamate every single one of them.   And now that I am not a stranger to it anymore, like a timeless Vivaldi masterpiece, it does feel like Venice has wrapped itself around me and I cannot quite disentangle myself - the sound of water following you everywhere, the echo of yourself when you find yourself in an empty corner among old buildings, the muted colors speaking of history and many many more stories untold.  Nor do I want to.

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