Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Venezia, Con Amore

Just to satisfy my guilt for such a delay and what I know is your clamoring for a new posting, dear readers, here's a piece a wrote a while ago about travel and disillusionment. It's a little different from my usual stuff but it was great fun to write, so I hope you enjoy it. Buon appetito!

Stepping off the water taxi into Piazza San Marco was like stepping into a daydream. I’d seen a thousand pictures of couples kissing in the murky sunset off the lagoon. I’d read a hundred books set in the romantic decay of the timeless floating city. I’d imagined a million times of the lavish jewel on the lip on the Adriatic and the exotic edge of the world to my suburban mind.

Sitting on the gray industrial carpet of the public library in my suburban home, Venice was better than fairy tales. A city with a proud and a sad history, where beauty and heritage were a way of life and not something one had to use the library catalogue to find. I was enchanted by exotic words like major domo and campo and gelato. I couldn’t imagine a better place than a sinking miracle where Shakespeare set his tragedies, Casanova roved the canals, and American expatriate modernists wrote their best work. I had always loved books, and Venice was like the best hardbound gilt-covered monstrosity to me, smelling of salt and fine perfume. Anywhere where elaborate masks were a fashion statement, where the whole city participated in a month-long masquerade, and where a narrow black boat was the transportation of choice was better than the best book, because I could actually visit.

The siren call of the lagoon seemed to answer something inside me. In a new American city, beauty and art seemed like an inconvenience, not a goal. I drowned myself in the stories of long lineages of Doges, that exotic governmental beast so much more refined than a mere king. I read of the fine families, with their own majestic palaces on the Grand Canal, filled with old art and good breeding. I immersed myself in the architecture, longing for the thousand types of exotic marble conquered and pillaged from far off lands to adorn the façade of Basilica San Marco. I grew up with drop ceilings and asphalt, but the Venetians of my imagination would scoff at such ugly practicality. They were a people who lived on thousand-year-old wood pylons, who created the world’s most beautiful glass out of a fiery pit, who built the world’s most famous and elegant bridge for their prisoners. Venetians were a people with the Renaissance in their blood, to whom recent history had not been kind. All I had in my blood was annoying WASPishness. Where I grew up, the only gold decoration is in dashes down the middle of the street. Waters have been lapping at the palaces in my beloved city for a thousand years, before people even inhabited the area where I was born.

Venice seemed to whisper my every answer in a majestic and elegiac language I longed to understand. I imagined the tiny fresh squid and squash blossoms in the open-air markets, or the swish of a long black cape around the corner, or the fierce gaze of a Venetian woman out of a purple velvet mask. I scoffed at the Las Vegas version, with their chlorinated canals and slot machines, of all obscenities. In the real city they gambled with their medieval conquests, their Papal power struggles, their eastern influences, with the foundations of their houses, but never something so unrefined as actual money. I was drunk on the exotic spice of a real city that I had invented.

Finally visiting the corroded emerald on the Adriatic was going to be like going home. I wanted it to be the answer to every question in my heart, a contrast to every annoying and abrasive and juvenile thing about the United States. I wanted thousand-year-old mosaics and my own personal library just about the piano nobile floor in my own majestic palace, named after my well-respected family, which had included maybe two doges and even a pope in the tenth century. I wanted to put on a Carnival mask and lose my boring, unrefined self in the rise and fall of the tides.

Stepping into the Piazza San Marco was not the emotional catharsis I wanted (and half-expected) it to be. In my desire to create a place I wanted, I couldn’t image Venice as a real city in the present day. The romantic place of my creation was a dark cloudy mystery, but it never actually rained there. Even the ride across the lagoon soaked me to my skin. I invented a place where people actually lived in the Doge’s Palace, actually went to church in Basilica San Marco, really lived like the Renaissance conquerors I’d read so much about. I didn’t imagine them as places to wait in line to see, places to tour in ten minutes following a tour guide with a German accent. I imagined finding myself while getting lost in the winding streets of ancient homes where Ezra Pound and Robert Browning had written their love poetry, finding love in the streets that wound in on themselves until opening into the campo of my imagination. I did get lost – but whether it was the negotiable validity of trying to get lost or the map of Venice that existed only in my head or maybe in the early Renaissance, I didn’t find what I thought I was looking for. I didn’t find myself, dancing by the light of tapered candles in a room full of masks and fine tapestries. I didn’t find love, not even the love of the crumbling city of so many stories. I did find Venetians, in their leather and glass shops. But they didn’t whisper me the answers in what I felt to be my native tongue, even if I couldn’t speak more than a few words. They asked, in English, “Can I help you?” All I could say was “No, grazi,” before turning on my sneakered heel back out into the rain. The rain was not more beautiful and exotic there, or perfumed with the smells and wisdom of the ancient merchant city. It was exactly what I’d never been able to imagine it to be – wet. Cold. Real.

I had hoped and willed my imaginings to be real in Venice, the most fantastical place I could have found to incubate my dreamings. It was both beautiful and sad, but it was also crowded and smelling and in precipitous decay. I had foolishly imagined that history would be real there, and it wasn’t until I was already side-stepping the pigeons outside the façade of Basilica San Marco did I realize my fault. Many things are indeed a mystery in Venice, but time is not one of them. And as I let my dreams of a gilded identity I’d imagined for myself dissolve into the murky teal waters of the ancient lagoon, I did find something: perspective. The winged lions welcoming visitors and guarding from foes at the grand entrance to the once-grand city were still beautiful, but I could finally for what they were: corroded, collapsing, and most importantly, a make-believe creation. Those lions could no more fly than I could, but as I stood in the rain in the most famous plaza in the world, I learned that is was probably better that we both stay on the ground.