Where do you even start with Venice?
You get up at six to catch a train, where the tunnels make your ears feel like they’re on the verge of exploding and a kid who’s in the process of losing teeth actually loses his breakfast into his baseball cap. The American woman across the aisle from you watches 2012 on her iPad. You move forward to Florence, but upon leaving Firenze S.M.N. you are shot backwards to the sinking city, watching the mist-gulping valleys and fields shrink from view. You arrive dead-tired at Venezia Mestre, and you have a sudden realization that Venice is a lot bigger than “Venice.” You’re not on an island with picturesque canals. There’s a lot of graffiti. And no one is wearing stripes?
Skip a few hours, you’ve checked into your airbnb and you sit on another train, this time gliding across a swampy expanse of water. Tiny islands, verdant, sit still as you pass them – seriously, you should have brushed up on the geography of this place before visiting, you are way too surprised by the layout of all of this. You screech into the station, disembark, hop down some steps, and there it is. That’s the Grand Canal, framed by neverending rows of rust- and blush-colored buildings, broken up by barnacled wood beams reaching out of the water and, predictably, selfie sticks. Walk down the main drag, squeezing through the crowd – there’s a Disney Store here? – and then you sit down to eat a pizza and drink your first espresso shot. You don’t add any sugar or cream because you are a rebel with a cause. What cause? Proving that you are a strong woman who likes strong coffee. An honorable, noble cause.
Aha, the energy hits as you wind into the depths of the island, crossing at least a dozen small bridges. The canals decided the angles and curves of the streets and the city didn’t argue, so you end up going in circles and reaching dead ends where staircases descend into murky water. You take pictures of the shuttered houses lining the waterways, one from one bridge, one from another, but when you look back later, all the pictures will look the same. There’s something that doesn’t want to be captured. The two foot-wide alleyways, Venus in the night sky, the sea foam rushing to and from a mossy boat launch – completely untranslatable, especially with an iPhone as medium.
You spend four days getting lost – impulsively turning down Isolation Alley, sitting on docks, drinking juuuust enough prosecco to start seeing Van Gogh’s brushstrokes in the ripplings of the Grand Canal. You muddle your way through St. Mark’s Basilica, surprisingly not as much enchanted by the golden mosaics as you are amused by the woman openly snapping pictures with her iPad (always the damn iPads) right next to a “no photos” sign. You wince as you hear the words “pleasure combo” coming out of your mouth at the Magnum cash register, but how else are you supposed to get your salted pretzel ice cream bar and shot of espresso? Later, you shell out twenty euros and no regrets for a gondola ride – you learn that hardly anyone lives on the ground level in Venice because of flooding, and you immediately want to rent a ground level apartment just to show how tough you are. Honestly, you probably wouldn’t last there. No offense.
You see the mainland at dusk, hazy lilac over dry grass. Even after lovingly gazing at canals all day, you are still somehow charmed by the suburban chunks of concrete that many families call home. You’re glad to see a different dimension of Venice, and you’re glad it’s accompanied by the sound of crickets and back-garden get-togethers. In the morning you traverse the city again, admiring papier-mache masks through windows and, come noon, drinking more of that sparkling white wine. Maybe one afternoon, you take a water taxi to one of the smaller islands. Burano? Sure. You skip across the swellings of the sea and find yourself in Candyland, where the only law is that if your neighbor’s house is bubblegum pink, yours must be the color of a canary (unverified, there are probably other laws on Burano). You say to yourself, “two nutella crepes in one day? why not!” and then kind of/sort of regret it as a boat bounces you back to the big island.
On your last night, you take the elevator to the top of the tower in Piazza S. Marco, and you think about how much you love mist and how thankful you are that it is practically a universal phenomenon. Unlike other cities you’ve seen from an aerial perspective, this one doesn’t even pretend to be on a grid. You stare at the buildings and alleyways below you and acknowledge that, nope, you have no clue where you’ve been walking the past few days. Venice is enigmatic. But you like it, don’t lie.
You sit by the open water and watch the sun set gold over the island, intently studying the movements of the waves as they weave into each other. And when you take the water taxi back to the Piazzale di Roma, you feel the sea breeze in your hair and the goosebumps on your legs and you can’t stop yourself from blurting to your friend: “our lives are so unreal.” The sun slips into low-hanging clouds on the horizon, like a coin being dropped in a pocket.
You take the train back to Rome in the morning, letting Jenny Lewis – “I’m as sure as the moon rolls around the sea” – drown out your rumbling stomach, your constantly popping ears. And soon enough, you are back in Rome and Venice just feels like a book you read in high school English class. In a good way. In a confusing way.