Italy Journals – Part III

9/17 – Venice

Wake to the rushing sound of rain, early half-grey light of dawn in the leafy courtyard beyond the wood shutters. Chug water then its back to bed.

Return the moped at ten, dodging the vehicles of weekday commerce. I’ll miss riding it, gunning it down narrow streets of stone.

But now to Venice. Sweaty walk to the clogged train terminal.

Listen to Animal Collective on the train north, again sitting backwards, watching the tracks and power line, mountains and villages flow away from me, like the Gondry Chemical Brothers video. Surrounding hills are steep, evergreen coated, disappearing into low-lying misty clouds. It’s into a tunnel for long dark minutes, only iPod and music. Steph sleeps.

Get into Venice around 2:30, stand sweating in line to procure tickets back to Rome. Waste 3.50 on a map, still unsure where the hotel is.

A quick bang of luck – a young couple ascending the steps into the train station “Do you speak English? Here, all day passes, water traxi, we’re done.” “Thanks,” I mutter, pocketing the slips. Worth 26 euros…

Another few minutes poring over the map, then looking up across the Grande Canal. “Hotel Antigue Figure?” There it is!” Steph exults, directly across the 30 foot span of green water.

After we drop off bags, take the water taxi south along the Grande Canal towards San Marco, packed in with the rest of the herds, craning neck to snap photos of the seeping masonry, black streaked, sinking into a mire of green algae. Once intricate carvings, proud statements of the Venetian states, baroque faces and gargoyles, now stained and cracked. Thrones for pigeons and gulls.

Disembark at San Marco, weave through the hordes, catch sights of a scaffold encrusted dome. Ten thousand tamed pigeons in the square. They stick to the stones, but move as a flock, a continuous distribution algorithm, scurrying even when we gleefully charge into their midst.

And old man bids them close with packets of feed, and they swarm his outstretched arms, even shoulders and head. Only when he wrenches his arms to his sides are the birds excited, exploding outward in a burst of feathers, taking to the blue to encircle overhead. A living whirlwind.

Spend an hour or so perusing the shops along the perimeter – colored glass, feathered masks, designer leatherwear and handbags. Music wafts over a field of white plastic chairs, piano and violin duo at an exquisite Venetian Tea room. Glancing inside – plush velvet chairs, gold fringed mirrors.

Get lost in the narrow mazes, the stores growing less ‘elite’ as we move from the tourist attractions and into the residential. Sheets and towels flapping out over the narrow canals, small box of herbs and red flowers in the windowsill.

Return the way we came, noisy diesel prop churning green water white, orange orb bisecting the many corroded copper domes. Thumbnail moon rising behind.

Stop by the hotel room to change, take in the decor, motif of fine red cloth and ivory wood furniture, padded cloth walls, moody crimson lighting. Marble bathroom, glass candelabras.

Take a gondola ride, oared by a red faced local with striped shirt and eyebrow piercing. He propels the long black boat with the flick of his wrist, not a direct stroke but more of a diagonal slice – both oar and rudder. We move with gliding slowness, sunk back in the padded throne, not rocked or shaken, but floating forward over black glass. We clear stone bridges and moored boats by centimeters. It is not a cheap way to travel (120 euros).

Dinner at a recommended Ristorante, nestled in some shadowed corridor of the maze. My fish comes as it was caught – bones, skin, head and tail, in a bed of cherry tomatoes and potatoes. The waiter expertly extracts the buttery white meat with a spoon and fork, slicing away head and tail, peeling back the brown scales, lifting away the spine and ribs. It’s mostly locals eating here, tanned and weathered by the water and sea salt.

Finish the night walking into the narrow alleys, seeing the yellow sparkle of the watery expanse, the laugh and chatter of patrons in a late night trattoria, stumbling home full and happy.

Venice comes with a tinge of disillusionment. The town as a whole is a marvel; something fantastical lifted 400 years through a warp of space-time. But the stone is still rotting, ever sinking into the dingy waterways, black corrosion on baroque facades combated by the ubiquitous scaffolding. And it is expensive, genetically engineered over a hundred tourist seasons to extract money from pockets for glitter and dazzle. Trinkets of glass and feather, snapshots of cliche gondolas, arched bridges over curving, rippling canals.

Nevertheless, tomorrow it’s back to Rome.

9/18

Pizza and cappuccino along the canal before the afternoon train. It’s delayed and we huddle with a hundred confused others, craning up at the clattering board, watching letters move. Unfortunately it will be all day on the train, the countryside slowly scrolling past.

Extremely late getting into Rome. Sweat through the terminal, luggage in hand, onto the Metro and to the B&B. Hostess doesn’t speak a word of English, struggle through the formalities, drop off luggage, go out in search of food.

Gorge ourselves on gnocchi, sausage and tiramisu, and a liter of vino. Then a final walk around St. Peter’s Plaza, blue light on cobblestones.

The room is Spartan, stuffy, lacking any sort of decoration save a brown rug on the wall, a smudged mirror. The toilet gurgles constantly (broken button), and the shower is bitter cold.

I remark that this is more like it, from my memories of European travel. Steph says this is a vacation, not roughing it. I agree.

It’s been a good trip, but we both agree it’s time to go home.

***

Why do we travel?

Is it to check fabled locales off our internal list? Is it to test ourselves, our prowess at navigating slightly altered configurations of society? Is it to incite the sense of open-jawed wonder, childlike awe in sights not yet seen? Or is to reveal yet unknown depths of the soul, fractaling corners and troves of emotion not unearthed in the place called home?

If for all these reasons, or for none, Hans Christian Anderson said it well – “To travel is to live.”

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