September 6, 2016 in Italy
The sea, snaking silently between the stone walls, lapping at the mossy stone steps where ghostly feet of doges and bishops past still walk their nightly vigil, is black at midnight, like squid ink flowing through ancient veins. The city herself is a carnival dream of marble painted in moonlight, accordion dirges, dancing clowns turned to stony glass by the medieval wizard who masquerades, by day, as Saint Theodore, vanquishing his dragon in stony stillness atop the giant pillar that stands between the Piazza San Marco and the Adriatic sea.
By day the sea undulates and pulses against the walls, a smoky oozing grey that’s almost green, bearing boats, boats, forever boats, boats of every shape and size, like water beetles and floating bits of cork, gondolas shaped like narrow black leaves and ferries that feel like driftwood in a mud puddle running back and forth, endlessly. At any given moment one can look out and without moving any part of her body but her eyes count a minimum of ten boats criss crossing the lagoon.
Cruise ships departing at dusk, throwing wake so big that the floating water taxi terminals slap frighteningly against the water’s surface. Vaparettos overloaded and reminiscent of floating chicken busses chugging listlessly along the edge of the wharf. Sleek private taxi boats that I keep watching carefully, very sure that Jackie O, or Sophia Loren, hair wrapped in a white silk scarf, hiding behind oversized Italian sunglasses will go whisking by.
Barges full of garbage, enormous wine casks, beer kegs, furniture, boxes, dirty linen bags from the hotel boxes of pineapples, oranges and paper wrapped apples jostle for space in the long narrow arteries through which the life blood of the city pulses. Women open doors at water level and receive packages from boatmen. Captains wait patiently for right of way to be established, and tourists glide blissfully in the dream world of their own imagining through the loud, harsh, smelly reality that is Italy at her best and her worst.
And I… I am lost.
In every sense of the word. Turned around and around through the labyrinthine streets, drowning in the heavily accented vernacular, dizzy with the layered scents of fish and garlic, sweet pastry and hot bread, fetid canal water and Dior perfume wafting out of the shops that leak at the seams with well dressed women and overdone botox. I am lost in the stories in my own mind.
The ones I tell myself about the two tired looking men who operate the trash boat. One leaning on his levers with a bored expression while the younger one deliberately fills a two wheeled cart with refuse, then pushes it down the long alleys, trundling over the cobble stone, muttering “scusi” to the clueless tourists in his path.
The stories that creep out from between the cracks in the stone in the deepest and darkest of back alleys, ghosts of old, beckoning with one ancient finger for a story teller to lean closer so that they might whisper their own in her ear.
The ones about the travelers, from Germany, maybe, wearing bright clothes but sensible shoes, who look as if they love the city, but not each other. The trio of Chinese women coasting down the grand canal under pink and white sun hats, waving like princesses at everyone on the banks and bridges. Being filmed the whole way by their one male companion, who sits in the front of the gondola, clearly presiding over his trio of hens.
The one about the maitre d’ in his white jacket, gloves tucked into one pocket while he arranges fish, presumably the most beautiful of the catch of the day, on the granulated ice outside his restaurant, tucking parsley in around the margins, artfully, for colour.
Through my eyes…
Inside the museums I do not see the other gawkers. Instead I see the Princess Sissi, the same one who’s childhood palace I toured in Vienna, once upon the time. I hear the echo of Franz Joseph’s footsteps echoing between worlds. I hear the stern voices of the council of ten, gathered in their chambers over a hearing, and the low murmur of women bent over tapestry hoops in ante chambers.
The bridge of sighs, sighs indeed… As the cool breeze brushes my face while I take a photograph through the stone lattice, I am aware that this was the last fresh breeze countless prisoners felt as they were taken to the prison within the palace and left to languish, and eventually die. “I wonder if this place is haunted,” a man near me mused. I did not wonder. The ghosts were still there, reaching out through stone holes with withered arms, hoary, haggard heads with sunken pleading eyes. Mad screaming in the darkness. The endless groaning of the damned and the doomed… through the thick stone walls I could hear the party… beautiful dresses, strings being played to the steady beat of feet dancing, the tinkle of crystal glasses and the waterfall of laughter of women dressed like living, breathing orchids and roses. The ghosts could hear it too, I’m quite sure.
A Dinner Recommendation
If you find yourself in Venice, there is no better place to sit and watch the sunset than from the roof top terrace of the Paradiso bar and restaurant, in the park at the very end of the island.
Come out of St. Mark’s square, beneath Theodore and his dragon, turn left and keep the Adriatic on your right. Walk past the restaurant where the children and I ate pizza last time we were here, counting boats and wondering how, in Italy, the pizza could be that terrible. Keep walking, up and down, over bridges, past the hawkers (do not buy a selfie stick or a fake Gucci bag) down past the long row of super yachts until you get to the park.
You’ll know you’re at the park because, for the first time, you’ll see something green that is growing out of the ground, not a window box. The Paradiso is yellow and right on the water, you can’t miss it. Have a look around the gallery and try not to giggle at the American who announces, “This is more of that modern art shit!” Then head upstairs, twice, up and up, out onto the terrace.
Order a spritz, the red Campari one is better than whatever the orange one is, trust me. Plus, it comes with an olive. From the rooftop you’ll spend a pleasant hour watching the giant cruise ships pushed by lumbering tugs take to the sea for the night. They still remind me of giant floating Christmas trees, just like they did when I was 8 and encountered them for the first time floating past the island of Cozumel when we were camped on, what was at that time, a lonely beach.
Look carefully and notice how the colour of the sea changes with twilight and see if it isn’t just exactly the shade of the patina on the copper roofs of the towers near the two big cathedrals on both islands.
Take pictures of the boats for your mariner boys and, eventually, order a piece of lasagne, just the plain kind, the sort that tastes like some Italian grandmother might make. Never mind that the waiter gives you a disapproving look for ordering a secundi plate when you have ordered neither appetizer nor primo. Never mind the look he gives you for drinking water instead of wine, either. Watch the boats. Savor the sunset, and marvel at the miracle that is Venice.