DRIFTING ON THE TIDES
India is obsessed.
She had me up every morning before the hotel’s doors were unlocked, tapping her foot waiting to be set free to get out into the streets. By dint of walking what felt like a thousand miles a day, wearing out our shoes, finding hundreds of little dead-end streets, somnolent little piazzas, and getting to know a Venice the hordes of tourists never see, we finally found an unfurnished apartment with altana (roof terrace) on Dorsoduro.
We started to learn the neighborhood between the Academia bridge and the Zattere, shopping in little hole-in-the-wall stores, waiting in long lines, discovering the beautiful produce, who had what and what the Italian names were. If we got discouraged by the wait and turned to leave, a stout donna would chase us down the street and bring us back, giving instructions on how to cook anything we bought, always starting with “olio!, aglio!”.
These were impressive women, possessed of much warmth and a commanding life force. India was very touched by how solicitous they were, always serving every last person in line no matter how long it took, in contrast to the French who closed their stores on time regardless who was waiting, even refusing to retrieve a sales item off a high shelf because it was too much trouble.
There were other hopelessly romantic Americans there who had fallen in love with the image and history of Venice and had given up everything to come install themselves, eccentric souls seduced by the crumbling beauty, the magic, the aura of Venice.
But we soon learned that the dream of Venice on sale is not the everyday Venice lived by Venetians who are selling it. Venetian culture and history, illustrious as it is, is an inherited marketable commodity to them and they make the most of it, from the most commonplace to the most rarefied.
The Venetians expected us to leave, though, after our little tour; they would begin to show surprise and maybe some irritation that we were still hanging around. “You still here? When are you leaving?” they’d ask. Their lives were organized around tourists.
It was good to live walking everywhere with no car sounds, although the vaporetto stops were pretty noisy, what with the waterbuses reversing their engines as they came into dock. And of course there were the ancient cacophonous church bells–more raucous and much less soulful than our village church bell in France–that rang wildly at unexpected times.
There were ancient little ladies in black who mounted and descended the ubiquitous bridges in excruciatingly slow motion, moving in counterpoint to the hordes of day-tourists. There was Franco the painter, who always met us on the Academia bridge with arms spread wide, gushing like a bad tour guide “Ah, Venice by night”, he would declaim, acting the buffoon in a bad opera.
Still, it was undeniably magical, especially the impossibly good coffee.
I spent hours pouring over books in Italian, books I might read in English that were far beyond my level in Italian, sounding out the words in my mind as I read. I gradually began to get a sense of the language and tried to use it as often as I could, stumbling optimistically along, making the full measure of faux pas every time I opened my mouth, but I loved forming the sounds.
It’s full of life, that language. I developed a different kind of pleasure using it than I had speaking French. I did notice though, after I had learned enough to get the gist of overheard conversations, that the most common subject under discussion was money. I never heard anyone discussing poetry, art, philosophy or ideas. It was always how to get by, how to survive, what things cost.
Venetians may know how to steer a boat, but not necessarily how to drive a car; they can’t imagine not having to worry about the vagaries of wind. They have their own language, Venetian, related but distinct from Italian. Not all Venetians speak it now, but it’s still commonly heard.
And they seem to have an inborn sense of wind and water. They’re always prepared for the aqua alta, high water, and carry on normally when the streets and restaurants are flooded. They don their wellies, install elevated walkways and flood gates and keep on about their business.
We were invited to a party one evening, with no other Americans, and a Italian general took a shine to India and just assumed he could commandeer her “services”. After all, he was a general, used to giving orders and taking anything he wanted. Other people would sometimes latch onto us and not let go unless we plunged into a crowd and ducked and dodged until they disappeared from view.
There were leeches, bloodsuckers and petty thieves, there were honest merchants, craftsmen and restoration experts, there were artists, writers and musicians, there were the ancient guilds and gondola makers. It was a daily working theater piece maintaining for the tourists an aura of magic.
We got a peek behind the scenes, for example at Carnavale when the town is swamped by foreigners in costumes; the Germans were especially creative. Venetians tolerate it at best. To them the crowds and clogged streets are a bother. Only the tourist businesses make more money at these times. The corner grocer doesn’t.
Venice does have its underbelly, of course. There is plenty of crime, theft especially, but drugs, prostitution, murder even, are undercurrents of life there. La Fenice, the operahouse, burns to the ground every hundred years, for instance, to give work to the talented restoration guilds in the city. Fortunately we saw La Boheme there shortly before a fire reduced it to cinders.
I can’t forget the bright eyed three-year-old on the ferry from the car park, as we rode to Venice proper, who kept circling and circling India on his little legs, watched carefully by his mother across the way, until at last he leapt into India’s lap to the dismay of his mother who laughed and spoke in a vigorous burst of Venetian, which we understood to mean “this is unusual!”
India has an aura that attracts children, dogs, cats, old men, women, they all feel it. At first, I thought it must be her beauty, but no, I realize, it’s something else, something I feel but can’t define. Whatever it is, I don’t possess it. Early on, when I first knew her, before she left her husband and I confessed, I used to surreptitiously hold a lock of her hair as she sat next to me in the pickup, my arm thrown casually behind her across the seat.
The electric connection I felt then still exists now, living in the open.
The new arrival to Venice sees the dream floating on the tides, but the inhabitants live in earthly bodies that have to eat and have a roof over their heads. They work day in and day out to survive in the crumbling grandeur their ancestors built.
We were there at a time when there were many dilapidated, unrestored and empty buildings, giving the impression of a stage set after the play has ended and the actors gone home. This is the way I like to travel–19th century style–go install yourself, get to know the culture and language, with its history and contemporary actors.
Eat the food, read the books, get to know the people, speak the language, find what in yourself vibrates at the same frequencies.