Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Improbable City

In spite of Venice's long history as a republic, as a naval power, as part of an important trade route between the Muslim world and Europe, it remains for me an improbable city.  Whoever thought of building a city on 117 islands divided by 177 canals and joined by 409 bridges? There are no cars in Venice, making it a wonderful place to wander and get lost.  But everything needed by everyone living or visiting there must be brought in by boat:  the flour you use to make bread, the bottles of wine and water consumed by 50,000 visitors a day, the needle and thread you need to tack up your hem, lest you look unfashionable in this very fashionable city, the ribbons and sequins used to make the masks that fill shop windows.  I didn't know whether to call it the city of masks or the city of layers:  it seemed open and closed, beautiful and severe; its buildings were constantly falling apart and being repaired, revealing how many layers held the structure together.

Our arrival was equally improbable.  Late in the afternoon on the first day of fall, Veronica and I were floating down the Grand Canal in the boat that connects the airport to the city, observing how ceremonious the palazzos on the canal looked:  most of them have a second- or third-storey balcony that would have allowed onlookers to feel part of a parade or a party floating down the canal.  Behind us to the north, dark clouds rumbled and then flashed, so the Alilaguna employees set about creating a waterproof cabin for themselves (we were already under cover) and ensuring that luggage still out on deck would be out of the rain.

We seemed to move just ahead of the storm, which arrived just as we reached our small bed and breakfast, pouring down rain and hail.  Alas, our host wasn't there, so we stood in the rain for about half an hour until the woman living two doors down, who had tried to contact the B&B owner by cell phone, trudged toward us once more in her housecoat and slippers, which sloshed more each time, with a torn envelope on which she laboriously wrote down the phone number written on the brass address plaque, and went to give him, we suspect, a piece of her mind.  On each of her helpful incursions into the rain her Italian burbled faster and faster, in spite of the fact that we'd told her, in our pigeon Italian, that we didn't understand anything she was saying.  He arrived ten minutes later, but we were both soaked.  Water had even permeated the zippers of our luggage.

Once inside, our clothing strung around the room to dry, we found clothes we could wear to dinner, and had a pleasant meal at a small restaurant in Campo Santa Margherita.  We decided that we were not quite warm enough for the tables outside, and so took the last tiny table indoors in the crowded restaurant.  Fairly soon, the waiters started moving those stalwart souls who had been eating outdoors into the restaurant and closing the glass doors to the patio--to some applause.  We all moved our tables a little closer together to accommodate everyone.  Someone began to whistle "Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer," which we thought a bit silly.  From inside, we watched the lightning illuminate the other buildings on the square, turning them into the backdrop for an old black and white movie that has a small lighting budget.

When we left, we walked out into two inches of hail.  Picking our way slowly through the slippery streets, we were told by an elderly German gentleman, though in English, the lingua franca of Venice, "Please be careful.  Be very, very careful," as we climbed the steps to the small bridge we needed to cross to our bed and breakfast.  The next morning, the sky was blue and late summer weather had returned, though small piles of hail remained where shopkeepers had swept it away from their doors.

The trick to navigating Venice, which seems to have filled, higgledy-piggledly, each of its 117 islands with buildings that would fit, wasting the least amount of space for walking, is to figure out the clearest path between where you are and one of the major bridges that crosses the Grand Canal.  On our first day, we made for the Ponte dell'Accademia, which would take us to Campo San Marco.  On our map, the path looked like a set of arbitrary squiggles, but if we exited Campo San Barnaba at the right spot, we joined a whole parade of people going the same way at a leisurely pace.  This was also true of our attempt to navigate between our B&B and the Rialto Bridge.  The important thing was to discover where you exited the squares where restaurants and cafes spilled into the streets, squares filled with pharmacias, with small shops selling masks or herbal soaps or groceries, with children playing with scooters or balls.  Other than that, you followed the other tourists as they wended their way through the small shops selling Murano glass, leather, hand-bound books, and high fashion.

But, I asked myself stubbornly, what if you had arrived after dark, sleepless, and left your hotel at 6:30 a.m., before the tourists were out, looking for breakfast?  How would you possibly find your way, if there were no tourists to follow? Asking this question reveals another rule for navigating Venice.  Follow the small shopfronts, many of which are beautifully designed.  If you are tempted to go down a street like the one above looking for a quicker bridge to the next island, resist that temptation.  Even if you can find several bridges, it will have a dead end, bringing you face to face with Virginia Woolf.
The area around the Rialto Bridge is one of the major shopping areas, with its own H&M, Max Mara, and Disney store, as well as the obligatory Prada and Armani.  Having walked there, stopping to look at several small churches, we were soon inundated with tourists and their ennui:  "What is the perfect thing I can buy that will encapsulate this moment, and can I get a deal on it?"  Attempting to elude this crowd, we wandered farther eastward, hoping to find a parallel route back to our B&B.  After several dead ends like this one, we found a track that looked more promising, giving us a couple of bridges to cross on to other islands, bridges on the stone walkways more or less in the direction we wanted to go.  (This was before we'd figured out that one needed to follow the small shop fronts.)  We finally came to a dead end in a square surrounded by large old apartment buildings, full of children playing, dogs barking, mothers talking.  Not a tree or a plant in sight.

Because I'm working on poems inspired by Veronica's photographs, and because Veronica is very much an urban photographer, I've been reading a lot of theory about cities.  Most recently, I've been reading Jane Jacobs's groundbreaking The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  In her introduction, she writes "I shall mainly be writing about common, ordinary things:  for instance, what kinds of city streets are safe and what kinds are not; why some city parks are narvelous and others are vice traps and death traps; why some slums stay slums and other slums regenerate themselves even against financial and official opposition; what makes downtowns shift their centers; what, if anything, is a city neighborhood, and what jobs, if any, neighborhoods in great cities do.  In short, I shall be writing about how cities work in real life, because this is the only way to learn what principles of planning and what practice in rebuilding can promote social and economic vitality in cities, and what practices and principles will deaden these attributes" (4).  I particularly tried to keep in mind Jacobs's notion that cities are not works of art, that they do not have to be beautiful.  But try as I might, and no matter how heretical it is, I had some questions about the way Venice had been "planned."

Most of the campos have no trees or benches, so that although they create a place for children to play and for people to meet and chat, little in their structure encourages this--except that there's no place else to do it.  When the squares do have benches, these are almost always full.  I wondered whether the small cafe and restaurant owners discouraged benches so that people looking for someplace to sit would be more likely to buy a cappuccino or a piece of pizza in order to be comfortable.  The square surrounded by apartment buildings seemed, in Jacobs's terms, to be "working."  People were clustered around talking and the children were shouting and running.  There are no cars in Venice, so children and the well-behaved medium-sized dogs Venetians seem to prefer are not going to be run over.  But I can't help wondering what it says about Venetians' sense or pride of place that no one had bought a couple of large pots and put in a few trees that would provide some small shade for a couple of benches placed face to face.  What does it do to a child's notion of play that it takes place on stone, surrounded by stone--all of it (in this case) dark grey?  Where are the ants, the dandelions?  Perhaps I am imposing my own sense of nature deficit disorder on people who do not feel this at all.  Like all of us, they regard their lives as relatively normal.

Certainly on the smaller island of Venice's southern edge, Guidecca, home to a couple of Paladian churches we went looking for, plants are an important part of the aesthetic, and there the more modern, less crowded areas are filled with greenery in pots.  When I mentioned my concern about Venice's severe setting for its lovely architecture, she pointed out that in North America, we have an almost luxurious amount of space. 

I left Venice with quite a bit of ambivalence.  Touted as the world's most romantic city, it is made largely of stone and water.  Its streets can certainly be described as quaint, its architecture majestic.  It has been, in a day of brisk trade coming from the East, the richest city in the world.
It is in some ways eerily quiet and noisy:  there is no traffic noise at night, but private conversations echo down the stone walkways and give you melodic snatches of other peoples' private lives.  People gather, of a Friday night, in their local bar/coffee shop to trade gossip and complaint.  But its green shutters close off everything to the street.  In all my time there, I never saw a family sitting down to a meal or conversation.  Willing to talk to a complete stranger on the water bus about life, the universe, and everything, they nevertheless--perhaps in self-defense, close their lives off to the stony streets.

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