Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Honeymoon in Venice *UPDATED*

Jody's entry now appears beneath mine in this post. Enjoy!

The group-blog writing project is underway. The assignment was to write a short essay about something that happened to you in a very specific place. The goal was to make the essay more about the intrinsic connection to the physical place than about what actually occurred there. Here are the participants:


And mine:

Being in Europe always makes me think of horror films. Trains zipping through the countryside and hundreds-year-old villages brings to mind old superstitions and ancient legends. I always feel like I’ve literally been transported back in time where people don’t go out after dark, and werewolves and vampires are the biggest threats to humanity, not oil or nuclear war. Everything in Europe has a slightly sinister feel to me. The way people are still largely clustered in urban areas with so much space in between them of rolling hills and forests, perfectly fit for all manner of beasts, fairies or goblins. The sheer age of so many buildings still in use (or at least still standing), with so much history etched into their psychic and physical structures, so much of that history so traumatic, bloody and violent.

There is no official origin of Venice, on Italy’s eastern coast. The most commonly accepted theory is that it was created by Eastern Romans escaping further encroachment by various invaders, most notably the Huns in the late 8th-century. The 118 islands making up Venice were the last physical resort, and they thought for sure, on those muddy, disjointed, sinking islands, they would be left alone. For the most part, it seems, they were right.

Crossing the brief stretch of ocean from the mainland of Italy to the heart of the city of Venice, I snapped a picture of my traveling companion staring out the window at the horizon of Venice approaching like the Emerald City. She’s chewing anxiously (or nervously) on a toothpick, the orange glow of early dusk spilling across the table of the booth we got on the train. Our backpacks and guidebooks are splayed across the table; anything to keep our restless hands and minds busy during what seemed like an interminable train ride from Milan to Venice. Venice was the crown jewel of our vacation, the one place we both insisted we see, even if we went nowhere else, and the place where we spent the longest.

Our guidebook informed us that very few people actually still reside on the islands of Venice (the majority of current inhabitants live in Terraferma, the mainland area of Venice), and of those, only the ones in the tourism trade are still there.

As we exited the train and stopped at a small cafĂ© to grab a quick sandwich, the only thing going through my mind was my most recent cinematic exposure to Venice in the 70’s thriller Don’t Look Back, about a small elfin woman stalking the dark alleyways and dead ends of a city built on war and desperation, slaughtering small children with a tiny knife. Venice is the perfect setting for a thriller or a horror film; I can’t believe more filmmakers haven’t made use of it, unless the cost is just too prohibitive.

As Collier (my friend) and I explored the sidewalks and alleys of Venice after dark, searching for a restaurant to get a proper meal, I was overwhelmed with the sheer darkness of it. Some alleys (“streets”) were no more than 6 or 7 feet wide, with buildings rising up 5 or 6 stories on either side. Most of those buildings were deserted, abandoned by people no longer able or willing to make a living in a city that no longer had any sort of practical function, except to be a tourist resort. It could be Detroit as easily as it could be Disney World.

What charmed me the most about the state of Venice was the complete lack of “dressiness.” The majority of the buildings remained completely dark, with only small lamps every ten feet or so to illuminate the alleyways. Restaurants and cafes weren’t the easiest things to come by, frankly, and the nightlife seemed to consist of two or three bars with drunken tourists crowding them to capacity and overflowing out onto the sidewalks and small plazas.

The name of the hostel where Collier and I stayed escapes me, but it was an old converted palace in what might have been the darkest and most hard to find corner of Venice. Directly on the canal with about a 3-foot sidewalk, we finally found it only by the “street” number. The name was posted nowhere. The hostel was run by three middle-aged ladies who didn’t speak a word to us (probably because I’m pretty sure they didn’t speak English), and sat in a hot, tiny office together watching television. Collier and I were the only people in the hostel, which was at least 4 or 5 floors. We had a room with 3 beds, and it was at the very end of a long, creepy hallway. And of course, the bathrooms were at the opposite end of said hallway, around 2 corners. The sheer immensity of the building was humbling, along with the fact that we were 2 of only 5 people in it.

Our second night in Venice, we returned from a late dinner, near 10 ‘o clock, and as we approached our hostel, warm, beckoning light poured out from the open second floor windows, which happened to be a small ballroom. We heard a soprano singing, some Italian aria that floated out like a vapor and ricocheted and echoed off the nearby buildings. The effect was ethereal. Unreal. Wordless, Collier and I sat down on some steps leading to the black, still waters of the canal in front of our hostel and just listened. A couple of small little crabs climbed from underneath the water, slipping and clawing at the moss on the partially covered steps. I commented on them, and we sat and stared at them, watching them do their thing, while the young soprano upstairs did her thing.

When she was finished singing, she was met with thunderous applause from her small audience. As we continued to sit there, soaking in this surreal moment, this exemplar of what, to me, Italy was all about, Collier said that she thought this is why people went on honeymoons. To experience something together that neither of them may ever get to witness again, or to make that first discovery of a place or thing you love, together. I think I tend to agree, though someday, I will go back to Venice. I probably won’t stay in that same place, and I may or may not go with a lover, or husband, or whatever, but I will go back, even if it’s by myself.

It was at that moment, that night, that Venice ceased to be creepy to me, and became completely magical and otherworldly. Despite having spent barely over two days there, it is my favorite city in the world, etched in my emotional memory like a first meeting with someone you fall madly in love with. I may spend the rest of my life getting back there, but I will get back.

And Jody's Story:


I walk by it almost everyday - the house in the middle of the block. It is painted white, but the paint is old and is flaking at the corners. The lawn is carefully manicured with planted flowers and tall ornamental leaved plants. In the driveway there sits a Ford Taurus as carefully kept as the yard. The house itself has two floors and large, wood- framed windows. The house is grand in an old-fashioned way. I imagine hardwood floors, high ceilings and light streaming in creating fancy shadows.

But in the midst of all of this careful and sophisticated grooming, there are inconsistencies. The largest window on the first floor facing the street is covered from the outside with a large, brown sheet. And sitting behind the shining car is an old, light blue and white Chevy truck placed on top of cement blocks. The house stirs my imagination.
Often, there is an old man trimming, cutting, and cleaning. He always smiles and says “hullo” as I pass by.

I imagine there is an old woman inside.

Her name is Maude and her hair is gray and trimmed into an above-the-shoulders bob. Curls line her face, coming in close at the cheeks. Today she is wearing white tapered slacks and a brown, tan and green flowered blouse. She’s standing in the kitchen; bright, midday light shining in through the two windows. She’s making sandwiches on paper towels. He’s in the living room rustling through something. She can hear him, but she only half wonders what he’s doing.

Maude tears some lettuce leaves from the iceberg head and pulls a plate from the cupboard.
“Maude, come here and look at this,” he calls from the living room.
“Just a minute,” Maude replies with a quick and unconcerned voice. But the plate she’s holding is set down too abruptly and it clangs loudly onto the blue and white tiles of the counter. Maude walks quickly to join her husband. She worries about her sandwiches. She walks heavily across the floor, her pants making brushing noises as her thighs pass back and forth against each other. She sees her husband in the corner of the room, kneeling on the dusty, hardwood floor.
“Look at this Maude.” He sounds happy.
In his hands is a picture of the two of them in a group with 4 other people sitting around a table. He turns to his wife and holds it up for her to see. Maude is in the center of the photograph holding her arms high into the air with her hands in fists as though she just accomplished something challenging. Her husband isn’t sitting next to her. Instead he is sitting between two women. Maude sees that they are her two sisters. On his right is Beth whose face is turned to the right looking at Maude. Her face is beaming. On his left is Anne. Anne is looking straight ahead with a perfectly posed smile, hands disappearing below the table, probably crossed nicely in her lap. In between the two sisters sits her husband. He is staring straight ahead with a sincere looking smile on his face. His brown hair is messy and one of his brown eyes is reflecting light in such a way that it makes him appear as though he is squinting. Both of his hands are placed firmly on the top of the table with his fingers curled as though he is trying to dig holes into the white, lace tablecloth.

He hands the photo to her so that she can take a closer look. “Do you remember this photo, Maude?”

Maude puts her hand onto her husband’s shoulder. She forces a smile and quietly replies, “I remember, Sam.” She turns and walks slowly back into the kitchen, her thighs swish, swish, swishing.

As Sam carefully places the photo back into the envelope where he found it, he hears the rustling of his wife in the kitchen.

“Did you want chips with your sandwich?” she calls.

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