Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Venice at Night: A Prelude (an essay written in 2004)

In the words of Henry James, "The only way to care for Venice as she deserves it is to give her a chance to touch you often-to linger and remain and return." This summer, I will be returning to Venice, after an absence of six years. My first visit was in May of 2004, newly married and 5 months pregnant with my son. I wrote the following essay upon returning:

Plato wrote of human existence as being like the inside of a cave with a fire burning. Most of us have our backs to the world, facing the wall, only seeing the shadows of the truth flickering on this wall. For those who travel merely to view the notable sights and then go home, Plato's analogy runs true. If you travel to see the Eiffel Tower, not for the experience, but just to take a photo to prove that you were there, you are only seeing those shadows on the wall.

When a tourist travels to Venice with this attitude, a true tragedy occurs. Venice has the ability, if you allow it, to transform all of us permanently and irreversibly no matter who we are or where we come from. It is one of the few remaining sacred and spiritual places on earth, not for any icon or relic, but for who we are when we are there, and for what we see within ourselves and our souls.

I've been dreaming of Venice for years and years. Although I've travelled extensively all over the world, I had always saved Venice for a special time. I did not want to rush through the experience without having the ability and, I see now, the maturity to enjoy it. Learning that we were expecting a baby in October, my husband Stephan and I decided that this May was as good a time as any to finally see Venezia. We signed up for a cruise of the Adriatic-Venice, Dubrovnik, The Greek Isles, Athens, and Kusadasi, Turkey. Unfortunately, we weren't lucky enough to gaze from our hotel balcony over the Grand Canal, and, I'm embarrassed to say now, splurge for the 100 euros for the gondola ride, but we didn't need to. All we really needed was a general map (nothing too detailed-you get lost regardless), comfortable shoes, and time to explore.

The first day we arrived, we began our expedition in the dim light of evening at the main vaporetto station which I later learned was the entrance to the Grand Canal. Little did I know what I would be about to experience. Since I have absolutely no sense of direction, I had no clue where we were or even what direction we would be going. As we embarked, Stephan and I grabbed seats in the rear in order to be outside in the night air. After about three minutes, I realized we were already on the Grand Canal, and the buildings began to pass by, one after another. Except for the occasional noise of the vaporetto's motor and gear grinding, the city was dark and silent-not eerie, but mysterious and inviting. Each building was more and more magnificent, and we were able to catch glimpses down all of the smaller canals, full of darkness and glittering water. We would pass an occasional gondola still lingering, but for the most part, the Grand Canal was empty and serene.

I remember sitting there with the wind blowing in the nighttime silence and the whooshing of the water. Every building in Venice looks mysterious at night, even those that are unremarkable by day. If unremarkable buildings can look magnificent, what about the others? Well, no words can describe their beauty at night-their silence, their knowledge of what has been and will be. the memories they hold within their damp stone walls, perfectly cut with the love of a people who truly appreciated the beauty of their craft. The water may infiltrate the presence of these buildings , but it is a part of who they are and their very existence. Without water, after all, Venice would not be Venice. If Venice sinks, it is because it was Venice's fate to sink, being so united with the water. Why is Venice the one place in the world that has not been pinned down and become known for something other than what it is? Because Venice is Venice, that's all.

The more we try to pin it down, the more it escapes us. One can write infinitely about Venice, but her story is never complete. The history of Venice seems to go on, all at once. Venice is the one place that contains true ghosts. Not some specter waiting to be released from its earthly horror, but spirits who live amidst this city who would never think of leaving. Spirits who millions of tourists have felt, but never really realized. The spirit of the place will not let this happen. It's strength encompasses you wherever you turn, and you somehow become part of it. It can never be conquered, only joined and merged with. I think sometimes its power overwhelms people and so they try to ground it in some way, saying it is too smelly, or crowded, or hot, or too labrynthine. It's this fear of the unknown that does this to people. It is a natural human defense mechanism to fear what they cannot control, or conquer.

As we passed the Ca d'Oro, it was brilliant at night. You can actually imagine yourself back in the Venetian Gothic period, passing by this newly built opulent palace. It must have recently been cleaned because it is immaculate. The water leaps up onto its porch, striking a union between man and Nature in its embrace. There were other very beautiful notable buildings and private residences, but there was a general feeling of mystery, pleasure, and sensuality found here. The water gives the atmosphere a floating, gliding, and ethereal quality and slows everything down, allowing us to "taste" Venice in all its deliciousness.

When we reached our final stop, Piazza San Marco was a short stroll away. Everyone we saw here was strolling, which tells us a good deal about the nature of this city. There are many couples here, also, and most of them are Italian (contrary to the reputation of Venice being too touristy). These couples seem to be embracing their own new found romance while experiencing the one place where all inhibitions are discarded and forgotten. For some reason, I expected Venice to be a place of masked revelry and non-stop celebration, but not on this night in May. This more authentic Venice is a place of quiet, repose, safety, and a kind of watery embrace to all those who enter her fluid arms. There are very few parties, but the ones we do see are quiet and sophisticated. As we enter the Piazza, we hear only the musicians playing and the beating of pigeon wings. You could actually explore Venice at night without seeing more than a handful of people, if you stay off the beaten path. To me, this is the true beauty of Venice. Not only are you exploring Venice one-on-one, you are exploring your own soul and that of your soul mate, if you are lucky to have brought them with you, as I was this beautiful evening. The canals and pathways twist and turn, and there is something new and more mysterious around every corner.

The only smell I noticed here was the beautiful smell of the sea, and how it permeates throughout every corner, alley, building, and piazza. Walk a little, get off the overpriced gondola, take the city at face value, not just the value that others have thrown at you. Experience Venice with your heart and soul simultaneously. You will never return. You will leave a piece of yourself there, becoming one with this island of souls. Venice is the place where truth lies and will remain: the real truth of who we are and why we exist. It is a place in which to discover our faith in each other and the greatness of our race. It has been said that Venice is the perfect union of God and man. I will go one step further to say that it is not the union, but proof that God does exist within man, and that everyone has access to this power. Go to Venice and allow your own truth to begin and take hold.

Just as I will never be the same after Venice, anyone who has ever submitted to this powerful and deep city, releasing themselves to its pure essence, will never be the same. In the words of Henry James, "But it is hard, as I say, to express all this, and it is painful as well to attempt it-painful because in the memory of the vanished hours so filled with beauty , the consciousness of present loss oppresses." I will miss you, my Venice, but I will return, there is no doubt.

We are home now, contemplating naming our son Marco as we prepare for his birth. I am glad we waited to see Venice because, to me, it was the perfect time in my life and in our marriage to experience this amazing city, La Serenissima, the most beautiful, magical place in the world.

Back to 2010: Keep in mind that our son is now 5 years old and his name is Tristan Alexandre. I guess at some point we came to our senses ;)

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