The rationalist mind has always had its doubts about Venice. The
watery city receives a dry inspection, as though it were a myth for the
credulous – poets and honeymooners. —Mary McCarthy, Venice Observed
I have been to Venice twice in my life. The first time was with my mother. I was nine and it was the week after Christmas, our first Christmas since my father had moved out. Life was already strange, what with spending the school year in Florence, but the trip to Venice felt like we had truly entered some alternate realm. My memories are vague and mostly dark – Fog. A small hotel room with a tiny black bathroom at the end of the hall. Dim restaurants where mother drank wine and smoked while my sister and I devoured pizza.
I was enchanted by the canals but also frightened by them. My mother and I worried constantly at my sister who was prone to dreaminess and was the type of child who would walk off the edge of a bridge or sidewalk. We took a boat out to see the glass blowers and for a souvenir I chose a transparent swan with three babies who fit on her back, their wings delicate and precious.
On yet another grey day we walked through the Doge’s Palace. I wanted desperately to see the Bridge of Sighs where the convicted were reputed (largely in the imagination of Lord Byron it turns out) to pause and look out the windows, seeing light for the last time before they were consigned to prison. I pulled my mother through room after room following the signs that said Ponte dei Sospiri. I thought the inside would match the confection outside and my mother, distracted, unhappy, harried, did not explain otherwise to me so we walked across it without realizing, without pausing to see the view of the canal. That evening to make up for it she took us on a Ferris wheel ride. The mist had cleared and the whole city was spread before us like a jewel box, lights glistening in the midnight water.
When I spent my junior year of college in Paris I decided to take this trip again, my own adventure to Venice. The trip was a recreation of the original in more ways than one. I was depressed to be spending my first Christmas away from my family. I was alone. I was coming down with a cold. And I had no guidebook, no map, and no clear sense of what I wanted to do while I was there. Oh, and of course, I had next to no money.
When I arrived in Venice after spending Christmas night on a train from France, I emerged into the same gray and misty city I remembered from a decade previously. After wandering for hours I somehow managed to find a hotel room, although only for two nights (the city was overrun with foreign tourists, mostly French and German, seeking a little romance for holidays). For three days I wandered, rarely knowing where I was except for the hours I spent in Saint Mark’s Square, where I watched the pigeons land on children and took photos. I rode the #1 Vaparetto up and down the Grand Canal and marveled at the decaying folly. I ate alone, drank too much red wine and coffee, and eventually succumbed to the flu which overcame me on the last day there, spent largely huddled in the train station while I waited to return to Paris.
Although the city is a melancholy memory for me, when I saw at the beginning of December that the “acqua alta” or high water that arrives each winter had come earlier in 2008 than at any point since 1986 I felt a longing to return there with my children before the city as we know it disappears into the water from which it sprang. I want them to visit this dream of poets and honeymooners, to experience the magic of walking out of the pedestrian atmosphere of the train station into the magic city that is like nowhere else in the world. I know that my children, untouched by adult unhappiness, would delight in the mystery of the place instead of feeling oppressed by it. They would love all of the wandering, the many small canals and bridges, riding a boat instead of a bus. Maybe when we go we will fight the crowds of tourists in the summer, cheerfully devouring gelato and pizza alongside the sunburned masses. Or maybe we’ll return in the winter and I’ll find that what once was mournful is now simply an new and enchanting way to play hide and seek.