I arrived in Venice on a gray, rainy evening in June 2010. As I traipsed across a bridge, soggy backpack weighing me down, doubting that the hostel directions that I’d hastily copied off the internet were accurate, I couldn’t help but curse my decision to come to this city.
I had been in Ukraine visiting a friend, and was en route to a salsa dancing camp in northwest Croatia, which was to begin in a few days’ time. I had searched for the cheapest flights to cities in and around Croatia, and the cheapest one by far was a flight to Venice, from which it was just a short ferry ride over to Croatia. Yet even with the price, I still balked.
I hated Venice. I had never been there, but I hated it all the same.
A few years earlier, I had spent several months living in Sicily. The island was the only part of Italy I had seen, apart from a brief stay in Puglia where the boat from Greece had dropped me off. I was proud of the fact that I had only experienced parts of southern Italy, and had never ventured to what I saw as the ridiculously overrated and touristy cities of Italy’s north: Florence, Milan, Bologna, Siena, and their ilk. I was too good to follow the masses on their deeply rutted little routes.
I reserved an especially harsh resentment for Venice. I didn’t like how my whole life it seemed to have been rammed down my throat as the most magically romantic city on Earth. “Ooh, Venice. Gondolas and canals and cathedrals. It just sweeps you away.”
And now I would have to transit through there. My streak of not visiting north Italy would be broken, and with Venice, no less. Dammit.
Before leaving Ukraine, I regaled my American friend and his Ukrainian fiancee about my dislike for Venice, and threw in that I didn’t care much for Paris, which I’d briefly visited on two earlier occasions. The fiancee’s response went something like this: “I wish I were able to visit these places, so I could complain about them like you do.”
Ouch. I had been justly put in my place, but even still, I would need a lesson on the experiential level to make it really stick.
The dreary weather the evening of my arrival continued the next day during my tour around the city. My hostel map of the city was comically complex, as the streets of Venice are notoriously meandering and confusing. However, I avoided the problem by giving up on trying to find my way around, and just getting enjoyably lost wandering about.
There were the large tourist hordes that I’d expected; I estimated that the ratio of Italian to English heard on the streets was 50/50, minimum. A few times I worried that I might get too lost in the winding streets, but very quickly I found an easy solution to that potential hurdle.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy and Marion are trapped in the vault beneath the desert, Indy is able to find a way out by noticing that one of the walls has snakes continuously wriggling through its pores, showing that there must be a link to the outside world. Similarly, whenever I would round a corner and not be sure which path to take up ahead, I would just look for the inevitable column of poncho-clad tourists clunking around a particular corner, and thus I knew that that street must lead somewhere important. That assumption proved true over and over again.
The day was pleasant overall, despite the weather. I certainly didn’t spring for the ridiculously overpriced, touristy gondola rides. But I did enjoy the pizza slices and gelato, which would make up about 90% of my diet for nearly my entire stay in Venice.
Also, in my self-righteousness I had totally forgotten that one of my favorite historical figures, Giacomo di Casanova, had been a native of Venice. I got a massive thrill out of visiting the Doge’s Palace, where Casanova was once imprisoned. (I highly recommend Casanova’s extensive autobiography, Story of My Life. It is one of my favorite books, and provides a thrilling insight into 18th-century European life through the eyes of a highly entertaining, passionate adventurer.)
After darkness had fallen over the city and I’d rested up a bit at the hostel, I ventured out again to one of the city’s main hubs, the Piazza San Marco. I’d passed through there earlier in the day, and been put off by the mobs of poncho-ed tourists populating the square. In the evening, the square was oddly deserted, with just a few stray people milling about. The rains had left an impassable mini-lake on the side near the sea, but the rest of the square was just a bit damp.
I meandered about the square aimlessly, lost in my thoughts. The second-story architecture of the palace wrapping around the square was marvelous, and looked even better at night, lit by soft orange lighting. On the ground level, there were numerous, largely empty restaurants with fleets of tables and chairs before them. Three of the big restaurants had live bands playing outside, large orchestras dressed in formalwear.
I strolled up in front of one of them and stood a ways back, listening. A trumpeter was front and center, pouring out a mournful tune, and after a few moments I realized that it was the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” I looked out over the square. Nearby a young foreign couple strolled, arm and arm, laughing quietly with each other. Closer to me was a Chinese family, a father and mother with two young daughters. As I watched, the father began waltzing with one of the little girls. She begged him to spin her about, and he happily obliged.
It was at that moment that I got it. The young lovers, the gorgeous palace, the damp cobblestones, the Chinese father and daughter, and “Yesterday,” that song that speaks so piercingly to the lonely man. The city was so damned romantic. Romance surrounded me, enveloped me, pulsated through me. I had no hope of fighting it, nor did I even want to do so.
I understood: I loved Venice.
I had recognized its fabled charms, and submitted eagerly to them.
At that moment I felt immense rush of goodwill towards humankind, and happiness at being in this wonderful place. At the same time, I felt an accentuated and aching loneliness, a desperate longing to have a woman by my side, to stroll with, to waltz with, to look into her eyes. To share the experience.
There I stood, pulled between love and loneliness, contentment and longing. I didn’t want to leave, and didn’t do so for quite some time.
I stayed in the city for a couple days after that, and left Venice with a smile. A bit less bitter and judgmental, and a bit more open to the occasional manifestation of fairy-tale romantic energy.