Venice, Italy: Beneath the City’s Skirt
By Katherine Dykstra
At the ripe old age of 27, I am traveling alone for the first time, and hopelessly lost in the labyrinth that is Venice, Italy. For a while I held out hope that around this corner, through that piazza, or beyond the next cathedral I would catch sight of the glittering blue Grand Canal that so mesmerized me when I first arrived only a few hours ago. But I’ve been turning corners, meandering through piazzas and staring up at gothic steeples for nearly half an hour, and all I’ve found are more of the same. I am scared, not so much because I am lost but more because of where I’ve found myself.
What only an hour ago was a clear afternoon in an exotic city is now a sweaty dusk in sordid foreign back alleys. The crumbling cobblestone streets are no wider than hallways, and the buildings, old and tired, sag in, filtering the fading light. The air reeks of urine, garbage, and worse. Flies buzz around my ankles, fly blindly into my shins. Through open first-floor windows I hear dishes clattering, the din of a TV, a woman prattling on in Italian. Every once in a while gingham curtains don’t quite meet, and I am able to look into the squalor, but I don’t. I am an intruder. An old lady two stories above pins yellowed laundry to a clothesline and shakes her head at me. I look away and try to act as if I belong.
I didn’t study abroad during college, and I wasn’t bold enough to do the whole backpack-across-Europe thing afterward. And so I found myself pushing 30, someone who professed a love for travel but had never really been anywhere. It wasn’t until I was deep in the throes of a life-change that I felt ready to travel on my own. I chose Italy for its culture, for its gusto and for the glimpse it might give me into my own heritage.
That afternoon, on the waterbus from the train station to my hotel, I found myself awestruck. I hadn’t expected Venice would be so otherworldly. The buildings that flanked the water stood delicately in pastel pink, peach, yellow, intricately carved white molding, lush ivy. From wrought iron balconies burst trellises of flowers in red, pink, purple, like fireworks. Between buildings, shirts and sheets in every color hung suspended over ribbons of crystal water, arched wooden bridges, or cobblestone streets. Gondolas in slick black and red lolled between poles or floated lazily down the canal, their captains standing hips out at their sterns. Eyes wide, I took it all in, feeling as if I’d walked onto the set of a film.
But the spell was broken the moment I set foot on land. The shore was mobbed. Fathers orchestrated family photos. Mothers wearily wiped the faces of their fidgety children. Groups of giggling teenage girls popped in and out of stores like gophers. While venders manned souvenir carts that overflowed with magnets, t-shirts, scarves, buttons. Masked women dressed in Carneval attire waited to be noticed. And mimes deviously picked on the unaware. Store after store hawked the same Murano glass trinkets. Gelateria after gelateria, cafe after cafe all boasted the exact same fare, rainbow colored mounds of ice cream, stale paninis and waxy pizza in glass display cases.
It was so crowded and the streets so small, I could barely wheel my suitcase without being sideswiped, tripped over, or elbowed. And worse, I had no idea where I was. Most of Venice’s elaborate network of narrow streets and ribbon-thin rivulets, are so small they simply don’t make the map or aren’t even named to begin with. I stood there with my suitcase not knowing what to do when a clerk stepped out of his store and patiently led me down a series of winding paths under porticos and through a tunnel to my hotel. He never said a word, only nodded when I thanked him. I never would have found it without him.
After checking in, I shouldered my way through some of the sites my guidebook recommended, which inevitably entailed standing in monstrous lines with loud, highly animated people. I quickly realized that the last thing I wanted was to be in close proximity to any of these people. In fact I loathed them (even though I was one of them). They were boisterous, oblivious to everyone else, and said stupid things. It seemed that all I’d found in Rome, Florence, and even in smaller Siena and surrounding Tuscany were tourists and people making money off tourists. Venice seemed to me the epitome of this; I felt more like I was in Disney World than in Italy and was disappointed. I wanted to see the real Venice.
I began to walk the shore, passing stand after stand of trinkets, gondoliers advertising their rides, performers and outdoor cafes. I reached a large open area just as a tour boat expelled what felt like hundreds of people all in khaki with cameras around their necks, fanny packs around their bulging waists and straw hats on their heads. I’ve always been averse to crowds; so when I saw the flood from the boat, I decided I’d had enough and turned inland, walking up the first street I came across.
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