After two months of self-administered Italian Youtube video lessons, it felt good to issue first words on terra Italiana. Those words felt romantic on the tongue: “vorrei un biglietto per la linea arancione.” I would like a ticket for the orange line. Then the vaporetto took off for the island.
Some say Venice is a dying city, an open air museum, a brilliant amphibious architectural gem emptied of authentic life and replaced by a tourist overrun. Tourists do crawl over this city’s beautiful bones. A pageant of theme park gondolas and fake commedia dell’ arte masks commodifies the public space. And it’s true this is the only city in the world where on any given day there are more tourists than residents. So many residents have fled because of the expense and the shrinkage of the economy into the one niche of tourism that the population has declined from 174,000 in 1951 to under 60,000 today. A few years ago the city held its own mock funeral led by three gondalas on the Grand Canal. I asked Gaetano, who works in a cellphone store, if he could afford to live here. No way, he said. He commutes two hours from Padua by motorcycle and train and 15 minutes more by foot. Federico, owner of The Venice Jazz Club, the only jazz venue in Venice, does live in the city. He calls native Venetians like himself who can still live here “survivors.” He said “every day we are elbowing through 25,000 tourists. And for Venetians there is nothing to do, no nightlife.” Though the house band was solid playing basso nova on a Friday night, his club was half empty, and more English could be heard than Italian. Venice, though humbled by its depletion, yet continues to breathe in its back alleyways and produce markets and at 7am while I walked Strada Misercordia to my yoga class in Canareggio as Venetians hustled to their offices, shops, and art galleries. And when the weekend arrives, the city bursts into open air life as people populate the streets, flush with self-contained women in dark dresses and burgundy toenails smoking over the canals. I can’t say the men quite match them. They wear loose jeans more and hold their vino bianco glasses with less aplomb, but I probably have biased vision.
The emancipatory pleasure of Venice is its navigational impossibility. When you live with a mentality of destination, as I do, to be lost, as one inevitably must be here, frees you up. For hours I wandered the alleyways marked by indecipherable, ever-changing Christian titles barely matched to any map. I have no need to enter churches, only to come fortuitously upon their faces before passing on.
I stumbled upon an exhibit in a converted church of Leonardo da Vinci contraptions recreated from hundreds of pages of design drawings. It is a one man 15th century version of a futuristic science expo that might be sponsored by Google. There is a proto-bicycle, a hang glider with linen wings, a robot in medieval armor, and, though the great inventor called war “bestial madness,” a 16 gun cannon arranged 360 degrees to maximize explosive payload. Visitors can play with the machines, turning cranks and levers that operate the moving parts. Considering his studies using interlocking gears, pistons, pulleys, pendulums, counterweights, and flywheels, Leonardo today would likely have a start up robotics engineering enterprise and moonlight as a master BMW mechanic. Suddenly Apple inventing the new iteration of the Ipad doesn’t seem so innovative.
I’ve sometimes thought about Jews in Venice for two reasons. One I know that Shylock talks about the Rialto bridge in The Merchant of Venice. Two, I know that the word ghetto was created in Venice to refer to the area where Jews were confined that was located near a group of foundries. The word for foundry in Italian is ghetto. In the old ghetto I took a tour of the three synagogues, none of which is still in use. Today only 450 Jews live in Venice and only a handful in the old ghetto. I saw a few men standing in the square wearing skullcaps and fringed garments. But the presence of a people was faint. Not even the tour guide was Jewish. Some might say this is another way Venice is dying.
In an Italian yoga class, the common language is Sanskrit. No need to translate namaste. I recognized a lot of Italian phrases too. Breathe deep, relax your shoulders. But even without language I was okay because the body is its own language. Yoga today is universal like an ATM machine. You can depend that the sequence of steps will always be familiar. Triangle pose, down dog, bambino. The teacher even adjusted my torso the way Laura does back at Yogatree in the Castro.
It’s a funny thing about bread here in Venice. It’s bad. Italian bread bad? The basic panino or bread basket at a Venice restaurant has a soft, white non-descript quality. 40 years ago American bread lagged far behind European varieties. Now you can get excellent artisanal bread in every major U.S. city and pockets of Kansas. Wouldn’t it be easy to change? The linguine in squid ink is so good. Why not its accompaniment? I asked Marika my cooking teacher who makes bread every morning for her catering business and she said it’s the Venetian humidity. But it seems to me it starts with low quality ingredients. I didn’t get to taste her bread and I admittedly didn’t go to any high end restaurants. I’ll investigate when I get to Siena.
Marika gave me a full experience of Venetian cuisine beginning with a trip to the Rialto outdoor produce and fish market where we spent an hour and a half selecting ingredients for the lunch we would prepare later in the day. Mountain strawberries, fresh basil, beefsteak and grape tomatoes. She explained how shrimp that are losing their freshness have discolored heads. I also never knew there is a difference between calamari and squid. I just thought calamari was the Italian and Spanish word that restaurants like to use because squid sounds squishy. Actually the two are cooked in totally different ways. We bought about 20 ingredients in all. When we made dinner back at the Lido, the neighboring island where Death in Venice takes place, the only things we used that we did not buy fresh that day were olive oil, butter, flour for dredging the calamari and some risotto. When I get home the first thing I will try is the pomodoro sauce. Some American tomatoes these days can make the cut.