Thursday, October 14, 2010

bella Venezia

Since my first visit in 1999, I've been to Venice dozens of times, and the subtle transformations of this peerless vision take my breath away. Something insignificant always changes - an awning, a freshly-stenciled wall boasting the path to St. Mark's, a revamped cafe. These are always more obvious with a backdrop woven with hundreds of years of stories, and an eerie familiarity that only Hollywood can provide. (And Vegas; there's always the loud American voice outside the Doge's Palace wailing, "It looks just like Vegas!")

We stayed in one of my favorite tiny hotels, in a tiny canalside albergo just behind St. Mark's on Calle de Vin. As I'm kind of in training for a 10K on Sunday, I went for jogs in the morning in the Sestiere Castello, a quiet district of apartments where the Venetians sleep. Laundry is strung in waves beneath windowsills, and discarded children's toys litter the paths between buildings. This is the Venice I savour, the lives of the people whose souls have led them or kept them on this sinking mass of unpredictable land.

The other unmissable sestieres are Santa Croce and Dorsoduro. These are narrower, more confusing, and more pungent than Castello, but they share a soul. This is Venice - not the Versace store, or Harry's Bar, or couples arguing over a grotty map. Venice is in the eyes of the old women shuffling to the pharmacy and the nondescript doorway hiding a modern mansion behind its plain facade. Venice is what remains when the last tourist is tucked into his comfy bed and before the first breakfast is served the next morning.

The last time I was in Venice was in 2007. I went for a weekend, alone - a gloriously self-indulgent way to play in the city. When in Venice alone, I notice things. And I noticed a lot of things had changed.

Many shops now boast Made in Italy signs in their windows, and after a few conversations it's obvious that cheap Chinese-made imports are driving many local Venetian shops out of business. It breaks my heart that globalization has hit this sacred place, but a stroll along the main thoroughfare from Santa Lucia to Rialto and St. Marks exhibits an astonishing number of shops filled with cheap swag. The silent movement of Made in Italy signs mean little to the tourists wanting cheap souvenirs for friends.

I also noticed an uncomfortable number of immigrants running the shops, waiting on tables, working at cafes, and selling souvenirs out of carts on street corners. I'm aware of the slight controversy of this comment, and I'm also aware that the current Italian experience no longer means meeting Venetians in Venice, Florentines in Florence, and Romans in Rome. But when I frequently spent weekends in Venice, from 2004-2006, I always relished my chats with waiters who told me stories of their Venetian neighborhood and fourth-generation shop owners whose brother made the masks and cousins handcrafted the glass sold in the shop. Italians have a special breed of pride and loyalty - to neighborhood, then city, then region, then country. Some of this has been lost.

The most delightful discovery this time was the book Venice is a Fish, recommended by a kind Polish girl working in the tourist info center. "Reading this made me stay here and live here," she told me, and I can see why. It's quirky, charming, and filled with the stories that I missed from my previous visits. I bought it and read it on our last day in Venice, and fell in love with the place all over again. 

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