As the next musty book I am going to pay homage to is The Stones of Venice, I am going to take the opportunity to indulge in some of my own reminiscence of that city, having been there for four days once. As I was still relatively young then too, young, and hopeful, enough to be able to say that I was once these things in Venice, which I will certainly never be again, even if by some chance I should ever get back there.
This visit ocurred in 1997, which did not seem all that long ago to me until fairly recently, but is now decidedly starting to take on the character of yet another lost, faraway age with which I never had anything to do. This is when we, meaning my future wife and I--this lady needs a name for the purposes of this blog, so henceforth she will be referred to as Sabrina--were in Prague, even to the extent of having an apartment there and transit passes and all of that. In short the schools closed down the first week in March just as they do in the Northern U.S. and one of us had recently come into a bequest of $1,000--in 1997 this was still real enough money for two people to take a nine day vacation on and maintain at least a 1950s middle class standard of dining and accomodation in most of Europe. My great idea had been to go to Russia; Prague being a popular stop-in point for people easing their way back to the convenient, standardized, bloodless West from business and adventures in more arduous territories--the conflict in Yugoslavia especially, though in a lull, was still simmering at that time--I was under the influence of thinking that we ought to exert ourselves a little more, and that maybe I especially might be improved in the same worldly way as the dynamic people I was meeting (and who were outshining me in company) were. However, there was a lot of bureaucracy involved in getting a visa to Russia. One was supposed to present an itinerary and show evidence of room reservations and have an invitation from some reputable person or organization in Russia, (which of course could be purchased easily enough if one had a few extra hundred dollars to throw around, but we are talking about me)--this was all still before most people, and certainly I, and definitely most of the Russian diplomatic and tourism workforce (this is still when Yeltsin was president) were on the Internet. Then also Sabrina was having no part of a 48-hour train trip each way to Moscow which involved dealing with the Russian border patrol and likely corrupt railway personnel (the Hungarians were bad enough) so that necessitated flying, which was expensive. In short the real travellers of the world won a great victory, for all these difficulties forced me to abandon the Russian idea, and accede to the plan of the wily and beautiful Sabrina, which she had doubtless been secretly harboring all along, to go to Italy. I had never been to Italy, and of course I had always wanted to go to Italy, so it is not as if I was shattered by this turn of events; however in the milieu of that particular time and place I was not sure that it was really going to be of any value to me to go to Italy--the most vital people, if they even bothered going there, seemed to consider it to be as nothing, that there was nothing left there for a serious person to master. Now obviously this seems like a ridiculous mindset to have had, but most people tend to be susceptible to the influence of the Great Men in their immediate environment if they do not seem to be one of them and begin to doubt the validity of their own ideas if these Titans do not appear to share them. So we went to Italy on a Czech bus, which was however completely modern and as comfortable as a bus should reasonably be, quite unlike the domestic intercity buses of that nation were at the time. Going on at length about the details of a bus ride is always a risky maneuver; but as I am one of those people who is greatly affected by sudden emergence in a new locale, and as this is besides surely one of the most romantic bus routes in the world, especially to anyone who has been even a cursory student of European history, I am going to recount it. We departed from Florenc (Prague) station about 7p. Everything was gray and cold and smoky, which I like, actually--the climate and culture of Italy would I think eventually become oppressive to me if I had to live in it for any length of time--but for a brief trip the prospect of going somewhere warm and sunny was exciting. After we got out of the city there was no highway--at that time at least, I don't know if one has since been built--south towards Austria. The bus thus meandered along the ancient roads of the Hapsburg Empire, and perhaps even the Holy Roman one, through the villages and towns of South Bohemia, most still and dark and silent under the cold purple night and a thin layer of gray snow, others with a few solitary lights on and movements of people visible in the windows of apartments or taverns along the sides of the road, which were no more than a few feet from the windows of the bus. We reached the border of Austria around midnight and immediately got on a modern highway. Having besides partaken of several pilsener beers that were vended on the bus (wouldn't you like to see that experiment tried on Greyhound? especially the New York-Baltimore 10pm run) I soon fell asleep, awakening briefly around 3 or 4am as the bus had slowed nearly to a stop due to a blizzard we had encountered crossing the Alps. However I fell back asleep rather quickly until the beating of the sun in my face awakened me in the midst of some much browner looking mountains and terrain, and shortly thereafter we were at the border of Italy. The bus made stops in a couple of the Alpine cities--Bolzano, which was part of Austria until 1918 and still has a significant German-speaking population, and then Trentino, and then, around 10 am, slowly descended into a decidedly Mediterranean-looking territory of plane trees and vine-terraced hills and ricketty power lines stretching as far as could be seen over a mostly treeless landscape and finally deposited us in the grimy depot in a modern, concrete section of the ancient city of Verona. It was sunny and about 55 degrees, and it was immediately invigorating to be there even though I hadn't much of a concrete idea what I was going to do. I had seen enough movies and read enough books to vaguely know that when one landed somewhere old in Italy if he just headed towards the main square things would turn up--pizzerias and cafe-bars, Roman ruins, vespas, affluent, beautiful American or German girls on holiday, baroque churches, faded palazzos and hotels with peeling paint and picture windows the size of doors, beggars and kiosk workers in designer sweaters and good shoes, fountains, statues of Dante, 500-year old bridges, rivers associated with almost the earliest recorded days of man. None of these things disappoint either. They are all--at least in March, when the weather is mild and it is not at the height of the tourist season--exactly as one would have them be.
Now I have already written far more words than most people will willingly endure and we have not even gotten to Venice yet, although at this point we are only about fifty miles away. After poking around Verona for a few hours, we took a short and surprisingly uncrowded train ride out to the islands around dinnertime. As this is how most people arrive in Venice I will not go on at length about the impression made when you come out of the station right on the Grand Canal, right into the very same spectacle made famous by a million paintings and postcards. There are I think a number of impressions which are more or less common among various classes of people--one of the better ones to have, which unfortunately eluded me, is to recognize that most of the people and activity right around the station are lame, and to vigorously seek out direction and transport to where some glimmer of real vitality might be found. My impression was a cross between the frisson of excitement dull people who lead dull lives feel whenever they find themselves in some place that has ever won the approval and patronage of dynamic, sexual, and creative people, and the earnestness of the nice but insignificant boy who wants to demonstrate that he deserves to be in this exalted place and have his merit acknowledged. In short, I was fairly pleased with myself for several minutes for having made it to Venice.
Because we arrived rather late in the day the first night, and as in those days we never thought to reserve ahead for hotels (or restaurants; to this day I have never made a reservation for a restaurant, which I will have to remember if anyone ever tags me for one of those blog surveys where you are supposed to reveal something you've never done) I felt we had better take any room we find the first night that was not outrageously expensive, and we got one near the station for $45, which was real extravagance for me. So much so that the next day we removed to a less central quarter of town where the room was actually nicer but only cost $30, or 60,000 lira--the lamented lira being in those days the Tampa Bay Devil Rays of western currencies. I only make all this mention of price because I have been reading recently that there are no hotels anywhere in Venice nowadays that are less than $150-$175 a night depending on the exchange rate. This seems incredible to me. How can any sensitive young people with ordinary incomes go there? (And yes, I know there are billions of equally and much more worthy and intelligent and sensitive people all over the globe who are too impoverished ever to take a vacation anywhere. For the moment I am going to sympathize exclusively with the people most like myself, for it is their pain I am feeling most acutely).
To be in Venice at this point of history, as many people have noted, is to experience something which I would not say is unreal, but which one is continually conscious of its being temporary, and I think one would feel that way even if he were to stay there for a number of years. There is not a sense of a grand or even a miniature scheme of life there which one can readily imagine being sucked into; the islands, far from being worlds onto themselves, are wholly oriented to the world outside, and have been overwhelmed by it. This aspect of it can make it somewhat sad to contemplate, especially if one is not able to share/join in the conviviality of the tourist scene (because one is socially inept, not because one is too superior for it). I liked it, I was certainly very beautiful, and I would like to go back, but after 4 days there I was ready to go somewhere else and get back in contact with real life again (such as Bologna! I say this because a beautiful girl smiled at me a couple of times on the train out of Venice--I was 27 and probably at my peak of whatever handsomeness I once had then--Sabrina could not see her, we were sitting opposite and this other girl was behind her--and she got off at Bologna--she looked intelligent and well-read, and I have always fancied that she went to the University there).
I will say that I wish I had read Ruskin before I went, even if it happens that all his ideas are wrong, because he gives the English-language reader by far the grandest conception of what "Venice" is, and what it signifies both in history and art. Several of the sites he considers, and argues quite convincingly, to be among the most sacred and important on earth, especially the island of Torcello and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco which has all of the unseen Tintoretto paintings he regards as manifestations of the rarest kind of human genius, were completely absent from my consciousness before I read this book. While these two places are noted in most modern guidebooks, it is usually just a mention at the end of the chapter as something passable to possibly do if one has exhausted all of the major sites. When I was there I only remembering visiting St Mark's Basilica (although as I was going in a guy from Texas exhorted me not to throw away my $3 I held my ground and went in anyway), which of course I liked, and the major art museum, the Accademia. I did not even visit the Doge's Palace, which Ruskin seemed to consider the most important building in the city; at least he devoted about half a volume to it, including dozens of pages going around the whole structure and analyzing the carving of every single capital. I think the rest of the time was mostly spent walking around soaking in the atmosphere. That's what I mainly did when I was younger.
Sabrina had some squid in ink sauce in a restaurant there--I have no idea what it was called or even where it was relative to anything else--that she still remembers, and she is not a woman who is prone to obsessing about meals past. I am sure I mostly ate pasta and pizza and carafes of the house wine, which is pretty much all I eat when I am in Italy. In dining I find simplicity to be the surest route to happiness.