One of my favourite places in Italy is Marciana Library.
The hush that falls there, the chill that rises off the lagoon, the howl of wind whispering under doors as it pushes its way inside over stone walkways. Dark wood and thick pages. Light pouring in from above, where St. Mark’s Campanile stands sentinel, welcoming my presence.
I miss it.
A travel journalist recently asked me for an interview on international living. I perused the books she’s written on various cities across Europe, eager to discover what kind of insight she offers. I used to dream of being a travel writer. Moving around to different places all the time just to tell people where the best eats are, the cheapest places to stay, and the fastest ways to get there.
But while I admire what she does, I felt myself recoil. ‘Fast’ is not the way I like seeing a place. The main tourist attractions couldn’t be farther from my mind.
She asked me one stellar question: Do the locals get offended by anything tourists do in particular? Easy answer: Talking about their own country, and how they do things back at home. Ask, look, listen, engage. Don’t compare. Let them immerse you. Be immersed. Be quiet.
A colleague and I spent 15 minutes in a local Venetian bar listening to slang, laughing at their light-hearted jest, grateful to be allowed to be a temporary part of their particular kind of magic. I carried the moment away with me, 15 minutes of real Venice, and left none of myself there with the exception of a smile and my own gratitude.
I walked for hours, days, during this trip, dragging behind me a photographer who was captivated by the countless details and layered textures of the city. Well did I understand his desire to stop, to stay and see.
I was on a mission, though, and there was no time to lose.
Getting anywhere in Venice goes about like this:
Right – left – right – right – left. Over a bridge – left. Bridge – bridge – right – left – right – five bridges – left. Be sure to roll all the “r”s when you read that.
After hours of it, the photographer panted out… “You go so fast, and I’m sure that this time we’re getting lost. It all looks the same. Are you sure we’re not lost?”
Of course I wasn’t lost. Because Venice leads me.
When I begin to feel that maybe I could be lost this time – that maybe I’m disoriented – Venice shows me the way; reminding me of a restaurant I once ate at with a friend, recalling the iron railing of a particular bridge, conjuring the face of a familiar shopkeeper in a window, who still recognises me after a long absence.
I don’t need to remember the watery city, the mesmerising lagoon. She remembers me.
Life is not much different, actually.
I stepped off the boat in Venice and marvelled at the empty streets. It’s January and there are few tourists to speak of. I waited, scanning the skinny streets in all directions.
It has been a long year since I’ve been, and I’ve missed it. Especially when the cold scratch of stone against heel can be heard echoing upward for a lack of life, or sign of it.
Hair bright as the sun emerged suddenly as my friend ran toward me. It felt good to see him again, his Parisian moustache twirled under horn-rimmed glasses.
Bien, et toi?
Si si, everything’s great now that you’re here.
And so begins the delicious melting of culture, language and art. An intensity you know is so hot it will burn you if you’re not careful, but will warm you like nothing else if you let it. So mysterious. Like Venice. So beguiling.
Let it begin.