The last time I saw Venice I was older than 10 and younger than forty. What I remember: houses standing up to their doorways in water, boats navigating canals, a hotel room with incredibly high ceilings and windows draped in brocade. That was in my doctor’s-wife phase. Now I choose intimate, modest-priced hotels like the Hotel Boccassini, near the vaporetto stop Fondamente Nove on the north edge of the city. As I walked along the narrow street from the hotel toward the lagoon, the pink and white cemetery across the water expanded into a glimmering pink and white necklace draped through dark cedars.
Thomas Mann told us it was dreamy to die in Venice. I was determined not to follow suit, but I did catch the local hack and toot, which gave me an excuse to lie abed in my snug Boccassini room and read Thackery’s Vanity Fair, bought from Old World Books in the ancient Venetian ghetto. The edition, from 1848, was published in Leipzig by Berhnard Tauchnitz, said John of the bookstore. Its three small volumes were perfect for me, though halfway through the first volume, I discovered an odd insertion: 20 pages duplicating 241-61. The second volume lacked these pages entirely.
For lots of tourists, Venice is surely a parade of vanities: its glorious glitter, windows chocked full of masks, its violins perpetually playing waltz tunes in the Piazza San Marco. Shoving my way through the Piazza with tour guide Judy at my side, I gasped as the glory of two churches across the lagoon: Palladio’s great Rendentore, and San Giorgio Maggiore. Now I was standing between two columns at the water’s edge: one with the winged lion of San Marco and the other with a man conquoring a dragon, San Teodoro–this is a “no, no” according to Judy. She, Judith Sparks-Zebedeo, has made a forte of concocting specially tailored tours of Venezia: if you want a wedding on a gondola, she’s your woman: TUTTOVENE21A@hotmail.com (or hotmail.it). We met standing at a bar to celebrate Tony Green’s little exhibition of paintings: Tony Green from New Orleans, Judy Sparks from Connecticut. Who brought us together: John Francis Philimore the bookseller from Old World Books (firstname.lastname@example.org).
It’s wearing to be constantly speaking an outsider language. It’s also possible with a compatriot in “la lingua” to receive titbits: such as Judy’s story about the water-borne ambulances. “I had a friend call,” Judy said, “I was too doubled-over with chest pain. The operator asked the address, said all five city ‘ambulanze’ were out and then asked was I American? Why? ‘Perhaps she is overweight and a smoker?'” Ah, the impression we make on Italians who are far more likely to be smokers than most Americans but not so likely to be obese. Judy’s friend took her by vaporetto to the hospital, housed in a marvelous building with trompe l’oeil bas reliefs of men in turbans. The diagnosis: nothing life-threatening.
Usually I went alone, on foot to discover the little surprises of architecture, the little moments of being lost and asking for directions: “straight ahead, Signora and over two bridges.” And the little moments of life. In the Campo Santa Maria Formosa (where an ATM machine gave me a receipt but no money), I watched two four-year-olds with a big red ball playing with a small Jack Russell terrier. The dog chased and captured the ball–his white body bright against its red, then he held it firm with one paw, while the kids, one also in red, tried to extract it. Soon the ball was in motion again. The mother smiled as I took their photo.
How was this any different from American kids at a playground? It was the expanse of white pavement, the solemn white church in the background, the huge old pozzo or well as is found in the middle of nearly every Venetian campo or piazzo, and the wide blue sky. Plus the children played as adults gossiped around the well, as strollers passed to and from the fruit-seller or entered the church–all life congregated in one place, not separated and compartmentalized as we do here.