When Dillon and I were first in Italy ten years ago, we had planned to go to Venice at the end of our six-week trip. But six weeks came and we were just bone tired and ready to go home, deciding we’d save Venice for next time. Next time never came, and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. So I’m thrilled to find myself in Venice now for the first time, though sadly on my own while Dillon stays with our boys (with plenty of help from family).
When I arrive in Italy, my first impression (which will surprise many) is usually just how cheap things feel. This trip isn’t the first one where a shower door has broken on me and it seems like too many everyday items in Italy are of a quality worse than IKEA. But this initial impression is quickly replaced by a deeper impression of things that matter more. In Venice, my first impression was wonder at the effect on my soul of a car-free city. Other cities have car-free zones, but Venice is the largest place I’ve ever been which is completely car free. It reminds me of just how much we’ve lost as a car-centric culture, and I wonder if the vices of the car don’t outweigh the convenience?
Many people describe Venice as one big museum, feeling like a place without a real, modern identity, merely a place of tourism. While there is certainly a lot of truth in this, I haven’t found it to feel that way as much as I thought I would. Partly this is because I chose against staying in a traditional hotel, opting rather to rent a room in a religious guest house which also includes a primary school. I chose this lodging precisely to avoid the feeling of being in an alternative realty, which too often comes with hotel rooms and restaurant meals after a few days. This morning I left to explore the city just as parents were dropping off their children for the day. Real lives amidst the craziness that is Venetian tourism.
And crazy it certainly is. Countless shops selling the most nonsensical trinkets. Burger King and McDonalds. Countless restaurants serving “tourist menus” with things like American french fries and low-quality versions of Venetian classics. Countless tourists looking bored and walking through the Gallerie dell’Accademia because a guide book says to. It makes one feel like screaming.
And yet, it seems like 75% of tourists see only about 25% of Venice. There are residential neighborhoods still on the island where one can escape the thronging crowds. This is especially true at this time of year before the huge cruise ships arrive, a practice which thoughtful Venetians are trying to ban though I doubt it ever will be. And as Victor Hazan (who lived in Venice for twenty years) has recently written, the overwhelming Venice of the daylight hours is replaced by the exquisite Venice of the night.
Of course, I can’t escape the fact that I am a tourist too. Though I try to be respectful of the native culture and try to speak only Italian, I’m sure I stand out in all kinds of ways. It raises an inevitable problem of tourism: how can a place with much to offer and an interesting identity not have that identity destroyed by the desire of others to visit and experience it. I have no easy answer for this problem, though it is one which affects Venice more than almost any other city in the world. I suppose that all one can do is to allow a place to be what it is while listening quietly to absorb all it has to offer of itself.