annapolis

I recently wrote about falling in love with Venice. It reminded me of another city I fell in love with once and still love, though we’ve been apart for a long time: Annapolis, Maryland.

I spent four years in Annapolis while a student at St. John’s College about 20 years ago. After getting married in 2004, Dillon and I lived in Annapolis for a brief but special two months, but until this past September I hadn’t been back since.

On my recent trip back to Annapolis for my first-ever college Homecoming, it dawned on me how much Annapolis resembles that other city so dear to my heart: Venice.

On the most superficial level, both cities are defined by water. Although I never took advantage of the abundant opportunities to sail or row in Annapolis (definitely a regret), water still played an important part in my experience of the city. Early morning walks down to the city docks, taking a short walk down to the Severn River bordering an edge of the College’s “back campus”, exploring the campus of the US Naval Academy (bordered on two sides by water), following a quiet residential street until it dead-ended in water, following the road that hugs the jagged coast of the peninsula, with water lapping disconcertingly close to the pavement with the imposing Bay Bridge in the background, sitting on a quiet bench facing a little cove while holding the hand of my future wife for the first time. All of these experiences of water defined my experience there.

Just as significant, both cities are largely defined by tourism. Main Street in Annapolis is beautiful as one walks downhill toward the water, with a gorgeous vista of the bay straight ahead, but the businesses on that street are mostly focused on tourism. There one finds commercial restaurants, trinket shops, overpriced clothing and jewelry —  businesses that cater to visitors rather than residents. But leave the main streets behind, and one finds a different Annapolis: homes and churches, playgrounds and schools. As I found as a student, spend enough time in Annapolis and its tourist veneer quickly wears off. Avoid the popular spots in the height of the season while going about one’s business. After a while, the tourist nature of the city starts to seem like a thin skin, easily overlooked for the living soul beneath. After a while, I didn’t even really notice the tourism because I was there for other reasons and focused on other things.

Both cities have at times been defined by the pursuit of vice. After Venice lost its maritime empire and began to decline in the 17th and 18th centuries, it survived by attracting visitors from elsewhere in Europe, and it developed a reputation for being a playground for the affluent. It was in the pleasure business, and prostitution and gambling became as much of a draw as art and architecture. Before I even set foot in Annapolis, a friend of my father’s who seemed to be speaking from experience described Annapolis as the sort of place people from DC go to misbehave and not get caught. Indeed, people do misbehave there. Visitors are loud; they drink too much. They do things on their boats that they might not do on land. Every morning feels like an unwelcome wake-up call from the outrageous party raging the night before.

But of course, these cities are not simply dens of vice. Indeed, although that character definitely is felt, it is perhaps more accurate to focus on the daily life of its residents, focused on shopping and living, raising children and working, not on partying and excess. For a while I dated a woman who attended daily AA meetings in Annapolis, a contrast to the party if ever there was one. One could attend mass at St. Mary’s and see not vice but a striving for health.

Perhaps the greatest lesson is that both cities are real places beneath their superficial veneers. Annapolis is not just a place to misbehave, but a place to raise a family. For me it was a place to study ancient Greek and the history of science. Venice is not just a place to see a few sites before moving on, but a place to learn deep lessons about self-government and the fragility of civilization.

There’s nothing wrong with making a brief visit to a place, merely scratching the surface of what it has to offer. But it’s good to know that even the most touristy places have living, beating hearts beneath the surface for those who can invest the time and effort to discover them.