Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Mystery of Venice: What About the Everyday People?

Being surrounded by all of this Venetian beauty reminds me: I've got some explaining to do. How is it possible that I'm on my fourth trip to Italy, and I'm only just now getting around to visiting Venice for the first time?

Blame my romantic heart, which was raised on radio and Hollywood. I'd been putting off Venice because I didn't want to feel as alone here as Katharine Hepburn at the beginning of the 1955 film Summertime (for which she received the sixth of her 12 Oscar nominations for Best Actress), solitary and self-conscious in Italy's city of love. Though I love to travel solo, prefer it even, I thought Venice should be different (probably as a direct result of seeing Summertime). I was waiting for the right person with whom to experience it for the first time. I was afraid that if I went alone, I might not find him here. I was protecting my romantic interests.


I probably shouldn't have waited -- and not just because at this point, Mr. Right seems to be a distant fantasy. I certainly don't expect to meet anyone as handsome and charming as Rossano Brazzi here! Stepping onto the Venetian islands for the first time after the short bus ride from Mestre on the mainland, which is where my hotel is located, romance couldn't be further from my mind. Maybe Venice has changed as much as fashion has since the 1950s (also the chronological setting for part of the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley). Where's the romantic glamor, the elegant, well-heeled people, the, to quote Elton John, sartorial eloquence?

There's some old-Hollywood glamor scattered among the tourists, but it's hardly human and hardly the stuff of cinematic history. I myself am wearing running shorts, a gray V-neck Topman t-shirt and black Havaianas sandals, snapping away with my Samsung digital camera, so maybe I'm part of Venice's contemporary problem. (I've left the Samsung smart phone in the hotel safe because Venice deserves to be captured the old-fashioned way -- irony intended.) Most of the gondolas are docked. The few that are traversing the waterways are carrying tourists who are too busy trying to capture every moment on film to actually take it all in.

Though it's not as sophisticated as the Hollywood version, Venice is every bit as beautiful. On one building, over a sign that reads "SOTOPORTEGO DE CORTE VECHIA," you can actually see the water from the canal being reflected on the building at high noon. But Venice's endless supply of photo ops eventually begins to blend together. It's like looking through a supermodel's portfolio and seeing him/her strike gorgeous pose after gorgeous pose. Eventually, you wonder, OK, we get it, but do you have anything else going for you?

With a city, that's the difference between a two-day stand and a longer-term relationship. Think about it: Does anyone, even people who absolutely love it, visit Venice twice?

My first impression, confirmed after hours spent getting lost, literally and figuratively, in its maze of nooks and crannies, was that something was missing. Oh, yes, people who don't fall into one of two categories: tourists and those who cater to them.

It's not that I hadn't been warned. During the month of August, many Italians flee the hot major cities and head to the cooler lakes and coastal areas. So Venice seems strangely quiet and deserted, not at all the flooded, smelly madhouse I was told it can sometimes be. For an occasional borderline misanthrope like me, this is actually something of a blessing.

Surely, though, some locals must have stuck around to sweat out the dog days of August. Perhaps they'd rather remain behind closed doors than venture out and face what has become of their city, if Venice, in fact, ever was the Venice presented by old Hollywood and The Talented Mr. Ripley. And herein lies the twist: The further you venture from Piazzale Roma, its whir of activity and throngs of arriving and departing tourists, and wander down the skinny lanes and alleys so pivotal to the city's charms, the more you'll see clues to the locals' existence: well-dressed Italians carrying groceries -- when one of them cheerfully apologizes for not being able to speak English after giving directions to two middle-aged British women, the tourists insist, "But you're speaking English now" -- the muffled sounds of televisions and radios blasting inside apartments, the open but empty Oasis Gym in one part of town, and, most auspiciously, clotheslines connecting buildings on opposite sides of the street from above.

Normally, I don't like the idea of people publicly airing their dirty laundry, even if it's been cleaned and is merely being hung out to dry. In Bangkok's five-star hotels, displaying it on your balcony will get you a hefty fine. But here in Venice, in a strange, subversive way, it almost adds to the visual appeal of the city, if only as proof that, yes, despite all of its tourist trappings, everyday people, real Venetians, live and breathe here, too.

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