Most of my work is finished for the year. I can dream about travel.
I think of Venice. A traditional birthday or New Years trip since
I saw ‘Don’t look now’. (This is how I remember movies. Location and stage setting, musical score, plot, in that order. You figure).
Venice is a visual mystery in the off season and I have spent some interesting moments there. No tourists, no guides and precious little light as a bone-chilling rain or snow fall and the gray clouds hang over the city like a shroud.
Venice in winter. The big hotels lock their doors. Tourist flee, and the Venetians take back their city. Sounds punctuate your walk along the silent waterways.
My steps echo through the Palazzo Ducale. The Council of 10 – here’s their chamber. Chilly bastards, they. I go looking for that little room of to the side, for the
Boca di Leone, where you slip in secret denunciations (‘Dear Doge, it’s about my…’).
I hear the footsteps before I see him. He strolls into the room.
‘Do you speak English?’ I nod. ‘Give me a tour? Buy you lunch if you do.’
He’s lonely. It’s New Year’s Eve, a day most people spend with someone else. I know why I’m alone in an empty city far from home-I like to be alone in an empty city far from home. I wonder about him, and don’t ask.
I look up at the ceiling and say ‘See that Veronese, bad restoration.’
‘Oh’, he says ‘looks fine to me, how do you know?’ ‘Art History, and a friend that does restorations.’
We walk for a long time from painting to painting. The rain beats on the windows and the place grows darker, more mysterious. We walk on. He begins telling me what I’m seeing.
We exchange no names, no personal histories, no geographical quizzes.
‘You must be hungry’ he says. ‘How about Harry’s?’ I nod.
The wind blows across the lagoon. The piazza is deserted. We stroll past Florian’s.
The captain at Harry’s is happy to see us. ‘Buone ano nuovo’
We eat, drink and talk. He tells me of the old Jewish ghetto. ‘Not much of it left, I’m afraid. You should read Levi.’
Harry’s is turning into a New Years Eve party. Everyone is speaking English and listening.
My companion says, ‘You really must see St. Michele cemetery. Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Ezra Pound are there.
I say, ‘Yes, I know. Like a Studio 54 for dead people. Pound’s tombstone is only his name- sans date, sans everything. What do birth and deaths really mean to a poet or to Venice? Life is instantaneous and eternal.
I like the triple gates (now filled in) looking onto the Serenissima, and the living. You should see it on All Saints’ Week a sea of white, pink and yellow chrysanthemums. The living have done their duty. They return to the vaporetto, satisfied. Perhaps the dead are, too.
The Lido on the other hand belongs to Venice geographically, but less so spiritually. Once upon a time Byron ran his horses there. One must always beware of poets - they set fashions. Casanova cultivated grapes here. On the Lido’s strand, the beautiful Venetian women - their type once summarized by Gozzi as "biondo, bianco e grassotto" – mingled at the turn of the nineteenth century with women from Austria, Hungary, and Milan, with brunettes, slender and pale women, with widows and demimondaines, those worldly women who did nothing by halves.
Basta! Those days are gone. I want to believe that the real, everyday life of Venice, at least the one I love, is far from the Lido.'
‘Where is your Venice?’ he asks.
‘ Where? On San Lazzaro degli Armeni, whose perfectly quadrilateral shape makes the island seem abstract. There are still paintings by Tiepolo and Longhi.
Or, the sublime little island of San Francesco del Deserto, dressed in cypresses that seem painted by Böcklin. A handful of Franciscan monks turn their thoughts to God in a thirteenth-century monastery of unparalleled sobriety. This little island could make one desire faith, never to doubt if such a thing were possible.’
He smiles, I get indulged.A late dinner with my landlady.
Afterwards, we walk through the Dorsoduro, a lonely part of a lonely city.
People have moved away. We can feel it as we walk. Our shadows climb the walls, run out ahead, then beneath, then stretch out behind. No one is about.
In its sadness, Venice is the most magical city in the world. Especially in winter.
In the meantime I will travel to Catalina and Sonoma enjoy the wisps of fog bloom amidst the rocks and make friends again with old forgotten places.