View out our window at the Cendon in Cannaregio, Venice.
There I was walking around Venice, not sure what I was more dazzled by. Venice is a city to be lost in. A city to amble around and enjoy as it arrives to you. This is especially true if, like me, us, you have the good fortune to have been there dozens of times for dozens of reasons. All the pressure to see St. Mark’s, take a gondola ride, visit Rialto bridge, and shop is off. There is left the great art of being lost.
For being lost really is an art. It requires me to let go of the idea that I know where I actually am, even more where I am going. Here lies the second reason for my being dazzled. For the first time since we met, I was ok being lost with my husband. By nature, we are both control freaks and lost is the last thing we will allow ourselves to be. Sure, visiting various locations around the world we let ourselves think we are ‘lost’ as we wander. To be clear, the GPS is always at the ready and at any sign of really not being sure where we are going anxiety levels run high. In this way, Venice is a fairly safe place to be lost, as even at your most lost a major landmark will reveal itself to assist in orientation.
On this rare day we wandered nearly aimlessly along the small canals of Cannaregio admiring the crisp green color of the water, the variety of buildings, and the silence of a nearly crowd less day. One of the many side effects of Covid-19 is a change in the landscape of tourism in Italy. In general, more Italians are moving around in Italy, with nearly no tourists from the previously major players like the USA, China, and Russia. Specifically in Venice this translates to, what are for the month of August, empty streets. Usually the major arteries of this walking city of canals are basically unpassable in August. The streets are choked with people and walking can be a dizzying experience. Forget navigating with any sort of hurry. For us, the Covid situation meant that the streets where we like to wander, those out of the way less beaten paths, were nearly empty. Who we did encounter, a large population of older residents going about their business of shopping, drinking coffee, and general living. Il operaio, literally workers, working with their bright orange of green jackets or having lunch in large swarms. Sipping our morning coffee on the canal at one of my favorite cafes, il pontini, the spirit of Venice is encapsulated. Out of fresh pastry when we arrived, the barrista suggested I pop to the bakery two doors down and get whatever I like while he prepared our coffees. “That is where we buy them”, he said casually waving me in the bakery’s direction. Located on the edge of the canal, il Pontini is a perfect place to people watch. We sipped our coffee while observing life pass by. We were distracted by the fish mongers selling their wares and the seagulls awaiting their scraps. I had been out earlier to buy coffee and check out my favorite clothes shop, Glamour, where I bought my yearly signature piece.
The entire day I was awash in a spectacular sensation, to be ok to follow, to let go and not worry about where I am going, to be just now in the moment. Having had an awful time the day before, I was particularly enthralled by this new feeling. We wandered all along the canals in the tiny streets of Cannaregio, gazing at various details in the glorious sunshine. At a certain point we were hungry and stopped to have a bite at a funky bookstore café, Sul la luna (On the moon).
Left Claudio, tired or white wine for the moment, inspects his beer while the kids look on; right the book shop café inside. We will surely return, and I highly recommend.
Entering deeper into the quiet back streets we found ourselves on the fondamenta nuove (literally new foundations), one of the confines of the island. This long passage bordering the lagoon looks out on the Cimitero di San Michele. Literally the island of the cemetery, its tall cypress trees beacons as much as the famous people buried there, including Ezra Pound, Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky. We visited this place once with our friends Yanna and Sasha, at once awestruck by the fragile beauty and silence and terrorized by mosquitos. Looking at it from a distance was another kind of treat. Along the way was a boat gas station where Claudio asked some young men about the price of diesel, gas mileage, and the pump system. Wandering further on there was the hospital including the emergency room, serviced by boats. An eerie space in the current times. Further there was a series of antique shops. All the while the vastness of the lagoon was our companion, with very few people crossing our path.
Claudio at the boat gas station on fondamenta nuove.
As we reached the ‘end’ of this walkway we turned in and continued along through a maze of narrow sun dappled streets. Coming across a tiny foot bridge, I caught a glimpse of a giant lion head to my left. In silent agreement, we headed in that direction and found ourselves at l’arsenal of Venice.
Top left the kids on the paw of the lion; middle left the front of the main arsenal building slightly ariel view from a footbridge; bottom left the canal and arsenal towers as we crossed said footbridge; center tight full shot of the lion whose paw the kids rest upon.
Neither of us had ever been here and we marveled at the majesty of it all. All the easier perched at the café opposite the main building. We sipped a glass of white, plenty of ice, and munched on a pork sammy while I read us a few notes about the history of this magnificent spot. From here we set off half in search of the shop of a friend of Claudio and half wandering. At one point we turned a corner and came upon a uniquely Venetian scene.
Only in Venice! This gondola driver is not posing, we came upon him like this and silent as a cat I snapped this photo.
Like this we carried on until it was close to departure time and we found ourselves in a spot where a boat (vaporetto) was required to get back to retrieve our things from Cendon. After our initial shock at being so very ‘lost’ we boarded the boat and relaxed into the extraordinarily scenic journey. Earlier that day we had checked into the details of renting a boat and driving one’s self around the area, it seemed part of our destiny of the day to see Venice from the water.
In the vaporetto as we passed under the Rialto bridge, masks required on public transport.
At intervals throughout the day, I composed this letter in my head. A letter to my dear friend whom I had had the courage to share the desolation of the day before. Since I met Sasha more than 25 years ago, we have shared a special bond of sisterhood. She is among the Sasha’s of Russia, of another story. For now, it is important to note that she is one of the few people with whom I allow myself the privilege to speak totally free of feeling judged or of judging myself. This is, for me, a priceless gift. It is for this reason that at times when I think I am at the end of my rope with Claudio I turn to Sasha to vent and seek reminders of perspective and reality. She always has an alternative perspective and usually has me laughing hysterically when moment before I was reduced to tears. Our first day in Venice was one of those days.
Let me begin by saying that the entire trip to Venice represented a miracle. It was Claudio’s idea. In August, getting Claudio to go to Venice is a rarely accomplished feet. Primarily related to crowds and heat, Venice is not even on his option list. As our place in the Italian mountains is just under an hour away from Venice, I go every year, whatever the ‘hardship’. Most often I go on my own, a couple of times with my friend Alma, and three times in thirteen years with Claudio. This year, every friend we encountered in the first week of our time in the mountains regaled us with their incredulous adventures in a nearly empty Venice over the last days and weeks. Hence, Claudio was on board, even to stay overnight. In a snap I arranged our usual place, Cendon and we were ready.
Smooth as a silk, another miracle, we departed our mountain retreat, arrived at Mestre where we left the car, and took the train to Venice. If I take this trip 1000 times, I will still feel butterflies in my belly as the train crosses the vast expanse of water to arrive on the island of Venice.
Click this image to see a short video taken as we crossed the lagoon and neared the island of Venice. Always an awe inspiring, I made the video to share with a friend who was on holiday in Sicily sending us photos nearly every day.
Exiting the train station, the Grand Canal greeted us. The first time I took my mom, she cried at the magnificence of the Grand Canal casually greeting her. By now I have been to Venice nearly 30 times and I still tear up at that moment, greeted by the canal. In fact I stopped to take it all in and send a photo to my mom while Claudio phoned his friend Alessandro whom we were meeting for a coffee.
The Grand Canal greets me first thing as I exit the train station, welcome to Venice.
Alessandro is another story. After more than 30 years Alessandro and Claudio met up again this year. The week before we shared some time with he and his wife Patrizia in our garden. We had so much fun, under the rain, protected by a tent structure Claudio constructed to protect his grill. We drank local processo and shared ideas about books, films, and life in general. That evening progressed into a pizza at one of our favorite places. When they heard we were coming to Venice, they insisted we phone them on arrival to share a coffee, so we did.
Enthusiastically Alessandro whisked us to a coffee at one of his favorite local spots. From there to see his office, inside an historical building that used to house a brothel. With great cheer we agreed to phone him the next day and maybe even stop by their home on our way back to ours as it is on the way. Back out on the street we navigated to the Cendon, dropped out bag, took care of necessities and were back on the streets in a flash.
It was a glorious sunny day, perfect temperature and Venice awaited us with its dazzling blue skies reflecting off the small canal in front of the Cendon. Name and address in hand, Claudio navigated us to a local osteria suggested by Alessandro. We walked along the misericordia, a canal to our left, shops, cafes, and restaurants lining the right the sun beating on it all. Soon we arrived at the suggested destination. Seated in a shady spot on the canal we ordered and were soon sipping cold glasses of white wine against the heat. With little attention to social distancing, about 10 centimeters from us was an Italian couple. Shortly we were chatting about food, art, architecture (she was an architect), travel, Italy, etc. Regular conversation in Italy. He was eating a particularly interesting kind of clam. Long like a pipe cleaner, Cannolicchi or cappelunghe in Italian. In English we call them razor clams. They are local to Venice. Claudio recalled digging them from the sand with friends as a young man, never eating them himself. Before we knew it six were ordered and we were offered one each. Gratefully I dug in, Claudio respectfully declined. Soon lunch was over, and we all went off to our wandering.
About ten steps from the restaurant Claudio started criticizing me. “You always do that. Bothering people. Insisting that they talk to you, disturbing them while they eat. “ Blah balh ablh
In my view we had just had a lovely lunch, on a small canal, met some interesting people, tasted a new food, and were continuing our blissful wander in magical Venice. Life was good. Accordingly, his words felt like an attack, and I was off guard, relaxed. My reverie was smashed and I was jarred to unpleasant senses. Mainly, I felt like a five year old being scolded for talking to strangers. My first reaction was to ignore it/him. So he persisted and got nastier. My second reaction was to defend myself. At that point escalation continued and I simply walked off. Like a child, I walked off along another path continuing my reverie. This lasted about 20 minutes, and then I felt a little sad to be wandering on my own when the entire point had been to wander together. I messaged and phoned, Claudio did not answer. For more than two hours I wandered on my own in Venice. Through a nearly empty St. Mark’s, along the fashion streets and across the wooden bridge to Academia. I visited Peggy’s house, The Guggenheim Venice, to find it closed for Covid.
Past there I went along the small canals to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute.
The Basilica as I came upon it with a halo of sunlight.
It was open, so I went inside and had a peek around. From there, I walked the few paces required to get to the very tip of the island where the grand canal meets the open lagoon. Here I dangled my feet into the water and enjoyed the sun on my face as the breeze tousled my hair. I took photos of myself and our poppets.
Bunny & the Bearli’s with my manicured foot on the edge of the lagoon.
Here, I observed my sensation that something was missing. My entire life I am happy to be on my own. Many have called me a ‘well adjusted’ only child. While I have a brother from my father’s second marriage, in my home, I was my mother’s only. One could say that I have been a solo traveler my entire life, a self-watering plant I call myself. It is standard practice for me to make the best of situations, telling myself stories, and generally inventing a world of my own wherever I am. Since I could read, I have always had a book with me, and for nearly 15 years there has been Bunny with me when I travel. So it was odd to feel a sort of void on such a perfect day in such an ideal place. Continuing to observe my thoughts I picked myself up, literally and figuratively, and walked back along the small canals, peeking into every nook and cranny. At a certain point I ducked into a shop and tried on a few dresses, nothing looked good or right. At that point, I phoned Claudio and said, “I am tired of being alone now, let’s meet”. This was not the first time I phoned. However it was the first time he answered, and he sent me the coordinates to where he was. Along the narrow streets and small canals I traversed, glad to be reuniting.
Ironically, or maybe poetically, we met at a small out of the way local bar where Claudio had made friends with the owner and a local patron, both rare lifetime residents of Venice. When I arrived, he introduced me to them, and I joined Claudio for a glass of wine. As the owner regaled us with stories of his time as a young man in Venice with his own restaurant, we sipped a second glass, local prosecco, and had a nibble. When I mentioned my love of Guggenheim, he lit up and told us the most hilarious story about an exhibit they had there in the 70’s. Live naked women posing in an office like installation. At that time he was friends with the Director of the museum and in some way had open access to this exhibit. Another friend of his was a government functionary who insisted, under threat of not renewing some sort of license for his restaurant, that he take him to see the private exhibit. We roared with laughter as he vividly described the scene. Who knows how much of it was true, and it was a fantastic story all the same. Soon after we started our way back to the hotel to freshen up before dinner. All like nothing had ever happened.
The scene of our reunion, where Claudio and the owner of the bar made fast friends.
Fresh and hungry for dinner we made our way to one of our favorite places, ai promesi sposi.
After changing from sitting outside, too hot and way too many mosquitos, we settled in to order our meal. This out of the way place has been a favorite since we found it, on the same trip as the cemetery visit with Sasha and Yanna, a few years ago. Simple local foods and house wines, always abustle, and great service. A few years ago one of my cousins came to Italy, she was two nights in Venice. While I was unable to meet here due to scheduling issues, I suggested this place and even made the reservation for her. To surprise her, I also arranged to pay for their meal. Expecting to have to pay in advance, or leave credit card information, this down to earth place won my respect even more when they told me, “No, we will send you the bill the day after they are here, and you pay us then.” We are always happy to return here. So, again, I was relaxed, and then out of nowhere Claudio went cloudy again. At this point I cannot even recall what the clouds were, all I recall is that they rained on the entire meal and I stayed under my umbrella.
After dinner Claudio made a point to go into the kitchen and compliment the chef before we departed in our communal silence. A lovely evening, I suggested a walk around Venice which Cloudy vetoed. As we passed an old haunt of mine, La Cantina, he insisted that we stop for a digestive (after dinner drink). Inside, the bartender was closing down the bar and still, with a friendly smile agreed to serve us a drink. For the next 30 minutes Claudio spoke non-stop to that young bartender about wine and music. He also learned that the place was under new management. It was like being in a film, I gazed on with fascination the entire time. Clearly the bar was closing and companionably we walked together towards our hotel. A few places were still open, and we stopped for one final drink at a total dive where ice cubes were the only way to make the wine drinkable. Enjoying the final steps in the cooling darkness, we crossed the ancient bridge to the other side of the canal to reach our hotel, we turned in for the night.
The variety of life, from a glass of perfectly chilled Franciacorta to a lukewarm glass of unnamed mediocre. Just like life itself, from the best to the worst and all in between. It turned out later, Claudio seemed to be agitated that I talked to strangers instead of talking to him. At least this was the spark of the situation anyway. What was really behind the mood I may never know, and really, does it matter? We made love twice that night, had there been some odd aphrodisiac in our day?
From this situation I gained new perspectives on myself and Claudio. For us both, that kindness is an act of great love and self-respect. That being lost can be code for a chance to marvel at the workings of the heart and soul.
As mentioned, this story started as a letter to my friend Sasha. In fact, its original title was An open letter to Sasha. It was my way to give her full perspective and the ‘rest of the story’. As I wrote, the story began to write itself along with the beginning of another. To you Sasha, thank you for being a person who gets it and always listens, calms, brings perspective, and most of all makes me laugh at myself and life. I am grateful there is a you.