Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Venezia in Nudo
For a whole week the thick fog shrouded the city of Venice and crushed her spirit. In the aftermath of a grievous tidal flooding the temperature hovered around 3ºC and a light drizzle relentlessly molested the asphyxiated alleys. As I landed in Marco Polo airport on Monday, the 1st of December 2008, Venice was drowning under a 156 cm (5’1”) tidal surge, the worst since 1986 and the fourth highest ever in the city’s recorded history.
I, too, was sinking and my soul besieged by the triviality of being, the futility of struggle and the absurdity of reality. As I chatted with well-dressed colleagues from across the Mediterranean in a brazenly flaunting meeting room, exchanging pleasantries and munching delectably fresh croissants, hundreds of innocent lives were being consumed by Cholera in Zimbabwe. We shook heads, all of us, and commiserated sympathetically before the taking of a final round of a most exquisite espresso caffè. Then pokerfaced, we sat down to business.
I was chained to a desk with a silk tie for most of my stay and I had very little opportunity to be alone outside the confines of my hotel room. After yet another boisterous dinner I would wearily lean on the tiled wall and let the deluge of the steamy hot shower wash my body while my solitude scrubbed in vain to cleanse my conscience. I would slump into bed oblivious to the incessant repartee of frivolity on Italian television and dream of sleeping.
A little after midday in an office in Venice, having just returned from an errand on a berthed Syrian ship in Chioggia (a port 50 km south of Venice), I put on my coat and strolled along a soggy pier in the Porto di Venezia. I was told that there is an obscure eastern entrance not that far to the back. Five minutes out and hands in pockets I emerged in a clearing on the campus of the Venezia Istituto Universitario di Architettura. Then, and as if on cue, the fog lifted and the voluptuous sun emerged shamelessly from behind her veil. All of a sudden, what was and later returned to be a miserable day became a glorious one.
I followed the small flocks of lively students as they too surfaced from study halls and left their gloomy burdens behind. It was lunch hour, probably my favorite time in Italy since it gave the locals the only chance on weekdays not to take themselves too seriously. We went through a labyrinth of narrow alleys, climbed nameless (as far as I’m concerned) bridges then reached an open court basking in the sunlight called the Campo Santa Margherita.
I left the young and restless and wondered aimlessly a little longer. A hundred meters or so down a random cobblestone pathway I stared at the unassuming entrance of a restaurant called Osteria Do Farai. Little did I know that I was to embark on a superb culinary best-kept-little-secret of gli Veneziani. I relied on my sternly limited Italian and my exceptionally acute common sense and ordered an Insalata di Frutti di Mare Veneziana (Venetian Seafood Salad), Spaghetti con Conchiglie (spaghetti with clams, wedge shells and mussels) and half a liter of their in-house white wine. I ate in silence and treated every single bite and sip with tenderness and compassion. I could’ve finished my meal in less than 30 minutes but that was not an option I was willing to take. Instead I was deliberately slow and I exchanged glances with other diners, lonely or in pairs, sitting around the diminutive tables. My waitress, well the only waitress in the house, was a friendly woman in her late fifties. She handled me as she did everybody else with amicable familiarity and kindness. I consumed an hour of my life in Do Farai but it was time well spent and the seafood amongst the best I’ve had in my travels or at home. The sun had dipped below the silhouette of the colored Venetian landscape when I finally walked out. I buttoned my coat and walked against the cold westerly breeze consuming the rest of the afternoon.
Venezia floats on an archipelago of 118 small islands in the Venetian Lagoon off the Adriatic Sea. The population of the entire commune of Venezia, which includes Mestre and Marghera on the mainland, is about 272,000. The historic center or the “island” of Venice itself is called home by 62,000 people. By all accounts it’s considered as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It certainly is inimitable and unique. No matter how earthly we have chosen to become, if we find ourselves in a quiet moment alone in Venice, wings of fancy will carry us beyond the here and now.
I’ve been to Venice more times than I can remember and my infatuation with her had always been that of a sailor with a memorable scarlet woman in a distant harbor. Yet this last visit left me tender and more caring. I wasn’t a faceless tourist in the crowds on the inexorable pilgrimage to the Piazza San Marco. As a matter of fact I didn’t go anywhere near the usual sightseers’ shrines. Instead I lingered in the obscure and less traveled back alleys where I came face to face with a city inhabited by real people, studying or working, walking or eating and then later sleeping in a three dimensional world behind the tinted facades of the quaint buildings.
Night fell ever so quickly and the fog invaded all the spaces, sneaked through keyholes and closed any last chance of escape. Feeble street lights resisted the darkness without conviction then succumbed. I was nearly running out of breath when I reached the docks. Clueless as to its origin, the sound of a solitary fog bell echoed against the wharfs along the waterfront where I stood in wonder. An old cabbie leaned against his taxi smoking a cigarette at the docks. I took my seat in the front and he skillfully maneuvered the car in the blind all the way to my hotel on terra firma. "Buona sera", we said in chorus before I waived him with my hand. The car was instantly swallowed by the thick brume as I in turn disappeared in a dimly lit foyer. I climbed the flight of stairs to my room and locked the door behind me. I lay naked in bed switching TV channels. More died of cholera that day, of explosions and fires, of sieges and hunger, of human cruelty and injustice. I waited motionless, staring into the darkness, for the alarm clock to whisk me back to the pettiness of existence, the vainness of resistance and the mockery of truth. "Venezia, I shall return".