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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".

43 comments:

Diana said...

Question: Did you wear those pink pants to Osteria Do Farai, or were they not dry yet?

Thanks for giving us this souvenir of your trip! :)

Mariyah said...

What a journey, Abu Fares. The way you showed the disparity between the excesses of your business meeting to the desperate situations elsewhere was quite striking. Nevertheless, I'm glad you found some solace while you were there - including good food and a little sunshine. A very memorable piece of writing.

Anonymous said...

Nice;thank you.
A@

JGM said...

I wondered were you Where...Welcome back abufares

JGM said...

lol make that I wondered where you were...How embarrassing I think it's time I went up to bed.
Have a nice evening/day

Abu Kareem said...

Abu Fares,

One of your best posts!

abufares said...

@Diana
Right across the table a man wearing orange pants was enjoying his lunch. He had a huge potbelly and drank his wine with great affection. I'm thinking now that had I walked in in a pair of pink pants we would've become the best of friends, the man and me:-)

abufares said...

@Mariyah
The greatest solace I found was in the couple of hours I was able to spend alone in Venice. Had it not been for this one single afternoon on my 4th day the whole trip would've been one I wish to quickly forget.
Work (in the world of business) is getting more and more on my nerves. Eventually I should make a decision about it. I hope I turn out to be as memorable in choosing the right moment as I'm in writing (according to you).
Whenever you come here you make it a cozier place.

abufares said...

@Anonymous
Nice of you to drop by.

abufares said...

@JGM
Pobody's nerfect my friend.
I'm glad I'm back as well. I've been sitting at home doing nothing for the last 4 days and I'm enjoying every single minute.
Thanks.

abufares said...

@Abu Kareem
Glad you liked it and looking forward some chitchat IRL soon.

DUBAI JAZZ said...

That was a beautiful piece of writing Abu Fares. Surely one of your best!

DUBAI JAZZ said...

Although I wonder from a theoretical, architectural style point of view: would you classify Venetia as a Mediterranean city or more as a European one?

abufares said...

@DJ
Thanks for your kind words.
From a historical perspective, Venice has always been a part of the Mediterranean family. This trend continues as most of the imports from northern Italy to Syria for instance are loaded at Chioggia, Venice, Ravenna and Trieste.
Venice is a Mediterranean city in the same sense that the whole Adriatic sea is really one part of the Med.
Those old cities (historical centers) of Italy and Spain I've visited so far share more Med architectural characteristics than with the rest of continental Europe further north.
There's more in common, architecturally speaking, between the old city of Tartous and Venice than with Damascus or Aleppo which both are not Mediterranean cities by the way.

Yazan said...

Always a delight to read you ya Abu Fares. I especially love your travel logs.

Let me add to what DJ asked. Is a city like Venice sustainable at present time? I read that they are building tremendous anti-flooding artificial reefs, but, even though, are the basic structures sustainable, notwithstanding the flooding?

Isobel said...

Wow, Abu Fares!! What a great post. Thank you for sharing a piece of this unique city with us despite your obvious discomfort with some aspects. That's another place I'd love to visit some day and will keep the name of the restaurant because it sounds like my kind of place!!

abufares said...

@Yazan
Venice is built on what is actually marshlands. The little islands are of a sedimentary nature. It is estimated that these islands have sunk as much as 70cm in the last 1000 years, 24 of which in the last century alone.
Scientists believe that global warming has been greatly responsible for this fast increase in the rate in the last 100 years in addition to the sinking of the islands themselves. The steel gates solution has been put forward as feasible although at a huge cost.
It is my personal opinion that they will go for it or something similar. After visiting Amsterdam and learning that it lies 6 m below sea level I feel that everything is indeed possible. After all God created the world and the Dutch created the Netherlands as they put it.
By the way, the effect of high tides is greatly felt in Venice because it has no high terrain and the rise and fall can be observed on the banks of the canals. But the danger is there for many coastal cities. When high variations in the tides exist, along with global warming and the possible meltdown of parts of the icecaps, rest assured that not only Venice is in trouble but the entire rim of the world's oceans and seas.

abufares said...

@Isobel
Venice is one of the most beautiful places I've laid eyes on. The problem, however, is that I always visit this magical city on business and almost never alone. There have been very few occasions when I could walk alone (this post for instance).
I have been to Venice with Om Fares in 2005 but not really alone. We had to go through the tourist motions and rituals which I absolutely hate. I can't love a city in such a way. This is what happened to me in Rome as well, I felt as if I'm one of a huge mindless herd. I don't want to go to Piazza San Marco because everybody thinks its the epitome of a visit to Venice. Instead I want to get lost in the alleys and find myself in this famed place in a light drizzle.
My problem is with tourism as a mindless concept. I know that if I ever go to China (which is something I want from all of my heart) I will have to join a group or something. But this is not the way I like to travel. I prefer to blend in with the background and this is what's nearly impossible in a city infected by tourists day and night, like Venice.

Mariyah said...

Abu Fares, I never understood the world of business having spent years in halls of academia. I am always impressed with those who can move through it with ease but I can appreciate why you would want to move away from it. I have no doubt you'll choose the perfect time.

Always happy to be here, my friend.:)

The Syrian Brit said...

What a delightful read, Abu Fares..
Despite the somber undercurrent, it lifted my spirit more than anything has done for quite some time!..
Thank you..

saint said...

I brush it off first as something you can read later, but I was for a surprise when I came back to hit eloquent writing and beautiful piece. You are a lucky man to travel that much I envy you. There is always a surprise hitting your button, cheers.

Omar said...

You're description of Venice stimulates my senses more than actually being there!

I fell in love in Venice as soon I stepped off the bus. It was the only city where I enjoyed being lost in, and had the chance to go into random alleys and see how Venetians live.

It's definitely the kind of place that can take your mind of the horrible tragedies happening as I write this.

abufares said...

@Mariyah
There's very little to understand in the world of business as far as I'm concerned.
There's the honest trader who sells a product, be it a small Dekkan (groceries), a shoe store, animal feed, any type of retail or wholesale, ...etc.
Then there's the big shot crook whose main product is either money or people. His commodity is not tangible anymore. It's simply money, that is he has no particular item in which he takes pride in producing, selling or buying. He makes phone calls and gets commissions (huge ones), or he licks ass and moves ahead, or he climbs on the shoulders of people who work for him, or he steps on the competition for the sole intention of becoming more "important" than them and then... he starts calling himself a businessman.
I always find exceptions to my rules but that doesn't deter me from drawing my own conclusions. When someone introduces himself or thinks of himself as a businessman رجل أعمال and not as a trader تاجر then chances are that this person has lost a significant part of his humanity and has become a master of and a slave to money.
I am guilty by association. I was never either a trader nor a businessman but I work in the milieu as a professional. Yet as soon as I get home I wash myself as if I've stepped in a big hole of crap.
It's going to take me a while to be able to step out. The only good thing I have going for me is that my objections and my intentions are all too clear to everyone, including those I happen to be working for. I have more respect for the janitor than the chairman of the board and I'm not afraid to let both know that.

abufares said...

@SB
Thanks and Kol 3am Wa Anta Bi Kheir my dear friend.
Your comment somehow had the same effect on me. It had lifted my spirit beyond anything I've done in the last few weeks.

abufares said...

@Saint
I'm glad you gave this post a second chance and more so that you were not disappointed.
Travel is one of the greatest pleasures in life. However, and just to be accurate. It's most enjoyable alone or with the "perfect" company. There's nothing that gets on people's nerves more than being on the move with the wrong company because the voyage itself is a very personal experience and requires intimate contact with others (when not alone).
But surely you're right. I'm very lucky when alone or with Om Fares and the kids.

abufares said...

@Omar
Getting lost in any old city is an unforgettable adventure.
You're right, Venice is perfect to play the host on such an occasion.

JGM said...

The Guardian, Thursday 11 December 2008

Hoteliers in Venice whose businesses have been hit by floods caused by the highest sea levels in over two decades are offering "High Water" packages complete with free rubber boots. The Venice Hoteliers Association is offering promotions at €190 (£166) for one night plus "free use of rubber boots" and a map with "alternative pedestrian routes during the high water". Heavy rains and high winds left the city almost completely flooded at the beginning of the month, with St Mark's Square thigh-deep in water and waterbus services suspended. More high water is forecast for today.

Mariyah said...

A notable difference. Thank you for clarifying. I suppose when someone says business, I always think of the high powered, suit wearing, hot shots and not of the little guy...the honest man. But they are businessmen too. If you could extract yourself from that world, what would you do instead? What would be your dream "job"?

Az3ar's Fan said...

Abu Fares;

While you lay 'naked' in Venice I watched Bush having shoes hurled at him. So there.

Anonymous said...

and blah blah blah again..did you copy it from a travel book?

abufares said...

@Az3ar's Fan
I was fully clothed when Muntazar El-Zeidi threw his shoes in the face of Busht. Rest assured that history will remember Bush as a notorious mass murderer who was ridiculed (yet gained significance) in his last days in office through meeting a pair of shoes in Iraq.

Anonymous said...

I'm not going to go into the whole cosmic agenda of your hate of the "ordinarytouristsituationandbullshitbusinessmen"
(I hate all that too)...

I am glad your back. I'm glad in the end you had an exceptional day at Venice. I'm glad you are enjoying your 4 days of doing nothing.

I was away also. NYC. Very cold at the moment. Always crowded. Always impossible. Always great food and wine. Always great Art Shows. Had a great time. No pictures, sorry.

Getting ready for the Holidays! Lots of dancing salsa & merengue : )

cariños,
w.b.yeats

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous:
If you do not like what your reading, why are you reading it?

Obviously you are a very insecure person who enjoys criticizing what you do not even understand.

w.b. yeats

abufares said...

@w.b.yeats
New York must be great this time of the year. However, I'm certain the Caribbean is the place to be, now and always :-)
Although still very early I wish you and yours the best of times in this holiday season.
I miss you girl.

abufares said...

And w.b.yeats

Don't worry about my anonymous visitor. He/she drops by occasionally and leaves a lame comment just for the heck of it:-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Abu Fares,
While we enjoy with your very nice posts,which reflect your highest respect, noble and lovely pesonality; we find somebody leaves something reflect his thoughts.
But i always thank her/him,for his reading your posts,and for letting us know how much he/she is kind .
Thanks,
A@

Anonymous said...

Talked about you today with my oldest daughter... nice words about a good and important friend. Life goes fast, ah? My daughter is already 21, older than me when we met. Increíble, pero cierto...

w.b. yeats

Az3ar's Fan said...

I am of the opinion that those who leave sharp words are filled with envy. If someone is better than us with something, be it writing, dancing, cooking, singing etc... emulation is a better alternative than envy.

abufares said...

@A and Az3ar's Fan
You needn't think much about it really. After all they might just be having fun, well in a twisted and strange way.
But many thanks anyway. I really appreciate it.

abufares said...

@w.b. yeats
Well, well, well. How about that! She's 21 and indeed older than "you" when we first met.
A good and important friend from the past, how romantic she might be thinking... or how crazy ;-)
Thank you though for talking with her about me, us, I mean.
My kids can learn everything about me once they decide that my blog is worth reading... HAHAHA.

Anonymous said...

Altruistic, is what she thought. Maybe I left the crazy parts out... particularly your dancing moves : )

I think of my daughters as my best friends. They, hopefully think the same of me.

w.b. yeats

gospodinBezkrai said...

Wow, abu Fares, I was in Venezia at about the same time as you, and in fact I stayed just off the Campo Santa Margherita! Maybe we unknowingly past by each other on that afternoon...

hint: i was wearing green wellingtons ;)

Its a pity I havent been reading your blog for a few months! (on the other hand spending less time in internet is a good symptom)

Yes, Venezia is the most amazing place! I couldnt come to grips with what was life like there in the past ages although I spent many hours thinking on it while wandering the streets and museums.


With regards to your trip to China, or anywhere else!, taking a group tour is the last thing you should do!

I would recommend joining this great community instead -
http://www.hospitalityclub.org

All the best!
Nikola

abufares said...

@Nikola

Thanks for the tip.