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The International Writers Magazine: Venice


In Modern Venice
Kim McKechney
Our gondolier sported a thick handlebar moustache worthy of the Village People.  A thin cigarette dangled dangerously from his mouth, hanging so loosely it seemed to brazenly flout the laws of physics.

Art

The wires from his IPOD earphones snuck out from under the wasps of hair that straggled over his ears, the result of a gnarly, dishevelled hairstyle that seemed better fit for a Harley Davidson than one of the world’s most storied vessels.His body language, including a stern commitment not to make eye contact with passengers, betrayed his ardent disinterest in the task at hand.  My wife and I, along with the four strangers who had been randomly assigned to our gondola, sat in stunned silence, vigorously contemplating the $4 per minute we were paying for a “romantic” ride down Venice’s historic canals.

Welcome to modern Venice!  The once flamboyant and licentious imperial capital has given way to a commercialized and congealed modern shadow of itself.   

Of course, evidence of its less savoury past hasn’t been totally hidden from view.  The Palazzo Ducal (or the Doge’s Palace), which stood for half a millennia as the political home to Venice’s ruling aristocratic elite, is ornately designed inside and out, with gorgeous frescos from Venetian greats Tintoretto and Veronese lavishly displaying the City’s vainglorious past.  Also still here is the architecture that continues to attract throngs of foreign hordes: the ornate building facades, the precariously leaning bell towers, and the endless supply of small stone bridges, no two exactly the same. And dig a little deeper and you might encounter the tales of orgy-preceding masquerade balls, feeding Venice’s retrospectively earned renaissance-era reputation as the Las Vegas of Europe.

Rialto Like a five-star museum on water, Venice’s glorious, promiscuous and often profligate past is told with stunning colour and panache. And yet somehow, Venice’s open-air exhibition assiduously maintains a milquetoast character as a non-offensive, family-friendly playground for the historically-inclined, parcelling out small tastes of its past in expensive bite-sized doses. 
All that remains of the masquerade balls is the cheap knock-off masks that adorn almost every second storefront.  In place of fish, once a staple of the Venetian diet, tourists flock to one of the ubiquitous crêpe stands for a skinny pancake slathered in heavy doses of Nutella.  And as if to underline the point that modern Venice is a different breed from its long gone imperial ancestor, a gigantic Guess Jeans billboard flanks the left side of the seaside entrance to Venice’s main square, Piazza San Marco. Masks

The frivolity and harmless excess of this Italian playground tends to increase in intensity, as you get closer to one of its many tourist traps.  The boardwalk near Piazza San Marco is a continuous parade of humanity, as masses of western and Japanese tourists filter through the picture postcard stands and dodge the army of African-Italian men hocking cheap Gucci knock offs.  Wilfully ignorant of the inconvenience they were causing, some of these men would set up shop on the narrow bridges that hop over the canals leading to the seaside, forcing passers-by to squeeze awkwardly together with their fleshy tourist brethren.

At night, a few of these small-time peddlers on the boardwalk trade in their imitation Gucci wares for baseball-size glowing balls.  They use some kind of elastic propulsion system to launch these colourful novelties high into the air, hoping to snag a mesmerized tourist willing to part with their cash.   Transactions for these small trinkets inevitably occur in roughly the same way every time.  First is the quick, but enthusiastic sales pitch to anyone who even glances in the seller’s direction.  Second, the seller locks eyes with the victim.  Thirdly, after a brief discussion, the victim/tourist reluctantly retrieves his wallet to buy what he almost certainly knows is a 100% authentic Chinese-made ball of plastic. Finally, the defeated tourist slinks away, almost immediately aware that the cash exchanged had simply been the price of extricating himself from the seller’s aggressive pitch.

Sellers Not far away from this seaside boardwalk scene, the jam-packed Ponte di Rialto serves double duty.  On one hand it’s a crowded pedestrian crossing for the Grand Canal. On the other, it’s a busy marketplace for cartoonish maps of Venice, Italian football jerseys, Murano-blown glass and expensive jewelry, among many other things.  Once a place of exchange for traders from across the vast Venetian empire, the Rialto Bridge now gives passage across the canal to a different breed of shopper. 

Armed with two-scoops of gelato in one hand and a crinkled Venetian map in the other, these heftier modern visitors put the bridge under more strain than it had heretofore experienced.  Witnessing this spectacle, there’s little doubt that Shakespeare would not have nearly as much drama to glean from this more sanguine, contemporary Venice.  After all, a pound of flesh is more like loose change than a valued commodity in Venice these days, what with the flappy-skinned proliferation of jowly, over-sized Western tourists.  Everywhere in Venice these less-than-athletic wanderers amble aimlessly through the streets, suffering from a strange, but blissful navigational confusion that seems to afflict all visitors. 

Jan Morris, author of a positively stunning biography of Venice, was reduced on several occasions in his book to simply calling this urban layout “higgledy piggledy.”   This aptly captures Venice’s mish-mash character.  North Americans, accustom to some semblance of urban symmetry, can be spotted from a mile away. They stare in bewilderment at the street signs, wondering how they could have accidentally walked through a vortex and arrived in a location quite apart from their intended destination.  Rarely are they ornery or hostile about their predicament.  Few cities in the world can induce such contentment from its visitors with such significant directional challenges. 

In Venice, it seems like being lost is what visitors come for.  It provides just enough adventure not to offend the average risk-averse travelers that seek out this mangled assortment of islands.  My wife and I tried in vain to visit one of Venice’s synagogues in the Jewish Quarter of town.  

All we found was a dead end and a brilliant rainbow of laundry hanging from seemingly every angle of the buildings above. Further on, just outside the train station, we found a shop selling bright pink melon-size chunks of meringue, not uncommon to see in storefront windows across Venice.  I consumed one with great zeal, as if it was a cultural experience not to be missed, only to discover that its only lasting impression is best described as a sugar punch to the head!

Castello

But despite its often vapid and garish flashes, modern Venice still has undeniable charm to even the most cynical of visitors.  The waft of canal stench is an ever-present reminder that not everything is artificially made for Venice’s multinational audience.  Those who do venture east from Piazza San Marco and into the Castello neighbourhood get treated to a much needed respite from the crowds, as alleyway upon alleyway yields little but peace and quiet, not to mention a small grocer selling actual practical items like milk and pencils. 

In the more frequented western reaches of the Castello neighbourhood, in a square called Campo Santa Maria Formosa, my wife and I contentedly resigned ourselves to a Café table to watch an impromptu football match that broke out between local children.  It was the cheapest entertainment in Venice, if you don’t count the overpriced lattés we sipped on.  

Even the most clichéd elements of Venice have a guilty appeal.  In the evening, the factory-like business of doling out gondola rides during the day gives way to something that looks a little more pleasant, though we could only verify by proxy given the cash required for the venture.  My wife and I were admittedly mesmerized by the moneyed couples that paid to float through Venice at night, accompanied by an accordion player and the vocal styling of an on-board troubadour. Watching them glide along the darkened canals, we couldn’t help but be jealous that our daytime experience hadn’t been quite so romantic.

For us, Venice at night was the real payoff.  Most alleyways beyond the traditional haunts become quiet in the early evening, save for the clinking of plates against utensils, as the sport of eating in Venice reaches its daily crescendo.  Occasionally you can hear the nighttime gondoliers singing their ballads in the distance, their location well hidden by the intense echo of the narrow canals.  And the human circus that is Piazza San Marco in the daytime becomes the City’s crown jewel at night.  Out of sight is the pigeon crap.  Gone are the legions of tourists willing to let these creepy creatures crawl all over them.  What’s left is a square glowing softly against the blackened sky, with echoes from the orchestras in each adjacent restaurant mixing to create a magnificent mélange of sounds.  Without fail, we returned every night on our visit just to bask in the atmosphere.

As we glided along on our “romantic” gondola ride, I caught a glimpse of the historic Bridge of Sighs - the most notorious of Venice’s endlessly fascinating canal bridges.  Built in 1602, rumour has it that this covered bridge was the final transit route for prisoners headed to a lifetime in the cells of the adjacent building.  Apparently it was so named for the resigned exhalation that came from prisoners as they crossed - prisoners who were often the victim of a fickle member of the ruling elite rather than guilty of any monstrous crime.   Other bridges in the city were commonly used in Imperial Venice for “bridge wars”, a spectacle put on at the behest of local political leaders for the thrill of visiting foreign royalty.  These wars involved opposing groups of commoners waging battles with sharpened sticks, resulting in a bloody end for many unlucky fighters. 

I contemplated these stories as we neared the end of our gondola ride.  Maybe modern Venice wasn’t so bad after all - all the history with none of the violent fuss of living it.  I jumped out first as our gondola lurched to a halt at a set of moorings near the San Zaccaria Vapporetti stop.  As I helped my wife out of the gondola, she turned to me and asked, “So, what’s next?”
I replied almost instinctively, as if captured by the spirit of modern Venice:  “How about a Nutella pancake?”  
© Kim McKechney Jan 9th 2011
mckechney_kim@hotmail.com



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