A selfie stick, captain's hat and chocolate fountain walk into a bar...
Thoughts on tourism and also some updates.
Venice is the most overrated city on the planet.
That’s what a former colleague told me when I shared that we might be moving here for a year. I don’t personally agree, but I let him have his say and uncharacteristically let the subject die without any response.
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For the past few weeks I’ve been spending my days wandering through the city and turning that statement over in my mind, trying to understand what it means to be a visitor here and how a place as extraordinary as Venice can be spared the indignity of being reduced in such an offhand way.
Venice can be a lot all at once. Emerging from the bustling Santa Lucia train station and spilling out onto the Grand Canal on a scorching summer afternoon is an intense experience. The rumbling echo of voices, the high-contrast light that forces you to squint as soon as you step out of the shadow of the station’s overhang, the briny smell of the canals, and the crush of too much humanity is totally overwhelming.
There is so much art to be ogled, so many incredible churches to visit and seemingly endless canals to be explored, and it all must be done in direct confrontation with the physical limitations imposed by the city itself. The walkways are narrow, the bridges small and the paths between all locations are a confusing maze that disorient as much as they delight. Add too many bodies into this equation and it becomes a surrealistic fun house of tourism run amok.
The city is overrun with visitors—many of whom show up for the day and then leave— and much of what exists on the superficial surface of caters to the immediate desires and questionable tastes of these fickle tourists. Need a selfie stick or a Venice captain’s hat? In some areas of the city you can find one every 20 steps. Looking for cheap glass trinkets or whimsically painted landscape of Venetian canals? You got it.
Yesterday I found myself physically trapped between a group of German tourists who had stopped in the middle of one of the narrowest points on one of the busiest paths through Venice. They were fixated on a notoriously annoying (to me) shop that has a dramatic chocolate fountain and thus creates a spectacle that usually results in weird physical jostling for passage through. Quite simply: Fuck that place. At first I patiently waited, hoping that one of them would notice that they’d blocked the flow of traffic in a major thoroughfare and move aside, but no such luck. Then I loudly said “Scusi!” into the group. No movement. Finally, I sort-of-delicately elbowed a woman my age and pushed my way through. I’m not going to lie, it felt cathartic.
At my most impatient, grumpy, and critical I become fixated on the schlock, the overflowing trash cans and the subtly hostile exchanges that characterize many interactions between outsiders and Venetians.
In those moments everything here feels transactional.
I am here to visit, to observe and ultimately to consume; the Venetians are here to live and they must make a living. It’s a relationship built on a shaky foundation of extraction and service. In order to maintain some semblance of normalcy, Venetians cannot engage visitors fully, there are just too many people here for too short a time to invest in any one of them. In a weird way this makes me feel both overly visible—I’m here and in the way—and totally invisible, because I’m just one of many who will come and leave.
And yet in order to continue live in their city, many Venetians are dependent upon the same extractive and destructive tourism that is ruining the affordability and livability of their city. It’s a goddamn ouroboros. This tension permeates so much of the experience of being here.
Venice has been a settlement and home for humans since the 5th century. That the city exists in profound harmony and also direct confrontation with the natural environment of the lagoon is its magic. That people have lived and died here, fished, painted, built and traded, and that the lagoon has continued to provide and sustain, is the reason this place doesn’t just exist as an idea or product to be consumed and rated on a scale. And yet all of that is threatened.
During school pick-up I’ve noticed a phenomenon of tourists taking photos and videos of the kids emerging from school. While I can see the visual appeal: the adorable little people with their huge backpacks, well-dressed families gathered in genial clusters with small dogs in arms, parents waiting on boats docked outside the school gates; it strikes me as so profoundly invasive. On the one hand they are capturing a real piece of Venetian life, routines and moments that exists outside of the general scope of tourism, but the act of recording sours the observation and makes it again about consuming and taking. What would happen if they just quietly watched in a non-obtrusive way?
Here’s another example:
The other day I was walking quickly to catch a vaporetto into Venice to pick Cleo up from school. It was the first time since we arrived that I’d put my earbuds in, and I was on a mission to get there on time. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a couple frantically waving at me. They were perched at the edge of a dock with their phones out, and they were both gesticulating wildly at me to stop. I took my earbuds out and walked towards them, concerned that something might be wrong. The woman then asked me to take their picture. If I hadn’t been in a rush on my way to pick my kid up from school I would have done it (and I have, a lot already), but I simply said, “No. I’m trying to catch a vaporetto,” and continued walking.
Some of our Venetian friends have described the pandemic as an incredible time of quiet; when the water in the canals ran clear and the small community of Venetians (a population of only 50,000 compared to the daily onslaught of 120,000 visitors/day) was able to enjoy their city without the daily intrusions of outsiders asking asinine questions like: “What time does Venice close for the night?”
So yeah, I guess I don’t think Venice is overrated, but I do think tourism may be.
That leads me to a question I’ve been asking myself as I watch other travelers engage with the city: What do they want from being here? And really, what are they looking for? And more importantly, what the hell am I doing here and what do I want from this place?
I’m not sure I have an answer, but I do know that as the days go by I find myself sinking in to a kind of noticing that is both familiar and also spiked with novelty. I observe the striped barnacles that line the canals, I catalogue the incredible array of trippy brass knockers on doors, and I search for secret courtyards and pomegranate trees poking out from above high stone walls. I take note of the different laundry smells, the scraping and bumping sounds of grocery carts dragged across ancient stones, and every once in awhile I try to remember my incredible good fortune to be here at all. Just like any place, the longer you stay, the more your focus shifts to the less obvious points of interest, and that’s how a place actually becomes “real”…whatever that means.
Who knows if I’ll ever follow through with my fantasy of accidentally elbowing an aspiring influencer with a blow out and selfie stand into a canal, but a girl can dream.
Anyway, enough of that! A few updates…
The transition to our new school routine has been relatively smooth. Cleo is now taking the vaporetto to Venice by herself, and one of us is picking her up at the end of the day. It’s pretty wild to walk her to the vaporetto stop in the morning and wave to her as the boat departs. She goes to school from 9-5 Monday through Friday, and 8-12 on Saturdays. She is PISSED about school on Saturday, as she should be. She’s come home with some hilarious stories about her homeroom teacher who she is convinced is simultaneously working as an accountant(?), as he tends to carry on lengthy phone conversations in Italian during class. Apparently these phone calls are punctuated by impassioned lectures on how to be a human. I have no idea how much she understands, but she finds him compelling and is amused that he doesn’t seem too concerned with what’s happening in the classroom. She’s made a few friends and started to play soccer and basketball with the boys during their recess. Her notebooks are filled with drawings that she makes during her classes. Her skills are improving rapidly, and I’ve decided that if all she learns this year is figure drawing and some Italian, we’re going to call school a rousing success.
Last week was Glass Week in Venice. Murano was popping off with demonstrations and events. At one point we happened upon a party/demonstration on a dock where a famous glass artist was blowing glass while a dj played new age tribal music and two naked women, their bodies painted blue, posed for pictures and slowly gyrated to the beats. THE LAYERS. We had a pretty solid conversation about it with Cleo later over late night pizza. I’m sure you can imagine what was discussed.
Andy and I also snuck away for a day to see part of the Biennale. The level of the work is truly astounding. I have many more thoughts about it that I hope to write about later, some of which include: statement necklaces, art scarves and the full spectrum of screen printed canvas bags on parade. But for now, this blurb sums up the demographic backdrop of Cecilia Alemani’s curatorial vision:
The Milk of Dreams includes over two hundred artists from 58 countries. More than 180 of these artists have never been in the International Art Exhibition until now. For the first time in its 127-year history, the Biennale will include a majority of women and gender non-conforming artists, a choice that reflects an international art scene full of creative ferment and a deliberate rethinking of man’s centrality in the history of art and contemporary culture.
We also made a trip to Mestre, the mainland suburb of Venice, just to see what’s going on there. Mestre gets a lot of shit talked about it, but we had a great day. We ate ramen and kimchi, we bought snacks at Asian grocery stores and generally just enjoyed being in a place that doesn’t cater primarily to tourists. It was both gritty and elegant, and I’m excited to return on a weekday when the market is in full swing, stores are open (we visited on a Sunday and most everything was shut) and I can explore a little bit further.
I’ve spent a great majority of my days over the last week trying to find all of Cleo’s required school supplies. Each day she comes home with a new list. The items necessary for each class are hyper specific. Hunting them down has given focus to my exploring and led me to some strange little stores in the city. I’ve also been stopping at various bars and restaurants for cicchetti and beverages as I look, and sometimes I stumble upon an art show or a church I’ve never visited.
Yesterday I was sitting drinking a glass of wine and reading at Vino Vero in Cannaregio, when an older gentleman with fantastic glasses wandered over and asked me in Italian why my wine was orange (it was a natural wine). We ended up chatting for awhile about the neighborhood, Cleo’s school and his work as a professor of religious studies.
Eventually the conversation turned to the election on the 25th, and Giorgia Meloni, the far-right, neo-fascist candidate who is expected to win. This article by Jason Horowitz at the Times is a pretty surreal and terrifying introduction to her if you are interested. Spoiler: it’s about hobbits. Also, if you’re into doom, it’s worth reading a little about the results of the elections in Sweden last week. After our conversation descended into the light fare of authoritarianism, he quoted John Irving from The World According to Garp, “Imagining something is better than remembering something,” and said his goodbye with a sweet smile and a little wave.
And that’s where I’ll leave you, dear reader.
Thanks for reading and supporting my work.
Belle I am loving your blog so much. You manage to cover the funny as well as the serious in such a compelling way. I was especially amused by your comment about the hyper specific list of school supplies for Cleo. Living in Italy I found Italians to be at times rule breakers and at other times very particular about how THINGS ARE DONE. I get it. As I read your posts I am brought right back to Venice and Mestre (we stayed in Mestre at least once since Venice is so expensive). Getting around Venice can be incredibly difficult with the crowds. I was there once with a group of Highschoolers as a chaperone and found it very challenging to keep an eye on all the kids. Crazy but good times.
Love your blog!
The worldwide political situation is so disheartening - terrifying indeed.
So glad you are having this experience of living in another world, and exploring so vividly.
We were in Venice with our family of 26 before Covid. It was magical to fly in, go to the hotel by water taxi, and wake up to a buffet brunch on a balcony by a gondola stop. The kids didn't want to leave. Admitted it was a short tourist experience, but it left a mark. Wonderful to see you making the most of settling in and living there.