I had always thought it nonsense to believe in love at first sight. But that sophomoric conceit sank with that setting sun over the Venetian church spires that summer day in 1973. And with it was washed away that companion conceit that falling in love was something that could only happen between two humans…
The first time I ended up in Venice, I was on my way to Vienna. That was early July 1973. I had just spent a dismal day on the outskirts of Munich, having just visited the concentration camp at Dachau, and I was eager to wend my way to stolid, sedate, serene Vienna. I found a piece of discarded cardboard and I carefully emblazoned on it in large black block letters the word, VIENNA. Just to be sure, I also inscribed on the cardboard the German spelling: WIEN. I then stood patiently on the side of the autobahn since hitchhiking on the autobahn was illegal, I was fervently praying that someone would stop before the police did. Remarkably, I didn’t have to wait long. In much less than an hour a small Italian sportscar stopped and the driver excitedly screamed to me: “Venezia, Venezia!” Employing all the exceptional linguistic and intellectual skills that would ensure my success later in life as a diplomat, I immediately concluded that Venezia must be the Italian pronunciation of Vienna, and I jumped into the car. After all, I sagely reasoned, they both began with a V.
As I slowly began to sense that we were going too much in a southernly direction and our elevation continued to rise, I asked the Italian, who was manically speeding along the sharp curves as if we were on a raceway, if we were still on the right road to Vienna, to which he kept yelling, “Si, si, Venezia!” The certainty in his voice assuaged my concerns and I closed my eyes and fell asleep. When I opened them, it was nearing evening. As I looked through the windshield the setting sun had set the myriad canals ablaze with reflected light. Was I still asleep? Could this really be Vienna? Where on earth was I? I wondered. I rolled down my window and the languorous voices of the gondoliers, mixing with the colors of the setting sun, were intoxicating. To expect Vienna and get Venice instead was like stopping at a fast food drive-through and ending up having a twelve-course dinner on linen tablecloths and fine china.
I had always thought it nonsense to believe in love at first sight. But that sophomoric conceit sank with that setting sun over the Venetian church spires that summer day in 1973. And with it was washed away that companion conceit that falling in love was something that could only happen between two humans. But there I was, looking all starry-eyed and befuddled, smitten by a place, a dream, a notion: Venice. I wandered the city as if in a trance, not sleeping for well over two days, captivated by every twist and curve of the city. When I finally did fall asleep, my wanderings through the city continued in my dreams and I awoke eager to devour more palaces, museums, and alleyways. Venice, long ago aptly named the Queen of the Adriatic, can seem a haughty mistress. In her winsome way, she quietly demands from all visitors complete and undivided devotion. It seemed that no matter how many churches I prayed in, how many museums I toured, how many bridges and canals I crossed, there were always more to see and experience. Venice always seems awash in an endless sea of art. Yet, it is a scandalous understatement to say Venice is a city full of great works of art. Venice, itself, is a great work of art.
I have returned to Venice half a dozen times since then and its spell has only intensified as I age. It was in 2012, nearly 40 years later, the next time I visited Venice, this time with my wife Sharon. It was only for a few hours, a day trip from our home in Slovenia. Then a few weeks later we felt we needed to return for a long weekend. And then only months later, again back to Venice for a full week. But no matter how long or short the visit, we always seemed to need just one day more. It was just the same my last visit, this February, when I found myself walking again alone along the same winding pathways that I walked over 45 years ago. As it is when we meet an old friend or lover: a deep yearning for just a little more time together to reminisce and remember. It is an intriguing paradox about visiting Venice that it is always satisfying, but it can never fully satisfy.
The city has changed in some ways over the last half century—the canals seem much cleaner and the tourists even more abundant. And, of course, some things never change. It is still too easy to get distracted by overpriced walking tours or the equally overpriced, assembly line-like gondola rides, and it takes Odyssean resolve to resist the even more excessively overpriced Murano glass and the siren call of the pricey cafes along San Marco square. During my last visit, I was surprised to find the tourists almost as plentiful in frigid February as during sweltering summer. I was also amused to see that the demographics of the visitors had changed so dramatically. The vast majority of visitors seemed to be middle class Chinese, a tourism demographic that hardly existed fifty years earlier. As I watched the hordes of Chinese tourists trampling by in the narrow pathways, I thought it fitting that China had now discovered Venice, as that venerable Venetian traveler had discovered Cathay 800 years earlier. I wondered if Marco Polo had carelessly left a trail of pizza crumbs during his journey back from the Orient and that trail had been belatedly discovered by the progeny of his thirteenth century hosts.
An Almost Haiku
During that unexpected first visit way back in 1973, I stayed at a youth hostel situated on some distant island. The price was inordinately high at approximately three dollars a day for a bed in a room shared by dozens of other unwashed hitchhikers, but it seemed well worth it given those incredible sunsets. At that time, with my youthful twenty-one-year old eyes, I thought Venice at sunset was like looking into the eyes of a woman who loves you. Today, with far more aged eyes, I now know that to be in Venice with a woman you love is the most of heaven earth can ever offer us. Perhaps Thomas Wolfe was right that you can never go home again, but it is reassuring in many ways that you can always go back to Venice. On the steps of that hostel, I sat down and, even before registering, I reached into my sack for pen and paper. A scribbled fragment of a poem I never finished is still on that page:
this the prize,
here the gift;
a place of possible,
the use of perhaps.
city of then,
summed in nows.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0.