Sunday, December 24, 2006

And now for something totally different: A holiday card from Venice

A reader has asked me to post some pictures of Venice on my blog. I’m sorry to disappoint, but I can’t; or more truthfully, I won’t. I consider myself a fairly accomplished and even passionate amateur photographer; I always carry a camera when I travel. I have, however, never been tempted to photograph this spectacularly beautiful city where I have the privilege of living.

The problem is that the beauty of Venice is rendered trivial and banal when reduced to a photograph. There are many attractive buildings in Venice, but with the exception of the Sansovino library, the Ca’ d’Oro, and perhaps the Miracoli and Redentore churches and a few others, truly fine architectural examples are rare. The beauty of Venice depends upon the wonderful, ever changing light of the city, sometimes cold, steely grey- blue, sometimes violet- pink, sometimes golden, produced by the sun, the water, and the mist. Painters (Canaletto, Guardi, Turner) have done a much better job than photographers of capturing the beauty of the city. But even those painters couldn’t capture the wonder of the city as one moves through it on a small boat or gondola through the back canals, seeing each building and vista in the context of the last. It’s a beauty that has to be appreciated in motion, not from a static perspective. You just have to come here to understand.

Nevertheless, I feel some obligation to share something of Venice with people who may be interested. I frequently am asked by visitors to the city what it is like living here; perhaps trying to answer that question, including discussing what it’s like being an openly gay person in this city, will be more useful than any photograph I could post.

Many people who live in very beautiful cities may become so accustomed to the beauty of their surroundings that they are no longer aware of it. I also spend a good deal of time in Paris, and I do, at times, lose sight of how beautiful Paris is. Such dampening of the aesthetic sensibilities never happens in the case of Venice; not with me, and not even with the simplest, least sophisticated native- born Venetian. I attribute this constant wonderment caused by Venice to the kaleidoscopic nature of her beauty; every day, at every hour, with the changes in sunlight, tides, and atmosphere, she presents you with a new face, and all of them are beautiful.

What many visitors really mean when they ask what it is like to live in Venice is how we who live here cope with the millions of tourists that traipse through our city every year. The answer is: barely. Ever since its political decline in the XVI century, Venice has been a city that has lived, at least partially, off of tourism, so tourism has long been a fact of Venetian life. Even the famous Venetian Carnival is not really a real Venetian festival; it was initiated in the XVIII century to attract tourists to the city. The situation has changed substantially, however, in the last thirty years or so, with the advent of mass tourism. No only has the number of tourists visiting Venice increased exponentially; the type of tourist has changed.

When I was given a trip to Europe as a college graduation present by my parents, I was instructed by them that I was to conduct myself abroad as I would as a guest in someone’s home. Tourists now coming to Venice show very little consideration for the people who live here; Venetians who used to be unbelievably kind and accommodating to tourists have begun to lose patience.

Thankfully, however, 90% of the tourists limit themselves to the water busses and to about 10% of the city, so the resident comes into contact with them only on public transportation or if he has to go into certain sections of the city (where no resident in his right mind would live). Also thankfully, the 10% of the city that the tourists do frequent is not even necessarily the most beautiful or most interesting part of the city. So, if you walk instead of taking the frequently tourist impacted public transport, despite the huge numbers of tourists that visit this city, you can be blissfully unaware of them.

But even if you don’t come into contact with tourists very often, mass tourism has had a negative effect on the quality of life of everyone here. It has driven real estate prices through the roof, making it almost impossible for middle class young Venetians to afford apartments and forcing them to move to the mainland. Aside from people (such as me and my partner) associated with one of the three universities here in Venice, which essentially comprise the second largest industry in the city, the middle class has fled, driven away largely by exaggeratedly high housing costs. It city, in fact, has actually begun a program to discourage tourism, since it threatens the demographic infrastructure of the city and has negatively affected the quality of life.

My partner and I have a strong circle of friends, composed in equal parts of native Venetians, Italians from other regions that have moved here, and foreigners. We have this social situation, however, essentially because we are involved with the university and with the city administration, the last bastions of the middle class left in Venice. Professional people, especially expatriates, not involved with these sectors have a much more difficult time connecting socially here. The non- university expats are basically isolated in the expat community, which has very little to do with the life of the city.

Despite the middle class flight from the city and the hoards of tourists, Venice has miraculously remained a real place and has avoided becoming a Disneyland image of itself. Venetian culture is still quite alive in the city. Most non- Italian visitors don’t understand that the language they hear spoken in Venice is very frequently not Italian, but rather Venetian dialect, a language with its own history and an illustrious literary tradition. Venice is the only city in northern Italy in which the local dialect is spoken as frequently as standard Italian. If you understand Venetian, it is not difficult to find an excellent performance of a play by Venice’s world class XVIII century playwright, Carlo Goldoni. A foreigner or a non- Venetian Italian is not expected to speak Venetian, but he is expected to understand it. Venetians will begin speaking to a non- Venetian in Italian, but will very quickly slip into Venetian. It is both more comfortable for them and an expression of acceptance and intimacy.

Another area in which Venetian culture is alive and well is the kitchen. Venetian cuisine cannot compete in variety and complexity with the three or four major centers of Italian cuisine, Emiglia- Romagna, Piemonte, Sicily, and, perhaps Naples (You haven’t eaten pizza until you’ve eaten it at the Pizzeria Trianon in Naples, but that’s another story). But the Venetian lagoon, its islands, and the neighboring mainland produce the best fish and vegetables in Italy; so, Venetian cuisine is quite minimalist, depending on simple preparations of excellent ingredients. A typical Venetian meal would have as an antipasto fried fresh sardines marinated in olive oil, vinegar, onions and raisins --- remember, Venice has strong Byzantine, middle eastern roots---, followed by a risotto made either with fish or, better, with the tiny white artichokes from the lagoon island of San Erasmo, followed by a fresh caught (not farmed!) grilled sea bass from the lagoon. Desert is generally fresh fruit from the neighboring mainland.

What? No pasta? Except for a whole- wheat pasta generally served with an anchovy- onion sauce, Venice is corn meal (polenta) and risotto country. (So much for the myth of Marco Polo’s having brought pasta to Italy from China; if that were the case, wouldn’t pasta be part of the cuisine of his native city?). We eat lots of pasta in Venice, but we consider it slightly “foreign.”

People who live in Venice tend to avoid restaurants and tend to eat and entertain at home much more often than people in other cities. There are some very good restaurants in Venice that have resisted the corrupting influence of floods of tourists who don’t understand Venetian food, and won’t be back anyway. In order to cultivate a local clientele, most Venetian restaurants have special prices for residents. But residents tend to avoid restaurants since some staples of Venetian cuisine, such as risotto, can’t be made properly in a restaurant (It requires 30 minutes of constant attention and stirring, can’t be made for more than six people at a time, and must be served immediately.) Fresh caught fish generally costs at least double the farmed variety; so, serving it in a moderately priced restaurant would be difficult (Most fish served to tourists is farmed.).

Because Venetian residents entertain so much at home --- having people in, or eating at friends’ homes two or three times a week is not a rarity--- the level of intimacy in friendly relations is quite high. Also, since space is at a premium in an island city that can’t expand either outward or up, people live very close to each other. Unless you are very rich and have a palazzo of your own, you smell your neighbor’s sardines frying up for lunch, and you hear his arguments with his spouse. In short, privacy is almost non- existent. Living in Venice is like living in a very beautiful fish bowl. (The positive side of this is that Venice is perhaps the safest city in Europe.)

This living on top of one another has, of course, a strong impact on gay life in the city. There are no gay bars or specifically gay clubs--- they are all are on the mainland. Venetians tend, because of their imperial history and also the influence of tourism, to be very tolerant of non- conformity and cultural differences--- much more so than in many other cities in highly conformist Italy. But unless you’re out to your friends, colleagues, and family, you couldn’t frequent a gay bar in a city in which secrets are almost impossible. So, Venetian gay guys use the bars and baths in Bologna or Padua; even the few gay places in the mainland section of Venice, Mestre, are too close to home for them. The gay venues in Mestre are generally patronized by tourists and Italians from other cities, as are the few open air cruising places in Venice.

Ironically, there is a gay nude beach with an adjacent pine grove for immediate consumption. It is used by Venetians, resident outsiders, and well informed tourists. I suppose it works because people are less inclined to gossip when they themselves have obviously been bare- assed in the dunes. Gossip, then, involves a certain amount of self- indictment.

Perhaps because of the legacy of Henry James, Venice has the image to those who don’t know her as an elegant, mysterious, and snobbish place. But because of its imperial and mercantile history it is also the most culturally tolerant and cosmopolitan of cities. It confined its Jews to the ghetto, but it didn’t expel them, as many medieval and renaissance Italian and European cities did. And now, despite Venice’s location in Italy’s politically conservative and even xenophobic northeast, the city has a traditionally leftist government and a model program for assistance to people seeking political asylum. Quite a different thing from sipping tea in the garden of a crumbling palazzo on the Grand Canal--- we have that, too, but it’s clearly no the whole picture.

I hope this brief verbal sketch of life in Venice has done justice to La Serenissima.

Best wishes to you all for the happiest of holidays!


Blogger RIC said...

Buon Natale anche per te, Bruce!

(Even before reading the presentation of La Serenissima... My time is a little bit short right now...)

Feliz Natal!
Merry Christmas!

6:14 AM  
Blogger RIC said...

Bravo, Bruce, and thank you so very much for this great portrait of La Serenissima!
It must be quite a unique experience to "have the privilege" of living in such a special city. When I visited Venice in the summer about twenty years ago, problems caused by the amount of tourists were already noticeable. Being a bit agoraphobic myself, I've really enjoyed Venice only in the late evening. And you are so right about its light! I believe that is what has struck me the most/deepest, if I take into consideration some texts I wrote when I was there.
I did fall in love with Venice then, and I believe I'm somehow under its spell yet. You are lucky indeed, Bruce, for having an organized life in a place that is unique on Earth!
Thank you so very much for sharing your experience with us all!

Sono sicuro che La Serenissima ti ringrazia per il ritratto che ci ne hai dato!

5:33 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

You do a great service for those of us who have not had the opportunity to visit your mythical, mystical city. Someday, we'll have the opportunity to really see Venice, and not vicariously see it through a Woody Allen piece or an Architecture history course!

Bruce, I hope you and yours have a peaceful and happy holiday.

8:11 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Great insight into the real Venice. I was there six years ago and loved every inch of it. Visited the museums, drank wine on the canal, ate at fantastic restaurants but most of all I just loved walking the streets.

Merry Christmas!

7:24 AM  
Blogger Ur-spo said...

I have longed to travel - and to see Venice; but was always intimidated to go yet I be one of millions of "American tourists". I suppose my vanity prevents me from traveling; I don't want people to look upon me with scorn. So, I doubt I will ever see the place but in films and books.
Still, it seems a mavelous place; so full of history.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Mike, and any others afraid of being a tourist in Venice,

Please don't be put off coming to Venice because you're afraid of being looked down upon as a tourist. Only an insufferable snob would look down upon a tourist who does a bit of reading on a place before he comes, is interested in the culture and history, and is sensitive to the feelings of the people who live there.

Believe me, the courteous, well informed tourist stands out from the "unwashed" masses, most particularly in a city like Venice, but also in other European tourist cities I know well, such as Paris and Vienna. The local people are quick to recognize such tourists, and treat their coming to their city as a compliment.

Anyway, anyone who reads and comments on my blog is welcome to let me know when he'll be in town, either in Venice, Paris, or Vienna. I travel a good deal, so I can't garantee I'll be able to meet you, but if I'm in town, I certainly would like to.

2:20 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

My now-deceased lover and I visited Venice in the mid-1990's. You are so right about the impossibility of capturing its beauty via photograph. We arrived in the morning and saw the mists rising off the grand canal, the white monastery on the island looked to be floating on glass. As we were riding the boat on the Grand Canal I remembered my lover turning to me and saying "I never imagined this place was so feels so different from any other place I've been to."

Your descriptions are a pleasure to read.

8:01 PM  

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