In 2007 I had finally earned that BA in Literature Writing and told my good friend Neil that I was considering a solo trip to Venice to celebrate. I’m not sure I’d have actually gone, but telling him took care of me waffling or backing down. The man is relentless.
Venice, to me, was unutterably sad. It was so overrun by tourists that there was no room for Venetians, for Venice itself. Just the Disney version of it with singing gondoliers and murky canals. I spent a week in a very stripped down apartment in the Dorsoduro and in my daily getting-lost-and-then-figuring-out-where-I-was, I would quickly change direction as soon as I’d come across the first shop selling masks.
Once I found myself in one of the broader streets, one without a canal down the middle, and it was lined with all the familiar store names I know from Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue. Anne Klein, Swarovski, Ralph Lauren, Tom Ford, Dolce & Gabbana, Zara. They’re all there (and tonight they’re all closed down). Then I turned a corner and found a MacDonald’s.
I’d decided to go the week after Carnival thinking that there might be a few less tourists then.
Of course, all that changed earlier this year when the virus came to Italy. Now when I go to my favorite Venetian webcam, there are very few people (most wearing surgical, not Carnival, masks), no gondolas and increasingly clear water in the canals. I tend to keep the webcam going on my screen during the day and evening, watching Venice, St. Petersburg (Russia), Norway, and now even Times Square.
It’s the nights in Venice that intrigue me.
When I was there in 2007, I found that Venice in February isn’t a hotbed of scintillating nightlife but now it’s ghostly.
Even then there was already a heavy influx of Asian tourists however it’s Venice so there were people from everywhere, blocking the streets and excitedly snapping pictures in every direction. One day I paid a precious Euro and escaped the crowds by ducking into one of the many churches.
Once inside, I didn’t linger to gaze up into the gloom at the Tintorettos. Instead, I slid off to the side and found that one of the private family chapels that lined the main sanctuary was empty. I had it all to myself. I sat quietly, watching the dust motes swim back and forth in the colored rays of sun and felt the weight of the centuries.
In this country, we don’t yet have the sense of how heavily human history presses down on the living.
Sitting in a silent chapel that had been waiting silently for centuries while all the world’s whirl and madness clamored on outside, I felt myself disappearing. Who was I, after all? No more substantial than the generations of women who had prayed from those pews.
I imagine what it must be like for the forty-three actual Venetians who haven’t been run off by the walls of tourists that threaten to sink Venice for real. They have their city back. They had to pay for that with the lives of their grandparents, but now they can freely walk their streets. They can watch swans and fish swimming in their canals and easily get a seat on a passing vaporetto. The cafes are closed, si, but who cares when there are plenty of places to sit without having tourists take their picture?
All those empty hotel rooms. All those gondoliers praying for the souls of the departed.
All that quiet.
And that quiet doesn’t end at the lagoon.
Throughout Italy, Europe, North America, and Asia. We are quiet. We are still. The planes are mostly sitting on the ground. Ambulance drivers, for the first time, can easily get their many patients to waiting hospitals. There are plenty of parking places. Bicyclists don’t have to watch out for the endless marauding parade of deadly cars. In India, the air is clear for the first time in generations.
At what price? We will be tallying up the losses for years, decades.
I wish I could be in Venice tonight. I wish I could experience the quiet, the stillness, the peace. I would like to watch the light of the moon ripple on the canals without the wakes of passing motorboats. I would like to feel what Venice is really like without all those cameras. Because Venice, unlike say New York, once did exist more quietly.
Yes, it’s quiet here in New York (if you don’t count the sirens and the nightly cheers that erupt at 7 pm), but that’s an anomaly. It’s unnatural and unsettling and weird.
There are many people saying this changes everything. That we’ll never go back to the way things were before the virus. Maybe. Maybe not.
But we won’t be the same.
Those of us in the quiet, seeing swans on the canals, seeing the Himalayas from afar, cooking all our meals, standing in long lines to buy our groceries from underpaid people wearing masks. Those of us who watched loved ones being taken away in ambulances, never to see them again.
We might strive to return to “normal”, but we’re experiencing something entirely new in human history and that erases normal.
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