Venice, Italy, July 2021
My first return to Venice at the tail end of another lockdown, and my head reels with oily exhaust fumes and I am nearly ecstatic. I am outside Mestre station, last outpost before the land bridge over the lagoon, and I have been breathing crisp clean country air for months. A train ride into town seemed risky, so I have driven along the autostrada past Padova to the coast, parked in a lot that is devoid of any sort of tourist presence. Italy is still closed off – again – and I have only just been allowed to cross into the Provincia di Venezia, thirty minutes away from my own. The city whoosh is bracing! Mestre is a pitstop on the way to the sinking city of canals, a rudimentary reality check full of Chinese bars and sleazy hotels, not far from the eyesore of Porto Marghera, where it’s unwise to walk at night. Nothing like Venice’s creamy marble facades and echoing footsteps along the water, where one has a sense of being cocooned by history, by fog, by the stories of the ages.
And then I am in Venice herself. She is empty and unfazed before me. The station is empty; there are few trains, cops, not a trolley bag in sight. How many plagues has she seen? With her isle of the dead – Lazzaretto – where archaeologists early this century discovered layer upon layer of bodies sent across the muggy waters to die. We are told there were rich men heaped upon paupers in mass graves, jewellery and elaborate fabrics crushed into the jute and worn leather of the poor. Let them rest in peace. The island later became a military post before being abandoned. Venice is no stranger to war, plagues, intrigue. The bird’s beak mask that we see in tourist shops is indeed no theatrical device – herbs and oils were stuffed into this beak, worn by doctors visiting the stricken, in the hope of keeping the virus at bay. In fact, if you look beyond the trinket-filled showcase Venice has become into her true heart, you see that the Serenissima – the Venetian Republic that produced Antonio Vivaldi’s music, that fostered the works of Tiziano Vecelli (Titian) and Giacomo Casanova, even Thomas Mann, Luchino Visconti (Death in Venice) and Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now) – is the sum of these forces and sensitivities, and her current status is a shameful cheapening of her true purpose.
But I digress! An empty, deserted Venice gives way to these thoughts. The only people one sees on these semi-lockdown afternoons are locals with kids and dogs, or the elderly, no longer snapping at tourists hefting knapsacks or tanned legs; the city feels as though she has regained the keys to her soul – there is a quietness, a receding, a new tide; an almost watery suspension between the tight buildings and the canals snaking through; the waves are audible and freshly alive.
Now that it is allowed, I go to Venice every Friday, to enjoy this different place. I take the empty vaporetto out past Santa Marta and the shipyards, into the belly of the lagoon, coming up past the Zattere towards the pearly Doge’s Palace and San Marco, then get off at the Giardini and walk along the waterfront. A dusky windy walk, barely anyone about. When I enter the labyrinth of buildings the shops are all closed; many shutters are down and you know they will not open again, ever. For a while the bars take orders outdoors until 6pm so you rush to get a seat in a tiny campo with cold sun; where every random conversation is infused with survival and joy. Prosecco because things are better, not really, but perhaps. One afternoon a man asks me to marry him; another day I befriend an artist whose partner produces Cocteau-style ceramics – something to indulge in, a return to art. There is grief and awe everywhere. Stillness. Echoes. I pace and pace into the darkness, not wanting to leave the slow lilting panorama, not wanting the tourists to come back with their pushy streams of I-own-this-place-for-a-day, their unremarkable selfies. These nights, Venice is mine.
But let me share with you some of these wandering moments. I won’t mention that Katy Perry and Orlando whats-his-name have been showing off their gilded hotel quarters. Or that when I flew back from London the other week I saw a disgraceful mammoth cruise ship berthed behind the island – when last year Italian leadership swore that these unholy invaders would not return. Lies again. We won’t go there. I’m not sure how she will be next time I go to Venice – carefree enough to catch the train the whole way now. Long-suffering, mournful, gleaming Venice who has witnessed more than any of us can imagine, who now deserves serenity and respect.
Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney, ran away to Paris to write, and ended up in Ghana running a bar. Praised by Hilary Mantel, her short story collection The Cartography of Others was a People’s Book Prize (UK) finalist and winner of the Eyelands International Book Award (Greece). Pelt and Other Stories was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and a Hudson Prize semi-finalist. Love Stories for Hectic People is out in February 2021. Catherine is a writing coach and runs summer writing residencies in Italy where she lives. www.catherinemcnamarawriter.com