Venezia is a dream — a voyage that begins where the train tracks end; the wide, white smile of a friend who embraces you with soft arms, cool breezes, and cerulean skies. Four gondoliers doff their ribboned hats to enjoy a snack at the table next to yours, crustless white sandwiches filled with prosciutto and carciofi that disappear in seconds — then so do they.
Vaporettos ferry you from bank to bank with grinding motors that shift abruptly in reverse, water churning about, and bump against the floating docks with a quake and a see-saw bob that remains with you for minutes on land. You follow old white signs in dialect leading from campo to rio to via to ponte to calle to fondamente; some are streets now where water once ran. Churches abut hotels next to homes with ground-floor restaurants followed by shoe shops, book shops, and clothing shops; negozio after negozio.
In the market after noon, the odor of today’s catch lingers in fishy ice that’s hosed to the floor drains. Columns with ichthyian capitals stand guard over a sea of kiosk umbrellas vending soft green figs, plump red tomatoes, and brilliant saffron-colored fiori di zucca waiting to be baked. Short, bent old women weave through the crowd, arms laden with plastic sacks like bracelets from wrist to elbow. Carabinieri, always in pairs, glide along in their drab uniforms to monitor a peace that appears ever-kept.
Thousands of strolling couples make the evening passage –the late afternoon floor show– and you have a front seat complete with salty potato chips and balloon goblets of spritz. The tangy liquid-sun flavor of aperol tempered by cool white wine and sparkling water meets your lips as you suck gently on the shipwrecked slice of orange — pregnant, juicy, and delicious.
Waves of ultramarine, violet, and burnt orange layer the sky as the setting sun falls behind the buildings. Canal-side, there are white table clothes and pitchers of young, sweet wine waiting for you, along with a fleet of mosquito captains in pursuit of your blood. Fried cichetti –red peppers, shrimp, calamari, zucchini– flavored with salt and oil gently tease out the wine’s flavor before the tender bistecca melts in your mouth.
Sulphuric yellow lamp lights effect a soft glow as the crowds wane. A nomadic guitarist with charcoal skin picks gently at his instrument while his partner’s sonorous serenade of, “O Sole Mio,” elicits coins from a couple who desires neither their music nor their company. Cigarette and marijuana smoke tickle your nose, smoky tendrils weaving above your head like genies in the darkness as you disappear down an alley only wide as your frame.
A short, bullish man with salt and pepper hair brushes past you as he exits his antiquities shop, close enough for you to see the curly tufts of black hair that spring from his ears. “Dimmi,” he gently growls into his phone, turning the ancient key and walking home alone. The lagoon water relaxes from blue-green to inky black; when you look up, the fingernail moon greets you in partnership with all the stars you can’t see at home in the city.
Your feet slowly tire stone by stone, stair by stair, bridge by bridge, but Venezia only becomes more interesting as the darkness thickens. You happen on archways filled with graffiti and couples embracing in the corner; tiny campos with bars still open past 1 am gather crowds like moths to a flame. Distracted by a throng of college students singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” you nearly miss the friar frocked in warm brown robes as he darts from one calle to the next, lithe like a cat, then disappears.
Venezia is a dream sweetly held in old rugs and crumbling stucco, in marble stairs and wrought iron railings, in flooding fondamenti and creaking wooden bridges. The Rialto and Accademia stand as quiet witnesses to the hijinks and carousing in the streets around them. From above the Grand Canal in the moonlight, you can barely discern the silhouettes of late-night partygoers forced to squat their contributions at the end of a wooden pier, their identities cloaked.
As in all dreams, Venezia holds these moments of reality like hidden pockets of honey, difficult to separate from fantasy. Quiet footfalls become a gentle clop of hooves on stone while old gates swing open like there’s someone home. Gilded carnivale masks laugh from darkened store shelves and worn brass door knockers rage mutely as you stop to finger the deep impressions of a long-gone ghetto gate that once barred all of the city’s Jewry.
You forget such sights as the frozen tang of sgroppino slips down your throat –a lemon dreamsicle with hints of champagne– that sweetly balances the burn of cigarette smoke in your throat; your head spins pleasantly, it’s been so long. Then, the warm shoulders of friends carry you home –hands, legs, and arms entwine and release– as you close the distance with revived soles. Time to say goodnight, pausing to press cheek to cheek before sliding under crisp, cool covers starched like soldiers.
Venezia is a dream, indeed; perhaps unfulfilled so that you can return to it again and again –always, forever– in your mind.