Truly timeless writing never arrives late.
Its relevance seems lightly fated when it finally appears atop a tall stack of magazines and newspaper sections, patiently waiting its turn underneath the canopy of a house plant — which is what happened with Matt Gross’s New York Times essay from a couple Sundays ago, titled “Lost in Paris.”
While our styles are different, Matt and I share a deep love of travel, of foreign places, and of hoping that we can lose and find ourselves in the process. The contrast of new and nostalgia he sought in Paris brought to mind last month’s turn in Venice; I found myself comparing my sojourns there over the past seven years.
Matt’s experience helped me realize that, like Paris for him, Venice will be one of those cities that I come to know over a lifetime — and realize with each visit that I can’t ever know it all, thankfully. With every return, I will challenge myself to find something fresh as I struggle to balance knowledge that I can’t un-know and the desire to retrace certain old steps.
I will wrestle down well-loved memories in order to conjure enough space for pioneering footsteps. At some point, I’ll encounter the inevitable moment when I’ll seek something familiar and find it gone.
In spite of many new experiences in store, my most recent trip felt like a long-awaited sequel — as if my finger had been hesitating above a “play” button for the past year. I was unsure how the story would progress, much less how it might end, or if cast members would return. I wondered if my return to Venice would be worth the many prices of admission.
It didn’t begin smoothly, and that alone was a different side of my favorite city.
After sharing several days with a surprise travel companion, I felt like my trip really began the morning of his departure. We had discovered countless new places together — Lido for the film festival where we saw Al Pacino, Murano where we bought beautiful glassworks and crossed our fingers as the shop owners secured them in bubble wrap, and the church of Madonna dell’Orto in the Canareggio sestiere, which houses a wealth of Tintoretto paintings.
But it wasn’t until I arrived at Gelateria Paolin, tucked away in a corner of Campo S. Stefano, on Tuesday afternoon that my familiar relationship with Venice entered truly new territory.
As I stepped into Campo S. Stefano, having navigated mostly by foot from the Castello after a day of vaporetto strikes, it was like a theater darkening at the start of a show. The opening set appeared around me as I approached the waves of blue chairs and yellow tablecloths. When I identified Klevis from the other waiters, the scene leapt into motion.
I waved and he approached, harried from a day of serving tourists, but happy to see me. As I leaned forward to embrace and cheek-kiss him, Klevis apologized for being so sweaty. I don’t know the word for “sweaty,” but somehow, my mind filled in the blanks.
I leaned in for a cheek kiss on the other side and assured him that all was well, or as the Italians say, Non ti preoccupato (Don’t worry about it) and tutto a posto (everything’s fine.)
He lead me towards a seat where another waiter brought me spritz and potato chips – flat, thin, and salty. The food and drink were tasty, but I was concerned —preoccupato, in fact– wondering whether Denis would show up as we had agreed. I took out my notebook to distract myself, but my mind was blank.
In rare moments when I can’t think of anything to write, I draw. I began with the statue of Nicolò Tommaseo followed by the young woman at the table kitty corner to me, then moved to a table of Australians downing pints of beer and one very serious German couple who sat next to them.
My drawings are never bad nor remarkable; in this case, my sketch of Nicolò resembled George Washington crossing the Delaware — regal yet unidentifiable and out of place.
A few minutes after 18:00, I resigned myself to finishing my snack alone. I recalled the first time I came to Gelateria Paolin at the end of last summer, days before the regatta and the film festival. Iole and I arrived just before 20:00 to look for Klevis on our first night in town. I’ll never forget standing nervously to the side of the tables as one of the waiters phoned him, since he had the night off.
My Italian wasn’t as good then, and I initially felt self-conscious when we arrived at Pier Dickens, but I did what I could to keep up with their Italian that night — Iole, Klevis, and Denis.
I listened more than I spoke. I smoked more than I should have. I laughed more than I thought I would. And, sighting a large wharf rat at the edge of a street, I bumped into Denis as we walked.
It felt surreal to play back those moments as I sat at the same cafe, wondering and waiting. The set was familiar, but the scene quite different; one year depends on the previous but is in no way locked into the same conclusion.
There was no Iole, for starters, and I missed her buoyancy. It was her sense of openness, of endless optimism, that brought us to Paolin in the first place — but that’s her story to tell.
Taking a sip of spritz, I reflected on our journey — first, retrieving her luggage from underneath a hidden staircase in an old palazzo with a giant skeleton key obtained from her friend, Claudio. Then there was that damned suitcase itself –Signor Rossi, I dubbed it– absolutely leaden, as if it contained a dead body. We dragged it over bridges, up and down stairs, and through crowds. Denis and Klevis helped us get it home that first night as we trudged from his apartment near the Rialto to our hotel in the Cannaregio at 4:30 in the morning.
On our last night in Venice, Iole and I happened upon Denis while in search of a nightcap. Afterwards, we walked him home and paused on the Rialto, a beacon of yellow light amidst the surrounding blackness. That was when I asked, “When there are places like Civita and Venice, what does the rest of it matter?”
She didn’t have an answer.
We leaned back against the marble railing and I took the photo that makes up the masthead of my blog. Then we walked back to our hotel arm in arm. I think there’s a part of us that has never left.
Our five days together helped me find a new side of Venice, something quiet and treasured, like turning over a rock to find a fossil on the other side. This year, such discovery was in my hands.
“Excuse me, miss,” a voice said to my left, affecting an American accent. “Is this seat taken?” It was a joke within a joke, since Denis rarely spoke English except when I asked him to explain something.
He looked just as I remembered as he pulled out the chair and sat down. We embraced, and that’s when I knew: it wasn’t so much about finding a different side of Venice this time, but a different side of myself.