My roommate and I have been waking up to find a few new bites every day. It’s not just the mosquitoes with their droning whining…eeee…eeee…eeee… directly in my ear that wake me up with a start – there are these little pesky bugs smaller than mosquitoes, but still annoying. They cling to the walls and ceiling of our room, even with the curtains’ ample nightly dose of bug spray. One side of my face and my right foot are covered with itchy raised bumps. The only drawback of the lack of shades. The Venetian night is truly all encompassing. James expresses the sentiment perfectly in “The Aspern Papers” saying, “I was seldom at home in the evening, for when I attempted to occupy myself in my apartments the lamplight brought in a swarm of noxious insects, and it was too hot for closed windows.”
During class this morning, we watched Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now,” the embodiment, and now the culmination, of a 6-year fear. It had all started when I read Daphne du Maurier’s short story, upon which the film was based. It takes place in Venice and utilizes the darker side of the city as a setting for deception and a surprise murder. The weapon is a gleaming silver blade, a shocking death that I have even now ingrained in my imagination, incapable of a complete purge. I had not forgotten the vivid description. The movie did an excellent job of drawing out the darker side of the Venetian character and though a definite work of art in itself, the power of the short story lives on. Even driving to the airport, my family was still cracking jokes about this irrational fear, a fear that replaced that of the ‘giant orange bunny claw’ of my early childhood. This latter reference is something I will not delve into too deeply. I’ll say this much: many years ago, I had this dream where this monstrous rabbit was chasing me through a heavily wooded area. It was hard to forget the feeling of terror this instilled in me. Though even I find it pretty ridiculous and definitely a perfect topic of jest now, it’s interesting to relate this fear to my experiences with and of Venice.
It was hard to leave Boston and my new job behind. It was hard to go to another country with a group of people I had never met before. It was hard to allow myself to just get lost. Easy to get lost I guess but hard to lose what little control you have. “Don’t Look Now” no longer scares me, or at least in the same way that it did before. Neither does the GOBC (unintended but appropriate abbreviation!). We need our fears, we need our nightmares. They freeze us in our tracks for a little bit, but eventually we must break out, we must conquer them. They can even point us in the right direction. If you had asked me 6 years ago if I would be studying abroad with BC in Venice, I would have been a bit confused. That wasn’t in the plan. It simply wasn’t.
Later that afternoon, the class headed into Venice proper to visit La Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, a beautiful old building, with chapels, lavish decoration, and artwork adorning the walls. Our focus would be the Carpaccios housed downstairs. His work appears in another movie we are watching and discussing: Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers, as well as in Proust. Saints Jerome, George, and Trifon are featured here. To me, these paintings bring everything a bit closer to us, art, religion, maybe even life itself. To convert. To enlighten. To translate. An offering, a paean of the artist to us, a hymn to Venice.
As we were already in the city, a group of us decided to do some sightseeing of our own. We went to the Doge’s Palace, a site that usually has throngs of tourists milling around it, but it was late in the afternoon, so we avoided the rush. This was much better than I had been expecting – not just a silly tourist trap. My favorite was the room covered in maps and a few globes scattered around, illustrating the power of the Venetian Republic at its height so many years ago. Though in some ways this may be looked at in terms of the world’s ongoing evolution, always changing and speeding away from us, in other ways it is a sign of the connections that exist throughout the eras, the rise and fall of different regimes. Obsolete? Decaying? Nah, it’s simply the evidence of a life gone by. It reminds me of that kid you see in movies spreading out a new map on their wall and then lovingly placing flags or stabbing tacks into the plaster – where they’ve been and where they want to go. It’s comforting to me somehow, someway.
Dream on but don’t imagine they’ll all come true
Dream on but don’t imagine they’ll all come true
When will you realize
Vienna waits for you
I was starving at this point. The others were going to go back to the island for a little bit and then go out to a late dinner, something for which my stomach could not bear waiting. I also had to prepare my presentation for class the next day. Each of us has to do an exposé on one of the authors, books, or topics we are discussing in class. That way, the discussion begins with a student and it gives everyone a chance to be involved and delve deeply into at least one of the topics. Mine was to be given on John Ruskin, an artist, poet, thinker, and art critic. He dabbled in a lot, a bit of a Renaissance man. He believed that art was to be in accordance with nature and that function should be an important part of the work; if form and function are in harmony, beauty can be achieved. Some of his earlier works were published under the pen name “Kata Phusin” (the Greek translated as “according to Nature”). In the words of Kenneth Clark, art historian, Ruskin believed that “Good art is done with enjoyment. The artist must feel that, within certain reasonable limits, he is free, that he is wanted by society, and that the ideas he is asked to express are true and important…
Great art is the expression of epochs where people are united by a common faith and a common purpose, accept their laws, believe in their leaders, and take a serious view of human destiny”
The class would be taking a field trip to Torcello, an island where I would give my presentation on Ruskin and selections from his work, Stones of Venice that refer to the church on the island.
So I decided to leave the herd and venture out in search of some food. Hoping for a relatively cheap place where I could pick up a few slices and avoid the crowds, I took a random route. Many of the places I passed, however, were expensive (all the menus with prices are posted outside the restaurant), sit-down deals. Finally, I came to this place called Crazy Bar that served pizzas and sandwiches. It looked a bit sketchy but oftentimes, those are the best places. One of my favorite pizza places back in Boston is quite unfortunate looking from the outside, completed with a neon sign. Apparently, things haven’t changed since the ‘30s, but the food’s amazing. Quite a classic. Once inside, I realized they didn’t have separate slices to go so I had to sit and wait while they made me a whole pizza, which, to be honest, I didn’t mind. The Italian man who took my order was absolutely shocked to find that I would be eating by myself. He asked me twice and looked at me strangely. (I was hoping he wouldn’t chop me up and toss me in the canal before I even got my pizza). When I paid the bill, he just says “So. Why are you alone, huh?” a question to which I replied in some vague, most likely incoherent way. I guess the whole loner concept is frowned upon in Italy, which makes sense considering the tradition, the custom, the social pastime that is the meal to Italians. It makes you wonder though: what, shouldn’t I be alone? I wasn’t exactly doubting myself, but it was definitely something to think about.
Little did I know, that as I snaked through the streets, in search of some good dark chocolate gelato (in a waffle cone), this question was soon to be answered. I must have taken a “wrong” turn somewhere (well that’s the very thing about Venice: can you really ever be wrong here?), literally leading me to the front door of an hardware store.
Just what I had stopped looking for. There was a hairdryer displayed prominently in the window. I couldn’t really believe it. The timing here. You think everything is so exact, so precise. The vaporetto is never late. Everything has an exact schedule. And yet, things happen when they shouldn’t, when it doesn’t make sense. For it’s right when you give up that you get the opportunity. After I blew out my hairdryer the first day (actually the entire fuse in our room), I had been walking around with sopping wet hair most of the mornings. Hairdryers aren’t sold in the supermarket or pharmacies here, just hardware stores.
I walked in. It was clearly a locally run shop, catering to the residents. I took a deep breath and let the smell sink into my nostrils. A warehouse smell, a bit like Home Depot when you first walk in, but before you get all the way down to the lamps and lighting section. Has to be one of my favorite smells in the world. The proprietor was speaking in rapid Italian to the man on the other side of the counter. They didn’t greet me, just turned and gave me a quick glance, but I was glad. We could both carry on our business. I wanted to just walk around, look for a bit. After I decided on a hairdryer (the smallest and the cheapest, keeping in mind that though I can’t use this at home due to the outlet situation, if I go abroad again, it will come in handy), the man behind the counter and I exchanged a few words, perhaps the fewest, with me speaking a bit of Italian and him some English.
I left the shop feeling accomplished and cognizant of the inescapable tug of fate.
N.B. The first time I used the aforementioned hairdryer it worked for about 2 minutes before automatically shutting off. I’ve since learned that one needs to work with it a bit and you’ll get 5 minutes. European electrical engineering…