Sunday, September 27, 2009

In Venice, Eyes of Wonder

I arrived sleepless in Italy, greeted by long security lines and dogs sniffing for drugs and explosives. But the brilliant Venetian sun, magnified by the sea, hypnotized me the moment I stepped from the airport. It sent me reeling. I made my way to the dock where I settled into a water taxi and before I was ready the craft had dispatched me to the canal-side hotel.

I buried myself in the work. These were not happy days. The marriage was not going well, to put it mildly, and I did not know what to do about that. Divorce was out of the question, I thought. At 34, I felt old before my time, shriveled, absent from myself.

So, on the first day of the conference, I stared sulking from a window while the techs tried to make the computers work. I glanced down to see a couple of heavily armed soldiers watching. One was gesturing to me. Was I in trouble? Leaning on something forbidden? I looked closer. He was blowing kisses. The other was smiling, broadly. I blushed! I laughed. I returned the air kiss.

Venice had only begun to charm. In the mornings, I got up early and made my way to the conference site. Strains of opera drifted from alleyways. Had someone left on the stereo and a window open? Was an opera singer up early, practicing? No, I was being serenaded by the garbage collector.

And my commute. No road rage, no packed underground subways. I walked from my hotel to St. Mark’s Square, where I boarded a vaporetto that cruised on the water to the conference site on the Lido. At night, I returned the same way. The gentle rocking, the sweet mesh of waves in the lagoon washing away every last vestige of workday frustration.

By that hour, I was more than ready for the Venetian night. For enjoying the friends I was rapidly meeting. For adventures in food. The food, northern Italy’s pure flavors, unsullied by layers of sauce or other attempts to gild the lily. I will never forget this food and crave it to this day. Only once, in Chicago, in a small, quiet restaurant that a young nephew led us to, have I ever come close.

I walked and walked and walked. At home, I am known for having a terrible sense of direction, being constantly lost. But in Venice, I knew where to go, by instinct. Some streets in the city of bridges and dark, twisty passages weren't marked at all, or if they were, the signs probably were from half a century ago, I was told. Directions rarely made sense. Maps quickly became outdated.

But I felt confident there. So, people soon were stopping me in the street, asking for directions. Italians too. "Non parlo italiano," I was forced to confess. Often, they looked at me skeptically, then hustled away as I repeated "Scusi!" to their retreating backs.

All too soon, it was time to go. I was crushed by this. The work had been good, the food, the fellowship stimulating. And I never want to leave the water anyway. But Venice had revived me in such a way that I simply did not want to go back to my life. To the problems. To the marriage I knew in my heart of hearts would not survive.

But I packed up because I had to, could not delay another day. I had one last lovely breakfast on the small patio at the front of the hotel -- tapping the shell of the soft-boiled egg nestled in a flowered egg cup, spreading butter on the soft bread with chewy crust, pouring hot milk from a small white pitcher into a steaming cup of steaming, strong coffee.

My bags were brought down and I settled up with the front desk.

I stood there in dread. I worried my heart would grow heavy again with the same weight I had brought there. That I would lose the transfusion of life Venice had given me.

And then it happened.

A young man who worked at the hotel, who barely spoke English, rushed to me in the moment before I stepped into the boat holding steady in the canal at the side of the hotel.

“Signora?” he said.


“You are leaving?”


And in that moment, he brought forward the arm he had been holding behind his back. In his hand was a bouquet of tiny pink roses. Shyly, he handed them to me.

I did not know what to say. This young man had waited on my colleagues and me a couple of days at breakfast. I practiced the few words of Italian I had learned with him, encounters that lasted minutes in all. We had barely spoken. He was quite young. I looked around, thinking he had made a mistake, that he wanted to give the flowers to someone else. But who really? I had seen people leave throughout my stay and had seen no flowers.

In the end, I could say only one thing, since I did not speak his language and he barely spoke mine. And there was no time.

I said “grazie. They are beautiful.” Over and over I said this. I held out my hand and he took it and we stood for a moment. He bowed at the waist and helped me into the vessel. And the craft sputtered and strained, slicing through the canals and the foam, into the saltwater lagoon and finally the sea.

I held onto the roses for dear life. Through the boat ride, onto the airplane. I clutched them as we hurtled through the air to Paris, on another leg of my temporary assignment abroad. I was meeting my husband there, and forgive me, but the truth is I was not looking forward to that.

The roses held me together, somehow. A floral embrace, they kept me floating in the sun, water and music of an ancient, sinking city where I took my first full breath in many years. Where I saw myself in a mirror and for a moment did not recognize myself because I was so caught up in the full flush of marvel. And where, simply and unexpectedly, for a short time but more than enough, I was looked upon again with the freeing, glorying, rejuvenating eyes of wonder.


  1. So lovely. I hope to visit there one day.



  2. You should, the water thing, you know. Some don't care for it at all, for others it is life altering. A novel that is downright strange at times, but is actually a sublime picture of Venice itself is "Miss Garnet's Angel" by Salley Vickers. It might be a decent substitute for the place until you can get there!

  3. I just love your writing. Thank-you, again. Thank-you.

  4. The feeling is quite mutual, Ms. Moon. Thank YOU.

  5. So nice Glimmer. I have not been to Italy but hope to visit one day.

  6. You are another water creature, Syd, so I would say a definite go for Venice. If so, prepare for the other worldly.

  7. Thanks for the tip on the novel, Glimmer.

  8. Thank you, Braja!

    And SB, it is a strange novel, but oddly compelling if you can soldier through. It still pops into my head, unbidden, at times.