By the time I passed the large display windows of Benetton’s on the way to the Piazza, the crowds had grown thick as bolognese sauce tangled up in Venice’s spaghetti streets. Bridges over canals, narrow alleyways that arrive at dead ends, building footprints sinking into the murky lagoon, these were all as I recalled from 40 years ago. The masses of humanity were not. Nor, when I finally squeezed past the last lingering shoppers, were the enormous sheets partially covering the venerable facades (under repair) of the buildings surrounding San Marco. It was like seeing my grandmother wrapped in a paper hospital gown, only worse, the gown covered with ads for sports cars and watches and other sought-after trappings of modern life.
I needed to reconcile what I saw before me with what I had known. Chairs and tables stretched out from all sides into the square, the majority clustered around four bands competing for attention. I sat down tentatively on the far edge of the square. A white-coated waiter swooped toward me. He looked like a seagull ready to clutch a morsel before it sank into obscurity in the Grand Canal. To my relief, after handing me a menu he flew away. The first words (in several languages) put me on notice: if I chose to stay, I would be obliged to pay a large cover charge simply for sitting down.
After I had successfully stored my luggage at my hotel (the directions to that establishment are another story I have to share!), I wandered from San Polo to San Marco with the desire to verify the impressions I had carried with me since childhood. I remembered dark, quiet, mysterious alleyways suddenly opening into a large square filled with light. Holding my breath. Crowds of pigeons outnumbering tourists. The quiet, reverential music of one small band of classical musicians. A clock tower soaring into the clear blue sky. My desire to touch every magnificent detail of the church, if not with my fingers then with my eyes. The sunlight dancing uninhibited across the Grand Canal. An artist absorbed in his painting. The deferential hush of every living being gathered together. In short, the tranquility.
When I reported to my mother how San Marco had changed, she said, “There are a lot more people in the world now than there were then.”
Yes, I thought, a lot more people trying to survive as the waters rise. Each one searching for opportunities within the crowds, to repair what has been damaged, and to find a corner where one can enjoy the beauty that is still there even if it is a bit more difficult to find.
I rose early on my final day in Venice, before the street cleaners had come out with their brooms, before the metal shutters on all the shops opened, before the tourists had gathered at tables to enjoy their first cappuccinos and traveled over the Rialto bridge back to San Marco. No bands were playing. The tables and chairs had been stacked away. A solitary artist stood before his easel. The sunlight shone off the waters of the Grand Canal and into my eyes. A couple asked me to take their picture, arms wrapped around each other. I was happy to oblige, stepping back to capture their image in that wide open space with only the church and a small crowd of pigeons behind.