But it’s just not about the gondolas
On September 8th I arrived at Venice for the beginning of my two-year Master’s Degree course. After countless weeks dealing with bureaucracy, stress, uncertainty regarding my scholarship, pain at leaving my parents for the first time, and more, I finally made it. When I saw the lagoon through the window in the airplane I shed tears of joy, overwhelmed by the bittersweet emotions of having achieved my dream. And yet, as the weeks went by, I discovered that living in Venice was not an easy feat. Nevertheless, it’s a city that makes me fall in love with its beauty every single day, but not for the reasons you might be thinking. Here is my experience after four months.
The gondola stereotype is a true one
When you ask people about Venice, they usually have a mental image of gondoliers singing by the canals. I am here to tell you that the stereotype is completely true! I used to have classes in a room next to a canal and one afternoon, the professor was interrupted while giving a lecture because a gondolier passed by our window singing loudly. We were delighted so the class had to be put on hold for a moment. In the summer season, especially, you will see gondoliers standing near the canals saying “gondola, gondola”, offering their service. Most surprising of all is to see them paddling the gondolas with the harshest of rains, the rockiest waves, or the coldest winds, always maneuvering amongst a sea of water buses, ships, and other boats. Their endurance is worth a thousand praises.
There are no sunsets or sunrises like the ones in Venice
The combination of colors and the nostalgia that they bring is something that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I believe each place has its unique beautiful sunset, but the sun watercolor in Venice is one of the most incredible, awe-striking I have ever seen. Almost daily I take photos of the sunrise and sunset as each day, each season brings a new palette of colors to wonder at.
The mist seems to come from a horror movie
The mist sometimes creeps by out of nowhere and suddenly you have a white blanket of smoke in front of you that prevents you from seeing things a few meters away. The white fingers of mist reach the buildings slowly, until they too are covered in its embrace. If you look at the Grand Canal, you can see the ships slowly disappear into the fog, while others emerge suddenly into view. I am still amazed at how the drivers manage to conduct the ships amidst the serpentine steam.
Acqua Alta can be the greatest fun and the greatest tragedy
Living in Venice means being in constant contact with the harsh elements. I cross the Grand Canal at least four times a day and I don’t even know how many bridges. You get so used to it that sometimes you forget that you are crossing the lagoon. And that if you fall (and don’t know how to swim like me) you’re screwed. When the Acqua Alta season began in November, I had so much fun as the uniqueness of the experience made it a game. Everyone, even Venetians, become child-like with Acqua Alta. My dorm is right by one of the canals, so I could see from the window how our street would get flooded and every time I decided to put on my boots and go on an adventure. Our classroom got flooded twice. We went to Saint Marks to walk around the water. In my mind, it feels like the romantic image I had as a child of the Titanic when Rose submerges in the flooded corridors in her beautiful dress to save Jack (minus the tragic end, of course). So yes, Acqua Alta can be fun.
But it can also be absolutely terrifying. Our luck can change in a matter of minutes. On the day we went to have fun in Saint Marks, when our classroom got flooded, things seemed fine and safe. Until they weren’t. At night, the wind got so strong that it pushed us towards the canal and we had to make an effort to fight it. The waves grew and hit a meter or so above the street. And then we lived the historical 187cm flood. Mind you, it wasn’t all Venice that reached that water level, but from my window I could see that it was at least 1 meter high across the street. The vaporetti were propelled out of the water and into the streets. Many people living in the ground floors lost their things. It was a shocking experience as just that morning we had been having fun. And it brings perspective to you. Venice is a fragile city, in constant battle with the elements and we must protect it. The grandi navi must stop, mass tourism must stop. We need to preserve the island of art and beauty.
At Venice, you walk
No matter what the weather is or what conditions you are in, in Venice you walk. It might be the most democratic city of all in this sense. Venice does not care about your financial situation or social class. Everyone walks. Sure, you can buy yourself a boat and avoid the public transportation but that only gets you as far as the other shore or the canal. Still, you must walk in the city. At the beginning it’s tiresome, especially if you are carrying heavy luggage with you or if you have to move house in a suitcase as I constantly do, but you get used to it. The distances are not that long and the beauty of the buildings and the canal distract you from the exercise. Bridges are also not as intimidating as they look.
You do get lost in the streets
But the funniest thing is that Google Maps gets lost with you. During my first weeks here as I explained to my parents the amount of times I got lost and had to retrace my steps, my dad used to sigh and offer expert tips on how to take one direction only, look for landmarks, or, you know, “just use the map”. But the thing is that in Venice, sometimes there are four streets with the same name, sometimes they form a block, sometimes they are in completely different parts of the island. The aisles are so narrow in the center that the GPS becomes useless and sometimes… not even Google knows the way! There’s a specific part of Venice, San Polo, where the map basically tells you to walk further away from your destination and then “jump” about 1 km which will make you arrive in less than a minute. Yes, those are the instructions. What has one to do? Well, if you’re not in a hurry, you can enjoy the scenery and discover new places while you try to find your way to your destination. But if you are in a hurry…
Waiting time is something you must adapt to…
As I said, you are at the mercy of the elements. For one reason or another, be it Acqua Alta, thick mist, or simply tourist season, vaporetti get cancelled, postponed, delayed. Or they need to change course and you sometimes don’t know where to take it. You might be shocked (as my parents were) but here it’s part of daily life. People simply pull out their phones and tell their bosses or whoever that they are going to be late. “Yes, the vaporetto doesn’t arrive”. That’s it. Pick up a book, have small talk with someone, or scroll on your phone because there is nothing you can do but wait. The city in itself forces you to slow down. And speaking of slow…
The speed limit of vaporetti is so slow that cars become scary
I used to drive in Mexico. I loved the highway because it gave me that sense of freedom that only an empty road can give you. But here, I’ve gotten so used to the 11km/h speed limit that anything faster than that becomes a bit scary hehe. Especially the busses that have absolute no consideration for you when they drive.
Venetian endurance through hardship is awe inspiring
The way that Venetians handled the 187cm Acqua Alta is something that will remain in my memory forever. The citizens were shocked during the tragedy but that didn’t paralyze them. The day after, early in the morning, they were already cleaning, gathering debris, organizing groups to help, whistling while they dealt with the mud in their apartments. It’s not all jolly but they are a true example of how to put on a smile in the midst of hardship.
Art is everywhere you go
Every street, building, canal, is a piece of history. It is among my goals to try to explore every corner of Venice while I am here even if the task seems daunting. In this small island there are more than one hundred churches to visit, all with incredible art to admire even if you are an atheist like myself. Each island has its characteristic feature and lifestyle. Each section tells a story. And each festivity is worth living. I have witnessed the Festa della Salute celebration, I walked inside the historical ship Amerigo Vespucci and crossed the bridge to the graveyard but missed the festivity on Epiphany. I will participate in the Carnival in February. Exploring everything that Venice has to offer seems to be the task of a lifetime but I think everyone should try to at least go beyond the advertisement.
Sure, Saint Mark’s square is wonderful, but even in that small section of Venice, you can take it a step further. Enter the Basilica and observe it carefully, pay the entrance to the Palazzo Ducale and explore the contrast between the gilded chambers and the humid cells, learn the true history of the Bridge of Sighs. And then, go further. Walk ten more minutes and see the Arsenale, or walk the other way and visit Ezra Pound’s grave. Cross the islands to see local life, beautiful libraries, colorful houses. Venice has been a cultural center for centuries, appreciate it all because you are breathing history and art. And as you breathe, enjoy.
Amidst the crowded streets during the summer season, in spite of the sometimes treacherous landscape, the long waits for transportation, the time consuming daily tasks, there is always that moment, while you are walking, riding in the vaporetto, or simply staring outside your window where you relax. Because Venice, with its wonderful canals and ships that seem to cross the horizon is breathing calmly, sure of its fragility but also its survival. Venice, which has been recorded in history by people no longer living and enjoyed daily by people full of vitality, is here to stay and to remind you of the beauty of nature in every waking moment.
PHOTOS: All images are mine, if you are going to use them please give credit and link back. Thanks!