The Venice Effect

Essays, photography, and musings inspired by my favorite city. 

My backyard in 2013.  Photo: Amy Bown

My backyard in 2013. Photo: Amy Bown


Rio del Malcanton . Photo: Amy Bown

Rio del Malcanton. Photo: Amy Bown

A few days after arriving in Venice, I am in Campo Santa Margarita having a lunch of zuppa di pesce. The waiter makes a joke, and I hear this loud, musical laugh—like an opera singer's: "Ha! Ha! Ha!” I say to myself, who is that? Then I realize it's me, trilling like Beverly Sills. It is the sound of pure, unthinking happiness. That's when I know the Venice Effect is kicking in. 

The Venice Effect is when all the American negativity I have been wearing like a bad smell suddenly lifts. In the States, I live with a constant low-level feeling of unease; the ever-present refrigerator hum of anxiety. In Venice, the fridge is unplugged. The minute I set foot in the city, all my habitual tension melts away. At first, I feel panicked. After all, one of anxiety's greatest uses is that it gives your mind something to do. If your brain isn’t worrying about something—money, relationships, the economy, politics, climate change, aging, your weight —then what is left? It takes a few days to acclimate to its sudden and conspicuous absence. 

In America, no matter how well things are going with me, underneath, there is always the whiney bitch, Anxiety, with her incessant nattering: How long do you think this will last? When will the other shoe drop?Will it be a Louboutin, and will you break your ankle on it?  But in Venice, Anxiety shuts the hell up. She is, for once, speechless. No matter how I try, I cannot conjure a doubt, a worry, or even a passing negative thought. At first, it's terrifying. I'm out of my discomfort zone. So on my first days here, I wander around the city, looking for things to be unhappy about.          

I cross the Rialto Bridge and look out at the picture-postcard view of the Grand Canal and its riot of water taxis, gondolas, and vaporetti. All the tourists are lined up on the bridge, oohing and ahhing with their Nikons. But I want to scream "People--get out of my way! I don't have time for this! " as if I have somewhere important to go. As I squeeze through the crowd, I wonder how many hundreds of times I have schlepped up and down this accursed bridge, including the one where I broke my ankle on it. I hate the Rialto bridge.

I pass Mario, a waiter I know, who shouts, "Hey, you're back in town!" Yeah, I'm back in town all right. The same old town. Could it be that finally, after so many years, the ancient city has gotten, well--old? I know every cranny, every turning, every rio and canal as if they were mapped on the inside of my eyelids. With a kind of perverse satisfaction, I think--ha! It has finally happened: after 15 years, I have fallen out of love with Venice. No hard feelings, V. We had a good run. You go your way, I'll go mine. I'll just trade you in for a younger model, like Amsterdam. 800 years younger, to be precise, but who's counting?

I walk through Campo Manin, the only ugly square in the entire city. It is dominated by this Stalinist monstrosity of a government building that was built solely to remind you how beautiful the rest of the city is in contrast (as if Venice would ever let you forget). I revel in its boxy modernity, mentally snorting--"See! Not all of Venice is beautiful!"  (But even then, dowdy Campo Manin has the coolest winged-lion statue ever. You'll never win trying to find the ugly in this town.)

By this point, the initial burst of adrenaline I felt upon arrival has evaporated, and jet-lagged crankiness has kicked in. A handsome Italian gives me the eye. I scowl at him. A pigeon crosses my path. I kick it. A faux professional beggar bows and scrapes at me, hunchbacked: "Signora, Signora, prego Signora !" When she realizes I'm not falling for it, she straightens up, takes out her I-phone, lights a cigaret, and calls her husband to yell at him. I want to kick her too.

I cross the Accademia Bridge with its million dollar view: the delta where the Grand Canal spills out into the lagoon; the gleaming domes of Maria Della Salute. Then on to the Zattere, my favorite spot--a cheery, bright promenade on the Giudecca Canal. I inventory everything I see, and have seen, thousands of times. Water. The church of the Redentore. A pigeon. Ruskin’s house. Nico's Gelato. An obnoxious cruise ship. A canal. A bridge. A pigeon. A lion statue. Water. Another church. Another bridge. Another canal. More water. Another pigeon. 

Ho. And. Hum. So trite, so picturesque, and always the same! (Of course, that Venice has stayed more or less the same for centuries is why I come here in the first place). What am I going to do for three months in this tiny, provincial, claustrophobic, unreality of a town? 

It's only my first day here, and I'm already thinking about the return home. Will there be a water taxi strike so I can't make it to the airport in time? Will there be new luggage restrictions on Lufthansa, and will the plane crash? And if by some remote chance it doesn't crash, will I make it through Newark airport without crying because the people are so mean there? The anxiety machine starts to whir and judder as it comes back to life.

Worrying that my apartment in NY has burned down because I might have forgotten to unplug the coffee-maker, I turn on to San Trovaso, the canal where they repair the gondolas. I see their sleek hulls sleeping in the boatyard; the rose-colored houses with their quatrefoil windows; the perilous, gimcrack chimneys, straight out of Dr. Seuss; and the leaning campanile of San Stefano, casting its tilted shadows.

And then, something stops me dead.

The light.


Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio  Photo: Amy Bown

Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio Photo: Amy Bown

It is hitting just so, in that way peculiar to Venice; a coppery glow, like foxfire luminescing from the ancient Venetian mold. It washes over the canal and sets the pink houses ablaze. I stand there, mouth open, heart stopped. I hear myself say, "Oh my god. I'm here. I'm really here."

And then the tears come.

I am not just here in my beloved Venice. I am suddenly here, in my life. The worrying forwards, the regretting backwards--all vanish in the time it takes for the light to change. And there is only this tiny effulgent moment, so simple, yet so rare, where I stand with tears in my eyes, no thoughts except for the light as it dapples across the stone fondamenta. It happens in an instant. And it happens every single time, generously, without my asking for it.

That is the Venice Effect.

The Venice Effect is when you find yourself suddenly, hopelessly, in love with your life. How often do we remember to love our lives? We take them for granted. We nag at them. We say you could be better, you could do this, why aren't you the way I want you to be, why aren't you doing more for me? But in Venice, your life is doing exactly what it's supposed to do—living, with no residue of the past, and no visitation from the future.

In all my travels, I have never experienced it anywhere else. Not in Florence, Milan, Rome, Cinque Terre, Tuscany, Capri, London, Paris, New York, Boston, Puerto Vallarta, not even in my second favorite place in the world--the Amalfi Coast of Italy. And it doesn't just happen to me. A woman once told me that she burst into tears upon seeing St. Mark's Square for the first time. Another was so overwhelmed by the city's beauty, she had to duck into passageways to weep. And one night in Campo San Giacamo dell'Orio,  a man was felled by a silence so pure, he lay down under the stars and didn't move until dawn. 

Venice gives back everything modern life no longer honors in us—our sense of wonder and mystery, of beauty for its own sake, our appreciation of silence, our tears. Everything that had been taken from me this year, or perhaps, that I had abandoned, Venice returned to me in a single moment.

Last night, as I passed by the church of San Vidal, the Vivaldi Quintet was rehearsing, their appoggiaturas spilling out into the square. The stone, the water, the Venetian silence (always there beneath the sound) created this perfect acoustical storm. Vivaldi's strings pierced the ether and soared up to the heavens like the original notes on the first day of time. The grand palazzi, the lapping water, the cold sky studded with stars--sometimes, the beauty of Venice is is so enormous, it strikes you down. Weak-kneed, you have to find a quiet place to sit and take it all in. I sat in the garden of the Palazzo Franchetti and sobbed. All the heartbreak, the hardship, the death of the past year lifted with Vivaldi, held for a moment in one final, soaring note, and was gone.

That is the Venice Effect.

City worker and tourist girls . Photo: Amy Bown

City worker and tourist girls. Photo: Amy Bown

Students in Campo Santa Margarita.  Photo: Amy Bown

Students in Campo Santa Margarita. Photo: Amy Bown

Damn that Bill Bryson!

My sister gave me a book to read on the plane:  Bill Bryson’s Neither Here nor There. It had me laughing so hard, the  Federal Air Marshall threatened to arrest me on the charge of Having-Way-Too-Good-A-Time-For-An-American. This conjured up visions of being tortured in Gitmo with no gel deodorant, which I had to check with my bag. 

I was annoyed, though, because Bill Bryson has stolen all my material. He writes the kind of funny, poignant travel essays I'd like to write. In his description of a Luxembourg taxi ride, he writes, "I have seldom been more certain that I was about to die." That was exactly how I felt in Naples! When about to be killed in a taxi accident with a psychotic Neapolitan, your life doesn't flash before your eyes. It's the opposite. It goes into slo-mo, in a prolonged silent scream of terror as you lurch from one side of the cab to the other.

I watched in horror as my taxi driver drove straight into the lane of an oncoming semi, speeding up as he did it. At the last possible minute, he veered, then hung out the window to scream at the truck, not noticing another truck bearing down on us, which he veered from again, nearly taking out a Vespa by inches. Then he hung out the window to yell at the Vespa. It is a wonder I am alive today to tell the tale, which Bill Bryson already told, only better—damn him!

In Bill's book, he also wrote about seeing a fastidious woman in Rome who ate her pizza with a knife and fork. I saw that same woman in Campo Santa Margarita the other day. She had a lacquered coiff you could break a tooth on. (If you were into hair-biting, which trust me, she decidedly was not.) She was dressed in a tan suit, with matching tan shoes and purse. Her hair was beige—between blond and gray—so the cumulative effect was like looking at a woman wrapped in a very expensive Ace bandage. (If I had 5000 euros to blow on a Pucci suit, Hermes scarf, and Ferragamo shoes—I'd at least get them in fawn, or perhaps, a frisky shade of dun. Why not live a little?)

So the story that Bill Bryson pre-stole from me (because it hadn't happened to me yet) was that his woman ate her pizza with surgical precision, using a knife and fork. The woman in my story cut up her pizza in teeny-tiny pieces, put each piece on the back of her fork, lifted it to her Chanel-lipsticked mouth (a shade undoubtedly called Common Household Moth), and chewed each piece 512 times. It would have driven me crazy, but the Venice Effect had kicked in and I was in a pleasant upright coma, sitting on a park bench without a care in the world or a thought in my head.  She didn't smile once—not even when the waiter came to flirt with her, as is in the Italian waiter job description. I felt sorry for this woman, for the joylessness of a life so circumscribed by appearances, she couldn't even smile in Venice.  The sympathy was the Venice Effect kicking in too. 


The Giudecca Canal.  Photo: Amy Bown

The Giudecca Canal. Photo: Amy Bown

Venezia, amore mio

Couple on the Rio della Misericordia.  Photo: Amy Bown

Couple on the Rio della Misericordia. Photo: Amy Bown

Places don't disappoint like people do. But they can break your heart all the same

 The heart-wrenching thing about Venice: when you're here only a few months, there's enough time to have a crush on someone, but no time to get to know them. One night, you're sitting across a table from a man you barely know, and you think, “Oh, that's the guy who gave me his scarf last year.” And then all of sudden, you feel this rush, like when your plane suddenly drops altitude, and your head rises to the ceiling while your body is still on the floor. How is it I've never noticed him before?

This feeling has come over me only three times in my life, and each time turned out to be a long-term relationship. So when I am afflicted with it, I know I should go home, take due aspirina, and hope it goes away. I looked across the table at Scarf Guy and said, oh no, not this again, no, no, no--not when I only have two months here. Then I said something idiotic about his glasses.

 Love doesn't make an appointment. It doesn't pick a time or place that's good for you. It shows up at the most unexpected times, in the most inconvenient places. But even when it's not on your schedule (or your continent), you can't take it for granted. It's not like a vaporetto that comes along every 20 minutes. It is extremely rare. It is also the simplest thing in the world. Everyone wants to complicate it, but really—it's so simple. Even the language of love is simple—short, plain Anglo Saxon words:  I love you. I want you. Stay with me.  And in Italian: Ti voglio bene. Ti amo.  So simple, so beautiful. And yet, why is simple always so impossible?

Every year, you are in Venice long enough to be living there, but not long enough to establish a life. Every year, you are jerked back and forth between worlds. When you come home, you feel like you are still back in Venice. It's like that song "I left my heart in San Francisco". Your body goes back to the United States, but a major part of you is left to linger back in Venice. (I like to imagine that my spirit stays back there to haunt the streets and scare the crap out of the tourists.)

When you are in Venice for a few months, there is no time for anything but brief, unsatisfying flings that are like the meals you get at the tourist restaurants: mediocre and not worth the price. You like to joke that Italians have sex the way they drink espresso: hot, quick, and standing up. But it is true--sex in Venice is like a meal--something to be consumed then immediately forgotten. This is somewhat true of all Italian culture, but it's worse in a city where romance is the cottage industry. The Most Romantic City in the World for tourists is the least romantic for the people who live there.  It is the most cynical town in the world, a transient city where relationships are cheap and fall apart easily, like the cheap trinkets you buy on the Rialto.  

You know it will never go anywhere with the guy with the scarf. You aren't there long enough, and he's not all that into you anyway. You will never know what it would it be like to kiss him, or what he thinks of you (if he even does), or what his childhood was like, or what he treasures most in the world. 

 That is how Venice breaks your heart.

 And this is how she mends it:

On your last night, you say a tearful goodbye to your friends, and begin the walk home. A cold wind sweeps across the water and through the square. You walk this way every night, are even a little bored with it, and yet, as you approach Campo San Stefano, you feel it. No matter how sad you are, you feel it. It’s here. She’s here. La Serenissima has come out to say goodbye. 

You look up at the chandeliers in the palazzi, the pigeons sleeping in their cubbyholes. A sheer scarf of cloud passes over the moon. You become aware of a silence so absolute it is, paradoxically, heard. They say you can hear the sound of the big bang, the birth of the universe, just now reaching us in white noise. But here, there is no white noise. There is no noise at all. It is the silence you get when talking to God and there is no God there to answer.

 Every mystery of the human heart has been enacted here, every folly, every fruitless endeavor embedded deep in the stone. It is as if all the cumulative human sorrows, the mistakes, the passions, the regrets have come to rest here, finally forgiven.

There is the love of a man, of family and friends. Then there is this, the great love. The one who endures, and who will endure, even after you are gone. The one who will endure even after the tides come and engulf her. Even before she was built, floating so impossibly like a brick on a lily pad, she lived in our imaginations, and she will endure there after. With her domed churches, her moonlit canals, her tiny passageways—she is your peace, your center, and your home. And nothing, save the tides (and not even then) can take her from you. As you stand in the campo and look up at the stars, you are filled with something beyond the sorrows of human love, a witness to silence, to the years.

Archangelo.  Photo: Amy Bown

Archangelo. Photo: Amy Bown

The Zattere after aqua alta.  Photo: Amy Bown

The Zattere after aqua alta. Photo: Amy Bown