Venice is a “city for lovers” but I have no idea why except that historically and physically it’s a perfect metaphor for the complicated and inscrutable labyrinth of love. I have been there three times, two of those times in the midst of a romantic conundrum. Venice was, at least, distracting.
It exerts incredible pressure on the lone female tourist with all the honeymoon couples, posing on the Rialto Bridge over the grand canal, asking me to take their photo while they look into the lens with feigned happiness and real perplexity. Venice is the world’s locus for “Just ask for directions, David!” and “No. I know where we are.”
It’s a good place to visit if you’ve always dreamed of medieval Byzantium because it’s there. Venetians stole it in the 12th century and brought it home as best they could, along with the bones of St. Mark.
I love Venice. Away from the main spots — Piazza San Marco, the Rialto — it’s a secretive, mysterious, living city. I do not know how anyone could see everything without living there a while. I also wish I’d known more history, at least when I was there in 2000. In 2004, I enjoyed the luxury of staying on the train as it discharged passengers and loaded passengers who were, like me, going to Trieste.
There are so many films set in Venice, but my favorite, the one that captures it best, is Bread and Tulips or Pane e Tulipani.
I awaken bewildered in this silent compartment. The train has stopped. The calm young lovers speaking in soft tones are gone. I look at the station. Pesceria di Garda. Lago di Garda. It’s not the first time I pass over something without seeing. In the town of Limone, on this same lake, Goethe first saw lemon trees. My sleepy musing comes from the thought of how exotic had been a lemon to Goethe, a symbol of a place so distant and magical, it became the object of all his dreaming. The locomotive shudders to a start. My head against the padded back of the high seat and my face to the window, I quickly return to sleep in this cradle of a train, relentlessly forward, ever side to side.
“Mi scusi, signora, il biglietto per favore.”
Who is he talking to? My thoughts are far away and I am with them. Tomorrow is my last day in Italy. I am already in tomorrow or nowhere or in a dream. In regrets?
“Signora?” A gentle tap on my shoulder.
I hand him my ticket. He validates it with his paper punch and continues moving through the train. There are only two other passengers in my car. Could there be very many more on this whole train? It’s after ten p.m.
He returns, “Are you American?”
“Yes,” I answer, looking up.
“May I sit with you?”
“Parla italiano un po, si?”
“Si, ma non bene. Solo un po.”
“Va bene. Anche io. Parlo un po di Inglesa. Forse possiamo communicare?”
“Spero che si!” I laugh. “Ma, per communicare, la lingua non e il unico problema.” I grin at him.
He has sincere blue eyes, pale skin, a receding hairline. He loves to travel; he likes his job because he sometimes meets interesting people, “Like you,” he says, gently flirting. He speaks of Venice, how he likes it better in the winter when the tourists are gone, and the streets are filled with fog.
“Venice like that,” he says, “you can believe you are in the past.”
“All Europe is like that for me,” I tell him, “maybe for all Americans. European streets are stories; they are dreams.”
“For me, certainly, for me.”
“Do you like Italy?”
“I love Italy.”
“Why? What do you love about Italy?” He settles back, his arms folded across his chest, a warm glint in his eye. “I uomini,” I should say, “The men,” I don’t think to say it. Flirtation is far from my thoughts; he has asked the question I was working out in my sleep. I am leaving Italy and, with all my heart, and longing, I love what I am leaving.
“I have to think.”
“If you have to think, you don’t like anything.”
“No. It’s a language problem. I don’t know how to say it.”
“Say it in English, then.”
“No, just wait. I can do this, I can tell you in Italian.”
I don’t like to cross over into the confusing twilight of English that doesn’t belong here. I love my language, sure, but Italian streets–and certainly this day — do not reflect the crushed, rebuilt, borrowed sounds of English, the sliding of syllables into silence. Even constrained by my limited vocabulary and primitive grammar, I have been more in Italy by speaking Italian. Of this day in particular I want every small moment that remains of Venice, my nostalgic espresso in honor of a beloved, now dead, friend, Pietro, beneath the Lion at Piazza San Marco, the changing evocative light above canals, the tourists like strings of bright Venetian beads dragged by destinations across the Rialto Bridge. The only English I’ve heard or spoken all day was but an echo of Goethe; “Please, can you take our photo?” “With pleasure,” I answered, and photographed a honeymooning German couple. Still, I don’t know how I will be able to answer this man’s question or frame my rather complex notion in my Italian baby talk.
He waits, nervous.
“Ah,” I say, “Posso. Mi piace che in italia la vita classica vive insieme della energia moderna.”
He stares, surprised, then, “Bello. Profondo.”
“What do you do? You are not an ordinary person.”
“Sure. I’m ordinary.”
“No. Ordinary people do not say things like ‘The classical life lives together with the modern energy’. That is extraordinary. What do you do?”
I think, only a moment, “I am a writer.”
“What do you write? Romances, stories about love?”
“No, no, that doesn’t interest me.”
“Oh, no. Historical fiction.”
“Ah, that’s why you would be aware of that, the classical life, you would look for it here.”
“I guess so.”
“Are you stopping in Milano?”
“Yes. I’m staying with some friends.”
“How long will you be in Milano?”
“Only one day more. I go back day after tomorrow.”
He looks at me intently. “A pity.”
“I think so, too.”
We look away from each other. He looks out the window across the aisle, I through the window next to me. The train keeps its steady movement. I feel his eyes, and see them reflected in the dark window. I turn.
“You can write about this. You can write about this train ride.”
I look at him for a moment. I see my whole story in this compartment on this train. Though I am going home, I should not go home; I realize in the next moment that I never really will.
“I will. I will write this story.”
The featured photo is one I took in 2000 as I wandered the backstreets of Venice, looking for a real story, distancing myself from my bewildered heart.