The Magic of Elsewhere: Venice and an Imperfect Instant of Bliss

It’s easy to fall in love with Venice. People have been doing it for many centuries. My wife and I were not unique in that regard. There are those who have even fallen in love with Venice and managed to simply go on with their lives.

But the love of Venice is a powerful idea. And great ideas dream of being made manifest. Just like those that stirred the first people who dreamed of a different life and created Venice in a place where no city belonged. And when the idea of something transcends the ordinary and enters into extraordinary, it demands your attention.

Like everyone else, we had our own idea of Venice and it was one we wanted more of in our lives. Our simple ideal of life in Venice had been picked at and played with until it transformed into an infatuation that demanded to be yielded to.

In the misty borders between dream and reality, if one is fortunate or impetuous enough, you find that it’s time to act or forever risk losing your chance to make your dreams come true.

There’s a lot of in-between in Venice, floating as it does precariously on the misty borders of land and sea, dream and reality. Like Venice itself, we found ourselves in-between things. We were in-between youthful impetuousness and the grown-up acceptance of adulthood and its demands. We had met while traveling Europe and then pretended to be real grown-ups. Got engaged, married, moved back home to America. We settled down, started a business, bought a house. We did all this because it seemed what we were supposed to do, what we were supposed to want.

These things that we’d acquired were what we believed we were supposed to want. They were, it seemed, the very things that real grown-ups were expected to have. But when we looked around at the tangible trappings of the lives we’d built, they felt like exactly that to us: trappings. We wanted more. Or to be more accurate, we wanted less. Less obligation, less convention, less mundanity; in short: less reality. The recommended requisites of real life and convention had been tried, tested and found wanting. And left us wanting something else.

As we increasingly did more of our business online, we found ourselves more and more looking around at the things that comprised our American lives of cozy but cold convention and becoming eager early embracers of the enticing new idea that we could work anywhere.

Which brought us to the idea of Venice.

After all, what better place in the world to remedy the ills of too-much reality than Venice, a place that positively defied all definitions of reality? Few places are further removed from the regular reality of the real world. Venice has always been something ‘other’: not quite land, not quite sea, not quite dream, not quite reality.

But what we wanted was Venice. And once we let the possibility of moving to Venice tantalize us, it demanded to be yielded to. And because, at the time, the dollar was strong in comparison to the euro, we found that then we could rent an apartment in Venice for less than the cost of our monthly mortgage on our small California house. And so we rented out our house and rented a small apartment in the Dorsoduro that actually cost us less than being tethered to a life we weren’t ready for.

And so we packed up some of our things, got the necessary paperwork for our two beloved dogs and boarded a plane. Moving is never easy, moving abroad, more challenging, still. Moving abroad with dogs to an unseen apartment had its own challenges.

We arrived at Piazzale Roma, entering beautiful Venice through its less-than-beautiful busy backdoor.

Moving into a Venetian apartment with several large bags, dog carrier crates, and two dogs in tow was not the most straight-forward endeavor. But many things in Venice are not straight-forward.

We had too many things and too much stuff to even consider the long walk and were ready to splurge for one of the sleek wooden motoscafo boats that waited there, but none of the elegant watercrafts were eager to take us with the dogs and rather cumbersome cargo. We asked around and eventually, beyond the elegant polished mahogany lines of the motoscafos, we located a squat, flat, black barge with a two drivers dressed alike in dingy work overalls that spoke some halting English and most importantly knew the address in the Dorsoduro and agreed to haul us and our meager menagerie directly to the door.

It was a rugged and workaday affair — they and us were equally at odds with the elegant backdrop of Venice and Italian moda all around us and still it seemed fitting and proper to the ramshackle approach we’d taken to the move. Not for us the motoscafo of the beautiful people but then we were poignantly not beautiful people despite being surrounded by some of the most beatific setting and scenery in the world. We were eager to dive into the idea of what the ‘real Venice’ might be like and for us and our hectic move, the squat and ungainly barge was the perfect entry.

The driver handily helped us stow our bags and burdens on the barge, and with some unseemly cajoling, we finally managed to convince the dogs to step off of the safety of the firmament of terra firma and onto the floating barge, though they were clearly none-too-eager to sample yet another new mode of transportation, and we set off on the barge into the winter workaday dusk of Venice through the small canals and then out onto the large Canal Giudecca.

The winter wind swept in chill and bracing from off the wider expanse of the lagoon as the barge chugged along past the cargo ships and containers of the port on the left and the outline of the Guidecca on the right then motored alongside the ochre-colored palazzi that lined the fondamenta of the Zattere before it turned lugubriously up the small Rio San Trovaso canal and took us past the dim outline of the out of place-looking wooden Alpine squero where sat the evocative and serene black silhouettes of gondolas that were being repaired and refurbished for the next season, past the small grassy portion of the campiello in front of the large Chiesa San Trovaso and then moored along the fondamenta that lie before our rental apartment just by a small arched stone bridge that spanned the twelve feet or so of the small canal.

While my wife took the dogs up for a first viewing of the third-floor apartment, the kindly bargemen offered to help with the baggage. While one of them and myself carried what we could up the stairs, the second generous helper placed himself and the remaining bags in the small elevator for easy carriage. And when the elevator got stuck in-between floors, after the consternation of a surprise meeting of our new neighbors, we hadn’t expected to hear the sirens of two boats of Venice’s firemen, the Vigili del Fuoco.

Ten firemen zealously debated and opined about the problem of the poor man stuck in the elevator and swarmed around the stairs and petted our dogs in the apartment. And once they solved the small problem of the stuck elevator and saved the day, they were off with enthusiastic ciaos and warm well-wishes for our first Venetian winter, still expressing mild shock and dismay that we’d chosen to leave California for Venice.

Everyone has their own idea of paradise. And most frequently, those paradisaical ideas are elusive and faraway. Not so in Venice. When you’ve loved and dreamed of Venice for a long while and have just moved to an apartment in the Dorsoduro, paradise is all around you.

The first weeks were of settling in. The many machinations of obtaining the first private residence broadband internet connect in the whole of the Sestiere Dorsoduro. Letting the dogs gloriously and safely explore the car-free calles and campos. Tossing a frisbee to our energetic bird dog in the small park by the squero in front of Chiesa San Trovaso and enjoying the many choruses of “bravo, bravo” each time he gracefully snagged the soft frisbee out of the air, teaching his many new fans how to throw a frisbee for the first time.

Living with a high-energy dog, we were fortunate that our apartment was nestled just behind one of Venice’s rare small public patches of grass. His enthusiastic chasing and retrieving of the frisbee became a much-appreciated and applauded regular spectacle.

There was the selecting of our favorite cafes and cichetti spots, our favorite just across the small canal in front of the apartment, where even in the bitter cold of a Venetian winter, early evenings would find us joining the locals for a shadow of wine, un’ ombra and some delicious Venetian delicacies.

There was the business of getting to know the local produce man who sold his wares from his barge on the Rio San Barnaba. Choosing a favorite gelateria. Marveling at the taste and the selection. Allowing these small but delicious pleasures to become part of a new and magical routine.

After some weeks, the Venetians begin to realize that you’re not just a part of the immemorial ebb and flow of transitory tourists, but attempting to live your life among them. You slowly notice a bit of their reserve fades. You see both relief and acceptance of the fact that you’re no longer just a tourist.

When you take your dogs out with you for a passiegiato in the campo, you start to get nodded at with recognition, receive more ciaos, va benes and buona seras. Your dogs know which of the kindly elderly women in the campo make a habit of carrying dog biscuits in their pockets and run up and sit for them to earn a treat and a pat.

When on a rare clear sunny afternoon in January, you pass by your favorite little trattoria in the Campo Santa Margherita, the kindly owner nods. Sit down, he beckons. No, you say, gesturing at your dogs cavorting in the campo. Fine, bring the dogs, he invites.

Being from San Francisco, they are not much accustomed to lingering in cafes. They are not yet continental canines. But the day is glorious and he’s so gracious and a small plate of sarde in soar and a shadow of wine, un’ ombra sounds pretty irresistible.

So you sit down and temporarily tether the dogs to the small table and eat and drink in the rare winter sunshine of the campo and all is right with the world.

Right up until you accidentally drop a piece of bread on the ground and a few cawing pigeons fearlessly strut over to snatch the bread and your frisbee-hunting bird dog remembers his long-forgotten instincts and barks and bolts and there’s a small catastrophic crash of cutlery and late-lunch detritus and his leash pulls out the table in his eagerness of chase.

And as you round up your ill-trained dog and calm his ineluctable instincts and attend to cleaning up the mess, the kindly proprietor disdains your apologies and offers of extra euros.

And so you let the dog free to stroll the stones of the campo as he instructs, and you sit back down in the waning sunshine and order a spritz and marvel at the timeless and magical spectacle of everyday Venetian life as it unfolds around you.

And you realize that for this time, this campo is your backyard, your neighborhood, no longer your dream, and you start to understand and appreciate that Venice and the love of Venice, will be a part of your life forever. Even if only for these sweet special months, your dream has become where you live.

Writer (Losing Venice, a novel) & Writing Coach | American abroad | PEN Hemingway Award | |

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