There may be people in this world for whom the days unfold like a carpet – for whom life is sure to keep rolling out in front of them with every step they take. There may be people in this world who never really touch life, who are able to move linearly – sempre dritto – head up, shoulders back and forward, always forward. There may be those people, but not here. Not in Venice.
My apartment was on the first floor. It was old, but as charming as you’d expect. On the second floor lived a young family with their 18-month old son, Diego.
In the mornings, footsteps down the stairwell were accompanied by a cautious tally: “uno…due…tre,” each number met by the landing of his little feet on the speckled terrazzo floor. It’s easy to forget that we all had to learn that. We become so complacent in our footing, easily irritated when things don’t come fast to us. For a month, I’d been attending language school five days a week, four hours a day, immersing myself in another tongue as wholly as I could. Still, progress was slow. Diego and his morning strolls came to me as daily encouragement, an undercover cheerleader. We had a lot in common, Diego and I, both feeling out this new world. “Go slow,” he seemed to say, “these things take time.”
It was February, and fog loomed over the island like a spell, stretching a low wool ceiling over the lagoon. From my window, a small square lay empty to the left. To the right, a calle snaked into darkness beyond the street lamps. Often the city seemed like a trick. You’ve seen a million images of it before – is this another one, or could it be the real thing? Its beauty is suspicious, its streets, too – maze-like and conspiring. It takes patience, learning how to navigate them. My confidence in serene geography came after a long week of being terribly lost. When I found myself rushing home from school, I’d be reminded of Diego. “Go slow,” I’d tell myself, or “Pian pianin,” as they’d say in Venetian dialect. I’d look up at the stories played out in the facades of churches. I’d trace the stone walls with my fingers as I walked. I’d stop to notice the seaweed that clung to the bricole (wooden channel markers) like eels, witches' fingers that curl with the tide. I’d climb bridges, counting “uno…due…tre…” with each step until I could cross them blindly.
Winter on the island is a strange time. The crowds of holidaymakers cease, and what’s left is a sparse population of people, beauty’s crusaders. A people unwilling to leave, in spite of the impracticalities of life on their flooding island. The extreme weather, unreliable public transport, mass tourism, and lack of residential housing make “La bella Venezia” a difficult place to live. Despite this, they stay – a slow resistance. These people do not rush. They know that beauty only exists in slow motion, in process. They make time to chat before work, fish for their dinner, and walk the long way home, just to see the bruising sky as it sets pink and purple over the Grand Canal. Nothing is easy here, no, but for five minutes under an empty sotoportego, when the moon is reflected plump and glossy in the water, I understand. They stay as a political act against a world that spins always faster.
On my last evening in Venice, I took a nap, and woke up to find snow cloaking the campo. I couldn’t believe it. There was Diego, in a similar state of disbelief, patting a snowball between his red mittens like it was something rare and precious. “Is Santa coming back?” he enquired sincerely to his parents. They laughed, shaking their heads. But I understood his question, because to find yourself in this strange place requires belief in something magical. A belief in the beauty of getting lost; a belief in process, asking silly questions, being curious. Venetians have always known this.
As they made their way inside, Diego’s mother held his hand, steadying him in the snow. “Pian pianin,” she said, “pian pianin.”
This story was a shortlisted finalist in the 2019 World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship.
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