“The City” (September 2002)
OK so I told Sergio (the guy that does most all the artwork for X-Plane, including the excellent terrain textures, airliner textures, the best airliner panels, and the interface) that I would just be gone for about 45 minutes, and that he should wait at the restaraunt by the side of the road sipping “Aqua Frizzante” (bubbly water) for a little while while I ran around the city on foot. We had been walking around the city all day long, and Sergio (getting through about 45 years) was about ready to sit and relax while I went on one of my infamous turbo-walks that more closely equates to a RUN for anyone under my lanky 6’4. At first, the possibility of getting lost seemed to be ZERO: The city is famously tiny, and since it is surrounded by water on every side, I must not be able to walk for too long before coming out on a road or river and quickly orient myself.
So I left Sergio at the pleaseant cafe by the side of the road to watch the boats troll slowly past as I loped off at my insane “walking” speed to see more. Over the stone bridge built 1000 years ago, with the taxis, tiny freighters, and gondolas bobbing underneath and I was off into the deep of Venezia. (Known by different names in different languages, but Venezia to the Italians who call it home).
Plenty of tourists lined the main streets as the sun began to think about getting low in the sky, but after all the build-up of how over-visited this city is, and being surrounded by them all day on our tour of the grand Churches and Government buildings, this was no surprise. Soon main streets turned into medium avenues, though, and soon avenues turned into back alleys only 4 feet wide from the stone walls of the buildings on one side and the buildings on the other… with 1.5-foot overhangs on the buildings, only slivers of sunlight are available from between the rooftops 5 stories up. You know the area between the back of your sofa and the wall? The area where, if the cat flees, you will never recover him until he feels like coming out? The area where wallets, brushes, combs, loose change, and papers disappear for years at a time, only to be found again when you move out the furniture to switch houses? The area where, if you were a gerbil, you would be in an area that is still considered very narrow, though vertically taller than you could possibly consider surmounting? It’s like that area. But made of stones and mortar that are 1000 years old. Surrounded by walls that are 5 stories tall, but only 2 feet to your left and 2 to your right, with the smallest sliver of sunlight finding it’s way in from 5 stories up to remind you that you are, despite all other indications, actually on Earth, and it is daytime. The stones are clearly 1000 years old, with grime and grit and lichen and damp rivulets of water and tiny bits of stone and iron and brick and dirt peeking from every crevasse and wrinkle. Layers of bricks, stones, mortar, and concrete are all visible because each is decaying through at various places. The doors are small and wooded, painted dark green. The windows tiny, with black iron frames decaying around them, and curtains drawn from the inside.
You are the only person in sight, and for all you can tell, the only person in the city.
Look up, and the little black iron flowerboxes come out of almost every window with the green leaves and vines overflowing the box and the bright red roses making themselves known as the only bright points in the dimness. Shutters can be foud, and no square foot of any wall is the same as any other square foot on the island. All is dim and stony though. Eventually the alley comes to a dead end, with little wooden doors on either side, or maybe iron gates with little courtyards barely visible through the cracks on the other side. From time to time you will find an iron gate with a little garden on the other side, taking advantage of a rare un-covered or only partially-covered space. You will occasionally see actual shops (actual shops means “not tourist shops” where people do shoe repair, electronics repair, or perhaps ironwork. They work in little shops as big as a large coat-closet, crowded with leather, ropes, iron, glass, lenses, wires, and well-worn tools of their trade. If you lose your way so well from the beaten path that people are not a continuous occurence, then as you walk by a shop the craftsman in it will actually look up above his half-glasses to see who is walking by as you pass.
I always make sure to be well-dressed when in another country, and keep pretty quiet.
Often, your little cobblestone alley will come too an ancient stone bridge… needed since it crosses over a canal. The canals are 10 feet wide, and run to many peoples doors. If you live there, you open the door from your tiny rooms in your ancient stone building to find stairs that run straight down to the almost-still, green, thick water. The lower steps are thick with lichen from the water. The bottom of your door (wooden) is corroded. Since a boat will be picking you up if you chose that door, this is OK. Choose one of the side doors that opens onto the 4-foot alley if you wish to walk not float.
Back to the little bridge crossing the canal: It is stone and obviously a thousand years old, with little stone lions and lizards and fanged winged thingies glowering and grimacing at you from every corner, with little columns and leaves carved into the stone. The stone is white with plenty of grimy black hilights from age. Standing on the bridge, the tiny streets go off in a couple of directions, and a black wooden gondola will occasionally float by. At this moment, the gondola is being piloted by an Italian man in a black-and-white striped shirt, silently plying his trade as an immaculate Italian businessman with a leather briefcase stands in the center as the passenger, obviously being taken to or from a meeting where appearance is key. True! Occasionally a motorboat will come cruising by underneath you.
Keep walking and you might come to a little cobblestone courtyard, filled with children playing before dinners, screaming gleefully in Italian. (Actually, all Italian I have ever heard spoken under any conditions has been spoken gleefully, but even more so here since it’s little kids). Parents and/or grandparents buy prodigous drinks and Gelatto for the kids to run around with, as is the norm in this Country. Of course you are out of place here so you move on and soon find a large courtyard that has been forgotten entirely, empty save for the curtained windows and vines and flowerboxes looking on it from the walls. Perhaps you can see only the walls that define the courtyards as the edge of your world, but in some cases you will see a tall tower or dome poking out from behind it.
As you walk, sometimes you will find a courtyard with very old Italian men playing cards and drinking to pass the early evening, talking loudly with that strong Italian emphasis on seemingly random syllables to the un-initiated like myself.
Pick another street and head down it and soon enough you are lost, as I had now become. I was completely lost. Over an hour had passed, and I knew that Sergio was waiting. Time to stop messing around and find my way back. However, read the above paragraphs about 4 more times in a row and you will understand what happened to me! Ever alley led to another, and another, and another. And a dead-end into a locked door or brick wall. And a dead-end onto the water, where only swimming could continue my direction. And go to a T-intersection where another dead end was visible 50 feet down on the left, and only a strange brick hobbit-hole I will not enter on the right. (Yes! A three-foot tall tunnel!) Some might try to ask the old card-players how to get to the tourist area, but since I do not speak italian, that would leave me gesturing like a mute monkey and remember what I said about my composure abroad. As the sun began to set, and the sliver of light overhead began to go dull grey, and the only light became the little yellow streetlights peeking out from the vines, and I really started to worry. Sergio would be looking for me anxiously now, and I was around 2 hours late at this point, covered with sweat, totally dis-oriented, and scared I would never find my way back from this ancient stone maze.
This is not an unfamiliar sensation to me, as I do it all the time.
I always let myself get totally, hopelessly, completely lost and then try to find the nearest gas station/taxi/train station/hotel/airport/policeman/hovercraft/gondola I can find and say “Get me home!” On this day, the smart money was on the Gondola. After 30 more minutes of wandering, I came across a few guys in trademark black-and-white striped shirts hanging around their gondolas in the water against the “sidewalk”. I managed to give the name of the restaurant Sergio was waiting at, quoted a price ($100 Euros, or $100. All Gondolas are hand-crafted of stained wood and run $200,000 each, and I had wandered VERY FAR from my starting point) and it was into the boat and away we went. Sitting in the Gondola floating silently down the narrow “streets” was odd. It was now completely dark, and the ancient buildings were appearing slowly and of course completely silently out of the gloom. We were so far off the beaten path that not a light or other person was to be seen. The windows were almost all unlit, and the air as thick as soup hid all the stars, so our passage was silent, smooth, dark, and undisturbed by any distractions. At every corner, the gondolier would yell something in Italian (obviously to signal his imminent arrival to any unseen gondola around the corner), but we never encountered any other gondolas in such a close call. At one point, a regular powerboat serenely rounded a corner in front of us and floated blissfully by. The whole “Gondolas-in-the-street” thing is so strange that you forget even TRYING to compare it to reality, but when a powerboat comes floating down the street at idle, you must indeed wonder if you are asleep and dreaming. Twenty minutes of this silent, dark, strange ride later, and we suddenly emerged into the bright lights of the main river that s-turns the length of the island.
Now this is where things go from being strange to incredibly beautiful. As you emerge onto this main “road:, you see the huge, ornate, stone buildings that define that river’s edge. No two are the same, but they are all tall, broad, and made of ancient stone with countless ornate carvings. Some are proud white marble, with black grime of the ages etched intricately into every crevasse and low-point in the detailed carvings. Some are a more beige stone or marble. All are about 5 stories tall, with many intricately-carved columns defining the front wall, and many large windows looking out over the river. Many of the windows are lit, allowing a view from outside into marvelous ballrooms inside. These ballrooms have red-and-gold walls and ceilings, with well-dressed patrons standing outside on white marble balconies overlooking the river. Many of these buildings are draped with huge cloth banners proclaiming some cultural advertisement or slogan that I cannot read. Most of the buildings are dramatically lit from below by floodlights looking up at them, lighting the marble brightly and casting thousands of sharp shadows from the myriad carvings.
In front of these marvelous buildings are sidewalks with restaurants brightly-lit with thousands of little lights, making the river a dark sea a hundred yards wide, bordered by brightly-lit buildings and shops on either side for it’s length throughout the heart of the island. The boat traffic down the river is interesting: Tiny freighters carrying crates of bottled water and wine, “taxis” which are sleek, low, wood-paneled boats that look like they belong in “The Great Gatsby”, and “Buses”, which are larger boats filled with tourists steaming smoothly down the river with the “Next Stop” schedule updating on a computer display on either side of the ship.
And of course there is my Gondola being sure not to be upset by the wake of any of them! Sergio’s restaurant was only a block down the river, and with some smart manuevering by the Gondolier we sidled up to the dock nearest the cafe and out I got with some assistance from the driver and was off on foot I was to meet Sergio (who was still sitting by the river sipping bubbly-water and reading architecture manuals) for dinner proper, looking out over the river, with very much fine Italian food and red wine.
So now you know.