For the sake of not forgetting: 5 bits of Venice

Venice is a walking and a water city. This means the person you meet on the boat –– public transit everyone takes ­­–– you will likely see again in the square. It's a small social city.

There are 53,000 people living in Venice.. And every day 60,000 tourists weigh down the island for a few hours, then return to their cruise ships and leave. This makes it a teetering place. I picture the island itself as a raft that tilts to take on passengers and again when they leave. It seems like a precarious balance for those who live there: to host with kindness -- as they do -- and to maintain some privacy and space and quality of life. They attend to us. Me, a visitor too. I feel I'm somewhere between tourist and resident. And for some reason, with all my attention, I want to attend to the place and those I meet.

When I was there in November it was just after the storm that raised the tide to 160cm so that waiters were wearing rubber boots as they carried pizzas to diners in rubber boots sitting in several inches of water. That was extreme, but the Acqua Alta -- the high tide -- is high at this time of year. People are ready for it. In every corner kiosk you can buy a pair of bright pink, blue, or orange plastic sheaths to pull on over your shoes for 10 euros. But the locals have a range of more serious boots from the ankle to the hip wader. Buildings have been built with materials that (mostly) have withstood change and been mopped up for hundreds of years.


One day, walking in my neighbourhood, I saw young man with a chisel, hacking off bits of brick from a 100-year-old house. The ground was littered with red fragments. He said because of the tides, the salt gets in and eats the brick. Water doesn't get inside this way, he said, but the owners don't like it. "It doesn’t look nice." So he was refacing it. I picked up some bits of wall and put them in my pocket.

Friendly man refacing brick on Via Marino Secco

Friendly man refacing brick on Via Marino Secco

I’m home now but, in my mind, I revisit daily. Or rather, moments come back. I write about these moments, like the red brick fragments, but I can’t quite reconstitute them into a whole. So for the sake of not forgetting: here are 5 of these moments, fragments of experience broken off from the whole.

1. Wandering into the garden of Palazzo Ca Zenobio, with my friend Gualti, and meeting Peter Mccaughey one of the curators of “The Happenstance” a Scottish/Venetian free space part of this year’s Architectural Biennale. In the garden he and his team from WaveParticle had built a structure that looked halfway between jungle gym and performance space. The space was animated all summer long by people who simply happened by — artists, local groups, filmmakers. He called himself “an anti-curator” letting the space be a venue for the creative and social needs of residents and visitors to Venice. Because I told him I was a poet, he filmed me reading in the garden and invited me to speak — at the last minute — about poetry and architecture in a day of presentations by "cultural connectors." Joined people from sciences, arts, theatre, health, activism… from Italy, Germany, France… drinking wine, eating tangerines and talking about art and its uses in a crumbling palazzo.

From left,  Peter Mccaughey, of WaveParticle , one of the curators of “The Happenstance” Scotland’s contribution to the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, Ronna Bloom, poet with mouth open,  Gualti , creator of spectacular wearable sculptures, Ann, Peter’s sister, painter living in Australia.

From left, Peter Mccaughey, of WaveParticle, one of the curators of “The Happenstance” Scotland’s contribution to the 16th International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, Ronna Bloom, poet with mouth open, Gualti, creator of spectacular wearable sculptures, Ann, Peter’s sister, painter living in Australia.

2. Being part of the symposium and exhibition, Rhinoceros: Luxury's Fragile Frontier and actually doing poetry in Venice. I'm hugely grateful to Catherine Kovesi who invited me to write poems about the city and the rhino and then, thinking big as she does, printed them massively! They hung among the sculptures of Venetian Gig Bon and Taiwanese artist Mr. Shih as part of the month long exhibition held at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac. (The photo on the main blog page for this post is the water door, the original front door of the palazzo on the Grand Canal, where boats would pull up.) The writer Cat Bauer who has lived in Venice the last twenty years writes a fabulous blog called Venetian Cat: The Venice Blog for Culture Lovers and wrote about the show including kind words on my poems.

3. Falling, teeth into stone, while running for a boat in the rain in the dark. Four people lifted me up. Handed me my glasses and keys. In my stunnage, I felt a bit in love with humanity. It also toughened up my relationship with the city and made me less in awe. More intimate. I mean I was lying down on the ground! Luckily, I broke nothing. But the big gouge in the middle of my right lens, pushed me to buy a second pair of glasses. Yes, they're wild. The next time you see me....

4. Eating a mushroom and whisky risotto cooked by the man whose mother was the young woman in the Ruth Orkin photograph, “An American Girl in Florence.” This same event can also be described thus: Eating risotto cooked by a descendent of the Doges who sent me home with a tube of polysporin for my wounds.

5. And maybe the best - watching my friend Tracy Chevalier's next novel get born right there in in her head in Venice. I won't tell you what it's about, it's too soon. (And besides her new one, A Single Thread is coming out in 2019 so just look for that.) All I can say is, Venice has its hooks in her too.

Here’s a little gallery of photos from the exhibition and symposium and a few more for the pleasure of sharing. Call it a slide show.