Venice Nocturne 1: The Walk Back


After dark, the arrows point in both directions. They do in daylight too, but it doesn’t seem so challenging then, when aimlessness is its own kind of reward—the reason why you visit Venice in the first place. Once the sun sets, though, the labyrinth turns Alice-in-Wonderland sinister—lit with high yellow bulbs and silent to the point of distraction, save the footsteps just around the corner.

Unless you’re in love, I guess. In which case, the challenges of the shoulder-narrow streets, the hitching corners, are probably different. Then, you can probably appreciate the safety of the thing better, the fact that there are no muggings or murders here. The darkness, the shuttered storefronts, give way to nothing. The threat dissipates, falls away like a length of cloth in a magic trick.

We’ve eaten dinner—overpriced and the wine was terrible, but it’s hard to know sometimes. Choosing a restaurant in a nook or a cranny guarantees nothing, partly because the entire city is nook and cranny both, but also because “off” and “on” the beaten path are slippery terms here. To go to Venice is to visit both the most touristed, most traversed, most memorized and mapped, most known of known places, and to be utterly, pointlessly lost. All we want, at this point, is to get home.

Around a wide corner, we get harassed by a group of big, intoxicated boys. It happens by the shuttered fish market. This is as close as I will ever come to definitively identifying the spot. One of them latches on, says things that are distinctly tame and rather beautiful, compared with things I’ve heard on the streets of New York, but his marginally-more-sober buddies tell him to give it a rest, especially when they see our averted eyes, the tense lines of our spines.

Near the Rialto at high tide, the water has brimmed up over the edge of the canal and people are having their dinner at tables perched on the edge, the water creeping up against the soles of their shoes in harmless little waves. The building just behind them—a slouching white stone structure that could use some of the city’s abundant restoration budget to wipe the generations of soot off its grimy face—is immersed up the threshold. The candles on the tables flicker anyway.

When we finally find the Ponte Scalzi, we scuttle like mice who have reached the cheese—spat out the right end of the maze, finally. Four or five other tourists, lumpy in their fanny packs, their khaki dinner clothes, have been following us and seem grateful in several different languages. We reach our hotel and stay for an instant. Create the illusion of a fixed point on the map, pretend that the city isn’t always shifting, sliding out from underneath us.

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