Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Merchants of Venice

I never know how far to go with this blog. Is it ungrateful to say Venice is like the Mall of America, with a church plaza instead of an amusement park? Is it petty to grumble how big Italian families like to congregate obliviously in intersections, making it literally impossible for anyone else to pass? Or that compared to Rome, the churches are crap? OK, that one might send me straight to hell.

It would be simpler to just convey that Venice is not my favorite city. If I was a three-year-old child, I would love stumbling through the alleys, spilling tiny little slurpees onto passersby. Or if I was old, I’d have a grandfatherly appreciation for how lucky I am to be here, and how delightful it is to witness so much family togetherness. Or if I was in a relationship, it would feel impossibly romantic to make out on a canal in front of hundreds of onlookers. But sadly, I am a precociously middle-aged grump, and Venice strikes me as a rather cheesy tourist trap.

It doesn’t help that I came here from Rome, a city that is nothing if not authentic. Yes, there are tourist areas, although only one of them could be called cheesy (the Trevi Fountain). But Rome is a real operating city, and there is a tangible city culture that is entirely separate from tourists. And people need to be places; there are, for example, cars. And Rome’s historical monuments are breathtaking; if you can’t imagine Roman senators walking across the Forum in togas, you just aren’t trying hard enough. The city lives and breathes its history.

Venice treats its history more as an aesthetic that can be exploited for commercial gain. It takes its rather few monuments, like St. Mark’s Square (which I admit, is quite nice), and surrounds them with an inescapable labyrinth of shops and restaurants. A single bus ticket costs $10 each way, $20 if you have a suitcase. My God, even the churches charge you to walk around, or even better, convert themselves into for-profit “museums” dedicated to, say, photocopies of the work of Leonardo da Vinci. It doesn’t take too much effort to realize that the tail is wagging the dog around here. Actually, lots of people bring their dogs along, because Venice isn’t so much a city as a concrete water park for pets and kids.

And must the tourists be so concentrated with one another? At every moment, you are being jostled and touched and bumped. There is almost nobody here who is not a tourist, or works at a place that serves tourists. In Rome at least I could pretend not to be a tourist. I don’t like being a tourist, because I find tourists almost unfailingly irritating, and I don’t want to be lumped in with them by locals. But here, there is no escaping my inferior status.

Fellow travelers don’t have my ridiculous issues with tourism. Indeed, they have realized that they own the place, and they like it. In Rome, you can often see tourists stumbling over their pitiful Italian phrasebook, but here few attempts are made beyond grazie. Tourists do not try to stay out of the way of the locals on the street, because they intuitively feel that the city exists only to serve them. Even their fashion choices have changed, falling from respectable summer wear to horrible printed t-shirts like “PROPERTY OF ALCATRAZ ISLAND, PSYCHO WARD” and my personal favorite, “ONE MAN’S JUNK IS ANOTHER WOMAN’S TREASURE.” Oh yes, this is a man who knows women very well.

I can hear the complaints now. “Are you crazy? Venice is so pretty.” I have to concede that the canals and twisty alleyways are almost unfailingly beautiful. And they are all doing an excellent job of ensuring that tourists part with all the money in their wallets. The Mall of America is pretty too, and they have a roller coaster. And they don’t have the cojones to sell a toddler t-shirt for $45, or Ferrari cologne for $60. (Come to think of it, what else is going to satisfy your need to smell like metal and gasoline?)

But I will not be fooled. It nearly killed me, but I found a real supermarket that serves the tastiest little sandwich, with mushrooms and cream cheese and something called speck, for 1.20. And peach iced tea for 67 cents. There’s a pizza place that serves big slices with prosciutto and mushrooms for 2.50, and Diet Coke for 1.50. Yeah, I can afford to spend more. I expected to, actually, and was looking forward to the risottos of northern Italy promised in my guidebook. But the dinner choices at restaurants are incredibly pedestrian, designed to be simple enough to appeal to even the pickiest tourist. I can’t believe how many Roman leftovers are served here, and quite literally; to my abject horror, one restaurant reheated my spaghetti alla vongole in a microwave oven. Yum!

So I’m not so unhappy to decamp for Florence tomorrow morning. They say it’s wonderful.


At 11:23 AM, Blogger Phranque said...

Way back when after high school, I was an exchange student in Italy (Sardegna). It was beautiful and bizarre and I often wish I had never come home. Your blog brings back so many memories and I'm so happy to hear it hasn't changed much. I remember being shocked to find the Coliseum in the middle of a traffic circle. My best friend, Cicci, couldn't stand the "hot red sauce" (ketchup) from her prior visit to the states, and it couldn't be found for purchase anywhere (not that I missed it). Milan was the most magical city I had ever seen. I've recently been thinking about planning a return trip and am so glad I chanced upon this. Thanks again!


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