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You Can’t Go Back Again (Or Can You?): Returning to Venice + Risking It All

I was hesitant to add magical Venice to our recent trip to Italy. I’d been there before, back in 2005 when I was a graduate student beginning my MFA abroad. The low-residency program had been in Montpellier, France, and a couple weeks in we’d taken an overnight train across the border to Venice, the train chugging along the southern coast of France past coastal towns, the dazzling blue of the Mediterranean Sea flashing between houses and hills in teasing glimpses. Simply put, I’d been awestruck for the entire five-week duration of the program, and on this train I was heading into what would turn out to be the highlight of the summer.

Eleven years later, I was worried about returning. I’d be disappointed, I was sure. It wouldn’t be able to live up to the memory I’d fostered all these years. More, this new experience would surely water-down the magic of the original. Sequels never live up—especially sequels to classics. I didn’t want to mess with it.

I’d led a three-week study-abroad group in San Sebastián, Spain, and at the tail-end of it my wife joined me so I could show her the Basque regions of Spain and France before we set off to Italy for a week and a half. Students were departing at around 3 a.m. Saturday, so we’d managed to squeeze in just a couple hours’ sleep before dressing in the middle of the night in the same clothes we’d worn all day Friday. We skipped showers. Planes make me feel dirty, even if it’s a short flight, so clean clothes and showers would wait until Venice.

The plane laid-over in Paris for an hour, then continued to Marco Polo Airport. The excitement I’d been trying to tamper grew. I was looking forward to seeing the city again all these years later, and this time through my wife’s eyes. It was her first time. Sometimes, I reminded myself, sequels were as good. Sometimes they were better. Godfather II. The Empire Strikes Back. Before Sunset. We touched down and I stretched, let my back crack. It felt good to be off the plane. Like Indiana Jones keeps saying in The Last Crusade, “Ah, Venice…”

Then our bags never showed up.

* * *

Venice is certainly touristy, but it’s touristy for a reason: there’s no place like it in the world. You hear other cities try to draw comparisons—that such-and-such-a-place is the Venice of the north, or the Venice of something else. Even my town of Lowell, Massachusetts, a mill city on the Merrimack River and birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, bears a stone plaque next to one of its canals tagging it as “The Venice of America.” Nope. Not the Venice of America, but it’s understandable why so many cities try to align themselves to the original “City of Canals.” There’s no other place like it.

My first visit to the city came during my first time abroad, a summer that so changed me that I often think in terms of pre-Europe Sean (pre-2005), and post-Europe Sean (post-2005). It’s not a stretch to say they’re two different people.

That first night in Venice in 2005 had stretched long into the night: I was lost in its snaking and narrow streets, the entire island a beautiful and chaotic maze of stone and water. My fellow study abroad students and I surrendered to the chaos and wandered, half trying to find our hotel, half letting the moonlit city lose us, my head buzzing, an open bottle of wine hanging from one hand, plastic cup in the other, zig-zagging, back-tracking, meandering. Didn’t matter.

The next evening, the summer sun stretching the shadows long, I took a Gondola ride with five from my group; I was the only guy. The program had consisted of about 40 or so students and just a few of us were men. I didn’t complain. The Gondolier edged us through narrow canals, around tight corners, sometimes kicking off the stone wall of a building with his foot so as to avoid hitting it. It was clear he’d had a lot of experience. Navigating this long arrow of a boat could not have been easy, through the twists and turns and traffic, but you’d never know it. I took some photos but mostly leaned back on my elbows and looked around, everything impossibly old and decrepit and lovely—no museum masterpiece is more impressive. Nietzsche once said, “When I seek another word for ‘music,’ I never find any other word than ‘Venice’.” I closed my eyes toward the warmth of the sun and listened.

Later, we ate dinner alongside the Grand Canal, in the shadow of the Rialto Bridge, finished in 1591 and perhaps the most famous bridge in all the world. The weekend we were there happened to be the Festa del Redentore, the great festival the third Sunday in July celebrating the end of the plague of 1576, and as we ate, a series of decorated boats paraded by, one-by-one, each crowded (overcrowded?) with partiers and strung with lights glowing and twinkling in the dusk. One group, hanging off the sides and waving to us, sang: “Hey, baby! I wanna know-oh-oh-oh-oh—will you be my girl?” We’d heard them long before they’d come around the corner and could still hear the refrain after the boat had disappeared again. I raised my glass toward them in a silent toast.

After dinner we’d made our gradual way into Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Square, the basilica and Doge’s Palace looming, the iconic brick bell tower almost standing guard over the throngs of tourists packing the square. We found another faction of our group, sitting at tables they’d pushed together, drinking and laughing and listening to the outdoor orchestra, a solo violin crying out, musicians decked in white tux jackets—every nuance of the city designed to make you fall in love with it. We sat and joined our friends, and then, later, we followed the throng of people toward the waterway and the Bridge of Sighs to get a good view of the fireworks that had just started, part of the festa.

And then, of course—of course—I witnessed a fireworks display unlike any I’d seen before, a true assault on the senses. And of course it was an assault on the senses because it was Venice, and how could one surrender to Venice’s magic and then have that magic punctuated by a fireworks display merely pedestrian? This night wasn’t going to end with an ellipses…it was ending with an exclamation point. I’d gotten to chatting with two Americans standing near me, and after a short while my friend Brandi, standing in front of me, head craned to the burning sky, suddenly scolded me over her shoulder: “You better be watching this!”

* * *

My wife called Air France a couple of times that afternoon, then a couple more times, then one or two more times in the evening. We’d checked in to our hotel—beautiful spot teetering on the edge of a canal and removed from the bustle of the main drags—but had no clean clothes, no toothbrush. We were both still wearing our eyeglasses, our contact lenses and sunglasses foolishly in our checked baggage. They knew where the bags were—they hadn’t made the connection in Paris—but weren’t sure when they’d arrive. So we tried to go out and have a look around the city, get our bearings, find something to eat. I had my camera, thank God, but neither of us was much in the mood to pose for pictures. We felt grubby and slick. My glasses kept fogging in the corners from the heat, and I’d take them off and try to clean them with the bottom of my T-shirt, but the shirt was too grimy and left streaks. I put the glasses back on and dealt with it.

I pulled out the guidebook, tried to read one of the Rick Steves walking tours my wife loves so much, but she was distracted and couldn’t shake the cloud of annoyance boxing her in. We tried to get dinner at a highly-touted restaurant, but the maître d’ led us down into a dark, stone room that felt muggy and claustrophobic. He left us with menus and water, but a moment later my wife and I looked at each other and telepathically made the decision to get up and leave. We were embarrassed but neither of us could shake the cloud, neither of us in the mood to fake it. Christine wanted to go back to the hotel and call Air France again, so we did.

No bags yet. Hopefully tomorrow.

We’d been up since 3 a.m., long overtired, dirty, hungry, wondering now what would happen if the bags didn’t arrive the next day, or the day after that for that matter. What if we reached Tuesday and were scheduled to leave for Florence, still without our things? Happened all the time. I’d just left some college students back in San Sebastián who’d gone without bags for days. It was just our turn, I supposed.

Eventually we ventured back out. It was late. We meandered through streets, narrow and shuttered in darkness, the sounds of the motors grumbling from boats somewhere distant. We held hands and looked in store windows, closed for the night, and paused to listen to the occasional busker sitting on a stone stoop. The alley emptied into Campo San Barnaba, a lively square of people, fountains, and statues. We’d stumbled into a plaza still buzzing with some life. Weary, we sat at an outdoor table. Christine ordered herself a glass of wine. “Maybe you better get the bottle,” I said. She smiled and agreed.

We ordered a couple small plates of food, nothing too heavy this late in the evening. The crowds thinned. People sat at other tables, but there were empty tables between us all. Couples strolled the square, and a few children played near a fountain. One small child, glad to have such space and freedom, put his arms out at his sides and ran, footfalls echoing. The wine felt good. My insides, cramped with stress all day, began to free up. I felt my body soften. The moon stood bright, high in the corner of the square’s sky. Laughter and song drifted from one of the nearby bars. Christine looked contented for the first time since we’d arrived, absently swirling her wine glass and looking around the plaza, a delicate breeze fluttering her dirty blouse. She was going to fall in love with this city, I knew. I think she already was.

Later, ready to move and stretch, we pushed our chairs out and made our way to Grom Gelato. We’d both been eyeing people walking in and out of the place the entire two hours we’d been sitting. They were closing up, but the girl behind the counter in her white apron and paper hat gladly took our order. I got two small scoops, one chocolate and one coffee. She asked if we wanted cream. “Cream?” I shrugged. “Of course we do.” She topped each with a dollop of homemade whipped cream, dense and substantial. It, like everything else here, was art.

We crossed the square and sat on the cool stone step of the Chiesa di San Barnaba, the quaint, neoclassical church featured in so many photographs and even films, rebuilt after a fire in 1350, some 650 years ago. Christine said this was the best gelato she’d ever had, and it was tough to argue. We’d had good conversation at dinner, fueled by the wine and our surrender to the situation, but now we fell quiet, our attention falling to this goddamn gelato. It tasted, well, magical.

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