Venetian gondolas tethered to the banks of the Grand Canal make a gentle “slap, slap” sound as they bob up and down on the water. Recently, I was fortunate to spend a few days in this surreal and improbable city to attend a wonderful family wedding (postponed for a year because of Covid). When I think back on my trip, these auditory and visual memories are the first to come to mind.
From a side street, I descended the few marble stairs into the Piazza San Marco, my footsteps treading where thousands if not millions of Venetians and visitors trod over the centuries to marvel at the expanse of the square, pray at the Byzantine domed church, play a coyly masked hide and seek under the gallerias during Carnevale, and sip coffee and be seen at the elegant cafes lining the Piazza.
In the back streets and canals away from the main square, the sun comes in at a slant, creating shadows that lend an air of mystery to ordinary places where (fewer and fewer) ordinary people live, ordinary people who still hang their laundry outside on lines tracing from one building across the street to another.
In Venice you must have the seafood of the lagoon because it tastes like no where else. If there’s “terroir”-the taste of the earth, then I believe there must be “maroir” (yes, I made that word up) a taste of the sea. And you must also eat at an enoteca or wine bar (bacaro in Venetian) and have cicchetti (Venetian tapas), the small and not so small inventive combinations of bread and salumi or crustaceans or vegetables that pair with a glass of wine and make for a nice small lunch or afternoon snack. If you’re in town, go to Osteria da Carla, Corte Contarina 1535, 30124, a combination tiny enoteca in front, small osteria (informal restaurant) in back. They are traditional and modern, creatively updating classics in a simple unfussy way.
Venice is the home of the alternating Art and Architecture Biennales, which are held in individual nations’ pavilions in the Giardini (gardens) and in the enormous warehouse-like buildings of the old Arsenale (naval shipyard and armory). This year, it was the turn of the Biennale of Architecture. The theme was “How Will We Live Together?” Good question. It was heavy on the conceptual, with the occasional built exhibit. The American offering was an airy multi-story structure exploring the ubiquitous use of soft woods to frame the supporting structure of American houses. One pavilion consisted of an empty building with QR codes on the wall. You needed a smart phone to access the codes and free WiFi was provided. That got old pretty quickly, though. The Canadian pavilion offered “Imposter Cities,” an exploration of how the movie industry uses sites in Canada to stand in for cities around the world. The pavilion is partly wrapped in green fabric, a “green screen,” if you will. Images are accessed via a QR code on the side of the building, which had nothing inside. This time there was no free WiFi so I couldn’t open the QR. What’s that phrase–“there’s no there, there”? I think the whole thing must have been an example of Canadian humor.
On our way home from Venice, we stopped in Paris to soak up that energetic and elegant vibe. While Paris can have brilliant sunny days, it’s the muted northern light that stays with me, how it washes the colors into pastels, blending sky, buildings and the Seine into a luminous and diaphanous whole.
On our way into the city from the airport we saw scenes of desperation, homeless people attempting to exist on the roadside, gaunt features etched with hunger and hopelessness. Most appeared to be refugees, and a reminder of the ongoing displacement of huge masses of people–to echo the Biennale, “How Will We Live Together?” indeed.
We made two museum stops, the Musee D’Orsay and the Louvre. It was like visiting old friends… “Good to see you again, Nike of Samothrace, you’ve obviously been working out” and making some new ones, “Enchanté, Famille Dubourg by Henri Fantin-Latour, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Though lively and busy, it was not hard to snag an outdoor table for four at the Café de Flore 172 Boulevard St Germain, 75006 for a bite of lunch and to watch” le tout Paris” go by. By the way, what theater it is to watch the professional Parisian waiters do their thing; we witnessed one hold a tray with one hand and open a champagne bottle with the other, magic! Lunch was delicious, the coffee too; I took home a couple of their paper coasters as a souvenir.
Within 72 hours of our flight home we stopped in a local pharmacy to get our rapid COVID tests. Little testing tents dot the city and getting tested is very easy. Fortunately, we were all negative. In Paris, we showed our vaccine cards everywhere and wore our masks indoors and in crowds. Italy, well, was perhaps a little more lax about showing the vaccine cards. We wore masks continuously while getting to the airport, within the airport, and on the plane going and coming. These are the realities of travel in the time of COVID. The one good thing is that on the way back the plane was empty –European travel to the US is restricted. That is supposed to change in November when the US opens back up to travel.
Travel has become so much more complex and confusing even; rules seem to change weekly. First with 9/11, and now with COVID the hassle factor has increased enormously. One wonders whether it’s still worth it. And yet, though it comes with necessary increased risk management, I found that for me, travel has not lost its gravitational pull and I realized how very much I missed it.
Pia De Girolamo is a modernist painter who lives in the Greater Philadelphia area. Her most recent work up to the Covid 19 pandemic was based on the landscape both natural and urban in places as varied as Patagonia, Iceland, Rome, Italy and the Arctic. Visit her website to see more of her work.