THE FOLLOWING is an account of the European adventure just concluded; it was written as it happened, and with the exception of the bones of the site, all the graphics and movies were done on a Mac Air on the balcony of Norwegian Jade, and aboard a transcontinental Airbus moving from Paris to Minneapolis at great altitude. A world of wonders, this. A big blue world of wonders. Let’s begin.

(Note: hideous jet lag involved in the preparation of episode one. Didn't sleep on the way back, and hadn't looked at it since I wrote it, thinking I could clean it up after a nap. Hah!)


Worst Intercontinental Flight in my life. To which one can only say, with as much scorn and bile and hissy spitting as a civilized person can muster: poor, poor lad. Aww. To have to put up with sights like this.

 

That said: Woke up around 2 AM, thinking how novel a sensation is this? Can’t breathe. Deuced thing. Can’t seem to draw breath - ahh, there it is. Carry on, then. Woke a bit later with the same problem. Leg numb, but that’s normal for travel. Neck twanging bright red from the unusual posture, but that’s also par for the course. This feeling of having slack non-performing muscular both voluntary and involuntary, though, that was unusual. How many melatonin pills did I take? Two. What was the dosage of each? Can’t recall. Five something. And then I passed out.

A few hours later I hallucinated that the nice lady with AIR FRANCE on her uniform was passing out Blue Bunny brand ice cream sandwiches at 4 AM, but that’s exactly what she was doing. C’mon. Really? Blue Bunny? Not even Lapin Bleu?

(Yes, it was Air France. Managed by their partner Delta, but not Delta. When you tried to check in online, Air France’s website put up his hands and shrugged very Gallically and said it could do nothing, then pointed you to Delta, where your reservation code didn’t work. After half an hour on the phone with Delta, I got a reservations agent who tried to find my reservation and could find nothing. Mind you, we’re leaving the next day. Nothing. Rien! Quel dommage.

“Ah . . . there it is,” he said. The exhalation of relief was so profound I think I literally said WHEW, with each consonant and vowel delineated with seven seconds of breath.)

So I’m not impressed with Air France, except that the wine was free, and I had two bottles. Plus all that melatonin. Explains the delirium about "Blue Bunny" ice cream. (Found a wrapper for it on the floor when I left the plane.) By the time we landed I was Monsieur Le Golem, and wife was ropey-dopey from a Tylenol PM, and daughter was just plain out, but we were in Paris! (The Lileks family is going to France! I’d said when we left the house, pausing to explain to daughter that this was a Simpsons thing.)

But only here for a while. Had to connect. Staggered from one terminal to the other at the Chuck D'Gall; really magnificent structures, although it appears to be a renovation over a typically Brutal piece of cement-work. Found a cafe and ordered an espresso doppio and regained a slight sensation of being human. The gate where we were to leave was in the basement, which is always a bad sign - in this case it meant we took a bus to the other end of the airport, a voyage of such duration I expected we would stop and have our papers examined when we crossed over into a neighborhing country. We boarded the plane by a staircase from the apron.

I love that.

Turn around and wave to your fans, I said to Daughter.

 

We took our seats and belted in. “The Lileks family is going to Italy!” I cried, albeit sotto voce, and Daughter was probably okay with that because she knew there was only one more of those to come.

Lost consciousness. Slept through take-off, woke over the Pyrenees:

And then we descended over a rank industrial hell.

And then we were at a small airport with what seemed to be a two-lane road coming and going from the terminal. But as we knew, the roads didn’t matter.

Where we were going, we didn’t need . . . roads.

The Lileks family is going to, and has arrived . . . here.

     

Arrived in a water taxi. The driver gunned it and grinned and pointed out helpful sights like CHURCH! CATTOLICO! No kidding. We docked at San Marco, which is like going to New York and flying into Times Square or Central Park. Wheeled the bags up a narrow street in Venice - ah, but I repeat myself - and looked for our hotel’s entrance. I’d seen it before on Google Street View. (How they did that is another matter; must have had someone wearing the camera on his head.) I felt we had gone too far; daughter said we had, because she remembered the Louis Vuitton store across the street. So I bade the family to wait while I went down the street. I saw the entrance, turned around, and there was Conan O’Brien. I was too stunned to shout “THE O’BRIEN FAMILY IS GOING TO VENICE!” and the moment passed; went back and got the family.

You got to the hotel by going through a narrow alley into a tiny courtyard, where a door opened to a tiny, tiny office with a tiny desk, behind which sat a tall young fellow with an engaging manner, fairly bursting to tell you about his city. He laid out the basics, took our passports, gave us a tasseled key, and bade us to enjoy the lift up to the third floor. For room 201. Right, right - Europe. The room was more than enough for turning halfway around; if you were one of those demanding sorts who wants to turn all the way around, the door could be opened, and there was a small Hallway Fee for Revolving, but only .2 Euros. I was still a bit perplexed about the Tourist Tax the clerk had explained. It’s like an occupancy tax - a levy for engaging in the specific purpose for which the building exists. It seemed a bit . . . high, that’s all. I mean, I know Venice is expensive, but 30 Euros? Per person? Per night?

Really?

Well, we’d deal wiht that later. First we headed out into the throngs and threaded our way to San Marco Plaza, about two blocks away. An enormous square with long, long colonnades and offices, formerly given over to tax collection, bureaucracy and the apartments of Napoleon, who knocked down some churches to build his wing. Not that anyone minds now; the Napoleonic segment closes off the square the way it’s meant to be completed. Then we headed into the narrow twisty passages, none of which were alike, looking for food that was not tainted in price and quality by its proximity to the main tourist attraction. Afterwards we made our way back before gloom and novelty completely scrambled our sense of direction. This was not a place where the maps help. The maps of Venice are like the recollection of events during a battle. The narrative of the streets has its own grammar that maps cannot capture.

In fact, nothing can capture Venice. Not the pictures, not the videos, not the guidebook illustrations. It’s the most alluring and beautiful ruin you will ever see - a ruin that is still alive below and haunted above, a place that held so much power and glory that it still contains the full measure of both, even though they have ebbed away. Imagine a set of twins, one vital, one dead; they’re not joined but walk every step of the day together. Imagine a bridge you can’t see but could cross if you stepped out where you thought it was.

Back to the roof. Did I mention the roof?

I realized something you’ve never felt in a city like this: it’s absolutely quiet. When you look across the rooftops you note that the lights are off. Here and there, a window glows, but when the sun goes down it drapes a caul over the rooftops. Light below, though; thin streams pooling in the corners. People still stroll up and down - the vendors still stand stolid before a line of fake bags, and to your delight there’s a fellow playing an accordion.

By "delight" I mean "hold my belt while I lean out of the room with this slingshot." Around midnight, a few groups returned to the hotel, and demonstrated the extent to which angry Italian voices penetrate through stone walls; they were accompanied by a gush of drunks pouring out of bars and cafes, a parade that seemed to last forever, and coincided with something peculiar: a single melodic phrase from the Godfather soundtrack, played over and over on a small accordion. At Midnight. Over. And over again. Best I could figure it was someone who set up along the street to get the odd stray Euro from someone touched by the melody and he wandered home in a loose and sentimental mood. Since the rest of the piece might not have the same emotional impact as the first few plaintive notes, that’s all he did. He started the second phrase, with promise and determination, but abandoned it instantly and went back to the opening notes. I don’t know when he stopped. We fell asleep.

It began at home, and ended here. What day? What time? How many hours? No idea. None of that mattered.

If you're curious about the neighborhood: explore all you like. The hotel is right on the left.


View Larger Map

NEXT: In which we take to the waters, streets, and sepulchers of Venice.

 

   

VENICE DAY 2

 

Glory be: we slept until 7:30. Refreshed. Without jet lag gnawing at your brain and weighing down your eyes. Took breakfast in the charming little cafe in the hotel:

Explored in the morning, looking for an adaptor. Didn’t bring one, and the hotel clerk said that whenever they got one, well - he made walking gestures with his fingers. But I could find one at Raffi’s, which had everything. He also drew some suggestions for the morning walk, circling a large area on the island and labeling it GL.

GL?

“Get lost,” he grinned. But not to worry. Ask anyone the direction to San Marco. I thought “but everyone’s a tourist.” Well, we weren’t going to get lost. We found Raffi’s, thanks to his big paper map, and I had to laugh: I had a pocket fold-out map and a big laminated map and of course off-line maps on my phone, and I was staring at a folded piece of paper.

After I had the converter (thus assuring power: I’d been recharging all the devices off a battery pack I brought, which had duly fed four units before expiring in the morning) we walked along the Quay until we came to a garden. Forgotten statues by forgotten hands:

The tour met at the Royal Gardens at 11, and we were gathered by a young Italian woman with commanding diction and a bubbly style that produced a tremendous amount of information in a constant stream; she knew her city, and was not just reciting a script. Walk to San Marco, and inside, skipping the interminable queue.

Daughter blanched: this is . . . creepy. And it was. The pre-Renaissance churches always seem on the cusp of being utterly foreign. You recognize the architecture, the styles and what they mean in context, but there is a bright line between Gothic and Renaissance, and the former gives you feeling of a culture redefined so utterly that it became something almost unrecognizable to anyone who was born in one and died in the other. As we’ll see.

The entrance was uneven, the ground sunk; the ceilings were lined with mosaics and innumerable patrons and Biblical stories; I think I recognized the story of Drunk Moses. Inside: faded heaven.

The decoration dazzles, not the architecture; the stones lift up the stories.

Afterwards, the walk. Oh the walk. From Campo to campo, learning stories. (The Campo is the field, the gathering place for the island; back before the city was consolidated, each Campo had the church, the palazzo, the cistern. As you thread your way from campo to campo you sense how the place was divided, now many fiefdoms were eventually stitched together. Connecting each, a bridge; from each a narrow street that takes a dogleg, thins to almost single-file, opens to another collection of church, palace, buildings. The water doors were still in use for many buildings, which is just fascinating: pull up your boat, drive in, get out. You can imagine gouty old men struggling to get out the gondola, waving off efforts of assistance from the fussy servants with plumed hats; elegant women more than happy to take a proffered hand to alight to the stones.

The tour ended far from San Marco’s: you’re on your own; good luck getting back to your hotel. We took the bridge over to the Rialto to the Fish market. It had been thus for centuries. Imagine a half-millennia of fish smells.

A stop for lunch at a cafe with a view of the canal, and then back to the room to collapse into deep and dreamless sleep before the boat ride. I woke before everyone else, and went down to talk to Andrea, the tirelessly cheerful and helpful desk clerk. I said I was surprised not to see a lot of places where one could get an espresso, and he seemed shocked: to him, they were everywhere. I was thinking of the places that weren’t full ristorantes, but cafes with pastries in the window and il Grande Macchina visible from the street, the golden tank a sign of deep rich delights. He got out The Paper Map, and sketched directions to six places within four blocks - that being a relative term, of course. “This, Florian, in San Marco,” he said. “Is said to be the first bar in Europe, and this -“

Say no more, Andrea. That.

“If you want it Venetian style, standing at the bar.”

I want it Venetian style, my friend.

I walked up the street to the great stone gape of the plaza, sidled along behind the colonnade to the restaurant behind the vast array of tables - didn’t know there was a little bar behind it. And so. And . . . oh. Decorum prevented me from whipping out the camera and taking pictures like an uncultured tourist. It had to date from 1890. It had not changed. There was no reason to change. A tall and sepulchral bartender, no doubt long accustomed to turista garb - the days of men knowing that a suit and sharp-creased trousers was expected, long past - accepted my request with a nod of deep solemnity and conjured from La Macchina a cup of the most exquisite espresso I have ever had.

A vacation presets moments great and small, sweeping and specific; having that espresso in that bar in that place is one of those things that just lights up everything, and you know that if the plane goes on the drink on the way back, you can content yourself with that. You never knew you wanted to have an espresso in the first bar in Europe until you were there, but now you have seen a new way of looking at your mortal allotment. It’s not the walk to the dais to get an award. It’s the quiet anonymity of this ageless room. Byron drank here, I’m sure. There are no plaques to suggest that was the case. In a place that measures time where decades are a tick of the second hand, such historical grace-notes are simply assumed, and to say THIS HAPPENED HERE means the place does not deserve to hold his memory.

IT’S JUST A CUP OF FREAKING COFFEE you say. Go there and report back.

(Note: if there is a plaqu for Byron, I take it back, and it’s a reverential account of an important moment. See? I can be flexible.)

So: collect the family; back to the Royal Gardens for the boat tour. No one there looks like they’re official. Another couple looks a bit confused, and I ask if they’re here for the boat tour. They are. We get to talking. Where you from? I ask. “A place outside St. Cloud, Minnesota,” the fellow says. “And you?”

I shrug. “A little town called Minneapolis.”

“No. Kidding!”

Can you beat it? Fellow Gophers. Wife and child arrive, and we all chat; I find the guy’s in the oil business, and we’re deep into blends and distributors and refinery talk. Then eight of our group is assigned a boat, and off we go -

And here you realize you had been thinking of the city entirely backwards. It’s not a city of streets with bridges over canals. It’s a city of canals first, with the streets as the backside. It can only be told like this.

The Canals of Venice from James Lileks on Vimeo.

 


There was a time when getting a ticket to a boat to another island, and trusting only my rudimentary Italian, would have been a source of anxiety, since I am not by nature adventurous, and like to plan things. But in this case: after the boat, we took the water bus (not a water taxi; difference is as you’d imagine) to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, home of a church of the same name, because the tour guide had pointed to the church and said the magic words “Palladio.” Well. I’ve never been in a Palladian church. Never seen one, as far as I know. The bus dropped us off by a nine gold-covered rectangular objects arranged in a square, with a plaque nearby to inform you that this was art, and daring art, and important art. It seemed significant that the only modern work on public display was on another island, as if it was being quarantined.

The church had a sober, restrained facade. Inside: sublime. Deserted, as most of the churches were.

After, what? Wife and child went into an art installation next door; I followed. A movie. Shots of a desert, with a voice-over intoning portentous statements. My breath, dry as a scorpion and so on. I backed out as quickly as possible and sat outside, taking pictures, until they emerged, no doubt admiring my capacity for snap judgments.

Down the embankment to another gallery, this one devoted to the glass-blowing work of a brother-sister team of abstract artists. Room after room of glass in varying shapes and reflectiveness and opacity. Behold! Art:

Our era, compared to theirs: not advisable in Venice.

Waterbus back; family went back to hotel, and I explored a bit down the street. Turned into another campo, and another church:

 

Walk a few paces, and again:

 

I went into the one above. In the corner, a mass for tourists. Four people. Sonorous drone of ancient Latin.

Back to the roof to have a small cigar and a drink, and look at the gulls. They expect nothing of you. They know you will come and go and come and go. You matter nothing to the gulls.

For dinner we walked to the Ponte L’Academia, to find a restaurant on the canal. The walk there was the usual labyrinth, and if you wonder how you’re going to get out you trust the signs, which were put up in 1912 or 1884, or 1791; it’s all of those years at the same time. They point towards an eventual large destination. That’s all you need to know. The trip across the bridge was beautiful . . .

. . . but more so on the way back, when the lights were on. It’s a remarkably under illuminated city, which is the charm. I’d asked our tour guide when the streets were electrified: “1883,” she responded promptly. They don’t seem to have added much since the original plan, and why should they? It’s perfect. Down the old stones, through the streets, over the bridges, the gondolas gliding silently below - except in the case of one, which you could call the Party Gondola, filled with young women with enormous drinks in hand and VENICE WOOOOO.

One last nighttime trip to San Marco, and we got there just as something lovely happened.

Fourth from James Lileks on Vimeo.

(Pardon the shakycam; I was walking with the camera open.) That’s right - it was the Fourth of July.

And so to bed.

NEXT: The Palace of the Doue - and leaving Venice for the sea, and the islands beyond.