VENICE IN MID WINTER
Bundled in a raincoat, a pork pie hat pulled low over my brow, I slosh along in my rubber boots on my way to a secret ceremony. Pale blurry lamp light shines on the slick black paving stones. The dark oaken shutters of the greengrocer are still closed, as are those of the bookshop opposite, where the trunks of old yellowed prints and musty books are chained and bolted, and covered with plastic. The church doors are still fastened tightly; it’s even too early for the beggar to be up at his job on the front steps.
Not a soul on the Rialto, or in the campo where my favorite bar is not yet open for business. In an hour, burly boatmen in thick blue sweaters smelling of mildew, wet wool, and brine will be standing at the zinc bar, knocking back their first coffee of the day -- boiling, black and laced with grappa -- to blunt the raw chill sweeping of the lagoon. I stride along a minor canal where murky water, redolent of motor oil, sewage, and seaweed slaps up and over the edge of the pavement, drenching my feet, only partially protected by their rubber encasing. Sucking a eucalyptus lozenge, hoping to ward off a cold, I make my way into the heart of the labyrinth. A clock tower somewhere chimes the hours. It’s half past five. This is Venice in my favorite season - the dead of winter and at my favorite hour – before sunrise.
No crowds press close as I thread those winding alleys and calle. In any other season or any other time of day, they are so packed you can simply let yourself be borne up and along by the flux of human bodies. Now I am the only presence, flitting beneath black arches, skirting secret gardens where citrus trees, with fruit like lanterns, somehow flourish behind forbidding gates. One more twist and turn and I am propelled out into the great piazza, still dark, except for a light burning in one of the café concerts way across the square, where a first sign of life astir shows me that the ceremony has begun – the city waking to itself.
A man in red livery, comes out from the café with a long-handled broom and begins to sweep in among the sea of tables and chairs. Patient and thorough, his broom knocks and prods beneath the tables, removing crusts, crumbs; sodden cigarette ends, pigeon excrement, trampled vaporetto tickets. Then from the doors of the café opposite where a light has just come on, out steps a man in green livery, with broom in hand, who begins sweeping his portion of the square. Twinned like the moors in the clock tower, they greet the breaking day.
Out on the embankment, beneath a cobalt sky curdled with pink, huddled figures await an early vaporetto. As I duck back into the labyrinth again, I cross a succession of small bridges, repeated as in the mirrored image of a mirror. Ascending, descending a hundred steps, I meet a small army of delivery men who have appeared from nowhere – shouldering crates of tangerines and cabbages, brown sacks of hot bread, swinging buckets of live eels, wheeling along kegs of beer, cases of mineral water, gas cylinders.
For in this city, two-legged transportation is still the norm.
The shutters of a newspaper kiosk swing open to greet the first customer of the day, a man out with his small dachshund properly coated and booted against the cold.
I pause to admire a pockmarked facade of dingy grey and yellow marble floating above the canal, striped black and green with rot and algae. Its main door opens out a foot below the water line, algae- plastered steps lead down into the murk.
The thick dirty red drapes of an upper window look as though they have not been forced open to admit the sun in fifty years or more. Behind, I imagine a mummified personage from Henry James sitting stiffly at a tea table, claw-like hand clutching a shred of lace, a volume of Ruskin, a faded visiting card.
I hurry on, past a slew of solemn gondolas moored by an arcade, bobbing like funereal seahorses on the swell of the canal as a boat chugs by. More bridges, more embankments, more secluded gardens, more deserted squares – finally I reach the spot . Calle degli Incurabili . Here thirty years ago, disgusted with myself for being so incurably romantic, incurably depressed, incurably in love with Venice and so reluctant to depart, I threw a pair of shoes into the canal as a symbolic gesture to say, perhaps, may I never have to leave this place. Now I look down into the black water where my offering was swallowed up – thinking of all that must lay hidden there, filth and treasures, of all that has disintegrated, rotted away, of all that I have done and been since then.
The sun’s up filtered through soft clouds as through milk or melted pewter.
I return to my pension with its creaking bed, damp age-stained satin covers, and black, lugubrious furniture. Yesterday, while doing my room, the thoughtful chamber maid removed my nightgown from my suitcase and arranged it on the bed like a white shadow, ready to plunge into that activity this city is proverbially famous for: A Venezia si sogna – In Venice, you dream.
As I come in through the great doors, the proprietess is surprised to see I have already been up and about. She ushers me into the freezing little breakfast room, where beyond tinted windows I glimpse the fronds of potted palms . A canary is singing in a cage somewhere. Piping hot tea is brought to me on a tarnished silver platter. Incurably romantic, yes, alas, still.
copyright Linda Lappin