Love in Venice: how a grumpy gondolier helped show me the heart of his city

It’s April and the light is pale but warm, the color of Prosecco. My sister and I have been gleefully playing in the maze all morning, meandering over bridges and around beckoning corners, rolling our eyes at the rookie tourists huddled over wrinkled maps in every campo. They haven’t yet reached our level of enlightenment. They don’t realize that to find one’s self one must lose one’s self, an epiphany the Venetians accelerate by printing their giveaway maps in imperceptible scales, illegible fonts, and miniscule point sizes. Becky and I are practically natives now, having crumpled up our map just a half hour beyond breakfast on this, our very first day in Venice.

To lose the map is the most consistent advice anyone will get about visiting Venice, but every tourist begins with one anyway, afraid they’ll miss the most important sights if they don’t plot and plan each day’s perambulations. The city, though, is like a vast, thousand-year-old castle encircled by a wide moat of seawater; it’s had no room to grow anywhere but up, and its millennium of treasures are stacked and veneered one on top of the other, Greek pediments over Gothic arches over Renaissance windows edged by Byzantine mosaics. The ages rub shoulders with each other convivially, the rough and substantial mingling comfortably with the refined and delicate. It’s all stunningly beautiful, and you can’t walk ten meters without seeing something important, whether you know it or not — there’s scarcely an alley or a rooftop that isn’t connected to some enthralling anecdote or three. Poke your head in the door of whatever edifice lures you toward it, and you’re likely to find a brochure, in English, for your on-the-spot enrichment.

Becky and I agree, in our nascent wisdom, that we’d rather serendipitously find a place and learn, than to learn and try to find the place. We’ve already descried and paid homage to the vibrant Titians and brooding Tintorettos that loom down from their ordained heights in the Scuola and the Frari, and now, skirting the massive, 600-year-old church, we emerge in its eponymous campo. On the far side, a solemn crowd sits on the broad steps of the bridge, looking past us with an air of subdued expectancy. We glance over our shoulders and see that a quartet of musicians, dazzling black-eyed men in suits, is setting up in the shadow of the ancient church behind us.

I glance at Becky, and, conscious of our unrefined American accents in this quiet tableau, ask with a tilt of my chin – Shall we stay?

She raises her eyebrows with a hint of a shrug – If you want. It’s picturesque, isn’t it.

I roll my eyes – What isn’t?

She pats her stomach and nods toward the Caffe dei Frari across the bridge, where a dozen standing patrons sip vin rosa at tiny tabletops attached to a railing along the water’s edge. Let’s eat, and listen from there.

We’re in complete agreement, as always, and begin picking our way up the steps through the seated spectators. The patrons on the other side of the canal raise their glasses to their lips, eyes fixed on the quartet across the campo. Sunlight purples the wine and sparkles off the goblets, radiating a ruby aura. The alluring aroma of fresh bread and herbs pervades the air and as we get closer to the cafe I can see cocky little sparrows scampering in for crumbs, scrambling backward at the swish of a hand, scampering back for more. Beneath us the long black beak of a gondola pokes out from under the bridge, and water gently slaps and pats the stones.

We’re just descending the far side of the bridge when a single clear, sweet note infuses the spring air with startling beauty. Pigeons flutter, coo. Becky and I halt, as does the music; it’s just one violinist, checking that his tune is true. We trade a glance that silently remarks on all the resonance we felt in that one note. Soul sisters that we are, without a word we turn, climb back across the bridge, and find a seat among the locals.

One cello and three violins gleam against the burnished stones of the Frari. The musicians move their cases to the side, unfold their stands, and take their playing stances. Meanwhile, people trickle steadily across the campo toward us. Most are elegant Venetian women with perfect skin and posture, wearing black riding boots and wool coats. In six weeks or so there will be a crowd of slouchy Americans in white Nikes and khaki shorts, but it’s only April, and when I close my eyes I hear the brisk, soft clapping of leather-soled shoes. This isn’t Rome; no stilettos stab at the stones, no fashionistas totter over the cobbles. Besides the stepping of the well-heeled walkers I can hear the chirping of the sparrows, the chortling of pigeons, the sotto voce murmurings of buon giorno and scusi and arrivederci, the ever-present gentle slosh of water. And then the quartet’s music scents the air, a sliver of Vivaldi, high and fine.

I catch my breath and my eyes fly open, but I see only sound. The Frari fades away, six centuries of stone dissolving into mist. The people on the steps beside me blur. Even Becky, though I know she must be reeling just like me, recedes from my awareness. I don’t even see the musicians, only their music, their glorious expression of the essence of the composer. With this artful application of horsehair to resinated strings, the very soul of Vivaldi rises victorious and captivates my own. This music, for this moment, is my world.

For several minutes, until the piece concludes, I am not only lost in the labyrinth but in myself. As the last quivering strain disappears like a wisp into the air, the larger world reopens with a smattering of applause and the clinking of coins in a case. Becky and I stand up and turn to go, exchanging a wide-eyed look.

Commentary, we know, would be diminishing.

* * *

For the balance of the day, and of the week, we pay discreet attention to the experiences of Venice – especially those to which the Venetians pay discreet attention. The locals, unaware, become our guides. We shadow the native crowds to purchase opera tickets, and watch Rosina charm Lindoro in a candlelit palazzo of dubitable structural integrity. We stalk an easel-toting artist through empty sestieri to catch his view of a leafless branch, glowing with spring light, dangling over glassy green water. We track the gaze of a withered woman contemplating a nondescript saint in the dim corner of a chiesa. We watch open upper windows for real life being lived and smile at an old man, chunky tufts of white hair askew, resoundingly banging the dust from his shoes. We scratch behind the ears of scruffy little dogs curled up in shady corners.

We’re reveling in romanticism. Our wanderlust has led us into the very soul of the city, its inseparable, ineffable, inimitable essence that permeates every molecule and every minute that ever was and will be Venice. It’s the essence in the geraniums cascading from a fourth-floor windowsill, in the mingled scents of sea water, salt air, and damp rock, in the dust motes dancing in a shaft of sun. It’s in the amber evening light that pours down plastered walls like melted butter, illuminating the curves and edges of ancient iron, glass, and stone. It’s in the grind of an accordion flexed by a handsome man. It’s in the grand palazzos that somehow retain their dignity while standing up to their doorsills in water, stripped of half their paint, sagging behind scaffolding like old men refusing to use their walkers. It’s in the bump of the arriving vaporetto, the iridescence of pigeons, and the way the gondolier leans backward as he strokes.

Ah, the gondolier.

We’ve been admiring these flocks of muscular, zebra-shirted young men at every stazi, but we’ve avoided their incessant invitations to board. We tell each other it’s a kitschy thing to do, not in keeping with our quest for authenticity, but the truth is that, at 80 euro, we’d rather appreciate them from afar. Then, late one languid afternoon near the end of our trip, we wander through a tiny campo off the beaten path and spy, leaning against the balustrade of the bridge in a despondent pose, a solitary gondolier.

Becky and I give each other a quick glance – This one’s different. He’s alone. He’s unhappy. He’s another magnified fragment, another drop of the essence.

He’s probably willing to bargain.

We stroll around the empty campo nonchalantly, pointing out cornices and doorknockers, pretending not to notice him or to have any interest in his service, waiting for the inevitable pitch. He ignores us, though we’re the only customers in sight, and probably will be for a while. His misery is palpable. We abandon our charade of disinterest, walk over to the bridge, and ask his price.

Eighty euro, he says glumly.

Oh! Becky and I wince. Too much for us, I tell him. The gall! In low season, and with no customers in sight! We start to walk away.

Sixty is the lowest, we hear behind us. I cannot go lower. Other gondoliers might, but this is my business, and it is very hard work.

A bitter gondolier! Herein lies a tale. All right, I say, and we step into his craft.

He helps us situate, but not with the characteristic joviality we’re used to witnessing. As he gathers his moorings we try to engage him, for his sake and ours. It’s to no avail. The journey is an exquisite immersion in honeyed light through still canals, but our adept oarsman is a woeful guide. Eventually my sister asks him what it takes to become a gondolier.

He straightens up and pauses. Well! he says. Hard training, many years!

She’s found the key to turn his lock. He begins with an earnest lecture in broken English on the art, the craft, the sport, the business of gondoliering. It’s a generational job, he tells us, passed on from family to family, or obtained by mentorship. One must study and practice for 400 hours at the Academy of Gondoliering, where one will learn not only sailing law but the detailed history and geography of Venice. His voice warms as he emphasizes that it’s very difficult to manage a gondola, to avoid striking boats, bumping sandbars, jolting tourists, and hitting canal walls or bridges. After years of practice, the student must pass an exam before the judges of the Association. One small mistake can be fateful. Most students fail the exam multiple times. And the work is exhausting.

And not just physically, Becky prompts.

Scusi?

Talking to tourists all day is hard, too, isn’t it?

He wipes his brow and stares at her, as if deciding just how much to say. There’s always empathy on Becky’s friendly face and apparently he decides she’s not the type to rat him out for whining. He takes a breath, stops the gondola in the middle of the canal, and begins the tale of umbrage that’s been dampening his day. Well. he says. For example. The wealthy father of a large family, he proceeds to tell us, had earlier that afternoon climbed into the gondola with his wife and three children, reclined upon the cushion, and with a peremptory wave of his hand, ordered our gondolier to sing.

To sing! he repeats indignantly.

Gondoliers don’t sing, Becky says helpfully.

No! Gondoliers do not sing! This is a global misperception, one that he is tired of refuting. This is not Disneyland! I am not an entertainer! I am a craftsman! He had politely refused; the customer had belligerently insisted; the gondolier had immediately pulled over at the next stazi and evicted his five sales. Four hundred euro for his dignity. A gondolier’s pride cannot be purchased, he says. We do not sing!

We promise him that we will spread the word throughout America. He softens, smiles, asks if we would like a picture. Of course! After his diatribe, we never would have asked. When we exit, we tip him twenty euro for his extra time, his earlier troubles, and his tale.

The gondolier’s story epitomizes another expression of Venetian essence: the essence of absence. The essential absence, not only of tacky singing gondoliers, but of all that is artificial, industrial, or commerical. It’s in the lack of plastic and neon, the omission of signs, the concealment of power lines and piping, and the absolute banishment of wheels. No wheels! No distressing interference with one’s space and serenity and senses!

Birdsong and ciaos and grazies reach the ears where horns and slamming car doors would have blustered, flags of laundry flutter where billboards would have glared, and the aromas of pasta and pizza vivify where exhaust and fumes would have poisoned. To ban wheels is to ban a lengthy list of intrusive, dirty things – sirens, oil stains, parking spaces, asphalt, road rage, garages, signposts, toll booths, signals, gas stations, curbs, repair shops, waiting, skid marks, signposts, bumper stickers, and crashes. Here, crossing the street is as simple as choosing to do so — there’s no need to look for a crosswalk, push a button, wait, look both ways, rush, dart, risk. Collisions in Venice are confined to the sticky convergence of two gelato-lapping children, or the splashing of a gondolier as a hefty tourist wobbles into his craft, or an indiscriminate splattering by airborne pigeons. These are trails, not streets: the twisting, turning entrails of the city, really, which, if laid end to end, would make this two-mile island over a hundred miles long.

Becky and I have explored this mystical labyrinth with expanding awe and joy ever since the chamber musicians spun us on our heels. We’ve roamed through the advertised grandeurs as we’ve stumbled upon them, and we’ve certainly bought our fair share of masks and handbags, but we’ve learned from its denizens to see the opulent stage of Venice in splinters, to catch the magnified beauty within its ordinary, minute fragments. Like every other captivated tourist, we’ve scribbled and clicked our way through each experience, trying to wrap the magic up in words and pictures. But we know we’ll never truly take it home. We know it can’t be evoked anywhere else, any more than it could be purchased in a bag of pasta. We know that what we’ve felt can’t be replicated or revived, and it can’t be found until you’re good and lost. This, we decide, is why a map is detrimental. A map roots you to the physical, measurable world, when it’s not the where or what that matters.

Not at all. Not if you’re looking for meaning.

What matters is the intangible, holistic essence of the city that resonates with the essence of you. In the absence of industrial evidence and the presence of so much natural beauty, there’s a sense that Venice is entirely organic, and this sense feeds the notion of its soul. Its buildings seem to grow up out of the water, slathered with morning mist and vines, held to their wavering poses by slanting golden light — a petrified Neptunian palace rising fantastically from the sea. It is, in fact, as everyone knows, sinking. One day it will be nothing more than an ingenious Atlantean ruin through which marine archaeologists will dive, probe and ponder.

But that’s a dirge for another day; on our last evening in Venice my sister and I sing the song of existence, and it echoes off a soaked but solid city.