It is the Labour Day weekend. Venice is full. My first twenty minutes on the island are spent stuck in a slow moving mass. It takes an eternity before my husband and I escape into a derelict lane; it’s the back alley of a Venice hotel. The kitchen doors are cracked open and the madness is visible.
Along a street corner, a gondolier is taking a break. He is slumped over a black chair, his arms and head rest on his thighs. Even if he wasn’t in uniform, his upper arm muscles would give away his profession. His hat sits near his feet.
Walking around tiny streets we came across a local grocery store. It looks out of place amidst the souvenir shops and Italian high fashion, a crack in the facade the city puts up.
It’s hard to go wrong with pizza. It should be impossible to go wrong with pizza in Italy. But it happens in Venice. Not only is the food awful, but a waiter drags out two stuffed garbage bags in the middle of our meal. If that isn’t enough, the manager yells instructions at the top of his voice and then promptly drops a tray of spoons on the tiled floor.
You can’t hide in Venice. Be it drying laundry or a troubling thought, it all gets captured in a stranger’s camera.
Sitting on a bench along the promenade, I spot an old lady looking out of her window. Her hair is white and pulled back, her brows are pulled together. She sits on ledge oblivious to the passing cameras. A shard of sunlight hits her face. She still has high cheek bones.
Rome is still asleep. The morning air tastes different, untainted as of yet by pizza and tobacco. A few workmen amble along the fountain, sharing a cigarette and a joke. Their laughter bounces against the old discolored stones and dies off in a musical echo. In the background Neptune stands tall, his muscles perfect, held in tension and plaster. His entourage hangs around him, playing it up in the fresh morning light. I follow their every curve, dent and detail in quick greedy movements.
In an hour everything will change: floating sunflowers, umbrellas and backpacks will push me to a corner. Tacky souvenirs will push the fountain in a corner. Vendors will set up their knock offs under the eye of a concerned Madonna. Somewhere in the crowd a wallet will be misplaced; and Rome will be lost in a swirl of clichés.
It’s early in the morning, the Piazza is still empty. The tables and chairs sit prim around the corners; the tablecloth is starched and perfect. A bright flower sits in a small vase next to the salt and pepper shaker, grains of the same are still stuck on the surface, proof of last night’s gluttony. Art students still have control of the space, but not for long. Their pencils desperately trying to capture snatches of the brilliance that is the Piazza, before the crowds arrive.
We settle down with a glass of sparkling red wine and some fresh homemade bread. The square is waking up: an artist sets up his stall, paintings are strung up and deck chairs and price tags are folded out. A musician strums his guitars trying to find the right sound, a white skirt dances to the music. She tucks an errant strand of hair behind her ear, the music plays on.
The guidebooks have maps and flowery words that describe this place: they all fall short today. The windows above the cafes are opening up. Sleepy tenants still in their pjs greet the morning. Around the Piazza, the morning quiet is slowly making way for midday chaos. Laughter and words rise in a steady hum; the clip clop of an ornate horse carriage is matched by the sounds of the cars and Vespa; a row of street vendors hawk their wares – fake Gucci bags, belts and scarves.
And a little head, in perfect silence, stand the fountain statues. I can see the moor from the corner of my eye. He holds still as a pigeon deftly lands on his head. The water swirls and splashes around him, and crowds begin to gather. All at once the street musician get to work. Soft summer music fills the air; it’s time to put down the pen and get stuck in this moment.