This morning over breakfast, I make an unusual resolution. Today in Venice, I will do nothing. I will read no guidebooks, and pursue no history or culture. I will visit no churches and enter no museums. I aspire only to gaze about, shop, and eat.
I say this is unusual, but I am self-aware enough to know this is what most people would rightly describe as a “vacation”—I’ve just never been one of them. My life at home is routine, bordering on dull most of the time, which has its own comfort and good fortune to be sure. But if vacations are about stepping outside of ourselves, at least momentarily, my wish when I travel is to do more, not less. By choice, I plan itineraries packed with places to go and things to do, and once there I get up early and stay out late. It’s not for everyone, and my pace is certainly not for the faint of heart, but it is for me. Even if 17 straight days of it have left me feeling a bit road weary, it makes me happy.
As the Italians would say: “A ciascuno il suo.” To each his own.
And so here I am, on my last day, venturing out with only the vaguest idea of where to go. The sky is blue and the air is cool and as I lose myself among the canals, it’s hard to imagine that there is more pleasant place on the face of the earth than Italy.
My buoyant mood leads me to open my wallet again and again. I pick out a picture frame for my nephew and a green velvet scarf for my Mom from R.S. Trevisan in St. Mark’s Square. I will add these to my luggage alongside my father’s leather belt from Florence, so that perhaps they will know that I thought of them, that I missed them, and that I wished they were here.
For myself, I also have a souvenir mind. For days, I’ve been scouring Venice for the perfect Murano glass necklace, and I’ve finally settled on something from Le Perle. The shopkeeper and artisan is a woman named Michela, and she is patient and kind in response to my dithering. I settle finally on a long chain of beads set in silver, with a matching bracelet and drop earrings, all in shades of aqua that remind me of the Mediterranean Sea.
I decide to pay in cash, to avoid the hassle of applying for a VAT refund at the airport, so I need to find a bancomat. This particular Le Perle—and there are several scattered about Venice—is just around the corner from St. Mark’s Square. There is, of course, a machine nearby and she directs me to it. But this being Venice, I get lost both in searching and in returning. I’m gone so long that Michela has nearly given up hope on making the sale.
I walk back to the hotel to drop off my bags and then hop on the vaporetto at San Stae for one last trip down the Grand Canal. By the time I arrive back in St. Mark’s Square, a sudden storm has rolled in and it’s pelting rain. I duck beneath the arcade and then into the plush salons of Caffè Florian for a late lunch. It’s said that when Casanova escaped from prison in 1756, he came here first for a cup of coffee before fleeing to Paris. It’s an intriguing historical detail, but to investigate it further would violate my ground rules for the day.
I order a traditional English tea, which seems well-suited to the weather and to my leisurely pursuits. As I sit and listen to the orchestra play, a massive silver tray is delivered to my comically small table, and it draws the attention of the older man sitting next to me. We begin to chat and I learn that he is traveling with his grandson, who is glum and disinterested in holding a conversation with either one of us. The weather has been bad luck, he explains. They bought some inflatable kayaks on Amazon.com for just $99 and checked them in with their luggage on the plane. They’ve been waiting to use them on the Grand Canal.
Honestly, I don’t claim to know anything about kayaks, inflatable or otherwise, but this seems like a supremely bad idea—even if it is legal, and it probably isn’t. “Aren’t you worried about capsizing,” I ask? “Not particularly,” he says, but the mere mention of the word finally stirs some excitement in his grandson. The man notices and raises an eyebrow. “Let’s just hope for the best.”
By the time I finish my tea, the storm has passed and the white marble columns of St. Mark’s Square are reflecting in the puddles on the pavement below. I wander farther afield and stumble across the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, which has a marvelous spiral staircase, guarded (it would seem) by a particularly friendly cat. Nearby, I hear the sound of singing and turn just in time to catch the fin of a gondola gliding past a brick archway, the sound echoing against ancient walls. And further on, as I head toward Rialto, I stand on a bridge overlooking the Rio di San Salvador canal and observe a gondolier at work. He stands with his hands on his hips, and his straw boater is tipped low, shadowing his face.
All of these are fleeting moments—quiet, ordinary, and beautiful. If I can be forgiven a quote by the great Henry James on a day devoted to hedonic pursuits, I would say: “The mere use of one’s eyes in Venice is happiness enough.”
As the day begins to wane, I return to La Zucca for dinner, just around the corner from the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo and the charming Campo San Giacomo Dell’Orio. This was the site of my single culinary triumph in 2008 and the food is as good as I remember, even though the service is as bad as I recall, bitter and unfriendly toward tourists. Still, the miracle they perform on a simple plate of carrots will long be remembered, and in it I find ample room for forgiveness.
I have reached the end of my second trip to Italy. The first had been so fine, so perfect, that I worried about returning again so soon. I worried that the magic I felt then could never be recaptured.
I was wrong.
I think of Republic Day in Rome, antiquing in Arezzo, a parade of color on Corpus Domini, and a lazy afternoon in the hill town of Cortona. I have walked beneath medieval towers and on top of ancient ruins, along streets, rooftops, promenades, and footpaths, from the shores of Lake Como to the ragged cliffs of the Cinque Terre. The memories are fresh, but they have already grown deep.
Henry James—my travel companion from across the ages—writes in Italian Hours: “We can do a thing for the first time but once; it is but once for all that we can have a pleasure in its freshness.” And yet, he says, it is likewise true that “a visitor who has worked off the immediate ferment for this inexhaustibly interesting country has by no means entirely drained the cup.”
I raise my glass, as if in a private toast, and think: “Here’s to many more sips.”