I really am getting jealous, reading all these lovely pieces, mentally travelling the globe… Today, we’re heading to Venice, for a stolen moment with writer Judith Newton.
I am sitting on the ledge of a low brick wall that divides the sidewalk from a small canal in the Dosoduro—a quiet, and unusually verdant, section of Venice. I am eating cicheti, Italian tapas, that consist of sliced baguette toasted with olive oil and topped with creamed salt cod and parsley, mushrooms and ricotta, and something sweet that might be figs and mascarpone cheese.
The tangy creamed cod with parsley is my favorite. I go back for seconds in The Cantine del Vino gia Schiavi, a popular wine bar jammed with Italians and a few tourists. Some, like me, have spilled out onto the canal ledge. A few sit on the steps of the stone bridge that spans the water (though sitting on the steps of a bridge is, strictly speaking, illegal). There is an air, as happens frequently in Venice, of a party taking place, a party to which everyone who happens by is invited. The party in Piazza San Marco, the center of tourism, is almost always huge, and there are the sounds of café pianos, strings, accordions, and someone singing in the background to set a festive mood. But the small party at the San Travaso Bridge feels more like a neighborhood gathering. The only sounds are the lapping of water in the canal, the buzz of voices from inside the Cantine, and the quiet conversations of those parked on the cool, rough ledge, plastic cups of wine by our sides, paper plates gingerly balanced on our laps.
The light of the late afternoon deepens the green of the small canal and softens the tawny orange and lemon of the buildings on the other side. I’ve decided not to dine with my traveling companions this evening, and the moment seems stolen. I’m not in a restaurant, not ordering two or three courses, not making conversation, and not drinking rather too much wine. I’m perched on a ledge eating tapas for my dinner, not saying much, just taking in the scene.
There is something Venice about this too. I don’t experience Venice as I do other places, places in which streets keep going rather than ending, without warning, in shimmering canals. My passion for Venice has less to do with the official sights—the glowing gold and blue mosaics of the Basilica, the dark prisons of the Doges palace, the gilded ceiling of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco with its Tintorettos –than with the way the light changes on the water and the stone.
What is it about the light and stone and water that outweighs the art and architecture for which I usually travel? Is it that my encounters with light on stone and water are unplanned, not part of my traveller’s schedule, that I happened upon them, just as I’ve happened upon the pungent creamy cod? Is it that an enchanting moment feels all the more precious for being spontaneous and even stolen? Light on stone and water, of course, is also part of the city’s ancient history, and it connects me, however briefly, to those in the past, and in the future, who have, and will, sit near the San Travaso Bridge.
To watch light changing on stone and water seems an encounter with time passing and with the eternal as well. Is it that I can see in the darkening jade of the canal that life, like light, is passing—soon to deepen into night? Is what I savor the experience of knowing this and of being, nonetheless, at rest? “Though in Venice,” Mark Helprin writes in The Pacific and Other Stories, “you may sit in courtyards of stone, and your heels may click up marble stairs, you cannot move without riding upon or crossing the waters that someday will carry you in dissolution to the sea.” It is this feeling of what is spontaneous, delightful—and evanescent—that I want to remember, to revisit, maybe find in my life at home.