It probably began with Madonna. There she was, dazzling beacon of my emerging girlhood, writhing on a boat in blue spandex pants against a backdrop that looked dreamed up for her Like a Virgin music video. She was amazing, expanding my idea of what it could mean to be female so far beyond the tight strictures my small nun-run school had set out for me. So was the setting of her video. Where do boats float in narrow waterways under bridges you’d have to duck under lest you be knocked in the head? It had to be a made-up place, right?
When I got my house and went through a phase of love for faux oil painting reproductions (brushstrokes like the masters! Not your typical old cheesy copy!), I saw more of a place like that… rococo buildings along waterways, magical bridges, domes in the distance. The paintings were pretty, so I bought them. I began to understand Venice was a knowable place, not an artist’s concept. It was a place known for its romance. I told myself one day I’d go with someone with whom I’d want to stroll hand in hand. It began to take on significance as a symbol of what I didn’t have… a Venice partner.
The years passed. I got divorced, and didn’t travel internationally for fifteen years, save one Caribbean cruise. Venice got further away. It’s expensive to pay for three people to go to Europe, and although I dreamed about it a lot, I didn’t do it. Then the practical me started learning Venice’s dark side. It’s sinking. It’s jammed with tourists. The water sometimes comes up to your ankles. It’s smelly and swampy. It’s expensive.
But then I met a potential travel partner, one that would put Venice within reach. We wanted our first trip to be somewhere we’d both never been, which ruled out several other European countries. We planned an “Italy sampler,” Verona, Venice, Milan. I didn’t book us very long in any one city because I didn’t know what we’d like, how we’d travel together. I didn’t have high hopes for Venice, the second stop on our trip. Everything I read was about how cloying touristy it is, and in photographs it looked almost too saccharine, too Hollywood, too improbable. I figured it would be like the pyramids: I’d get my picture taken in front of some famous bridge spanning a canal and scratch it off the obligatory “well-traveled tourist” list.
I wasn’t prepared to fall in love.
Travel stories are like showing someone pictures of your kids… they’ll listen, but you’ll never make them understand the sheer significance of what they’re hearing. I can tell you it was beautiful (it was), I can tell you that the moment we stepped out of the train station I was overcome with a hybrid of awe and gratitude that tightened my throat with tears (I was) and that it was impossible to have a bad meal anywhere in the town (it was, and that goes for everywhere we went in Italy). But can I really make you see how I unfurled a little, let go a little, dreamed bigger, loved humanity a bit more at the sight of its whimsical imagination in the shape of ornate buildings perched improbably in water? Probably not. Venice kissed me full on the mouth until my knees weakened, and like a kiss, I find it impossible to explain the mechanism with which it made me swoon.
Such is the gift of travel: we’re expanded, and, in paradox, the world is made smaller for us as well. Going to Italy broadened my circle of safety. I puttered through on my high school Italian (the only full sentence I could share with people was, “I studied Italian in high school and I speak Spanish,” when they wanted to know how I knew a handful of humble Italian before themselves moving on to their own perfect English). Italy showed me there is one more place where I feel at home.
I almost always leave a vacation telling myself I will one day relocate to the site of it. It’s happened in London and Stellenbosch and on more Caribbean islands than I care to count. But Venice left me feeling like part of my task on this earth is to wander it finding little bits of my soul where it’s been scattered, cobbling them together to make me feel more whole. If that’s the case, I found one big chunk in Venice, in the magical lights reflected in the canals at night after a hearty meal, in the sliver of a moon lighting its narrow alleyways, in the boats polished to a sheen with pride of ownership, in its impossibly ambitious odes to an animating spirit, in the people leaning into life with gusto. Venice felt like home, home to the part of me that is impractical and ambitious, full of hubris and romance and hope and playfulness. Venice felt like the me I want to be in my best outfit and my brightest lipstick.
I am aware of the grand privilege of being able to write about having been to Italy. I take the girl I was with me – the girl whose electricity got cut off and whose clothes for picture day were embarrassingly wrong. She went to Venice with me too, and wrung her hands nervously at the exchange rate and at the bill for dinner. But she’s who makes me so vastly grateful for this life – wild, unlikely, borrowed, far grander than my own imagination could have conjured. My gratitude is such I am too small to speak it and yet it grows again. Thank you, Italy, for being and for letting me be a grander me.