Editor: This article is a sneak peek of what you can expect from Pomelo’s new magazine Terra Ignota. The magazine includes articles meant to inspire and open minds to new experiences. If you like what you see, order Terra Ignota here. Enjoy the article!
Bio: Katie Bak is a Minnesota born writer, spoken word poet and avid reader living in Warsaw, Poland. Her most recent writing and poetry explore theology, faith transitions and conscious traveling. As of recently, she teaches history at The International American School of Warsaw.
Artwork by Geoffrey McEntire
Had I known I would be in Venice, I would have packed two books and a pair of running shoes. Obviously not just those items, but the main focus of my packing would have revolved around my expectation for uninterrupted leisure time with some newly made friends on The Floating City.
However, in reality, I was on a work trip three hours away in Turin, Italy, and had the unexplainable urge to resist the routine awaiting me in Warsaw, my current city. I scanned bus options to nearby cities and found an €18 ride to Venice. It was early spring, the best time to visit according to travel blogs, and for the cost of a decently priced steak I could be in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I booked the ticket and arrived at 11pm on a Sunday night.
I arrive to most places this way; unexpected and mostly unprepared. This is intended so the city does not have time to anticipate a visitor. I like it to be just a typical Sunday night, where the town’s kids are in bed early, dishes left in the sink, and an alarm set and ready to be snoozed three times the following morning. At least this is how most cities feel when I arrive; life is going on in its undisturbed pace. Venice felt different.
Photography by Sinziana Susa
When the morning came I didn’t see kids getting ready for the school bus. Instead I saw what can best be described as staged fairgrounds being viewed through the lens of thousands of phones. There were herds of people stuck in lines or in poses intended to appear natural; but then again how is staring at the ground in sunglasses with a kind of blasé countenance, natural? I didn’t even have time to take in the Renaissance palaces before I was thrown menus from waiters trying to rope me into their overpriced restaurants, and people asking me to take their anniversary pictures.
Overwhelmed, I decided on a restaurant and sat down to finally begin reading. This place overlooked the water, and my arms were no longer cramped at my sides from the crowds, but now laying peaceful on the table in the sunlight. I could recognize the beauty people had always been describing. It is no surprise why, for centuries poets and painters drank from Venice to feed their inspiration. The architecture was nothing short of majestic. I wanted to hold my breath to not disturb the water reaching the grounds of the buildings, it all felt so delicate and precious. Venice was like the back of an old woman’s hand, with skin see-through and frail, showing by its lines and veins all the years of use. I wanted to hold it reverently and give it place to rest.
Yet I couldn’t help but feel perturbed at what had become of this place. Its once charming walls, now constructed into glass shopping malls. The canals engulfed by men in kitschy striped costumes pushing phone-carrying tourists around in circles while the locals are pushed out of their homes and into the outskirts of town. Maybe this was the world’s attempt at preventing the city’s decay, trying to revive it with a growing economy, but all I saw was entropy hiding behind cheap souvenir shops with no locals in sight.
I am not unfamiliar with tourism. I have traveled to around 40 countries, some of them being remote places like Paraparumu, New Zealand, and others being as popular as Prague in the summer time. But nothing compares to what I saw in Venice. It just felt like blasphemy. Walking around on its sinking streets and seeing mostly dollar signs, was like spraying graffiti on a church with curse words in broad daylight. My obvious offence to the scene around me, filled me with further guilt knowing that I too was a tourist, not unlike those around me.
“It just felt like blasphemy. Walking around on its sinking streets and seeing mostly dollar signs was like spraying graffiti on a church with curse words in broad daylight.”
For the past eight years, I have been a traveler more than I have been a local. I move around every 10 months or so to another country, finding pleasure in it’s people, languages, foods, and degrees of hot sauce. These cities have filled me just as the people did. Rarely, however, have I taken the time to ask what I have given back other than my paycheck or an occasional hello in the native language with my thick American accent. I am but another temporary visitor, unable to be picked out in a crowd and most likely contributing very little to the locals and their homes, which seem to have only open doors.
At that restaurant, on my first day, all I could think about was if there was anything we’ve given to Venice other than our dollars? Was there another way to pay respect to this place that so selflessly offered itself to be the world’s breathmint and backdrop for our admirable profile pictures? That day, overlooking the jammed canals, I couldn’t find an answer that satisfied.
Photo by Falco Negenman
Venturing out of the city-center my second day, I wanted to see if I could find people speaking Italian to remind me where I was in the first place. It took two hours for me to find a local named Luca. He was working in a small restaurant, lost behind a corner of Venice’s labyrinth. He was young, mid-twenties, but with thick eyebrows and wise deep voice that could make you wonder if he was 25 or 52. Our conversation started as routine as they all do, me ordering food and him asking if I wanted wine to follow. This led to me to finding out he grew up not far from the restaurant, which apparently was very rare for someone his age to have stayed and found work there.
When I asked what there was to do around the city, he told me Piazza San Marco. This was not what I was hoping to hear. I had been there yesterday and was practically attacked by a swarm of pigeons and souvenir shop vendors; not sure which scenario I preferred more. Surely this was not where Luca went after work with his friends to grab a beer and relax. So I asked again but in slightly different way, “Where do you go in the city?” He looked confused, not sure if I was hitting on him or just overly interested in his daily life with all these questions. Unfortunately being a 24-year-old blonde woman, with a personality often described as “bubbly”, can easily be interpreted as trying to get into bed when really I’m just ordering a pizza. After I further explained my intentions, he told me honestly, “There are a few good places, but none where the tourist sites are.”
“When I asked what there was to do around the city, he told me Piazza San Marco. This was not what I was hoping to hear. I had been there yesterday and was practically attacked by a swarm of pigeons and souvenir shop vendors”
This wasn’t shocking to me. Why would he want to go into the city when he’s bound to be an eternal photo-bomb in other’s pictures, stuck paying €8 for a beer? After my dinner I thanked Luca and searched on a map for the places he had suggested. One place, apparently good for a nice drink with locals was over 40 minutes away, another would take almost an hour. The food rested heavy in my stomach and I decided it was best to return home to my hostel and get some sleep.
I left early the next morning for Bologna just as quickly as I had at first decided to visit Venice. I was ready to leave. I hadn’t had the time to see Luca’s suggestions, and it all sat uncomfortably on my mind. What had I really seen other than Capitalism’s death-grip on a city with such promise? I almost wanted to leave Venice and Luca with an apology, for never having truly experienced the city as it was intended. Somehow, I knew that Venice was meant to be a haven of beauty that was seen, felt and not simply bought.
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