From the craggy outdoor wonderland of the Dolomites to one of the most densely populated tourist areas in all of Europe, Venice. It’s a testament to Venice’s unique charm that millions of tourists thronging down its crowded alleys still doesn’t destroy the experience entirely. At its worst, you find yourself itchy and sweaty in an unmoving traffic jam of people as you wait for a tour group to buy some overpriced gelato. But then you duck down an alley for 20 meters and emerge on an empty footbridge with laundry fluttering in the wind above you and a gondolier piloting a couple merrily through the canal below. It’s the latter scene that you recount to your bridge partners and your grandkids when you return home from the package tour, but it’s the former that makes Venice a once-is-enough proposition.
I can’t imagine what it’s like for modern Venetians. Well, I can actually, and I bet it’s something like having an apartment in the Louvre. You pass by remarkable examples of human accomplishment and history on your way to buy milk, but day after day after day of navigating the crush of Digicam-waving vacationers makes the Mona Lisa’s sly smile seem like a mocking grin. Here’s an analogy for you: Native Venetians are like the scarce stray cats in the waterlogged city, while the droves of tourists are like the dopey pigeons that mill about every open space and alleyway. Natives are rare, disinterested and elegant, and they rush away if you get close enough to pet one. But show them a bit of love and interest, and they’ll happily let you praise them and their city and maybe give you some love in return. The pigeons on the other hand are multitudinous, slow, flocking and ponderous. And if a coarse and annoying pigeon is blindsided by a stray cat, you smile secretly, just as you would to see a tourist berated by a local. Henry James said it best: “Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” Naturally, I don’t count, and I’m sure Ol’ Henry didn’t think he did either.
All in all I like Venice, but I have other fond memories of the place besides the city itself. Both times I’ve been there, it’s been an ironically relaxing experience. Of course, the only reason for that is that I’ve stayed on the mainland, well away from Venice proper, choosing instead to relax in a pool of cool water at our campsite rather than stew a sweating cauldron of tourists. This time around, Venice registered happy memories because of the miraculous resurrection of my drowned computer. An Italian computer repairman (Saint Giovanni, I’ve dubbed him) managed to reanimate its lifeless corpse and had the saint-like magnanimity to not even charge me for it. The only difference is that there are new system requests all the time for “CPUUUUUUUU”. (That was a bad computer-zombie joke, and I apologize for nothing.) Most importantly, I can finish the last couple seasons of Peep Show.
Venice happens to be twinned with several other cities we are heading toward: Istanbul, Turkey; Esfahan, Iran; Islamabad, Pakistan; and Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is the latter where we’ve just washed up, after wading through a morass of Bosnian traffic. Rush hour here is a smoggy crawl, and we saw no less than three rear-endings in about a 10-block radius. To boot, Google Maps still is no help, because to them Bosnia consists of about a dozen main highways and the cities don’t have roads. Needless to say, we’ll be exploring the city on foot. On the other hand, I feel much better here than in, say, Switzerland, about the little black puffs the Nissan wheezes out around 3,000 rpm. “When in Sarajevo, emit CO2 as the locals do,” is the saying, I believe. We’re putting the carbon to good use, though: We don’t have a Canadian sticker on the back, and god knows where we’d be able to get one around here, so we’ve drawn a little flag in the soot and dust.