The unique construction of the city and the Italian inclination to adapt rather than control, makes it impossible, impossible to separate yourself from Venice, and all that goes on around you, in any way. If you live here, that’s the way you like it.

Like so many other cities, living in Atlanta means you live in your car. I’d often sit a stop light, watching the faces of drivers turning left past me from the other lane, a looping repetition of determined, tired, vacant, resigned, even angry expressions. If whatever music they might be playing was improving the drive at all, it was rarely apparent. And if they were to glance my way as they passed, they were likely to see an expression that was a mirrored reflection of their own.

Unless you live or work in the center of a metropolitan city, your contact with other people and the environment is likely under a high degree of control. You control your home environment; you’ve very likely made sure your dwelling is well-insulated, and your windows are not likely open very often, if ever. You may or may not connect with your neighbors. You probably don’t use public transportation, and your car (or more likely SUV) and the sheer scale of things in the U.S. keeps you nicely separated from whatever might be going on around you, be it noise, weather or the actions of other people.

You probably transport yourself to your next controlled destination, your place of business (that may itself have controlled access), a climate-controlled the mall, one or more gigantic everything-you-could-ever-want-and-so-much-more stores, you might interact a bit with others living very parallel lives; your church, the symphony, a sporting event. It’s organized, efficient, and planned for every eventuality.

It’s not like that here.

If the water rises, our feet get wet. If it rains, it’s not about racing to our car, it’s how far to our destination or perhaps the vaporetto stop. If we need to transport something, we carry it ourselves or put it in a carello, the light rolling cart that we all use for serious shopping — planning our routes with the fewest number of bridges. Exiting my house for the day, I plan for every eventuality: a change in the temperature up or down, from moment to moment; rain, or not; the effect of the masengni (the paving stones of Venice) on our feet are always a consideration when purchasing shoes (“My shoes are my automobiles,” says a friend).

Walk down any calle at noon and smell what people overhead will be having for lunch. What’s for sale in the shops is constantly tempting you to choose, at any moment, to turn in and look more closely. Reach out at any moment and examine the texture of the walls that seem at once so permanent and tenuous. And remember, as Tiziano Scarpa says in his book Veneze is a Fish (Venezia è un Pesce), that always you are walking on an upside-down, petrified forest.

On the occasion that I re-enter the city by train in the evening, I’ll often choose to walk home instead of taking the vaporetto. I head down Strada Nova, a broad, lively thoroughfare that runs parallel to the Grand Canal. I’m instantly struck by the lack of some sounds, and the prominence of others. Snippets of conversion float past, as there is no motor traffic to drown them out. Two men in a heavy discorso in Venetian dialect, two other Signore greet each other, obviously it’s been some time since they’ve met. A couple speaking in Russian, I think; a group of giggly young girls all in uniform, accompanied by their teachers. A four-year-old passes explaining something to his Dad, and I hear the word “notwithstanding,” nonostante, but not the rest. Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese, Swahili, Arabic…and the list goes on. “Give me three ox-heart (tomatoes), maturi ma non troppo (make sure they’re not too ripe),” orders the shopper at the vegetable stand. Serious students in radical student attire, solving the problems of the world over a daily spritz as I pass them standing outside their local bar.


Here is a street musician with a guitar or violin, playing (and very well) Schubert or Simon & Garfunkel or something Andrea Bocelli sang. The street beggar, sitting on the ground, head bowed low, hand outstretched. The man selling roses. Overwhelmed tourists with their maps and massive rolling bags (How ever much luggage you’re taking, it’s too much). The click-click-click of incomprehensibly high heels striking the masengni.
Sometimes I walk with my IPod, watching the changing scene in front of me and choosing the music to supply the appropriate soundtrack. It’s quite an effect (but another form of separation, no?).

Although air conditioning is becoming much more common, it’s used only as a last resort, so windows and shutters become the principal form of climate control here. I keep mine open continually, so whatever’s looming outside in the form of sound, smell, or weather comes right in.

The sounds of Venice are rarely jarring or irritating, though: a passing water taxi or the manuvering of the vaporetto, a shout from an operai with some instruction or other as he unloads a transport boat, the bells of the campanili, murmurred conversations, the mournful haunnnnnnn of the motonave annoucing its departure for Burano. And so I rarely feel the need to isolate myself from them. This significantly reduces my living-overhead, always a good thing.

Someone asked me if it was difficult living in a small apartment. I said, don’t be silly, the city of Venice is my apartment…and I don’t feel much need to separate myself from. it.

2 thoughts on “Separation.

  1. Shannon

    Awesome, Nan…

    I love it that you sometimes walk around with your IPod on. I like to do that kind of thing too… when sitting outside in the front of the vaporetto at midnight, or wandering aimlessly through Northern Cannaregio. Sigh.

    Keep writing about how you FEEL, it is really cool to read. Brava!

  2. N. Snow

    So glad I stumbled upon your writings! I will making a short visit to Venice in August and I have never been so I am extremely excited! I have enjoyed reading something that isn’t touristy :o) Thanks for writing!


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