The stories of travel
I love to travel to research and write, but this week I’ve been in Venice for a family holiday. We came to celebrate two of my adult children completing their MA degrees and it has been an extraordinary week. But it’s also been a week that has opened up many questions about the nature of tourism and the stories we need to tell about travel.
This has been a week of walking, eating, conversation, seeing art and taking in local life. The Modern Art Museum (Ca’ Pesaro) was a treat. We saw unfamiliar works by many Italian artists: Vivarini, Carpaccio, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and Tintoretto. And we delighted in works by Munch, Chagall, Matisse, Morandi, De Chirico, Carrà, Kandinsky, Mirò and Matta.
The Doge’s Palace was overwhelming, both in its golden ceilings and opulence and in the bleakness of its prison cells. The display of graffiti art from the cells was poignant and reminded me of the film The Honest Courtesan. Based on the life of Veronica Franco, a cortigiana onesta, a class of courtesans who boasted education and artistic and literary skill.
In the film, Franco, who published two collections of poetry, writes on the walls of her cell. She was arrested for ‘witchcraft’ when plague swept through Venice and the Inquisition was looking for scapegoats. A writer writes, wherever s/he is and in whatever circumstances.
On Monday we took a gondola ride. We wondered about doing something so ‘touristy’ but it’s the only way to see many of the back lanes that have no pavements, only water. It was a beautiful and informative half hour. The waterways away from peopled lanes are so quiet and picturesque. Venice, we learned from our gondolier, consists of 120 islands joined by 465 bridges. Each island has its own church.
But the lovely unique city has a shadow side. There are only 50,000 permanent residents of the lagoon (the historic city, the Lido, Pellestrina and the islands). And this number has fallen by more than a third since 1981. Everyone commutes in for work, our guide told us. Locals can’t afford the housing or the inflated cost of living.
Travel always gives us new stories to tell, new ways of looking at the world. By the middle of the week I was beginning to spin a story of past wealth for an elite that is now mirrored in the divide between tourists and those serving us. I was also building an increasing web of stories about Venice as an unreal or increasingly invisible place, hidden behind a spectacle.
The conundra of travel
The film of Franco’s life, which is one I love, is a romanticized fiction. In real life, Franco, who set up a charity for poorer courtesans and their children. lost her wealth. Her house was looted when she left Venice during the plague and, when she returned, she was arrested. Having defended herself, she didn’t live happily ever after with her first love, but died in obscurity and poverty.
Venice is a place that focuses many of the conundrums of travel and tourism. In an age of ecological degradation, should this fragile city go on taking in 30 million tourists a year and rising? The litter on the streets, especially around St Mark’s Square, is colossal. In September many areas are crowded, but the crush is much worse from June to August. And more than half the tourists are day trippers who don’t spend much. They come with pre-paid packages in place and don’t contribute to the Venice City tax, paid by those staying overnight.
The surface of Venice is beautiful. All week we’ve met interesting, helpful people, seen a wealth of art, marveled at imaginative masks and artisan journals. And we also enjoyed a superb evening at the Venice Jazz Club, though, unlike jazz in Prague, which has a large local audience, there were few Italian voices there.
I feel immensely privileged to have lived in this place, if only for a week. But it’s a sinking city that is no longer an affordable home to most Venetians and in danger of becoming a theme park.
Venice is a gorgeous array of medieval buildings and an extraordinary maze of alleyways and waterways. But as it becomes less and less a living, local home, it becomes more and more the fragmentary, elusive city that Italo Calvino circumnavigates in Invisible Cities.
In the gondola, we floated past a huge building that was once one of Marco Polo’s houses and is now an opera house. Born around 1254 into a merchant family who traded in jewels, he set off for the far east in 1271 with his father and uncle. He reached Kublai Khan’s Mongolian summer court in 1275 and stayed for 17 years. When he returned to Venice, he brought not only goods, but stories of his experiences in Asia. He became a successful merchant with the nickname, Il Milionere.
In Invisible Cities, Marco Polo is Calvino’s protagonist, spinning extraordinary stories for Kublai Khan. The emperor of the Tartars is not always convinced, but he is fascinated.
Marco doesn’t mention Venice by name, but talks about cities like Armilla, which
has nothing that makes it seem a city, except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be.
Or there is the spider-web city of Octavia, and other improbable places that might be all imagination, or perhaps each one is an aspect of Venice.
‘There is still one of which you never speak.’
Marco Polo bowed his head.
‘Venice,’ the Khan said.
Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’
The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’
And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.’
Every time we think about travel, perhaps we are saying something about Venice. Perhaps Venice is a touchstone of our planet’s fragility. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for our tendency to romanticise a place to such a degree that the real life of the place gets supplanted by spectacle.
As a writer, I value travel. At its best, travel can shake up our complacency. It exposes us to new ideas, places, people, cultures and experiences. It enables us to immerse in the places we are writing about. It opens up questions, as Calvino says:
You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.
And illustrating the power of travel to also take us on deep, inner journeys he says in another passage of Invisible Cities:
Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.
Telling the story
But anyone who travels has to think about lessening ways of being part of the problem. There are no simplistic answers. Even much ‘eco-tourism’ carries the risk of increasing damage to fragile ecologies (whether rural or urban). But that doesn’t mean we should avoid the questions. And there are small things we can do:
The most fragile places, like Venice, should be visited sparingly. I don’t think I will ever return. This was my chance to see this beautiful, sad place.
Our gondolier was impressed that we were staying for a whole week. And our apartment host was equally surprised that we were here for a week. This meant, however, that his 1600s, tiny, quirky flat wasn’t exactly equipped for people who cook.
I’m glad to have been here and glad it was for a decent chunk of time, by Venetian standards, but this will be THE visit.
Our normal mode of travel is on trains. With four of us and only a week this was a rare air flight. But in November we will wend our way across Europe by train to get to Budapest and back again in December. Slower travel is kinder to the body and spirit as well as to the planet.
I’m glad that we bought food not just at restaurants, but at supermarkets, and used the public transport. And I’m pleased that we sought out locally made journals instead of Chinese mass produced glass masquerading as ‘Murano’.
It’s not always easy to find the local items, but worth the effort.
Buy experiences more than things
We all have so much stuff! I’m a journaller and bought two beautiful hand made journals on this trip. But otherwise most of our spending went on boat rides, museums, going to the jazz club. Buying local art or craft or food if you are going to take something back can be a lovely memory, but above all immersing in the life of a place is what lasts.
Tell the story
I’m engaged in a life-long project to become a different story, over and over again. New places change us. As writers, they change the stories we want to write and the stories we want to become. A city like Venice, so beautiful, so threatened, not only by rising sea and mass tourism, but by the death of itself as a home, has a huge story to tell.
The last words should go to Calvino:
With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.
Our travel, as writers, can sharpen out witness to the hopes and dreams of the times we live in. Our travel, as writers, can make invisible cities visible.
Becoming a Different Story
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