Uncliched truths

Last Updated 09 October 2010, 18:45 IST

It was a dark, stormy night. The alley was narrow and twisted; the bridge led nowhere, the water beneath, thick and murky, was midnight blue. We were lost. And worried. And happy. And nervous.And giggly. And we were in Venice.

Sometimes, the worst cliches of a bad novel play out in life and lets you discover a few un-cliched truths. Like being as geographically challenged as I am can be liberating in at least one city in the world. And that getting lost can translate to finding yourself.

Drifty, dreamy Venice does that to you. It seamlessly merges fact and fiction; all that you have read about this magical city is true. Both the good and the bad. Oh yes, there are lots of both. Venice’s tourists are so many that they have scared the locals into hiding. Or so it seems.

This much-written about city has all the trappings of a beauty uglified by PR brochures. There are meant-for-tourists lanes, showy, tacky and overcrowded. At every corner on these lanes, you will meet a open-mouthed backpacker clutching a map in one hand (quite useless in Venice, but we will come to that later) and eating a fake gelato with another. They abound in Venice.

Fake gelatos that is. And fake Murano glass art. And fake Venetian masks. Never mind the dour stickers on the display window of every second shop warning tourists against buying “Chinese glass”. One pleads in broken English: “Buying Chinese glass kill Murano.”

Then there are ‘real’ Venetian lanes. Like there are stunning real masks and beautifully intricate glass art. But it takes a practiced eye to spot them amidst the clutter.

That really is your cue to get yourself adrift on this little island, which feels more like water than land. The buildings seem to bend down too...perhaps they are in search of their feet mostly immersed in the water? I did tell you that Venice makes you dreamy, didn’t I?

It also makes you dizzy. No vehicles are allowed to ply here. Nope, not even cycles. So you walk like everybody else. How democratic! And yes, leave that map behind. It is of no use in Venice’s mostly unnamed streets which invariably lead you to a dead-end or to another narrow unnamed street which you eagerly take to er.. end up in the street you originally started walking from.

There are basically only two directions in Venice — one pointing ‘per’ (towards) San Rialto, the 1,000-year-old ornamental bridge and another ‘Per’ San Marco, the island’s central piazza. But, but.

These two signs are everywhere and in many places, pointing towards opposite ends! And worse, mischievous graffiti writers have added their own authentic-looking ‘Per San Marco’ and ‘Per San Rialto’ signs!

In Venice apparently, mailing addresses do not contain street names. They only have some cryptic-looking numbers and district names. Poor postmen! The New York Times also informs me that Gondoliers take a tough three-month navigation course. And many fail the first time round.

I am thoroughly surprised. What surprised me though was what getting lost does to you. Especially if it is progressively getting darker and lonelier.

You tend to look at your hands and feet deeply, as if you will discover a map hidden there somewhere; weirdly, you become acutely conscious of your short-sightedness.
Don’t ask why. You keep spotting bridges and buildings that look familiar but are not; you feel eerily aware of the stillness of the night. (Yeah, yeah just like in those badly written novels.) And then it all fades away. The fear, the anxiety, the worry. And warmth and a strange happiness settles in. Like how the real Venice is lost to most people, you too are really, truly lost.

And that unshackles you. You hold hands tightly and start looking out for the moon; for the odd shapes the sagging buildings make, for the sound of the water lapping lazily, for the lone gondola floating away serenely.

And then you keep walking. Now you are sure you will end up finding.

(Published 09 October 2010, 12:36 IST)

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