Inspiring romance

Locale Magic

Somewhere around the Rialto Bridge, right by the fish market, a couple were kissing. Both the man and the woman were well-dressed, tall, handsome and beautiful. They were surrounded by the Gothic windows and other architectural details that make Venice the city it is and the pleasant, soft glow and tangerine, incarnadine hues of the sunset.

They were standing in an empty area beside the Grand Canal. Facing each other, their arms wrapped around each other’s bodies, they had forgotten all about the world. Still, for a split second, I couldn’t help but ask myself: “I wonder where the cameras are?”

Then, deeming it inappropriate to stare curiously at a kissing couple, I looked away.

Other people’s happiness can make me, like everyone else, a little unhappy, but not this time. Perhaps because this time I have come to Venice to be happy.

Another reason I could look with lightness at the couple kissing intimately was that I had written quite a few pages on these topics for my most recent novel, The Museum of Innocence. Millions of people who live outside the west — and especially those who, like me, live in Muslim countries — never get to see two lovers kissing on the lips in everyday life (of course, you do not necessarily have to be lovers to kiss on the lips).

In the non-western world, kissing on the lips is an act performed either indoors in bedrooms or in films (with the exception of Brezhnev and Gromyko). Like hundreds of millions, or probably billions of my fellow world citizens, I saw kissing on the lips for the first time in my life at the cinema — during my childhood, there was no television in Turkey. I remember wondering to myself whether their noses would bump into each other when they kissed.

Hitchcock shot the most beautiful, most memorable kissing scene in the history of cinema — not in Notorious, as many would think, but the train scene in North by Northwest.

Here, kissing in the narrow compartment of the Chicago-bound train, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint turn around on their own axis as they kiss, almost completing a full circle, perhaps to make the viewer feel what a vertiginous thing kissing is. But when I watched these films, these kissing scenes, and these couples whirling in front of the camera — perhaps because I still did not have a lover I could kiss — I complained of their affectedness.

In my youth, I first saw two people kiss in the street in a neighbourhood that served as a summer resort for the wealthy of Istanbul. Two stars in front of the camera, on the director’s call of ‘Action!’, would first spray two puffs from the mint-menthol spray they held in their hands into their mouths and then kiss. This (now long-forgotten) spray — advertised in Turkish newspapers with the slogan “No longer be embarrassed after eating garlic!” — had for a while become fashionable among the girls of our neighbourhood, who never kissed.

In my first days in Venice, apart from the beautiful couple near the Rialto, I saw countless other couples kissing in the street. And it always seemed cinematic, no doubt because of the beautiful scenery that formed the background as they embraced.

What is it that invites us to kiss when we see a beautiful scene? It must be about realising, for a moment, how beautiful life can be. Besides, tourism statistics and marriage experts tell us that even the unhappiest couples become closer on holiday. But not every beautiful landscape evokes the desire to kiss, or a feeling of happiness in us.

Some landscapes evoke fear, and even metaphysical anxiety, as some evoke peace and comfort, and some others, such as in Istanbul, evoke melancholy.

Just as some cities are places to work in, some to have fun in, some to run away from, some to go on holiday, some to feel sorrow, and some to die, for the many tourists who run to get there, Venice is a place to be happy. When we feel we are inside the depth of a Venetian view, we realise that happiness is possible after all. It is perhaps this feeling of happiness that invites us to kiss.

The polite Veneto governor who, referring to the historical ties between Venice and Istanbul that go back thousands of years, presented me with a prize, pulled me aside after the ceremony, and then, like a man proud to possess a very beautiful woman, showed me the view from his room. We went out on to the balcony overlooking the Grand Canal. I saw a magnificent view, a living Canaletto.

“The view over there must be even better,” the governor said, pointing to the balcony of the palazzo next door, smiling.

That balcony may be the best place in the world where one can feel that happiness is possible in this world, and then to kiss.

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