"You just don't buy a costume like that at the Walmart!"
I haven't been to Venice in 23 years.
The first time I was there, I was 23. That means I haven't been to Europe's most famous, most romantic, most sinking, most decaying, most don't-pinch-me-or-I'll-wake-up paradise in a life time.
I wrote one of my most anthologized and translated short stories not long after my first visit to Venice. It was called, Portrait. It was about getting lost but finding love within the canals. Now, all these years later, with 5 novels behind me including The Remains and Godchild, I'm finding that Venice, although a maze, isn't nearly as confusing or intimidating as it was all those ears ago. I guess maturity and has it's advantages. So does grace under pressure.
This is the time of Carnival and it seems as though the entirety of Italy has descended upon the ancient city. People of all ages, wearing costumes and gowns and masks make for a mysterious if not dangerous experience. Even if it is all in good fun.
Tossed into the sea of people are women in ball gowns topped with white wigs, faces painted with white powder. Men wear black, shin-length, capes, and those triangular caps that the great lover Casanova wore. Some wear evil masks of grossly long noses, while other people...young, college age, silly people...dress up in bunny costumes.
The point, as I understand it, is first, to be photographed by the hordes of journalists and photographers who've come to record the event for their various publications. But also the point is to celebrate the dead and the coming Lenten season, which I assume is why the final day of Carnival takes place at precisely the same time Fat Tuesday happens in New Orleans.
Or I could be of course wrong about all this.
But I do know this, the masks and costumes were originally meant to disguise one's self from one's class, which means, even back in the olden days, Venetians of all shapes, sizes and bank accounts were looking to get it on with one another.
Why do I say that?
Because like all good festivals, Carnival ain't just about the funny costumes. It's a lot about the booze and what happens after the booze.
Case and point?
The groans and moans of ecstasy coming from the young Japanese couple in the room directly beside my own. Makes me feel kind of left out.
Back to all those people....
It's hard during this festival to find alone time.
There are so many people on this fish shaped island (30,000 pour in per day!), it's not hard to imagine it sinking once and for all. But you can still find some peace and quiet away from the tourist areas like San Marco. So much peace and quiet and business as usual exists in the "ghetto," or what was once the Jewish District, that this morning, I was able to jog up and down a cobblestone jetty without once running into a single soul.
Man or woman.
Being thrust into a pool of masked humanity has its frustrations if not downright scary moments, such as patting your back pocket for your wallet and not feeling the usual hard bulge, but only then, forgetting you slipped it into the interior pocket of your leather jacket. For safe keeping.
Wipes sweat from his brow with the back of his hand.
But there are gifts here that are uniquely Venice.
There's the gondola ride on the Grand Canal and over the feeder canals, the godolier singing softly while pushing the sleek black boat over narrow canals made of decaying brick, filled up with green, thick looking water. There's the pastry shops that smell of fresh baked cakes and sweets and bread, and how good the cafe tastes with a raspberry filled croissant still warm from the oven. There's the antique shops, and jewelry shops, and wine shops that sell bottles for only 5 Euros. And of course, there's exhausted waiters who give you a crumpy look and even crumpier service when serving a masterpiece of shrimps cooked in hot spices over a bed of fresh polenta.
Venice has been sinking for years, or so they say. But my gut tells me that I will be sunk far earlier than this ancient city on the sea. If I keep coming here every 23 years, I will be 69 during my next visit. Assuming I live one more block of 23 years beyond that, I will be 92, that is I'm doing my math right.
I'm imagining myself at 92.
Old, crooked, slow, and maybe sad. But Venice will be the same. And even though I will be passing on, I will walk the same cobbles I once walked as a young man, as many young men did before me. And it will be like living a memory.
Past, present and future.