Letter from Venice

Photo by Tad Wise

March 6 — Tonight I leave Venezia, heartbroken at departing and worn out from over-work. Yes, I could use a few weeks to actually see all I should have seen. Out earlier with my camera as the dawn came up, photographing my haunts here on both sides of the Rialto Bridge, I encountered another photographer with proper tripod and better equipment who was so concentrated he did not even hear my greeting. An hour later I tried again, more successfully. A 53-year-old blogger, Silvano, lives with his wife & family 40 minutes away by train. Every Saturday or Sunday he leaves home about 4 a.m., arriving at Venezia before dawn to take pictures more of a political than romantic nature. Raised to consider Italy a living museum, “this clerk at a company five days a week” spends half his weekend documenting garbage men & women cleaning the ever-poetic squares of bottles — whole & smashed, wine glasses, cigarettes boxes & stamp-outs…the debris of youth heedless that their frat yard is also one of the world’s wonders. The blogger had better equipment but fell in the canal (no, he doesn’t drink) ruining all. There was no acqua alta (high-water) this year so the stink comes to Venezia a little early, and yes, she’s showing (and smelling) her age. But I like the fascinatingly decrepit…sometimes, I think, I like them best.

The symbol of the city is a wing-ed lion, usually seen with a book — when closed, Venezia is at peace, open it is at war. “How is the book today?” I ask Silvano. He shrugs, “Too tired…I think…to fight.”

There is no proper way to finish this, for I must pack for Greece to visit the tomb of Byron’s heart and the island of Paros — where one of Woodstock’s permanent exiles has found safe haven. I sign off remembering the admonition at the end of Under The Volcano — the sign its narrator notices, again, before the park at the end his long last day: “Behold your Garden. Is it not beautiful?


Take care that your children do not wreck it.”

I’ll be home April’s fool, Tadzio

I fly out of Newark on the 15th of January, leaving much chaotic sadness at home. As you know I write too many obits, so between these and trying to sell real estate in Woodstock…a sure recipe for depression. I’ve packed exactly 49 out of the 50 allowed before-they-charge pounds (including 15 Byron books)…I’ll be gone 9 weeks and expect to meet my lady in Venice so I’ve included some proper shoes, etc. Spending a day in the Brussels airport between flights, I play guitar, drink tap water, and curse having to pay for WiFi (pronounced “wiffie” in Europe).

I arrive in Venezia too late to be let into my digs, and so find a very cheap hotel a “short bus” north from the airport. Trudging a mile with two bags and a guitar from the bus-stop into shut-down-tight Campalto, I’m feeling quite like the vagabond I’d been hereabouts at 20, now “coming to” ala Rip Van Wise 35 years later. And yes — I travel cheap.

Next morning I retrace my steps and buy an IMOB card which is good for 5 years. So if I don’t make it back…check in around 2017. I have affordable tickets for everything now, including the #1 Vaporetta (waterboat) down to the San Polo district. Addresses in Venice make the Dewey decimal system seem like child’s play. There really is no way to find anything — even the guide books admit as much. Think of it as a good excuse to practice Italian which in my case amounts to a lot of body English over heavily accented American with the occasional noun or exclamation thrown in. My favorite is: “Allora…” which means “and so” or “ahh!” or therefore or so we see or can we get on with this?

I finally find the office by the Pescaria & general market (from which I’ll soon feed myself almost entirely.) It’s been here for many hundreds of years, just down from the Rialto Bridge, in this — yes, [the] strangest, most despairingly gorgeous city this side of Mars. Its the coldest winter here since 1929 (no joke) and I left my long coat at a computer terminal in the Ramada Inn in Kingston where I boarded a van to the airport, ‘cuz life became overwhelming…so, yeah, it’s cold but I’ve got five espressos in me by now (free with hotel breakfast, natch…) and I’m breezing along with the attractive, bespectacled Silvia who does the details for the foundation providing me housing.

My place is on an alley off the larger Calle Del Campaniel, a hundred feet from the Grand Canal which has ice chunks in it and is the color of green kool-aid mixed with mop-slops. Byron swam the entire length of it back when the city was twice its present size [the latest census report is a scandal — 62,700 souls in Venice —50,000 less than when last counted. No one can explain it. An American television publicist has released a statement blaming a coven of Vampires. There’s word that the reality show exploring the phenom is planned for late summer. The actual truth is sadder still, youth is leaving or…what jobs? Where? It’s anyone’s guess.]

My aparmento is on the 2nd of four floors — lovely, not grand. Everything I need. Nice kitch, questionable bed but look here!…My Dreams Arrived On Gleaming Planet Earth… a 3ft x8ft panel with an adjustable lamp and a chair — my desk! — essentially an oversized door-on-side propped up on designer saw-horses. Shooing my guide politely out the door I half unpack and…get to work.

You have to understand I haven’t had the time & a table & enough money to keep myself fed all-at-the-same-fucking-moment since…I was finishing Tibet-your-Life 13 years ago. So what we have here is…well, it’s like someone shook a warm bottle of champagne and undid the wire. An explosion am I — fast into 12 hour, 14 hour, I think my best/worst was a 16 hour day — well “day” has nothing to do with it. Light comes in the window and disappears again in slices of eternity called “days” but that’s all nonsense. I’m in the zone now and there’s nothing better nowhere noway, nohow. The bed is a problem, admittedly…especially if Claudia makes it to Venezia. But sleep is the last thing that concerns me at the moment and I’m afraid those of you interested in the sights should skip a few paras, ‘cuz I’ve got five of the 12 Byron’s Letters & Journals face down on the bed (I left the other two at home); all three volumes of  Marchand’s definitive bio lined up on the desk next to one another, each festooned with many dozens of different colored sticky notes, like  professor’s texts just flown in from Mardi Gras. Oh, and there’s a Byron complete works circa 1900 in print the size of a St James bible published on bound postage stamps.

So…you want to know what I’m working on? Well, call it my Secret Project In Venice (and you thought SPIV was Sham’s band!) All right, I’ll give you the PG 13 version (which is what I tell the scholars to only sli-i-i-ightly piss them off…)

Some of you may remember Byron was the iconic romantic poet — A Napoleon of Words — as his hell-witch of a wife called him (…down Tad). Byron lived a fearless, ungoverned & ungovernable life as just so happened to fuel a flaming flotilla of poems, plays, journals, aborted novels, and probably the single-most revealing trunkful of letters ever penned by an Earthling — certainly by any called a “writer.” In the early phases of his career he wouldn’t put his name to any of his works and nor accept pay for them (he was a Lord, after all…) nor would he admit that everything he wrote was completely & totally about him…until that is, around 1815 when he was obliged to leave England as the single most loathed, feared and desired man to ever limp up a street (he was born club-footed, abandoned by his father, raised by a nut-job mother whose fortune had been ravaged by the former…but I digress). By 1816, Byron is toying with the idea of blowing his brains out (many of his relatives on both sides of the family found such the easiest way to fly) and probably would have but for two reasons: 1) His best friend and traveling companion, Hobhouse, didn’t go for “all this dramatic tripe” and basically embarrassed Byron into survival and 2) he knew his suicide would greatly please his mother-in-law.

So…he is drawn like a goth to the fame of Venezia where he goes on a binge the likes of which Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix combined might have (with the help of drugs, that is) competed…maybe. But…while doing so he is soon daily diving out the window of his Pallazo into the Grand Canal, swimming to the Island of Lido — where he stables the only horses in Venice (aside from the “other four” on the door of St. Marks, that is.) Indeed, Byron swims many places, most famously from Sicily to the mainland in imitation of a god. Eventually he does contract his own gondala, mind you, so he doesn’t have to swim, but it’s true he prefers this mode to walking — for obvious reasons. This, another of the many attractions Venice holds for him, pre-eminent perhaps being it brags the highest ratio of prostitutes, courtesans, and more-than-willing-wives of any city in Europe, perhaps the world (well…there remains Naples.) So I’m working on a book called The Turn, which is about Byron escaping the doomed monomania of a tragic mode and embracing the Comedia Del ‘Arte of pre-Napoleonic Venice in satire — whereby he created his most lasting work, the unfinished poetic epic, Don Juan.


Fortunately, a few weeks later a lovely couple in residence upstairs (he painter, she writer) invite me to dinner with a collection of friends whereupon the aforementioned warm champagne of Tad (quite sober, mind you) is shaken up and explodes in the conversational mode much to the pleasure of the assembled (it’s my children & girlfriend who are less approving of these verbal vomitoriums). Knowing cheap entertainment when they find it, I am dragged along the following day to the island of Torcello where the astounding experiment of Venetian civilization begins around 500 AD with the abdication of the last Roman Emperor and bad-ass folks (Visagoths, etc.)  forcing locals to seek alternative housing. There’s not much left to Torcello but the ruins of an ancient church and the best fed & cared for colony of cats this side of our place in Shady, Pyxe Brown’s on Ratterman, or Poppa Hemingway’s digs in Key West. Happy cats make me likewise happy…especially when they lounge in pools of sunlight and lazily creep towards my felicitations cribbed from a secret Sicilian cat-tongue passed down through the Calaceto family for centuries. There’s also an accordion player who I tip graciously on the condition he must follow along behind supplying my humanity-deprived psyche with the notion that we’re walking about in an early Fellini film…at least as far, he agrees, “to that bridge.”

We lunch on Burano, the larger island famous for lace and a restaurant immortalized by the unparalleled travel writer JG Links in his effortlessly pantheistic Venice For Pleasure, the original edition of which begins with, “Generally the first thing to do in Venice is to sit down and have some coffee…” Well, “his” restaurant is closed and the one we find takes all afternoon to serve us. Fortunately the retired husband of a society woman writer seated next to me ran the mid-East desk for Newsweek in the 70’s and 80’s and I have a wonderful time dragging out & soaking up stories concerning the world leaders in that place at that time almost all of whom he interviewed. The other “colorful” thing about Burano is that its houses (and even different parts of the same building) are painted in a strange assembly of tones, so that home-coming sailors could identify their own neighborhoods navigating through the ubiquitous mists of the lagoon.

In my four weeks in Venice this has been my only restaurant meal — Seafood Risotto —which I am clearly not yet “ready” to appreciate. In fact I haven’t even had a coffee out. The splash of black known as an espresso in Italy is an insulting tease for the likes of me. On a parallel with an ale served at McSorley’s which last time I was there resembled a sample of tan foam in a jam jar with a glass handle on it…

I do enjoy an astounding ferry ride back past “Cimitero” the cemetary island where Brodsky and Pound are buried (no obits!), and earlier past Murano where the famous glass is blown, especially your grandmother’s paper-weight resembling the irises of Owsley devotees. The island’s exterior has a lot of sad, abandoned brick buildings some creative gazillionaire will hopefully transform into an art school someday.

Most everyone on the Vaporetta is inside escaping the cold wind, but I bought a scarf and have a warm Russian hat, sweater and houndstooth pure wool blazer and with the collar up — I’m quite content. A rather strange sensation that, I must say. Earlier, I’d begged one of those awful Italian cigars (a digestion aid, mind) from a fellow at last night’s dinner. He now steps out onto the deck to take pictures (the closer we get to last stop: Fondementa Nova, the more picture-takers follow.)

We’re soon talking about Europe’s great troubles, Italy’s debt and her seemingly inevitable fiscal ruin. Suddenly I feel more like an American whose army delivered Europe from Hitler — that brash, irrepressibly confidant individual Hemingway helped to brand. Glancing from Venice emerging in the late afternoon haze, back to my perfectly dressed companion I say — for it had suddenly popped into my head — “I have the answer to the problem. Wanna’  hear?” Carlo hesitates then Carlo agrees that he would.

After five minutes at high volume I end by saying, “And that or being annexed by China is how Europe saves itself.” Carlo is squinting at me reviewing thoughts from last night when he’d cause to wonder whether I was a nut-job with a touch of genius or merely a truly obnoxious lunatic. I don’t blame him for wondering — I’ve never come to an adequate decision, myself.

There’s also something odd going on here at midships. And looking around I realize the peculiar auditory phenomena I’m experiencing is speechlessness. Oh, I’m being looked at the way I haven’t been for a long time. And why? Because over the last ten years I have tried and mostly succeeded in becoming a drone seeking little more than the procurement of pollen sufficient for the survival of the mother hive. But in the last few weeks I’ve astounded myself by returning to a more remarkable model I’d assumed had been lost to a mispent youth, bequeathed to manuscript boxes and tapes I’d never find the time to catalogue or decode. And it’s best that I didn’t — because all that?…Finger-exercises.

As bracing myself against a strong wind on the deck of a large boat moving at good speed through choppy surf with the medieval sky-line of Venezia growing larger and a shipwrecked sun sinking into a Turner-seascape for a sky…I feel my journey here vindicated. Or certain to be soon. Either that — or they’ll take me away in a straight jacket. Everyone else has their iPhones out clicking away…whilst I gaze at a Byzantine tower glistening like an orange-hot poker freshly pulled from the forge, and doubling up my scarf against the wind I seek such interior warmth against it; as now glancing out at the nearly transparent tip of a wave caused by our powerful forward motion, a great sadness attempts to swamp this — my hard won joy — and rebelling against it I realize I’m  thinking of Byron again — miles from land with no rescue possible except in this —another long swim home. ++

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