It's Not Venice, It's Me
By Mara Gorman

On her third visit to Venice over three periods of her life, a traveler starts to see the life and color with her children now taking her original place.

Venice Swans

The first time I stayed in Venice I was nine and the 1970s were about to end. My parents’ marriage had ended the previous winter and my mother, younger sister, and I had been living in Florence since September.

Our move from suburban Connecticut to Italy had been sudden and unexplained. My mother was studying art while my sister and I attended an English-speaking school whose other students were the children of diplomats and executives. Each afternoon I’d ride the public bus across the Arno to find my mother in the studio of the art school painting furiously. Her huge canvases were full to the edges with keening women on their knees, tearing their hair.

Christmas had been a burden, a pretense. There was a small tree, a few gifts, and no genuine smiles. I asked no questions about Venice on the train ride but buried myself instead in the brutish but orderly world of British boarding schools courtesy of an Enid Blyton novel.

When we pulled into the station, it looked just like Siena or Pisa or Rome or any of the other Italian cities we had visited with cement platforms and a paned roof that stretched overhead. I pretended not to care, caring being at that time a dangerous occupation.

My mother, tall and slim, strode off the train carrying our suitcase with my sister and I trotting after her. She said nothing until we walked out the front door and then she stopped, grinning at me, and I stopped too, because I wasn’t sure what was more miraculous: her expression or the marzipan world spread before me. “The water runs right in front of the train station!” was all I could think to exclaim and my mother all but skipped in glee, just as I would do when surprising my two sons many years later with the same scene.

Gondola ride in Venice

A Mother's Cloud Over Venice

The next day, after an indifferent breakfast at our gloomy hotel we got on a boat, which is of course what one does in Venice. My sister and I were at first excited and stood next to our mother in the open area at the side of the deck. I squinted against the sharp cold sunlight watching the facades of the palazzos so famously yet improbably pink and ochre.

But soon I trained my gaze on my mother, her hair coming loose from the bun on the top of her head, and saw that she had the serious distant look on her face that I hated because it told me that even in my company, even in this lovely place, she felt alone. So I poked my sister to bring my mother back and make her frown and tell us to go inside, which we did, books in hand, while she remained in the same spot.

Years later I also stood on a boat and looked at those same palazzos and told my 13- and 10-year-old sons to stop poking at each other. But there was no sense of the tragedy that seemed to follow my mother wherever she went, only annoyance and recognition that perhaps standing on a boat and looking at palazzos is a grown-up occupation. I wished I could explain that to my nine-year-old self.

The Bridge and The Return

There was little about Venice that captured my imagination on that trip, but the bridge near Saint Mark's Square fascinated me. Its alabaster sides were topped with fanciful curls, two small windows offering a tantalizing glimpse in and out. These, my mother explained, were what prisoners looked out of as they were led to the dungeon. And seeing Venice for the last time, they all, to a person, sighed, giving the bridge its name. I instantly understood this idea of being surrounded by inaccessible beauty and wanted myself to see out those windows.

Tranquil water in Venice

To do so, we had to walk through all of the grand rooms inside the Doge's Palace. I hurried past the gilt, barely looking up at the ornate ceilings or even the charming clocks in the Senate Chamber, one of them showing not the time, but the signs of the Zodiac. Each room was bigger than the last, and cold, and I moved brusquely through the crowds of people made tiny against such grandeur, wanting only to stand on that bridge and peer out those windows. My mother sighed herself in exasperation as I tugged her arm and looked for the signs reading Il Ponte dei Sospiri.

I don’t know why but we expected it to be as beautiful inside as without. Eventually we crossed its plain interior without knowing we had done so until we realized that we were in a dank room on the other side with no hope of looking out.

Eleven years later I arrived in Venice early on a December morning. I had no reservations, no map, no plans and not much money, as I emerged into the same gray and misty city.

The bridge near the train station was so crowded with tourists that I had trouble bumping my heavy suitcase over it – it hadn’t occurred to me that Venice would be a popular holiday destination. I had the name of only one cheap hotel in my pocket, and I said a silent prayer that I would be able to sleep there. I opened the door timidly, and in stumbling Italian asked the severe woman, who clearly had no sympathy for a dumb American, whether they had a room. "Si, for two nights only," was the reply. I told myself I would spend the days I was there looking for another hotel, knowing in my heart that this was a fiction.

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