I was a member of a Christian youth choir for a year or two in junior high. For spring break one year, we went to Italy to sing for a couple of American military communities down there. As part of that trip, we spent a day touring Venice. I'm sure we saw other things on that trip, but all I remember is tooling around on a bus through a good deal of Italian countryside and seeing the inner workings of a couple of military bases in northern Italy. (We stayed in the school gymnasiums. Lots of fun running and flopping on the gymanstics mats they had. Not the best way to get good sleep, though.) So this post is going to focus on the day in Venice, since that's all I remember.
My first impression of Venice was the less-than-pleasant smell. I think there's been a big cleanup of the city since I was there and others have told me that the smell is gone. But it was loud and proud in 1992. Either it was at its strongest when I first got off the ferry, or I got used to it, because I don't remember it after that first whiff. (Actually, that was something I noticed about Italy overall: it was very dirty. At least, the roads were. I haven't seen such litter on the equivalent of an interstate highway anywhere else. Again, I was told this was remedied as part of a country-wide clean-up deal.)
My strongest memory of this trip was Pigeon Square, which is actually St Mark's square, on account of it being, you know, right by that big, honkin' cathedral that's pretty darn famous. (In addition to seeing a lot of castles in Europe, I also saw a lot of cathedrals. At this point, I was probably annoyed with gilt and naves and marble and huge overdone organ pipes, although this one was a bit more tasteful than most.) The square was always crowded with tourists and pigeons, the latter receiving food purchased from local vendors by the former. Actually, I'm pretty sure that, as part of all this clean-up I keep talking about, they've done away with the pigeon food vendors in the square and are trying to get rid of the birds. Probably on account of the bird shit. And perhaps those avian flu scares. But it was fun to be in the middle of a huge, flapping flock. And it was always funny when someone else got nailed with the runny, goopy white stuff. I managed to emerge unscathed.
I did a lot of wandering over the bridges and along the canals, just taking in the novelty of a floating city. I also did a lot of window shopping. I think I also ate some very yummy food. One thing I don't think I did, and it's surprising considering I was there with a choir, was visit the opera house. It may have been closed for renovations or somesuch. (Speaking of, I do remember that there was a decent amount of scaffolding up at the basilica. Was everything in Venice in transition that year?)
The other memory I have of that trip was a recounting of something that happened to someone else. One of the groups of older kids had encountered a homeless man by the gandola docks. After some discussion, they decided to buy the man lunch instead of giving him money. Apparently it was a big hit and the man's reaction had a profound impact on the kids who witnessed it. I remember that story every time I see someone panhandling. When I was in Tucson on break during college a few years ago, I was on my way to work at the lab and I saw someone with your standard "No home, no job, anything helps" sign. I gave him my lunch. His reaction was more the standard "Aunt Hilda made these socks for me, so I know I should smile and really pretend to like them, but why couldn't she have just sent me some money for my birthday" than anything transcendantly grateful.
My favorite parts of Venice were the small little side canals with their small bridges. That's where a lot of the fun stores were, too, and it seemed such a neat juxtaposition of the the city's past and present to walk across an old bridge on old cobblestones and wander into a store selling fine watches. So many tourist locations come off as gaudy in their opulence or extreme attempts to sell some piece of junk with their claim to fame stamped on it. The side canals of Venice avoided that, and it was a nice change.
Next Week: Since we're on the topic of Italy, I'll detail my trip to Rome in 1995.