We met Dario outside of a small three-floor concrete apartment block, the grey version of some pastel colour that I can’t seem to remember. We nodded and yessed and ofcoursed to all of his instructions inside the second-floor apartment – don’t run two energy heavy appliances at the same time, no smoking, no noise before 7am and after 11pm, because there’s a family with small children upstairs (the parents of whom ironically woke us up at 3am twice a week with the loudest …intercourse imaginable – you can ask us about this for more info) – and then left us there, our home just outside of Venice for the next 5 weeks.
We decided to check out the fitness centre with a pool close to us, which we had identified on Google Maps a few weeks before we came. I think it was then, in that pool place, with the lady trying to help us in strictly Italian and us responding in only English and her yelling at us in Italian for stupidly trying to go through to see the pool without being in swimwear (she was still nice about it, I think), that it hit us what a sort of strange, uncanny episode we have started in our lives (we never figured out the pool situation, and never returned).
The episode is ‘The One Where Annchen And Joel Live In A Venetian Suburb For A Month So That Annchen Can Do Some PhD Research’. I had just started my PhD at the University of Cape Town, and my project is about South African art at what is basically the world’s biggest exhibition. It’s called the Venice Biennale and it happens every two years in Venice. It was happening so we quickly made plans to go. I managed to secure some funding (who knew doing your PhD is mostly all about getting money for things you have no time to do because you are always asking for money to do it), and we secured an Airbnb apartment (enter supporting actor Dario of the first paragraph) for a sweet discounted deal – it was actually cheaper than our apartment at home.
I spent a bulk of my time ‘capturing data’ (with no time to actually read what I am getting, there’s so much of it) in the Biennale library, on the eastern, less-touristed reaches of the island, and a bulk of my time doing the same at the Biennale archive, in the shade-less industrial area on the other side of the train tracks – the last bus stop on the mainland before the bridge over to Venice. The other times I set out to see as much art as I could, with a crumpled up map of the sprawling exhibition that goes all over the city. Some days Joel and I took off, and we drove 1 to 3 hours north to the Dolomiti, for spectacular hikes and to get away from the Venetian haze and the people; one weekend we even went to Rome and came back exhausted. There was time left over to go for evening walks, hang out with my mom and oom Thys when they visited us for a week, try every type of cheese and cured meat imaginable sourceable from any of the three grocery stores within walking distance, catch up with our London neighbours who came to town, and even play tennis at the local court (we are getting pretty good now, as in, we aren’t terrible). Most of my time I spent waiting for that damned 7/7E bus, though (please picture me yelling with ‘damn you 7E!’ with a booming, echoing voice into the distance and a raised fist.).
After about three weeks, things felt familiar. I had a sort of routine. As much of a routine you could expect for an episode like this. That is also when the vertigo set in. I had spent most of my time at the library – situated within the main exhibition venue, a 30-minute vaporetto ride from the main bus station on Venice. As you must be well aware, the buses and trains to Venice stop right across the bridge, from there on out you take vaporetti (waterbuses), or navigate the maze of a city and let the bridges determine your route. I would get to the library, find a seat, and get to work, only to find the world swaying when I look up every now and then, as if the whole city is floating on the waves.
Vertigo in Venice. Huh, I thought. Ya, that makes sense. This strange sensation dissipated in a few days.
We were staying on the outskirts of Mestre, the nearest town on the mainland. It is small, and already feels like a suburb of Venice, so the edge of town really felt like a suburb. But a European suburb, as in equipped with all the essential services in walking distance and connected with public transport (or whatever semblance of public transport Italy claims to have). There was a free parking lot, always only with 4 or 5 cars, where we could park our teeny tiny Fiat Panda; there’s the nice supermarket (shoutout to Cadoro), and the cheap one from which we stocked our mozzarella in bulk; there’s the friendly labrador that always came to say hello; the café bar where Joel would go work while drinking 1EUR cappuccinos; the local gelato place ‘Icebear’ with the owner who raved abut Cape Town because he had just gone windsurfing there; the basketball court; the pharmacy that had a condom vending machine outside with ludicrously high prices (catholic tax?); the tobacco shop for public transport passes; the ‘Fast Sushi’ restaurant for when we got tired of pizza. Further afield is ‘Positanos’ – where we ate so much that they offered us a free meal on our last night.
After three weeks I felt like we had been there a whole while, getting to know this random nook of the suburb we were based in pretty well. We got a grip of the characters in town, the system, the aisles in the grocery store, the parents’ sex schedule upstairs (I wish I was joking), the automated toll points driving in and out of town, the way you had to wangle the key a few times to get the door to open, the graveyard of tennis balls behind court number 7, the time windows I could rely on on getting a bus (haha just kidding, you can never rely on getting a bus).
So now we are back, and people look at us with stars in their eyes, asking: “How was Venice?”
And it’s hard to say.
To be honest, we never liked Venice. We’ve been a couple of times for short trips before, and it’s not really a city we ever would jump to go to. There is no denying how pretty it is, absolutely. But it is also crowded, expensive, erratically smelly, impractical, and run by bands of dirty pigeons. I never liked it. Before.
But the more time I spent in these labyrinthine streets (as they became less and less labyrinthine), and along the canals, and in the crowded waterbus, at morning, noon, sunset, night, as not a tourist but not a resident, the more ambiguous the city became. It was no longer a dirty smelly busy crowded expensive place (even when it still was) – it was a network of habitual routes, solid unmoving ground after an hour’s standing commute, the smell of jasmine right as you get off the waterbus, cold clean drinking water from ever-gushing public fountains, a ‘ciao’ and a ‘grazie’ from a familiar face, quiet corners away from the noise, home to many ‘can’t believe I’m doing this’ moments, and, of course, that exquisite Venetian light. Venice became increasingly hard to describe. And as this happened, it allowed me to experience it in a meaningful way, unconstrained by simply ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’.
By the fourth week everything was so normal. We did things without thinking. I was tired when I got home in the evenings. I said the little bits of Italian you use to get by without thinking (so much so that I stumbled over my German when we got to Berlin a week later and I had to switch to a more familiar language). The one english-speaking staff member immediately stepped forward to help us when we entered the bakery or restaurant. Then all of a sudden our final week approached, and it felt like we had just arrived, like it was no time at all. And I guess, in the life cycle of Mestre, it was no time at all. We had been a blip on the radar, an unobservable sand kernel in the modern history of Mestre. We came in, collected data here and there, did some groceries, and left. Maybe some people started to recognise our faces around town just when we left without a trace. But surely we made no impact on this bizarre (to us) little suburb (except for, of course, the Positanos pizza place, where business immediately dropped 30% when we left). But we will never forget our fleeting, non-tourist-non-resident-somewhere-in-between life on the outskirts of Mestre.
So that’s how Venice was.
Fingers crossed that my doctoral or post-doctoral career allows me to repeat this little live-abroad trip in Venice aka Mestre again, but if you told me I would never have to wait for that 7/7E bus ever again, I will die a happy woman.