The Storm Clouds Gather
The storm clouds in the evening light remind me of Hawaii. As I look out the airport window, the hill to my left is lush and green from this Spring’s rain. Unusual for San Francisco where the hills are usually the color of yellow straw.
Terminal 100 is quiet. Everyone seems remarkably calm for people waiting to fly to Europe. I am so excited I want to jump up and do the happy dance in the middle of the terminal while chanting “I am going to Venice!”
It is funny how the more I travel, the more I crave it. Today, I re-did my list of places to visit. I am now up to 21. If I travel to a different destination every year, I will not finish my list until I am 65!
Claudia, my seventeen year old daughter, finally got excited today. What started as another mother-daughter trip has become darker and more urgent. “Clinical depression.” I look at the young, pretty counselor in her office at Kaiser. “Are you sure?” “Hide all your knives and your pills,” she tells me matter-of-factly as she goes through her check list on what to tell parents when their child is diagnosed with depression. “Are you serious? Even the vitamins?” My father’s ghost has come back to haunt me. It is funny. I thought my son Max was the one who brought his spirit back into the world with the same big blue eyes. But it is in Claudia where my father ‘s tragic sadness lurks.
I cannot think about it for too long before a lump of panic sticks in my throat. All I know is that I must be strong, very strong, and reach out to pull her back from the edge. I will not lose her, not to depression, not like I lost my father. Life is too beautiful, too much of a great big adventure to not be seen to its completion.
So we embark on another adventure. This time to Venice, the city of falling angels.
In the bathroom in the Marco Polo Airport in Venice, I brush my hair, and touch up my makeup. Next to me Claudia does the same. We straighten what has been crumpled after 12 hours on a plane.
By the time we reach the baggage claim, our luggage looks lonely and abandoned as they slowly circle, left all alone on the metal carousel. We laugh and grab our suitcases, small and compact. We have learned to pack light since dragging our humongous bags up and down the narrow stairs of Paris.
As we try to leave, a small woman approaches us. She asks me if I speak Italian. I am confused by her question. I tell her in Italian “Sono Americana” (I am American). I think she is a tour guide or a bus driver. But for the I.D. around her neck, she is dressed casually in jeans. She curtly gestures for us to follow her. She directs us to place our suitcases on a table. Without explanation, a uniformed guard searches brusquely through our luggage. All of my carefully rolled clothing is disrupted and undone. Of course, everything is in order and we are free to leave.
As we are handed our small suitcases, I ask “Dov’è la fermata dell’autobus.” She looks surprised and then suspicious. She points just outside of the entrance of the airport. As Claudia and I head towards the waiting bus, I hear her mutter to the guard, “Sapevo che era italiana (I knew she was Italian.)”
Hansel and Gretel
Our guide has deposited us at our apartment in Venice. She led us on the short walk from Piazza Roma to our little one bedroom apartment in Ca’Marin. I try to memorize the way to the apartment by counting the turns and the bridges. But, soon, I am just a rat hopelessly lost in the maze. She gives us a map and sketches out a path to a Campo Santa Margarita which she promises is filled with restaurants and night life.
At the door, we feel like Hansel and Gretel. I want to leave a trail of bread crumbs or tie a string to the door so we can find our way home. Venice is a maze of streets. I have no sense of direction because the streets are narrow and seem to twist back on themselves. I look at the map. It is useless because what I see before me does not match the wavy lines on the map. I stand at the door panicking. It is dark. We are alone. However, I am hungry and the warm night beckons us. We plunge into the labyrinth.
We wander aimlessly in the beautiful, clear night. Venice, the carless city, is so quiet. I can hear the water from the canals rhythmically lap against the walls. We find a restaurants with purple wisteria clinging to the lattice above the entrance. I can smell their perfume in the night air. We cannot find Campo Santa Margarita, but this restaurant looks inviting. We stop and eat. Somehow, my head fuzzy with wine, we find our way home.
We island hop from Venice to Murano to Burano. When we arrive at the vaporetta stop, I think I am being smart to jump on the 4 instead of the 42 to Murano. Both lines go to Murano, but the line for the 4 is much shorter. I soon realize that although both lines go to Murano, one goes clockwise around Venice and the other counterclockwise. We got on the boat going the wrong way around the clock. We basically travel from 3 to 12 when we just needed to go from 12 to 3.
As we wind all the way around Venice in our circular detour to Murano, we pass by the Castello side of the island. This side is the tail of the Venetian fish. It is the working class district. The back stage view of the glamorous Venetian show.
On Murano, for 3 Euros, we watch a man shape a horse out of hot glass. He looks likes Zeus shaping the creatures of the earth from molten lava. At the end of the show, he blows a giant bubble of glass that teeters on the end of his blow pipe and pops into a mighty explosions of glass shards that makes the audience jump.
We arrive on Burano in the late afternoon. Burano is a beautiful, festive island. Each house is painted a bright color. These brightly colored houses line the canal. They look like beautiful girls at a party. Burano is Venice with a fresh coat of paint.
Burano is filled with families all in their Sunday best. It is Easter Sunday. The children still have on their miniature suits and ball gowns. This is the island of lace with small shops displaying table clothes, baby dresses and scarfs.
We can see Torcello, its ancient church standing all alone in the middle of the flat, grassy island not far from Burano. It looks so sad and isolated compared to the cheery fairyland of Burano.
Saint Mark’s Day
Today is St. Mark’s Day, a holiday unique to Venice. St. Mark is the patron saint of Venice. Claudia runs to a man carrying a bunch of red roses and buys me one. This rose is called a bucola. On St. Mark’s Day, a man gives a bucola to the woman he loves. Claudia is smiling which makes me very happy.
We wander the streets of Venice, trying to follow a walking tour. Periodically, we stop to examine the map and realize that we made a wrong turn. We double back and try again. We tour San Giorgi Church and peer at the view of St. Mark’s Square across the Grand Canal from its bell tower. We drop a 50 cent euro in a box so that the light will illuminate the painting of the Last Supper.
We tour the Fernice, the opera house of Venice that was burned in 1998. It has been completely restored and offers guided tours. After the tour, we eat lunch in the square directly in front of the Fernice. The sun shines brightly but the storm clouds are gathering in Claudia’s mind. I can see her visibly withdraw. After lunch, she is impatient and does not want to walk with me. I try to show her that we are going the wrong way. She rushes ahead. When I finally get her to stop, I realize that we are accidentally, unexpectedly and fortunately standing right in front of our apartment. We go inside. I can hear her in the other room sobbing. She falls asleep.
After her nap, Claudia is Claudia again. The storm clouds have lifted. It is early evening. We decide to take a gondola ride. Of course, we have to take a gondola ride in Venice. What I did not expect was how comforting it would be. The lagoon gently rocks us in the gondola like a mother rocking a giant cradle. We succumb to a calm meditation as we glide under low, arched bridges. A moment of reflection. Accidentally, we find exactly where we want to go.
Lost and Found in Venice
The calming, hypnotic effect of Venice has put me in a trace. It has cleared the storms clouds from Claudia’s mind and restored a serenity in her.
This morning, as we walk to Piazza Roma, we walk slower, smiling in the sun as the light breeze snows down flowers from the trees. I feel like everything is moving in slow motion. On the vaporetto, I tell Claudia to follow me. We go all the way to the back of the boat and sit outside, rather than in the crowded, interior seats. The difference is striking. The cool breeze helps lift the heat off the canal. The sound of the motor of the vaporetto is muted and less intrusive. The traffic of the Grand Canal bobs and bounces by the boat. Each gondola, vaporetta and motor taxi miraculously missing a near collision with the other.
We walk the streets of Venice on our last night. The water rhythmically lapping on the stairs and the boats is hypnotic. The lagoon rocks the entire city of Venice to sleep. In the piazza next to the Scuola Rocco a violinist plays the same measures over and over. We pause to enjoy the yearning, melancholy sounds.
We wander, not trying to follow a map or find a particular destination. We have surrendered ourselves to the maze. In this surrender is a trust that although we may not know where we are going, we will eventually arrive where we need to be.
We emerge from a narrow path into a large square filled with strings of lights, cafe tables and people laughing. Claudia stops to talk to a group of teenagers who she recognizes from a few days ago. She laughs and visits, a normal teenager happy to meet other teenagers on her Spring Break vacation. This is the Campo Santa Margarita, the square we set out to find out first night. Again, accidentally, we find ourselves exactly where we want to go.
Life is an adventure, not a destination. Surrender yourself to the labyrinth and see the journey to its completion. Never, ever cut your journey short because the best part may be just around the bend.
This story is dedicated to Claudia Rodriguez, my beautiful daughter and epic travel companion.