For the ten years I have been coming to Venice, I never made it to the Pasticceria early enough on Sunday morning to eat the famed doughnuts, that sell like proverbial hotcakes before most people are up. This year I am determined, sugar restrictions et al. I trudge to the bakery at 7:45, still in my pajamas, get back home to make coffee and sink my teeth in the sugary pillows, custard squishing out from all sides. As good as they say.
But then there is the matter of guilt. So on go the running shoes, three layers of clothing, a scarf and some music. I hop down the stairs and, prodded by Bruce, I climb a bridge and head over to Zattere, the embankment on the southern side of the island that stretches along the canal dividing Venice from neighboring Giudecca. It’s one of my favorite part of this touristy yet magical city: on a sunny day, the walk all the way to the Santa Maria della Salute church, at its farthest point, is nothing short of magical. And pretty empty of tourists.
I try to run to the docks where cruise ships come in but my path is blocked by a giant puddle. I loop back, climb the first bridge, covered by a plank, but it’s clear I will not be getting all the way to Salute. The water is flooding the entire embankment and people getting off the vaporetti have a hard time figuring out how to reach the wooden overpass Venetians put in place in case of acqua alta. This might not be acqua very alta, but it is definitely acqua.
I circle back, attack the bridge by my apartment, and cross a couple of campos: at the bottom of the bridge where my local cicchetti (drinks) bar is, the water is high. A Japanese girl in sneakers is hugging a wall, trying to get through unscathed. Short of an ability of walking on water, she will get her feet wet. I prod her on and then I wade on my heels. Screw it.
M.I.A. is bursting in my ears, the air is cold and my hands are frozen – a fellow runner in shorts but wearing gloves has it right – and now my feet are slightly wet but no matter. This is the most fun I have had in weeks.
Couples walk arm in arm, pouring in and out of cafes, buying Sunday treats or lingering over espresso. In Campo Santa Margherita dogs are being walked by chatty owners. Bells are ringing and a few people are coming out of church. The sun tries to poke through the clouds as I cross the Accademia Bridge – a legacy courtesy of Napoleon who, with much forbearance, realized that only one bridge across the Grand Canal wasn’t enough. It’s a simple bridge: steel and wood but I love it. The view is not as sweeping as from Rialto but also more intimate.
I nearly step over the merchandise a Northern African immigrant is selling on the bridge. I skirt a beggar. I reach Campo Santo Stefano, one of the largest squares, and I run its perimeter.
I am used to run among trees and coyotes with the ocean in my line of vision. This is different and less lonely. As I attack yet another bridge, an older gentleman smiles: I think he can see my grin of exhilaration. I have great love for this city of contradictions and failed policies, a city that rewards the seeker at every corner, where the ancient and the old blend with the new, seamlessly, if not always practically.
Venice in winter feels more real: less museum and more city. Last night, after a scrumptious dinner I prepared with the incredibly fresh fish I bought at the open market, we stroll to St. Marks Square. I like to go there at night when the cruise ship folks are gone. It’s chilly, and I am bundled up with a thick scarf. The square opens in front of me, empty. The byzantine church is reflected in the puddle from yesterday’s rain. Only Cafe Florian is open. The lights from the buildings that line half of the perimeter throw a times gone by glow, not too harsh: you would half expect to see Casanova stroll by. I walk over to Riva degli Schiavoni, closer to the water: it’s chillier. Gondolas bob in the sloshing murk, tied to wooden poles that impede (or enhance?) the view across the canal.
Maybe I will live here one day. I fell in love with this city one November, many moons ago, when I came with my dad, on one of the business trips he would drag me along for. The city was engulfed in fog, even more eerie – the silence pierced by the voices of unseen boatmen, by the echoes of the steps of people going about their business. I loved it then and I love it now: behind the veneer and the patina and the shitty restaurants and the Chinese glass for undiscerning tourists, there is a breathing city, fighting to stay alive.