Venice, Vidi, Vici

By Chris Lehmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 28, 2002

Venice's first welcome to my honeymooning bride and me, fresh off the water taxi from the airport, was anything but romantic. We were standing at a bar, awaiting the rental agent who would take us to the apartment we were subletting for our two-week stay. Positioning ourselves on the foot rails, we thoughtlessly shifted our luggage into the path of an elderly regular. Before we could manage a "permesso," he sized us up in a single glance and scornfully exclaimed, in perfectly distended Valley Girl vowels, "Oh m-eye-y Gaawd!"

It was the verbal equivalent of a Venetian dagger, skillfully thrust and left to poison our delicate tourist constitutions. The moment summoned forth, in a queasy flash, most of the fears that worry at the edges of any undertaking like the one before us: carrying off a romantic honeymoon in a destination that teeters forever on the watery edge of romantic self-parody.

A honeymoon, after all, is a standard vacation on steroids. It carries the expectation that you'll discover not only diverting out-of-the-way bistros, amusing snatches of local lore or high-culture edification but also the very foundation for a lifetime of wedded bliss. It's pleasurable, to be sure, but also more than a little unsettling: Setting out to make two weeks of your life a thing of swooning and sweet nothings is a lot like trying to argue yourself into falling asleep.

And all the more so when you're taking on a destination as storied and romantic as Venice.

We'd long anticipated a getaway -- any getaway -- after surviving the many overlapping ordeals of our wedding ceremony. But as the departure date approached, I feared that the afterglow of our ceremonial union wouldn't long endure the harsh morning-after glare of tourist-dodging, souvenir-mongering and gondoliering. We might be newlyweds, but we weren't born yesterday: As we pored through guidebooks and histories of the place, I was already acquiring the vague sense that it was, in that enchanted way it has, taunting us.

We had sought to combat some of the fatal self-consciousness of a Venetian honeymoon with our apartment sublet. This, we reasoned, would remove us from the tourist set, holed up in hotels and planning itineraries like search-and-destroy missions. Also, the familiar mundane errands of apartment upkeep, we felt, would give us the genuine feel of living in the place, instead of continually marveling at it.

The apartment scheme did deliver us into an immediate, blissfully unescorted slice of Venetian life, if not exactly the way we'd planned. At about 4 a.m., well into our first evening's jet-lag coma, I stumbled half-asleep into the apartment's blue-tiled bathroom and learned that the electricity had gone out. And this being a ground-floor studio in the back of a former palazzo, overlooking a lightless courtyard garden, the place was pitch black.

My bride, who was rudely awakened by my clumsy, failed navigations around the unfamiliar bedroom, suggested that we seize the opportunity that fate had darkly placed in our path and stroll through the Piazza San Marco.

It was the best introduction imaginable to the storied sights of our enchanted destination. In the half-light of encroaching dawn, Venice hadn't yet become conscious of its charms, or mindful of the numberless tourists in its midst. It reposed in a calm, improbable majesty, reminiscent of the winged lion that serves as the city's official symbol. The great Basilica of San Marco and the neighboring Ducal Palace seemed in predawn silhouette to blur into the water along Via Schiavone like the enormous beached sea creatures that they, in a sense, have always been -- summoned from the trade-fueled merger of the Christian and Byzantine worlds, and willed into a mongrel yet transcendent fusion of architectural styles.

The only other person we encountered en route to the piazza was a gracious Venetian, returning from God-knows-what kind of late night, who not only provided us directions but, after walking past us, proceeded to wait at the campo ahead in order to point us in the right direction. Already, it seemed, the city was showing another face, one that canceled out the derisive snarl of our initial greeting. Fashionable scorn for tourists seemed to exist side by side with a curious sort of courtly respect.

This, we soon learned, was the weird ambivalent pose that Venice at large presents to the footloose authenticity-scavenger. Venetians take a fierce parochial pride in the treasures of their city -- but with their intended audience of foreign admirers very much in view. Venetians often strain to affect worldly impatience with the hordes of visitors, but without these hordes, there would be no one on hand to admire them for being Venetian.

And as we came to know the city by daylight, the tourist anxieties that we lugged along with us began to smooth themselves out. We came to imbibe, together with all that is truly artful, historic and -- yes -- magical about Venice, a fresh appreciation of our role as observers in a city that is designed, above all, to be seen.

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