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Finding the Venetians

My daughter Sofia is unimpressed by Venice. She calls the gondola a canoe. I point to a fine example of Renaissance Venetian architecture, but the bright piece of paper floating in the canal is more interesting. Several tourists boarding the vaporetto bump their suitcases into her and almost knock her into the murky water. When there’s a sudden stench of something rotting, she pinches her tiny nostrils and expresses her discontent so all can hear. I remind myself that she is only 5, hungry and sleepy from the long car ride. Yet the traveler in me can’t help feeling let down by her unenthusiastic response to this miraculous city built hundreds of years ago on tree trunks driven into the clay bottom of a lagoon. Balancing wanderlust with motherhood was going to be trickier than I thought.

The other times I’ve ventured here, I was either a child myself or childless, and I hadn’t met my husband yet, a native of Emilia-Romagna. Venice is the first stop on the grand tour of Italy we’re taking together as a family before returning to our home in Orange. Our Italian friends and family members, who avoid the city as if tourism were the modern plague, all think we’re crazy to visit during high season. We debark at the stop for St. Mark’s Square and follow the arrows to the main piazza. The last time I visited, it was flooded with water, not a soul in sight. I strolled across it on elevated walkways, taking pictures of the cathedral reflected on the water’s surface. Now I have to grasp Sofia’s hand to make our way through the deluge of people and pigeons. It’s impossible to walk without becoming pixels in someone else’s selfie.

No longer is there a man selling birdseed, and the pigeons have become pushy, dependent on crumbs from tourists. They land on Sofia’s head and arms as if she were a berry bush, and I worry about her catching zoonotic diseases. She spots the vendor peddling a miniature glass zoo from his pushcart. Disappointed that the pieces are blown in faraway China instead of nearby Murano, I refuse to buy her one. As we trudge along, I find myself looking at the foreign faces of the shopkeepers, the closed doors of the palazzos, the rental signs in the windows and wonder: Where are the Venetians?

Not even a half-hour passes in the shadow of the Doge’s Palace, and we’re all ready to seek refuge on quieter back streets. It is here that I delight in evidence of quotidian life – the shirt blowing dry on the line, small trash bundles tied to wall hooks, the abandoned toy. If there is an open curtain, I peer in, hoping to catch sight of an actual Venetian. It must be an effect of motherhood to search for domesticity in places where I once sought illusion and intrigue.

In the Piazza Carlo Goldoni, Sofia and I rest on a bench under a mulberry tree while her father visits a museum. This piazza receives my motherly stamp of approval, enclosed on three sides, plenty of room for her to run. Instead of chasing away the pigeons gathering at our feet, she is content being their temporary saint, coaxing them closer with handfuls of crushed crackers. They are tamer than their cousins in the main piazza and refuse to perch on her. She fills the bottom basin of the fountain so they can bathe and shoos away any bullying seagulls. I’m in awe of her Franciscan way with the creatures and the joy she derives from simple things in her surroundings.

Relaxed, I let my gaze wander to a doorway across the piazza. It occurs to me that I haven’t seen one person exiting one of the several palazzos since I’ve been sitting here. Some have doors I would have to duck to enter, many that look as if they’ve been salvaged from the sea bottom, half-eaten by salt. My imagination is evoked, and I get the notion that the Venetians have been turned into pigeons. Sofia wanders over to see if more crackers are hidden in my bag.

“All gone,” I tell her.

With a sigh, she plops down beside me. “Dimmi una storia, mamma,” she says.
If only I had a euro for every time she asked me to tell her a story. I pick a door and tell her that a magician once lived there. He was traveling along the Silk Road when he came upon this strange and wondrous city. He was so enamored by the place that he wanted the city all for himself, so he devised a plan to get rid of the pesky citizens.

“And then what happens,” she asks, completely engaged.

Well, I begin, the magician disguises himself as a merchant selling precious stones. His jewels, however, are not ordinary jewels. They are magical. And he tosses them like birdseed all over the piazza. Drawn to the glitter of the jewels, the Venetians come out of their houses and begin collecting them, but as soon as they touch the gems, poof, the people transform into pigeons, the jewels turning into breadcrumbs. And this is what has happened to the Venetians, I conclude, when I see her father approaching us from across the piazza.

“Is it time to go home?” she asks.

“No, amore, we’re lost in a maze. Can you help us find the way out?”
Mulberry stick in hand, she leads the way, determined to find the magician. An hour later we wander into a large piazza that looks vaguely familiar to me. All the activity catches us by surprise. Sofia wiggles herself down from the perch on her father’s shoulders. “Look mamma, the pigeons are people again.”

It’s as if we’ve turned the page of a fairy tale and entered another story: Two uniformed soldiers with machine guns stand guard at the entrance to the Jewish Museum. A group of white-robed nuns walks single file across the piazza. The children’s faces are as diverse as the ones at my daughter’s school in Orange County. Parents gather, talking about their kids and what they’ll do for the weekend. I eavesdrop on a bunch of elderly people sitting on the bench. The conversation is about food, about what they ate yesterday and what they will eat tomorrow.

Sofia runs toward the fountain, where half a dozen children are filling water balloons. In less than a minute she is holding a bulging red one, her voice blending in chorus with the little Venetians. She chases and in return is chased. After a long while, happily drenched, she runs back over to where we are sitting. “Mamma, she asks, per favore, can we come back tomorrow?”

I smile, giving her a kiss on her wild, wet head. In her eyes is a Venice I’ve never seen before.

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