My first business trip ever was to Gainesville, Florida followed by a jaunt to Des Moines, Iowa to see the site of a sculpture park under construction. Interesting? Absolutely. Glamorous? Not very. Last week, I got sent to Venice to wrangle media at one of the national pavilions. Interesting? Absolutely. Glamorous? Yes very (if you ignore the mosquito-bite welts I got from sitting outside the Pavilion all day).
I have a strict personal rule that I won't write about clients. And I won't break it now. However, I do want to share the experience of visiting Venice for the first time. It's a beautiful place and a puzzling one—geographically and culturally.
One of the charming (and frustrating things about Venice) is that, for the casual visitor, it's seems impossible to navigate. The narrow streets twist and turn. Alleys dump out into plazas with 5 different exits and minimal signs about which to choose. Granted you see lots of gracious old buildings and elegant bridges that way, but if you’re trying to get to work on time it’s anxiety producing. Asking for directions doesn’t really help either, even if they’re given in your own native tongue.
Amazingly, everyone can give you directions in English. Venice is an island for tourists. I learned that if I said my few Italian phrases with enough sweet vigor and my thick American accent, the stranger/waiter/shopkeeper I was speaking with would take pity on me and speak in English. In fact, I'm almost a little disappointed that I only had one language mishap. I was in a cafe waiting for a meeting to start and I heard the waiter deliver to the table behind me, "una Coca Cola." Fantastic, I thought to myself: I don't have to order water or coffee (the only things I knew the Italian words for). So the waiter comes over and I give him a big smile and say, "Prego, una Sprite [please, a Sprite]." He looks slightly befuddled and returns a few minutes later with a luridly orange drink with an orange slice and an olive floating in it. I'm so hot and thirsty that I shrug, say "grazie," and take a huge swig. It was so bitter that I nearly spit it out. When I told the ladies at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection this story later they howled with laughter. I had unwittingly ordered Venice's famed "spritz"--a soda and campari cocktail.
What I found thought provoking about the city was its sense of self. I felt like I was walking through a very large movie set. My American sensibility searched for dynamism, a sense that the past, present, and future all had a place on the sinking isles. Rather, it’s identity as a tourist destination has caused it to be frozen in time. Preserved for the very tourists who stop in for a few days hungry for experience and then who move on to the next experience.
The US, so young in comparison, seems so much more enchanted with its own past and celebrating it. We have markers everywhere talking about significant people or events. We have statues in most of our public parks and markers to our wars. That's largely missing in Venice--not that I could have read them if they existed. Still, I wanted to leave with that sense of history and veneration for the past.