The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
The aircraft carries us through the darkness. Thirty thousand feet below is the planet Earth, the north Atlantic a vast invisible presence.
My first trip from North America to Europe was in 1960, on a steamship. Now everyone makes the journey by plane, most often at night. Where we live on Prince Edward Island, we hear the aircraft pass by high overhead, see their lights among the stars when the sky is clear.
A long causeway carries our bus from the airport to a terminus in one corner of an island city. In the parking area are other buses, cars, construction rigs, but once we drag our suitcases over a small pedestrian bridge that straddles a narrow canal we enter another world.
Many writers have made the point that Venice has been the exotic goal of travel for so many and for so long, that there is nothing original left to say about it. Still, wandering through the maze of narrow streets, sometimes no more than a yard wide, crossing little bridges over arteries of green water, coming on a small stone-paved square where dogs and children play, the temptation is irresistible—to capture this, to record the sunlight or rainlight with words or camera or paint—though everywhere you look you must be aware that dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands have observed this very location.
School tours arrive daily at the railway station from other towns and cities, and gangs of children cross the Scalzi bridge near the station and vanish into the maze. Three schoolboys crowd together in a nook by a bridge to make a photograph of this day of their lives.
The guidebooks will tell you stories of Casanova, who was born here, of Lord Byron, who loved Venice, of Napoleon Bonaparte who hated it.
Here the unique is the usual, and the usual seems suddenly unique.
Reynaldo, the effervescent older man who supervises breakfast at our hotel, makes the best cappuccino in Venice and wears, inexplicably, two pairs of glasses at the same time. Like all the hotel staff he is fluent in at least five languages.
Late one afternoon, we are sitting outside a restaurant by the Canal di Canareggio, when I notice a bearded young man in a ten-foot motorboat with his two or three year old daughter as a passenger, putt-putt-putting along home from nursery school.
On a previous trip I discovered that at the north end of the city, it is sometimes possible to see the snowy tips of the Dolomite mountains, but this week the mountains are all but invisible in haze. At the edge of the lagoon a boy and girl sit side by side, their legs hanging over the concrete abutment toward the green water.
Every evening a line of young African men is strung out along the edge of a wide thoroughfare, each one presenting, on the paving stones in front of him, a selection of purses, Prada and Gucci knockoffs for sale to the gullible.
One morning, as we ride down the Grand Canal on the crowded vaporetto, I notice a long black gondola on the water beside us, a young man standing on the gondolier’s perch at the back of the boat, gripping the long wooden oar that impels and steers the elegant craft. In front of him, in the body of the boat, stands a sturdy man of middle age, his arms spread, delivering instructions. Gondoliers, I realize, have to be taught, and this is a recruit taking a lesson in his new job.
On the day of departure, we stand on the dock waiting for the boat to the airport. Disembarking into the city of memories come three old men, two women with canes. And I remember, as we return to the sky and to another life, a handsome white-haired woman in the wide Campo di San Polo blowing bubbles to amuse a little boy in red rubber boots.