The Venice Trip
It all started with a remark. We had no family from America coming over to spend Christmas with us, something that had been a yearly event when we had first moved to the UK. Gradually the visits became fewer, I can't think why. Might have been the weather I suppose; all those Holiday cards showing snow-draped cottages and winding country lanes and little rustic churches warm with candle light give people in East Coast America unreal expectations. I remember one year when the whole tribe showed up determined to go to a Christmas service in a local church.
This would have been no problem except for two things. We do live next to a charming country church (The Welsh name of our house, twelve letters long with only two vowels, simply means 'next to the church') but due to falling attendance it only had services every third Sunday. The nearest church having a Christmas service was in a little town about five miles distant as the crow flies. That is, if the crow in question were blind drunk and got lost at least twice.
The other thing was the weather. Occasionally we do get snow at Christmas, but not that year. Precipitation there was, but it was good old Welsh rain, and our two car cortège set off barely able to see beyond the headlamps. The road we live on is a fair two car width with a centre white line even, but within half a mile we had to turn down a side road leading to the town with the candle lit church, and when I say down, I mean DOWN. The side road in question was more typical of rural Wales, being barely wide enough for one car, with precipitous dips and twists that would have been challenging enough in daylight. At night in a deluge it was something of a living nightmare for my passengers, never mind the following vehicle which contained, if memory serves, my wife, her father and one sister. I had the Stepmother and the other sister, who sat white faced and silent clutching any handy projection with a death-grip. The rainwater poured down the verges on either side and I prayed we wouldn't meet Ivor in his four by four on the way back from the pub.
Finally rumbling over a tiny bridge which was reassuringly sign posted as unsafe for heavy vehicles, we arrived. The rain had mercifully slackened, and we found parking only a few hundred yards from the church. Said church was an imposing edifice in the Norman style (the word for church in Welsh, 'eglwys', is baldly lifted from the Norman French, 'eglise', which tells you something.) Square built with thick stone walls, it rose on a low hill with the uncompromising presence of a conqueror and looked anything but welcoming. Did I mention that my wife's family are Jewish? Inside it was deathly cold, with a wheezing harmonium manned by a dear little old lady fumbling her way through Yuletide melodies that Bing Crosby had never heard of. My wife's family sat rigidly huddled into their furs and down jackets, probably praying that all of this incomprehensible ritual was not leading to a human sacrifice. The trip home, with the deluge replaced by a thick fog, I leave to your imagination. In my defense I maintain that I only took one wrong turn after the bridge and did eventually find the main roadway.
So it was with a certain relief that my wife and I found ourselves with no guests coming and both sons grown, and my wife remarked, 'You know, we never go anywhere, and I've always wanted to visit Venice. I wonder what Christmas is like there?' Google images showed us a veritable fairyland, all glittering lights and gondolas, and we looked at each other and nodded.
Then began the Preparation. In the old days when I wanted to go someplace, I would just, well, go. My wife looks at me pityingly when I mention this. 'Remember Paris?' she says. The Paris trip was two decades plus ago but still comes up whenever I object to my wife's compulsive planning of every detail . In my defense I really had been to Paris several times so when I invited my wife to go there on her birthday I pooh-poohed her suggestion that we book a hotel. 'Paris is full of hotels!' I assured her. Yes, except when there is a Drapers convention. Every bloody hotel in the City of Lights was full and we spent the night in an alley on a piece of cardboard with me having to stay awake to scare off the rats.
So finally we had booked our accommodation with Airbnb, booked our dinner three nights running, arranged for people to look after the dog, the cat, the seven hens,the five sheep, the house and, of course, our autistic son. We had ordered galoshes to wear in case St. Marks square was under water (our Venetian landlady's suggestion).We had weighed our luggage because our flight was a budget flight and charged for anything that wasn't carry on. What could go wrong?
We landed in Venice airport at about nine in the evening, took a bus to the Vaporetto and set off down the Grand Canal. It was, in a word, enchanting. Christmas lights were everywhere, festooning the beautiful Renaissance buildings and making glittering reflections in the dark ripples of our passage. We disembarked at Piazza San Marco and there things began to go awry. Our landlady had assured us that she lived 'right off St. Mark's square' but right off the large echoing and empty square was a maze of little streets and alleys. My ever resourceful wife found the telephone number and called. No answer. We looked at each other with the intention to kill the first one to mention Paris, and my wife punched in the number for the third time. Success! 'I was upstairs and couldn't get to the phone,' our host apologised. In minutes she appeared and guided us to the residence. It was indeed just off St. Marks (you could see the bell tower of the Basilica out of our window) but we would never have found it unaided.
Lest you anticipate a chronicle of amusing disasters, however, that was the sole problem we encountered. Venice was for us as she was called in ages past La Serenissima, The Most Serene . This in spite of the pods of tourists with their cameras up on selfie-stilts.
We went to the old Jewish Ghetto and marveled at the contrast between a plain and somewhat decrepit exterior with only the round-topped windows to mark the fact that a building was in fact a Temple, and the sumptuous interior that looked as if it had been built by a firm of Venetian theater designers. We found out that this last was no more than the truth.
We took a Vaporetto ride to the nearby island of Burano, where every house is a different brilliant color, in order, we were told, that local fishermen could find their house after a night of heavy drinking.
We went to hear a string quartet play Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' in the same hall where the composer himself had first directed it. It was, I have to say, nothing at all like the muzak version you hear every time you are put on hold. It was brilliant, coruscating, and incredibly fast, conjuring up visions of the sun glittering on the waters of the Grand Canal.
And we just wandered in the less frequented areas of the city, the weather stayed fair and sunny, and finally it was Christmas eve and we joined the queue of people waiting to enter St. Marks Basilica for the midnight mass. We looked in despair at the length of the line- it stretched clear across the square which is about the size of a football field- but decided to stick it out. Miraculously, it seemed, we finally reached the head of the line, where a genial chap in a police uniform was doing crowd control. 'All full,' he announced, and we started to turn away. 'Wait!' he commanded, motioning in the direction of a side exit where a number of tourists were leaving, stowing their photographic gear. ' Who are those people?' we asked.
The policeman's English was minimal and at first he simply grinned broadly. 'They are wrong!' he said finally, motioning us toward the entrance.
Inside the cavernous main hall it was totally packed, true, but along the walls there were little shrines to this Saint or that and little marble benches. On the walls were TV screens showing the service in progress, which was in a sequence of various languages. It was the people who were interesting, at first. The majority were Italian, perhaps even Venetians, and it could be seen that for them this was a very intense and personal experience. I saw one young lady, oblivious to what was taking place up at the altar, who approached a nearby shrine and kissing her fingertips laid them on the feet of the robed image of the Saint. It was so dark that the ceiling far above was invisible, at first.
Then there appeared along the aisle in front a procession of white robed figures bearing a strange ceramic image of tiny child, life size and glazed a rich brown unless that was the effect of extreme antiquity. They proceeded to the main altar and placed the image in a sort of rustic cradle, at which point the lights were turned on. The entire surface, walls and ceiling of that vast hall had been covered in gold leaf and the effect was indescribable.
Then came the end of the service. I should explain, yet again, that my wife is Jewish but mostly non-observant, and I am a long way from my Methodist upbringing. Never mind, we were both deeply affected. As everyone rose to leave, they turned to the person next to them, hugged or simply shook hands and wished them ' Buono Natale' . I found myself shaking hands with a surprised Carabinieri who patted me on the shoulder like a comrade.
That was Venice. We both agreed, my wife and I, that it is a long, long way from Paris.