Point Alberoni, at the tip of the Venetian island of Lido, is the sort of place tourists don’t visit much. Even some Venetians have not been there. And at the very tip of Alberoni is a little shack at the edge of the waters, close to the lighthouse. It’s called Spaggia Libera. From its benches you can look out onto the open, “uncharted sea,” (John Fowels’ phrase) indifferent and oblivious to human troubles.
Spaggia Libera’s fortunes may be changing soon because according to Michele (pronounced Mikele), the owner, the shack will be on facebook. But until that happens and the tourists, mainly Eurotrash, start arriving from Venice, we have half a day to spend in Lido with my dear friend Sebouh Aslanian. A lover of Venice and visitor for extended periods of time, he assures me that Alberoni is not the sort of place where you can feed those opportunistic pigeons, or buy Murano glass made in China, or gawk at the beauty of the fading facades while getting a furtive glimpse of the splendor inside, or be charged double what the locals pay for second-rate pastry or pizza.
Venice is a ruse, a civilization built on flimsy foundations—of shifting waters, and high art but also high commerce; it silken population slips through your fingers but also has its nose to the ground, its gaze narrow– like the streets it walks. Venice is an explosion of color and shape, of cathedral and marketplace, of beauty that takes your breath away but also a inward-looking stubbornness—a conservatism, if you will—which makes you hunger for a smile, a sweet word, a polite expression. True, Venice—its waters and its landmasses, its bridges and canals, its paths and squares, its churches and museums, but most of all its squares– is the living room of the world (Napoleon said of St. Mark Square, “open air living room”), the theatre and masquerade of style and deception. Even its waters are two-faced, luring you, but also hemming you in, telling you what your place is in the larger (or narrower?) scheme of things Venetian, offering you a mode of transportation which for all its charms is so overpriced you thank your stars for your stubborn feet, your well-toned muscles and robust shoes, your love of the stone pathways and of walking, your devotion to the Paris metro.
But Venice distracts, as has this paragraph already. We were talking about Alberoni, you may recall. Venice is a glorious digression, a maze for the senses, each turn a trap of sorts, each square the holder of many, many pathways and departures and possibilities. With or without a map or a tour guide, Venice cannot be taken in bit by bit, in small increments. (Hell, it cannot be blogged, either!) It cannot be resisted nor tamed; but it can be surrendered to (even language cracks under it!). It can be cast aside—for a day or two, the promise of the return always implicit in the farewell, and with it, the beautiful web and weave of enchantment.
Getting (getting back?) to Alberoni: It is fraught with other obstacles because of the domineering presence on Lido of Grand Hotel de Baines where Aschenbach first glimpsed Tadzio, and the shore itself bearing the same name where seasoned inhabitants of Lido can be seen in casual and formal attire, riding their bicycles, pushing a grandchild’s car, or sitting on a bench talking in animated cadences, and always, always smoking. (The Hotel is undergoing structural repairs these days and is inaccessible to pedestrians. The beach is a narrow pathway which opens onto the cabins and the waters, a gentle breeze swaying on the surface of things, giving the entire scene grayish, melancholic luster.)
We have arrived at Spagia Libera after a long walk along the beach, our only guide a Venetian flag in the distance. It is sunset, and the world—and we—seems utterly at peace, the extreme point of our day, the walking, the conversation, the rests, the hydrations. We have arrived at a point which is as vernacular as it is unimpressive, as hidden as it is vibrant with benches and chairs colored in red and blue and orange, a simple stand offering juice and beer and coffee, and lots of native vegetation planted in small, old pots and a handful of bird cages. “This is the extreme point of what was left of the old hippies ,” says Sebouh. He pauses and then continues. “The hippies who still come here with their hemp skirts and tattooed asses.” Just ahead of us on the sand is a makeshift billboard which displays a crude anti-war message. Michele tells us that the wasp-like creatures that seem to buzz with such energy and in such abundance are “pacifists” and that we should not worry about being bitten by them.
Until only a few years ago, the music which graced this place was the sound-track of the movie, Buena Vista Social Club. Day in a day out during these summer months. Today, it is an Italian and throaty song by Finicio Composella which speaks of life slipping away, life slipping away: sci volla, sci volla, sci volla goes the refrain.
But if this is how life slips away, you say, then so be it, for there is nothing as restful, as utterly and plainly complete as this moment, the canned lemonade included. If approach is far more important than destination, then this approach is the stuff of renewal, rebirth.
We had begun at the kiosecheto on Zaattere, where we again whiled away an entirely respectable morning sitting by the Giudecha (sp?) Canal and drinking several shakeratos.
Then, we had made our way to St. Mark Square and hopped onto a vaporetto for a half-hour ride to Lido. Then, and after our unconsummated visit to Grand Hotel des Bains, we had headed back to the center of the island to catch the bus to the Alberoni. Winding through lush greenery, the bus had dropped us off near the shore, and we had walked for some forty minutes to the shack under the searing sun, the water to our left, the lighthouse ahead of us in the distance, and the red and orange flag of Venice our guide.
And now we are here; we have arrived. After a long day of conversations, silences, restful hydrations, even a few dance steps here and there, we have arrived to this spot where the world stands still, where Michele is a man content, listening to a song about life slipping by, where thinking itself takes a strange turn. Away from the color and texture and bustle of Venice, we can begin to see it with new eyes, learn its lessons with renewed vigor.
Yes, one life is simply not enough; one has to live, to will to live, several lives. More: If we are obligated to live more than one life, to invent and acquire and develop more than one face, more than one destination, more than one turn of the crooked, uneven, unknown path, then we must also accept all the persons within our one person, all the characters—masked and hidden as they may be—who make up our psychological living rooms and our public squares.
Venice: we head back by the crooked path of our footsteps, then the bus, then the vaporetto, toward Venice. The night which welcomes us is grey and transparent, the sky and the water intertwined in a common, silken fabric. Approach, approach, approach. It makes no difference where you’re headed—up the steps of the St. Michel metro in Paris, or the ridge of the Nabatean town of Petra, or the bus ride to Jerusalem, approach is anticipation, strangeness, trepidation all rolled me into one.
The entire scene is one of light, the facades somehow made more vibrant by the gradual fall of darkness, and we, passengers for all our little disgruntlements about Venice, full of excitation to be returning, the entire afternoon a circle, which has now brought us back to where we had begun, departure and arrival meeting at an unreliable point from which these two journeys—one away from and the other back to—have sprung. That point of contact between land mass and flowing water, that encounter between Aschenbach and Tadzio, between the aged and the young, that border which is not a border really but a mirage, an illusion we try to live by, sometimes adequately, often unsuccessfully, always with endurance which John Berger calls the “cruel gift of age.” That point of stasis which even Alberoni cannot give us.
Life slips away, life slips away: the sadness of departure; the exhilaration of new encounters, of new glances on old things, of new masks to cover old faces; the certainty of return, and the glimpse of delicate chandeliers behind the facades of old Venetian homes that sit so tentatively on the waters, and an elderly man, reclining in a chair, reading. And in the midst of this unending vortex of human activity, we–those little passengers on the waters of Venice, devising lives, opening our interior living rooms to the world’s visitors, even if they are wretched tourists who come and go, people with hackneyed, half-blind eyes and thickened skins and scabs. And the hope, always the hope, of a breakthrough, of something utterly unprecedented, utterly strange and therefore beautiful and memorable coming out of nowhere to catch us in the act almost unaware.
How to capture this kind of happiness? This happiness which is not happiness but something else, something deeper, more powerful? How to “contain” it? How to not be swayed by it but to live in its light, in its colors, in its presence?