Over Christmas break, I heeded the urgings of the younger set and promised them to watch what I was told is one of the best travel programs on television: Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. Last night, Bourdain was in Venice, a city I have written about on this blog, a city I visited for the first time this past summer. But Bourdain’s Venice is nothing like mine, so vast are the differences between his city and mine.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Bourdain’s lurking at the edges of cities; his unhealthy nictone habits; his cunning charms; his gusto for life and good, solid food; his occasional foul language; his roving eyes. All that is great, but could it be that all these things which have served him so well in the past are incongruous with the illusive, ambiguous, hazy Venice? I mean, it’s great to make food–its preparation, its consumption, its ingredients, its underside–the center of the episodes of No Reservations, but is there anyone who thinks about food in Venice? I am no connoisseur of Venetian cuisine, and I was on a limited budget this summer, but Venice–like Istanbul–is so intertwined with the surrounding water that sometimes I felt the earth trembling under my feet. Literally. The last thing on my mind was food.
Geography is the mother of everything Venetian. From this geography everything blossoms in such contradictory ways. Venice lyrical, Venice dramatic. Venice decaying, Venice alive. Venice illusive; Venice monumental. Venice visible; Venice shrouded.
And then there are the Venetians, of which Bourdain shows us only individuals, half of whom are Anglos who have made Venice home. But the Venice I was in this past summer was a gallery of very well and consciously dressed men and women, shuffling along the narrow streets but also strutting their very conspicuous attire across the great public squares, past the museums and churches, the palaces and concert halls. Venetians–that mixture of self-display and disdain; citizens of a city which makes them at once minor works of design but also narrows their vision, pushes their forehead downwards, makes them provincial, makes them look at your with hostility if you dare take their picture. So, with all this who cares about the food? And who cares about Murano lace when there is Torcello and its desolate beauty, as though it were abandoned by history? Who cares?
Anthony Bourdain, food may be that thing which connects us all to each other and makes many of your episodes so enjoyable (we join with you in a vicarious, virtual feast), but I bet you, in Venice, you can be in such a state of excitation that you will forget about food, about the three meals, about your stomach and its urges. Which is why so many artists have gone–and stayed–in Venice, and so many of them have died there, to the occasional contempt of the locals.
Venice is a mirage; it comes and goes; and then comes again. Ah, but that is a tall order–to tell Venice as she is or seems to be a particular moment, as she changes form and becomes something else, one century after another?