first impressions of an upside-down forest: venice by vaporetto

Venice: the setting of sights that will haunt my daydreams for a long time.

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Not the city that never sleeps (it does), maybe it’s the city that’s never still. Built on the water, Venice sloshes, splashes, seems to breathe. Venice is sinking. Venice has always been improbable.

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The city was built by driving wooden piles, millions of them, deep down into the lagoon. It would be a moat of a city, safe from attackers. On top came a brick and stone base, the setting for the brilliant palaces and wide piazzas of the future. Entombed in mud from 1500 AD, the wood was safe from the deteriorating effects of oxygen and is solid still. This gives rise to the first fairy-tale metaphor: Venice is an upside-down forest.

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On the bottoms of buildings today there is a white crust of salt, souvenir of acqua alta, high water, reminder of the ever-present threat of flooding and the likelihood that Venice will one day be swallowed by the Adriatic Sea.

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When flooding arrives, certainly a matter of when, raised boards are laid down along walkways. Residents don rubber boots. Shopkeepers scramble to move items from low shelves.

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In Venice you must work with the water (and isn’t that always how it goes? Water, at once so innocent and furious. Can’t do without it if we wanted to; hard to change its mind). The casual visitor takes a vaporetto, or water bus, to navigate the Grand Canal. Attendants work quickly, throwing heavy ropes into thick knots on the dock. Attenzione ! Attenzione ! 

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Like a bus or metro, this is a purposeful ride, a no-nonsense means of transport, but I’d like to stay on this boat all day. Everywhere I look is something unusual, impossible, unlikely.

There are two carved hands rising out of the canal. Giant, elegant, they reach for a nearby building. They birth thoughts about what might be lurking under the teal water.

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Small boats dodge each other to make the morning deliveries. One is packed full with potted white lilies. Another holds orange soda and bottled water. In another–perhaps destined for a market somewhere–delicate green herbs.

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I glimpse a rose garden overlooking the water, walls of crumbling brick, just space enough for the two wrought iron chairs filled by two friends having breakfast.

There is a couple, elegantly dressed, stepping gingerly from their hotel directly into a boat. He extends his hand, she brushes off her pantsuit, they are off somewhere.

There is the sudden spectacle–could this ever be prosaic?–of an isolated church rising from the lagoon, its own island.

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automne malade

Automne malade et adoré. 

It’s the first line of a poem I love. Apollinaire describes autumn as “sick and loved,” lonely and liminal. He writes:

“how I love this season, its murmurs; the fruits that fall with no one to gather them; the wind and the forest crying all their tears in autumn, leaf by leaf”

(my loose translation/interpretation)

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Every year I have lived in a place where fall takes over the wind, trees and air, as if by magic, and here in central France it’s no different. I watch with the joy of a child: pure exhilaration as the world explodes in color and light.

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But it has always been a complicated season for me. It’s a dying season, an annual reminder of change and mortality. It is limited, transitional: unlike summer, it’s impossible to lose myself in the illusion that these days will last forever.

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Mixed with my delight in the bright new reds and brilliant golds is a sense of dread. I fear that constant cloud cover that seems to sit on my very soul. It’s here now. The days are short and the light is gray, no discernible change between 8 am, noon, 3 pm…it’s only just before 6 that the gray changes to black. Every year around this time I find myself reading bleak dystopian novels and wondering how the days can drag on but pass so quickly à la fois. 

I thrive on excitement, newness, sunlight. This time of year: weeks built for existential poetry, for hiding under the covers–brings an agonizing pause.

It feels wrong sometimes, this slowing pace of la vie quotidienne, but it is natural, good. I’d do well to remember that, and I try.

I look for little things: surprise sunsets on my walk to work, the contrast of red roses and dead leaves, spiderwebs holding dew. The strange, stark beauty of bare trees who have wept away their leaves.

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I burn crème de marron candles and make soup and go on heart-pounding runs, returning just as the sun sets. I watch French movies with my brilliant roommate and order (regrettable) foie gras pizzas.

I savor autumn even as I dread what it brings. It’s malade, adoré. It’s temporary, I remind myself. Just like anything else.

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