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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all lit up: la fête des lumières

Last month Mary and I (and several million of our closest friends) went to Lyon for La Fête des Lumières.

We took a train (well, an autocar and two trains) to get to Lyon, and popping out of the Part Dieu metro and up into the city on a sunny Saturday, I realized I knew exactly where I was.

In college I spent a summer in Lyon studying French. Those few months represented a lot of firsts: first time flying alone, first time going to a foreign country to live with strangers, first time drinking wine and going out…oh, and my first time speaking French in France. louis-xiv

The trip gave me so many new experiences and several good friends. When I look at my sun-kissed pictures from that summer, that’s what I remember. There we are eating paella in Marseille, swimming in the Mediterranean, walking through lavender fields in Provence, climbing the winding steps of the Notre Dame.

But the reality was more complicated, filled with the kind of stuff you don’t take pictures of. There was a lot of getting lost, embarrassing moments, red cheeks, unintended offenses, and vows to never leave the house again. There were a lot of headaches, something that happens when it takes extreme concentration to follow a simple dinner table conversation. There were some tears. Oh, and a sinus infection.

So, despite les belles experiences, of which there were many, I never felt quite à l’aise (at ease, comfortable) in France or in Lyon.

It took some time, but I no longer feel like France is out to get me, so it was satisfying to be back in Lyon with French fluency, confidence, and an evolved sense of direction.

We walked from the Part Dieu to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, where I remembered Stephanie and I having picnics in the grass after class, me falling asleep in the sun reading Anna Karenina. We passed the lake where Florent and I would feed stale baguettes to the ducks and geese.

As we approached the rivers, all I could think about was how beautiful it was. How had I lived among this and not gaped at the beauty of the bright-colored buildings along the Saone, or the splendor of the Basilique de Fourvière jutting out high above the city?

I then remembered that I had. But I’d become accustomed, as one does to both beauty and hardship. C’est normal.  lyon-saoneimg_5347

The time away gave me the chance to see Lyon’s beauty anew, since my current “normal” is a small sleepy town; riding a bike by the light of the moon should I decide to participate in nightlife.

Throughout the weekend Mary and I played tourist, standing in lines for brioche aux pralines from a well-known boulangerie, talking at length with artists selling work along the river, hiking up to Fourvière for the view, eating quenelles in a cozy bouchon.

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But the main attraction, bien sûr, was Saturday after dark. It was the third and final night of the festival of lights, and the city was lit up like a fairytale world. Buildings glowed along the river, and cathedrals, bridges, train stations, and more were completely transformed by color and sound.
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There were over 41 light installations, little shows that played on a loop from 8 pm to midnight. There was a dreamy short film projected onto a ferris wheel, dancing robots, dinosaurs, lanterns, and a virtual sun rising and setting on the hill high above the city. Some of the pieces seemed to provide a kind of cultural commentary, some of them just seemed fun.

All together, the effect was that of a surrealist dreamworld, of getting swept away by neon lights, beautiful music, twinkling bridges.lyon-fete-nuit

Unfortunately, that also meant getting swept along by the crowds: the several million people I mentioned earlier. Lyon is one of France’s bigger cities, but typically feels quaint and cozy compared to Paris. Both population and tourist-wise, Lyon doesn’t come close to Paris. Except, I learned, during this festival.

We stood miserably pressed together, able to take a step or two every minute or so. I couldn’t help but think of the times I had a whole square or a whole street nearly to myself. The upside? All that body heat made the low temps a little more bearable.

It wasn’t so bad for the majority of the installations, where you were free to walk around as you pleased, but this was the “line” for perhaps the most popular installation: the projections on the front of the Cathédrale St. Jean, a work called Evolutions.

Happily, it was worth the wait. It’s fair to say it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen: bright 3D lights transforming an ancient cathedral into a moving piece of art. There were falling leaves and breaking glass, lace and waves, all accompanied by a futuristic instrumental piece that sounded like something by STRFKR. The anachronism between this structure, in the middle of the vieux part of a city deemed a UNESCO world heritage site, and the weird and wonderful things now happening on its surface, was a delight to see. There was even a point where the artist made the cathedral seem to “short out” and flicker off, like it was a TV station with bad reception. Such a playful way to question perception.

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It was hypnotizing and beautiful. I stared, transfixed, and watched the show twice.