the city of islands: death by tourism?

Venezia is a city composed of tiny islands. 120 of them, spanned by 400 bridges. Wooden or stone, humble or showy, everywhere bridges. Every time you cross a bridge you step onto a new island. 

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Long ago, these borders determined micro-communities, islands like tribes. People didn’t know their neighbors across the water. The communities were self-sufficient, each served by its own church. This explains why Venice is absolutely frothing with churches–from modest works of brick to candy-cane-striped Venetian gothic facades to the grand onion domes of the basilica–quite literally sinking under the weight of all that glory. 

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In addition to heaviness and high water, it seems Venice faces another, more insidious threat: death by tourism. 

Today, when you cross a bridge, you step foot upon layers of history and human invention. Your shoes touch the worn-smooth stone of another cobbled island atop layers of foundation atop sturdy wooden piles shoved into the cold mud of a lagoon in the Adriatic sea. Improbable. And it fascinates. Surrounded by teal water and nautical chaos–daily deliveries made by worn motor boats, the glide of gondolas under canal bridges–I feel fairy-tale free. Venice feels like a place of no rules–new rules–a place where animals could talk, time could stop. A stooped man plays the viola on a corner overlooking the frenzy of the Grand Canal, music so beautiful it sounds like a gift. Many times I abandon my plan in favor of sitting to savor a scene, a sound. 

Yet. Competing with this beauty is the kind of tourism that drowns a place. Cross a bridge today and there is more of the same: not just the aperol spritzes and jewel-toned gelato, but more junk. There are vendors selling cheap plastic selfie sticks, cheap plastic everything, mass-produced “paintings,” “designer” bags…whole categories that must be put in quotation marks. There are aprons with pictures of Leonardo’s David (who does not reside in Venice, last time I checked); there are tee-shirts with the Mona Lisa. There are restaurants whose menus read like a list of obligatory “Italian” specialties. There are aggressive salesmen and signs in ten languages.

On some streets, it doesn’t feel much like Venice, or Italy, or anywhere. It feels like a whole new world: the land of globalization. You could be in Paris or New York. You could be in an aggressively-peopled dollar store. You know it’s Venice, though, because these stores and stands and hats and handbags and posters and magnets and towels and water bottles and keychains tell you so: VENICE, no beating around the bush. Look a little closer, though, and ah, there it is: made in China. 

Nothing revolutionary: this is the price to pay, you may argue, for popularity. This is 21st-century travel.

Venice, though, is no New York or Paris. It is infinitely smaller and much more delicate. The majority of Venice’s 30 million yearly visitors flood the city for less than twenty-four hours.  

This approach to Venice–a whirlwind tour like a day at Disney–hurts Venetian businesses, culture, and citizens: of whom there are only 50,000. Venice sees about that many visitors every day. The exponential growth of tourism in the area means that everyday businesses like grocers and bookstores are closing, priced out by more and more souvenir shops. It’s an expensive city to visit–and to live. But the city is working towards a solution, promoting detourism: a campaign aimed at teaching visitors how to “go beyond the usual tourist sights, stumble upon unique experiences and see Venice with new eyes.”

Victor and I took a free walking tour that is part of the campaign to #enjoyrespectvenezia.

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The website explains: Venice Free Walking Tour is for those who want to see and know more than the 90% of people visiting Venice will see. Venice Free Walking Tour is for Travellers, not for tourists

Our guide was Elena, Italian, in her late twenties with red hair and glasses, all charm and energy. She introduced herself, telling us she studied literature and history and languages. Victor nudged me: I think you found a new friend. I was thinking the same thing. Her passion about Venice, both its past and its unknowable future, had me intrigued, leaning forward and writing down most of what she said. She had moved to Venice temporarily, she told us–for studies–but plans changed when she fell in love (with the city and one of its residents). 

She told us many dreamy details of Venice. There were stories of Venice’s cemetery island (hosting the graves of Ezra Pound and Stravinsky). We passed a grand old building with frescos on the walls that now holds a basketball court, because the city didn’t know what else to do with the space. She told us about a small grocery store in a marble-floored theater. We talked St. Mark and chiaroscuro and what those symbols on the ground meant– little letters everywhere; codes for city engineers.

I am saddened by the touristic tendency to consume a place: to bury it under cheap knickknacks, to aggressively photograph it, to patronize only that which is obvious, to leave none the wiser.

But, if this initiative is any indication: there is hope.

At the end of the tour, we were given a map marked with recommendations for bars, restaurants, shops, and more, so even the most casual tourist-traveler could get a real taste of Venice. Elena told us what to look for, what to order.

We left hungry and found one of the restaurants on the list, where we shared a plate of nero di seppie: cuttlefish cooked in its ink. The dish had a delicate, complex umami flavor and was a deep black that stained our mouths. Accompanied by bright-orange aperol and a caprese salad, the spread was a visual treat, and the meal marks one of my favorite moments in Venice with my chéri: happy with a cold cocktail after a day of sun, alight with new perspectives and ideas.

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A lazy Saturday afternoon, some gypsy jazz, and flowing champagne. Taylor and I stand in la Chope des Puces, a tiny, ancient jazz club in Saint-Ouen in Paris’s 18th arrondissement. We are crammed against the wooden bar, standing-room only. The bar isn’t packed but it’s tiny, and several families and couples have already claimed the tables and are enjoying late lunches or glasses of wine. On the walls, the guitars of jazz greats share space with black-and-white photographs of Django Reinhardt, the French jazz guitarist with the Dalí mustache.

Following his tradition, two men play gypsy jazz guitar in a corner at the front. I lack the ability to speak deftly of arpeggios or ostinatos, to grasp the logic of this skillful improvisation. I know only that this music sounds like Paris, golden-age Paris, and that it is frenzied and joyful and fills up the space.

I shout our order to the bartender, a statuesque gray-haired woman who looks like she’s seen it all. She hands us our frosty glasses of white wine and sets down a cheese plate. The heavy wooden board is crowded with soft triple-cream cheeses, sharp semi-hard cheeses, and a hunk of knife-sharp Roquefort. Scattered handfuls of fruit and nuts fill in the gaps. There is jam and butter and a basket of bread.

As we eat, I look around some more. The club is long and skinny and gives the curious impression of being slightly tilted, like someone picked up a shoebox diorama and shook it, scattering posters and paintings, rippling the tiled floor.

I notice one man in his forties. It’s hard not to: he’s wearing dark sunglasses and a snazzy silk button-down, dancing and snapping his fingers and exchanging cheek kisses with everyone he sees. A loyal fan. He tips the musicians extravagantly between sets and keeps the wine coming, and he’s generous. I notice him holding up a dripping bottle of champagne, tipping it into the glasses of everyone nearby. I nudge my friend–”want some champagne? Hurry, finish your drink.”

I catch his eye (as much as is possible behind the dark sunglasses) and sure enough, he approaches. We shrug, laughing. Santé ! He orders another bottle for the room.

A few seats open up and we share a table with an older woman wearing a bright turban. She has her dancing shoes on and she twirls and shimmies in slow circles as the men play. When they take a break, she leans over the table, and tells me in French how this is her kind of exercise, this is what keeps her young. She has a constant contented smile and a look in her eyes like a Christmas character: “a twinkle in her eye” is the phrase that springs to mind.

Taylor, my friend from childhood, is visiting Paris for the first time. Though she’s new to the French language, she’s been ordering for herself in restaurants and bars and her accent is great. I rarely need to step in for simple interactions. She wonders if the musicians know a song that she likes, so I tell her to ask, pronouncing for her the conjugation of the verb “to know.” She does and they do.

We leave a big tip and say goodbye. I’m reluctant to go, but these melodies will dance in my head all day. We have a train to catch.

 

 

war & peace & confetti

My shoes were full of confetti. My purse was full of confetti. My bra was full of confetti.

My heart was simply full.

It was April, my second-to-last week teaching primary school English classes. Early that morning, I had sat waiting for my ride to school, dressed professionally but staring blearily at my hot lemon water, willing myself to wake up.

Bleep. A text from my ride, one of the teachers I work with. “Did you know that today’s le carnaval?”

First reaction: I don’t have to teach today!?

Second reaction: what is le carnaval?

She continued: “I’m worried you’ll be bored.”

Far from it. When I arrived at school I saw clowns, princesses, and ladybugs. Cats, ducks, pirates complete with eyeliner mustaches. A tiny boy from the youngest class wore a Spiderman suit, muscles included. As he walked he beat his fists on his artificial pecs.

I sat at the desks with my fifth-grade class, English class disrupted for the day, as the full-time teacher handed out bags of confetti. I was the only one not wearing a costume, much to the class’s dismay. “Sorry guys, I didn’t know!”

“Eh ben,” one of my sweet students said. “T’es déguisée comme prof d’anglais !” (You’re disguised as an English teacher!)

After a quick ten-minute French lesson about language registers (I won’t lie, I took some notes myself), class was dismissed. The kids started whispering, making plans. “Jessica, will you help us ambush le maître?”

Uh, sure. I didn’t know quite what this entailed, but they laughed wildly. It wasn’t until later that I heard the term bataille de confettis.

Confetti war. Okay, I could get down with that.

We lined up the kids outside, un petit défilé, a parade march into a nearby park. There were fountains, evergreens, and bright pink magnolia trees. Hidden around a few turns five minutes from the school, I’d never seen this park before.

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I followed the teachers, some dressed like clowns or birds or pirates, all of us trying to keep wayward little costumed people in line.

We stopped at a square where a Thursday morning market was taking place and crowded around a large, colorful character on a float. She was called Carmentrau, I found out later, the official personnage of the festival. img_1471

A group of cool-looking guys in blazers and jeans played dance-worthy tunes in a brass quintet. The kids buzzed with excitement.

If there was an official directive to start throwing confetti, I missed it, but after my first face-full, the battle was on.

Students approached me slowly, with a gleam in their eye, as if I had any doubt that they were about to shower me in colored paper. I’m not a natural confetti warrior, I must confess. When I sensed an attack was imminent, I tended to shout oh lala ! which just gave me a mouthful of paper.

It wasn’t just children, either.

Le maître of fifth grade, who bears a resemblance to Dennis Quaid with his handsome paternal charm, who rides to school on his motorcycle and who commands respect from his class without ever raising his voice, grinned as he tossed handfuls of confetti into the air…or into the faces of students, colleagues, and passersby alike.

After a while, the band lined up kids to start another parade. They marched around the market three or four times, following the joyful flatulence of the tuba. img_1470

They marched around the farm eggs and the herbs in pots, the flowers and the salmon packed on ice. Mostly around. One child stepped–splaton a tomato plant ripe with fruit.

Kids–or monkeys, witches, and Batmen–starting scooping up fallen confetti, and with it, handfuls of gravel. That was about the time we headed back, just in time for recess.

I still had no idea what this festival was, so I went to chat with the directeur, who told me that this school event marked the beginning of the Bœuf Villé, Montluçon’s version of le carnaval that takes place all over France in late winter. Le Bœuf Villé isn’t just a small-town interpretation of the famous Niçoise fête, though. It’s actually unique to Montluçon.

Bœuf Villé takes place at the end of Lent, instead of before it. The name of the central character, Carmentrau, is a patois of the words carême (Lent) and entrant, so that she represents winter and the entering into Fast. The goal of this festival is to chasser l’hiver, faire renaître le printemps: to chase away winter and to welcome the rebirth of spring.

We hunt winter by hunting the poor Carmentrau, who is “caught” by the children on Wednesday, paraded around the town for several days, and finally burnt at a ritual crémation by characters who represent life. Her ashes are then sprinkled in the Cher river. img_0957

I was puzzled by the bœuf connection until I learned that the end of Lent was traditionally celebrated by eating a big meal featuring beef, a food prohibited during the fast. Montluçonnais today, then, celebrate the return of spring with a community meal of the no longer “forbidden” food.

Interestingly, the word carnaval is itself connected to meat. Since cows would be killed as a sacrifice to mark the end of Lent, carne comes from the Latin caro meaning “flesh” or “meat,” and carnaval, then, means “to God the meat.”

I went home for lunch, shaking confetti out of my hair, my scarf, my oxfords. I felt cheered by the music, the laughter, the joyful silliness of the morning, all of it unexpected.

Later in the week I would see the culmination of the Bœuf Villé, this crémation of Carmentrau, at a city-wide festival where I saw dozens of my students.

It was a beautiful day to wish winter away as we stood under la sourire du soleil (the smile of the sun) and watched Carmentrau burn. img_1473img_1472 img_1474

Goodbye to winter, to Montluçon, to these students who are dear to me, to a strange, dark, cloudy season that gave me occasional glimpses of great joy.

 

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.