As my semester here in Venice comes to a close this week, I realized I still haven’t done the one thing nearly everyone who visits gets a chance to do: ride in a gondola. But aside from the expense that’s kept me from indulging in on one of those wobbly boat rides, I think it’s also very characteristic of my relationship with Venice.
I feel that I’ve gotten to know Venice on an entirely different level than that of the gondolas and carnevale masks. Sure, I’ve done my fair share of touring here, but after spending four months in this place, I feel connected to far more than just the tourist attractions.
Here I am, writing this post a mere two days before I take off for the United States. I still remember the early days of the semester when I was stumbling through basic Italian interactions, getting lost on even the simplest journey through Venice and dreaming of all the places I’d go.
This semester has brought so many things into my life, many unexpected and quite difficult, but all were opportunities to learn. I remember one of our first challenges here – unclogging our apartment sink after cooking a “family” dinner. But soon the challenges grew more daunting: going gluten-free in perhaps the most gluten-reliant country on earth; processing the loss of my grandfather from thousands of miles away; creating an 80-page book from scratch in just a couple of short weeks. More recently, I scrapped my initial summer plans, landed two jobs in Boston and found an apartment sublet.
I think it’s safe to say, then, that I surprised myself with how much I learned and grew this past few months. Being in a completely new place and creating a life for myself taught me that life is just that – up to your own creation. It made me realize I had the power, if not the obligation, to shape the life I wanted. Here, that meant eating healthy, finding opportunities to speak Italian and balancing my classes with a good amount of weekend travel. Back home, that’s going to mean pursuing opportunities that truly excite me. It means making the most of my upcoming senior year of college. And all of this has made me realize that it matters little what others may want for you. What matter is what you want for yourself.
As weird as it may sound for those who know me, I didn’t anticipate how much I’d love being immersed in Italian culture. Growing up with Italian traditions my whole life, I sort of took it for granted. But it is truly a beautiful thing to be able to hear Italian echoing off the walls of my street in the morning. It is amazing to be living a life similar to that of my grandparents. I think that really hit me when I spent a week in Sicily. The unfortunate circumstances surrounding my grandfather’s passing left me alone in Sicily to stay with my great-aunts for a few days, which forced me to adapt, albeit briefly, to their way of life in every aspect. And it was magical. I felt a deeper connection to them in those few days then I ever did after 20 years of visits to their winter home in Queens, NY. There’s something special about the simple, spontaneous quality of life they have, and the closeness they share with their family. Not to mention, the endless amounts of Italian television they watch.
One of the most moving things about this semester, though, has been getting to know modern-day Venice and the many challenges it faces. Being an art history student, I had the opportunity to learn about Venetian history in the best way possible – through its art, which reveals not only its personality and its virtues, but also its anxieties. I learned even more about the latter when I decided to write a book about Venice’s delicate balance between tourists and citizens. In doing so, I became sensitive to the almost heartbreakingly long list of problems that threaten the city’s existence. That may sound drastic, but between environmental risks, a dwindling population and an urge for modernization, Venice’s fate remains quite uncertain.
As I prepare to leave this place for a while, I sincerely hope it retains its humanity, its charm and even its lagoon stench. Because I’ve realized what makes Venice so special is not simply the Piazza San Marco, the Rialto or the gondolas. No, it’s really about the people who developed a unique existence in cooperation with the tides and who are grappling, just like the rest of us, with the struggles of everyday life. Those people imbue the city with the charm, the art and the food – the very fabric of life that many of us here find intoxicating.
But as unique as Venice’s challenges may be, it’s not the only city with problems – in fact, every city has its struggles. All the traveling I’ve done this semester has inspired me to be less of a tourist and more of a global citizen. After all, the world and all its beautiful cities are not simply one giant DisneyLand for us to sail through on holiday. The world is a place full of people to meet, opportunities to learn and challenges to face.