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Venice: reformed preconceptions of the gondola.

Venice

Reformed preconceptions of the gondola

Sunlight perforated the glass walls of Santa Lucia train station and spread its rays over the glossy marble floor. Pigeons flapped their wings frantically at the sight of a herd of humans that had just disembarked the 6 am train. I happened to be among the crowd to hop off the carriage and send the birds flying through the main door, into the warm daylight of the romantic city. Venice was awake and the dust particles floating against the early morning glare were a reminder that a new day had begun.

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To come to the "city of canals" had never been a dream of mine. In my travels, I had always aimed to avoid conventional touristic cities, albeit I understood they probably got to be well-known for positive reasons. My thought was that it would be more difficult to find myself in an intriguing situation if the nooks and crannies of the place had already been described by almost every guidebook on the planet. But with Venice it was different; it felt like there were inherent motives for me to be there.

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I followed the pigeons outside and slowly glanced at my surroundings on the way to the main door. Beams of light moved along the solid stone floor and vaporized the coolness captivated overnight; concrete walls and ceilings had their contemporary shapes enhanced by the morning glow, contrasting with the predominantly Gothic architecture beyond the station’s doors. As I stepped outside, a gentle breeze stroke my skin, counterbalancing the warmer temperature emitted by the sun. My vision was dazed and my hearing struggled to digest the variety of noises previously muffled by the walls of the train station. I considered going to the tourism office and getting a city map, but instinct made me refrain from the idea and head over a bridge, directly into the heart of the city. The maze-like streets and alleys presented on the other side of the embankment confirmed my intuition's advice against relying on a map. I'd need more than an organised drawing to find my way in such disarray.

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It was summertime and the early morning temperatures increased rapidly as the longest clock-hand moved towards decimal figures. The continuous drops of sweat on my forehead were a proof of such alterations, as was my desire for an ice-cream. Guided by the need to re-establish a balance of my bodily temperatures – together with a wish to see a serener version of the city – I sought shaded alleys over open squares, quiet corners instead of shop-filled pathways. Contrary to my preconceptions, there was quietude to be found in Venice, you only had to look for it.

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Amidst busy lanes and crowded squares, I found tunnels of unclothed bricks, charming wooden bridges and apartment windows with flowers hanging over the edge – seemingly working as an air purifier between street and room. Most colors ranged from pastel orange to concrete gray, all of which intended not to distress the eyes. The architectural resplendence left by the ancient Venetian people was brightened once the dust from the busiest part of the center dissipated into little, airy lanes. I followed the silence and aimed to find where the locals lived, shopped for fresh produce, and drank their coffee. I was also looking for the soft beams of light that found their way through the old constructions, enlivening both the color of the canals and the texture of the deteriorating walls.

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Eventually, the roaming led me to a big open square, filled with restaurants, cafes, sounds, and sunlight. The Piazza San Marco perpetuated what seemed like the essence of Venice: a place of encounters, changes, and prosperity. It was interesting – yet ironic – to witness clear signs of struggle in a city that throughout its history had been a major financial and maritime power, resisting wars and revolutions but not the current issue with erosion; hosting important artistic movements throughout the Renaissance period but grappling with the impacts of a constant flow of tourists. It was in places like Piazza San Marco that all else vanished and the energy of people merged with the magic in the air, invigorating everything and everyone.

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Inspired by the vitality of the square, I sat on a curb with ice-cream in hand, eating frantically to avoid drops on my lap. Every time the sheer taste of cold vanilla hit my tongue I was enveloped by a calm and light sensation. As the cream drowned under the inner edges of the crispy cone, I felt safer to worry less about my hands getting dirty and more about what was happening around me. Against the sun's will, I squinted my eyes and scanned around for any scene that had a particularly funny or deeply mundane feel to it.

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My eyes found an old man with a long beard and mafia-like hat balancing an unlit cigarette in his mouth. They glanced over a half-bald suited figure, holding a newspaper in the commonest of ways, concentrated in what the words had to say. They sighted a businessman taking notes in yoga-like arm motions; a restaurant waiter cutting his nails and a violinist profoundly playing his instrument. They also spotted carefully-placed bricks, the famous Venetian masks, and magazine kiosks with Photoshopped post-cards that would hopefully use the buyer as a medium to continuously advertise the city and its landmarks.

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Once my bodily temperature began to rise, I got up and carried on along the quiet and shaded areas of the city. Yet, I felt a change in the way I perceived the city – a shift in my modus operandi – as if that moment in the sun had set the ‘Venetian spell’ upon me. It wasn’t the architecture, or the canals, or even the people what gave Venice its charming air; it was the clash of it all. The vibrating energy produced by the wondrous looks of the people when contemplating the sheer beauty of the place. I began to appreciate the picturesque canals not by their color and translucency, but by their snake-like shape that cut the land into islets.

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In this transition of perception, I noticed the surprising amount of gondolas cruising the canals and was consequently exposed to the importance of their scullers. What is nowadays mostly a tourist attraction had previously been one of the main means of transportations in and out of that maze, which in time – with the prioritization of comfort and agility – was swapped by motor-boats, and would’ve already faced extinction if it wasn't for foreigners and their dream to float along the canals aboard the traditional Venetian craft. Such discernment helped me to see the other side of the tourist-city relationship, slowly easing my general prejudice over conventional touristic cities.

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The same hands and feet that litter the canals and crowd the streets are the ones to pay the sculler for a ride, who then goes home after a days work to feed his family and hopefully provide a prosperous future to his children. This abrupt noesis kicked me in the chest and sent me right back to my arrival at the train station earlier that day, when all I could see was my narrow and predetermined idea of the city, and my unsound connotation of the effects of tourism.

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It was by staring at the city's most iconic object, the gondola, that I realized how and why Venice had been undergoing so many challenges and changes in its geography, economy, and demography, but remained almost untouched culturally. Through my reformed preconceptions of the gondola it became clear that perhaps a travel destination shouldn’t be evaluated by how much it has been discussed on travel blogs or featured on pocket-guides, but by how well it keeps tradition in harmony with development.  


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Topographic over political

Topographic over political

I have reached a fork in the road. An immigration officer holds a stamp and examines both my face and passport, about to make a decision that will redirect my life. I have crossed the Estonian border without interrogation, but they seem to be rather fastidious on the Russian side of the gate. As I try to maintain a confident expression, I realize that the outcome of this situation is the least bit up to my discretion. Ironically, the choice is bestowed upon the man in navy-blue uniform, sitting inside the acrylic booth with a distrustful look on his face. He poses a series of questions in a language I don’t understand, and which – together with impatient stares coming from the people who wait in line, eager to get back on the bus – makes me increasingly apprehensive. But as dissimilar as we may be, I feel a sort of kinship towards him, understanding that apart from his official post and my wretched passport photo, we aren’t a whole lot different. Without a legitimate reason to refuse my entry, he stamps my documents and reluctantly signals for me to pass. I walk through the glass door, into the freezing temperature outside. I’m officially in Russia but the feeling of apprehension still lingers inside me. Suddenly, the concept of borders feels like an absurd, slightly revolting idea.

The significance of having arrived in a different country lies more in the sensations that emerge from the physical, psychological, and spiritual transitions than in the act of crossing an imaginary line, or getting a booklet stamped. For a moment, our senses are attuned and where we are becomes trivial. Gravity feels dubious and it’s the weight over prospects of novel experiences that keep our feet on the ground. Despite an almost mystic excitement for what lays ahead, we unconsciously cling to plastic aspects of the transition: the new legislation, currency conversion, time difference, visa expiry date. Nowadays, the word ‘border’ bears more negative connotations than positive ones. It is mostly seen as division, rather than union, with the colorful and democratized structure of modern-day cartography bearing clear evidence to this construct.

To stare at a topographic map over the regular political model seems both more interesting and reasonable. The lines that once blindly guided our eyes along the edges of a given country suddenly vanish, allowing for gradients and textures to create a much more sympathetic conception of the planet: enhancing altitudes instead of naming capitals; portraying vast plains as opposed to sectioning an environment into territories. The vicinity of a border represents a fusion of cultures and peoples, suggesting that transitions between regions aren’t so abrupt as the lines of a political map indicate. And such could be our view of each other: topographic over political; faded textures merging, rather than lines dividing.

But it seems like our never-ending need for definitions – a human characteristic that uses the rational to explain the intuitive – has also somehow contaminated the general concept of where a place becomes “another place”. This system of lines and colors on a map – of nationalities and anthems with people – is the way we found to organize ourselves and “our” land. A practical, comprehensible, and almost innate approach designed for harmonious coexistence but which turns into a hazard if it mutates into generalization. We have increasingly learned to acknowledge (even if unconsciously) an individual as belonging to a certain area, bringing forth assumptions on behavior and characteristics; giving him or her a title without their consent. “Russians drink vodka”, “Brazilians are great at football”,“a Japanese that doesn’t eat sushi?!”; “Germans are always on time”; “Italians are the Jedi of pizza”. Such widely accepted abstractions are caused by a “line-induced means of organization”, among other things. Albeit there are clear vestiges embedded in us by our homeland – in scopes like languages and traditions – when conversing with someone who bears an unfamiliar passport, it becomes clear that where we come from only dictates so much of who we are.

Our ability to define is treacherous, even if necessary. There is an urgency to question this political pattern of human interactions and move closer to topographic connections, in order to establish more meaningful – as well as fair – relationships. By breaking through the concrete aspect of the term ‘border’ we may indulge in its true significance; by placing a monochrome filter in a multi-colored map we can translate division into union. Everyone who has shared a drink, a smile, a stare, or a handshake with someone other than a fellow countryman has noticed that no type of border can delineate sheer, human integrity. A political view of the world makes us feel like to arrive in a different country means to step into a new world, when in fact it represents a different angle of our own, ever so vivid reality. After all, the world keeps spinning regardless our point of origin, and it will keep spinning at the same rate in our next destination.