It's the rain and the tides which flood into the Piazza San Marco like Ophelia's drowning waters, soaking the city's shifting foundations like her dress.
One moment, the sky is gray, the wide square bustling with tourists with tripods. Chairs are tucked in neatly at cafe tables where tuxedoed musicians squeeze out bittersweet melodies to make one forget the exorbitant prices paid for the ambience. The next moment, with what seems like merely a splash of rain, the image of the Basilica is now reflected in water that comes up to one's shins. The north side of the square seems to be filling up more quickly, but the scene is so unlikely it feels like the ground could begin to tilt the other way.
We run from the center like billiard balls sliding into the pockets of the stone archways. Suddenly the smart tourists have shod themselves with colorful plastic overshoes and rain ponchos and are splashing and stomping in the square where gentlemen once strode with walking canes and top hats. Ducks float where Venetian Doges in long robes must also have glided. Thin wooden planks on stilts appear as if by magic, and those of us who forgot our overshoes clamor aboard and shuffle slowly in a long, sad line of umbrellas and soaked paper shopping bags.
Soon the waters should permanently recede. The Commune of Venice has almost completed a massive flood barrier project that should keep the high waters at bay. Ophelia will wake from her reverie and drag herself to dry land, subverting fate.
When the high waters no longer eat away at her foundations, will Venice live? Are her history and beauty grand enough to survive the daily crush of tourists stepping on her bones. Does she welcome us, the watchers and gawkers or does she fight back with fetid, reeking canals and moldy black steps?
On a gondola ride down one of those slim waterways between palazzos' ancient front doors, we see a woman in high heels lying on her side, draped on a set of stairs leading directly into the water. Two men lean over her. As we glide by we look closer at the odd figures and see that her ankles are twisted grotesquely and bright red blood pools on one of the steps. A street vendor and a policeman comfort her, and soon we hear the splash and wailing siren of a water ambulance coming for her. Had the waters beckoned her? What had lead her down those stairs to nowhere?
"Watch out for the black steps," the gondolier warns.
Each day, we look out on the lagoon and its choppy waters. Its tethered gondolas bob, and its gray-pink domes melt into a pastel sky. Then, a massive cruise ship appears like a sideways Vegas hotel being pulled slowly to port in order to disgorge its tourists for the afternoon. The huge form blots out the modest lines of the lagoon like a watercolor being held in the rain.
With so little time, the tourists are in a frenzy, and they run greedy through the city, piling into gondolas even though they can barely see out from underneath their competing umbrellas. The gondoliers might be the only Venetians they meet.
This is not surprising considering there are only 60,000 permanent residents in the city of Venice and millions of tourists per year. We utterly eclipse the contemporary life of the city even as we do our part to keep its history alive, just like the gigantic cruise ship in the lagoon. What must modern Venetians think of us taking up so much space in their small, but magnificent city?
And these particular pilgrims are hungry. The restaurant is down a narrow street, and yes, they have room for two. We pass a grand front room that embodies the fading opulence of many Venice establishments. A small dog snarls from underneath a table covered with a tasseled cloth. We follow the host out a door, through an alley, past another anteroom where a shimmering display of fish, vegetables and fruit bulges, and into a back room, which is packed full of garrulous, poncho-ed tourists.
It is plain that there is a room for regulars, who will eat gazing at the beautiful display of fish and produce, and a room for the rest of us. The host had not asked, "Would you like to sit in the Tourist or Non-Tourist room?"
So, we take matters into our own hands: "Do you mind if we sit in the first room?" The host genially fills our request and we back away from our quarantined peers. We are seated directly in front of the figs, which we notice are being slowly picked off by a well-dressed woman in her later years who walks by the display half a dozen times in order to swipe the delicious fruit.
Next to our table, an Italian man dines by himself, and we watch as he spoils himself on this rainy weekday with fine wines, an appetizer, a pasta course, a fish course, dessert and a digestive. It's a thing of beauty. We follow his lead, and by the end of the meal, the waiters smile at us, seemingly impressed at our gluttony. See? We tell ourselves. It's possible to pretend, just for a moment, that we're not visitors.
Later that night, confident that we can create that magic again, we make our way to another restaurant for dinner.
The place glows .With the candlelight, heavy tapestries and red upholstery on the banquettes, we feel like we are looking at the world from within a bottle of wine. It's cozy and packed. We're led to a small table for two, in a row of other dining couples. On one side is an American couple, both rosy-tipsy and giddy; on the other, another American couple, both angry-tipsy and annoyed that their food hasn't arrived.
As our eyes and ears adjust to the din and the low light, we realize that the room is populated exclusively by Americans and that a large-scale, pan-table conversation is taking place. Travel itineraries, restaurant recommendations and anniversary stories are being swapped over our heads.
"Next we're going to Rome!" the woman at one table shouts to a man at the other side of the room.
"We're from Nebraska," a young man leans back in his chair to communicate with a gentleman sitting three tables down.
A woman notices me following the bouncing conversation and asks, "Where are y'all from?" It's jarring, this camaraderie. It feels very much like a school cafeteria, rather than a romantic Venetian restaurant. We huddle in, and I try to ignore my compatriots.
Later I make my way to the ladies' room in another part of the restaurant and glance around and notice that quiet Italian is being spoken discretely at tables, where couples look into each other's eyes, and realize, we had forgotten to ask for the Non-Tourist room. We can't separate ourselves from the rest of the flood. We're the same, in search of an authentic Venice, which struggles against the weight of us. At least she has history on her side, and science. The high waters will recede and she'll stay strong, and those who love and know her will buoy her up, preserving her culture.