I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“Venice, a great sewer of traditionalism”
—Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
My mother had warned me about still waters, water without waves, water in which the current scarcely makes its movement known through barely perceptible ripples, and she even had her suspicions about the virginal streams of southern Argentina, from which I had so often drunk out of my own cupped hands. There could be no rebirth, no renewal, in water that could not be seen to move at any hour of the day. Motionless water could only mean stagnation. And when a traveler, recently returned from Venice, told of the marvels of the Serenissima, the Most Serene republic, she brusquely translated: “the Most Unclean republic!” She had not read Thomas Mann’s novella, nor had she seen Visconti’s film, but to her, Venice could mean only pestilence and infectious disease, realities cloaked within labyrinths of famous architecture whose baroque style added to the impossibility of good hygiene. In this way she formulated a theory that held that works of art were the tallow for sickness and death.
What else could a 15th-century baptistery be but a receptacle for bacteria, fed by the touch of millions of hands?
I was a child before the days of Disneyland, or else I had just never heard tell of it. My curiosity about traveling was limited to a fantasy about visiting two cities surrounded by water: Amsterdam and Venice. I fixated on how delightful it would be to see everything from a gunwale, on the absence of dangerous streets and intersections with stoplights, as if those cities that had apparently eliminated traffic hazards had done so with children in mind. In my dreams I was always allowed to take the helm, the sky was barely visible above the succession of bridges, beneath which the little boat, which I imagined as Langostino’s flat-bottomed tug, was obliged to pass, eliciting a great multiplication of wishes. To fall in the water seemed to me a minor incident, so long as it occurred where both shores were visible and where I could be fished out and consoled.
To make a long story short, many years later I went to Venice without the least apprehension, although, upon seeing the greenish color of the water, thick like a stew and stained in places with whimsical gasoline sunflowers, I thought of my mother’s pronouncements.
I had gone without any particular curiosity, perhaps only because of what people would say. “How could you possibly miss out on Venice!”
Mr. Plaza and Mr. Kaiser disappeared at the door to the San Marcos cathedral while I stayed at the Café Florian, where, disconcerted by the prices, I wavered over whether or not to order the highly praised espresso, and where I was surrounded by pigeons that brushed against the hems of my pants and climbed up on my shoes, demanding a consideration that until that moment I’d only had for cats. the view was beautiful, one of the most mentioned when it comes to enumerating beautiful places, and this caused me a vague countercultural irritation, as if someone or something was forcing me to be happy or to consider that I had finally attained a long-desired goal. As far as I understood from the scarce knowledge I possessed, the cathedral’s saturation of styles was a mash-up of the Greek, Roman, and Islamic. Someone should have taken pity on the novices and marked the items pertinent to each one, using dyes like those employed in medical exams when they are looking for tumors, dividing them up and using little signs to identify them, including the ambiguous elements that one might, for purely pedagogical reasons, temporarily assign to an era.
A prodigious number of tiny pagan and sacred figures were displayed on stands like—if you’ll permit me a prosaic reference—the cheap marble statuettes in an auntie’s display cabinet; they peeked out from the tops of the porticos on which scenes of Saint Mark before his martyrdom were depicted. The belltower did not impress me much, since after all, it was only as old as my own house. the other one had fallen down in 1900, collapsing like a gentleman, so they say, without killing anyone, constituting something of a mystery. I liked the clocktower where, as in the cathedral’s central portico, the mosaics came together behind a winged lion to form a starry sky. It was not yet the time of year when they put on a brief show in the niche of the Virgin: the small side doors would be opened and out would come the Three Wise Men, who, upon passing in front of the Virgin’s image, would execute a little bow. “I always arrive as they shut off the lights,” as Paul Morand would say.
I had missed something fun, archaic, and charming, but on the other hand, during another trip I had seen the clock at the Messina Cathedral that offered a complete show every 12 hours, with complex mechanical figures such as a rooster that flapped its wings, a Christ who rose from the dead, and a figure of a dog or a wolf that held the city’s emblem aloft. Without a doubt, it was the work of a demented cuckoo-clock maker.
It surprised me that the gondolas had one straight side, as if they were missing the other half of the boat. I thought of how Sarmiento had planned to import them to Argentina’s Delta del Tigre. I imagined them coming down from the Paraná de las Palmas, loaded with reeds and bamboo cane, the joy of the participants in the Almacén el Horneo carnival competitions, who had glimpsed in them a world of possibilities for their already far-fetched creations. I was surprised by the colorful posts where the boats were tied up, and by the fact that they were usually decorated. Some of them reminded me of the old-fashioned barbershop poles that I had seen in photos, back when barbershops were also the places where one went to have a tooth pulled, and the poles served as a place to firmly tie people to so that they could withstand the pain. As to why the poles were blue, red, and white, I have heard many versions. Some say that the bloody bandages that capped off the operation dried onto the poles in the breeze, that the white symbolized asepsis, and the blue, blood in the veins, but in any case, in Venice I never saw any posts with three colors, although some were painted in sophisticated arabesques.
Hemingway said that it was best to see masterpieces when hungry. The opposite proved to be true for me; beauty increases my appetite, calls for the satisfaction of a natural necessity. I decided to have a Coke and a panino. I chose the simplest and smallest, at the price of a full meal in Puerto Madero, Rio de la Plata’s swanky restaurant zone. I found myself doing this miserly calculation, unsure, as always, if I’d like what it seems most people enjoy.
In Buenos Aires, in the Plaza de Mayo, the footsteps of passersby cause the pigeons to fly briefly, resettling along one side, only rising up in a stampede of flight when chased by children. Yet they are not the first to flee en masse during protests, and they even flutter, annoyed, among the hooves of the police horses before escaping to a safer spot. But, like the swallows in the Tower of the Monk in Mar del Plata that eat crumbs out of your hand, the pigeons of the Piazza San Marco have modified the distances they fly when faced with a probable aggressor. There were three on the back of the chair where I had left my backpack, lined up as though planning a common strategy. On the table, one stood atop another, holding onto its neck like an eagle carrying off a lamb, while another flapped ferociously, distracting them, as it prepared to peck at my recently arrived panino. Screaming, I scared them off by furiously whacking a rolled-up newspaper against the table. They flew away without settling on the ground, and returned to their original positions. The panino was long, but all told, ridiculously small.
Suddenly, one lifted the top off the sandwich and tried to fly away with it, but the weight of it threw it to the ground. Indignant, I turned, looking for the waiter. When I turned back around two pigeons held the fine bread aloft, as in an allegory, but, as it was coming apart, they let it drop. Only one retained a piece, which it crumbled and ate at the next table. The waiter arrived and gave me an explanation justifying the pigeons’ behavior; the bread’s crust was covered in seeds just like those the city used to feed them. Then he invited me to choose among one of the dining rooms. I went inside. At a table, the waiters were all crowded around a sobbing young woman. She was babbling in English, her hair and cheeks were drenched, and she was very pale. The waiters made way for a waitress who came up behind the woman’s chair and grabbed on tight to her head, forcing her to put up some resistance, the most effective treatment against a fainting spell.
I must have let slip a few words in Spanish, because a woman who was having a tall drink said to me: “She has a phobia of feathers. She had been in the piazza before, but on a day when Venice was flooded and there were no pigeons. She came straight in to the bar, but she couldn’t erase the images she had seen before entering. I found her throwing up in the bathroom. I am phobic about trees, this is the only city where I can move freely. Here I can go from here to there, whereas at home I can only go by car—I can’t even drive, all of those luxurious avenues have trees and even the suburban streets have dead or fallen trees. I have to live by the sea, on a beach as dry as my tongue.”
At another time I would have asked her if the fear only overcame her at certain times of day or if it was constant, if she could stand fake trees, trees in photographs or movies, if she could take them at a specific distance or if even that was impossible, and if she could arrange stalks in a vase without terror, or just the opposite, but right then I was overcome with an anguish that assaults me on trips and that, without especially dark thoughts, nor major mishap, is unleashed by a trivial episode. Even if no one had witnessed the scene with the pigeons—if someone had seen it, it might have elicited a gesture of solidarity, a consoling tale of a similar experience—it had left me with the sense that this was not the right place for me.
Venice was made for art collectors and connoisseurs, for adventurers capable of hazarding a search for clandestine codes and of taking part in them like the successors of pederasts who, in 1900, recognized one another by a handkerchief tucked up the sleeve. All I could do was envision scenes that had been reported in the days of the café society. The funeral procession during the burial of Diaghilev. Serge Lifar throwing himself onto the grave in a struggle with Boris Kochno, and Coco Chanel picking up the tab for the funeral. Robert Browning complaining because the streets were so narrow that it was impossible to open his umbrella. Lord Byron floating in the Grand Canal with a cigarette in his mouth while his servant followed in the gondola, velvet robe in hand. The dance honoring Henry III in the hall of the Great Council where all the silverware, napkins, and cups were made of sugar. Burchiello’s aquatic salon in which one drank from beneath the famous Venetian bird-beaked masks, now crudely reproduced in wood and sold in the markets of Buenos Aires.
I felt nostalgic for the sordid adoration fetishes of everyday people, such as the little bottle of Saint Pantaleon’s blood that liquefies each year on his feast day; the bones from the whale that spit out a child at Saint Anthony’s behest; Saint Agatha’s breast, salvaged by a woman and preserved in a silver vial; Saint Teresa’s immaculate arm, about which the most recent story I’ve heard is that it was found under the Generalissimo’s pillow. I paid the bill and went walking along the narrow streets, whose only charms were the pointed arches over the doors and windows, adorned with climbing vines and bougainvillea. I stopped at a vegetable stand and pointed at some white potatoes. The place exploded in riotous colors, in a disorder that submitted only to general organization by type of vegetable. I clutched the package, hoping that my body would recognize such an ordinary sort of contact. But I had scarcely gotten out of the vegetable vendor’s eyeshot when I started to cry. I held the potatoes with one hand, wiping the tears away with the other. I did not miss Mr. Plaza or Mr. Kaiser, whose methods of comfort were sparing and ironic in the former, efficient and affectionate in the latter, since had they been there I would have allowed the crisis free reign. I felt like throwing myself in bed and sobbing at the top of my lungs.
Arriving at the hotel, I grabbed the key without looking and hurried away before the concierge could launch into some emphatic and unintelligible complaint. I threw myself on the bed as I had planned, but the gesture, having been preconceived, was useless. As a compromise, I remained lying face down for a moment.
“I hate Europe,” I said vehemently, and the statement calmed me. I took the hot plate that Mr. Plaza had loaned me out of my suitcase, and plugged it in. Then I got out a small ceramic jug that sometimes served as a cup. I selected a medium-sized potato, and, without washing it, dropped it in some water from the tap. I drank some of the water, before putting it on the heat, to wash down a sedative. I lay down for a moment, waiting for it to take affect. I awoke to the sound of Mr. Plaza and Mr. Kaiser coming up the stairs. they knocked on the door. I called out that I was sleeping. “You missed out on the Bellini. They make it with champagne and melon. It was Jackie O’s favorite drink,” Mr. Plaza started to say.
I could hear Mr. Kaiser’s footsteps moving away down the hallway. “Ah!” I shouted. I didn’t have a plate. I took the stand from underneath a porcelain washbasin that stood on top of the toilet. I turned it over. It said “Bazar de la Reina” in Spanish. I looked in my suitcase for the little bag full of condiment packages that I had taken from the flat on Via Augusta until I found one with mayonnaise. I stabbed the potato with a ballpoint pen, ran it under cold tap water, and peeled it, burning my fingers a little. Then, I put it on the washbasin stand with a plume of mayonnaise on top. when the mayonnaise began to drip down, my mouth started to water. I started whimpering again, but this time it was a lazy cry, halfhearted, born of a self-pity whose energy had dissipated. The potato has always been a part of the history of the poor: I transformed it into an emblem of common beauty. It was an anomaly, given that I always preferred the baroque, the elaborate, the excessive. I ate it, cut into four quarters, after removing the starchy center as I had seen my mother and grandmother do, who sometimes ate a potato in lieu of a full dinner, or, come to think of it, when they were sad and worn out. It was a sort of ceremony of purification and temperance. Beyond the window, the Most Unclean Republic emitted nighttime noises. I know myself; this kind of aversion usually signals the beginning of a great amorous obsession, of a union in which I always play the role of the sycophant. This is why, on the following day, I was not surprised to discover that I had begun to like Venice.
Translated from the Spanish by Jessica Ernst Powell.
Jessica Ernst Powell has published numerous translations of works by contemporary Latin American writers including Anna Lidia Vega, Liliana Heer, Alan Pauls, and Edmundo Paz Soldán.
María Moreno’s books include Vida de vivos (Life of the living), a collection of “incidental conversations” with Argentine public figures, and Banco a la sombra (Bench in the shade). In 2002 she received a Guggenheim grant. Her interview with César Aira appears in this issue here.
Originally published in
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee