Keeping Serene in La Serenissima

“Let it go,” despite its dubious connotations with 90s-era psychobabble and Disney song lyrics, is a cliché with staying power. Because sometimes you must let it go. And for no one is this truism more true, than for two fortyish Americans, youngish kids in tow, whose lives are generally organized via perfectly synced-up lists, calendars and spreadsheets, on a vacation in Venice.

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We arrived in Venice in the early spring, but the breeze carried with it a more verge-of-summer promise, scented with salt water and the catch of the day and just-baked sugar cones ready to cradle scoops of gelato. This is a floating Medieval city: Venice comprises hundreds of islands separated by canals, and the islands are connected to each other by footbridge, by walkways paved over former canals, or by boat.

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We took the water bus in from the airport, and disembarked at the Rialto, Venice’s oldest bridge and one of four that arcs over the Grand Canal.

There we were met by Beatrice, a friendly thirtysomething with funky short hair and a silk scarf over her hoodie. We were under the impression that the rental agency through whom we had booked our apartment sent her as a courtesy, until we realized that all lodging operators send a tour guide to greet Venice first-timers, because otherwise they’d probably end up in a canal.

The Rialto, if you’ve never seen it, is basically one of two activity loci in Venice (the other being San Marco piazza, where St. Mark’s Basilica is). In blatant defiance of Venice’s nickname, “La Serenissima” (The Most Serene), the Rialto is swarming with camera-wielding tourists and laughing students and gondoliers in stripes and young immigrant men hawking selfie sticks and leather handbags. Your basic agoraphobe’s nightmare, and not the miasma into which you want to descend with your family of four and your carry-ons in tow.

But descend we did, Beatrice fearlessly leading the way, up and down the cement steps of the bridge, through an alleyway, up some more stairs, across a footbridge, under a roofed arcade. Despite the squeaky protestations of our wheely luggage, we went across another footbridge, and then through a tight little stairwell where we were forced to yield to pedestrians coming towards us by squashing ourselves SWAT-style against the wall.

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Two more alleyways, then finally out into a courtyard, where Beatrice led us up three steep flights of stairs. With a turn of the key and a push of an ancient door, we entered our apartment, which was surprisingly enormous. There was a huge central living room, a big kitchen with a farmhouse-style dining table, two bedrooms and two bathrooms, all grounded by a vast expanse of bare terracotta-colored marble floor (carpets are considered unhygienic by Venetians). It also had a fantastic view of the Campanile di San Marco, a tower in San Marco Piazza that, besides enduring a number of calamities throughout its several-hundred-years life, actually FELL DOWN in the early 1900s.

It landed right in the middle of the Piazza. Mysteriously, the statue of the Angel Gabriel that had been (and is still) on top of the tower landed upright, looking straight up at St. Mark’s Basilica.

They rebuilt it, obviously.

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While we settled in, Beatrice, herself a lifelong Venetian, got busy unfolding a map she’d brought to help us plot out our travels in and around Venice. But as she examined the map, pen poised in midair above it, it became clear that she was struggling with something.

“Sorry,” she said, brow furrowed. “I am not good with maps.”

Jeff helpfully offered to take a look at the map. To his dismay, it was literally just a drawing, dotted with the locations of major sights (which were helpfully labeled) and showed a complex series of alleyways and piazzas, occasionally crisscrossed by canals (which were not).

In a panic, Jeff cross-referenced it against the Fodor’s guidebook we’d brought along. It wasn’t clear that labels were there, either.

“How can all these maps not have street names?” he said. He was starting to hyperventilate.

“We can Google it?” I offered helpfully. “Don’t worry, we’ll just Google it and find our way around.”

“That doesn’t really work,” Beatrice interjected, shaking her head. “Here is what you do. Think of it like this: you saw the Foot Locker? You go straight. At the Bata you turn. Stores. Footbridge. You cross. Then you are here.” Pleased that she had arrived at a solution, she nodded and collected her things. We thanked her and saw her out.

We resolved to do some light sightseeing that night in order to get our bearings. We folded up the map to take along, just in case, and noticed that on the front of the map were these cheeky words: “Use only in case of emergency!”

In other words, who cares where you’re going in Venice? Enjoy! Savor! Let it go!

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Of course we got lost. Somewhere between the Bata and the Foot Locker we made a turn that we shouldn’t have, and Jeff, try as he might, couldn’t get Google Maps to work – Beatrice’s prophecy had come to pass. It was several “calles” and close calls with the murky green depths of various canals before we were able to cross-reference a nearby piazza with a label on the map, and then of course we were nowhere near our apartment.

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We realized Beatrice may have been a bit disingenuous when she said she was not good with maps. She was not “not good” with maps; she was not good with a map of Venice. That’s simply because the notion of a “map of Venice” is a contradiction in itself. Venetians have some kind of primitive, inherent navigational system which renders maps useless. Venetians don’t need directions, they just know. They are intimately familiar with the twists and turns of their ancient alleys and need only know nearby landmarks in order to find their way.

The next night we were going to dinner, an occasion before which Jeff reiterated several times we should leave with plenty of time to spare. An hour. Even if the restaurant was only five minutes away, we couldn’t rely on Google Maps – which at this point was commonly known as “F***ing Google Maps” – and would probably get lost on the way. In a fit of cooperation, I got ready in about 15 minutes, and found Jeff out in the living room, drinking a beer.

“Do you think drinking a beer is going to help us find the restaurant?” I asked him.

“No,” he said with a big swig, “but I won’t care as much when we get lost.”

And that, right there, captures the essence of Letting it Go in Venice. One puts aside their preference for the organized, for the charted, for the quiet, and embraces the messy, loud, colorful, beautiful, uncertain magic that is this city.

Once Jeff let go of his natural inclination towards order, I think he started to enjoy the detective work of figuring out where the hell we were. He became a competent Venetian tour guide.

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As Jeff’s navigational skills got better, we realized that we were beginning to experience something similar to the telepathic connection that Venetians have with their city. One afternoon, we stepped inside a random pharmacy to buy wipes for the kids’ hands (between the gelato and the climbing around on ancient statues, their hands were disgusting, even by my lax germ standards). As we scanned the shelves, a person walking towards the stockroom at the back caught our eye – and there, unbelievably, was Beatrice.

“Didn’t I tell you I work here too?” she asked.

We shook our heads – between the epic walk to our apartment and the map kerfuffle there hadn’t been time to talk about Beatrice’s other obligations to other people. She was more than happy to locate the wipes, and while ringing us up, also offered to make us dinner reservations at a restaurant she highly recommended. Beatrice was like some kind of Venetian Jeeves, a ubiquitous presence whose problem-solving skills helped wayward tourists clean up, eat and eventually find their way. Some extrasensory guide had brought us to her, or her to us, and we’d gotten exactly what we needed – a delightful intervention from the unseen.

Which brings me back to “letting it go”: Venice is a mysterious adventure. You might never find out who’s actually in charge, but it’s definitely not you. The sooner you understand that, the easier the journey becomes. If things are not happening the way you wanted them to, or the way you’d planned, it is imperative that you let it go, anyway, because there is another hand at work in all this. For instance:

1. You pay 60 euros for 2 glasses of wine, 2 Fantas, and a small dish of assorted nuts, just for the pleasure of sitting in San Marco Piazza and listening to the Dueling Orchestras? Let it go. It really is worth it.

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2. Your six year old wants pizza at every meal, but you would prefer that he “try something new” and select from the Venetian “cicchetti,” the Italian version of tapas, like creamed salted cod served on toast and polpettes, tiny little meatballs? Let it go. The pizza isn’t that great in London, he might as well get his fill of the good stuff in its native land.

3. Both kids are insisting they’re tired and want to ride on Dad’s shoulders, because it is a walking city, and sometimes that’s a bit much for people who are not that far outside of the stroller years? Let it go. (By letting it go, I mean your height – you’ll lose two inches because you carried sixty pounds on your shoulders for four days straight.) Or hop a water bus, also known as The Vaporetto. This proved to be a relatively inexpensive way to rest while sightseeing.

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4. You’re a little spooked, because you don’t understand how hundreds of multi-story buildings, including the one you’re sleeping in, still remain upright despite being built upon wooden stakes that were dug into marshy lagoon mud during the Medieval period, and you could have sworn you heard more than just the typical “settling” noises in the middle of the night? Let it go. It’s an ancient, magical city, and despite what the experts say about Venice’s slow but constant sink back into the marsh from whence it sprung, it was around for millennia before you, and will probably be around for millennia after.

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5. You found out that, contrary to your prior research, there actually is an amazing range of shopping – from small independent boutiques to large world-renowned designer retailers, selling everything from beautiful ink drawings to supple, well-cut leather jackets to glittering plaster Venetian masks to trendy shoes, all at an exchange rate that should frankly be very appealing to your finance-oriented husband – but you can’t shop, because your husband is stooped over from carrying kids, and everyone’s tired and needs to pee? Let it go. Besides, didn’t you just spend 60 euros on wine and nuts?

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6. You had very specific ideas about what you wanted to see, but you let the kids play Tour Guide, because Rick Steves said that would be a way to get the kids engaged in the Venice experience, and got so lost that you ended up missing all the museums that you had on your list? Let it go. The kids probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the museums, but they loved Tour Guide, which ended up being like a real-life version of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and the twists and turns they led you on brought you to some sights that were amazing in their own right… a hundreds-years-old church, for example, that you hadn’t read about in the guidebooks. Or a wonderful little bacari (wine bar) where the locals are munching cicchetti, chatting and generally enjoying that almost-summer feeling in the air.

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Or an impromptu orchestra playing for pennies in a random piazza. (And remember that you’ve already let go of the 60 euros you paid in San Marco listening to the Dueling Orchestras.)

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Or a great cafe where you can sit and have a glass of wine and some bruschetta, and let the kids run free.

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Once fortified, you could continue on your way, through another alleyway, which led to a path along a canal, where you could choose which of three footbridges you’d cross. It was a mystery where you’d end up, but most likely it would be San Marco, the Rialto, or a place where Beatrice worked.

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If any of this happens, just let it go. Enjoy this place. It is mystical, and it is special.

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