As I trudge through the crowded Venetian alleys under the yellow heat of the summer sun, everything around me, above me, below me, and beside me screams chaos. Sweat beads on my forehead as I try to make sense of the madness. I blink a few times, attempting to rub the afternoon haze from my tired eyes. Perhaps lack of sleep and dehydration have altered my ability to see clearly, but the Venice before me is not just a city. Venice has been and remains a menagerie-- a ferocious game of survival of the fittest played out in a deceptively charming landscape caged in by the Adriatic Sea.
1600 years ago, Venetians fled the mainland for the marshes to escape terrorizing barbarians, driving wooden stakes into the sandy seafloor to form solid foundations across the 118 small islands that still support Venice today. Throughout its turbulent history, Venice has escaped invasion, seen the rise and fall of emperors, buried the bones of St. Mark, and been decimated by the plague. In it’s golden days, Venice was an invulnerable commercial power, facilitating trade between the West and the East. In 1204, Venetians sacked Constantinople and returned with the prize of four ancient bronze horses that stand behind glass inside the Basilica today. There is no greater reminder of the seafaring city’s history of power and wealth than the muscular stallions that also stand as replicas overlooking San Marco’s busy square. But power and wealth aren’t eternal, and just as the Venetians ravaged weaker empires, one day the rising ocean that once protected the city will, in turn, ravage it.
In present-day Venice, the infamous pigeons are no match for the walking wildlife. Tour groups of varying ethnicities swarm San Marco Square, like tribes of angry ants headed for the first spot in line for entrance to the opulent Basilica. The disorganized line snakes around the square, and I watch mayhem unfold as a woman guides her two small children to sneak in towards the front. Everyone behind her hisses in irritation, but she growls back indignantly, refusing to budge an inch. The three fold into the safety of the line. She wins. I watch her usher her bambinos protectively through the church entrance. Playing fair gets you nowhere in this sinking city.
Indian men selling selfie sticks and cheap toys become vultures targeting their blonde-haired prey. The pleas of street vendors, the chatter of tourists, and the relentless cries of violins blend into indistinguishable, ever-present noise. North African men illegally sell their fake Prada purses in packs. Perhaps more impressive than their realistic knock-offs is their animal-like instinct to communicate with each other when the police are in the vicinity. In a matter of seconds after an inaudible warning, they swoop up their products and scatter in different directions. Like clockwork, the police stroll by, turn a corner, and the group reclaims its territory by unfolding and displaying its wares along the same crowded, narrow street.
The interlinking canals are a winding greenish-brown river in a jungle of flower-lined windows, pizzerias, and erratically numbered apartments. In the smaller passages, traffic jams of gondolas and motorboats are frequent and often resolved in angry exchanges of rapid Italian and exaggerated gestures. On the wide Grand Canal, carrying herds of people cruise from dock to dock, always seeming to be overcrowded and short on oxygen. Everyone gives right of way to an elderly woman who creeps slowly off of a packed boat. Her age puts her at the top of the hierarchy; respect for one’s elders is instinctive in Italy.
Contrasting the obviousness of the tourists, the natives blend into the background, camouflaging themselves among the fanny packs and cameras. They walk with a purpose foreign to disoriented visitors. They know the back streets, the boat schedules, and the best . Though they are surely aggravated by the constant clamor of tourists, their livelihoods depend upon the booking of hotels and overpriced gondola tours. Should the threaten to submerge the islands, the tourism that puts money into the pockets of the gondoliers, shopkeepers, and tour guides will fade away. The 60,000 loyal Venetians will be forced to abandon their beloved city for dry ground. Even Paolo, a loyal third-generation gondolier with typical Italian pride for his hometown, will have no choice but to pack up his striped shirts and to evacuate. Thus Venice is a delicate dance of tourists and locals that depend upon each other heavily. The locals must guide us, feed us, and transport us. In exchange, we pay too much for pasta, overload on souvenirs, and fill their streets with ruckus. Everyone must sacrifice and everyone must gain to keep the city afloat.
Somewhere deep within the intricate madness that is Venice lies something magical. It is a uniquely Italian environment that refuses a rulebook, but still manages to churn on 365 days a year. If you look closely enough, you find order. The same chaotic story repeats itself day after day, summer after summer, year after year. Visitors come and then they leave. They buy Murano glass, view the , , and Titians in the Doge’s palace, and take expensive gondola rides. Their itineraries aren’t original and their pictures aren’t unique. Locals ferry in each morning, perform their jobs, and leave each night. Still, Venice defies reality.
Tourists don’t come here to stare peacefully at their reflections in the water. They journey to Venice to lose the structure that defines their everyday lives. They come to Venice to see asphalt turned to water and to ride in boats instead of cars. They come to Venice to find their whole world turned inside out underneath the bright blue sky. The wildness is the mandatory product of a city that rejects normalcy. When the lagoon dwellers drove wooden stakes into the ground hundreds of years ago, they created a place on earth unlike any other. Earth- shattering places don’t greet you with a whisper—they greet you with a roar.