Lost in Venice

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On impulse, I signed up for an 11-day workshop in Venice,one of the world’s most romantic cities. But what I learned from the experience is that creativity doesn’t come from skanky carpet and dodgy meditations – it comes from the magic we find in our surroundings and within.

Day One of the workshop, facilitated by American writer Shelley Berc and artist Alejandro Fogel, turned out to be a non-event. Checking the flyer, I find it is an ‘arrival day’ – hmmm, good to see crafty integration of creativity on all levels including programming. This means I have an extra day to get my bearings in the floating city, the city of dreams. And the opportunity proves invaluable – no matter that I have a map glued to my forehead, the labyrinthine streets keep me trapped in their centuries-old walls for many pleasurable hours.

I fall quickly in love with obscure laneways; peeling window frames housing explosions of colourful geraniums; the mint, peach and burnt orange facades reflected a thousand times over in the waterways; the endless hum of ferries and water taxies; and the swirl of dust that never settles under the army of tourists and locals tromping the streets in the absence of cars, skate boards and roller blades.

Day Two proves the facilitators have creative skills in navigation too. Their advice that the workshop is in Accademia, the ancient learning seat of the city, has me ferrying up and down the Canal Grande looking for the venue which turns out to be located one precinct north.

I subsequently arrive late, only to be dismissed thirty minutes after my arrival – we are being sent outside to interview another workshop participant for an introduction exercise tomorrow. Over a modest lunch of the local Asiago cheese, I participate in a lively interview with my workshop colleague, Jeanne from Washington DC.

The creamy cheese settles my nerves, and I decide the earlier bog-laps of the Grand Canal are actually fortuitous – I had spied the Peggy Guggenheim museum along the way, and head off now to look for it.

Navigating Venice by foot is entirely different than the relatively straightforward waterways. But I stay open to the idea of getting lost, and the journey is as exciting as the destination. Happily, I thread my way along some of the 3000 footpaths and 400 bridges that connect 150 streets of water. I discover charming outdoor eateries and bars, glorious churches housing priceless artworks, archaic theatres advertising an evening of Vivaldi; but not the Guggenheim. It doesn’t matter – I am confident I will come across that on another day of aimless wandering.

I become Jeanne in Day Three of the workshop, and introduce myself (as Jeanne) to the class. What an interesting exercise to assume another identity and explore the foibles, quirks, loves and passion of another individual. I find myself describing a home I’ve never seen, a circle of friends I’ve never drunk with, and a blossoming relationship with an older sister who has a much prettier name than me.

The exercise came quite easily seeing as I had already practised role-playing yesterday. Rounding a curve in an alleyway of shops, I’d burst into the Piazza San Marco, Venice’s most magnificent open square. Thousands of pigeons made the pavement swim in the shadow of the glittering Basilica di San Marco, the 15th Century clock tower and the Doge’s Palace, residence of the rulers of Venice since 814AD.

Under the portico of the ornate arcades lining the square, I had imagined I was the daughter of a medieval millionaire arriving to meet my suitor – naturally the Doge’s son. Either him or Casanova – I wasn’t about to be fussy. Instead, who should swan by but Al Pacino on his way to the launch party of Merchant of Venice inside the sumptuous golden palace.

My wild woman was purring with the power of visualisation after this experience, and I went to bed feeling super-charged.

We meditate upon arrival on Day Four, sending our stress out windows and our creative selves to a ‘quiet place’. I try to send my wild woman to one of the hundreds of canal-side cafés, but she only wants to sit by the Bridge of Sighs with her Casanova – Venetians claim lovers who kiss beneath the bridge will be together always.

“Snap out of it,” I warn her.

“No, I don’t like it in that room,” she sulks. “The carpet is skanky, and you’re lying on it! Iiieeeuwwww.”

Her words plant a sense of unease in the back of my mind and a horrible itch up my spine. So when the meditation continues with a journey back in time to a place where our creativity ended – for me it was at University where I discovered boys, hair dye and an inexplicable attraction to goth – that’s pretty much where my creative urges end for the day too.

Packing my shrinking creativity (now the size of a wrinkly sultana) into my reporter’s bag, I ferry to Lido, the island hosting the 61st Venice International Film Festival. It is actually lucky my creativity is flagging here – the dog-eat- st louis cardinals sweatshirt world of foreign press is no place for a fragile soul. With over 3000 reporters from around the world all fighting for a spot in the 200-seat press conference room, elbows, snarls and tiger strength are the tools for success.

Needless to say, with my wild woman in the state she is, I succeed in recording Nicole Kidman’s launch of her new film Birth, and witnessing Lauren Bacall receive a standing ovation.

But to reconnect with soul afterwards, I lose myself in a pleasurable couple of hours wandering the pristine beaches and relatively modern (yet no less exquisite) mansions lining the waterways.

On Day Five, my ‘quiet place’ is now a prison, and my wild woman’s sulk of yesterday has escalated into a black storm. She writes a short screenplay using a button, a coin, an earring and a bus ticket, but she’s cross that it doesn’t compete with the literary genius of Venetian masters like Robert Browning, Freya Stark or Giacomo Casanova.

Ahhh, Casanova. “Where is my debonair man of dubious intent?” I ask, and inspired with the prospect of finding a modern-day version, hit the streets in search of him.

In a funky bar under the Rialto Bridge, I find him in Cristiano, an actor working on Casanova, (I know, the irony kills me!), currently being filmed in the back streets of Accademia and starring Heath Ledger. He introduces me to refreshing Mojitos (lots of them), Paolo the Murano glass-blower and Giovanni – the oldest gondolier in Venice.

“How do you drive a gondola?” I ask.

“Like this,” grins Cristiano with a wink. “It’s all in the stance, not the wrist.”

I copy his swaying motion and we rock together, driving our imaginary gondola down mystical waterways through the moonlit night. Giovanni just cackles uproariously adding to the myriad of sounds permeating the Venetian canals and streets.

Day Six is a day off. Gasp! I run back to the flyer and discover Day Eleven is equally non-existent, and is described as ‘departure day’. With a sense of horror, I calculate the 11-day workshop is actually only 24 hours over eight days. Even less when I factor in the early finish times Shelley is getting into the habit of.

Originally, I had considered the US$1250 tuition fee a reasonable rate for 11 days at say, five hours of instruction and activity per day – I mean, even with the poor exchange rate, US$22 per hour was acceptable. However, I am now looking at 20 hours of contact time, bringing the cost of the workshop up to US$62.50 per hour.

My insides clench at the discovery – this represents an enormous amount of money to me, and a fee that I would not have paid had I done my homework before signing up. To escape my condemnatory self and cruel calculations, I run to the nearest ferry stop and pick one at random.

“How much is a ticket please?” I ask the conductor.

“Due ore,” he replies.

“Si, two-way,” I nod.

He waves me to a seat and I take it. It’s not until a few minutes after the ferry is chugging away from the ever-bustling Piazzo San Marco that I process the meaning of due ore – two hours. I’m carrying no water, no warm clothes, and no emergency corkscrew. The knife-edge anticipation of my adventure charges me with excitement and a new surge of inspiration.

We pass by deserted islands pock-marked with crumbling buildings. No doubt these were thriving home and church sites to Venice’s 160,000 citizens in her hey-day 600 years ago. Now, with a population of only 60,000 spread over the 117 man-made islands, buildings are falling apart, bell-towers lean perilously off-centre, and the city is sinking – in fact, it has sunk more than 22 centimetres in the last 100 years.

In the 1950s, high tides had Venice underwater 30 times; in the 1990s, more than 100 times. Last year, Piazza San Marco spent a record 108 days underwater. Shops lining the square are prepared for the acqua alta with mechanical clothing racks that retract toward the ceiling, and thigh high galoshes are sold alongside designer clothing.

This understanding of a city slowly dying only serves to highlight her autumnal beauty. Appreciation for her colours, aging grandeur and slow food is enhanced ten-fold with each passing minute.

Ninety minutes after leaving the Square, we arrive at Torcello, the original seat of Venice founded by influential Italian families on the run from Attila in the sixth century.

Of all the Italian churches designed to sing the glory of god and inspire awe in his subservient follower, no church has ever humbled me like this one. Its raw simplicity and crude construction speaks volumes of the profound faith and fortitude of the original settlers. Each stone in the dank walls tells a story of hardship, community, and a oneness with god that is simply breathtaking.

A laborious climb takes me to the top of the ancient bell-tower, still in working condition. From the little windows, I see a colourful little town across the water. I promptly board another ferry and chug off to investigate.

The town is Burano – a fishing village famous for its intricate lacework. My senses are assaulted with the cacophony of colour and raucous singing coming from the many pizzerias lining the main street.

I could spend hours here, but it is already 4pm – time to head back for the 5 o’clock bells that peal across the city waking drowsy citizens from the afternoon heat and heralding the re-opening of shops for business.

It is the soul-quenching balm I need to get me back to the workshop on Day Seven. Sadly, it doesn’t last long. We are advised the key to creativity is to steal other people’s words and make them our own.

Naturally, this doesn’t please my wild woman. What’s more, she is even wilder when she is sent back to the ‘quiet place’ and forced to grow fur, long ears and fangs during the meditation.

There is only one way to regain my sense of beauty, and that’s to go out for 6000 glasses of Bellini – the cocktail of Venice.

I head for Harry’s Bar, the birthplace of the peachy concoction, but at EUR13 (AU$25) for a small glass, decide to go the minimalist approach and have just the one. But, as usually happens with the minimalist approach, 3am sees me running through the streets singing Dean Martin songs and high-fiving statues of saints frozen in their benevolent poses. But I do get to give some English tourists directions to the nearest ferry stop, so that I’m feeling like a local. Awesome!

I don’t recommend going into a creativity workshop with a hangover, as happens to me on Day Eight. Head spinning, the instruction to cover my wild woman with thousands of eyes sends me into a scratching frenzy trying to get them all off.

As if it isn’t bad enough that I am already covered in mosquito bites. Nasty ones too. They’re different to their Aussie cousins – the bites aren’t itchy, just glaring red welts. Tip: take repellent if you go to Venice!

“I’m blocked, I’m blocked, I’m blocked,” is what comes out of my pen during an automatic writing exercise on Day Nine. And it’s not just my creativity that’s blocked.

After two weeks of a pasta and pizza carbohydrate overload, my system is craving fresh fruit and vegetables. The scarcity of land means no farming takes place on the islands – all fresh produce is shipped in on barges at considerable expense and hassle, especially in winter. When the water rises during the wetter months, the boats can no longer pass beneath the low bridges, further complicating the ‘importing’ of everyday necessities.

I make a promise to myself to go in search of a floating fruit and vegetable store at one of the busy squares, but get waylaid at a little store bursting with intricate masks where I spend more than a couple of easy hours.

The visualisation on Day Ten has two birds taking my hands and arms away from my body and flying over Venice. “Write about what you see,” says Shelley.

“I can’t write,” my inner brat says. “The birds have my hands.”

I feel deformed without arms. I want to feel beautiful again, like I did yesterday when the mask craftsman brought an elaborate mask across my face with a graceful sweep of his wrist.

Gently, he had tied the silk ribbon behind my head, and wordlessly draped a hooded cloak around my shoulders. In careful movements so meditated they bordered on ritualistic, he placed a sceptre in my hand and turned me to the mirror. I was transported to another world, one where Casanova was waiting for me in his carriage just outside. One where masks were the order of everyday life, where women and men alike donned masks to shop, dine and attend balls in their veils laced with intriguing promise.

Later, I dreamed of Vivaldi, ornate masks and decadent costumes swirling around me, and the smouldering eyes of the Cellist looking deep into my soul. This new visualisation of beauty works. I feel a shift. A small vibration of creative urge causes my fingers to tingle. The pens locked in my satchel now appear less like handy stabbing implements and more like magic wands holding infinite creative ideas, letters home and soul secrets.

I take my new energy to my café in Accademia and sit. And sit, and sit, and sit. It’s my favourite time of the day when the hundreds of heartrending bells peal across the city. I share a smile with the white-haired lady at the neighbouring table, and can’t help but dissolve into uninhibited laughter. It’s the essence of life in Venice at 5pm – slow, valued and easily shared. Most definitely my new ‘quiet place’.

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write by jimenez