I’m twenty years old, and I’m grasping.
At 6:30 a.m. on a November morning, I sit on the ground drinking wine out of a box. The Venetian Canal is somewhere out there, in the pre-dawn grey past the dim lights of the train platform. The stairs of the Venice St. Lucia train station are slick with dew or the remnants of last night’s rain storm.
I’m twenty years old, and I’m grasping. I’m grasping for the things I want, in contrast to the things I’m supposed to want. This is my “study abroad” trip, my sanctioned slip into hedonism and high culture. I’ve spent the past two months in Paris. My friend and I decide on a plan to go to Italy, as we drink coffee at a Starbucks on Rue de Montaigne. From start to finish, the whole plan takes three hundred Euros, two hours, and one phone call home.
As I sit on the steps, sipping wine from a plastic water cup, I resent myself for booking these tickets. Venice is damp and grey. None of the train station is indoors. The winter sun comes up slowly, illuminating the space in front of the train station where we sit immobilized. The water of the Grand Canal is greyish-green, a reflection of the half-domed sky. Our fingers are stiff from cold as we unwrap snacks and cup our flimsy drink containers. It feels much like my home, the Pacific Northwest, except we are surrounded by stone buildings which stretch off in all directions in one flat layer, rather than trees and the high rise of mountains.
My body doesn’t want to drink wine. It aches from being tossed around on thin cushions for eight hours, and it balks at being up before the sun in any circumstance. I, however, have logic on my side. The wine is heavy and we can’t check into our hotel for six hours. We can’t carry it through the winding streets of Venice. So why not drink it?
The buildings are pastel colored, washed out from light and age. Each window is arched, the bricks exposed in picturesque patches. Across from us is a domed building, pale and stately. We decide it’s a church. Posts stick up from the water at seemingly random intervals. There are no boats. The gondolas we’ve heard so much about are curiously absent.
Posts stick up from the water at seemingly random intervals. There are no boats. The gondolas we’ve heard so much about are curiously absent.
My companion pours another cup and says, “Why don’t we do this every morning?”
I laugh. “Usually when people drink in the morning, it’s considered a problem.”
She nods, although the wine is not what she is talking about. She is talking watching the city come alive around us, while we sit with our legs dangling above the main canal. It’s just us and a boy in a black apron down the way. His hair is smashed down from sleep, and he is cleaning the outer windows of a café that hasn’t opened yet.
I’m twenty years old, and I am discovering that life is not the job you schlep to or the car you drive. It’s a series of moments you design and spin out. It’s a collection of moments you have control over. Your own labyrinth.
We start exploring when the sun has fully risen, though the sky is scabbed over with grey. We follow children down the wide main avenue flanked by stores, then down a smaller street with openings for residences, and then another which looks suspiciously like an alley. It’s hard to tell, but the children wear backpacks and stream forward unaccompanied; they must be going to school. When they begin turning sideways to make it through the spaces, we decide we might look like crazy child-stalkers, so we stop. The children disappear behind buildings, like sand through fingers. There are no signs for a school.
After that, we follow our own internal compass, searching for an exquisite disappearance. We look for the smallest streets—I stretch my arms out and jam my elbows against both walls at once; we look for the prettiest streets, where the siding has flaked in patterns and the cobbles cascade in their unevenness. We look for the most secluded streets, where there are black bags of garbage and no tourists. We need privacy so we can pee out all the wine we consumed, without fear of censure. We’re not completely without manners, but we are opposed to paying two Euros for a toilet, and hey, we’ve had a little wine. We look for boats and find none. Apparently, gondoliers sleep in. We look for places where we could swim, places we could live. Facts like rent and water pollution do not factor in our fantasies. We pick doors and windows and create a fictional amalgam of a home.
After that, we follow our own internal compass, searching for an exquisite disappearance.
We find the Rialto Bridge. In my mind, the word “bridge” is amorphous. The word is red brick, and pale stone, and wrought iron. It skirts the water, and rises high to accommodate boats. I can feel it under my hands. There is wind under my collar, and pressure on my shoulders from my backpack, and the bridge supports me.
This is my life, this moment, with the stones of Venice wearing through my boots. They’re doing far more damage to me than I’m doing to them. I can feel the boundaries of myself clearly against this corner of the world that I don’t know, and that doesn’t know me.
I am lost, across an ocean, in a city renowned for is maze-like structure, awash in a language I barely understand. I went to Paris, but Paris had bulwarks. Someone to pick me up from the airport, a number to call when I got lost. This is the first moment my choices alone led to where I’m standing.
I’m twenty years old, and I am discovering that as long you have a map, a good pair of shoes, and an affinity for this feeling, this emptiness and confusion, this peace and fulfillment, you can design your own path, make your life anything you want. I’m twenty years old, and I stand on the Venetian Canal, with brackish water licking the soles of my shoes, and I realize I’m going to be longing for this feeling for the rest of my life.