I went to Venice, once.
I am not really the type to read books that are tied to a time and place. The books that I read, and the stories that I write, could happen anywhere. They involve bodiless entities floating in an ether, spiraling inwards. They are books that discover the self, and ideals. They rarely muck themselves up with time and space. If setting is required it is generally a minor feature, gratuitous, less than a backdrop. However, I had a friend who read me a book in which one of the many story lines was set in Venice. The book was gorgeous. The author said so much by saying very little. She eluded. She drew on history and stereotypes. Her writing drew me into Napoleonic France, the Russian front, and ultimately a love story behind closed doors along the water-ways in Venice. The book, in case you have not already guessed it, was The Passion, which is not really about any of those moments or places at all, but it does an excellent job of drawing the stories out of these places, and putting a new glaze over them. It is just brilliant writing. It was so brilliant that among my “places I really need to go while in Europe” list, Venice was on the top, followed with Hemingway inspired Spain and a large empty space beneath. When I had the option of tacking Venice onto my marathon trip to Rome I did not hesitate. I went to Venice.
Venice was everything that I had hoped for, but then my hopes had not been concrete and were, therefore, easily met. My partner and I strolled lazily along the streets, letting monuments reach out to meet us, if they so wished. We were more concerned with relaxation and good food than site-seeing. Our ultimate experience in Venice was sitting by the water, eating bread and cheese from a deli and drinking tap-wine from an old water bottle. We repeated the situation several times, culminating in a final morning of sparkling wine and an old woman grumbling at us for plopping down in the middle of a set of steps rather than finding a proper piazza to infest. It was a glorious holiday, and as I look back I am still grateful that the city was able to live up to that bubble of romance that long days listening to my lover’s voice drone out Winterson had created for me. I am grateful that although the city dipped into stereotypes I was able to ignore them and to bathe in that romance.
The romance and the stereotype of a place are two very different things. The romance of Venice involves the idea of love, adventure, risk and trust. It is courtship and sacrifice. It is dedication to your cultural past and current ideals. It is political engagement, slyness, and creativity. It is darkness, mystery, shadows and an ever changing world. In romance you meet a person on the streets and they show you a secret passage, inviting you into their existence. Or, in romance you don’t meet anyone. You end up on a deserted dead-end path and wonder, briefly, where you go from there before caving to consult the map. At least that is my romance of Venice. My stereotype of Venice involves a typical stereotype of Italian males: arrogant, forward, constantly pressing for more, loud, and trustworthy only as long as you remain sober, with an added threat of pickpockets, irritation at foreigners, and touristic prices at every cafe in town.
I realize that neither my romance nor stereotype is founded in much. A book or two, a movie or series, and a few interactions is not really much to make a judgement on, which is why I am trying to refrain from judging and allow space for myself to be wrong. I want to be surprised, both in the thought that more than romance is possible and that stereotypes will not actually be met. At the same time I am curious as to where I constructed these two, slightly oppositional views, from the same material, and how I am able to keep them separate in my schema. What I have decided is that romance and stereotypes come from two different emotional places. Romance comes from hope and excitement. It comes from desire and is developed only through medium that allows a person a safe space to explore their desires and dreams, such as a one-way media experience including books and films. Stereotypes, on the other hand, come from a place of fear. They are formed through personal insecurities and awareness of weaknesses and are developed through bi-directional interactions that contain risk of threat or actual threat. So even though I have built my stereotypes and romance from one experience I am able to keep them separate because romance is everything that I deem good about a situation, and the stereotypes come from the threats and bad things. I am threatened by an aggressive male that might take advantage of me physically or emotionally, and so he becomes a stereotype that I can protect myself against. However, I romance the same actions when portrayed by a male that might love and protect me, or offer safe, consensual adventures. That man becomes romanced.
An example: Night time on Saint Mark’s Square. My friend and I arrived after nightfall, hoping to enjoy a bottle of wine and a snack. Two men approached us, trying to get our names and obviously trying to engage us for the evening in some form. According to my fearful, stereotypical telling of the story these were aggressive men and their intention was to either swindle us as tourists or to ply us with alcohol until we had sex with them, or something along those lines. According to my romantic telling this attention was very flattering and those men might have been the person that we were supposed to be with. My romantic telling saw much more, positive potentials from the same interaction. Romance allows you to take risks that stereotypes warn against. However, that night the stereotypical viewpoint was much stronger and we evaded the boys to continue on our own. My question then is WHY? What makes the stereotype triumph over romance?
Perhaps it is a cultural thing, or a sexist thing. Women live in constant fear. It isn’t a gripping fear, or a disabling fear. Maybe to call it fear is wrong. Women live in an awareness. Women live in a land of possibility. Women have to be more aware of possibilities than men do, which makes us constantly evaluate situations, often basing our judgements and risks on our experience of romance or stereotypes. The higher the perceived risk in a situation, the more likely a woman defaults to he stereotypical view. If a situation is low-risk by being in an environment that she knows or with people that were introduced through someone that she trusts, then the woman is much more likely to default to her romantic view. This leads to women romanticising assholes just because a good friend introduced them to us, or we met them at a burner event, and stereotyping potentially nice guys as creepers because they didn’t have the right introduction.
I am not sure where I am going with these thoughts. I have only been to Venice once, after all. It isn’t much to base anything on.
I went to Venice, once.