When I was in middle school, I read The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke. It was about a group of runaway children living in Venice. It was so beautiful, so magical, so vivid, that I read it again and again. It is one of the most concrete things I can use to account for my obsession with all things Italian—that and growing up hearing stories of Italy from my mother’s family. The first complete sentence I remember speaking in Italian on my own—not part of an exercise or group activity—was “Io voglio andare in Italia” (“I want to go to Italy”), followed closely by “Io voglio andare a Venezia” (prepositions in Italian are hard, guys). This was my dream. In high school, I wrote a short story set in Venice that later became a chapter of my honors thesis novel. There wasn’t enough time to go when I studied abroad in Torino three years ago, so this year in Italy, I was going. I had nine months in Italy, so I was going. And Italy might have been rough, but I’d been dreaming of going to Venice for half my life, and nothing was going to stop me. I. Was. Going.
But here’s the thing. Italy was my dream too, and for a whole lot of reasons, it didn’t go as planned. So what if Venice wasn’t everything I’d dreamed? What if it wasn’t magical at all? What if it was so crowded with tourists we couldn’t move? What if—and here’s where it started to get irrational—what if a car snuck in and managed to run me over even there? You get the point. When I stepped out of the train station with Mopsy and my mom, I was painfully excited, and at the same time, terrified that it would not be real, that this last dream that I had clung to all year would fall apart in my hands.
But it didn’t. Because from the moment we stepped out of the train station, it was magical. The light glittered off the Grand Canal. The gondolieri sang as they rowed. The breeze was cool and smelled of salt and fresh fish. There were no cars attempting to run me over (this was a big deal to me), and I didn’t even fall into a canal.
Yes, there were a ton of tourists, especially around the Rialto Bridge and the Piazza San Marco, but it’s Venice, and I actually found that the Italians were more friendly to me speaking Italian than they were in Rome and Florence. In Rome and Florence, they would continue speaking English, despite me repeatedly speaking in Italian. In Venice, they almost all exclaimed, “You speak Italian so well!” and then switched to Italian themselves. I also had absolutely no trouble bringing Mopsy in anywhere, which I think is a first. In fact, people were always really helpful, bringing Mopsy bowls of cool water without me even asking (it was 90 degrees every day).
Despite the heat, we stayed outside mostly, avoiding the big indoor tourist attractions, walking around and experiencing the city. We took a private tour, where we learned all about the history of Venice—how it was built in the sixth century when the people on the Italian mainland fled invading barbarians, how they later cut down the forests on the mainland and sank the trunks in the lagoon to support the city, how Venice is really an archipelago of something like a hundred fifty islands. Our guide took us to the parts of Venice where the real people lived, and we sampled traditional Venetian snacks—called cicchetti—with the traditional Venetian drink, the aperol spritz. In particular, she showed us all around the old Jewish ghetto, which I was really interested in because of my research into World War II in Italy my senior year of college. Not only did she tell us all about the history of the quarter and the city at large, but the tour also really helped to orient us in the city, which is something we desperately needed, what with all the canals and rios and campos and piazzas and alleyways so narrow your shoulders brushed the sides. They say getting lost in Venice is to be expected, and even part of the romance of the city, but it’s one thing to get lost in the light of day when you’re wandering towards something and don’t mind experiencing the city like that, but quite another to get lost at night, when you’re tired after a long day of travel, and just want to find your way back to the hotel, which is what happened to us our first night. So finding our “tiggerings and bearings” in the city with the tour guide was really helpful, and made us much more confident finding our way around the rest of the time.
The main city of Venice is divided into six sections, called sestieri, and we walked around all of them, through the tiny alleyways, across the narrow rios, up and over bridges, along the fondamentas beside the water. We ate gelato and listened to music in the Piazza San Marco. We took the vaporetto out to the islands and explored Murano and Burano. We did it all, and Venice is definitely on my list of places I want to come back to when I return to Italy.
Notice I didn’t say “if I return to Italy.”
Because even though this year has been rough at times, I have grown and changed so much, and I have met some truly amazing people and done some truly amazing things. And one day, I will come back. Because if I learned one thing from going to Venice, it’s that even if some dreams change and some don’t work out the way you wanted, some come true.