17 April, Venice
Oysters, mussels, a monster's face
17 — Clear bright morning, the rolling sounds of bells over and over, sea-like bells washing the city, clean and calming and celebratory, it is Easter Sunday. All is unpolished white and milk blue. Passing the Arsenale with its military warning signs, the beautiful pool behind it. Would the British Navy be able to keep such prime real estate? I doubt it and don’t know if I like this or not. I wouldn’t like it if I were Italian, but I’m not, so its charming. I sit briefly stroking the mussels and oysters embedded in the steps, half-trying to take one, watching seaweed and the canal fish passing by. I suppose these fish are Venice’s pigeons, forgetting that Venice’s pigeons are its pigeons.
A monster’s face has been worn away by stroking and rain, I rub its nose with my thumb. The stone here tastes of salt. A fleet of men pass, strong arms wheeling carts full of suitcases, behind them a smartly dressed family stroll looking at the sky, talking nonchalantly in Norwegian. You forget until you remember — there are no cars here. I duck into a pastry shop for coffee, am served a macchiato by a man with an English sergeant’s moustache, neat, clipped. Everywhere are art people dressed in black, calm-faced, looking so purposeful trotting past uncomfortable tourists. It is almost impossible to be happy while carrying a bag.
I see a nice church, and duck along a little canalside path, a sign for the Hellenic Museum, which is reached by going into a dark lobby with an icon, at whom I make a face, and then through two very closed looking doors, up a staircase and there it is — a room full of icons and a desk where a lady tells me she has no card machine to take the €2 admission price. Signs in Greek, Italian and English. I look around quickly — taking in as many free icons as I can — then smile and walk downstairs and out to the church, which is Greek. Stately, white, cake-like, a leaning tower opposite. Very calm. The statues look like Greeks.
Inside the chaos and mumbling alien Eastern singing of the Greek Liturgy, the low-low humming, the intoning, women singing like birds atop. There must be twenty people here at most, watching five singers and three priests, and it feels like a very special private performance. I try and catch when the parishioners genuflect, the specific rhythm of it. A priest in his tent-like cloak walks purposefully among us, swinging the psalter at each, locking eyes. I feel an outsider, a trespasser but soften this by pretending I’m undergoing a religious conversion. I am entranced for fifteen or so minutes and, suddenly, boredom overtakes me.
P tells me they always travel with an oyster shuck and a juicer and is wearing a T-shirt that reads ‘I <3 cum’. They are meeting their friend M at his hotel to go for a run, and we walk together along the Riva. Suddenly busy, hectic, a hum of tourists and men hawking. “The season has arrived.” A woman is filmed in a tight red jumpsuit, her poses exaggerated — a satire? — a microphone shoved in her face, the lagoon behind her. We shudder. M speaks very lovely Italian as he buys a bottle of water. They walk off to the Giardini. His first time at a Biennialle was in utero.
Lo’ and I sit inside a greenhouse, drinking white wine. The air is crisp and cool, people are reading newspapers, children play in the garden. Our friends S and I come to the window, grinning. It’s like a festival here — one walks miles every day, back and forth, there are no cars, you bump into people, you drink too much. We gossip in whispers, mindful about who may be beside us, heads lowered. They are producing a book for one of Ukraine’s Pavilions — one centred around the war and resistance, the ‘emergency pavilion’, organised in part by the Office of the President.
As we finish eating a man takes the table beside us, removing his jacket and folding his coat with incredible poise, his short dreadlocks dyed blue. As he assesses the room he notices S and I, whose back are to him, and says hello, what are the chances! He tells us he’s enjoying writing in Venice, that he likes ambient noise to work to. A little mental scrambling as they talk, and I realise he is David Zilber, fermentation wizard formerly of Noma. He tells us about an invasive seaweed that is let out of cruise ships when they come to Venice — out of the ballast because the lagoon is shallow — and is now endemic to the city’s canals. It is delicious, and his initial plan was to make it into pesto and supply this to restaurants here, creating a circular economy. “Venetian Seaweed sounds lovely.” But, he says, he is used to working at restaurants, not with artists, and the plan has fallen through. Instead he has some seaweed in jars. He is unusually nice.
They show us where the pavilion will be — a big building, flanked by Ukrainian Flags bearing Zelenski’s signature. Lo takes a picture for her mother, and we leave them, wandering across the city. There is so much that is beautiful that crude things, odd things become most appealing — a warped, strange iron railing in the shape of a vase with flowers, a door with an eye in the middle that looks like a vulva. At the flat help P load their bags into Chanel’s watertaxi sent to take them to the hotel the foundation have got her. We ride too, standing up at the back, overexcited, and when we land at the hotel’s pier are greeted as if we are long-awaited and missed friends. Hotels are peculiar. Here they are uniformly full of Morano glass.
We wander, wander. We find a Jesus painting by an outsider artist, his little house full of flowers and hung with lace. I remember how Moorish Venice is, how arbitrary its inclusion in Europe is — how arbitrary Europe is. Byzantine. Eyes become tired. Return home, finding bits for a salad en route — no mean business when there’s nowhere open — sleep early.