i arrived in venice rejuvenated. the peace and solitude of nice in the winter time had been exactly what i needed, and now i entered italy with a vigor and excitement. but i also spent a lot of time reflecting in the french riviera, and i was now even more aware of the effects the journey was having on me. i was more in tune with my reactions and emotions, and rather than shy away from the “why” of things, i was now embracing and dissecting it all. i was more open to experiences and people, and less intent on “conquering” locations and checking off list items, and more content to patiently absorb. i was indeed slowing down, but it wasn’t a bad thing.
i collected my pack at baggage claim and took a bus across the bridge and into venice. a thick, damp fog had descended from the dolomite mountains down to the floating city, limiting my visibility and relegating me to watching the raindrops collect and race each other from one side of my bus window to the other. when the bus pulled in, new instincts kicked in as i oriented myself directionally and then crossed east over a bridge and into the heart of venice.
i was confused and startled as i crossed the bridge. the wet haze from the fog was beginning to clear and separate, revealing a strange, snaking system of stage decks on small stilts winding its way through the city streets. i walked curiously alongside the narrow platforms, doing my best to avoid puddles that riddled the streets. had there been some sort of fashion show or weird progressive, movable theatre production that had taken place? what was the purpose of this makeshift elevated walkway? i wondered to myself as i tried to make my way north toward my hostel. men with gloves and yellow plastic bags over their boots appeared and began stacking the decks and loading them onto carts, rolling them away and out of sight. suddenly i realized these decks were walkways for people to commute on when the tide rose too high and flooded the city. i must have just missed a high tide flood. i had read previously that venice was slowly sinking and might someday be underwater if something wasn’t done to address it, and this must be a short-term solution for the people of the city.
i walked with a sense of bewilderment as i ambled in the general direction of my hostel. again, still without a phone gps, i was navigating old school with a map, but i was finding it hard to pay attention to a small piece of paper when the mystical romance of the venetians was calling to me at every old building facade and minorly amazing arched bridge. i wandered for hours with my pack still on my back, i had forgotten i needed to get to my hostel and check in. i was already in love with venice.
as i wandered i had the naive thought that it might be a cool thing to attempt to cross all the bridges in venice, so i began crossing every little tributary and footbridge i could find. to my amazement i would later discover that there were 477 bridges in venice, far too many for one little man to conquer in a few days. it was a nice thought though.
i finally found my hostel, l’embarcadero, located on the south bank of the grand canal in the center of venice, just opposite of cannaregio. it was a quaint little place with only a few rooms. i was sharing a 6 bed room with 4 koreans and one kid from new jersey, of indian descent. we chatted idly while i got settled in, as the koreans had no interest in joining in. they were all attached to their laptops and cellphones. it had begun to rain outside again, and rather than explore around in the wet dark, i decided it best to bunker down for the night and read a book. my good friends sam and jenna from amsterdam had long ago suggested i pick some books to read on the lonelier parts of my trip, possibly informative books that were related to the destinations i was traveling to. i had tried to pick up some historical books, but they had been a little too dry for me, and i had instead elected for the likes of hemingway’s “the sun also rises” in spain, coehlo’s “the alchemist” in morocco, and in nice i had started reading krakauer’s “into the wild.” into the wild was probably not the best selection for my time in italy, but it had been something i’d wanted to read for years. i devoured a few chapters and drifted off to sleep.
i awoke the next morning and tore off into the city, energized by the clear skies and sunshine. i walked mile after mile, unable to satiate my wanderlust. venice was a treasure. where some people had told me “venice is dirty,” i only saw beauty. an old leaning building with graffiti on it was incredible to me. because it was FLOATING. i laughed at the arrogance it must take for an ancient group of people to simply decide “no this is good. we’ll just build a city on the water.” without modern science or technology to aid. venice was built on sweat and determination (probably slave labor too, let’s be honest). it defied logic and my comprehension.
every bridge, every alley, every dead-end, every small plaza and courtyard, anything that looked even remotely interesting to me, i explored it. i couldn’t be bothered with museums, no thanks. if there was street musician busking for money, i threw some change in and listened for a song or two. i crossed the famed rialto bridge and lingered long enough to watch the gondoliers and boats drift and motor down the grand canal. i ventured to the bridge of sighs, which is a lot less romantic than it sounds if you know the history. i stumbled into st. mark’s square, dodging the legions of seagulls mischievously divebombing and strafing tourists with flyby poopings. i saw countless attractions and historical
landmarks, but my favorite places were always the smaller, less populated side streets and alleys, the nondescript and uninteresting areas that people actually lived in. i crossed one little wooden bridge up in cannaregio and happened upon 2 mammoth sized cats. they were gorgeous, the biggest cats i’d ever seen. they were hunting birds, and there wasn’t another human in sight. i walked up and they both eyed me suspiciously for a moment before deciding i wasn’t a threat. they let me photograph them both and scratch them each behind the ears before resuming their hunt. i continued wandering. if i saw enough people crowded in or out of a wine bar, i went in and had a glass by myself. i watched all the venetians laughing and enjoying the good life. venice was a city for the old and the rich, i saw very few young natives, and almost no children. it was my kind of
city. for 3 days i covered as much ground as i possibly could have, walking at least 15 miles each day.
on the second night, i had wandered all the way to the far southeast of the city to a park called parco delle rimembranze. it had beautiful sideways leaning trees that i sat down underneath as the sun began to go down. i watched two young boys play soccer on a nearby soccer pitch. after a peaceful while, i wandered back over by the docks to the northwest as the sky began to burn orange and then pink, and then fade to purple, a brilliant display adding vibrant color to a city that already boasted plenty from its own palette. i happened upon a happy couple sitting on a bench overlooking the breathtaking sunset with the city in the foreground. i kept my distance, not wanting to ruin their moment, but also taking in my own perfect moment from afar. their romance was my perfect postcard frozen in time. it was december, and venice was free from the obnoxious cruise ships and tour groups that plagued and polluted its rivers and streets. the docks, normally full with oversized tourboats and water taxis, were completely empty, and the visibility was wide open. if one wasn’t careful, they could walk unmolested right off the walkway and into the water, due to the lack of obstacles.
that night i went to a traditional venetian restaurant not far from my hostel. it was a small mom & pop place that likely was packed during tourist season, but tonight it was about half full, all patrons packed into one room while the adjoining room was dark and unused, giving the dining experience a more lively yet intimate experience. i was alone, and still a little self-conscious about it, but i forced myself to go in anyway.
“how many?” the maitre d’ asked politely.
“just me,” i replied sheepishly. she led me into the main room and to my dismay, sat me at a tiny table placed directly in the middle of the room, surrounded by all the couples and families all dining at their tables, happily chatting the night away. i had hoped to be more inconspicuous, a fly on the wall, but that would not be happening tonight. i took my seat at my solitary little space, a few people glanced over at me momentarily before going back to their meals. oh well, i thought, might as well make the most of it. i ordered a liter of wine and a big plate of pasta and bread, and put my headphones in and listened to some music. a romantic dinner for one.
about 30 minutes later, while i was finishing up dinner, a blonde woman suddenly sat down at the empty seat at my table. i looked up from my plate, startled, unsure what to do. after a moment i quickly yanked my headphones out of my ears to hear her repeating herself to me.
“what’s your story?” she asked enthusiastically in a british accent, perhaps lightly drunk.
“my story?” i asked with a confused smile. i had no idea what to make of the situation.
“you just look like someone who has lots of stories.”
i took a quick inventory of myself. i had a form-fitting plain white t-shirt on that probably made me look more muscular than i really was, and dark hiking pants to go with my hiking shoes. my beard had now grown in thick, and it’s shades of blonde on the chin and upper lip were accentuated by the bright red hairs on my cheeks and neck. the beard was now plunging an inch below my jawline, giving me a worn and almost apocalyptic look. i quickly looked about the room. everyone was dressed sharply, with collared shirts or ties on the men, fashionable dresses and scarves on the women. aesthetically, i was completely out of place.
“i guess i probably have a story or two to be told, depending on your favor…” i replied playfully. she asked me where i was from and how long i had been traveling for. “do you like venice?”
“yes, very much. this city is incredible” i shot back.
“it’s my favorite place to visit. i live in london, but i come here 4 times a year. once for every season. i don’t really travel to many other places, actually. have you traveled this entire time alone?”
“more or less, yes. but i’ve met a lot of amazing people along the way, so…” i couldn’t even finish my statement, as she cut me off, but i didn’t really have anything to say after that so i wasn’t upset.
“wow! that is incredible! and kind of sad…” her emotion changed so quickly in between the two statements, i couldn’t decide what was a greater realization to her. just then her boyfriend appeared from somewhere in the back, probably the bathroom, and the woman stood up and enthusiastically filled in her also british boyfriend in on what she had been able to learn from me in the 2 minute interaction. his reaction was less than genuine. “wow you don’t say? that’s great, mate. crack on!” he threw his arm around his girl and ushered her out of the restaurant. i sat there, confused by the whole interaction. i didn’t agree with her assessment of my journey. it wasn’t sad that i had traveled this whole way by myself. it was transcendent, self-fulfilling, life-affirming. … but the more i thought about it, there was a tinge of sadness to it as well. i didn’t feel sad, but i acknowledged the natural human reaction to want to share experience and adventure with company. i finished my meal and walked home in a light rain amid a confusion of thoughts and emotions. i was happy to crawl into bed and read a little about alexander supertramp and his foray “into the wild.”
after an hour of reading in the dark with my little reading light, i came upon a passage that struck me rather unexpectedly.
“mccandless was thrilled to be on his way north, and he was relieved as well – relieved that he had again evaded the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it. he had fled the claustrophobic confines of his family. he’d successfully kept jan burres and wayne westerberg at arm’s length, flitting out of their lives before anything was expected of him. and now he’d slipped painlessly out of ron franz’s life as well.”
i had almost finished the whole paragraph before i realized what i was reading. i went back and read it again. i looked up and stared blankly into the equally blank dark of the dorm room i was in. there were 5 other people sleeping in the room but they may as well have not even been there. i was dumbstruck. this stupid, narrow-minded, naive, incomplete little summary of chris “alexander supertramp” mccandless’ personal life and its relationships wholly, brilliantly, and perfectly described every friendship, every acquaintance, every family tie, and almost every romantic relationship i’d ever engaged in since age 18. i was paralyzed with an overwhelming simultaneous mix of confusion and greater understanding. i didn’t know what to do with all of this. this was not why i had chosen this book to read. i had loved the movie, i had loved the main character’s lust for adventure and the unknown. i had loved his independent determination to seek and soul-search without regard for consequence or worry of what “everyone else might think.” alexander supertramp was fearless and determined to see the world, and find his place in it. he was an inspiration for me. in the movie he was far from flawless, but he was hardly a victim. he was a conqueror. an overcomer. but the book was showing me another side of him. a vulnerable side. an emotionally stunted side. at first glance, one might think this character was one whom was emotionally cruel, and uncaring about those whom he’d influenced or become a part of their life. but i knew better. i knew this behavior all too well. his behavior was a symptom in service of trying to protect both parties. i had been doing it for a long time. if i could keep people just far enough at arm’s length, not only would i have no need to protect myself, but i could also protect them. if they didn’t get close enough, they couldn’t hurt me. and if i didn’t get close enough, i couldn’t hurt them. there was no accountability, no dependency, and leaving was easier. i had always heard people joke or talk about “fear of commitment” among my single friends when joking about the dating scene in your 20s, but this was different. this was something deeper. never before had i read something so concise that had stripped me so bare so quickly. i understood, but i was still confused. why? what made me identify with this so much? why had i engaged in my personal relationships in this manner? i tried to brush it off as a casual fluke of literature by reading on, hoping that the subject would change. it didn’t. only a few pages later, i stumbled onto another passage in the book, a quote from anthony storr’s “solitude: a return to the self.”
it is true that many creative people fail to make mature personal relationships, and some are extremely isolated. it is also true that, in some instances, trauma, in the shape of early separation or bereavement, has steered the potentially creative person toward developing aspects of his personality which can find fulfillment in comparative isolation. but this does not mean that solitary, creative pursuits are themselves pathological…
avoidance behavior is a response designed to protect the infant from behavioural disorganization. if we transfer this concept to adult life, we can see that an avoidant infant might very well develop into a person whose principal need was to find some kind of meaning and order in life which was not entirely or even chiefly, dependent upon interpersonal relationships. – anthony storr, solitude: a return to the self
and there it was. i had always wondered why i had perpetually had a difficult time in relationships, particularly my romantic relationships. and now, for once, above all suspicion or theory, i could finally see with partial clarity that it all came back to my childhood and my family. all the trauma and strife and conflict i had grown up in had taught me sub-consciously that the ones you love are the ones who hurt you the most. and the ones i loved had hurt me a lot. the environment i grew up in was emotionally hostile, and never was there a point where i felt i could share my true feelings without either being told they were wrong or fear that they’d later be used against me. so i bottled them up, kept them to myself. when i left home at 19 i went as far away from home as i could get, to arkansas. ever since then, i’d been systematically working to minimize contact with them so that i could focus on finding my own happiness and avoiding the pain and chaos that they had routinely brought into my life. i personally redefined words like “happy,” or “love,” using them only when i truly meant it, to my core. i went on a neverending crusade for authenticity. i stopped trusting almost everyone around me, letting people only see what i wanted them to see, trying to control people’s perception of me. very seldom did i let people in. it explained why i had only directed the word “love” toward another human less than the number of fingers i had on one hand. i had only told 3 women in my life that i loved them, and two of them were my mother and my sister (and even then it took me years to say again after i left home). the one time i told another woman i loved her was amid a confusion of emotions right as college was ending to someone whom i really did care about, but she was unaware of my feelings when i sprung this verbal outpouring of affection on her, and her only reply was shocked silence. my inexperience and emotional retardation at that point had only cemented my misunderstanding of the word and emotion of “love,” and this painful moment had only confirmed my worst suspicions of it. it wasn’t another 8 years til i felt as strongly as i did about another woman, and even then, when the affection was mutual, i couldn’t bring myself to tell her i loved her. i was too afraid of the ramifications. i was scared of what it might do to me. to us. so instead, i slowly let the relationship deteriorate. i did everything in my power to save the relationship except acknowledge how i truly felt. i thought i could slap bandaids on an open wound. i failed, and eventually the relationship did too, leaving me even more confused than i had ever been. instead, i continued on my aimless journey for authenticity, mistakenly certain that my misfortune thus far had simply been bad luck.
additionally, i had fallen further into the description above by placing “the perfect relationship” up onto a pedestal. i never wanted to duplicate the mistakes my parents had made, and i had unhealthily mythologized happiness into this untouchable thing that was impossible to get my hands on. i thought that if i could just find “the one,” that i could invest all this stored up energy into that one perfect-for-me person, and that everything else in my life would just work out. it would all fall into place. and then i’d have another check off my list. the right job, the right car, the right hobbies, and ultimately and most importantly, the right significant other, and then voila! i’m done. i would have arrived into blissful nirvana. it was almost exactly how the passage had described it, with one distinct difference:
we can see that an avoidant infant might very well develop into a person whose principal need was to find some kind of meaning and order in life which was not entirely or even chiefly, dependent upon interpersonal relationships.
the difference between me and chris mccandless/alexander supertramp was that chris had looked toward nature for fulfillment and deeper meaning. i had searched first in musical composition (i wrote songs tirelessly from age 18 til about 28 for hours on end of each day. lots of them, few of which i ever shared with anyone. i thought someday i might become famous or something, and that people liking my music might somehow make me understood and happy), and then in career (throwing myself into the corporate world, trying to climb the ladder.) but mainly, throughout all that, my main hope was that any of these successes would lead me to the right person who would make me happy. it still always came back to an unreasonable expectation that i could find fulfillment in another person’s affection, and because of that, i had been running in circles since the day i had become an adult. refusing to let anyone get close to me, but singularly directing all importance toward finding an impossible someone who would need to get close to me. i was so fucked up and lost that i thought i had been walking in the right direction the whole time.
i closed the book. i didn’t want to read anymore. part of me wished i hadn’t started reading any book at all, but part of me had a sense of exhausted relief. it felt like i may have just solved a great riddle that had been haunting me ever since i could remember. i still didn’t know exactly what to do with all of this. a few light tears began to make their way down my face, and i didn’t fight them in the darkness. i couldn’t see a damn thing, but for once, blindness felt kinda nice.
i woke up the next morning in venice. i was still in venice, the same place i had been when i fell asleep. but i felt like i had come a long way since i had arrived in the floating city just days before.
this week’s song choice comes from the band “panama,” a duo based out of australia. the song is their new single “jungle,” and sports a melancholy tone with thoughtful, intimate lyrics and walls and waves of synth coming and going, building a fantastic soundscape to listen to. in the music video (below), one of the first props that can be seen is the book “franny and zooey,” by reclusive writer j.d. salinger, one of my all-time favorite authors. it’s the story of a girl going through an existential crisis, and her brother who helps guide her through to a place of clearer understanding. it’s a story i’ve always loved due to the richness of salinger’s characters, and the depth and complexity of the subject matter. it’s also one i find particularly relevant to my time and realizations in venice. enjoy…
and for those following the seasonal playlist at home…
6 thoughts on “solitude and self-discovery in venice, italy”
I’m so glad this extraordinary insight is now Yours. Painful, I know…but I assume worth it in the end. Thanks for Your vulnerability.
thank you for reading and for your kind words silentlee. sometimes truth is indeed painful, but it’s a cleansing truth 🙂
If a year on the road led you to this truth about yourself, it was a year well spent indeed.
thanks katy, i agree! hopefully there are many more truths to be learned!
It is quite interesting how much about ourselves we can learn, when we pay attention. You got to a conclusion that is key to your self-development. Congrats on that, not many people ever reach that point.
thank you 🙂