DON’T DRINK THE WATER
Over a thousand years old, the monuments wear the moss of the faded glory of an empire, the tangled web of warren-like alleys link the mosaic of piazzas, a whiff of enchanted decadence drifts with the breeze, and the dark and twisted history of the town lurks around each corner. Mystery and death intermingle with intrigue and treachery, the companions of great wealth and power.
Today there are still no cars, no sounds of traffic, no hissing or squealing of tires, no exhaust, no traffic signals and walk/don’t walk signs, just endless narrow canals separating little islands of calm and tranquility. The sidewalks are lined with shops, cafes and boutiques, with restaurants spilling out into the squares, bustling waiters in starched white shirts under formal black jackets.
There is only one Venice, Italy. In the late afternoon when the throng of the “3 hour tourists’ scatter like the pigeons (yes, during midday it is best to explore the Castello or Dorsoduro neighborhoods and stay away from the central square) it is wondrous to visit St Mark’s Cathedral, the 10th century hodgepodge of architectural styles that Rick Steves calls “early ransack.” He’s right, but it is still a magnificent mix of Christian, Muslim, Arabic, Byzantine and You-Must-Have-Found-This-In-Your-Grandmother’s-House styles. At night with only the moon overhead and a few ornately delicate gaslight lamps to illuminate the facade, it seems to float above the square. Don’t look too closely or you’ll see the walls and columns are at crazy angles, shifting and leaning ever more as the wood pilings on which most of the city is built, shift and erode. The cathedral occupies one side of the huge rectangular St Mark’s Square, which is surrounded on the other three sides by elegant white marble Renaissance buildings, festooned with tiny twinkling lights along the even rows of windows. The history is epic, the sea food world renowned and the gondola rides enchanting, (at least once but don’t expect the gondoliers to sing for free).
No, the town isn’t really sinking much, but yes there is ever more flooding because with climate change comes higher sea levels. Hence, Venice is prone to have ever more high water days. Usually ‘high water’ means something like ankle deep, flowing in from the Adriatic Sea for a few hours and then out again. If you were so inclined, you could look at that as an efficient way to keep the streets clean, and indeed, they are unbelievably clean.
Sometimes though, Mother Nature conspires to have the tides coincide with the wind direction which causes high water, but the Venetians have a better and far more colorful myth. The sea sweeps into the town when Mama Giacometti’s pasta turns out badly. If it’s a good batch, you’re safe. If it sticks together and is pasty, she rants throughout the apartment building yelling and pounding her feet, causing the wood pilings beneath to vibrate and the sea to flow into town. At least it seems that way to me, much more random than the meteorologists would have you believe. I’ve met Mama Giacometti and believe me, she could cause this.
In the past, the flooding occurred rarely and only in winter so, having only been in the other seasons, I’d never experienced this adventure. That was about to change one beautiful summer day. I had a wonderful group of sturdy, adventurous folk, a terrific family among them, and we had enjoyed sunny, mild June weather for our time in Venice when on our final afternoon, I heard a steady, low siren drift across the town. I didn’t think much about it but noticed the shopkeepers begin to install barriers at their front doors low enough to step over but a good foot in height and very tight fitting. After the second siren call, I stepped into a cafe and asked in my broken Italian what was happening. The woman looked at me as if I were an addle-headed fool. FLOOD!, she pronounced! I glanced at the dry pavement outside and she said with exasperation, ‘Non adesso, piu tardi! Not now, later!’ Relieved I interpreted later as ‘late that night’ and the group and I walked to our dinner restaurant, avoiding the few damp patches, and dismissed the reactions as exaggerations
After dinner, we stepped onto dry pavement and began to walk back to the hotel, talking about the great meal and how lucky we were to have avoided the problem. Then we turned a corner and saw the sheen of water covering the sidewalk. Even as we stood there staring, we could see the water snake its way toward us, mirroring the shops’ bright lights and displays, filling the lane from side to side. I turned a corner abruptly and took another route but that too was blocked. Then another and another until I realized that we were on an island and that every route back was covered with water.
Since it seemed only a few inches deep, we took off our sandals, rolled up our pants and walked through it but the closer we got to our hotel, the deeper it became. By the time we reached St Mark’s Square, the water was thigh high and swirling. We darted down a side alley where it was shallower, passed diners sitting at tables with their feet in 5 inches of liquid and noticed they were being served by waiters in shorts. Why interrupt dinner for a bit of extra water? The whole scene was out of Bizarro-Land. We all laughed at the wine sipping diners who toasted us as we slogged past.
By midnight, all of the water had drained away more quickly than it had come, the squares and lanes now drying and swept clean. I went out for a quick stroll past St Mark’s. The Square was empty, the moon high, and the tantalizing sense of mystery and intrigue settled once again over the town, the whiff of decadence returning. Venice, as Babylon and Nineveh, will eventually disappear because nothing lasts, but for that moment, it was mine to enjoy.
Article #2 MADAM & THE METRO
When people are asked to conjure up a vision of London, they usually select all of the well known icons that most of the world easily recognizes, even in silhouette. The first is Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It’s impressive, no question there, and has come to represent the city well. The glowing circle of the clock can be seen all up and down the River Thames and the tolling of the bell heard for miles. It’s wonderful. Then there is the inspiring dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, the historic Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. All worth seeing for various reasons, at least once in your life. Others that are hawked to tourists like Madame Tussaud’s or the London Dungeon are just dreadful, as boring as a collection of past- their-prime stuffed animals. Ever been to a Madame Tussaud’s? It’s as if you died and went to Hell, that being the worst cocktail party of your life where no one spoke to you, everyone was stiff and lifeless, the beer was flat and the food tasted like wax.
None of the above is my favorite London icon because after a couple of viewings, all of them get a bit stale. The Crown Jewels don’t glitter any brighter, St Paul’s dome looks the same after 350 years, the Abbey hasn’t had a recent wedding or funeral, and Big Ben tolls now as it did when Victoria was queen. They are great in their own ways but I now prefer something not so static, something that is changeable and vibrant. My favorite London icon is the London Tube, or subway.
Yes, you read that right, my favorite is the Tube. It is rich with history but changes day to day, in fact, minute to minute. It is the embodiment of the modern era as well as a bridge to London’s Victorian past. It is the soul, the heart and blood, of a living, breathing city, not some ‘made for tourists’ attraction.
The Tube, so named because the tunnels are circular, is the great melting pot of the city. Men in tuxedos and women in ball gowns ride with beggers and street people, tourists with locals, doctors and lawyers with shopkeepers and street cleaners. The wonder of it all is often how courteous people in this big mix are to one another. It is simply expected that riding the escalator to or from the subway, if you want to stay put, you move to the right and let everyone who wants to move past you do so on your left. If there is a space between the train and the platform, a kind voice reminds you to “Mind the Gap”, a phrase that has also become iconic. Riders routinely stand to give up their seats to pregnant women and the elderly. It’s quite remarkable.
Every day there’s a new adventure. Once I glanced down an impossibly long escalator and saw at least 30 pandas on their way to the Jubilee subway line. In a stunt to publicize the new panda exhibit at the London Zoo, a few dozen employees dressed up as pandas and rode the subway for much of the day. Another time a sign posted by the city advised that there had been ghost sightings recently and that since they were riding without tickets, other travelers were to report them to authorities immediately. Then there was the large group of pranksters dressed as Antarctic puffins who handed out shaved ice on a particularly hot day (they must have roasted in those costumes.) And none of my friends can forget the time a bunch of us on the Piccadilly Line sang ‘Love Potion Number 9’, as loud as we were flat, and we were very loud. But my favorite was when an older well-dressed gentleman boarded the car at Victoria Station with a small bistro table and chair, set them up at one end of the car, poured himself a glass of wine, sat down and read a novel. The other riders, having become completely used to strange behavior, hardly gave him a glance.
Even the station names are synonymous with something exciting. Piccadilly Station in the vibrant theater district; Trafalgar Square for the National Gallery of Art; and Covent Garden for the famed market and restaurants. Many have been enshrined in literature and film such as Charing Cross and Baker Street, woven into English language culture like infinite threads.
Others can drag themselves through Madame Tussaud’s and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, but give me the Tube any day for new excitement and wonder.
Article #1. Life, Death and Progress in the Era of Pandemic 1348-2020
Imagine if you will, just for a moment, that you live in the small English countryside village of Kingchester. You are a prosperous wool merchant with a family and life is good. You regularly go to the market in Shiring, a larger town a half day’s ride distant, to sell your wool and bring back grain. The year is 1348, King Edward III is on the throne and all is well.
One market day in Shiring you hear rumors of a disease that is spreading throughout the countryside but you are unconcerned and return home with bags of grain you traded for your wool. The grain has some live rodents in it but that’s normal and you share the grain with your large family. Soon after however, members of your family begin to sicken with high fevers and develop huge black blotches on their skin. You need to go back to Shiring to sell more wool but Old Lady Maude, who brews potions for sore throats and sets broken bones, warns you against returning. Although she has always given good advice, you now think she’s daft because you want to sell more wool, you have always traveled and you have always done exactly what you wanted.
This time the grain you return with has both live and dead rodents in it and even more people are sick and dying of what they call the Black Plague. You argue that the business must continue or everyone will starve but you look around and see that there are less and less to starve since so many have already died. The villagers begin to perish by the dozens and you know that Maude was right. One morning you awake with a high fever and notice the ominous black blotches and realize that you are next.
It’s late January 2020. You are a prosperous computer chip entrepreneur in Seattle and make frequent visits to the tech centers in China, including to a city named Wuhan. You sell your products and purchase semi conductors which you bring back to the US. The economy is good and all is well.
One day in Wuhan you hear rumors of a disease that is spreading throughout the countryside but you are unconcerned and return home. Some health experts begin to issue dire warnings of the fast spreading virus that can sicken and kill in as little as 4 or 5 days. Heedless you return to Wuhan, ignoring the concerns of the doctors and nurses.
You enter a city that is locked down, scores of neighborhoods that people are not allowed in or out of, dead bodies left in the street for pick up, overwhelming crematoriums and funeral parlors. Everyone must wear a mask and stay 2 meters from each other. You are in the middle of a pandemic and if you don’t leave immediately, you will not be allowed back in the US. You hastily return but you are now burning with fever and doubled over with wracking coughs. Your final thought is the question, ‘what are they putting down my throat’.
“We suffer into knowledge,” the ancient Greek poet Aeschylus wrote. Apparently, sometimes we simply suffer and reject the knowledge we should gain. 700 years separates us from that pandemic, yet despite our supposed progress, we seem still to self victimize as they did. There were conspiracies and massive misinformation in the 1300s exactly as today. It makes one wonder how much knowledge we have gained and how much progress we have made.