Life and Death in Venice

Like others earlier this year, my heart leapt about the news of swans and dolphins reclaiming the Venetian Lagoon due to the lack of human activity during Italy’s COVID-19 shutdown. Too good to be true? Yes, as The National Geographic pointed out. It was fake news. Nevertheless, the waters are a lot clearer than they used to be.

Here’s what they looked like three years ago when my husband and I visited. (Click on the National Geographic link above to see what they look like now).

I really wanted to love Venice, but I didn’t. Maybe it was the mist, or the predominant grey, or the fact that I was starting to feel homesick, or the lack of green spaces and the abundance of tourists (and yes, I was one of them), but all of this accumulated to a melancholy that clung to me like water on a dog.

View of the elegant and symmetrical Doge’s Palace (right) and the Campanile (bell tower) in St. Mark’s Square from a vaporetto (the public transportation boat system that work like our city buses)
Artist painting the striking Rialto Bridge

To be fair, when the sun visited for a few minutes, I couldn’t believe how much the city transformed. What was dull and grey seemed to burst into colour and glisten.

Venice was very much alive with tourists, but dead of locals. As a stroller-pushing mother now, I can see why the city isn’t appealing to young families. I wouldn’t want to be running errands while manoeuvring a stroller across narrow cobblestone streets and up and over the many bridges, as beautiful as they are.

Everything costs more in this city of a hundred islands because all items have to be transported from the mainland. Apartments are small, expensive, up many stairs and/or prone to flooding. Maintenance costs alone must be astronomical, not to mention the bureaucratic red tape one needs to navigate to do any repairs while preserving the heritage of the buildings.

Since the city loses about 1000 residents a year, I wonder how long before Venice itself becomes a “fake city”; somewhere you travel to like a theme park, but not somewhere you live.

I hope this is never the case because it would be a loss if Venice was rid of local life (the garbage boats collecting people’s trash; the woman picking up after her dog who shat in a campo) and was flooded with even more striped-shirted gondoliers, brightly-vested tour guides holding up fluorescent flags, smartphone and selfie stick-yielding tourists posing and reposing again until the shot is Instagram perfect.

View through one of the windows of the Bridge of Sighs that connects the Doge’s Palace with the prison
St. Mark’s Square with St. Mark’s Basilica in the background
Doge’s Palace

Intentionally getting lost is one way to avoid the crowds (and just a good idea in general if you’ve got time to spare in a place like this). My husband and I stumbled upon some quiet, empty scenes but they were such a contrast to the “alive” Venice that they felt more eerie than refreshing. It’s as if you have to choose between the carnival Venice of St. Mark’s Square or the ghostlike Venice of back alleys. Can I opt for neither?

This Isn’t the Whole Story

After four months postpartum, I am ready to enter the world again. But the world will not let me, nor any of us right now.

life before coronavirus

I am grateful I became a mom before COVID-19 took over. For those difficult newborn months, which Lydia Laceby accurately describes as “The 100 Days of Darkness,” I had help: family and friends coming over and even staying the night to hold my daughter so I could (try to) sleep. Helping me feed her when it was a multiple person job. Bringing us food. Cleaning our house. Keeping me company while I pumped. Calling and texting to check in and offer support.

There was some trauma in my transition to motherhood, but I want to remember that season because even though it was the hardest one I’ve lived, it’s also the season I’ve felt the most loved.

I wonder if I’ll look back on COVID-19 and say the same thing: that it was incredibly hard and people loved each other fiercely in creative and surprising ways. Both/and.

life during coronavirus

There are a number of sites and shows emerging now that share good news stories around the world, such as SGN by actor John Krasinski.

A local Facebook moms group I am part of has requested videos of our children doing silly/funny/cute things to put together for a seniors’ residence to lift their spirits during this acute time of isolation and loneliness.

I FaceTimed with a close friend in Ottawa who said her dad can’t visit their mom in her room at a nursing home anymore where she is suffering from Alzheimers. But he can arrange to come by her window and speak with her through the glass. She said there was something poetic about that image of her parents. A bit like Romeo and Juliet. I could hear the smile in her voice as she pictured it.

I strangely feel more connected with neighbours, chatting over fences, seeing each other on walks, and coming out of our cocoons for the 7pm ritual of applauding health care workers. One baked us paska (Easter bread).

I go for bike rides in this glorious Vancouver spring and look for houses with hearts in the windows that spread love from a distance and provide an outdoor scavenger hunt for cooped up kids.

I ride under blooming cherry blossom trees that are oblivious to a global virus, reminding me there is still beauty in the world.

I hold my daughter close, thankful for her giggles and pterodactyl noises. For the way she smiles with her whole mouth, showing off her two bottom teeth, when we lift her above our heads for flying lessons. For her lack of inhibition in putting any and everything in her mouth like a scientist testing out all the data. The way she can dismantle her activity gym with one fell swoop. For her intense curiosity of hands, straps, and zippers. The way her eyes sparkle when I say the word “gobble.” The way she lies on the change pad, legs bent like a turkey. How she thumps her feet against the bed in excitement after a nap, indicating she’s ready to play.

During these dark days of COVID-19, I find myself needing and wanting to practice gratitude while not ignoring the grief. Grief over the loss of lives, jobs, skin-to-skin connections, routines, stability, you can fill in the blank______. There are collective laments and there are individual ones. My pastor friend wisely reminded me that just because your griefs might not be as bad as other peoples’ (you’ll always find people who have it better and worse than you), it is still legitimate to feel them, name them, and grieve them.

It is Holy Week and I said to my friend how no one should give anything up for Lent this year since we’ve all had to give up too much already because of COVID-19. She wholeheartedly agreed: “This is the Lentiest Lent that ever Lented.” And just like that, I was laughing at the silliness of the phrase and how true it felt.

I remind myself that a Lenten season doesn’t last forever, even though when you’re in it, it seems that way.

A friend sat next to my bedside when I was severely suffering from insomnia (despite my daughter being a great sleeper) and spoke similar words of hope over me:

“This isn’t the whole story. Though you’ve been more awake than anyone should be for the past three months, this won’t last forever.”

She was right.