Venice at night. The day-tripper tourists have left town, the restaurants are closing, and the shadowy streets and canals echo with the sounds of dishes being gathered, floors mopped, and the heavy-soled shoes of off-duty waiters as they make their way towards the train station and home. This is the best time to be in Venice. The carnival ride is over, the big top gone dark. Nothing left but the old stone, the lapping of water against the mossy walls of canals, the eerie lighting, and the occasional side show.
Martine and I are in the sestiere of San Polo, across the Grand Canal from the touristy theme park that is San Marco. We are walking through the dimly-lit streets, some so narrow you risk scraping your elbows. Around every turn is a new surprise; a piazza flanked by sagging churches, a canal that appears unexpectedly, or perhaps a street even narrower than the last.
In a small piazelle, tucked between several crumbling brick facades, we pause to look at a display in the window of a darkened shop. Cascades of elegant lace tumble over fans of exquisite orange, red, and ochre silk fabric. The effect in the dim window light is stunning.
Behind us a man in his late twenties rounds a corner. He is tall and slim, slightly hunched over, perhaps a bit drunk. He has long, almost feminine dirty-blond rock star hair, tussled just so over the shoulders of his slightly rumpled Dolce & Gabbana jacket. A swirl of smoke unwinds from a long white cigarette that is clasped at the fingertips of his left hand. He walks past us and turns right, down a ridiculously narrow and barely lit gap between two buildings.
We look again at the window display. A moment later the man returns, trailing cigarette smoke. His poise is that of a young man who can have anything in the world. His tailored jeans and hand-made leather shoes speak of parents’ old money, but they are worn casually, in a way that says “hipster” or “socialite.” Or both.
I imagine him a few years ago, as a student, spending his winters at the Sorbonne with long weekends in London and Barcelona to break the monotony. Summers were spent in Venice and Florence, following the art. This, to the dismay of his parents, who consider such pursuits to be frivolous. They’d rather he take an interest in law, or business. Something that will allow him to be respectable and influential, even in a life of leisure.
He has been through the Louvre too many times to count, and he knows the Uffizi like the back of his hand. That is to say, he knows where the cafes and the lavatories are. The art is lush and velvety on his eyes but he can never remember where to find the pieces he really likes.
Now, nearing 30, he is finally growing up. This is his last summer in Venice. He knows that his only chance for happiness and the freedom to pursue his métier is to find a suitable heiress to marry. Failing that, he must settle for an occupation.
He approaches the window and speaks in a low voice as a cloud of exhaled cigarette smoke swishes through his hair, back-lit cinematically. It sounds like he says “what are you looking for?” Martine thinks its “Is this 24?” All I can muster by way of response is “Huh?”
He looks longingly at the window and motions towards it with the hand holding the cigarette. It is a practiced, elegant motion; the motion of a privileged European smoker, one who can point at a thing while, palm upraised, never loses the ash of the cigarette at the tips of his fingers. “This… is beautiful” he says in English, with a pan-European aristocratic accent.
“Uh… yeah” I say. He turns on his heel and walks away, hunched over, one hand in his pocket and the other holding the cigarette. He rounds a corner and is gone.
Curious, I walk over to the narrow crack of a street, the one he had entered and returned from. It runs about 100 feet, with a slight curve and a dim streetlight in the middle. At the end is pure darkness. I enter. The walls are less than three feet apart. It is dead quiet except for the sound of my shoes on the paving stones. At the end of the street, five steps lead down to a small, unlit canal. There is no gate, no warning, no change in texture on the ground to signal this hazard. Just a sudden plunge into the wet blackness.