Swans Commentary » swans.com July 31, 2006  



Post Cards


by Peter Byrne


Short Story



(Swans - July 31, 2006)  "But you didn't even like Disneyland," said Helen.

She stood with her husband Charles in the Piazzetta. He knew a lot about Venice, but she knew you never called this space beside St. Mark's a piazza, that was the big enclosed space behind. She eased him out of the way with her fingertips. It was the Venetian lagoon she'd come to see, not Chuck.

His lips pursed in a refusal of his own, disguised as discernment.

"Disneyland was genuine," he said, "and there were no live pigeons."

"Doves," said Helen under her breath.

"Pigeons," said Chuck with finality.

Helen had to admit that the view wasn't at all like the photograph she'd seen of the same scene. There were no tourists in the photo. It must have been taken at daybreak or with people roped out. The sun fell from the Ducal Palace side as if across the mouth of a tunnel. There was bright water and promise at the end. The doves -- well, birds -- swarmed like bees on the pavement. With its bold pattern that was an artwork on its own. No ragged birds straggled out of the cluster. Helen supposed the photographer had put down a carpet of corn kernels in the dead center to keep them together. He'd caught the lacy Ducal Palace looking out of the shadows across the dark corridor. She'd forgotten the name of the Renaissance pile opposite. On the photo, the sun burnished the statues along its roof.

"Well?" asked Chuck.

Back when Helen had planned the trip, he'd made fun of the photo. He said he preferred calendar art with silicone-enhanced breasts. Since then he'd been talking up Disneyland.

Helen stuck to her expression of words-will-never-hurt-me and stared between the two freestanding pillars at the water. San Giorgio Island looked much colder without the photo's sunshine. The sky was a gray void now in early October. The trees on the tip of Giudecca were surely dead for good.

Chuck made a face and pointed.

"You realize that the winged beast on the pillar to the left has been replaced by an ersatz. St. Teodoro, on top of the other one, is repro as well. The originals couldn't stand up to the pollution."

Helen about-faced. She was angry. No, she wasn't angry, she wanted to cry. Instead she strode purposefully back through the Piazzetta.

Tourists stood around at random. Looking was the big thing, but they had trouble keeping their gaze directed. Their eyes wondered in search of another occupation. Some were dressed with a formal note, jackets, even ties, costlier materials. But most were in sportswear, some of it loose hanging and unbuttoned.

A Calcuttan on holiday still seemed a different species from a native of Oslo. That wasn't changed because they both wore the same pullover emblazoned with an identical joke in English. What did unite them were their cameras. Taking photos was serving as the more active pastime for the moment. Though a bit short on self-affirmation, it beat just looking. A professional photographer went among them proposing to photograph them photographing. His insistence was part of his old fashioned charm. So was his camera, and the tourists examined it as if were another exhibit of ancient art.

A midget with a wagon too high for him was selling corn kernels for pigeon feed. He laughed deep in his miniature barrel chest at nothing very obvious.

Chuck feigned surprise,

"I do believe, yes, it is synthetic corn he's selling."

Chuck's negations whipped up his own enthusiasm.

"Those horses up there on the Basilica aren't the ones that the Venetians stole from Constantinople either. They're substitutes, fiberglass or something."

Helen refused to notice the horses. She kept walking till she arrived before the blue and gold clock tower where on the hour two figures on top did violence to a bell with their mallets. She looked up, giving herself a countenance.

"Charming," said Chuck. "But you have to be here during Ascension week to see the other figures come out on parade."

Helen turned, and they walked together toward the box-like far end of the Piazza.

Tourists were lining up to climb the Bell Tower. Chuck swept it aside with a wave of his hand.

"That's du toc too. The original fell down in 1902, and they built this one."

Helen tried not to hear. They'd reached the center of the Piazza. Young tourists were horsing around and of course taking pictures of one another. Some of them sat on the pavement blocking the way. Chairs and tables flooded out from the cafés on both sides, almost all empty because of exorbitant prices. Only a narrow passage remained across the pavement. It was if the chairs had done a deal to divide up the space. Grounded pigeons, groggy with fat and wanting to be fed some more, obstructed the way.

Helen and Chuck paused near a cluster of tourists around a counter on wheels. Souvenir plaques hung from its sides. The vendor wasn't flaunting his wares, but seemed on the defensive. Too many passengers might embark and sink his gondola.

Chuck felt Helen's disarray as proof that his perception of Venice was not so farfetched after all, and he enjoyed himself the more.

"The drawing room of Europe, Napoleon called it. But he must have been sneering. A fine space, but what's it for? Bird watching? Self-contemplation via cameras? I don't see anyone I want to converse with or even examine too closely. At least the café bands aren't out thumping away yet."

Helen cut out wildly toward the Procuratie Nuove side. Chuck followed two steps behind now, sightseeing for the both of them. They continued under the arcades. Up ahead the tables of Florian's blocked their path with decorum. The lofty arcade ceiling had been screened meanly with chicken-coop wire to keep the swollen birds from roosting and defecating on the choice clientele.

Would she insist on going into the mummified old café? Chuck got his ammunition ready.

Helen did look in the window. Twelve Japanese uncomfortably occupied three tables. They sat very straight and attentive, as if not having come for food or drink, but to pose for portraits. That was in fact the explanation. One of the waiters had hoisted a camera to his world-weary face on their behalf.

Chuck was starting to feel sorry for Helen. Venice had more flaws than he'd remembered. They continued under the arcades.

Tourists, walking at various speeds, came against them. Chuck recognized the peculiar facial tension caused by people in a crowd pretending there was no crowd and that they were alone. Some labored to create the impression they existed in another, invisible dimension. Others dragged their eyes with method over every shop window, as if shopping was a one-to-one activity that guaranteed privacy. Several had foot complaints from the unaccustomed walking. One old man whose expression was frozen in astonishment had gone lame. He held his party back like a soldier wounded in battle.

There were obese Americans and towering Dutch, goggle-eyed Africans and Germans with clenched teeth. The Third World suppressed feelings of disorientation and adopted the developed world's pace. East Europeans, alive with their new wanderlust, turned sharp acquisitive noses from one side to the other.

Chuck preferred Helen not to get depressed.

"You must say for Venice," he conceded, "that it does make people smile."

She thought that over as they walked. It was true. Even the old boy had smiled through his surprise when his foot stuck to the pavement and he couldn't raise it again. The elderly British couple by the portal of the Correr Museum was obviously straining to keep in the dead center of a private circumference. But their twinned grimace could pass for a silly grin. Everyone liked Venice. No one looked unhappy. The occasional stern faces were locals going about their daily business or hurrying home hungry for lunch.

Chuck mused aloud,

"I suppose it's a Disneyland for rubbernecks. Or do they gape because there's nothing much to do? Throwing a handful of corn around can hardly use up their need for action. Remember those families in Orlando? They came through the gates like worker ants, with their teeth bared. They were going to get at the juice of the place. They were all hands-on and rolled-up sleeves."

His tone was more reasonable. Helen thought she could talk to him again.

"Nothing to do? The Accademia Gallery, the Fenice Opera House?"

Chuck welcomed her back by softening his tone.

"Ah, but not one in five hundred of these people will attend the opera. One in fifty may get to the Gallery, but then probably only from a sense of duty. No work for the ants here."

"What do you want, a Florida roller coaster?"

"There used to be one set up out of season on the front beyond the Arsenal. The locals had a weakness for it. But in the end it was judged unworthy, a distraction from contemplation. I think, though, a lot of these visitors would like a ride."

"You're forgetting that there are elite tourists."

"Where? I can't see any. All right, some have more money to spend than others. And a few scholars and specialists pass through. But they also get to Timbuktu."

No, Chuck wouldn't go complacent. He scoffed at the ostentation of the carriage trade shops along the narrow way toward Rio San Moise. They raised the flag of luxury, but on close examination it hung limp. The oriental carpets and oil paintings were permanent fixtures in the display windows. Real trade involved smaller, cheaper items: arty paperweights, jewelry, and worked-leather items for desks. This was of course a tourist highroad.

"Disneyland has some up-market stuff as well. But they don't sell you being an aristocrat too."

"They sell the trip to Orlando, being a good parent," snapped Helen. She wasn't going to be walked over.

"They're right if they do. After all they created the place out of nothing. It was like the founding of Venice. They hammered stakes into the lagoon, threw mud on them, and built up a city. The tourist industry here just attached itself like a barnacle to something other men had made centuries before. Disneyland was purpose built."

Chuck liked the sound of that.

At the bridge over the Rio the gondoliers were genteelly touting, but talking rough and loud among themselves. Helen couldn't imagine why the façade of St. Moise was all furrowed and bristling. Chuck sniggered at the easy target of the Bauer-Grunwald Hotel.

"Textbook case of disrespect for context. The boys at Disneyland would never have okayed it."

The quip Helen thought of wasn't all that pointed. So she said nothing as they walked down the wide Calle XII Marzo past banks, hotels, and antique shops.

"Look," said Chuck," stopping before the bare narrow window of a bakery. "There's a guy inside dressed up as a hot-bread baker. Naturally he couldn't make a go of it amid this expensive real estate. The Chamber of Commerce keeps him afloat. It encourages that Ye-Olde-Towne feeling, just like Disney's Swamp Bottom Cajun Alligator Fish Fry."

Helen came to peer in. She wasn't sure whether Chuck was pulling her leg.

"Oh, you won't get real bread there," he said. "The hotels bake their own. Anyway what would tourists do with it? Feed the pigeons? We have to eat in restaurants."

The baker did look a bit phony to Helen. His face seemed made-up and there wasn't much bread in evidence. But Chuck was surely having her on. They continued side by side and went into St. Maria del Giglio Church.

Once outside again, Chuck couldn't wait to sum up,

"It's like a souvenir jewel box."

They examined the names of places carved in relief on the front: Zara, Candia, Padua, Rome, Corfu, Spalatro.

"If you went to any one of those places now you'd find travel agents with posters of Venice in the windows," said Chuck.


"You don't feel the comedown? Those people used to have to worship stone Venetian lions. Othello in Cyprus..."

"Oh, history," said Helen.

To herself she admitted to have been seeking picture post card views around Venice. But he did nothing but moon over the past.

They linked arms and went on through the network of walkways. After the sudden light-shaft of a medium-sized campo, the way narrowed. The store windows were so close on both sides that less decisive pedestrians were pushed up against them. Tourists got jolted out of their dreamy gait and swiveling gaze by the hard-driving locals who watched their step and nothing else.

Helen dropped Chuck's arm and put her nose against a confectioner's window. He flattened himself beside her.

"Local specialties," he said.

"Set out so nicely," said Helen.

She admired the zip and sureness of the serving girls within.

"Sunset glories of the Republic," said Chuck. "At least this is a place both tourists and locals can approve of."

However there were two distinct streams of customers inside. One, that of the smilers, was sluggish. They pointed mutely to what they desired and couldn't indicate the quantity properly. The other stream, impatient Venetians, seemed vexed and worked their elbows liberally.

Helen and Chuck went on single file until Campo St. Stefano where the gray sky suddenly acquired weight and bore down on them. They and the other pedestrians spilled out of the calle in several distinct directions as if paths had been marked on the vast empty pavement.

Chuck steered Helen left toward the wide mouth of the funnel-shaped campo. They passed the back of an overcoat-clad statue with a pigeon on its head.

"Risorgimento dove-fancier," said Chuck. "Since then he's had time to learn a lot about pigeon shit."

Helen tut-tutted.

"Well you try to say dove shit, impossible," said Chuck, seriously.

They turned to pass in front of a church become an exhibition hall, went left and, after walking beside some shrubbery on one side and a canal on the other, climbed the steps of the Accademia Bridge.

"It's good to get on to some wood in all this stone," said Chuck.

Tourists stood out of the way along both railing balustrades. One or two leafed guidebooks. More were busy with cameras, in turn posing and snapping.

Helen stopped in the middle of the bridge, up against the high rail. It was a beam of heavily grained wood, worn smooth and pleasant to touch. But she thought of Chuck's comment and took her hands away.

The view perplexed her. The curve of mansions on the Grand Canal bank to the left was as it appeared in the illustrated books -- but duller of course, filmed over by, well, real life and the lusterless sky. At the Canal mouth the Salute Church gamely strained to hold its own with colored reproductions. Its thrust stood fast against the pressing gray weight. Helen could imagine how the sun would give it the substance and buoyancy that pictures showed. But, turning her head left, she couldn't explain the green patch over the water in the distance. Was it Venice at all? It couldn't be San Giorgio or Giudecca since they had to be nearer and to the right.

Chuck, behind her, tugged at her shoulder.

"Tourists are incredible. Look, don't miss this. See them in that gondola with their camera gear big as a washing machine!"

Helen pulled her shoulder back to herself and refused to follow his pointing finger. She folded her arms and held them tight against her waist. There was a ship moored in the distance near that patch of green.

Chuck was meaningfully silent behind her. He was adjusting to what he called her mood swings. How she detested all his maneuvering!

"Odd, this perspective," he said, reading her mind again, "still more deception. The last thing you would expect to see from the bridge here are the Gardens at Castello. But there they are. It's the Venetian sleight-of-hand. We think we're looking south but in fact are looking due east."

"Oh shut up!" said Helen and crossed the width of the bridge, taking up the same stance there. A crowd seethed around the Accademia boat stop. On the left she could pick out Ca Rezzonico and farther on Ca Foscari, before the perspective was cut off by a sharp curve in the Canal. Her eyes kept returning to all those people coming and going at the dock. There was a big kiosk for periodicals, and other counters for souvenirs and post cards.

Chuck came over. He was offended.

"Maybe you'd be less skittish alone. Let's both go our own ways until this evening. We can meet at the hotel."

Helen sought frantically for Ca Rezzonico and Ca Foscari again. She spoke without turning to him.

"I suppose you'll go back to the hotel restaurant now and find fault with the table manners. You hate Venice. I mean it's so vulgar, just another Disneyland. But you prefer it that way, don't you? What would you do if there were no mass tourists to laugh at?"

"Good bye," he said, "see you this evening." He argued when it pleased him to argue. A disputatious onslaught put him off. The strident note spoiled his style.

She didn't watch but knew he'd walked off in his upright way, down from the bridge on to the Accademia side. At last, thank goodness, she could have Venice to herself without him messing up the sight lines.

She watched the dock again. It was busy as a Manhattan subway station. But she turned away because Chuck was over there somewhere and she didn't want to see him. Or want him to think she was looking for him.

In fact he had already gone through the fringe of the crowd. He hadn't even glanced at the tourists, several of them obvious ninnies, uncertain even of whether they wished to go up or down the Grand Canal. The smilers were buying posters of the Carnival and straw boaters modeled on those the gondoliers supposedly wore. Turning his back, Chuck went straight into the Accademia Gallery.

Helen thought of returning to St. Marco and beginning her tour afresh. She would see everything again on her own and forget about the tourists. What was the point of harping on them all the time? The buildings were there, the stone, sky and water. Not all that much had changed since Ruskin's day. The trick was not to let the flies ruin the picnic. She wouldn't even bother to shoo them off.

But she stayed where she was in the middle of the bridge, not looking at anything but the passers-by. A plump twentyish American girl asked Helen to take a photo of her and her companion. He smiled diffidently and backed up against the railing, wincing as it hit him in the shoulder blades. The girl shrank down beside him as if to give the Salute Church visibility behind her.

Helen took the photo.

"Only one?" she asked.

"Yes, thank you," said the girl. "Isn't it wonderful?"

"Very much so," said Helen, making a quick survey of the view and smiling back.

One of three passing teenage girls approached her,

"Which way is St. Mark's?"

Were they Scots? Helen smiled.

"Let me show you on your map. You turn off here in the middle of Campo St. Stefano. Or else you can leave by the narrow end and make your right turn later. Enjoy yourselves."

But she herself decided not to go back to St. Marco. The sky remained gray and heavy. It wasn't a day for sightseeing. She went down the steps of the bridge on the Accademia side. Passing, she cast a glance over the souvenir stall. It was a flowerbed of mixed blooms. There were one or two things she ought to bring home, but this stuff was shoddy. She walked in front of the Gallery, turned around abruptly and walked into Rio Terra Foscari, the way to the Zattere. A store on the left caught her eye and she went in for a look around.

Chuck had quickly found his way to the painting by Bellotto he wanted to see again. La Scuola S. Marco e il Rio dei Mendicanti showed the facade of the present Municipal Hospital in a wash of late afternoon sunlight. Not for Chuck an imprecise Venice or the city enervated by mists. He sought the essential lines of the place. Shadows were half of Bellotto's interest, but they were hard shadows, black as the night that would fall on the scene in a couple of hours.

There were fifty or sixty people pictured, all engaged in some pursuit. A dozen of them lounged on the bridge over the Rio, simply watching. The water was green fish scales and very Japanese. Boatmen showed their skills. Chuck wanted to see into the dim cabin of the gondola that was moored in the foreground. The empty window surely meant something. Elsewhere clothes were drying, a curl of smoke rising. This was the hour when the banging of hammers gave way to idle chatter. The boy with the basket stopped to gawk. A homeward bound boatman bent from his knees to tie up his boat. He would be doubled over forever. The people by the Scuola were in no hurry to go inside to attend to serious matters. Gallant conversations prospered, women standing straight to prove their virtue. There wasn't a single pigeon in sight. Here, Chuck knew, was primordial Venice.

Helen liked the store because it was orderly, empty of customers and hadn't the air of a souvenir bazaar. All the same anything bought there would be taken home as a memento of Venice. There were high tables full of glass animals in ranks. They were tiny, one to five inches high, in a variety of watery colors.

The shopkeeper noted Helen's interest and let her explore the crowded parade ground. He stepped in only for a moment to tell her suavely that these were all products of the famous Murano glass factories. Helen nodded. Hadn't Chuck said that place had lost all connection to the historic workshops and turned out arty kitsch?

She did like the horses. They stood so sure and young on their brittle legs, pride before a fall. The cats were cute but lumpish, incapable of a leap and certainly not possessed of more than one life. The mice were simply too small, gray teardrops easily swept away by a dust cloth or wayward elbow. You would need a crowd of them. A crowd of mice! Then there were the bears, all-too-human looking, hobbled creatures, not made for locomotion. What was so endearing in the figure of a bear anyway?

Helen felt the touch of the shopkeeper's glance. She shrugged herself into action and had him wrap up a smoky-colored horse.

Outside, she started off briskly, as if having come from achieving something. Going up the steps of the Accademia Bridge, she was overtaken by Chuck who had been only a few paces behind. They crossed the bridge together walking rapidly and fleeing the views.

"There is a real Venice, you know," said Helen.

Chuck thought so too, but wasn't going to say so.


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About the Author

Peter Byrne was born in Chicago, attended universities in Quebec and Paris, and lived for long periods, teaching and writing, in Montreal, London, Paris, Italy -- north and south -- Sofia, and Istanbul. He now lives in the Italian city of Lecce within sight of Albania on a very clear day.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 31, 2006