Temporary in Venice

Darya Paramonava is one of CFIC MA students. For her Waterlines INTlab project, she decided to reflect on what it means to be an immigrant in Venice and on how vaporetto rides can be quite surprising.

I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world.

Alan Ball, “American Beauty”

If you venture to consider yourself Russian, most people will evaluate you on the scope and on the finesse of your ability to bend rules. While not coming directly from Russia, I must admit that this cultural aspect has born an influence on my personality in a more profound way than I am entirely comfortable with. After coming to Italy I hoped that this flaw of mine would remain dormant and would cause me no more trouble. And yet now here we are, getting a task which in no nonsense terms indicates we may break the rules. What a pity.
I have been thinking a lot about the assignment and realized there could be no better immigrant in my immediate proximity to interview, to eavesdrop on, and to have a laugh with but myself. But then again I do not really laugh with myself. Maybe an occasional giggle here and there, but nothing to entail ostracism from polite Venetian society. Um.
So my first encounter with Venice provided me with more fuel for speculation (because indeed, I speculated a lot about Italy and its people before arriving here) rather than with any answers. The moment I arrived to the central bus station, a gentleman materialized out of thin air and offered to carry my suitcase over the bridge for me.
‘If you insist. How dashing’, said I, handed over the suitcase and sauntered happily in his steps.
We crossed the bridge. What could possibly go wrong?
‘Thirty’, he declared huskily, out of breath.
‘Excuse me, I don’t have any water’, I replied conversationally, assuming I misheard the word “thirsty” in the hustle and bustle of the central station.
‘Thirty euro’, he prompted, solicitously thrusting his big palm at me.
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I’m afraid I do not require your services, so you could bring the suitcase back to the other side’.
I could tell he was amused at my antics as he took a step closer to me and shook his hand right beneath my nose.
‘Thirty’, he repeated just to make sure I heard him well.
So this unfortunate event left me thirty euros poorer and wondering if I were quite as head- spinning and ‘a catch’ as I was led to believe by my grandmother.
This long-winded introduction was necessary to introduce the one idea that describes best my experience in all the multiple countries I have visited: traveling is only fun in retrospect. But the reality is such that each given moment of it is filled with discomfort, tediousness and expectations that were not quite met. Immigration is, of course, analogous to traveling, only without the retrospect part. However, I am going to give the credit, where the credit is due – immigration is also a seedbed of inspiration and a well of surprises.
As it were, I come from the North. It’s cold, and it’s rainy, and it’s snowy. My home town is grey and sad and full of impotent fury, but begrudgingly pretty when it rains, because it is also so very green, and green looks so much deeper against a gloomy leaden sky. This satisfying shade of green basking in the grayness of a depressed day with just a few fractures here and there of the shy blue. So I find Venice foreign, for lack of a better word. It is vibrant and full of color and of sheer existential joy, where it is alright to talk to strangers, and laugh with your teeth showing (I am still learning to feel less uncomfortable when subjected to such feats), and sing in public places without people around you feeling thoroughly scandalized. It is a place I do not feel at home. And the hordes of tourists, speaking all the languages I speak and also dozens of those I will never learn, waiters near cafes and restaurants, who never buy it when I pretend to be a local and always address me in English, and most importantly, this dormitory, because it is not even a proper dormitory, but a regular hotel – all of it makes me feel that I am not at home.
People are strange here, in a nice way. By some incomprehensible stroke of genius, they decided that an apology would fix anything, so they adopted this approach into their culture. They apologize for everything and nothing at the same time. For the fact you missed your vaporetto or had a particularly challenging day. For the flood and for the excessively sunny autumn. Or for the supreme lack of judgment that resulted in your dipping your foot into the canal and then suffering from a suspiciously-looking rash for a couple of days. We, on the other hand, are different people. My stance on the problem of apology is such that if you could make it all better just by saying “sorry”, why would we need laws and police enforcement? So we don’t apologize all that much, not really.
And yet I moved here, moved to the pastures new (hopefully, greener) than the ones I come from. And it wasn’t (better say, has not been) an easy transition. But I am trying to fit this strange new world without losing who I am. I’m teetering on the verge, trying to get the best from the two worlds, from the East and from the West, from the North and the South, but for some eluding reason getting the worst of them now and again. I stride the world, going here and there, learning, seeking, hunting, but also feeling temporary, isolated and ill at ease. For me, immigration is very much about the concessions you are willing to make, about the evils you are willing to accept in order to experience same old soup just reheated. Because it doesn’t really matter where you go, the fact remain that you always have to bring with you your illustrious personality.
But it has no bearing on the present account of the things I have learned and experienced as part of the assignment labeled “The Hunt”. I had been adamant to fulfill at least one task required, so I chose to earwig into conversations of the tourists. And I wish there was anything to compose a pretty little report from, but at the end of the day most people are plain boring. I wish I could tell you about a clandestine meeting I happened to be a chance witness of with a man declaring his everlasting devotion to a lady, and she swoons with the sheer delight of it, but it reality I simply followed an American couple who discussed the hotel and the prices. So I’d rather not talk about the couple and instead will relay a brief description of the event when it was me who was eavesdropped on.

We took a vaporetto, as always, to get to the San Zaccaria station. It was fashionably crowded, but we managed to force our way to the two remaining seats at the back. It was a tiring day.
‘I am rather famished’, my friend complained.
I agreed and gazed across the interiors of the boat, spotting an oddly looking man who sat in front of us and gawked at my friend. It was a peculiar man with a bizarre expression. You really only see such expressions on the faces of the homeless when they found the way to infiltrate into the private party where free food and drinks are served. A sort of clueless and sly expression, with the shy eyes that for some unfathomable reason stare shamelessly at your face. My friend did not spare him a second glance, though.
‘I miscalculated’, she continued obliviously, ‘It turns out I brought less money with me because I didn’t expect to stay here during the weekend’.
‘I can lend you some’, I replied distractedly. Really now, why is he staring like this? Where I come from, you might force people into punching your face by peering at them in this fashion.
‘Or no!’ she exclaimed, startling me. ‘You don’t know us, Italians. I wouldn’t be able to sleep this whole weekend if I took your money!’
The man across her smiled indulgingly, nodded and turned in my general direction awaiting a reply. I stared at him. What an impudent piece of work.
‘It’s not a problem’, I murmured to her.
She continued talking about something, but I cannot very well remember now, because the focal point of my interest during this interchange was fixed solely on the strange man, whom I was mentally preparing to give a piece of my mind. He was regarding her as she was talking, chuckling where she chuckled and shook his head helpfully when she complained. And then she asked something, and the both of them turned to look at me. When his blue-eyed gaze stopped on my face I suddenly had a hard time locating my vocal cords.
‘Ugh, I think we… we need to get off now’, I replied, scattering to the exit.
I asked my friend later on if she noticed this man’s weird behavior, and she replied that she did indeed see him staring at us. But she also said that this sort of thing is quite normal and that there is no need to get so worked up about it. Everything else considered I learned an important lesson that day which is meritorious enough to be thus kept recorded: I should not take a vaporetto if I can avoid it.
So such was the rambling account of my experience in Italy and of the difficulties I have faced belying the positive outlook that I pretend to have on things. But an immigrant, regardless of whether they have to work or study, has to accept it with the only hope that it might get better at some point. This said I really should not be the one to complain. Because it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in Venice.

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