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Death – and less – in Venice


As our vaporetto jolted and juddered towards the floating jetty, salt water from the Venetian lagoon lapped up against its mossy hull, splashing my shoes and trousers, fast-turning moccasins and chinos a darker shade of brown. Wintry scenes from Death in Venice came literally flooding back.

Venice pictureCimitero’, the conductor announced after a burst astern and before tying a rope – so tight you thought she was mooring Cunard’s flagship, Queen Mary 2 – over a post. In the agonising thirty seconds that passed since the sliding gate in the bulwark clanged open only spume trickled ashore. Bobbing up and down before us were tourists and locals, young and old alike, united in their frustration at the lack of seats on this late afternoon waterbus. The former was likely returning from Murano, famous for glass-blowing, while the latter could’ve been lagoon-dwellers from any number of islands that the number 4.2 service visits. The only thing more striking than conductor Sofia’s light-coloured hair and heavy black spectacles was her lack of Dr. Zhivago apparel.

Barking ‘Cimitero!’ for a second time from her seat caused the scarf-covered faces of those standing huddled in the biting wind to raise their heads in bewilderment since evidently few at this time of year disembark at San Michele, Venice’s cemetery island. The olive-skinned, small-boned featured quinquagenarian evidently had thick skin to weather the scowls since she wouldn’t have donned shorts on a glacial December day otherwise. Theresa and I didn’t need to hear ‘Fondamente Nuove’ twice before embarking yet Sofia nonetheless whistled through her pearly-white teeth and waved us on. It was in the interests of those aboard the flat-decked boat to perform a penguin-like shuffle and create room because only when the gate slid shut and the mooring rope untied did the driver get the exaggerated nod to push down on the throttle.

Venice Picture

My shielding of T from the elements wasn’t entirely noble given standing on the edge – with my nose hard-pressed against a rubber ring – allowed me to maintain a fixed gaze on what’s known as the ‘Island of the Dead’. At no point does the island’s high apricot-orange walls or even higher cypress trees drift from view since it’s merely 400-odd yards from Cannaregio, the northernmost of Venice’s six historic sestieri. But the six-minute journey finally provided an opportunity – notwithstanding the throb of the boat’s motor – to reflect upon the passing this year of both my father and grandmother.

Overwhelmed from arranging funerals at home, little did I think I’d be so underwhelmed abroad that I’d have to visit a graveyard for peace and a taste of authenticity. I purposely booked a winter’s break to bypass the crowds but, to my surprise, a graduation ceremony for students at the University of Venezia meant I had more than pigeons for company in St. Mark’s Square. That the closing weekend of the Art Biennale received higher than expected numbers served only to bring out mendacious merchants and the worst in waiters guaranteed tips from patrons visiting coffeehouses and trattorias, places which are to be endured rather than enjoyed. How mistaken I was thinking I’d have the run of the labyrinth of streets like Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now.

When riding the obligatory gondola the day before, the overly-chatty gondolier took the gloss off the blue sky and mirror-flat water. Conditions couldn’t have been more different when ferrying it back from this curiously rectangular-shaped island, but I was thankful for the battleship-grey sky since rainfall – which no doubt extinguished two candles left in the Moorish-looking cloister – would hopefully be mistaken for my tears when disembarking.

Venice water picture

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