Venice on Silence And Three Euro a Day
by Jia Tolentino
Five summers ago, I was nineteen and living alone in Venice in an enormous grain factory-cum-hostel on the long, lonely borough called the Giudecca. This was a place bunking twenty people to a damp, sea-fragrant room: an appropriate two-day stopover for a backpacker but a loathsome home base for a month-long unpaid internship.
At the same time, in Texas, a federal prosecutor newly fanged by the Patriot Act was trying to imprison both of my parents for life. In this, one of the largest alien-trafficking cases ever mounted in the United States, the actual (innocent) facts of my parents’ lives were mostly beside the point. The two of them — nerdy, dog-loving Baptists that worked in international HR — happened to be Canadian and brown-skinned besides, and the Patriot Act made it easy for the prosecutor to make them a test case, freeze and take their money, tap their phones, seize their house, keep them in solitary confinement in El Paso for six months at a time.
This case, unfounded, took years and years to end, and in the process, my life became a little extreme. I was unmoored from everything except for my own sex and death instincts, and to stabilize myself, I reached for upper-middle-class signifiers of security: a scholarship to college that got me out of the house at sixteen, a sorority of gorgeous girls all flush with Dad’s money, an unpaid internship doing bibliographical work for a poet to whom I’d been connected by the foundation supporting me at school. At first I thought that the opportunity was plum enough that my parents’ issues were beside the point. With the foundation floating me for the airfare, I could easily manage the rest. But once I actually got to Venice, to that expensive, decrepit hostel that led me to live on silence and 3 euro a day, it was obvious to me that I’d hadn’t gone there so much as I’d been driven.
That month I slumped around in crumbling doorways, watching the tide of backpackers, their repetitive rhythms of self-congratulatory boozer’s epiphanies. “You have got to do Prague,” they’d say. “It won’t take you more than a few days to knock it out. There’s this amazing bar where they, like, give you pills at the door. It’s at the top of this castle. It’s unreal.” At night they camped out twenty feet beneath my bunk’s window with their legs dangling in the canal, passing guidebooks and pulling on red wine, listening to the latest dreadlocked well-wisher play Tom Petty on the hostel guitar. When the moon was full, the boys became especially eager to interrupt my reading to bullshit about the Nietzsche primer they had read while checking out of the last hostel. “The loneliest loneness; the eternal reoccurrence of the same,” they intoned, sitting down next to me and gesturing towards the black, glimmering water.
I squirmed away from their sweatshirt embraces, but I secretly agreed. Venice was terribly lonely, like midnight painted over, a dead empire sinking in wet stones. It belonged not to any of us but to the wrinkled brown grandmothers who had pushed carts over cobblestone for the last half-century. It was a sinking city, as scary as it was beautiful, romantic only because it made you cling to your visions in order to keep from feeling lost. It made no sense to be there for an unpaid internship. It made no sense to think that I could even take an unpaid internship when my bank account was at zero, when I was a verdict away from having to quit college and raise my little brother.
I couldn’t speak Italian so I stopped speaking, a slow-burning psychic exercise that made me feel like I was evaporating into the air. Each day I worked for a few hours, hunting through old libraries for obscure John Ruskin manuscripts, occasionally checking in with the brilliant, pensive, green-eyed poet whose book was about to go into production. But mostly I occupied myself with trying not to spend money. I ripped myself away from those stands of gorgeously heaped pastel gelato, the glass museums that charged for entry. Sometimes the poet treated me to dinner and I tried not to let on how much it meant, but otherwise my meals were Spartan: single tomatoes, crackers and jam, cans of tuna, and all of this alone on some dock somewhere where no one would bother me while I ate alone, watching the sea roll away from me darkly and crash on faraway islands where only churches were still left standing.
I kept busy as a means of avoidance. I walked around the torturously confusing city for hours every afternoon, navigating by a childlike system of signs: this was the bakery with the doll in the window, this was the café whose strings of lights were shaped like an M, this was the corner where the pipe leaked rust down the alleyway walls. I had no phone and couldn’t pay for Internet, so I found an English bookstore that bought novels back after you finished them, and I read and read and read. With a mind painfully sharp from hunger and solitude, these books etched themselves into me, all of them fittingly bleak: Chekhov, Crime and Punishment, The Age of Reason, Annie Proulx.
In that month, I was a person that bore no relation to the girl I had been the previous month, nor to any past or future version of myself that I would ever meet. In the midst of the splendor of Venice, I, for the first and only time, began to feel that my life — or more specifically, my parents’ life — was unfair. I was angry, randomly, at senseless things: at men, at trash cans, at rain, always at money. I dipped my thumb in canal water and blurred the date stamp on my vaporetto pass so that I wouldn’t have to renew it, and I started looking for change on the ground. I felt a gulf of hatred rise between me and the breezy, tanned families who took pictures of each other as they feasted on inky risotto at the outdoor cafes. And I was briefly a little crazy: small triggers, like piano music floating through an open window, could give me the feeling that I was about to die.
Throughout all of this reduction, I had the grim happiness of becoming completely aware of myself, of having the workings of my body and mind opened to me, like a house being aired out for the first time in years. It’s strange to admit how much of a difference money makes. How rancorously stupid it seemed, to have ambitions out of proportion with my safety net. How much that month I felt like one of the pigeons in the old forgotten church squares — something hovering and roving, silent and watchful, dirty, unwanted, a ghost. How much I thought about my parents without ever thinking about them directly at all.
But as I drowned, I also recovered. I was there, in Venice, a city that tells you that nothing lasts forever. Not for me, not for my family, not for the crusader men and merchant women who had once been enslaved or made wealthy or murdered on the stone steps that I was privileged — no way around it — to be walking. My parents were easily innocent and they were going to be fine. And this was just an internship. Five years later, nothing remains of it. It’s not even on my resume.