I turned forty in Venice.
I didn’t quite know how I’d react to that. I didn’t know if I’d be as fine with it as I was. I didn’t know if I’d even care – given that the excitement of birthdays seems to be inversely proportional to your age – or if I’d feel kind of old and at the beginning of a mid-life crisis.
I didn’t know. And now that it’s has happened, I still don’t really know. I don’t feel any different; I don’t feel any worse. My back aches just like it did when I was 39, but nothing else has expired, unlike most Breville products, within minutes of the expiry of the warranty. At the forty year mark, surely something should give out?
No, I don’t really feel anything.
But if I’m not going to feel anything, Venice certainly is a hell of a place to do it.
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Without seeing Venice, it’s hard to imagine the feat that was creating a city on 117 different islands. And not just creating a city, but building one this magnificent. When I think of an island, I imagine sand and perhaps some palm trees. Indeed, more than 1200 years ago people elected to set up camp on swamp land, in this case, on mud, not sand. Over 400 years this was gradually groomed, and by the 12th century sculpted into six districts. And having done that, what else would you do but begin to built marble palaces? Absolutely everywhere?
Many of you know that when I was 25, I travelled through thirty-nine countries in a year. On revisiting Germany, France and Italy over the last three weeks, I’m not sure exactly what I did in each of those cities and countries. There are certain things that stuck out, but at other times I drew a blank. What was I doing exactly in these magnificent cities? I know that I went to Venice, but I don’t think I really appreciated it. I may have been running to catch my next bus.
Perhaps it requires a trip with your wife to properly appreciate it.
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We had the supreme luck to be here during the Venice Biennale, a second-yearly contemporary art exhibition. We spent half a day walking through Giardini, the larger of the two sites, and seeing the artwork displayed by 30 countries. I’m not naturally attracted to artwork made after about 1943; anything that comes with an accompanying soundscape and requiring interpretation rather than simple appreciation is not generally my thing.
But this was utterly extraordinary. Each display housed one or more of the most pivotal modern artists of that country. And, if I didn’t really like one country’s display, there were 29 more to look at. My highlight was the Japanese display, which consisted of 180,000 keys, strung up by a web of red yarn, sitting above a boat. It is impossible to explain, so look at the picture. Eight people worked ten-hour days for two months to complete it.
It was utterly stunning.
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If this wasn’t enough, like every other tourist, we marvelled at San Marco square, and then the Cathedral of San Marco, and then at the 24 carat gold mosaics that cover the 8000 square metres roof.
We then marvelled at Palazzo Ducale. We’ve just seen the Palace of Versailles, and come from Florence. We’d seen palaces. Like, real, heavy duty, palaces.
Now, this was a palace.
We happily got lost in back alleys, finding dead ends, halting at the edge of the waterways down which gondolas ran. The gondiliers still wear their blue-and-white hooped shirts, but rather than sing opera, they now talk on their mobile phones.
Given it was my birthday, we completely splashed out, staying at Hotel Danieli, built in the 14th century, and used as a backdrop for many of the scenes in ‘The Tourist’. We had dinner on my birthday night, at the Gritti Palace, which while sounding less palatable than some, even more extravagant than Hotel Danieli, and sits directly on the Grand Canal. Completely unprompted, they made me a birthday cake.
Meantime, throughout dinner, we were circled by aforementioned gondolas, each vying for parking spots just beside the palace. Our favourite gondolier looked like an angry version of Russell Crowe. He would spit into the Canale della Giudecca while hurling abuse at other gondoliers, with whom he worked every day. We know this, because we saw him do that same thing, to the same people, three days running.
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The ultimate charm about Venice, is its continued triumph despite unending challenges. It had a monopoly on seatrade until the Turks took this over, so, it turned its hand to production. It has been wracked by the plague, by Napoleon, by the Austrians, by Fascism and Nazism – and its most recent threat is rising waters secondary to global warming.
I had previously heard stories about Venice sinking, and indeed, it was sad hear that in recent years that half of the local population has vacated, because of rising land prices, and the increasing threat of floods. Local artisans, who used to exist in back alleys all through Venice even a decade ago no longer exist; mass production from China has pushed out the local artist. And it is natural to consider this a tragedy, in the same way that people would have for the loss of the seatrade, the decimation of its population to pestilence, and the mass deportation of Jews in World War II.
All of these were, indeed, tragedies.
But Venice is nothing if not a survivor. And on being here, it is utterly irresistible to think anything other than that Venice will remodel and adapt, evolve once more, and become something even more brilliant than the version before.
Just as it has for the last 1400 years.
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So as I said, I turned forty whilst we were here. And, of all the things to happen during that 24 hours of the day of my birth, the thing that meant the most happened within minutes of the day starting. As always, our morning began with a Skype call to our girls, now aged 4 and 2½ respectively.
As we connected, there in our living room, sat my two girls, sparkling streamers in each hand, a ‘Happy Birthday’ banner behind, and two candles lit up in front; a four and a zero.
In a slightly epileptic cheerleading version of ‘Happy Birthday’, they sang their hearts out – with a little help from Mama and Poppy.
I said I didn’t really feel anything when I turned forty. What I meant was that the milestone itself had little effect. As always, my little girls makes me feel no end of emotions. And at that exact moment, I missed them terribly.
It’s been a hell of a ride, but our turning-forty adventure is over.
Now it is time to go home.
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