The best way to enter the city is by water-taxi, at night, or right when twilight starts to fade. Then you can imagine you are entering an enchanted kingdom, because first you see the city's lights floating above the waters, and a couple's kiss silhouetted against the dim refractions of a restaurant window.
Don't be surprised that the alleys are so narrow, or that the sound of your rolling luggage seems so loud in that brick-walled space. Yes, the alleys here are perfectly safe after dark, because Venice is alleys, a maze of alleys – some wide, some narrow – and plazas – some large, some small. Your tour guide will also tell you the next day that Venice is an upside-down forest, that whole mountains were cleared of trees to turn the treacherous mud of the bay into land, and that is magical, too.
If a man of Middle Eastern descent tries to hand you a rose on Piazza San Marco, you're not supposed to take it. If you do, the man will demand money from you, as the Internet tells you later.
You preferred not knowing.
And maybe you regret not taking the rose, despite what you read.
A seagull swallows a rat whole by one of the canals.
Is it Disneyland? That's what you've heard, that all of the natives are being forced out, turning the city into a park for tourists. It's harder to believe when you take a walk on a residential street in the evening. There's mundane motorboats parked along the edges of the canal, the lilac-engulfed houses seem almost suburban, a lone streetlight in a patch of ragged grass reminds you of a park near your house.
It's easier to believe the next morning, when you're nearly crushed against an alley wall by a pack of braying, yellow-jacketed Russian tourists from a cruise ship.
Speaking of lilacs, Venice is full of secret gardens. Gardens hidden behind looming courtyard walls, behind medieval wooden gates. You know there are gardens because the lilacs refuse to be contained and spill out over the edges of the walls in cascades of violet, white, and lavender. Once you see someone leave such a courtyard, and the open door allows a glimpse of gray stone, green leaves, and an iron-capped well in the middle.
There are garbage boats that lumber down the canals every morning, there are yellow ambulance boats with crimson stripes that raise a fine mist as they barrel through traffic, there are farmer's-market boats tethered at the edges of larger canals (filled with overflowing boxes of cabbages, carrots, and potatoes), and there are grungy bus boats that stink of gas, crowded with commuters and tourists alike.
The fish market fascinates you with its sheer profusion. It's early when you arrive, and you're alone with the sellers. You wander among the stands, peering at every creature lying on the ice. Some of them you can name: octopus, squid, trout, a lobster still feebly waving its legs. Most of them you can't. Tiny silver fish the size of your finger, great big striped fish with golden eyes the size of quarters, transparent slices of rose-pink meat. You become excited when you see a dull-colored cousin of the rainbow mantis shrimp.
You don't buy anything. You don't have a stove in your apartment.
One day you leave the island on the top floor of a water bus to visit the neighboring cemetery island. You try to ponder mortality as you wander among the tombstones of the famous – Ezra Pound, Joseph Brodsky – and the not-so-famous – a child that died at three years old, a sailor whose tomb is marked by a cloth flower. Instead you notice for a fleeting moment a pigeon-sized gray bird that isn't a pigeon, and you spend a quarter of an hour searching for it in a cedar grove.
There's also museums, many museums, old buildings, a church with its ceiling covered in gold, a palace plated in marble, shelves and shelves of famous Murano glass, a gallery of cherubs, saints, and naked women.
Gelato melting in your mouth. The scent of cigarette smoke. The tide coming in and making your apartment stink of sewage-filled canal water. A cruise ship looks like a wedding cake drifting above the red-tiled rooftops. Seagulls crying out in the distance. Pigeons burbling nearby. A lukewarm gray drizzle dampens your sweater. The voices of late-night tourists drift up to your open window.
On your way to another museum a women with wrinkled skin, dyed black hair, blue shawl stops you. You'd been talking on the phone, in your native language. “German?” she asks.
“No,” you say.
“Aahhh, the great Ruski!”
You both smile, laugh, part ways with lighter hearts. You feel for a moment that you've brushed past the real Venice.
Despite it all, you don't feel as happy as you should. You don't feel much of anything. You just watch everything, you preserve as many impressions as you can for a time when you can finally appreciate the gift you've been granted. (Maybe that time is now? Or maybe not?) You ignore your jet-lag, sleepless nights, the constant quarrels of your parents on the other side of a webcamera. None of those have a place here.
One day you climb a bell tower on a nearby island. From above, Venice is shaped like a fish.
One night a Venice that never existed appears in your dreams. The canals are made out of white marble lined with gold and the water is clear, and there are white marble bridges, and the ink-black gondolas float boatmanless to their destinations. And the canals are somehow above you too. And there are turquoise-watered fountains in empty plazas. When you wake up, you wonder what it means.
You're leaving Venice on a bus-boat to the continental airport. You thought you'd be able to stand on the deck and watch Venice disappear behind you, watch the other islands pass by. But you can't, you're stuck belowdecks, the tiny windows are plastic and dull and you can't make out anything but gray silhouettes of the islands.
It's all right. You see it again from your seat in the airplane, a red fish dissected by seawater, gilded by the morning light.