A salty wind fluttered around my nose, hastily, playfully, as if it were racing the waves underneath the “vaporetto” bus-boat I was standing on. It cooled me off from the hot Italian summer sun as I admired the slowly changing scenery. Palaces, hundreds of years old, ascended out of the rolling waves. Many of them were white, pure white, or a shade of orange. Gentle arches and gothic windows decorated the bright walls like jewels. The only things that outshone them were the sun and the bombastic churches that pushed themselves between them every now and then.
I had anticipated the highlights, Saint Mark’s Cathedral, the Rialto Bridge, the Grand Canal, and everything looked exactly how it was supposed to. I had read and heard many stories, and none of them had been exaggerations. A smile of satisfaction and excitement spread over my face. Bella Venezia, I thought, that’s where I am.
My grandfather leaned in towards me and my brother. “Look at the walls on the side,” he said. Our glances followed his outstretched finger. The sides of the buildings that didn’t face the Canale Grande were made of simple, red bricks. There were no arches, and there were no decorative windows. Any color it might once have had had faded years ago, replaced by rips and tears. My grandpa looked at us. “The imposing beauty often makes it hard to see that this breathtaking city is also heaving for air,” he told us, “Besides tourism, there is nothing that keeps this place alive, and the water is weakening it daily. And these palaces that we send each other on postcards are really only facades that cover up an unfortunate truth.” He had spread a shadow over my idealistic eyes. While I still admired this unbelievable place, my grandfather’s words echoed in every hidden corner.
We ended our last full day with a visit to the Santa Maria della Salute, a church which had been constructed by the city leaders as a praise offering for the passing of the plague. It gaped down on us from its pedestal of stairs, large, white, imposing. Statues of saints adorned its outer coat, picturesque paintings and stained roof windows the inside. But what caught my attention was the woman, laying on the top step, small, robed in black, her face hidden. In her stretched out hand she held a paper gelato cup, filled with a few European cents. People quickly walked by her to enter the house of God, muting out her moans. Instead of following them right away, I decided to give her five Euros I had found laying in the street earlier that day. As my hand pulled out of the cup, she grasped it and started kissing it, thanking me in showers of Italian. Through my knowledge of Spanish, I understood what she was begging for. One of her four children needed a head surgery, and she was trying to scratch together the remaining money for the doctor. She was only thirty-seven Euros short. Bewildered, I pushed past her into the cool building. I saw gold. I saw marble. I saw silver…everywhere. How many times could just one of these picture frames give thirty-seven Euros?
“…They are really only facades that cover a hidden truth,” he had said. And as I left that church, I wondered; how many? How many tourists had passed through the Canale Grande on their “Europe-in-Two-Weeks” cruise and admired the beautiful arches, the beautiful windows, and never noticed the tearing brick walls?
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