Friday, June 21, 2019

Getting Lost as an Art Form

Up until Venice, getting lost had been Bill’s unique familial distinctive.  Spatially challenged with a minimal sense of direction, Bill had compiled a number of defining experiences (like managing to lose his way on the final day of 4 years commuting to college) all together convincing him never to consider wilderness guide as a career choice. Such incidences, especially in his earlier years, had deeply troubled his dad – and why not? Bill’s father, gifted with Leni Lenape Native American heritage, was accustomed to disappear each November, often with Bill’s grandfather, roaming the farmlands and deep woods around White House, New Jersey down near the Pennsylvania border and living off the land during small game into large game season until they could rumble triumphantly back to civilization with a buck tied across both fenders of their hump-backed car. The family legend was that Bill’s dad could be dropped into any woods and find his way home over the leagues with the unerring accuracy of a faithful hound in a classic Disney movie.  All that prowess was so evidently missing in Bill that one day his exasperated Father took him to a crossroads and asked which way they should go to reach a destination. Bill puzzled it over and made his choice. His dad processed his unerringly and routinely wrong answer, regarded him sternly for a long moment, and then issued these life changing words of advice: “When you get to a crossroads, always look up and down both ways carefully. See which way feels right to you. Then go the other way.” Ever since, Bill has taken that advice to heart. One might say it is one cross Bill has been forced to bear, when, of course, he can locate it…
Now, all this was true until Venice.  In Venice, he was finally vindicated.

To keep the record straight, there have been places he and Aída have explored over the years that have been constructed to mystify invaders and leave even harmless sojourners with a sound sense of direction wandering hopelessly.

Pyrgos on the beautiful Greek island of Santorini is one such labyrinth. Among the dazzling white cities topping the high reaches of an extinct volcano, Pyrgos was constructed intentionally as a maze to confuse marauding pirates and enemy soldiers who soon became targets for the townspeople, crouching on the roofs above to rain down stones or arrows or drop something unpleasant out the windows, as these erstwhile victors turned victims, stumbling helplessly back and forth from street to street.  This and its sister cities are strangely navigable to Bill. Our family rule is, if the roads make sense Aída’s in charge, when they become confusing, Bill takes over.
Venice, however, is something else entirely – a city where going around the block to intersect with the street you just missed is beyond an option, because its thoroughfares are not logically designed.  Each street or alley has its own trajectory and will not connect with another, despite what the tourist maps claim.
St. Mark’s Square provides the pool that visitors flow into over and over again. “All roads may lead to Rome” throughout greater Italy, but not when one is winding around and around and around in Venice.  The main spectacle one views in this city of a thousand jewelry shops is one’s map. Even the pigeons appear to pause on statues’ heads, swiveling their necks nearly all the way around, mystified at where the rest of the bevy might be flocking.
One reason why Venice is so confusing is that it began as a refuge for Phoenicians in flight, hoping the swamp would deter their enemies from further pursuit. It worked. Apparently,  their enemies looked down at their boots, back up at the marshland, and figured with author of the “Everglades” song (though yet to be born for centuries), that the “’skeeters” would get them. We have no information on their speculation about possible “gators.” So, now being the possessors of beach front property, such as it was, the subsequent inhabitants began linking up the islands by waterways, eventually agreeing with the sentiment of some African villagers that every blade of grass should be banished from a village to prevent spirits bent on no good intentions from lurking in the bush and bushwhacking unsuspecting passersby. Of course, in Venice’s case, the substitution of cobblestone streets was no doubt more intended to keep unsuspecting passersby from sinking into the bog. But the result was the same. As the Greek islanders agreed: those who can’t find us can’t hurt us.
Another reason for the city’s meandering passages may be because of its amazing propensity to attract first-rate artists so that the setting becomes in effect a great jigsaw puzzle of art and crafts, and its government buildings and churches and mansions and workshops and galleries mimic a huge installation of every conceivable form of pictorial art, all jumbling together the classical, sacred, secular, Christian, pagan, Moslem motifs, like a Titan child has tripped and spilled creativity all over the city. Art now lies interspersed across ceilings and walls and stairways: Jesus on the cross, hanging next to Paris carrying off Helen, next to miniature models of minarets. On the streets the great, the gaudy, and the ghastly compete, as sculptures of humans missing body parts carry suitcases, while “authentic human bodies” provide a sepulchral incarnation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s anatomical sketches. Missing, however, are grass and trees.  The little there is in these prison-like alleys of cobblestone and aging walls is locked away in Moorish fashion in the inner courtyards of homes, or sealed off behind walls topped with broken bottle shards.  But the greatest works of pictorial art still abound, so getting lost in this vast output of creation becomes a kind of peripatetic art form of ambulatory discovery in itself.
So, rather than sink in exhausted misery on the same piazza bench one has passed a dozen times in quest of one’s lodgings, the best recourse for a lost tourist is to heed the experienced words of Rick Steves’ guide to Italy:
Perhaps the best way to enjoy Venice is to just succumb to its charms and blow a lot of money. Get Lost: Accept the fact that Venice was a tourist town 400 years ago. It was, is, and always will be crowded. While 80 percent of Venice is, in fact, not touristy, 80 percent of the tourists never notice.  Hit the backstreets. Venice is the ideal town to explore on foot. Walk and walk to the far reaches of the town. Don’t worry about getting lost. Get as lost as possible. Keep reminding yourself, “I’m on an island, and I can’t get off.” When it comes time to find your way, just follow the directional arrows on building corners or simply ask a local, “Dov’é San Marco?” (“Where is St. Mark’s?”) People in the tourist business (that’s most Venetians) speak some English.  If they don’t, listen politely, watching where their hands point, say “Grazie,” and head off in that direction. If you’re lost, pop into a hotel and ask for their business card–it comes with a map and a prominent “you are here.”[1]
Words to travel by, right there.
In a similar manner, the Bible too assumes that at times we all get lost in life. Isaiah tells us it’s a common human malady, especially spiritually, that “we all like sheep have gone astray.” Like those whose maps have failed them, “each of us has turned to his own way” (Isa. 53:6), and like tourists in Venice we wander the darkening alleyways wondering if the darkness will fall before we stumble onto our lodging. But unlike Venice where directions are often useless and the experience of wandering itself is a pleasant past time, spiritual wandering is not pleasant so the Bible provides helpful advice in finding one’s spiritual way back home. What is the key guidance to get back to God? Isaiah concludes his prophetic verse: “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The Son of God is the only sure way back to his Father. As Jesus assured his followers, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the only unfailing guide into the everlasting arms of the God who created us and loves us dearly, so following his way is the unerring path to our heavenly home.  

[1] Rick Steves’ Italy (Avalon Travel, 2005 ).