Phebe O. is currently a senior at SYA Italy and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from John Bapst Memorial High School in Maine.
Anyone who knows Italy has heard of Venice. Stories and photos of picturesque Venetian waterways and architecture are almost unavoidably numerous and widespread throughout the world. Thus, one can easily picture my excitement when I learned that my Italian host family was planning a trip to Venice during the first weekend of October.
My Italian family are undoubtedly some of the sweetest, kindest, funniest, and most hospitable people I will ever meet. If I were to pick anyone to spend a weekend in Venice with, it would be them. Our five hour drive to the coastal city was filled with ridiculous selfies, laughter, pizza, and lots of Italian pop radio. We stayed in a hotel in a small town outside of Venice, and after a breakfast of cornetos and cappuccinos the following morning, we bought tickets and boarded a train into the city. Everyone told me to keep my expectations low: maybe no city on earth could truly be as beautiful as one would expect Venice to be. But what if it could? My expectations bluntly refused to be curbed.
At first there was nothing to see from the train windows but the usual Italian countryside. This in and of itself is a gorgeous sight: rolling fields of sunflowers, small medieval cities and ancient crumbling stone buildings surrounded by farmland and vineyards. Then the ocean appeared, spreading out in every direction. A single boat passed by rowed by several men, all standing up. Buildings began to appear on the opposite shore: at first it looked like any coastal American city, all parking garages and factories and docks. But then a bell tower appeared in the distance. A few small canals offered glimpses of stone walls curving in toward the center of the city. More men standing in narrow boats rowed past with strange long paddles. These, I would later learn, were the fabled Venetian gondolas. Simultaneously a tourist trap, and a beautiful still-living part of Italian history.
We exited the train, my excitement steadily building. Bells tolled in the distance; if perfect timing exists outside of films this was it. Walking into the train station I caught glimpses of white pillars and aquamarine water and blue sky, unable to source distinct shapes from the snatches of color. Stepping out the doors a few moments later I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. I was overwhelmed with beauty. A large canal a few feet away held water the bright blue of a robin's egg and the turquoise of a Bahamas tourism poster. Seagulls chattered, undisturbed by the many boats churning steadily past. A pure white bridge arched over the canal, steps rising toward the opposite shore, which was lined with small Italian shops, a large elegant church harboring the flashes of white pillars I had seen before, and streets leading toward distant restaurants, piazzas, canals and eventually the ocean. How could one’s expectations ever be high enough to outdo this sight? My host family watched my face, laughing at the emotions flitting across it: laughter, tears, awe. Photos were an immediate necessity.
My entire day in Venice felt like an extension of these first moments: unable to begin to process the pure beauty around me, but doing everything possible to take in and mentally frame each moment in my mind. Not a single car could pass on the streets of Venice; it is a city created for a different time, and thus sometimes feels like a different world altogether. Sitting in a gondola passing under tiny arching bridges across impossibly vibrant and sparkling water, trailing our hands along tide lines marked on ancient stone buildings, peeking through doorways into shops and homes one could never discover on foot: these are indescribable and unforgettable moments. I was overwhelmed and hopelessly in love.
Wandering back over the first grand canal and into the train station, the bittersweet feeling of leaving behind a city with so much left undiscovered was overwhelming. Yet perhaps the most surprising source of joy was returning home to Viterbo with my host family.
Having spent an entire month almost solely in Viterbo where SYA is housed, I had no frame of reference for how familiar it had become to me. Arriving back at my Italian house, walking my usual route to school the next morning, going to my favorite cafe for lunch, I was struck by a wonderful recognition of Viterbo’s familiarity. There are many hidden places and far more personality here yet to be discovered, just as there is much more to be seen of Venice and of Italy as a whole. But there is also an undeniable and growing comfort in my relationship with this place. Ultimately, the beauty in my trip to Venice lies not only in Venice itself, but also in my subsequent recognition of Viterbo, and Italy, as a place of familiarity, and home.
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- SYA Italy