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Published: December 10th 2009
Wednesday July 30th, 1997
I have a new pen. All praise God or Allah or whatever invisible man/cow/elephant with medusa snake ears you worship! What a miracle! Look, every time I press ink to paper little symbols stream out. Who would have thunk it?? My other two former pens have met their maker. Prior to disembarking on my monumental journey of global proportions I decided to buy the most inspirational stylo available. I bought one of those fancy calligraphy pens. There was method to my madness. You see…in the event that I actually started to write and it was later determined that my scribblings were all crap at least I would have a cool looking pen in my hand while I ravaged the paper. Instead of people asking what I was writing about, they would be mesmerized by the thing I was doing it with. Unfortunately, even though they might have looked neat, in reality the things were a bloody mess. Ink ran all over my pages. Ink ran all over my hands and is now running all over the bottom of a trash can in Venice. Good riddens.
Armed with a fresh weapon, where shall I begin? What topic should be the first opportunity to use up the ink upon? Let’s start with the one about me. (oddly familiar choice) Remember, where I ended yesterday? I was sitting in a little Venetian restaurant hating Venice and loathing the chefs’ prized tortellini and veal dish. My meal was a disaster. After such a difficult day battling the sun, the heat and my resulting stench, I was rewarded with a piece of meat that looked and tasted like the sole of a two year olds’ shoe. As I needed sustenance, I still ate it and washed it down with a few glasses of wine. With my belly full and my liver doing its’ best to filter the wine, I decided to finish my day doing something different.
It has been over two weeks since I landed in Brussels Belgium. I have visited 9 countries in a span of 30 days. I have been all over the place, learning, exploring, whoring, drinking and rocking and rolling. It has been a fabulous time. However, one thing that I have not done yet is pick up the phone and call the folks. Sure, while I sent a couple emails, nothing beats the sound of a loved one’s voice. Maybe it was because I had a relatively poor day and I was looking for a reason to make it feel better. Maybe. Well, my day ended on a very good note with a call back home.
It was quite late in Venice but was only 5pm local Toronto time. The weariness of my constant travelling combined with the oppressive heat instantly faded when I heard the sound of my dad’s voice on the other end of the line. Typical of him, while he was happy to hear my voice he was more concerned that I called when my mom wasn’t yet home. She was still at work and he did not expect her for an hour or so. By that time I would be well into sleepy time. As the cost of my phone call was very expensive, I spoke quickly while ensuring that I did not leave out mentions of Marion and Yolanda. (Fathers must know that there is always a chance that their names will liveth evermore.) The conversation was quick but after hanging up, I felt much better. I will need to place another call soon as apparently Mom is son-sick and would also like to hear from her wandering offspring.
Refreshed and revived, I decided to make my second day in Venice a positive one. As I munched on the hostels’ inedible breakfast, I noticed that the temperature was once again in the 30’s and it was only 8:00 am. Thankfully, I was showered, felt fresh and was wearing clean clothes. My entire wardrobe had been washed in the sink last night. Yep. Coming to Italy was like taking a step back in time. I was going to use the local laundromat until I learned that the thieves charged ten dollars to clean one load of laundry. Heck, that was almost the total value of the clothing itself. Therefore, I determined that the sink would be much cheaper and soaked my threads instead. (I dare not describe the resulting water; however it is rare that one needs to get a plunger to free a clogged drain after washing one’s underwear, t-shirt and shorts!) Nevertheless, there I was. 8:00 in the morning, fed, refreshed, clothed and ready to restart my exploration of Venice.
I guess that one of the positive results of being tossed into the streets at such an early hour was that I could beat the lines to the most sought after attractions. Today, the prime target on my itinerary was the jewel of Venice, the Basillica di san Marco…. As you know, my name is Mark Carmichael. Actually, it is Mark William Carmichael. My middle name is the given name of my maternal grandfather. When I was a wee lad both my parents and all my soccer mates called me Willie. As for the Mark portion of my name, where did that come from? I have checked the internet and could find no other person named Mark Carmichael. It is not very common at all. You see, the Carmichael surname is Protestant. It is Scottish. I think there was a time when a Carmichael could have been a Catholic, however that all ended after ‘the 45’. As for my given name “Mark”, this is a very historic and prominent name in the Catholic faith. One of the four writers of the New Testament was St. Mark. He was not one of the Apostles, but followed along soon thereafter. St. Mark was probably just a guy who lived around the years 60-68 AD and was selected to write a gospel because he had good penmanship. He was best adept at scrawling down whatever the remaining octogenarian Apostles incoherently muttered when they spoke of their old pally, Son of God. Hence, when I was spat out in 1972, my mother pondered about what to name her new son. I am certain that while I was bundled up and coddled, my dear mother looked at her precious screaming dream child and immediately thought…this boy, my dear son will one day become a writer. Thus, she named me Mark.
The first stop was to the utterly magnificent Basilica di San Marco a Venezia. Named after me, it was a must-see on my tour itinerary. As a sidebar, while I was seeking solace from the furnace-like heat yesterday, the line into the Cathedral was just stupid long. The human snaked coiled round and round the piazza. As I hate tourists, I felt that it was in both our best interests to stay away from one another. Today, I made a point to come early to beat the hoard of vermin to the church. Unfortunately, part of the front façade is being restored. Half of the front of the cathedral if covered up by scaffolds, plywood and tarps. Thankfully, this only affected my ability to take nice clear, unobstructed photographs. I will compensate by providing a written description instead.
Here is my attempt at describing this virtual masterpiece. Firstly, facing the cathedral is The Piazza San Marco or St. Mark’s Square. It is a rather large open space built in the shape of a square. (told you these guys were geniuses!) A contiguous three story white marble building formed the outer edge of the square with an endless series of archways lining each floor of each building. The length of each building was more about 100 yards. The shops on the ground floor consist of café’s and restaurant patios. I guess Venice needs to keep their tourists well lubricated and protected from the hot Venetian sun. Three hundred years ago, I am certain it consisted of cafes to keep the tourists’ well lubricated from the hot Venetian sun. The second and third floors of the buildings that make up the sides represent the Venezia Law Rooms. At the far end is the Museum of Antiquities formerly known as Gallery of Contemporary Stuff.
I soon discovered that while the vermin tourists had not yet arrived at the square, the pigeons eagerly awaited my arrival….in the thousands. The flying rats were everywhere. Everywhere. This feathery circumstance sparked another one of those brilliant observances I am known for. Does the city of New York boast of an industry aimed at openly feeding their numerous rats? Do they permit and promote vendors to set up shot in the middle of Times Square and sell rat food? “Help Feed Our Rats; Bag of rotten apple cores $1? Handfull of half eaten hot dogs $2?” Yet, this is what I found in Venice. How insane? The signs were everywhere. “Pigeon Food $3000 Lire - small; $5000 Lire - large”. I wish they had another vendor who sold plastic bags to cover your shoes so you don’t have to pick out the bird shit after a walk through their square.
While dodging the pigeons and their accompanying crap, I eeked out a photograph of the Cathedral. Unfortunately, due to a major restoration project my photograph included part scaffolding, part plywood and part pigeon. As my picture cannot do the building justice, I must provide a more vivid description….
The year is 1720 and I, Marcello Carmichaelangelo Esquire am clutching my pigeon basher, shooing away the menaces. It is the Golden Age of Venezian Society and my man-purse is brimming with lire. I am clad in purple velvet from head to toe. A wide brimmed purple hat with a huge white feather shades my face from the sun. My wardrobe is tied together with one continuous length of golden thread. Lost in the mass of pigeons and tourists, my appearance is no different from my fellow citizens. I am a mere purple spec in a sea of purple specs. The thick rancid odour of sweaty dank velvet makes everyone’s eyes water. Nearby poets mistake this teary circumstance as being the impact of the nearby congregation staring in glorious disbelief at the majestic Basilica di San Marco before them. Their oversight leads to inspired masterpieces of poetry.
I stand before the ground floor of the Basilica di San Marco. To my right and left, I face a series of five towering white marble archways. They form the front façade of the cathedral. Iconic columns, bundled in groups support each archway. Continuing up to the second level, a marble walkway edges the length of the structure. From this level, one can look out upon the square and acknowledge the beauty and opulence of their town. Looking out and up, they may also notice the bell tower located in the building on their left. Above their heads are a series of four more archways framing the scene. At the apex of each arch, golden mosaics meticulously retell the stories worshipers hear on the inside of the venue. In the centre affixed along the esplanade are the sculptures of four black horses. Together they excitedly raise their hoofs in praise. To finish the scene, they are amazed at the focal point. The first of five golden domes rises above the layered archways high above San Marco’s Square. It is a magnificent picture of live in 18th century Venice. Today, three hundred years have passed and I stand before the cathedral and watch, jaw agape, akin to the agaped jaws of my forefathers. I am thoroughly impressed.
Prior to coming to Venice, a friend told me that if I only did one thing while visiting Venice that it be taking the official San Marco Cathedral Guided Tour. As I tend to avoid tours and tour guides even more, I had the option of renting a walkman, a pair of headphones and wandering around aimlessly listening to some voice with a harpsichord in the background banter on about the history of the cathedral. However, despite my concerns, I took his advice and signed up for a guided tour. It would prove to me the best decision I made that day. It was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Luck was on my side. Standing in the queue, an ancient looking gentleman approached our group. Initially, I thought that this was probably someone’s confused grandfather who escaped from the pod of retired folks touring Italy. However, when I learned that this aged gentleman was going to be our tour guide I did find it quite unexpected. He was a grizzled old man. English accent, white shirt, white hair…on his eyebrows and ears. He walked slowly but confidently, with an air of familiarity to the place. Initially, I joked that the only reason he knew so much about the church was because he was around when they built it. However, he turned out to be the sort of gentleman who has lived a long life, is well versed in the ways of the world and wanted to teach young whipper-snappers like me all about something as timeless as San Marco’s Bascilica. Unfortunately, for some reason now, the old coot’s name escapes me but since I don’t think that he remembers mine, we shall call it a draw. Regardless, he provided an amazing historical account of the basilica including a vivid description its' wonderful golden mosaic. That may just be the best free tour that I ever didn’t spend money on.
Here are a few of the historical titbits I learned on the tour. Did you know that those bronzed horses that I referred to in my opening were once stolen by Napoleon while he rampaged through Italy? He liked them so much he decided to take them as souvenirs. Better yet, the horses originated in Constantinople and are all that remains from their Hippodrome (the horse races) before it was sacked in the Forth Crusade by the heathen hoard (ummmm…us). Did you know that the roof in the interior of the cathedral is made up of five golden domes? Each of the four outer domes is made in the shape of a traditional Orthodox Catholic cross and is constructed of 24 karat gold mosaic. Each dome tells stories from different books of the bible. The main dome in the centre is also made up of 24 karat gold and tells the story of Jesus Christ. Did you know that it took three generations of the artist craftsman to finish the mosaics of the dome? Father, Son and Grandson. Did you know that behind the alter is this thing called “The Palo d’Oro”? It tells the story of St. Mark while also detailing the family tree of the Holy Family. The mural is covered in gold and decorated with over 2000 previous gem stones. Two thousand. Wow. Located below the Palo d’Oro is an altar and somewhere below that are the bones of St. Mark.
In addition to the amazing outer façade and the incredibly cool history, the place is visually stunning on the interior. On so many levels, from the architecture, to the golden mosaic ceiling, to the jewel-encrusted religious monuments, to that old man to more gold and more jewels. The golden mosaics of the five domes cause the room to just shine. I find it incomprehensible is that each and every coloured square is encrusted in 24K gold. The place is a miracle. One walks in, looks up and their jaw literally drops to the floor. It is that beautiful. However, the most fascinating part of my day occurred around noon. We were warned of the impending spectacle by the old man. It was like he had this secret and only gave us hints to what prize we were about to receive. I was standing near the centre of the cathedral admiring the architecture above when it happened. As if on que, the entire expanse of the room exploded in a vivid, warm golden light. It was almost too amazing to describe. One minute I am in a pretty cool church admiring the artistry and the next I am in heaven, bathed in a golden hue. I was awestruck, amazed, mesmerized and then a couple minutes later…it was gone. The cathedral returned to just be a majestic structure and beautiful expression of love, dedication and faith. Glorious.
We soon learned why we were so lucky to come to San Marcos on that day at that time. I learned that only on certain days when the sun is perfectly aligned, will the sun’s rays pass through a hole in the top of the dome and hit the domed mosaic at exactly the right spot. One had to be there on that day and pray for sunshine. It was only on those specific circumstances when one gets to experience what I received as a gift. That solitary moment was the only time I was tempted to take out my camera in a church and capture the moment. Although I did not cede to my temptations I must admit that it was an incredible sight. Lets’ hope that my memories do not fade with time as photo’s often do.
My next stop was to the cathedral museum to see more jewels, gold crosses, paintings of white folk dressed up as Palestinians. My final stop was the crypt. After being inspired and uplifted from the glorious mosaic spectacle and being surrounded by the results of centuries of devotion and faith I needed to see the see how these craftsman were rewarded in the afterlife. Expecting a pearly gate, I found an aluminium gate with a box asking me to donate a couple lire. I did and descended the stone staircase. This is where they bury the bodies. I think it would also interest and shock their initial owners that those wacky Italians pickled the odd body part in glass jars. Eyeball here, full head there, left hand, index finger, foot, heart. I felt like I was in the Bulk Barn of biblical body parts.
Leaving San Marco’s Basilica, I almost blinded the eyes of the sun from the golden glow that I emitted upon exiting the cathedral. I was glowing, inspired, touched. I wanted to hug someone. I was full of love, bursting with unbridled emotion. Thus, when I reached in my pocket to retrieve my itinerary, I decided to jiggle some things around. I had to take advantage of my newfound self. What should I do? Dress the lepers? Feed the starving emaciated babies? Flirt with the ugly? No, my next stop was to visit the Venice military museum. In all of history, what is a greater representation of the true meaning of religion than ‘warfare’? From time immemorial, men have killed other men because of religion. Countless adherents of the 12th century bedouin military leader who talked to God mercilessly killed and were killed by the countless adherents of the Palestinian with the overly chaste mom who didn’t just speak to God, God was his daddy. Blood, death, dismemberment…all for You my all-loving Lord. Unfortunately, my tour wasn’t overly exciting nor inspired me to knock off some ‘eyrabs’. I blame it on the Italians themselves. They are about love not war. Love and Pizza…and flopping on the ground in fake pain during soccer games. However, whenever one thinks of Italian military history, he is always drawn back to the Iszono campaigns in the Great War. Fourteen successive battles waged and the useless greaseballs couldn’t knock the worst of Germany’s troops from the heights. I guess the Italians kept slipping back down those hills. I walked around, looked at some pikes, a couple canon balls and left.
Lunch…penne with fishes. The rest of the afternoon? Shopping, bought nothing. Toured, saw stuff. Wandered in a couple more houses of the holy. Sat down a lot and watched the boats in the canals. You know, the canal doesn’t stink that bad. I was expecting the canals to be a virtual cesspool with the odd brown boat bobbing up and down beside boatloads of tourists. None. No floating turds. But it was when I was framing up another panoramic shot of the Venetian seascape when I noticed something off in the distance. I saw something. It was dark and menacing. “Excellent”, I thought “some summer rain to cool me down a bit”.
I sauntered along the boardwalk and took in all the sights and scenery of the wharf. Imagining back to the days of yore I thought of the fleets of wooden vessels laden with goods from the Orient, being offloaded, and their goods transported to faraway markets in faraway lands. I stood at the edge of the seawall. A local lad in a gondola conducted a steady trade with a line-up of tourists. A brisk summer breeze rushed in off the sea. Refreshing. Sitting atop an ancient bridge, I held my camera and watched the light spectacle in the distance. It slowly approached and I watched with my finger on the shutter. I was waiting to capture the perfect shot; a panoramic photo of the Venetian seaside, sun on the left and black clouds threatening on the right. To complete my masterpiece, I waited for a bolt of lightning to slice the scene and separate the two opposites. I had to wait…wait until the right moment. The darkness drew nearer and nearer and since I have been classifying myself as a budding Ansel Adams I could not vacate my chance for the perfect photograph. Upon reflection, I probably waited about ten minutes too long. Snapping off two quickies, I sprinted down unknown streets and passageways as an angry God sought his revenge on Venice. I tried to outrun him but since he is God I really didn’t have much of a chance. He was everywhere. I ran and ran and the rain was let upon me in barrels (more than buckets). I tried to seek shelter under ledges and doorways to no avail. I knew it was God punishing me for something I did when I felt the rain actually rise up from the ground to soak me. It was like I was wading through a pond. (A pond of evil??) That storm was just plain ferocious. Compounding my predicament was the unfortunate circumstance that I hadn’t the foggiest clue where I was. Picture this, a young lad wading through the pathways and alleyways of Venice, the rain pelting my weathered body and dousing my soul. It was when I was standing deepest in the deluge when I stopped, pulled out a page from my bible and consulted the reference map. I was seeking guidance, direction, a pathway to salvation.
Within moments of my desperate turn to the good book (map on page), a bright light shone from the heavens and commanded the rain, rain to go away. It also commanded it to come again another day as traveller Marky wanted to play. K. Not play. He just wanted to get dry. I later learned that I was just caught in the worst storm of the season. They even had to break out the air raid sirens to warn citizens to seek shelter from the cyclonic rains and winds. About an hour after the storm ended I found the hostel. I arrived ten pounds heavier from my sopping wet clothes. Cold. Tired. Thankful that I was not spending the rest of time in a cauldron of fiery hell. God spared me that day. To reward me for my undaunted faith he inspired me to fulfil myself with goodness (a great big bowl of homemade fuscilli with Bolognese sauce) and then to test me again offered me the company of six 20 year old Australian broads. God is great.
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