JOANNA C. VALENTE
The year is 1988, the night, the cold, a few weeks before Christmas and all the trees are misty and all of the ornaments are decorating the store windows like a movie, and my mother is holding me in a hospital in Manhattan. It’s still the Cold War. I have lots of black hair, jaundice, tiny fingers. I don’t remember anything, of course. I find myself growing up in a place rich with, well, everything. You’re supposed to be happy in a city like New York City.
And I am, really, for the most part. It’s my dream to make art here, and I do. I fall in love, I fall out of love, I work many jobs, have many bosses, find friends in unexpected places, scribble lines of poetry on the subway. So, when I find my body in Venice, after a plane ride, a few train rides, a car, and a ferry, you could say I’m excited, partially because landing in Italy is the first time I’ve ever left the U.S., but also because I’m suddenly enthralled by everything around me. Really, I’m enthralled before I even get off the ferry, while I’m staring around the canal at all of the fairytale-esque buildings around me, full of history and ghosts and so much I can’t possibly understand yet, or maybe ever.
Venice has my body. I left my body in Venice when I visited in 2017. I didn’t expect to fall in love with the city, or any city, in the same way I’ve fallen in love with people. Isn’t that always the start of a great love story, though, the kind that stay in your bones forever—mostly because you were caught off-guard and vulnerable, a lonely swan?
It dawns on me, over the next several days I’m in Venice, that I’ve never truly experienced living history like this before. It’s not as if the U.S. doesn’t have history, but it’s a toddler’s history in comparison, even places like New York City where so much has been preserved (but also lost and purposefully forgotten). This is the city of my dreams: in the distance, footsteps, laughing children, that smell, a man bending over to pick up a coin, masks, a woman taking lipstick out of her purse, narrow passageways to other times, places, ghosts, lovers.
A man stops me on the street. I was walking alongside my now-ex-husband, feeling the warm spring air on my face, trying to memorize every building, watching my silver oxfords as we climbed down a few steps. Only moments before, we saw a live rendition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in the very church Vivaldi once played in, Santa Maria della Visitazione. The man asked how I was, how we were, asked if we were tourists. We nodded, yes. I noticed his tzitzit glittering, almost, in the non-existent breeze.
He was alone. I don’t remember most of what we really said, except that he gave us suggestions on where to eat, told us how he moved to Venice 20 years ago from Connecticut, how he used to work in law. He laughed about how he was the only black Orthodox Jew in Venice. We were laughing for what felt like some eternity in another reality. It’s a story. It’s always a story. He straightens up, shakes T’s hand, then shakes mine, calls me his sister, smiles at me, even gives us his number if we ever come back to Venice.
Everything happens on the streets. I duck into an alleyway, one of the countless crisscrossed paths leading to churches and houses and more gelato and endless seafood. This time, it led to a secret (or what seemed clandestine to me) park into another world. A table of free food, people smoking, children playing, a few dogs, artists, some punks. There they were, I found them. My kind, weirdos like me. It was like the windows all began to open at the same time. I took a few photos, traipsed around, and sat on one of the wooden benches. A few people smiled. I talked to no one. A dog left in the middle of the grass. I swear the children are still there.
When I open the wooden shutters overlooking the canal every morning, deciding I could live here forever, I do wonder if, of course, I’m romanticizing a city now structured for tourists. It’s easy to like anything when you’re on vacation. It’s easy to like a place where you have space, where you can walk outside onto a roof deck and write parts of your novel, drink espresso, eat fresh produce as if you never had fruit before. It’s easy to romanticize another place when it’s the first time you’ve left your own country, especially during a time of political upheaval (it was only weeks after the 2017 Shayrat missile strike). It’s easy to fall in love with something new even when you still love the old.
As a New Yorker, it’s not a hard city to love when the literal metaphor of a mask is littered everywhere—when there’s art oozing out of every corner.
But then I remember that it’s OK to fall in love, fast and obsessively—at least sometimes. What’s being an artist without feeling everything completely, without wanting to feel and be and know? I remind myself that sometimes there aren’t simple, pragmatic answers. As a half-Italian (of Sicilian and Neapolitan descent), part of me feels like there must be something bubbling to the surface, some part of my ancestors bleeding into me—as if this place awakened my own history, my own journey into my identity.
I was never consumed by my Italian heritage. My dad grew up in an Italian immigrant family in the Bronx, his father coming to the U.S. through Ellis Island like many other Southern Italians. If anything, I was sometimes ambivalent to being Italian growing up, largely because of the estrangement from my dad’s family by the time I reached college. I didn’t go to Italy to “discover my roots,” nor did I even choose it specifically—it almost felt ironic to go when there were so many other places I was interested in. When T told me his friends found cheap flights, I knew we had to go. We never took a honeymoon after we got married, so it didn’t feel excessive.
As someone who didn’t grow up traveling, and never had any real money, I never prioritized traveling—it felt like a privilege (which it is). So, we went—and I found myself in the most clichéd ways—through the food, the language (that I knew very limitedly), the art, the history, the fashion, the architecture. It was complicated, like me. Even now, I long for it, and finding myself daydreaming about what it would be like to somehow find a way to live there permanently (and then wonder if I would get too bored, too overwhelmed with tourists). It’s a dream, a story, but as a writer, I’m always trying to find ways of making dreams a reality, interwoven through an invisible pen.
Recently, T suggested I try to move there even if just for a few months. Why not? he says. Sometimes, I think about it. But I have a life here, right now, in New York—a life I don’t want to just casually walk away from. There are so many people I love here; it seems hard to abandon people I love for a place I had a whirlwind romance with. If only, I think, people and places were easy to move; if only relationships of all kinds weren’t so complicated, full of nuance and love even when they change and morph into something else, some other version, even if it’s not a bad thing—even when it’s hard and you aren’t sure which version, which reality, you want.
I don’t know why Venice spoke to me the way it did, unlike the other cities in Italy I visited; my family isn’t even from there, but it did. Its spirits whispered to me and I whispered back. One day, I’ve made a promise to myself that I’ll return—and I hope when I do, I’ll stay for a little longer.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (Operating System, 2017), Sexting the Dead (Unknown Press, 2018), Xenos (Agape Editions, 2016), and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault (CCM, 2017). They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes, Poetry and the managing editor for Civil Coping Mechanisms and Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brooklyn Magazine, Prelude, BUST, Spork Press, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente