Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Further Venetian observations

Some miscellaneous observations on and from Venice:

·         Persuading people to give money for buildings was, as remains true, easier than persuading people to donate funds for ongoing operations, missions, and maintenance. If this had not been true, then Venice would have fewer grand churches and a greater reputation for global missions. If this did not remain true, religious people would build fewer expensive buildings and spend more on feeding the spiritually and physically hungry. I suspect that part of the explanation is people like to see what their money paid for. Another part of the explanation is that for many people a building seems to be more of a lasting legacy than does the satisfied hunger of some unknown person. Buildings can help to evoke a sense of the sacred, but grand architecture and art alone are often insufficient; they find hallowing in the prayers of people. Unlike great churches and temples I have visited elsewhere, I have seen few people in the churches pausing for prayer or meditation.

·         Venice is a polyglot city. Not surprisingly, menus, and many other things, are printed in multiple languages that include Italian, various forms of English, French, German, Russian, and Chinese. I’ve also heard Spanish, Japanese, and several eastern European languages that I could not identify. Surprisingly, most of the people in Venetian museums, churches, and businesses with whom I have dealt the last few weeks, unlike their counterparts elsewhere in Italy with whom I have dealt, showed little interest in attempting to communicate in Italian. They were very happy to transact business in English, or whatever the customer’s native language might be. Occasionally, I have observed employee and customer explore several languages before finding one (usually English) in which both could communicate. I’m uncertain about why communicating in Italian is not more important to Venetians. Perhaps part of the explanation is that they have their own dialect. Perhaps part of the explanation is that they know tourism is Venice’s economic mainstay, they want to satisfy customer choices accurately, and in the busy summer months need to deal with more customers. In some bars and small restaurants frequented by as many Venetians as tourists, the background music, played on an Italian radio station, is American. Perhaps Venetians are simply riding the wave of homogenization set in motion by globalization and the electronic age.

·         A sizable minority of tourists appear to spend more time filming Venice than actually experiencing Venice. It’s a common to observe a tourist standing in a water taxi, holding a tablet up, watching what the camera records rather than enjoying Venice directly. (Incidentally, this is a bad bargain as water taxis are the most expensive way to get around Venice). In those moments and for those tourists, virtual experience has replaced actual experience, raising the question: why travel? Excellent video footage of Venice is already available on the internet, probably of better quality than unedited video recorded via tablet; watching footage on the internet is easier and cheaper than traveling to Venice. Many nominally religious people engage in similar behavior: they want to experience the spiritual life without investing the considerable time and energy that genuine spiritual journeying requires. Reading about others’ spiritual journeys and attending worship or other faith community events without actively participating are two sets of activities that may resemble spiritual journeying but that allow the person to maintain a distance and lack of real engagement. However, for both the virtual tourist and nominally spiritual, tentative steps may prove sufficiently alluring to persuade the tourist to set aside his/her tablet and the spiritual neophyte to move from primarily observing to engaging the community and its activities.

·         Given the popularity of masks, carnival, which precedes Ash Wednesday, presumably figures prominently in Venetian life. Pretending to be someone else can be exhilarating (a refreshing change), educational (learning to see life through a different set of eyes), or escapist (fleeing from one’s own life). When and why do you wear a mask (even if it is more figurative than literal?

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