I have just returned home from a week in Venice and I didn’t expect to be quite so glad to be back on terra firma upon my return as I am. I expected to be in tears – the usual ‘post holiday blues’ that I always feel. I do feel some loss for being home, but I also feel relief and exhaustion. I haven’t yet cried, which is unusual.
When I left home early on Monday morning, still in the dark, I left with much anticipation for the art I was going to see at the Biennaile and much excitement for the companionship I was going to enjoy with the other art students on the trip. I didn’t expect to feel the full force of an angry sea determined to reach levels it hasn’t reached for fifty years in the city of leaning buildings, bridges and gondolas.
In brief, the day we arrived, we were warned that the tides were due to be high, which is seasonally as expected in mid-November. This warning meant little to me. I thought it might just mean a bit of a wet day.
After an enjoyable first night of pasta and wine, Day One was mostly wall-to-wall art at the Giardini Central Pavilion. It was neither sunny nor rainy that day. As evening fell on Day One, the mood changed from one of creativity and holiday to one of foreboding and fear. At around 5pm, just after we returned to the hostel, a storm hit Venice with some force: the tides gradually rising beyond expected levels and lightning flashing across the sky. We tried to venture out for food. We didn’t get very far. The sea was by this point moving from outdoors to indoors. We had no choice but to stay at our hostel – I felt fear. I didn’t like it.
The theme of the biennale is ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’. At that point as I walked through thunder, pelting icy cold rain and forceful raging winds I felt that I did indeed live in interesting times. There was something about that moment, as I walked counting the seconds until I was safely indoors, that felt momentous.
I felt huge relief on arriving back at the hostel, just ten minutes after leaving it. The hostel we were staying in is on the island of Giudecca, right on the edge of the water. However, the ground floor of the hostel is three steps above the pavement outside, which saved it from devastation. That night the sea lashed angrily at us, slowly rising wave by wave. It rose first above one step, then a second, then a third. The sea that was outdoors wanted to be indoors. It bashed angrily against the hostel breaking glass at some point in the night. The main doors swung rhythmically into the early hours with the wave formation with an eerie creek, creek, creek. I lay in bed listening to them, my heart beating.
Upon waking in the morning, with no hot water as a minor inconvenience, I saw on my phone that Venice was in the news. It was experiencing the worst flooding for 50 years. I was flabbergasted. We were there in the thick of it.
We weren’t able to venture out as planned, at least for a few hours that morning. When we did, just as the water levels subsided a little and the tide receded and the weather calmed, we were able to walk around the neighbourhood. Plans for art that day were abandoned.
On our wanderings, we came across lost shoes; floating books; hotel shampoos and conditioners, apparently washed away from somewhere nearby; broken toys; and random bits of vegetation. Being the artists that we were, we collected and photographed this incredible evidence of nature conquering man. I felt a pang of guilt for doing this: I was acting the voyeur taking advantage of other people’s distress.
Later that day, as the sun shone and the winds calmed, we watched the Venetians dealing with this disaster as we walked further and further around the city: cleaning out businesses; piling up sodden goods; rushing from place to place; rescuing chairs from canals. We saw a boat marooned down a long narrow street between tall Venetian buildings. We saw piles and piles of abandoned cheap tourist galoshes. And we felt a stoic acceptance, bordering on sadness.
After returning back to the UK, yesterday I saw a comment on Facebook along the lines of ‘Venice floods were not caused by climate change, it has happened before’. I felt deeply upset by this. ‘Venice is sinking and nobody tells you that’, the comment continued. ‘So it isn’t caused by climate change, it is just an event’.
Whoever made the comment hadn’t checked the facts. Venice is sinking because of climate change (higher tides being the result of climate change are affecting the material that the city sits on, causing it to sink). But that aside, even if the recent flood isn’t a result of climate change, it is just as devastating for the people of the beautiful city. And if it raises awareness of climate change and makes people change their behaviour, even a little bit, my question is: does it matter what caused the flood?
Going through this experience, and we came off lightly, has made me think, a lot. It scared me. Nothing happened to me. I wasn’t at any point in any danger. I didn’t lose anything. It didn’t really encroach that much on our time there. We still were able to see most of the Biennale. But it scared me for the future.
I believe that it will be water that kills us. It won’t be war, nor heat, nor a meteorite, nor a zombie acropolis, but water. Water we need. Water we fear. We live in interesting times.