I was in Venice last week. It was a labyrinth dripping with the secrets of old ceremonies. The sounds of nearly still water slopping up against the steps leading from the streets were the only perceptible movements. Which is strange. I come from a town with paving conditions dominated by asphalt, where Suburbans and Range Rovers choke out sidewalks and bike lanes from the street life. It took me ten hours of being stranded on the fish-shaped island of Venice to realize that there were no motor vehicles anywhere. (Well, there are water taxis and boats, but nothing else) In fact, most of my fellow students were torn, and the breaking point happened to be the movement of the venetian city. The water and the pre-motor age engineered streets. They were either mad that they couldn’t find their way, or grateful for the uncertainty.
And traveling through the countryside by bus, or Pullman as the Italians call it, I noticed that highways seemed pretty alien to the land there. They were just these huge concrete nuisances stuck into the farms, plains, vineyards, and hills. And if you look at a map of all the autostrade in Italy, there are virtually two long roads which run like zipper up the length of the boot that is Italy. No more, no less. Only one of the two connects to Sicily. It was amazing to see so visibly the great conflicts of history before me, elicited by one vast stretch of road.
The motor vehicle lifestyle is so deeply ingrained in American culture, it’s absolutely insane! One could argue that the fabric which surrounds the highway was built in mind for the driver, and vice versa, with the street framing the scenery. My fellow Cornellians can attest to the knifelike way that route 17 or I-81 pare through the mountainous curves of the northeast, like twin rivers. Or, my own memories of a hastily packed duffle and 12 dollars in my pocket propelling me toward Tennessee, and still the road took center stage. Or how about the 8 hour trek through Iowa on I-80 from Milwaukee to Omaha? Or route 101 which edges its way through the innumerable terrains of California?
Straddling the differences between Italian and American culture, I’m pretty sure I spent most of my life in a car. Besides sleeping, that is. And I don’t know if that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think some of the best moments of my life, I kid you not, were spent in the passenger seat. In fact, if I wrote an autobiography, there’d probably be a chapter solely about cars. And it would open with a Sunday around the year 2000.
The sweetest memories bring ideas about the southern state, FDR drive, the LIE, the Cross Island, where I spent sun soaked afternoons with my father in the front seat of his finicky blue BMW, his loyal companion, listening to The Kinks’ This Time Tomorrow or Bruce Springsteen’s Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, bouncing along the north shore in my 90s pink and orange puffer coat. The sunroof was commanded into a pitched position, letting in some wind and my bangs were nicking me just above the brow. But I was happy as can be, awaiting kisses from my aunts and uncle…all the while mesmerized by the motion pictures outside my window. Each stretch of street featured the flickering cover of leafy, lofty trees. It was like being in a kind of highway-forest hybrid. Each foot of pavement, each cobble laid lends a different kind of history, each pebble a fragment of a memory. To this day I don’t know where I’m going, but I know every stretch of scenery on the way to getting there.
PS. You can compare my cornell version here, where I speak more about venice: http://blogs.cornell.edu/cornellinrome/2014/03/03/moving-through-venice/