Archive for November, 2012


Many people complain about Venice – that it’s too crowded, too full of tourists, that it’s a rip-off, that it’s depressing, that it is, dare I say it, boring. These complaints seem to me rather tiresome and fill me with a deepening sense of despair about humanity. I should be more charitable, for Venice can’t be everyone’s cup of tea, yet the so-called Queen of the Adriatic does have some very attractive characteristics which I might be forgiven for thinking have universal appeal.

I first visited Venice in 1996 on a five-month trip across Europe and I fell in love with the place immediately. Well, almost immediately, for that first visit didn’t begin so well. I arrived after a hellish, fifteen-hour overnight bus ride from Avignon, in the days before they banned smoking on coaches. Apart from the lack of sleep, my girlfriend and I felt positively toxic and were not in the best of moods. We soon got lost on our way through the city and, in one of those typical courtyards from which two or three passages lead, the tensions flared into an ugly argument about which direction we ought to head in.

Fortunately we sorted things out and, once back at the grand canal and on a Vaporetto, began to indulge ourselves in what Venice had to offer. Perhaps inevitably, it is the sheer novelty of a city that is built on series of islands on a lagoon, with canals instead of streets through much of its urban centre which first arrests the visitor. The city’s architectural, artistic and engineering wonders, its unique panoramic and intimate views and its romantic opportunities for aimless wandering, flesh out the plus column.

On that first visit, we stayed in the youth hostel on the Isola della Guidecca, across the water from the core of the city. I would have preferred to stay in the centre, but this location had the important advantage of being cheaper. It also offered a painterly view across the lolling water to Venice in the salty haze and morning mist. I recall sitting on the embankment one morning, smoking a borrowed cigarette and, with a pencil, writing some rather florid descriptions in my notebook. Of all the places I’d visited so far on that first trip to Europe – in England, France and Spain, it was this sight across the water that most took my breath away. I had to remind myself that yes, I was here, in Venice, that it was real, and, again, yes, I was really here in Venice. Venice. THE Venice.

I’ve since visited the place on three other occasions, all at different times of year, and nothing has diminished my excitement about the city. With each successive visit, I’ve explored further the streets and canals, the islands around the lagoon, the museums, the churches the markets and cafés. I’ve been fortunate enough to be there during alta aqua – when the high tide floods the city and the locals are forced to get around in gumboots. I’ve been stoned in Venice, drunk in Venice, wet, cold, hot and tired and locked out of my hotel room in nothing but a towel for several hours, but I’ve never been bored or disappointed. Of course Venice has a lot of tourists – it’s Venice. Of course the place is more expensive – it’s much more logistically difficult to deliver supplies. None of these things have ever bothered me in the slightest, as they were all to be expected. Complaining about the crowds is like complaining about the weather in England – there’s nothing you can do about it, so let it go.

Venice can certainly seem claustrophobic – its narrow, confusing streets are difficult to navigate and if you don’t keep a tight grip on where you are going, it’s all too easy to get lost. Yet, provided one doesn’t care too much about getting anywhere in a hurry – probably a mistake in Venice – then being lost in the maze of streets, canals and bridges can be one of the city’s greatest sources of enjoyment. It’s not everywhere that you get to round a corner and find yourself faced with a cute arched bridge over a jade-green canal, down which stretch the tired and sagging, yet proudly defiant bricks of Renaissance apartments. Venice offers a mix of shimmering excitement and gob-smacking sights with a queer, disquieting, almost wrenching melancholy that speaks directly to the heart.

During my last visit it drizzled for two days and at night the streets were almost empty. I wandered for hours, having little idea of where I was, seeing everywhere a beautiful sadness and antiquity. The dim street lamps created pockets of light, etched by the thin, misty rain amidst bold shadows, strange shapes and architectural curiosities. The surreal sight of a boat gliding through what would otherwise be a street is even more captivating in the darkness of the Venetian night.

Venice has been photographed so often that it is difficult to do anything very original on that front. The Gondoliers and the Piazza di San Marco are the flagships of a whole host of clichés that have long been established in postcards, brochures and posters. Sure, any place offers more anonymous, less obvious subject matter, but to photograph the recognisable elements of Venice in an original way is probably beyond the capacity of most photographers. On my last trip to Venice in March 2007, I gave up trying to be original and focused on getting the cliché right. The photos included below are from that visit.

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“Get out, get out!”

Michelle was awake in an instant.

“What? What?”

“Get it out!”

Seth was sitting upright in the bed, hands over his ears.

“Get the damn thing out!” he shouted.

He shook his head madly, clutching at his ear. The whole bed shook and Michelle bobbed up and down.

“What is it, Seth? What is it?”

“Jesus Christ, get out!”

“What, what?”

“There’s something in my ear. Something’s crawled in my ear.”

“Oh my god! Here, let me see.”

Michelle turned on the light. Seth swung his legs over and sat on the side of the bed. He stuck his pinkie inside his ear and dug around, hoping to catch it under his nail.

“It’s right inside my head! I can’t get at it.”

Michelle touched him on the shoulder.

“Seth, quick, come here, lie under the light.”

“Holy shit,” said Seth, “it’s burrowing. It’s burrowing into my ear!”

“Seth!” Michelle shouted. “Come here under the light.”

Seth stood up, shaking his hands on either side of his head; theatrical panic and indecision.

“Get some water, anything. Flush the bastard out!”

Michelle jumped from the bed, naked. She picked up a towel and threw it over her shoulder, then ran to the kitchen. How could this happen? How could she be so unlucky?

Seth paced up and down at the foot of the bed. He could feel the bug clawing away at his ear-drum, scraping away and making one hell of a racket. Damn he could hear it close – it was right there, banging on his goddamned drum. It was probably eating his wax!

Michelle rushed back with a glass of water, she had wrapped herself in the towel.

“Seth,” she said sternly, a schoolteacher through and through. “Lie on the bed and let me look in your ear.”

“Flush the bastard out,” said Seth. “Get him!”

He was not at all calm, but he came to the bed all the same. He lay down and Michelle bent the lamp over.

“Can you see it?” asked Seth. “I’m not bullshitting, it’s in there. Some big, fuck-off bug.”

Michelle strained and squinted. She brought her eyes right up close and tried to see something. It was dark in there; perhaps it was the angle.

“It’s in there, I’m telling you!” He lay on his side, squirming and kicking his feet.

“Stay still,” said Michelle. “Stop moving.”

Seth looked across at the clock radio. It was four seventeen. He tried to focus on the light but his whole being was agitated. Once, when he was six, the doctor told him to look at the tennis balls on the shelf while he gave him an injection. He spent weeks wondering what it was he was supposed to have seen in the tennis balls. Then, one rainy day, years later, he sussed that it was just a ploy.

Michelle shifted her head and tried another angle. She picked the lamp up and held it right over Seth’s ear. She noticed his temples were greying. How thick and black his sideburns were. He had a strong profile and the way he was lying emphasised his high cheekbones.

“Is it there?”

“I can’t see anything. It’s too dark. Maybe it’s gone in too far.”

“It’s bloody big, I’m telling you. It’s huge. I can feel it.”

“Maybe it just feels big. I guess it might.”

“No way,” said Seth. “This thing’s big, I’m telling you.”

“Aahh!” he cried.

“What is it?”

“Sonofabitch! It’s started burrowing again. It’s clawing right up against my eardrum.”

He held both hands to his head, shaking and squeezing it.

“It’s driving me insane!”

He shot her a bolt of panic. His eyes were wide and manic, then clamped and red and pained.

“Flush it out!” he shouted. “Flush the bloody thing out.”

“Okay,” said Michelle. “Calm down.”

She stood by the bed in growing horror. Despite the excitement, she felt deflated now that she had woken up; deflated with impotence, in being so isolated from the trauma. How could this happen on their first night together? In her own home? She wished he would stop shouting at her.

“Lie still, Seth,” said Michelle. “Lie still and I’ll pour in the water.”

Then she remembered a film, Mountains of the Moon which she saw as a teenager. In it, one of the explorers, the blonde one, got a beetle in his ear and went wild with panic. He poured in hot wax, then tried to stab it out with a letter opener and wrecked his ear for good. She quivered, imagining a bug in her ear.

Seth lay stock still, his face screwed up tight. Michelle tipped the water in, slowly at first, then, raising her hand, she increased the force of it. Seth clutched the edge of the mattress; he pulled at the sheets. The water tickled and ran down his cheek, snaking along the back of his neck. He shivered, picturing the bug floating up like a cork in a glass. He saw it bobbing, rising with the tide, bursting from his ear on the top of a geyser.

“Has anything happened?” asked Seth.

“No,” said Michelle. “Nothing’s come up.”

Seth lay quietly, waiting. The bug had stopped moving. He’d seen flies drown before, but this didn’t feel like a fly. If it was a cockroach, then nothing would stop it, not even nukes.

“Anything at all? Pour in some more,” he said.

Michelle tipped more water into his ear. Again she raised the height from which she poured, hoping to flush the bug out. What was it? An earwig? Is that why they called them earwigs? Seth kicked and squirmed again as the water leapt around in his ear. The bug wasn’t moving, but he knew it hadn’t drowned. The water soothed him, though it blocked his hearing like it did in the surf.

“Nothing’s coming out,” said Michelle. “Is it still moving?”

“It’s stopped for now,” said Seth. “Maybe the water freaked him out.”

Michelle wanted to cry. It wasn’t like her place was dirty. Seth himself must be able to see that. Every old terrace in Sydney had cockroaches, it was hardly a revelation. You just couldn’t beat them, try as you might. Put the food away, wipe down the benches, disinfect, polish, scrub; they still managed to breed, living off flakes of dead skin, off dust mites and minuscule crumbs, lurking until dark behind the drainage pipes under the kitchen sink. Those sly bastards would eat anything. Hell, even earwax.

“I’ve got to get it out,” said Seth. “It might do some serious damage. What if it gets into my head, or wrecks my hearing? I’ve got to get the bastard out.”

“Maybe if I poured some hotter water in,” said Michelle. “Not too hot, just lukewarm.”

“No, no,” said Seth. “Those mongrels can handle nukes.”

“Well I don’t know,” said Michelle. “I’ve never had to deal with this before.”

Seth sat up, then got to his feet. He felt dizzy, off balance.

“Okay, sorry, I’m sorry. I’m freaking out. But this is hectic. I’ll have to go somewhere. It’s got to come out.”

“The hospital’s only five minutes walk from here. We could go there.”

“That’s it! The hospital! I didn’t even think of that. They’ll be open for sure.”

Six minutes later they were dressed and in Michelle’s car. She drove in a state of self-imposed disgrace. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t her fault. She knew she wasn’t the best catch in the world, though she was a pretty fine one at that, and if Seth went away with a complex about sleeping over, if every time he saw her he thought of cockroaches, dirty, invasive bugs – by the gods were they going to cop it; spray, bombs, exterminators, the bloody lot – then how on earth were things supposed to work out?

It was just two blocks to the hospital. Seth expected it to be busy on a Saturday night, but when he bustled through the door, emergency was empty.

“I’ve got something in my ear,” he shouted. “An insect crawled in my ear, I need help.”

“What is it, exactly?” asked the man behind the counter. “In your ear?”

“I don’t fucking know! It crawled in while I was sleeping.”

Then the man woke up and came to life.

“Righty-o. Easy, tiger,” he said. “Let’s check it out.”

Michelle came in after parking. A nurse had Seth by the arm and was marching him through to the ward, curious doctor on hand.

“I’m not smoking crack here,” Seth was saying. “I’m not tripping or peaking or anything. I was asleep, and now there’s a cockroach the size of a small dog in my ear and it’s clawing away at my eardrum. It’s killing me – it’s driving me nuts!”

He turned around.

“This is my, ah, girlfriend,” he said. “She’s with me.”

“Come through.”

But? She wondered.

The commotion had already caused a stir. It being a quiet night, the staff began to drift in to have a look. Patients sat up and watched. How could they miss this?

They led Seth to a bed and lay him down. He lay on his side and clutched the edge of the mattress with both hands. The doctor leaned over Seth’s ear and began his inspection. He brought up a pair of tweezers and carefully lowered them into Seth’s ear.


The doctor held up his tweezers. On the end was a long insect leg.

“Got it!”

“Where?” said Seth, sitting up and staring. “Bullshit!” he cried. “That’s just its leg.”

How could they be so stupid? A doctor for Christ’s sake?

“Keep going. It’s still in there.”

“Okay, okay, let me try again.”

The doctor leaned over again and reached in deep with the tweezers. Seth had mastered himself now. He lay as straight as an arrow, neck held thick like a bull’s.

The crowd was still growing. There were ten people watching now. One of the staff went outside to tell the paramedics who were smoking on the sly.

“You gotta see this,” said the nurse. “There’s a bloke inside who’s either nuts or a huge bug crawled in his ear. They’re trying to fish it out.”

The paramedics came in. The cleaners gathered round. The nurses came from across the ward to watch the struggle of man against insect.

“There!” shouted the doctor. “Got it!”

He held up the prize on the end of his tweezers. All could see that it was a large insect, doubtless a young cockroach, but not, perhaps, as large as it ought to be.

“That’s just the back half!” shouted Seth, who was now sure he was the only sane person in the room. “They don’t even need half their shit, they just keep going. Keep looking!”

Michelle wished she had brought her camera with her. At the extreme end of her embarrassment was a liberating sense of what it means to be alive. She wanted to take a video, talk over it, make a little documentary. She wanted to get that cockroach and have it mounted.

Everyone was leaning in; sweat on brows, eyes strained. Seth’s distress was so assertive they were all infused with urgency, as though the cockroach really might kill him if left unchecked.

“That’s it, that’s it!” cried the doctor, and this time he was right.

On the end of his tweezers was the front half of a German cockroach, clawing away at the air in some discomfort, as one might be inclined to do when cut in two. A great cheer went up around the bed; eruptions of laughter and spontaneous clapping. Michelle was clapping too; relief like a shot of soft emotion; the flushing, the draining of the poison mood.

Seth was on his feet. He grabbed the hand that held the tweezers and looked the bug in the eye. It was reaching out towards him, motoring away like the stripped-down Terminator with itslegs blown off.

“You dirty son of a bitch,” said Seth. “Next time you try going up my arse and I’ll show you who’s boss.”

Michelle started crying, and she wasn’t entirely sure why.

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