If you are a Venetian, and not part of what Henry James called the "battered peep-show" of tourist Venice, if you are a resident who lives in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment (elevators are rare in Venice), someone who gets up, goes to work, goes home, Venice is a different place altogether. The abnormal is normal. A flood is routine. The siren sounds, protective steel doors come down. Boots, essential to any Venetian wardrobe, are pulled on. The two and a half miles of passerelle—an elevated boardwalk supported on metal legs—are set up. Life goes on.
Here, where everything anyone needs to live and die must be floated in, wrestled over bridges, and muscled up stairs, time is measured by the breath of tides, and space bracketed by water. The mathematics of distance, an accounting of footsteps and boat timetables, is instinctive to every Venetian.
When Silvia Zanon goes to Campo San Provolo, where she teaches middle school, she knows it will take 23 minutes to walk there from her apartment on the Calle delle Carrozze. She leaves at 7:35 a.m. Memi, owner of a neighborhood trattoria, seated at a table reading the newspaper, looks up and nods. The young man collecting trash for the garbage barge mumbles a greeting. She turns onto the Campiello dei Morti and passes a wall draped with a white climbing rose; a bridge, two squares, another left in front of a former movie theater, now a trendy restaurant, and she proceeds on to the Frezzeria. Ahead is the Correr Museum and cleaning ladies on hands and knees with buckets and brushes. She crosses the Piazza San Marco, blissfully empty in early morning. "I step on the paving stones and fall in love with the city all over again," she says. Another bridge, a brisk walk across the Campo San Filippo e Giacomo, and she arrives. It is exactly 7:58 a.m.
Listen. Venice should be heard as well as seen. At night the eye is not distracted by the radiance of gilded domes. The ear can discern the slam of wood shutters, heels tapping up and down the stone steps of bridges, the abbreviated drama of whispered conversations, waves kicked against the seawall by boats, the staccato of rain on canvas awnings, and always, always, the heavy, sad sound of bells. Most of all, the sound of Venice is the absence of the sound of cars.
Often Franco Filippi, a bookstore owner and writer, cannot sleep, and so he gets up and threads his way through the maze of streets, flashlight in hand, stopping now and then to play a beam over facades of stucco and stone until the cylinder of light picks out a roundel of carved stone, called a patera, depicting some fantastic beast that slithers, prowls, or flies. It is then, while the city sleeps and he is rapt in the contemplation of a touchstone of its past, that he reclaims his Venice from the crowds that fill the streets, squares, and canals when it is day.