The floods are beautiful, wish you were here

Determined to find a living Venice beneath the city's dying, museum-like facade

"Not along the Grand Canal do you find the essential Venice," Max Beerbohm, the British novelist, once wrote. "The beauty that is hidden away, not the beauty that is revealed, is the city's essence."

A longing to discover that essence firsthand is the engine that drives Paula Weideger's most recent book, "Venetian Dreaming." Part travelogue, part memoir, Weideger deftly describes her quest to spend a year living in that enchanting island city not as a tourist, but as a Venetian.

In doing so, she weaves together two tales – an anxious New Yorker's attempt to fit into an alien culture, and the evolution of Venice from a glamorous city of trade to a troubled tourist haven.

The book's strength is Weideger's obvious delight with the city's beauty and rich past. Her infatuation began – as it does for many of the 10 million tourists who visit Venice each year – with "a big, goofy smile" that appeared on her face as she traveled the city's waterways by boat.

"I fell in love," she writes. "I longed to get to know this exotic, astonishing, labyrinthine town better. I wanted to get as close to Venice as I possibly could, to learn everything about her."

With some gnashing of teeth, she finds an apartment, drags her suitcase through the streets of Venice, and moves in. From here, Weideger, a journalist and author of several nonfiction books, begins to explore. At times, her brushstrokes seem broad: "All of Venice, inside and out, is a stupendous art gallery," she writes. "Venetians are formal people," boat drivers are often helpful, and everyone walks around Venice at top speed.

But more often than not, her observations are sharp and fresh. Determined to find a living Venice beneath the city's dying, museum-like facade, she doggedly learns to speak Italian and to navigate the city's narrow, winding streets and waterways to find shops, offices, and cultural events where Venetians gather. She makes friends, attends parties, and even attends civic-action meetings.

Weideger's book serves up a feast of historic nuggets, too. For example, Venice is made up of between 117 and 200 islets that, parish by parish, developed to become a city. To guard the city's power, its officials in the 17th century limited contact between citizens and foreigners: German and Turks were forced to trade in discreet sections of the city. And the floods, or acqua alta, are part of the welcome rhythm of life in Venice.

Also, because everyone has always traveled by boat, it is historically the view of a house from the water that was meant to impress.

"Friends would arrive in their gondolas and tie up at one of the barber pole-striped wooden posts painted, like a jockey's silks, in the family's colors," Weideger writes of the old Venice. "They would step onto a wooden pontile, the palace's front porch. In the days when Venetians made their fortune through trade, ships loaded with merchandise would also tie up at these docks. Their goods would be taken into the ground floor warehouses, called maggazini."

Weideger, a relentless researcher, is clearly fascinated by Venice's social history, from the women's penchant for pearls (trade had made jewels especially accessible) to the development of a Jewish ghetto, to the odd relationship with titles, like Lord and Sir, which many Europeans crave. (At the end of the 18th century, Weideger writes, the occupying Austrians tried to appease nobles by offering titles like count and countess.) Many Venetian nobles still prefer to use only N.D. (Nobile Donna) or N.H. (Nobile Homo) when writing their names.

Weideger's account of her personal struggles is perhaps the weakest part of the book. While self-deprecating and engaging in her own right, Weideger, a self-described Bronx worrier, is not an easy partner.

For example, having rented space in a beautiful palace, the Palazzo Dona dalle Rose, she refuses to briefly exchange apartments when Merchant Ivory, the movie company, asks to use it during the shooting of a new film. Weideger knows she has made an enemy of her landlord. But she holds her ground, matching her obstinacy with that of the Venetians. "Hardship makes survivors tough," she writes. "In the Bronx, and I think in Venice, too, a sense of humor kept this toughness from seeming brutal."

Infatuations, however, often end in disappointment. So too, with "Venetian Dreaming." Weideger's book closes as a near fatal car crash leaves her longing for home with few fantasies left about Venice.

Packed for the return, she says her goodbyes. "Would we return? I had no idea," she writes. "Even stranger, I didn't find this upsetting." Her patience with trying to bridge fantasy and reality has finally run out.

The book's last two words? "Basta cosi" or "That's enough."

• Mary B.W. Tabor is a freelance writer living in London.

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