I once read a short story by Daphne du Maurier about a man in Venice who got lost in the winding alleys and trapped by the canals. As he walked faster and faster, finding himself more and more lost with each turn, he grew desperate. But I didn’t care about his dilemma; the man was just a vehicle to move the story along. The real main character was Venice. The alleys and canals were a network of arteries, and the buildings were alive. As I read, one thing became clear to me: the man wasn’t simply lost—the city overtook him.
For years, I wanted to visit this Venice and immerse myself in the strange reality the city of the story had seemed to create. Last summer, I got my chance. I packed my backpack, flew into Marco Polo Airport, took the train to Santa Lucia Station, and when I stepped onto the street… I found Wi-Fi. And souvenir shops. And signs in English, and German, and Chinese. I found that the GPS on my phone could locate me even on an island with no cell phone reception.
My vision of getting lost on my first day and making uncharted discoveries in an ancient city was clearly unrealistic. Major sites were mapped, and no matter how many times I chose a random alley to wander down, I eventually emerged on the Grand Canal, just a few yards from where I had started. No one had told me that Venice was so small.
By the end of the next day, I had given up trying to lose myself. I looked at a map and set out to see some landmarks. I used my GPS. And halfway between a hospital that looked like a palace and a palace that looked like it was about to crumble into the Grand Canal, I stopped thinking, wandered through a doorway by accident and found the strangest bookstore I had ever seen.
I was in awe. Masks hung on the walls. Gondolas filled to the brim with books on Venice’s high tide season crowded the main room. A cat lounged on a bookshelf. Wandering through the narrow aisles I choked back ecstatic coughs as I tried not to inhale half a century of dust. I picked up books that were yellowed around the edges and smelled of must. And I reveled in the fact that the store was empty. I had done it! I had discovered something!
Making my way to the back, I saw a staircase made of books. The climb was unsteady, but from the top, I could see all the way down a canal to where it met the main street. I planned my next move and readied myself to make my next great discovery. And on my way out, a group of nearly thirty tourists pushed past me into the bookstore, shattering the silence and sending up clouds of dust.
So, maybe I hadn’t been the first to discover the book-filled gondolas or the Venetian masks. As it turned out, quite a few people knew all about it—it had a 4.5 out of 5 on TripAdvisor. Maybe in a world with travel sites and free Wi-Fi I could never fully lose myself in a deserted street. Maybe a city would never overtake me. But from the top of that staircase built of books, just for a minute, I lost the crowd. I felt I had found something amazing, something I had never known existed.
— Lauren Cooper, BFR Managing Editor