Last week, I found myself in a vaporetto, or water bus. The pistachio-colored waves gently rocked it back and forth as I climbed on board. After a day of rain, the sun had emerged, albeit cautiously, allowing me to fully revel in the history dripping from the brick-and-mortar buildings.
I was in Venice, a city with eons of history, spectacular art and breathtaking scenery where more than 20 million people visit per year, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
I sat in an open-air section in the back, stuck in a rare moment of complete calm. Little did I know I was about to get a firsthand experience in just what it meant to have hordes of people from all over the world in your immediate company. In a city that functioned purely on winding canals and narrow walkways, the term “tourist” suddenly leaped to life and turned my moment of complete calm into complete chaos.
As the vaporetto waddled to its next stop, I heard the roars of a camera-wielding, fanny-pack-wearing group — all strangers, but somehow physically similar to each other — who came to claim whatever extra standing space was left around me. It was a rampage of obnoxious tourists.
Some recorded video while leaning over me to take pictures with large, expensive semiprofessional cameras. Others took photos of themselves, hoping to catch the stunning Venetian view and end up as the envy of all their friends on social networks. They were loud and brash and had recording devices of all brands, sizes and shapes permanently glued to their hands.
They were the reason that stands hawking souvenirs of highly questionable taste outlined the city landscape; that finding a restaurant with reasonable food was virtually impossible. If there weren't special set-price “tourist menus” advertising spaghetti Bolognese and pizza, the fare consisted of hot dogs and hamburgers.
Walking in an orderly manner with enough space to move your arms wasn't even attemptable as crowds stopped every few steps to take a photo of something, anything, to have evidence of their Italian adventure. Finding a vaporetto that wasn't full to the brim of human bodies was a futile effort.
After a few days of being forced to stare at a bevy of Birkenstocks on boats without any space to breathe and lumbered between families traveling with irritable infants and strollers, I was ready to hurl myself off into the deep blue unknown.
How did anyone truly absorb the beauty of Venice, or any other popular tourist destination for that matter, if they couldn't even remove their cameras from their faces long enough to enjoy the moment in front of them, or get past the commercial experience being sold to them?
If I was this irritable after a few days, I began to wonder how Venetians who had to endure this charade at all hours of the day felt. I casually brought up the overwhelming number of visitors in conversations and sure enough, my suspicions were confirmed: it was a difficult lifestyle, so difficult in fact that many had chosen to leave.
“Venice now has two types of residents — retirees and students studying at the university,” they told me.
I felt sad for Venice, a city with so much to offer, but with few there to see beyond the facade of mask-shaped magnets, gondola rides and the constant click of cameras.
On my last day, I escaped to San Pietro di Castello, an island connected to Venice that I was told by locals was a “hidden gem.” With more lush views and fewer people, it lived up to its reputation. The warm breeze of Castello and the sweetness of Venice swirled together in those last few hours where being in the moment counted more than being in a photo.
I couldn't have captured it in a frame, even if I had tried. So I didn't. I put my camera away and indulged in gelato to seal the experience through something that had never failed me when it came to preserving memories: my taste buds. Sure enough, the flavor is still lingering.
LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.