“Twenty seven million tourists per year visit,” Antonella said. “That's as many as Paris or London, but they're big cities. They can handle it. We're only small. That's too many for us, here. We won’t survive much longer.”
“How many real Venetians are left?” I ask.
“Fifty six thousand,” she said. “In the eighties there were one hundred and eighty thousand. It’s only in the last fifteen years that everything has changed. Now, the offices are gone. There are no supermarkets or doctors left. There's no basic infrastructure for residents anymore. See that Bvlgari store over there? It used to be my baker.”
She'd told this story before. She paused in the right moments for effect. But even so, her sadness was still raw. I’d never been to Venice before, but had heard that it was one of the most tourist-flooded cities in the world. Although no one had ever said that was a reason not to visit.
I can see why. It’s a miracle. Even though San Marco Square feels like Disneyland, Venice was first mentioned in the year 421. It was never made to hold twenty-seven million pairs of feet. The Palazzos need constant renovation; they're sinking. Walls crack, and the salt from the ocean crumbles rock and wood easily. The city is drowning. But every year, the palazzos are renovated. Someone falls in love with the city for the first time and buys a new building, or an apartment, that they vow to upkeep. A dream is ignited and hope keeps Venice alive. Love is blind, and the new owners don't mind that they are fighting a losing battle. Perhaps a battle fought so gallantly can't really be lost at all.
I talk with my lover on the terrace after the sad-true tour we had with a native venetian, an endangered species. Antonella conducted the tour with the bravado of a rare jewel that we both knew she was.
From the terrace, we could only see rooftops and church bells that chimed on the hour. We talked about what would happen to Venice if no one really lived there. It would become a shell of itself, we agreed. It would get even harder to find good, honest, Italian food, I said. Nothing but a theme park, Schatz said. The worst of it was: neither of us had any idea how to change things.
A fifty euro levy to enter the city? we'd suggested, earlier that afternoon.
“I don’t know,” she said, "but they’ve got to do something."
“All that would do is change the kind of tourism,” I said.
“But it might mean less people,” she said. “Alora," she finished with a sigh, "I won’t be around forever. Perhaps the whole place will be underwater before the real Venetians die out anyway.”