I’ve been wondering how to write a blog post after the Paris attacks. For the past week the internet has been awash with sympathy and outrage and, in almost equal measure, assertions that the sympathy is selective and the outrage misplaced. I can understand the outpouring of grief and simultaneously understand the frustration of those who wonder why the same grief isn’t shown when the victims are from unfamiliar places. It would be impossible to do justice to all of that here, and it’s not really the point of this blog. I’m keeping a record of my thoughts and experiences in Italy, so that is what I’ll do. After the initial news of the attacks, Italian media coverage focused on a 28 year old Venetian student, Valeria Solesin, missing after the massacre at the Bataclan theatre. I was largely unaware of the events unfolding in Paris because I was in class from 7.45 am on Friday and was exhausted by the time I got back to Bologna in the evening. I went to bed and Ollie told me something about a shooting in Paris when he got home later, but I was half asleep and had an early start in the morning, so it didn’t really register.
I got the 8.16 am train to Venice on Saturday to see the 2015 Biennale, and was looking forward to wandering through the international contemporary art offerings on show at the Giardini and Arsenale. I dropped my bag at the hotel and went to get breakfast in a nearby café and it was there that the rolling news on the television screen put an end to my ignorance. The women who ran the café, a mother and daughter I think, were playing with the younger woman’s toddler and singing to him, while serving customers coffee and croissants. Everyone was united in their utterances of how terrible the violence in Paris was and I thought how similar the morning bustle in this café must be to any in the French capital, or any other city in the world. My phone was refusing to pick up Wi-Fi for some reason, so I tried to understand as much as I could from the television before embarking on a fruitless search for an English language newspaper. I walked past a toy shop which had ‘Je suis Paris’ on display in the window and ended up on the Ponte de l’Accademia, which was heaving with tourists admiring the Venetian vistas. I was doing the same when a smiling, English-speaking woman asked me if I could take a photograph of her. I duly obliged, and at the point where we would normally have ended our interaction I asked her if she knew what was happening in Paris. She filled me in on the death toll and in the course of this grim exchange, we founded a new friendship.
Erin, a solo traveller from California, was absorbing the colours and beauty of Italy as inspiration for her new business of importing scarves. She emanated positivity and we stood on the bridge for what must have been an hour discussing everything from our love of Italy, to our families and friends, TED talks, art, travel and the meandering paths our lives have taken to bring us to this point. I felt as though we were kindred spirits and thought to myself how lucky we were to bump into each other on this beautiful bridge in this glorious city, on a morning where so many were surveying their fractured lives. I had two tickets to the Biennale, but Ollie couldn’t join me until the following day, so I invited Erin to accompany me and make use of Ollie’s Saturday ticket. We walked and talked and photographed our way to the Giardini. We admired the colourful washing lines full of clothes, the architecture and the signs of decay in the window shutters and the plasterwork. We ate lunch together and continued our musings on life and serendipity as we weaved our way through the pavilions. We shared stories, and spoke about our creative aspirations, as if we were old friends catching up on years spent apart. The mantra of the day was ‘we are so lucky’, and it was repeated innumerable times. Erin had to leave later in the afternoon but we exchanged our details and promised to stay in touch. I ended up staying at the Giardini until closing time and made my way back to my hotel, a part of the dissipating crowds in the foggy darkness. After eating my dinner en route, I was ready for my bed, but I ended up watching the news in my hotel room for hours on end. Bodies in the street lying in pools of blood, a woman dangling from a window ledge, photographs of Valeria Solesin and interviews with her distraught parents. These people were just meeting friends, eating together, enjoying music, culture, life. In the wrong place at the wrong time.
On Sunday I met Ollie off the early train from Bologna and we went to the same café I had been in the previous morning to order breakfast. The day was beautiful as we made our way to the Arsenale, crossing teal canals on pale bridges hemmed in by crumbling orange walls. I was so glad that Ollie was with me to marvel at the breathtaking beauty of Venice, to eat delicious food and joke with a Charlie Chaplin mime. We digressed into a Sean Scully exhibition and saw a completely white cat with pale blue eyes gliding nonchalantly against the gallery walls, brushing the tip of her tail against the bottom of one of the canvases like the white-gloved finger of a conservator.
We recommenced our route to the Arsenale via Piazza San Marco. I had first visited Venice years ago as an art student and remembered the feeling of entering the square for the first time. Witnessing Ollie’s reaction to the huge expanse opening before him allowed me to vicariously enjoy that first time again.
Images of Valeria and headlines announcing her death covered the news stands along our route, which prompted us to contrast our beautiful day with the depressing state of the world. We missed the turn for the Arsenale as a result of our animated discussion, but eventually arrived at ‘All The World’s Futures’ and it was very heavy going for the rest of the afternoon. War, exploitation, social exclusion and environmental degradation met us at every turn. Weapons, skulls, fear and desperation abound. Barthelemy Toguos Urban Requiem featured huge wooden stamps in the shape of human busts, stacked beside a wall stamped with slogans relating to international conflict and upheaval – ‘Je suis Charlie’, ‘Not In My Name’, ‘Cold Blood’, ‘Todos Somos Juarez’. Another piece of work stopped me in my tracks. The Propeller Group featured a video of an AK47 versus an M16. I thought of the bullets ripping through Paris on Friday night, and all the other bullets ripping through less romantic cities and remnants of cities every night of the week. We’re so good at conflict, everywhere.
I wanted to bring Ollie to the Giardini if we had the time, but unfortunately we didn’t. There was one pavilion there which made me smile on Saturday evening and I would have liked to have seen it again with him after being visually bombarded all day with the malevolence of humanity. The Japanese pavilion in the Giardini housed an installation by Chiharu Shiota called ‘The Key in the Hand.’ The ceiling and upper parts of the wall were filled with criss-crossing red strings, from which tens of thousands of donated keys from around the world were suspended. The keys symbolise memories accumulated throughout the lives of the keys owners and the room feels pregnant with the stories of where these keys originated. Away from this display, on the lower level of the pavilion, a video piece titled ‘How did you come into the World?’ played on four monitors featuring little children talking about ‘memories’ they had of their births and the time before their births. It made me laugh so much to hear the fantastical ways these little people decided they had made their entrance into this world. Their innocent sense of their own magical abilities was so uplifting. It was a strange weekend. So exciting and life-affirming on the one hand, so depressing and fatalistic on the other.
My thoughts returned to Valeria as we left the Arsenale and headed towards the train station. She will never walk across these beautiful bridges again. I have since learned more about her – that she was interested in ensuring equal opportunities for mothers at work, she was a pacifist and an active member of the NGO Emergency, providing assistance to the civilian victims of wars. If I had met Valeria on a bridge in Venice I would have liked her instantly. The rest of us, are lucky not to have been killed in Paris on that Friday night, or Beirut, Syria, Iraq or anywhere else where bullets and shrapnel slice through the air. There are people like us in all of those places, and fleeing all of those places. But for an accident of birth we could be mired in a daily battle for survival. Some might denigrate my attachment to Valeria’s story, for eulogising someone I never knew. Some might question why I don’t dedicate a whole blog post to a victim of war in Lebanon, Iraq, or Syria. But in reality I am doing that. To me it is all the same. If we truly believe that all lives are equal, then we should mourn the victims of war in the Middle East and around the world. Mourn for the lives lost and the displaced refugees. And mourn for Paris too.