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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The joys and perils of return travel



A line of people in front of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy, in June 2024. Over the last two decades, the number of tourists visiting Venice has increased nearly tenfold. (Matteo de Mayda/The New York Times)

By Pamela Paul


Last week, I went to Venice, where I was invited to participate in an arts conference. It was the first time I’d been back in 32 years.


Venice is one of those bucket-list places, a city so extraordinary you want to see it at least once. But unless you’re the kind of fabulous person who regularly attends the Biennale or the Film Festival or owns a palazzo, it may not be somewhere you return. It’s small, it’s expensive, it’s overcrowded, and it’s sinking.


Then again, it’s Venice.


For those of us who love to travel, the question of whether to revisit a place you’ve been to before is a repeated conundrum. You go back to some places to see certain people or to visit in the company of new people. You return to see what you missed or to see it again. Whichever way, return travel is as much an act of time travel as it is a geographic one.


You’ve changed, and the place has changed. You’re visiting not simply a place, but a place captured in a moment in time — one that exists for you in the past and to a past version of yourself.


Travel writers often wrestle with this. “By day I wander the alleys and monuments that had so fascinated me as a young man,” legendary travel writer Colin Thubron wrote on returning to Damascus, Syria, in 2017 after 50 years. “Sometimes I find myself gazing through his eyes, remembering the youthful enchantment of entering an old mosque or a sultan’s tomb.”


For me, the simple idea that 32 years could pass since I first went to Venice seemed impossible. Surely my adult life couldn’t contain intervals that long.


I first went to Venice toward the end of a month traveling solo in Italy following a junior year abroad. Even during that “Let’s Go” time when guidebooks still boasted of Europe on $35 a day, Venice was prohibitively expensive. My only realistic option in Venice was a youth hostel housed in a former nunnery on an outlying island.


It had rained nearly every day in Italy that June, enough to merit a mention in The International Herald Tribune. Tourism was suffering, and even Venice had largely emptied out. I, too, felt sodden. In Venice, I hadn’t the time nor the money to enter the famed Basilica, which I admired under a flimsy umbrella from rain-drenched San Marco Square.


I don’t remember much about that visit. When I dug my photo album out from a storage crate before leaving this time, my pictures of Venice were dim and unfamiliar.


Today, of course, our travels revisit us regularly. Our photos, more plentiful, are right here on our phones, served to us algorithmically through the iPhone’s “Memories” function. We watch friends’ and strangers’ Instagram stories of the same locations. It’s become harder to avoid losing your memories altogether.


Over 32 years, new information about Venice had filtered my own. I’d read travel writer Jan Morris’ immortal 1960 book on Venice and that of Venice devotee Judith Martin, which I reviewed for The New York Times Book Review. I saw new movies, from “The Wings of the Dove” to “The Italian Job” remake, that cast Venice as a place of tragic beauty and elusive wealth. I watched older ones like 1973’s “Don’t Look Now,” in which a dilapidated, almost corroded Venice served as a backdrop to menace and terror, and Paul Schrader’s 1990 “The Comfort of Strangers.”


It became hard to reconcile my faded version of Venice with all the data I’d absorbed since. Venice, the headlines told me, was flooded; Venice was sinking; Venice was possibly saved. The pandemic crushed and then perhaps rescued Venice’s tourism industry. The city had become so overcrowded, it had started charging entry fees, yet was conflicted about being treated like a museum rather than a living city.


All this led to a certain amount of trepidation. Had Venice become overly commercialized, ruined in the interim?


Every traveler has been told on one journey or another, “You should have been here 30 years ago.” You missed Angkor Wat when it was largely abandoned. Beijing when the sky was still blue. Iceland before Instagram.


It can seem like you’ve always arrived too late. And if you return, you can’t help but draw comparisons between the way you once saw it and what lies before you now.


Or perhaps not. Late in life, Morris, who died in 2020 at age 94, said she couldn’t remember her first sight of Venice, a city she revisited enough times to fill four books and, in her words, “a couple of million” articles. But Morris said of Venice, “In my experience, anyway, it remains a place of unpoisoned and un-mechanized welcome. But there, it’s all in the mind.”


So how did the Venice in my mind compare with the city I returned to?


Venice was not at all what I’d remembered. Nor was it what I feared. The city, it turns out, has not been ruined. It was certainly crowded, but its crowds were tolerable, perhaps because they circulated along the same well-trod paths. And the city compensated, thrumming with contemporary art as much as with its preserved history, its palazzos turned into private museums boasting exhibits by artists like Pierre Huyghe and Christoph Büchel. My 17-year-old son, freshly graduated from high school, came along for the trip, and I got to look on as he saw Venice for the very first time. I, too, felt like I saw it for the first time. If I never end up returning, I’ll have left with no regrets. This time, I’ll remember it well.

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