I lived for a brief time in Park Slope, Brooklyn, commuting daily into Manhattan on the "boogie down D train to the Bronx", as the conductor would say over the PA every morning. A couple of doors down from me was a sixtyish fellow who had lived in the same house all his life with his frail mother. Maybe it was the tall-boy can of Colt 45 Malt Liquor in the paper bag that accompanied him everywhere, or perhaps it was just a bad gene sequence, but this fellow had the wit and manner of a ten-year-old. The village natural. We'd often sit on my porch, listening to the boom box and talking about his favorite subject: the neighborhood. He was one of those "unofficial mayor" types who knew everyone and everything in a 10-block radius, and had earned the right to sit down in the barbershop without getting shooed away anytime he wanted to hang out and read magazines.
In one of our conversations he stunned me by saying that he had never been to Manhattan in his life. Since the Big City was about 20 minutes away via subway, and the ride cost about the same as a bagel and cream cheese, I found this incredible. His reasoning: everything he needed was right there in Brooklyn. Who needs Manhattan?
Cut to Venice, many years later. I'd traded the D train for the number 82 vaporetto. In Venice for the first month of a year and a half stay, I was having a coffee on the fondamenta with a well-educated, middle-aged, worldly Italian woman. The conversation turned to travel, and she mentioned casually that she had been to Rome only once in her life, and had never ventured further south into Italy. I hid my reaction, but was stupified by the abject provincialism of it all. Her reasoning: everything she needed was right there in Venice. Who needs Rome?
I came to better understand her attitude (and the attitude of many Venetians) thanks to a kind of in-class instructional comedy routine that one of my Italian teachers in Venice, Andrea, would use whenever a new crop of students came in. The topic was the meaning of the word “lontano”, which in English, means “far away”. He would contrast what lontano meant to a Chinese student (from Beijing to Shanghai) and an American student (from New York to LA) with that of an Italian.
“The concept of lontano to an Italian”, Andrea would say, "is anything more than an hour’s train ride from home.”
In the case of Venice, at least, I understand how this short leash gets attached to the collar. Venice's depth is enough to ponder for a lifetime. The true city reveals itself to you slowly. There's the initial seduction of the beauty. Then you become overcome by the improbability of it all ... an imperial city in a lagoon that sprouted from a petri dish of salt, mud and reeds. There's a thousand years of history to consider. A world-class artistic and architectural tradition. A threat from the sea and ecological drama. A million little stories, which, taken together, define the soul and wit of a people. The waterways. And a way of life -- once one sees past the unending tourist hordes -- that has a sweet secret rhythm that holds you in place, content.
So now for the true confession. At the end of my time in Venice, I had never ventured south of Rome either. I still haven’t.