Sound track: Vivaldi’s Griselda
I think this is number four? Airplane travel somehow seems to blend into one continuous stretch of suspended time. The back of plane seats all look the same. In flight magazines are mostly red or blue or yellow. Coffee is that kind of reliable brown, although the trillion different iterations of milk are always a surprise. I am still fascinated by its many possible forms of delivery.
This particular flight, however, is taking me somewhat off my beaten track. I’ve been to Venice once before. In 2010 I managed to spread an impossibly small amount of money over an improbably long stretch of time. I backpacked around Europe as a 20-year-old staying in hostels and getting my first taste of European culture outside the cushy confines of family holidays. Experiencing Europe as an adult totally on my own was earth-shattering. The sheer autonomy of backpacking can be wholly overwhelming. If I ran out of money, I would be hungry. If I missed my train, I would have to sleep at the station or find a last-minute hostel I could afford. I learned about consequences. I was reminiscing about that particular trip this week during preparations for my debut concert at the Berlin Philharmonic. Half way through my Europe-wide adventure, I met up with my best girlfriends for a few days of freezing cold fun in Berlin. It was during one of the coldest winters the city had seen in recent years. Minus 14 C during the day. My North European colleagues now laugh that off and tell me -14 is nothing. But to a young Aussie who had yet to experience a real winter, it was a shock. Through a mutual friend, one of the girls had found us a fantastic apartment right in recently gentrified Friedrichsheim for €7 per night. No furniture. No heating. We were told we couldn’t use the heating because since our friend had officially moved out the power to the flat had been turned off. We froze. We lay out our sleeping mats side by side on the floor and zipped our sleeping bags in to one giant cocoon for warmth. We took disco naps from midnight til 2:00 before heading out to Berghain or some dominatrix dance dungeon. It was brilliant. But if you had told me back then that in 10 years I would be sleeping in a kingsize bed and sipping champagne at breakfast at the Hotel Adlon Kempinski and singing at the Berlin Philharmonic, I wouldn’t have believed you. Or maybe I would have. Maybe I always new where all of this was leading.
Back to my first trip to Venice. Wintertime, wet, St Mark’s was flooded (of course) and all the other tourists seem to have known this in advance and brought their own gumboots. I was relegated to teetering across the rickety makeshift boardwalks the city had slapped together, constantly worried I was going to slip into the freezing, salty water. The church itself was cold and dark and the stucco gold elements faded. I ate Italian food prepared by non-Italians. I had my first negroni and hated it but felt very cool. I was there for a total of 12 hours. Night train in, night train out. It left a mark on me. The memory of that bitter drink in a dark red bar with the sound of the dirty canal water bumping boats against each other outside, some black-haired men bent over their short drinks, arguing silently and painfully about an absent woman. The staring. The whole trip I was stared at. People just couldn’t understand was a young white girl was doing sitting in red-coloured bars or travelling on night trains alone. At the time I wasn’t sure either. But now I see its purpose. Those moments of solitude prepared me for the life I now lead. The nomadic path of a freelance opera singer. I am not afraid of an empty room or a long night or an itchy seat or the sight of flames on a airplane safety card.
We’re crossing the Southern German Alps right now. Those alps were so loved by Alex, and such a source of joy for me, as I loved seeing him love them. Many Sunday afternoons were spent sweating and scratching our way to the ragged tops of those peaks. They’re mountains of meaning. They funnel a spicy Saharan wind hurtling through Munich, periodically sending the locals into a panic, and (reportedly) causing car accidents and headaches. They afford Munich her Blaues Himmel. They divide and develop cultures. And right now, they signal the rapid descent from high altitude to sea level: the arrival in Venezia.
Now, a decade later, I’m back in Venice. Much has changed. I’m a professional opera singer. There will be a driver in a suit holding my name card when I pass through arrivals. I will be arriving at my apartment via the sparkling Venetian water taxi, rather than on an anonymous night train.
The low-hanging winter fog has given way to resplendent sunshine. I am taller. More stressed. More aware of who I am. And now I like negronis.