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Book Review: The Venice Experiment

I have read a number of these impulsive relocation stories, where couples or families abandon (temporarily or permanently) their old lives in order to experience not just a sea-change but a cultural exchange, and in the process learn about themselves – generally, I love them. One of my favourite Venice stories is Marlena de Blasi’s 1000 Days in Venice and its sequel (just found out she has a new book out as well, set in Tuscany) – but there are many that recount the joys and sorrows of trying to fit into the elusive and sometime aloof society of Venice – a city that defies everything, including the imagination. The Venice Experiment is another in this genre and is the tale of Barry and his lovely wife, their dog and cat and the year they spend in the marvellous La Serenissima having moved from Florida.

These types of tales tend to follow the same route, despite the different locations: a mixture of quirky, heart-warming, self-deprecating, hilarious and sometimes really sad vignettes that serve to highlight the commonalities despite language, culture and other differences, between the dislocated couple and the locals. They are most often about our core humanity and that which brings us together than they are about what separates us. Traveling to Venice and living in an apartment in the Canereggio sestiere, before they move to another, more suitable accommodation, Barry and his wife soon learn that being a ‘local’ is an entirely new experience to that of being a tourist, no matter that they’ve spent a great deal of time in the canal-city previously and even know people there. Even without much language (which thy seek to rectify by attending classes) Barry particularly is quickly embraced by the community, to the point where he experiences the good and the bad: tardiness, an acqua alta (high tide), the casual approach Venetians have to business, and the sometimes frustrating lack of accountability when it comes to essential service provision. But he also experiences the warmth, dignity and generosity of the Venetians and develops his own appreciation for important things in life: conversation, friends, food and wine and the closeness that can grow when all four are combined. Mind you, the narrator, Barry, seems to be an unusually gregarious and genuinely nice guy who goes out of his way to learn the stories of those he encounters.

While I had some smiles and tears, I found this narrative a wee bit dull for this genre and surprisingly so for one set in Venice. There are others that are better written and where the story is genuinely moving and hilarious… With this one, there was a sense in which, despite the kindness of Barry and strangers, as a reader I found it hard to connect with him, his wife and either their travails or triumphs. His wife, for example, seemed to barely leave the kitchen (you do sort of find out the reason for that, but he was represented as more of an intrepid explorer than she was). I still enjoyed the account. But that’s the problem – it was an account. Nicely written, for sure, but in the end, it was simply an account. That Barry now runs tours through Italy is not a surprise nor is the fact that his wife (see, I can’t even remember her name, and I only finished the book last night! I do recall she’s a gorgeous red head that many admire) becomes a chef, and I was glad they were able to turn their year into something with such longevity and which gives them pleasure. So, as a life experiment, the year in Venice clearly worked, as a narrative, only just.

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