A couple years ago one of the heavy-hitting academic groups was holding its annual conference in Venice. I wasn’t presenting a paper there or chairing a session or doing any job interviews, but I was living in Rome at the time so I figured I might as well check it out. I’d been to Venice several times before and liked the place well enough, plus I figured it could be interesting to see it filled with hundreds of academics, mostly Medieval and Renaissance geeks. Renaissance scholars are pretty uptight and stiff-lipped, but Medievalists, for whatever reason, can be a fun bunch. With any luck I’d get to see a few of them running around the city in period attire, staging mock battles over bridges or across canals. Plus if you’re going to go to a conference you might as well go to one at a good location, so I booked a hotel and registered.
My arrival in Venice was poorly timed. I had just barely managed to catch the last train from Rome that evening, after some luggage problems on my way to Termini. I didn’t want to take a legitimate suitcase so I was trying to stuff several days’ worth of clothes into a duffel bag. Unfortunately the bag was something I’d bought on the streets of Rome for about ten euro, and so its construction wasn’t exactly top notch. Within minutes of walking out of my building, hurrying to catch the bus down to Termini, the strap snapped. The fact that it had been under such intense pressure because of all the crap that I had stuffed into the bag–combined with the half-running, half-lumbering gait that indicates I’m trying to make haste–caused it to fly off my shoulders and nearly roll into the street.
“Oh shit!” And I was forced to run after it. From then on I had to carry it in my arms like a giant nylon baby.
Naturally my bus didn’t arrive in any sort of reasonable fashion, and so by the time I finally made it to Termini I had only a few minutes until the train was set to leave. I also knew that if the train wasn’t late–which, from what I could tell on the board, it wasn’t–there was even a risk of it leaving a minute or so early. Italian trains like to do this every now and then, maybe to keep you on your toes, or perhaps as a way of trying to make up for their modus operandi of running behind schedule.
Foolishly, I waited until I arrived in Venice at nearly quarter to eleven to phone my hotel, hoping to find out where exactly it was located. There was no answer the first time I called, and after about a dozen rings it just went to a fax line. But I wasn’t worried. It was entirely possible that the night attendant was sleeping, or had just stepped out for a cigarette, or perhaps a brief Italian-style strike. But five or six calls later, with no answer, and I started to be concerned. What if there really was no one there? More importantly, how was I going to find this place? About the only thing I had going for me was the fact that Venice, unlike most cities, has very clearly defined borders; it’s a finite space, and so there was only so much ground to cover. Eventually, I figured, if I wandered around long enough I’d have to run into the place. In theory, at least.
All I could remember was that the hotel was on a street near the Rialto. I had scribbled the name and location into a notebook, but the street name was illegibly written, and nothing near the Rialto on my tiny map of the city–the back of a business card from a restaurant I’d been to once–resembled the combination of strange symbols and shapes that was supposed to represent my hotel’s street name.
Furthermore, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do when I got to the hotel–since it was pretty clear no one was manning the front desk–but I felt the important thing was to simply arrive. One step at a time.
I stepped out of the train station and briefly took stock of the situation. Leaving the station in Venice gives you a great idea of just how serious the end of the line is here, in terms of ground transportation. A few dozen meters from the exit is the Grand Canal. It becomes very clear very quickly that boats are now the only means of getting around, apart from walking.
The city was almost preternaturally quiet. I tried calling the hotel a few more times. When I realized no one was answering, at least not any time soon, I caught the vaporetto and rode it down the canal.
I got off by the Rialto and started walking around more or less at random. It was a ridiculous plan, but it was the best thing I could think of at the moment. And somehow, through nothing more than dumb luck and a hunch that my hotel was on a street somewhat perpendicular to the canal, I managed to find the hotel. Just as I had imagined, there was no one at the front desk, which I could see perfectly through the glass door. Ringing the bell produced no results, apart from a faint noise I could hear through the glass.
Luckily there was a number listed on the hotel’s buzzer, under the words “24 hour”. I called it and reached the hotel’s manager. He assured me it was no problem, that he could buzz me in remotely from where he was.
Except that for some reason the remote buzzer wouldn’t work, despite several tries. And because nobody actually lives in Venice anymore he wasn’t anywhere near the area, and thus couldn’t come by to open the door himself.
The manager assured me he would take care of the problem, and a few minutes later he called to say everything was worked out. I assumed this meant the buzzer was now working, but it actually meant he had called his friend around the corner–another hotel manager–and secured me a room there.
Not exactly what I had had in mind when he said everything had been taken care of, but better than sleeping on the streets.
And so a short while later I was finally in a hotel room, finally able to lay down the ridiculous duffel bag baby I had been lugging around. I took a quick shower, got in bed, and threw on the TV. “Cobra” was on, with Sylvester Stallone, and that seemed about as good as anything to fall asleep to. I knew the next few days were going to be a brutal gauntlet of academia, and something as ridiculous as “Cobra” was just what I need to steel myself for the experience. That and a fine pair of aviator shades.
I awoke early the next morning, since I had to transport my stuff to my original hotel, back around the corner, and get ready for RSA. My usual attire of jeans and a t-shirt wouldn’t do for this sort of conference, so I tossed a blazer on over the t-shirt, hoping to give myself the appearance of some credibility. In reality I probably looked like some jackass trying to resurrect 1980s fashion, but that’s okay with me. As far as I’m concerned skinny ties for men and shoulder pads for women should never have gone out of style, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the population catches on. But I had no time to worry about these things, and in any event I figured I’d at least look less ridiculous than anyone strolling around in period garb.
I grabbed a quick caffè and headed over to register and pick up my credentials. The city was already full of people in town for the conference. It’s generally not too hard to spot academics, especially compared to more run-of-the-mill tourists; all you have to do is look for hordes of women wearing scarves and men sporting ponytails, and listen for the sound of affected British accents. There’s also that special sallow skin tone and hunched posture that comes from years of sitting under institutional lighting. Plus they all had name tags handing from their necks, nearly all with their institutional affiliations (no good academic does anything without proudly declaring their university/grant/fellowship/etc.).
When I picked up my own name tag I also received the conference program. At first I thought the woman was handing me a dictionary. It was goddamn enormous. Nearly a thousand pages long. I sat in a courtyard in the registration building for a bit and tried leafing through this tome, but I had no idea how to attack the thing. It was like reading the phone book.
I spent that first day attending as many sessions as possible, running from building to building and island to island. Academia is a strange place, and very often the scene—the people, the parading, the spectacle of it all—is a far more fascinating thing than any of the ideas floating around. Spend enough time in grad school or at a conference and you’ll start to feel like Jane Goodall, studying the habits of a breed of beings who show occasional glimpses of humanity but whose customs are entirely their own.
By the end of the day, after sitting through something about the price of wheat during a 100-year period, I was completely exhausted. The whole scene seemed almost too ridiculous to handle. Hundreds of academics packed into Venice during the worst academic job crisis in modern history. The entire university system in the States–as well as in countries around Europe–was coming apart at the seams, and on the surface of things the conference was proceeding not only as if nothing was wrong, but as if we were in the midst of some sort of 1980s Wall Street boom. It was like ordering a three course meal while the Titanic was on its way down, and insisting you sit and enjoy the whole thing, water be damned. “This will clear up any minute now! I’ll enjoy my steak dinner, now, thank you. Just bring me some towels for the floor, if you would be so kind…”
Yes, any minute now this will get better. I’ve heard the line from people on both sides of academia–grad students and professors. “Just wait this whole recession out. Things will have to start getting better soon.” But here were are, two years later, and there is no end in sight.
In truth it seems the line was crossed years ago, and we’re far too gone to really do anything now. Humanities departments are already being cut. Tenure-track jobs–themselves a big part of the problem–are declining. Were they being replaced by secure jobs with reasonable pay and benefits this might be a good thing; eliminate the waste and stagnancy associated with tenure and try to rebuild on something new, which might be better than what worked before. But no, the dream jobs of yore are being replaced by even more part-time positions, with no contract, no job security, no benefits. Nothing except the chance for thousands of PhD holders to keep clinging to the dream being lived out by their superiors and the lucky few who get plucked from the masses every year.
Shit, in a situation like this why not just screw off and go to Venice, expenses be damned. If you know the ship’s sinking and there aren’t nearly enough lifeboats to go around, you might as well have a king-hell time of it before the waters finally drag you down.
By the third day I was totally over the conference. I had sat through one too many talk, and after listening to a panel respondent ramble incoherently for nearly thirty minutes, seemingly about whatever came to her mind, I had had enough. By then the only really enjoyable part of the conference was running into old friends on the streets of Venice.
I stood at the top of the Rialto for a while, among flocks of tourists, many of whom were likely other academics, as they took pictures of the view or of each other. Too much time spent dissecting history or listening to scholars cut each other down can make you forget that Venice is an almost mystical place. A city built in the middle of a goddamn lagoon, where the physical environment makes even daily tasks become something unique. I looked out over the water and at the buildings, trying to see if I could find any true right angles. I once had a Venetian tell me, “There are no straight lines in Venice.” Everything is tilted this way or that way, even just slightly.
Look at Venice in the right light or from certain vantage points and it almost doesn’t seem real, like you’re standing on nothing more than a gigantic movie set. The absence of any greenery makes it looks constructed or fabricated in a way that other cities–normal cities, cities that aren’t floating on wooden piles in the middle of a lagoon–fail to convey. Because of this it sometimes seems bigger to me than it really is. A place like New York or Rome or is overwhelming in its scale, and the mind fails to grasp something of that size. It’s like trying to comprehend interstellar distances by imagining a peanut in Reading and a walnut in Johannesburg. The mind is simply not prepared for that sort of scale. But stick somebody in an airline hanger, or Rome’s St Peter’s, and you suddenly get a sense of what big means.
Venice is like that. It’s built on a human scale that you can almost wrap your mind around. And because of this it almost feels larger and more impressive than it really is.
At least that’s how it will be for a little longer, as the waters are kept at bay.
On the last day of the conference I bailed completely. I had had more than I bargained for, so a friend and I decided to head to Padua for the day to see Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel.
Damn that evil bastard Giotto! His chapel–which was admittedly smaller than I’d imagined–almost made me forget all the loathing I’d built up over the past few days. My short time admiring his frescoes–fifteen minutes exactly, in what was a very un-Italian adherence to schedules and timing–reminded me just why I got into this awful field in the first place. I was totally absorbed in the images, totally in awe of what people are capable of.
But as anyone in academia can tell you, passion counts for very little. If anything, a fondness for your subject or a disposition that is easily moved by works of art is very often an Achilles heel in this field, and nobody loves finding a weakness more than a scholar looking to get ahead.
Enough drivel. I’m on two sinking ships–one in American weightlifting, the other academia. Best to just take a page from Venice’s book, and enjoy whatever swan song there is until the waters finally take over. At least until a Jack Dawson comes along to sweep me off my feet…