Acqua Alta


We learned too late that 70 percent of Venice was underwater even as our train approached the city. No chance to turn around. Wind, rain and ankle-deep water met us outside the station as in the dark we waited for a Vaporetto boat to the hotel. At C’a D’Oro, we wheeled our suitcases through flooded streets that soaked our shoes and pants. We fought the current through the hotel lobby and were ushered up to the second floor and instructed to carefully scrub our shoes. Acqua Alta – the highest in decades – seemed, for a few hours at least, like the only catastrophe in our small world. 

One always enjoys a sense of unreality, a delicious distance from the quotidian when traveling, especially abroad. Time stops. Decisions get smaller – where to go, what to eat, how to work the wifi.  Over the next few days, with the help of tall and hearty borrowed boots, we learned the streets to avoid and how to decipher the warning sirens and accompanying musical code that tells city residents just how high the water is expected to be.  We saw the sights, we walked for miles, we took pictures, we planned the next meal and consumed it. Only occasionally did we allow into our periphery the uproar we were missing back at home – nasty politics, lies and more lies, hate crimes, falling markets - accounts of a country, by all appearances, that is coming apart at the seams. 

Venice is, above all else, a beautiful but unsustainable monument to a civilization marked over centuries by the excesses of the rich. It is easy to be seduced by its beauty and, without understanding the detail of its history, we can admire the city’s remarkable architecture; without knowing the language, we can easily minimize its current challenges, and romanticize everything we see.  

“Let’s stay here!” we exclaim over a plate of cichetti in a small back-street osteria where we are the only customers. “Let’s buy some boots and find a place to live!” 

“Where are all the people?” we ask when we’re done testing the theory and ready to leave. The lonely couple behind the counter speak no English; they only shake their heads. “Acqua Alta,” the husband sighs. “You – America?” he asks. We nod. “Trump! Ai, yi, yi!” He shakes his hand as if to rid it of a sticky glue, and the only thing I can think to answer is, “I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the terrible incivility and intolerance that goes beyond politics to the core of who we have become. I’m sorry for the anger on all sides. I’m sorry for the painful lack of leadership and dearth of ideas and even desire to improve our nation. I miss the compassion we used to show to the world. How did we miss the signs of a country lurching toward the brink? I’m tired of the fear. I’m tired of the greed. I’m tired. I’m sad. But I’m also feeling guilty. Although we voted before we came, and though I’ve written over 700 personal postcards to get out the vote and donated money to a variety of campaigns, I feel guilty. I have worked harder for this election than any other in my lifetime, yet I am away for the final push, the defining moments, and not only do I feel guilty for my absence, I feel guilty for being glad that I’m not there.

This morning, we woke to the sirens outside our Venice window. Another flood is coming.  By the time we go downstairs, water makes waves across the garden and seeps underneath the heavy wooden door that opens to a roiling canal. 

The truth is this: things aren’t so great here either – the economy is crashing; the politics may be as toxic as our own. Immigration issues divide this nation too. The buildings are crumbling, the tourists are flooding the streets…. and the water is rising. It’s time to go home. 

Tomorrow we’ll be traveling across the ocean and backwards through time to rejoin our country as the election’s votes are counted. We will probably only know the outcome when we land. This election cannot solve all our problems or stitch us back into a working country. But maybe it’s our Acqua Alta moment, when we Americans realize that the water’s rising and we need to clean the shit off of our shoes.