Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Re-learning in Venice

E.B. White once said that "great writing is re-writing," and I think this is true of the way we learn as well--great learning is re-learning.  I have one friend who relentlessly plans things sequentially in a developmental order--as if that is, in fact, the way we learn. And he is right, we do learn that way. And we try to design curriculum in a way that is orderly and builds from one step to the next.

But there is another kind of learning that is not so much a straight line as a spiral.  In short, we learn the same thing again (and again and again), but in a different context.  It is the switching of the context that makes the learning so powerful and oftentimes gives it the "stickiness" that allows it to become more internalized. Bob Kegan (who I  first encountered with a book called The Evolving Self)  has a theory of transformational learning that sees learning as a series of re-learnings.

Venice, for me, was a startling lesson in re-learning. And it began upon arrival.

As Nicki and I exited the train station I suggested we just get a cab to which Nicki responded, "David, this is Venice; there aren't any cabs." One look at the scene before me was enough to confirm all the "expectation failure" that was happening to me. The first step out into Venice from the train station (I later discovered) has been written about by countless travellers with the same sense of awe that I experienced. Here is William Dean Howells writing in the 1860's, "for I think there can be nothing else in the world so full of glittering and exquistie surprise as that first glimpse of Venice which the traveller catches as he issues from the railway station by night, and looks upon her peerless strangeness...there lies before you for your pleasure the spectacle of singular beauty as no picture can ever show you nor book tell you."  My experience was Howells' and below is a faint photographic attempt to capture what he is describing.

And perhaps there is something to the feeling of awe that prepares you for more intense learning, but, regardless, my time in Venice was a bit like what Proust describes in Remembrance of Things Past where he finds himself "wandering in strange regions like a character in the Arabian Nights. It was  very seldom that I did not, in the course of my wanderings, hit upon some strange and spacious piazza of which no guidebook, no tourist had ever told me." And every night there were throngs of tourists hunched over maps hovering at tiny bridges looking plaintively down winding canals and muttering, "We went over a bridge, right?" As Proust discovered, even if you find a desired location once, it doesn't mean you can do it again. Venice is the "anti-grid" to New York City where everything is set out in quadrants that are easily negotiated. But I found myself being quite adept, I thought, at negotiating my way through the alleys of Venice.

And late one night, at the end of a long day of exploring Venice, we set out for the Plaza de San Marco to see the fireworks for the Festa del Redentore--a Venetian form of Thanksgiving celebrating the end of the plague in 1576. We were tired, but I was confident that I could find the Plaza in about ten minutes from our hotel. But it all went diasterously wrong almost immediately and while we did end up at the fireworks by the Grand Canal I found myself obsessing about having completely blundered my way there and consumed with my wounded pride and with planning a way home--so much so that Nicki suggested we just leave before the finale.

What I realized later is that learning in Venice is rarely sequential, and that the city demands two things of its visitors to really appreciate it.  The first is that you cannot control your journey with a map. Unlike the grid of NYC, Venice demands that you work with a tandem of your rational, map-based self and your intuition. You have to feel your way through the twists and turns, and while you can get better at it, you can never totally master it. I realized this as I asked a waiter at an outdoor cafe for directions one evening to a place that ended up being three minutes away and he was unable to explain how to get there, but he could point me in the general direction. You can use a map to check your actual place in space, but you cannot rely on it to get you where you want to go. Perhaps Venice is some weird quantum world that mimics Heisenberg's uncertainty principle? In Venice paradox reigns--and you had best get used to looking at things a couple of different ways.

The second re-learning can best be summed up by one of my favorite poems--Antonio Machado's XXIX.

Traveller, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.

Traveller, the path is your tracks
And nothing more.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again
Traveller, there is no road
Only wakes in the sea.

A fitting last line for a place that has no taxis except the ones you find on the water.

So, above is a picture I took of the fireworks from the familiar piazza we had arrived at on our way back to the hotel.  And here is a You Tube link that will give you a little sense of what the Festa del Redentore looked like from the Grand Canal. A great and painful re-learning.


  1. Well done, David! I am glad that you were able to stumble out of yourself and back in again so close to the celebration of your birth. A thanksgiving, indeed!

  2. oh josina...thanks...and, as you know, you embed these parts that you hope people will pick up on...like the thanksgiving part ...which was a much longer part , but i am trying (desperately) to cut these down to "blog length"...whatever that means!

    and the birthday part....well, that got ignored...thanks, though

    keep the faith