A young man lifts his sweetheart onto the banister between me and the bron e horses. As the couple hugs, I turn away and scan the square, filled with people. Most are with someone. Like rocks in a river, every once in a while pairs of lovers interrupt the flow. Wrapped in a deep embrace and knee- deep in their own love, they savor their own private Venice.
Each hour, bells ring everywhere, overwhelming the caf orchestras and filling the square like droning Buddhist gongs. Across the pia a, from atop the clock tower, two bron e Moors stand like blacksmiths at an anvil, whacking out the hours as they have for centuries.
WHENEVER POSSIBLE, I do non-touristy things in touristy towns. In Venice, rather than visit a glass blower, I visit a barber. Today I'm shaggy enough for a visit to Benito, my longtime Venetian barber. He runs his shop on a peaceful lane hiding out a few blocks from San Marco. Singing and serving his customers champagne, he wields his scissors with an artist's flair. For ten years, he's been my connection to behind-the-scenes Venice.
Hopping onto the old-time barber's chair, I marvel that I don't need an appointment for such a fine barber. Benito wears a white smock, a smirk and a bushy head of curly black hair. He's short and pudgy and needs a haircut more than any of his customers. Holding his scissors in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, he's hard to take seriously. But he always has something interesting to say.
When I mention the empty buildings lining the Grand Canal, he says, "Venice is not sinking. It is shrinking. We have only half the people now than we had in 1960."
"Who stays?" I ask.
"Mostly the rich," he answers. "You must have money to live on the island. It is very expensive. Only the top class stays. The old rich are the people of nobility. They must do everything correctly. The women, they cannot step outside without their hair and their clothes perfect. Remember there are no cars to hide in. We are a village. You step outside and everybody see you. The new rich, they have only money . . . without the nobility."
"Who are the new rich?"
"The people who work with the tourists. They own the hotels, the restaurants, glass factories and the gondolas."
"Gondoliers are rich?" I ask.