April 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 2
Longer ago than I have any desire to admit, I made my first and only trip to Venice, as part of a summer tour with a group of college students. The supposedly “liberal” National Student Association, which ran the trip and featured get-togethers and “exchanges of ideas” with college kids in every country we visited, was later revealed to have been a CIA front organization. I guess the idea was that we would captivate the blas», red-leaning youth of Italy and France with our fresh American optimism (why we wouldn’t be in danger of being overpowered by their European cynicism and pungent cigarettes, I don’t know). These days youngsters don’t need the CIA to make introductions; just hanging out at hostels, clubs, or other teenage haunts will do the trick.
At any rate, what I remember most strongly about Venice is that unlike any other city of the dozen or so I became acquainted with that summer, it was shockingly familiar at first sight. Not in the soft-focus rumination of “I must have lived here in another life” but as a matter of practical fact. In his article in these pages, John Lukacs writes of the city’s “coruscating beauty immediately recognizable, the fabulous vista immortalized by its own Canaletto and Guardi and hundreds of other great painters, including Americans.” I was fresh from a college survey course in art history, and viewing slide after slide of Venice translated into paint must have had a deep effect. And I can’t discount the influence of the movies, especially Katharine Hepburn’s ruefully romantic Summertime . Also, as Lukacs says in pinning down why Venice has called to Americans for a century and a half, it “is not a city of fantasy. It is not fantasy but imagination that is vitalized by its thousands of sights.
We cut a broad swath in this annual travel issue, roaming from gilded Venice to the Erie Canal and on to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, where William Least Heat-Moon cruises from Texas to Louisiana aboard the venerable stern-wheeler Delta Queen . For much of his trip Heat-Moon steams past an almost featureless drowned landscape, “through channels that twist as if knotted, along courses that appear only to disappear into the reeds, cane, and willows.”
One way or another, water informs every page of this issue. More by accident than by design, we offer you an Adriatic city, two American canals, a remote cluster island in the Pacific, four towns on Massachusetts’s Cape Ann, and, not least, the former ax capital of the world, a Connecticut village whose rushing river powered its fortunes for 150 years. Per- haps the magazine shaped up this way because we share William Least Heat-Moon’s feeling that “under every prediction, perception, and piece of history is water.”