“Getting lost is the only place worth going to.”
– Tiziano Scarpa
Visitors to Venice: If Libreria Acqua Alta is not yet on your itinerary or your list of Must-Visits, I beg of you, add it. Now.
This summer, my two traveling companions — one, a dear childhood friend from my Kindergarten days in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and another, a close companion from my UWA days in Perth, Australia — and I had the pleasure of visiting this truly unconventional bookshop on our second day in this beautiful city. I could not recall how I knew of the place; perhaps while on a flight from one forgotten destination to another, I happened to flip through the inflight magazine and caught sight of an article about bizarre bookstores all over the world. (I notice that I get much of my travel inspiration from doing this — when I was flying back to London from Stuttgart, I stumbled upon an article featuring the best places to seek solitude in EasyJet’s travel magazine, which was how I ended up in Santuario di Oropa in Biella, Italy, also this summer.)
Being a lover of both books and traveling, this article fused my two greatest passions in life into one, and this must be why it settled deep in the recesses of my memory. I’d completely forgotten the name of this bookshop, but what I did remember when reading of Libreria Acqua Alta was the author mentioning that this bookshop had towering stacks of books in gondolas (and, I later discovered, bathtubs from God knows where) in the shop, so that whenever the canals overflooded, anticipatory safety measures need not be taken in critical emergency moments. I had also just discovered that “acqua alta” is in fact a reference to a particularly Venetian phenomenon in which the canals overflow due to some inexplicable turns of tide during low or full moon. The bookshop is thus very much Venetian in essence and name. And so when I was in Venice during the hottest days of July, I Googled “Venice gondola bookshop” — and lo and behold, my memory, despite its vagueness and inaccuracy, had actually served me well.
Libreria Acqua Alta is the embodiment of chaos — books and posters filled every wall, nook and cranny, but it was rather refreshing to be away from the orderly shelves of Waterstones or Heffers. As I was navigating my way through this bizarre establishment, I thought to myself that this, I suspected, must be what the interior of an intellectual’s mind looks like. Most of the books are in Italian, as to be expected, but the shop has a splendid collection of reprints of Venice of the old, and is a great place to pick up postcards as souvenirs for friends. One could spend hours uncovering buried treasures from this Aladdin’s cave. If books aren’t quite your thing, bring your camera — this bookshop is also ultra-picturesque:
As we were paying for our purchases, we had a lovely chat with the propriétaire — a friendly woman perhaps only in her 30s or early 40s. I asked her how long the bookshop had been around for and was surprised to hear that it was only around fifteen years old — the bookshop had clearly aged well. Then she looked at us very curiously and asked us very kindly if she could ask a question:
“How do you keep your headscarf intact? I’ve tried wearing it and it never stays on!”
“Pins! We pin up everywhere!” I replied, laughing in relief at her question. I was held in a brief moment of suspense there as I thought she might ask a complex theological question such as “Does God exist?”, as has happened to me a few times before. She “Ahhh”-ed while looking intently at our headscarves, as if one of the greatest mysteries of the universe had finally been answered. My friends and I then recommended that if she wanted to see how hijabis put on their headscarf, there were plenty of videos on YouTube showing how it’s done. She was delighted. We too left the bookshop feeling uplifted.
An early-morning ritual I have come to cherish from traveling with my friends this summer was getting fashion advice on what scarf would match my outfit for the day, before cramming together in front of the same bedroom or bathroom mirror as we started pinning the scarf in five different places to make sure it’ll stay in place throughout the day. This is a great bonding moment for us hijabis, and is rendered even more enjoyable when fused with the experimental application of (for me, very minimal) make-up.
Often the sight of us three hijabis laughing and talking as we cruised through the narrow streets of Italy attracted attention, of certainly the curious and not always of the unpleasant kind, but eventually we habituated ourselves to these gazes and soon ceased to pay any notice. I cannot deny that my headscarf, wherever I traveled in Europe, speaks a thousand words. It clearly marks me as foreign, but I also feel that I carry an aura of ease and approachability, thanks to my training as an anthropologist, that makes it easy for me to bridge this gap — and for strangers to do the same if they wish to reach out to me.
And so while I seek — and indeed, always manage to secure — solitude in my travels alone, I find that often these unexpected moments in which I succeed in placating strangers’ curiosity about my religion and origins are equally gratifying. Because at the end of the day, we are simply two people on an unfamiliar road in search of company.
Libreria Acqua Alta is situated on Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, 5176/B, 30122 Venice, Italy.