Some people like mountains, some people like beaches, some people like cities constructed upon millions of piles of petrified wood, but I’m not sure it’s a genetic predisposition. The places we dream of visiting and revisiting are more likely reflective of some casual confluence of weather and age and friends and refreshment, and in this way they are conceivably not very different than the earliest books we have read – or had read to us – which nevertheless continue to resonate across our goals and expectations. You could probably engineer this sort of thing, but I don’t know – the Baby Einstein people have kind of ruined my dreams of a master race who will conquer Social Security reform. For now I think we are probably as vulnerable as ever to something our Great Uncle What’s-His-Name dropped in the mail with his holiday wishes.
Because we really don’t know – most of us don’t – what the heck we’re jumping into beyond those first couple of board books about beach balls and chipmunks and umbrellas and xylophones, or whatever those books were about. We’ve heard about Seuss. Or maybe we’ve even reclaimed a couple of weird memories from our childhood shelves, which probably don’t hold up, like a lot of movies from the eighties really don’t hold up, if we are honest, like “Saturday Night Fever,” in fact they’re even a little embarrassing to look at now, aren’t they?
So chances are we are open to suggestion. When I think of the first ten, the first twenty picture books that constituted a rotation in my home, there isn’t any denying the enduring influence of Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe, though I have zero recollection of acquiring it. And you will not just stumble upon it today, unless you are reading this sentence, or you happened to enter “Bird Chasing Professional” in your Amazon search field, or “Lunch” and you are on page 247 of the matching results. Though you may recognize J. Otto Seibold’s artwork from Olive the Other Reindeer which tends to be stocked in the strangest places around Christmas (Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware), or may even mistake this dog for Snoopy’s Beluga-browed cousin. A lot of things seemed right to me about his book when we found it, not least that I could enjoy it as much as my kids, and finally, probably more. The deadpan flourishes and diagrams and catalogs: of constellations and many kinds of boat. The matter-of-factness of simply jumping into a canoe (“‘bon voyage,’” says the elephant who loaned it to him, “or possibly, ‘wrong way’”) and paddling a course to the other side of the world where he sees “a city that didn’t look like any city he had ever seen before.”
“Is there really a city that has water instead of streets?” both of my children have asked me, never quite believing it, over the years.
Let me tell you: I have seen the vaporettos and motoscafos and even the odd gondola – and I would travel to Venice again in a second at the risk of having every one of my reveries shattered by a piazza full of yodeling impersonators before it sinks into the sea. Last time I went it was twenty-something years ago: then history seemed like a functional thing, the bridges all leading to somewhere practical, the women all beautiful, children melodic, sunsets ubiquitous, everywhere everyone going on about their business despite me. I swear, I felt like James Bond, sitting through an early evening in the shadow of the campanile, eating prosciutto and bread with olive oil and drinking a mezzo litro of blood dark wine with a Yugoslav colleague (now Serb) wearing a bow tie, suspenders, and little circle-glasses the size of two quarters.
“Chianti Classico in the Piazza San Marco!” I remember him sighing magnificently. A year before that he was wearing parachute pants, then after I don’t remember. We were seventeen years old. I heard he’s doing something in biotech these days.
Someone was probably playing the accordion back then too, like they always are in Europe when Americans are listening, but I’m sure I didn’t fuss. And someone was probably playing the accordion in 1961 when Miroslav Sasek wrote and illustrated his classic – now regenerated – love letter to Venice, and somebody was probably selling key chains and bad Chianti and factory-blown glass, and there were already only a couple of hundred gondolas in operation, down from ten or so thousand back in the sixteenth century, but as Sasek notes, they are still built from eight kinds of wood, and there are still more than a hundred marble palaces along the Grand Canal, and pigeons still roost on frowning statues (except when Mr. Lunch is around). Sasek was similarly thorough about so many other locations – Rome, New York and Texas are listed here – it’s easy to mistake his interests as encyclopedic, but his enthusiasm never gets old. For this reader anyway, the difference between what was happening twenty years ago, or fifty, or five-hundred has never seemed so incidental to the splendor.