I moved to Venice with my wife and our then-almost-3-year-old son on the first day of November 2010 and if we'd somehow forgotten how radically different our son's sense of a place could be from our own he quickly reminded us with 4 emphatic words he repeated nearly every time we stepped out of our rented apartment: "I DON'T LIKE VENICE!"
Actually, I don't think we had forgotten how different his take on the city could be. We had all visited the city for the last week of last February and he'd been singularly unimpressed by all of the things that were created to be nothing but impressive. One evening we three were walking around a deserted Piazza San Marco, appreciating the church in a way that can be hard during the crowded day... Or rather, my wife Jen and I were appreciating the church, looming phantasmagorically in the fog--our son, Sandro, was appreciating the screechy sound made by an empty half-crushed Coke can he kicked across the old stones, echoing around the space Napoleon called the grandest drawing room in Europe. He was not aware the church existed; that Coke can was easily the greatest thing he'd come across in days.
In any case, for the first two weeks after our arrival in Venice this fall Sandro never let us forget how much he hated our new home. Why? we asked. It was "yucky" he said, definitively. He didn't like its "towers" (campanile), he didn't care for its domes, and the buildings were "too old." One afternoon he and I were out for a walk and happened to see a cormorant emerge from the lagoon nearby with a fish in his beak, which he held out of the water until its thrashing subsided then gulped down whole--the outline of the fish distending his thin neck on its way south. "Birds don't eat fish," Sandro objected to me. "They eat worms."
"Birds that live on the sea do," I told him.
But he refused to accept this idea. And when the cormorant disappeared under the water of the lagoon again, he shouted at it, "No, no more eating fish!"
And thus, the next day, another reason for hating Venice was added to his list: "Too many birds here eating fish!"
Jen and I weren't surprised he'd miss his friends and two cousins back home in NYC. We talked to him about that before we left and after we arrived. But the intensity of his feelings for those first two weeks were sometimes still a little surprising for a kid who'd moved around so amazingly well in his young life.
It's easy for adults to think of all the unique opportunities a new location might offer a child. I would sometimes wonder what it would be like if one's first hazy conscious memories were of a place that, like Venice, could seem so unreal, so dream-like. Perhaps the most ordinary of settings (like the agricultural California one I grew up in) all seem a little mysterious when they return to us from early childhood. Or perhaps even the most fantastical--like Venice--will seem ordinary to Sandro if we end up staying here long enough for him to feel that it's his home. I don't know. But I do know that all of the things we talked about with other adults--how wonderful for Sandro to learn another language from such an early age, to see such sights, such art and so on--were all nothing compared to the pleasure of kicking a can.
And of course, of feeling secure in his family, and, soon enough, among new friends. Knowing how active Sandro was and how much he liked parks, we chose where we wanted to live in Venice based upon the two major (and really only) city parks nearby. We'd visited them since arriving, but now we also put extra effort into making the small 1 BR apartment we rented for the month of November the coziest play space possible for all of us. And the more we played together inside at night, the less he seemed to be bothered when we ventured out during the day.
We made friends at the playgrounds. He started scuola materna, preschool, here on November 10. And Venice ceased to seem so loathsome. We secured a one-year lease on a warm dry apartment near a playground (heavy rainfall had caused water leaks in the little 1 BR), and near his school.
He is his usual happy self again now. He'll sometimes exclaim at some architectural sight in Venice with almost as much enthusiasm as the sight of a big rig or "digger" or other piece of heavy machinery regularly drew from him when we lived on terra firma. But remembering the Coke can, I have no illusions about how much "culture" does for him these days. Luckily, there's a lot else here besides.