IN VENICE at this time of year there is the phenomenon known as Acqua Alta. Tidal flooding in the lagoon causes water to spill over the deceptively solid-looking stone pavements and turn much of the city into a sea. Storekeepers move their goods to upper shelves and put up barriers at their doors (at three feet, these are awkward but not impossible to step over). Unsurprisingly, the dominant mode of dress on the liquid streets is the knee-high rubber boot, sometimes emblazoned with flowers, plaid, even musical notes. (I wanted some purple ones, or polka dots, or stripes—Italians are particularly talented at stripes—but settled on basic black.) A few people wear hip-level waders so they can go anywhere, even low-lying spots like Piazza San Marco, without risk of drowned feet and wet legs.
Two days before Christmas, my husband and I set out three hours before the maximum tide was predicted. Already water was washing over our route to the supermarket, but it was perfectly walkable. Unfortunately, because of the holiday, the weather forecast, or the advance warning siren that signals upcoming Acqua Alta—or perhaps all three—the store was packed, so it took us 40 minutes to finish. When we reemerged, it was to the sight of a lake, garbage bags and other detritus floating by. We waded in, laden with our backpacks, powerful in our boots.
There is nothing like braving nature’s forces to make a person feel modestly intrepid. Moreover, boots lend everyone a dashing air, a Robin Hood-esque mien—even small, stout Italian ladies with permed and blonded hair, fur coats, and boxes of the ubiquitous panettone. Mundane errands turn into explorations; familiar streets into rivers; drab reality into a fantasy of moving water and pale, glowing light.
No doubt what marks me as an outsider—even though I know Venice well enough to walk around without constant reference to a map—is that I still see Acqua Alta as an adventure, not a nuisance. Kind of like tourists from southern climes marveling at snow-covered New York, while residents curse.