Adventures are supposed to be wild. If Homer had sung about tame seas instead of Cyclops and Circe, then The Odyssey would never have captured the western imagination. Instead we were handed down tales of gods and witches, sorcerers and maidens, wine, swine, and magic herbs.
I didn’t know a magical herb was on my own bucket list until I traveled to Italy for the end of the Venice Biennale. I knew I wanted to do something out of my ordinary, but I had no clue what or how. Plus the city of Venice, with its mysterious fog and murky waters had me feeling like I had landed somewhere in the midst of a noir movie. You know the 1940’s films with long, lurking shadows, shady men, and even shadier women, and private dicks unraveling the most knotty crimes imaginary. In this world, an immodest move could mean sudden death. So I was quite terrified when I arrived alone, off the touristy path, in this very old European city. That first night in Italy, I pledged my chastity to the Roman gods if they, in exchange, would get me through this week and off this island alive.
Venice by day was a totally different scene. Animated with the hustle and bustle of busy shop owners, tightly twined honeymooners, and retirees spending their last days touring the earth, I became ashamed of my previous fears. Punked by the night, my bravado was off cowering somewhere in the corner of a cobble-stoned alley. I had to go and get her back. Before embarking on this search and rescue mission, it was imperative to buckle down and take care of business. I came to Venice to see art. Also to pay homage to a man I greatly admire, the Nigerian-born critic and curator Mr. Okui Enwezor.
It was Enwezor whom I first heard suggest that an exhibition could contain the qualities of a novel. In a published interview, he contended, “...exhibitions are narrative by nature - one thing after another: sentences, paragraphs, line breaks, punctuation, exclamation marks, etc.” As a writer engaged in exhibition making, this perspective was a gift. However, I didn’t pilgrimage to Italy simply because of a few choice words spoken by a man of brilliance, rather I journeyed because that man was making history. In the one hundred twenty years of the Biennale, no African person has ever directed its programming. And I’m almost certain no other curator has done so as dandily as Okui, whose fashion sense is often discussed in parallel to his curatorial vision.
As far as en vogue Africans go, navigating my way through Italian streets as a woman of dark hue was much like being haute couture on a Parisian runway. “Bella! Bellissimo!!” exalted an old man in grand gestures. If I hadn’t understood his words, his theatrics were clear. There were many double takes, puzzled stares, and questions as I passed. By the time the young, Indian waiter stopped me on the sidewalk, my answers were polished. “Excuse me,” he said. “I saw you walking back and forth here yesterday. Why were you doing that?”
“I was looking for a place to eat.”
“You should come to my restaurant. We have food here.”
I peeked inside the window to see if the food matched his ethnicity. Venetian cuisine, so far, was nothing to write home about. I was hoping for some eastern spice. But nope, it was Italian.
He interrupted my train of thought. “Why are you in Venice?
“I’m here for the Biennale.”
“Ah, an artist. I like that.”
Technically my art practice is orphaned, but I did not correct him.
“Are you married?”
“Do you have children?”
“Will you come back here to eat?” I said, sure then walked off. But I did not go back.
The next day he stopped me again. “You didn’t come to my restaurant. Why?”
“Ah, I had reservations elsewhere. I’ll come tonight.”
“Great! We’ll have a table ready.”
Before I could fulfill this promise, I found myself, later that evening, staring into the window of a two euro pizza joint. I had coughed up nearly two hundred euros my first couple nights attempting to eat in Italy, so I could not walk away from these perfectly priced slices. Safely inside my apartment, I ate the pizza and commenced to guilt trip over not keeping my promise to the young waiter. The art was getting to me. Adrian Piper, a US born, Berlin based conceptual artist won the Biennale’s Golden Lion for her project The Probable Trust Registry where visitors were compelled to sign contracts and agree to mottos like, “I Will Always Be Too Expensive to Buy” and “I Will Always Do What I Say I Am Going To Do.” I did not sign any of Adrian Piper’s contracts. Nevertheless, that last one stuck. I got out of bed and went to the damn restaurant.
My salmon arrived paired with a tomato carved in the shape of a rose. I wasn't sure if this was flirting or if fish was always served with a single rose in Italy. I asked for a box and the bill, instead a spiked lemon beverage was placed on my table. Its sweetness hid its power. I stood up to leave.
“You're not in a hurry. I’m done here in ten minutes. Sit. We can go over to Vino Vera and have a drink.”
This was flirting. “I'm married,” I reminded him.
"I know,” he said.
Vino Vera was the wine bar that fed me on the nights I couldn't find a restaurant that would offer a seat. It was a clean, neighborhood spot with Danish inspired design that made me feel like I was somewhere in Culver City. I liked Vino Vera. So I said, OK.
We grabbed two glasses of wine and sat along the edge of the water. I didn’t say much, embarrassed by the fact that almost everyone I met was trilingual while my lessons in Italian only got as far as, “Dove Piazza San Marco?” Translation - where is Saint Mark’s Square? So instead, I listened. He bragged about the relative safety of Venice versus Rome. He shared what he knew about paintings. Then he asked if I wanted some ashes.
This was the second time that day that I had heard the word ashes. In a dark room at the Biennale, I watched a film that tore a hole in my soul. If I had paid attention to the wall label before hand, I would have been prepared for the emotional massacre. Ashes was a short film by Steve McQueen, the same McQueen who gave the world the nightmarishly poetic Twelve Years a Slave. I was not interested in any more ashes.
“What the hell is ashes?”
“It’s like marijuana.”
“Are you saying hashish?”
“No, I don’t smoke.”
“Oh shit! He grabbed my hand and lifted me to my feet.”
“I forgot my mobile! I always do that.”
As a parent, I’ve had lots of experience with ADD, pot smoking lads. But I’ve taken a rather pious approach to marijuana myself. I’m probably the only person in America, over age forty, who has never lit a joint.
Opening the gate to the restaurant he pulled me inside. “‘I’m sorry, I do smoke,” he grinned, then grabbed his mobile device off the counter and a pack of cigarettes. I followed him to the courtyard where he offered me a seat on a hammock. I sat on the edge of an old stone structure instead, while he sat on the floor.
“Does your family know you like Black women?”
“Yes, my girlfriend is Black.”
He shows me some pictures on his cell. And I disagree with his assessment. “I don’t think this woman is Black.”
“What? Her mother is African. She is definitely Black.”
“If you say so.”
“Look again. She’s a little bit brighter than you and she straightens her hair.”
I chuckle. His translation of lighter is cute. My mind shifts to the politics of race and my casual audacity of denying this girl her blackness.
“I wanna try your ashes.”
“Cool.” He pulls out a tiny square, compact and green.”
“That is not marijuana.”
“Yes, it is, just a different form. Here, smell.” I do as told. It smells every bit like a bag of weed.
“Trust me,” he says.
Forgetting my promise to the Roman gods, I take a puff and feel...well, nada.
“Did I do that right?”
“No.” He takes his cigarette back.
“You’re supposed to take it in. But you blew it out.”
“Let me try again.”
This time I swallow the smoke. It burns like crazy. For some reason, the pain in my chest makes me want to take another puff. With the second swallow, I feel my bladder. I was not peeing in this restaurant so it was time to go home. I didn’t understand what the big deal was with weed. Aside from the chest burn, I felt nothing. On the walk back to my apartment, though, that nothing feeling turned into feeling nothing in my legs. I was no longer walking, but floating. He grabbed my waist and held me steady.
“What do you feel?” The answer was dancing somewhere in my head but wouldn’t exit my lips.
“Please, tell me what you feel?”
He was getting nervous, but I could not form the words. Over the bridge, we arrived at an alley that looked familiar.
“Ah, this is where I stay.”
“Do you need me to come inside.”
“Nope, I am not allowed guests.”
“Well come with me to my place.”
“Nope, I am not allowed to sleep with strangers either. I’ll see you in passing tomorrow.” He held me up for a second longer then let go.
Inside the apartment, the hash began to do something else. I felt fingertips everywhere. This scared the shit out of me. I remembered a podcast where a heroin addict described how it was to shoot up, like a thousand penises ejaculating all at once. Maybe I had been offered some kind of opiate. I dialed my girlfriend, the drug expert.
“Should I be tingling all over?”
“Hashish, does it make you tingle?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never smoked hash. How in the hell did you get hash in Italy. Is it even legal there?”
I hadn’t thought about that. Turns out marijuana is not legal in Italy. I hold the phone to my ear. I make her stay with me as I web surf Italian cannabis decrees while completely high on cannabis. I know its too late, but whatever. My Internet hysteria turns into sleep.
When I wake the next morning, I am absent of any tingling. I grab my sweater, the one I wore the night before, and sniff it to see if I really did enjoy a smoke. Had I traveled all this way without ever encountering any witchcraft or spells? Homer would drop his head in shame. I inhale the fibers of my black-yarned pullover. It smells just like the hemp aisle at Whole Foods. I smile big. My journey is complete. I can return to LA with my chin up. I had conquered Venice. I had smoked some magic.
Written by Malika Ali Harding
Header Image: Artist Francesc Ruiz, Spanish Pavilion, la Biennale di Venezia 2015