In the past four weeks I have become totally obsessed with Venice. In what feels like an eternity ago in the golden era of airplane travel and passport control, I once floated through the waterways of La Serenissima in a gondola with my family. The sunlit streets and ancient bridges were heaving with life, but the canals were not. An abundance of tourists, just like me, left little room for nature to survive in the murky lagoon on which the city was built.
The damage caused by tourism became so bleak that last year Venetian protests intensified. The tagline ‘No Grande Navi’, or ‘No more cruise ships’ was adopted by locals to try and discourage the over amorous interest from visitors who swarm through the city in the millions each year. The delicate biosphere had been harmed beyond repair.
The toxic vibrations from cruise ships (in my opinion the idea of perfect hell) have vanished and with them allowed the Italian landmark to take a deep, meditative breath.
But then government enforced isolation came to the sinking city. For the first time in years, fish appeared in the newly clear waters. Ducks have laid their eggs where velcro walking sandals used to stomp and dolphins have been spotted playing in the Grand Canal. Finally, the toxic vibrations from cruise ships (in my opinion the idea of perfect hell) have vanished and with them allowed the Italian landmark to take a deep, meditative breath.
While the coronavirus is undoubtedly causing unprecedented damage, if you listen closely, you might just hear the natural world sigh with relief. This is not the first time I have experienced this kind of environmental repose. On a trip to Beijing for the Olympics in 2008 the Chinese took dramatic steps to lower levels of pollution in the capital as it welcomed guests from around the world. The enforced government measures resulted in the infamous smog evaporating in a matter of weeks.
Back to our little island we seem to have found ourselves in a similar position. This week 51 percent of people said they noticed better air quality since isolation. From the same survey, only nine per cent said they want to return to a resemblance of normal life. Yesterday I spotted lichen, a moss that can only survive in very clean air, growing on a tree along a well trod family route. I filled my lungs with great gulps. The preciousness of such purity felt like such a vital realisation.
Recycling has become a form of competitive sport, with bonus points received by those who go the extra mile to tear paper from plastic
With this reality in mind, I see new habits forming within my own family. Recycling has become a form of competitive sport, with bonus points received by those who go the extra mile to tear paper from plastic delivering them to the correct bins. Equally, food waste is pulverised with a delightful machine my sister and I have become besotted with. Our potato skins will feed my mother’s geraniums, or next year’s daffodils, rather than filling yet another big black bag in a landfill.
A friend tells me of her own coming to environmental consciousness. She has been walking to local farm stalls to collect eggs and vegetables for the day. Rather than jumping in the car to fill plastic bags at Sainsburys, she takes her basket and samples local goods instead. It takes longer of course and requires more careful planning, but the result is fresher, more honest meals. “I could do this when I get back to London too,” she tells me. “As long as I take this slower rhythm of life with me as well.”
Another friend has completely reinvented the downstairs study of his family’s home where he is currently cloistered. Instead of buying new items to make his boudoir feel more his own, he has gone on a treasure hunt through the house, collecting a bounty of hidden gems which he has bestowed upon a second life. A ribbon from his grandmother’s sewing box is reincarnated as a curtain tie, while an old quilt from Provence has been washed, dried and brought back to life as a bedspread. His actions make me wonder why we put such importance on the new, when in fact an object has so much more charm when living a second or even third life.
Whoever said bad habits die hard, clearly never lived with a health and safety obsessed family member through a global pandemic.
A more startling update is my life-long addiction to online shopping has finally waned, mostly in part to my father who patrols the contents of all deliveries with the same meticulousness as Stansted border control. While it is amusing that all this takes place with him wearing a pair of yellow marigolds, anything he deems unnecessary suddenly feels deceitful and is sullenly returned. Whoever said bad habits die hard, clearly never lived with a health and safety obsessed family member through a global pandemic.
But I do not begrudge this new way of life. In fact I can see the irony that while humans face the biggest health crisis in decades, the environment, which we so often take for granted, is thriving. Whether this is a lesson sent from some higher power, tired of us not heeding their warnings, is entirely down to an individual’s beliefs. Something in me tells me this was a cosmic retribution.
I don’t know if I will ever see Venice again, but if I do, I hope by then, we will have learnt what it means to protect such a remarkable place. If we have not, I fear the city may not stay afloat for much longer.