Man vs. Pigeons in Venice's Piazza San Marco

Children playing with pigeons in front of Piazza San Marco's 11th century Basilica di San Marco, Venice's cathedral since 1807.
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Two months into my European backpacking trip, I made use of my digital camera's video function for the first time. Dublin pub scenes, Paris raves and Amsterdam theatrical performances staged in small booths all went unrecorded (probably best in that last instance). But feeding the pigeons of Venice's Piazza San Marco demanded documentation that transcended a still photo.

I hate birds. I've been told it's not hate; it's fear. Either way, those sharp, pointy beaks and my soft, vulnerable hazel eyes. My college years were mostly dedicated to studying literature and watching TV. So maybe my fear, er, hatred is rooted in Poe's "The Raven." Or repeat viewings of the Simpsons episode where Reverend Lovejoy threatens the congregant who swapped out the hymnal for sheet music of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" with a trip "straight to Hell... where your tongue will be torn out by ravenous birds."

It was 2005, and I was 28 years old: freshly single, unemployed and homeless -- the latter two attributes the result of selling my D.C.-area condo at a profit large enough to quit my job and travel. Other than a brief weekend in London, this European tour was my first trip outside of North America. It's a cliché, but clichés don't invent themselves: the trek was an opportunity to push myself, at least as much as a safe and well-traveled backpacking route through Europe's major cities would allow. That meant forcing myself to meet new people each night, accepting (almost) every legal invitation I received and ordering food by pointing and hoping for the best.
But at Piazza San Marco that brisk mid-March morning, it meant facing my fear: letting pigeons eat from my hands and hoping they didn't pluck out my eyes. Or poop all over my Columbia ski jacket. Dry cleaning in Venice is probably expensive.

Feeding these dirty birds is one of the most touristy Must Dos in Italy's most touristy city (even if it's officially illegal). Oohing sightseers -- who are almost as prevalent as the cooing birdies -- flock to the enclosed square in front of the Byzantine-style basilica to marvel at the plaza, queue for a basilica tour and feed the pigeons from their hands.

I approached the old man who was quietly selling feed. Small bag in hand, I shuffled toward where the pigeons were congregating in the piazza.

And I waited.

I almost chickened out. But seeing a young kid covered by his weight in these flying rats meant obligation moved me. If I was going to do something this risky and disgusting, however, it had to be preserved. I asked a nearby woman about my age to record me. Apparently relieved I wasn't hitting on her, she agreed, with a pout.

When photographed, I usually remove my glasses. But as a veteran of a high school shop class or two, I understood the importance of protective eyewear and left them on. Filling my open hands with seed, I extended them. First one, then two more pigeons flew over from more crowded human feeders and pecked the seeds from my hands. While the birds blanketed other travelers, I never had more than three accepting my offering at any one time.

Apparently pigeons don't care for me either.

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