03 February 2008

I spy.

Earlier I mentioned briefly that I have dabbled in spying here in Venice. (You thought I was kidding, didn’t you?) A tricky business, this! Timing is always critical, and of course, one must be disguised as fully as possible. But here in the land of the twelve-day costume fest, Carnevale has afforded me the opportunity to spy at leisure, appearing to be just another masked reveler. I am amazed at what I have learned about masking and the spy game in a short time…

First, after crafting a disguise (the best, I think, is something least like oneself, and certainly androgynous), it is shocking to observe oneself in it. To look into the mirror and see no trace of anyone familiar is a little frightening. I found myself pulling up close, to gaze into my own eyes for some flicker of recognition. I realized they are almost not my eyes without the rest of my visage to give them context! Through two small holes in the mask, they are merely… eyes. Genderless, ageless, almost raceless, impossible to read without the clues the other parts of the face provide.

Next comes the absolutely weird sensation of walking about in one’s disguise, of gazing upon people one knows from behind the mask. I had to try this several times before I could actually believe I was not being recognized (and thought an utter fool!). Frequently I chickened out in my early attempts, blushing hotly in my fear of exposure. But finally I got the hang of it. Some of it is a distance thing, and surely body language, a certain nonchalance. And some of it is paying attention to one’s intuition, to know when it’s time to move along. Calmly, deliberately. Amazing what the mind can sense! And amazing how quickly people catch on to the fact that they are being watched! (How does that work anyway?)

And then, there is the bizarre feeling that comes from seeing how an acquaintance behaves when one is “not there.” Equally strange is to be present with someone, almost right in front of him, and to realize one is a million miles away from his mind in the moment. (Can he not feel my presence somehow? No!) What a rush! Like being “The Invisible Woman!”

Finally, there are the unexpected responses one receives from fellow pedestrians. I am tickled pink when they ask to take my picture. I nearly snort with a stifled giggle when I catch them eying me suspiciously and hurrying away – especially in more isolated areas of the city. (I have never had this power. It gives me a sense of what it was like here in the days of the fierce bravos!)

But I have been quite unnerved when a few of them have seemed obsessed with discovering my gender, or with the possibility of unmasking me. Now and then someone will talk very loudly to me (Why? My ears are not masked!). They might bully or block my way and attempt to peer straight into my eyes or try to get me to say something. It feels very threatening. My response has been to draw myself up haughtily, make a gruff, irritated harrumph!, brush them away, and stride straight forward. Never did I expect I would draw this kind of scary attention. But I have had the rare opportunity to see just how I handle myself when I receive it!

In one particular instance, though, an attractive young man determined my gender almost instantly: “Femmina!” Then he became quite intent on discovering all he could about me without any physical revelation. His eyes were so mischievous and he was so appealing in his playful quest that I allowed him to hover quite close to me, to examine me up and down, to gaze into my eyes, even to sniff my perfume! Strange and exciting! He attempted to cheat a little by sneaking a peek under my mask – hoping for lipgloss, instead of a mosca (“soul patch”), I suppose! I confess, his effort was so charming that I dropped a flirtatious comment before I could catch myself, and he pegged me for a New Yorker! We chatted a bit, then made a date for drinks tonight. He offered me the option of remaining masked, if I prefer. He says it does not matter to him how I look – he ‘already likes what is dentro (“inside”).’ We’ll see about that.

I have been consulting with local police and the Carabinieri: I’m curious to know whether or not I may legally wear my disguise in public after Carnevale. There is a Venetian law about out-of-season masking, but opinions about it vary widely. Some say I might merely be requested in good faith to remove my mask now and again, or possibly I will be refused entrance to certain public places; others swear, in these days of terrorist threats, I may well be asking to get myself deported!

It would be fun to show you my spy persona here, but then I would lose the use of it. And anyway, that would be unprofessional. A veteran spy never blows her own cover.