The other day I remembered how the Lebanese, by far the most quaintly European of all the social sets in London, used to play an after-dinner parlor game in which the guests won points by boasting of their innocence. For example, if a guest said, “I’ve never been on a private plane,” or “I’ve never tasted Yquem,” and everybody else in the room has, he won a point. He lost the point if just one other person present could make the same declaration, whereupon it would be somebody else’s turn to try to brag in reverse. The skill of the game is to appraise one’s competition, since in an audience of Sardinian peasants one is unlikely to win a point by claiming never to have been aboard a Meridiana turboprop creaking toward Rome, to say nothing of a private jet winging its wav to the Bahamas. “I’ve never eaten sheep cheese with live maggots” or “I’ve never seen ‘Beautiful’ on television” would be much likelier bets in that case. The beauty of the game is its aristocratic, poker-faced egalitarianism: “I’ve never been on a commercial flight” can net the clever participant a point among princes as well as among paupers.

But the other big reason I liked to play it was because I always won, what with not having gone to school, not having done drugs, not having been to the Bahamas, not having cheated on my wife, not having seen, a basketball game, and so on. Still, there were some dinner parties with very stiff competition—young educated people with houses in the south of France who had never visited Naples, intelligent urbane men who had never tasted pork, beautiful unmarried women who were virgins—and it was at those that I would reach for the ace up my sleeve. “I’ve never been to the gym,” I would say, staring blankly into the middle distance just above my hostess’s head, and in all my years in London this never lost me a point. Now I can no longer say it. I’ve joined a gym. Yes, here in Venice.

When I rang up a friend in London to share this news, he had me describe in precise detail everything I had seen inside the building. I only realized that he had thought I was lying when he asked me point-blank if the purpose of my preposterous confession was to conjure up some sort of atmosphere of moral renewal as an ingenious prelude to borrowing money from him. I suppose he was half expecting that, when pressed, I would mix genres and tell him that inside the gym I had joined were exercise tables covered with green baize, special machines that spun ivory balls, and fitness instructors with voices like angels and words of encouragement like “twenty-six thirty-two, neighbors by two hundred, gentleman in the back.” It was only when I used such place-specific terms as “stairmaster” and “treadmill,” adding that I had drunk no more than two bottles of ordinary table wine during the last three days and was actually thinking of quitting smoking, that he let go of his skepticism and began to wonder in earnest if the gentleman in the back had gone crazy. Well, the truth of the matter is that I have, and Venice is to blame.

Of course, Venice has a big reputation when it comes to decadence. The reason for this is that most punters who have been chewed up and spat out by this town during the last couple of centuries believed themselves to be in a state of grace when they first arrived, with the consequence that the ambiguities of Venice sooner or later made mincemeat out of their vain delusion. Consequently, if you believe yourself to be a rake or a rogue to the marrow of your bones the moment you first feel the tender undulation of a gondola beneath your feet after a lifetime of what you never thought was particularly steady ground, then the salutary effect of Venice can only be compared to the wheatgrass juice prescribed at the Optimum Health Institute of San Diego to patients whose maladies do not yield to conventional medicine, except that this treatment really works. In other words, Venice does not corrupt. It merely transmutes virtue into vice, and vice versa.

The secret of its success lies in its shameless, chaste ambivalence, of the kind that would permit the most disinterested of observers to use the word “chaste” as a synonym for “shameless” in the description, for instance, of a young girl trying on her first string of pearls with only a cheval glass for company. The very topography, and the toponymy, of this strange town ought to provide the unprejudiced visitor with plenty of examples on his first day here. If one wishes to go from a certain place to another, one can always get there by water; or one always can get there by land, keeping in mind that some of the canals one takes were once land, while some of the streets were once water. The back of the palazzo where I live faces a street called Salizada della Chiesa o del Teatro. This means that the street used to be a canal and that some people thought it led to the church while others thought it led to the theater.

Just across a canal from where I am runs Calle Corner Piscopia o Loredan, which some people thought had just one notable family in residence, while others obviously disagreed. There are seven streets here, admittedly in different parts of town, all called Calle della Chiesa. In fact, there are four different streets in Venice called Calle del Angelo, three Calle Bembo, seven Calle del Cristo, three Calle del Dose, and so on across the map and down the alphabet until one gets to the two Calle Zorzi, one in San Marco and the other in Castello. Typically, each of the thousand bridges spanning the tiny canals will have displayed on its side the heraldic markings of the three families who jointly built it, a deliberate precaution ensuring that none of the bridges would have exclusive proprietary associations; in this, as in everything they do, Venetians have shown that they abhor the notion of the pontifex, who might give to a place its proper name and to all life a single definition.

More than a hint of polytheistic paganism is in the air at the conjunction of treeless, salty earth and Siberian emerald-colored water, of Turkish fatalism and indigenous languor, of Gallic sophistication and northern brawn. This troubles my friend and landlord, a Venetian to his fingertips of whom more will be said in later correspondence. Baron F —. At Easter, I brought him along to hear the midnight mass at the Greek church here. this being his first time ever in an Orthodox cathedral, and he later confessed that he was unable to sleep the rest of the night. Only in the atmosphere of total ambivalence that is Venice, it seems, can a man in his 50’s, with an important social position, a young wife, and small children, worry about religion the way people elsewhere—in parts of the world more professedly moral or wholeheartedly Christian—worry about their business affairs, falling interest rates, and the price of the U.S. dollar.

“But tell me,” he kept repeating, “is Mussorgsky’s music really Christian? We know that Wagner, who is the West’s Mussorgsky, was a paganist. Are the Russians and the Greeks really different? Can you, unlike ourselves in the rest of the Christian world, combine pleasure with goodness, wisdom with contradiction, polyphony with morality?” I answered him in the usual way people do when embarrassingly emotional questions are put to them, obfuscating rather than clarifying the points at issue, but within a few days I was out there on the Zattere embankment, filling out membership forms at the Palestra Club Delfino. “La Strada verso il Wellness,” proclaimed the poster adorned with a line drawing of the ecologically problematic sea animal of the whale order.

Only a week before I would have said nuke ’em. But now the gentleman in the back only looked meekly all around him, as though saying goodbye to his troubled past, and reflected that the annual cost of living this new dolphin life, in this improbable and contradictory town, is far less than the cost of losing just one of his favorite neighbor bets in the time it takes to light a cigarette or mutter a swearword.