Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ghostly Venice

“What now?” asked Sean looking around the Marco Polo International airport.

“I don’t know.”

We stood in the middle of the airport’s entrance trying to make sense of the signs we couldn’t understand. I dug through my overly full backpack and found our survival phrases. As we didn’t have to pee, see a doctor, or order food, the list was useless. I handed the list to Sean, who also looked hoping to magically find the words that would help us decipher the signs.

“Well, I guess we could ask for help,” he said nonchalantly. We both eyed each other intently, hoping the other would volunteer. Seeing the look in his eyes and knowing I was the one responsible for our situation, I caved.

“Stay here with our things,“ I ordered, piling my suitcase and backpack onto his. “I’ll be back soon. Maybe.”

I walked to the small shop by the exit doors, perusing the shelf while I mustered up the courage to make a fool of myself. I walked to the counter with a map of Venice. The cashier was chirping away to another customer in Italian. I prayed no one would stand in line behind me. Once the customer walked away from the counter, I pounced.

“Excuse me,” I said, handing her the map. “Do you speak English?”

I could hear the hope and desperation in my voice.

“A little,” she said, not even bothering to look up. A wave of relief washed over me.

“Great. Can you tell me how to get to Venice?”

She looked up, a patronizing smile on her face. She waved her hands in the air.

“You are in Venice,” she said.

I took a deep breath. I was looking for the Venice with all the water and canals and gondolas. When Sean and I stumbled outside, all we could see was a tarmac and roads. Unless the airport was floating on a hunk of land, which I thought was doubtful, we were not in the right spot.

“Yes, I understand that,” I said, trying not to betray how stupid I felt. “But I’m looking for how to get to the city center where our hotel is located.”

She didn’t respond. Apparently she suddenly forgot how to speak English all. However, as I started to walk away, she pointed outside the window to the bus station while murmuring something in Italian. I’m sure she was paying me no compliment.

“Graci- um... merci-um... thanks,” I mumbled, truly thankful. I walked back to Sean, map in hand, with a smile.

“We need to take the bus,” I explained while we grabbed our stuff and walked toward the door.

It was much warmer in Venice than it had been in England, and I was immensely grateful. Everyone was congregating at the same bus, so we did as well. If there was one thing I learned about traveling, it’s to copy people who look like they know what they’re doing. However, there was a glitch. Everyone hovering around the bus had white tickets. As two ticket-less, lost looking puppies, a nice American couple herded us back inside the airport and placed us in the correct line.

Here’s another thing I learned about traveling: you must alternate acts of public humiliation. I paid my dues and it was Sean‘s turn. He walked up to the counter and asked, in his best English-Italian-Charades, for two tickets to Venice. Keeping up with the theme of Marco Polo International airport employees, the ticket booth clerk rolled his eyes, forked over the tickets, and we were on our way.

By the time we got outside the first bus with the crowd was gone and a new empty bus arrived. There was no bus driver or sign indicating where the bus was going. We decided that we’d rather get on the bus and away from the airport than stay and ask more disgruntled employees for help. When the bus finally pulled away, I looked at the pamphlet the ticket booth grump had given Sean. It had one schedule for busses going to Venice and one for busses going to… Rome.

“Honey,“ I said, crumpling up the schedule and staring out the window. “Just to let you know: we may be going to Rome.”

“Wonderful,” Sean said, rubbing his face.

We sat in silence as we contemplated the situation. Personally, I was so happy to be in Italy that I could care less where the over sized bus was taking us. I watched the bus turn right, and I saw a sign indicating “Venezia -->.” I breathed a sigh of relief. The bus ambled over a bridge, and stopped. We could have walked from the airport. Sean and I both turned to each other and laughed. We were dumped off in a large bus parking lot.

“So….” I said, looking around. I still could not see canals or boats.

“So….” Sean said, also looking around.

We stood for who knows how long taking in our surroundings. As I looked behind me, I saw the most beautiful sight: a big, blue T. A tourist office. Or booth, to be more exact. As we walked toward the booth, which was cramped into a corner, I dug through my back pack to get out the address of our hotel Locanda Herion.

The woman was busy reading a tabloid when we approached her booth. She spoke no English but she knew exactly what we were after once I handed her the address. She pulled out a map, circled a street, pointed straight ahead of us, and sat back down apparently through with us. We looked the direction her wrinkled finger pointed and saw a bridge. A bridge meant water, so we felt confident she wanted us to go over the bridge.

“Gracias,” I said, folding the map.

“Wrong country sweets,” Sean said quietly.

“Oh shut up,” I said, smiling.

We hauled our suitcases across the busy bus terminal, across the street, and up the stone bridge. The sight was beautiful. All it took was a few steps and all of the sudden there she was: Venice. The water, a marble green, the buildings decaying and colorful, and the Italians, weathered, loud, and hungry.

We walked down the stone streets, our eyes not sure what to focus on first. Vendors overflowed the streets, their savory goods tempting us. Colors ambushed us from store windows where masks for Carnival were sold. Loud, passionate Italians bickered good naturedly all around us. Blue Christmas lights hung from above, illuminating the dark allies. At every bridge, we stopped. Some were short and squat, other large and long. Each canal was unique. Some curved so tightly we could only see the first apartment, the rest hidden behind curves.

We found our hotel down a secluded walk way and were pleasantly surprised: our room was elegant, spacious, and clean. It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting after The Dump. We collapsed into the soft queen sized bed not noticing how tired we were until our heads hit the pillows. I reached across and grabbed Sean’s hand. We drifted off into sleep listening to the sounds of boats, Italian, and our soft breathing. My last conscious thought was one of unconcealed joy. This feeling was what I flew half way around the world for.

When we woke, we were famished. This was the first time I had seen Sean’s excitement truly break free. We were in Italy, and we were going to eat. That was enough to bring Sean galloping out of Locanda Herion. We crossed bridge after bridge in search for the perfect trattoria that beckoned us with the menu and price. Our hearts dropped slightly when we realized just how expensive Venice was. Simple Italian meals cost 20 Euros, something we couldn’t afford three times a day for four days.

We were laughing as we walked into what we were sure was a tourist trap. But, the price was right. We were instantly greeted by a young Chinese man who greeted us in English. Both confirmed we were indeed in a tourist trap. However, our hunger was so severe we didn’t care. I happily sipped a coke waiting for spaghetti and meatballs. Once our food arrived, we laughed even more. The portions were tiny, and Sean was grateful. Sitting in front of him was a blob of black spaghetti with what looked like sand.

“Ha!” I said, smiling. “Sometimes ordering safe is the smartest thing.”

Sean’s lip quivered as he took the first bite. I was too smart to try his cuttlefish. So we both sat, in high spirits, eating my overpriced Ragu pasta. After supper, we wandered aimlessly hand in hand discovering bit by bit the mysteriously beautiful city. I could only register one complaint: there were so many tourist. I hoped that because we came during the off season, we would experience a more traditional Venice.

It became clear after maneuvering through clogged streets that it wasn’t going to happen. I felt like I was back in high school trying to move through the hallways during passing period. Despite the massive amount of tourist, I fell asleep content the first night.

I woke at 5a.m., the room dark and quiet. It took me a minute to spot what woke me. But then it washed over me. My nose wrinkled in disgust.

“Honey…“ I said, shoving Sean.

“Huh, wazza goin on?” He slurred, already laying his head back down on the pillow ready to go to sleep.

“Honey,” I said sharper this time, and then I saw his nostrils register the ungodly smell. He sat up immediately.

“Do you smell that?” he asked sharply. I rolled my eyes. Of course I smelled it. How could anyone miss it? I got out of bed and walked to the bathroom. I turned the light on expecting the toilet to have flooded while we slept. But there was no water on the floor. Sean was bent next to the vent in the room, sniffing. He stood, and shook his head. I walked over to the window and looked outside.

“Whoa,” I said dumbly, holding the curtain back and beckoning Sean with my hand. “I think I found the source of the smell.”

The whole street below was flooded at least three feet. The moon light reflected off the water. It was quite beautiful. We crawled back in bed, pulled the covers over our faces, and fell back to sleep. That morning as we walked to a café the shop owners dutifully moped out their stores and then helped their neighbors mop up the smelly mess left behind. As we drank our espressos leaned up against a wooden bar table, I remembered reading that the floods occurred frequently. Looking out the window, watching the true Venetians wander the streets (you could tell by their plastic yellow boots), I wondered what drove these people to stay?

Venice was damp, dark, over run with tourist even in the dead of winter, flooded, expensive, and sinking. Why on earth would anyone choose to stay in such a hopeless situation? Enrico, the manager’s son of Locanda Herion, took us out to breakfast one morning, and we talked about life in Venice. I was surprised when Enrico admitted that he drove one hour each morning to get to Venice and one hour each night to get home.

“Why?” I asked.

“Life in Venice is expensive,” he said. “Too expensive for young people like me who dream of going off to college.”

I nodded my head, savoring the sweet chocolate croissant.

“Besides,” he began, “what opportunity is there for work on a sinking city if you are not a glass artist, historian, cook, or hotel owner?”

“Why do you do it then?” Sean asked.

“Family,“ he said simply. “My father owns the place but he’s too old to run the business anymore.”

That day, as Sean and I got lost exploring the city, I noticed that most of the Venetians I saw were older. They were somber folk. They walked slow, stopped to talk to everyone they recognized, but I never saw them laugh or their faces brighten. It made me think that the city’s population was dying right along with the city itself.

Out exploring, we ended up walking straight into Piazza San Marco. There was simply too much to look at. I spun in a circle, my eyes gazing at the cathedral, and then the gondola docks, then at the shops lining the piazza. Sean took my hand and led me to the waterfront. We sat down and watched the sun set. Gold filed the sky and everything else paled in comparison. Once the sun was down, gondoliers returned to the docks only to stop for a moment before going out in search for love birds. Sean and I were interrupted when a man holding a flower tried to place one in my hand. I closed both fists tight.

“No,” I said loudly and firmly. I watched earlier in the piazza how the scam worked. The men with the roses would find couples and put a rose in the woman’s hand and then expect the man to pay for it.

“You take,” he said, trying once again to forcefully put the flower in my clenched hand. I stood, and so did Sean.

“No,” I repeated again not breaking eye contact. The man was about to try again but Sean stepped forward. The man smiled, turned, and walked away. I wished the guy would have chosen another time to try and scam us because my high from watching the sun set disappeared.

“Come on babe,” Sean said, taking my hand and walking back to the cathedral. We walked up the steps to its entrance. It cost 5 Euros to go in, and I had no problem paying the fee. We walked up a dark and narrow winding staircase that opened into the top of the cathedral. We stood, baffled; the three large domes were just feet away. I stared up, taken with the beauty of the gold paint and saints. Mosaics adorned the wall, and I looked around guilty. I had always been so curious about mosaics. What patience these artists had to take tiny glass shards and create a picture. The tiles had become smooth over the years, and before I knew it my fingers were tracing the image of Mary and her baby.

Beep, beep, beep.

I jumped back. Two inches from the mosaic, was a sign that read: Do not touch- alarm will sound. Cheeks red, I hustled away from the mosaic to find Sean. He was outside admiring the view from the top of the cathedral. The sky was still orange. We leaned against the railing admiring Doge’s Palace. If only we were giants we could reach out and touch it. We stood in silence yet again, trying to copy the image into our brains. Hand in hand, we walked carefully down the staircase and onto our next Venetian adventure.


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