Yes, I admit Venice is crowded and over-run with tourists (at least in the summer) and the prices are insane. But still... there is something about the floating city that touches the pit of my soul. In a good way. I frequently dream of impulsively jetting over to Venice just to get pleasantly lost in the quiet alleys for hours on end, poking into the little grocery stores, boutiques, and hidden gardens. In Venice, you never know what you'll find around the next corner.
I have been to Venice on a number of occasions, usually on my own, having formerly worked with various hotels, restaurants and guides in the city. But the first time I really went to explore the city was the most memorable.
It was March 1995 and I was nursing a badly broken heart. My boyfriend of a few years cheated on me and I had recently found out in a most horrible and unexpected fashion (a story for another day). I was 21 and broke, but threw caution to the wind and put a plane ticket I couldn't afford on my brand new shiny Visa for Spring Break (oh, some things never change). I convinced my best friend Sue to come with me. She had never been to Europe before and I wanted to show her around.
I learned quickly that Sue is not a Traveler. She was frequently frustrated and rude with "the locals". When she wasn't happy, comfortable or satisfied, she made sure that everyone else within earshot was aware of it. I was frequently annoyed. She was perpetually oblivious.
We met a nice guy on the train on the way to Venice, Alan from Canada, who ended up tagging along with us for several days. We even let him share our room (just as friends, of course) in the preciously cheap Hotel Caneva. All three of us were on a pretty tight budget and sharing a triple made sense-- plus I was glad for the extra company. Alan was kind and easy going and broke some of the tension already building between me and Sue. The Caneva is a little pensione which has several rooms overlooking the canals situated in the perfect location between San Marco and the Rialto Bridge.
A few nights into our trip we went to The Devil's Forest Pub for a few drinks where apparently half the English Navy had gathered to watch a football (soccer) match. There aren't a whole lot of choices when it comes to Venetian nightlife, and this seemed as good as anything else we had found on previous nights. At first it was all fun and merriment, but then things got a little crazy. Some drunken bastard kept alternately rubbing himself up against Sue and running loops around the pub screaming at the top of his lungs, "SPACEMAN! SPACEMAN!" Before Sue punched him out (she would have for sure), I pushed her out of the crowd into one of the booths to get her to calm down. Sitting on the other side of the booth was a quiet Italian man. I introduced Sue and asked if she might share his booth for a moment. He said he didn't care; he was watching the game and didn't mind at all.
His name was Diego. We started talking (for those of you who don't know, I speak la bella lingua Italiana). We talked for a while about what the US is really like, politics, and the best places to visit in Italy. We talked about my studies, since I was an Italian major and doing a lot of work in Italian literature that semester. He asked about my favorite Italian author, and I told him it was poet Giacomo Leopardi. Now this is going to sound super cheesy, I mean MOLTO FORMAGGIO, but at that moment dear Diego recited by memory, in that stupid bar filled with obnoxious brits, my favorite Leopardi poem, L'Infinito:
Sempre caro mi fu quest'ermo colle,
E questa siepe, che da tanta parte
Del'ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.
Ma sedendo e mirando, interminato
Spazio di là da quella, e sovrumani
Silenzi, e profondissima quiete
Io nel pensier mi fingo, ove per poco
Il cor non si spaura. E come il vento
Odo stormir tra queste piante, io quello
Infinito silenzio a questa voce
Vo comparando: e mi sovvien l'eterno,
E le morte stagioni, e la presente
E viva, e 'l suon di lei. Così tra questa
Infinità s'annega il pensier mio:
E 'l naufragar m'è dolce in questo mare.
It's so typical. So stupidly stereotypical. I know, you don't have to remind me. But naturally I was hooked. How could I not have been? The only thing my recent ex could have recited by memory was the latest basketball stats. Diego invited me to ditch Sue and go for a walk. It took me about 3 seconds to find my purse, put on my coat and place Sue in the care of Alan the Canadian.
It was cold that night; it must have been mid-March or so. Venice, like Amsterdam, feels colder than it is, I think because of all the water. The dampness of the cold gets into your bones and it chills you deep down. We walked for a long time. He pointed out parts of the city I never knew existed, the parts that you could only know if you grew up there. There are very very few people who live in Venice who actually were born and raised in Venice.
Finally, as I am sure you would have guessed, he kissed me, on top of a picturesque little bridge over a solitary canal that was perfectly lit. I could just make out the operatic voices of the Gondoliers echoing down the canal. No, really I could. It was very well planned and executed. It was perfection. Maybe even too much so; there is something to be said for a little spontaneity. He then graciously walked me back to the Caneva, holding my hand of course, and invited me and Sue to come see him the following day at the caffe` he managed in the Piazza San Marco, the Caffe` Aurora.
The following afternoon Sue and I went to the Caffe Aurora to see Diego after exploring the islands of Torcello and Burano (Burano is pictured above). He set us up in a gorgeous private salon overlooking the piazza and brought us whatever we wanted. After we could not eat another biscotti or drink one more shot of espresso he sent us away but told us both to come back and he would take us to grab a bite to eat before we had to board the overnight train to Rome.
I remember I had pizza and Baywatch was on the TV in the restaurant. The conversation was easy and fun. Sue was in a good mood. He walked us all the way to the train station where Sue graciously disappeared into a shop for a few moments (see, she's not all bad) so we could say our goodbyes.
We didn't exchange numbers or addresses. It wasn't an emotional goodbye in the least. But, I knew that I would regard that time in Venice as a perfect memory. What was the point of keeping in touch? In the back of my head I knew that I conformed, and not for the first time, to the silly stereotype of the naive American being schmoozed by the dashing Italian. Surely what I regarded as the most romantic thing that had ever happened to me to date was just another Saturday night, another gullible American girl, for him. But really, I didn't care. A jolt of sugary romance was exactly what I needed.
So Sue and I boarded the train to Rome and I assumed that was the end of the Diego story.
But I was wrong.
To be continued...