The train from Florence to Venice takes a couple hours, so we made sure to book window seats facing each other. This way Mother could look at me, and I could look at Mother, instead of some belching German pensioner.
We found our car and went directly to our seats, which were occupied by two Russian women with dyed yellow hair. They greeted us in English, but after we showed them our tickets their language skills conveniently deteriorated.
“Those are our seats,” I said.
They smiled innocently.
“Our seats,” I repeated, pointing in the vicinity of their ample buttocks.
They nodded and withdrew some magazines from their bags. An Italian passenger popped up beside me. He spoke English, and was all too willing to help. After looking our tickets over, he scrutinized the Russian ladies.
“I have a solution,” he said. “We will trade. Let me sit here with these ladies, and you can have my window seat over there. The seat beside it is also free.”
“But we booked two window seats,” I said.
“Of course,” said the Italian. “But these bella donne don’t understand. It would be a shame to distress them, no?”
“I wouldn’t mind distressing them at all,” said Mother.
She was still cross about the kebabs I made her eat in Florence, and very ready to sit down.
“Please, signora,” said the Italian, turning on his native charm. “Let us make this journey a pleasant one.”
Mother slung her bag into the overheard compartment and flopped onto the man’s proffered seat, saying, “Oh, to hell with it.”
“Mille grazie,” said the Italian, smiling at the Russians.
We sat facing a middle-aged couple. The woman was blonde and semi-stout, and her husband was tan with salt-and-pepper hair. He put down his magazine and said, “That guy’s a real joker. He was sitting in my wife’s seat when we got here. Said he had to be next to the window or he’d get sick.”
“He’s on the aisle now,” I said.
“And loving it,” said the woman.
“You’re American,” said Mother.
“So are you,” said the woman.
Mother and I burst out laughing. I explained that our neighbor in Rome was also from Philadelphia, and that we were from Erie.
“No kidding,” said the man, happily.
Before Mother could remark on how small the world was, I got the conversation rolling: “What’s going on in Pennsylvania? We’ve been away a long time.”
They updated us on Penn State’s football record and reported the outcomes of several elections. We rolled through the Veneto talking about TV and sports and movies. Travel is said to inspire tolerance and dispel prejudice, and it’s true. People from Philadelphia were beginning to seem more human every day. Of course, if we’d wanted to bond with Philadelphians we could’ve stayed in Pennsylvania and saved a lot of money. We were supposed to be getting to know Italians. Sadly, the only one within chatting distance was our friend, the seat-swapping, second-class Casanova. He was currently involved in a palm-reading gambit with the Russian ladies, who’d miraculously recovered their ability to speak English.
“Look at this love-line,” said the Italian, fondling a beefy Slavic hand. “You must be some real hot stuff.”
Apparently he’d learned his English pick-up lines from old episodes of CHiPs. Somewhere around Padua, he got up and went to the bar. The ladies rolled their eyes at each other. He made a theatrical return, with three cocktails in hand, and announced: “Moscow Mules, to heat up my little arctic foxes!”
When the train arrived at Santa Lucia Station everyone sprang up and grabbed their bags. We made our adieux to the Philadelphians, went straight to the Grand Canal, and boarded a Venetian waterbus, or vaporetto. The boat was wide and ugly—a noisy, metal people-barge. It filled up with passengers and we shoved off.
Vessels of every description, transporting all kinds of cargo, ply the waters of the Grand Canal. We saw sturdy, blue-hulled skiffs laden with furniture, pallets, aluminum cans and seaweed. Glossy speedboats whizzed by carrying elegant young women, their silky scarves undulating in the wind.
I leaned over the rail and snapped pictures of the palazzi: the Pisani Moretta with its Gothic windows, the Salviati’s flashy glass mosaics.
“I must be dreaming,” said Mother, as a gondola skimmed by.
We got off at the Ca d’Oro (“Golden House”), and took a narrow alley to the Strada Nuova. This shop-lined road runs through the heart of Cannaregio, Venice’s least touristed neighborhood. Our hotel was located somewhere in the maze of baroque lanes that twist behind its storefronts. To help us get there, I’d printed a Google map. After three turns, we found ourselves at the edge of a small green canal with laundry strung over it.
“I see a bridge down there,” said Mother.
“We can’t get there from here. We’ll have to go back a block and take a right.”
“And then another right.”
We performed these maneuvers, and arrived at an entirely different canal. We followed it for about a block until the path ended.
“This way,” I said, re-entering the labyrinth of laneways.
Dusk had descended rapidly, bringing with it a clammy chill. There were no people around, and few lights. Our footsteps echoed eerily off the dank walls. When we hit a dead end, I turned the map upside down and reevaluated it. “This is useless. We’ll have to rely on our instincts.”
“Do we have any?” said Mother.
We moved quickly through the darkened streets back to the Strada Nuova, where she wanted to ask for directions. I refused. Asking directions is the mark of a worthless and defeated traveler. I took us down another road, which led to a humpbacked bridge with wrought iron railings. A man passed us as we were crossing, and Mother accosted him: “Excuse me, do you know where—”
He moved brusquely around her.
“Serves you right,” I said.
“Why? What’s wrong with asking for help?”
“Imagine if you were a Venetian,” I said. “Your family has lived here for centuries, dating back to a time when Venice was the most powerful trading nation in Europe—the Queen of the Adriatic. Your ancestors were rich and influential, doges possibly. Now, your once magnificent city has been reduced to a waterlogged tourist attraction. Thousands upon thousands of foreigners pass through every day, and each one wants you to give him directions—directions to hotels, directions to restaurants, directions to churches, museums, or statues. They ask in English, in German, in Japanese. Would you stop?”
Another man came over the bridge. Mother approached him, and asked where we might find our hotel. He gave her precise instructions in English and departed with a friendly “Benvenuti a Venezia!”
Mother led the way, grinning profusely.
“Oh, shut up,” I said.
The hotel was only distinguishable from the tightly packed buildings that bordered it by a tiny, illuminated sign. I tried the door, but found it locked. This was not entirely unexpected, as the hotel was closed for the season, and we weren’t actually staying there. The owner had booked us into something he called “the annex” instead, and instructed us to check in at the hotel before seven o’clock. It was now the wrong side of seven o’ clock.
I knocked, and there was no response. I knocked again. Finally, a harried-looking girl opened the door and said, “Che cosa?”
“Checking in,” I said.
“Oh, yes. The annex people. You’re late.”
She gave me some paperwork to complete at the desk. When I finished, she whipped a keychain off the wall and said, “Follow.” We tried to keep up, but the girl was under twenty-five and fast. I’d seen Jamaican sprinters get off to slower starts. She took us down a long, gloomy road.
“Where are we going?” said Mother, stumbling over the uneven pavement. “Isn’t an annex supposed to be attached to the building?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But if we want to find our way back, you’d better start dropping breadcrumbs.
When we caught up to the girl she was standing beside a nondescript entrance with a key at the ready. She held it up for us to see, and inserted it into the lock. “Door number one,” she said. We went inside, trailed her up a flight of steep stairs, lost her at the landing, and found her again at the top of a second flight. “Door number two,” she said, leading us into a chamber with a shiny checkered floor. In the corner there was yet another portal.
“Door number three?” I said.
“Correct,” she said.
A short corridor came next, followed by door number four. The girl opened it and we entered a room that was glorious, almost American, in its proportions. She showed us around: one big antique bed. One small antique bed. TV. Toilet. Shower.
She held up the keychain and took us through the keys once more, in order: “One, two, three, four. Got it? Good. Have a nice stay.” The breeze generated by her exit nearly blew a painting off the wall.
“Well,” said Mother. “They certainly don’t coddle you around here.”
I collapsed on the big bed. Mother went into the bathroom and flushed the toilet. After it filled, she turned on the faucet and the shower. “Everything works,” she said. “And there’s hot water if you want a bath.”
Scummy and degraded as I was, I didn’t consider cleaning up a priority. The totality of my lunchtime nourishment had been derived from a malformed clump of chocolate, caramel and hazelnuts purchased at a sundries counter on the railroad platform.
“Let’s go eat,” I said.
Mother sat on the small bed, unpacking her bag, and expressed a perfectly reasonable reluctance to leave. “We’ll never find our way back in the dark.”
“We’ll never find our way back in the light, either. But we can’t just stay up here in the annex like Anne Frank. We have to go out and see things. We have to do things. Italian things. And we have to eat. Now.”
Four doors later, we were back in the forsaken street, making our way toward the Strada Nuova and paying close attention to identifying architectural features. “Remember that door with the Byzantine lintel,” I said. “We have to turn left at the Byzantine lintel.”
“What the heck is a Byzantine lintel?” said Mother.
“And the lancet arch over there. Memorize it.”
“Everything has arches!”
After a couple wrong turns, we arrived at the Ca d’Oro vaporetto stop. As we pulled away from the dock, a penumbra of apprehension darkened Mother’s brow. She peered intently at the façade of the Ca d’Oro, trying to count the windows.
“Relax,” I said. “You can’t miss the Ca d’Oro. Besides, the stop is called Ca d’Oro. Just get off when the man yells ‘Ca d’Oro.’”
“What if the man doesn’t yell ‘Ca d’Oro’?”
“He will. It’s his job.”
We debarked at the Piazza San Marco and joined a small crowd in front of St. Mark’s. The basilica’s oriental domes and arches were ablaze with golden light. It wasn’t open, but people were still drawn, moth-like, to its brilliance. The famous pigeons were there too (dozens on the ground, hundreds roosting above), strutting and cooing abrasively.
We went into a restaurant and ate a foolish amount of seafood: linguine with mussels and whelk and octopus, calamari atop a sloppy puddle of polenta. After dinner, we exited the piazza between the two big columns that represent the gateway to Venice. There is a winged lion, symbol of St. Mark, current patron of Venice, atop one, and a statue of St. Theodore, the city’s original patron, on the other. With their saintly finials, the columns might be construed as serving some religious purpose, but this is not the case. Mark’s lion is fierce, and Theodore wields a deadly spear. Many gory executions took place at the foot of these columns, and Venetians consider it bad luck to pass between them.
It proved to be just the opposite for us. After disembarking the vaporetto at Ca d’Oro we managed, through what can only be described as supernatural intervention, to return to the annex without a single misstep. I even got all four keys right on the first try. Grazie, St. Theodore.