I awoke in the Albergo Guerrato Venezia to sunshine streaming through the shutters. A steady timber of sound drifted in with the sun. I slid out of bed, recoiling as my feet hit the frigid, marble floor. Summoning my will, I took a deep breath and sprinted to the bathroom where I leapt onto a thick, fleshy rug. I scooted the rug beneath my feet to the window. I unlatched the colossal shutters and pushed them open with a loud, ancient creak.
The scene that accosted my eyes stole the breath from my body. A parade of clothes lines stretched away from my window, vibrant with color. A rainbow of shirts, pants, bras and panties flapped freely in the breeze like Tibetan prayer flags. Below, a tiny market was in full swing. Vendors called out prices and haggled with customers. Lilting Italian words floated up like music. I gazed past the market and out onto the canals, sparkling in the early morning sun.
A lovely, wildly gray haired woman leaned out of a window across from mine. We smiled at each other, contentedly. The breeze was alive with smells – citrus, fish, flowers – and somewhere, in a deep reverberating baritone, someone was singing. I felt the wind caress my face, as my spirit soared, completely and utterly alive.
I quickly dressed and heeded the market’s call. The uneven cobblestones danced beneath my feet as I forged through the crowd and purchased a banana, using my very best guide-book-Italian, “Vorrei una banana per favore.” The vendor seemed amused at my overly bouncy and emphatic rendition of the language. I was undeterred. You don’t learn to speak Italian to be sedate. The fun is in the em-pha-sis. If I wanted to be reserved, I would have learned German.
She handed me the banana and took my euros. I was elated to have accomplished this simple task entirely in a foreign language. I even understood when she asked what type of change I wanted back. At least I thought that’s what she asked …. Although, now that I think of it, was I supposed to get change back? Or was I meant to round up as a tip? Damn greedy Americans.
There was something identifying about the locals in Venice, outnumbered though they were. They were easy to pick out from the crowd. Their features seemed inherently strong and noble, their faces rich with character and color. The men stood in circles adorned in understated, yet classic, black and brown gentlemen’s wear. They smoked their pipes with stern faces or chuckled gruffly at some inside joke.
The women hauled around much-too-wide shopping bags as they clicked across the cobblestones in high heels, fancy coats and elaborately adorned hats. They would gather together whispering in secretive groups, clucking away like pigeons on Piazza San Marco.
Venetian children were the best. They dressed like miniature versions of their grandparents, elegant and sedate. Their tiny faces all seemed equally content and somber, as if a mystery lingered just beneath the surface of their molten chocolate eyes.
The canals were bustling with activity. Vaparettos, overflowing with locals and tourists toiled up and down the waterways. Private motor boats transported loads of fish, groceries and families. The common scenes of human life were dramatically set against the backdrop of the most intricate and stunning architecture in the world. Statues and relief scenes adorned each building’s facade as if they all had housed only the purest and noblest of royalty.
Italy was wildly freeing. I discovered the glorious indulgence of thick Italian hot chocolate. I experienced whole fried octopus. I witnessed amazing works of architecture. And I encountered my first in-floor toilet. (Imagine a white, porcelain hole set into the ground like a large drain, with foot traction on either side. The idea was to squat and go without desecrating the pants that are currently tying your feet together like a giant rubber band … or falling over.)
I encountered a creature who I thought, at first glance, was a large dog but whose tail was skinny and bald like a rat’s. Its feet were also mouse-like, as was the shape of its snout. The thing must have been four feet long!
Someone nearby saw it too. “What in the world is that?” they asked, perplexed.
I knew. “It’s an R.O.U.S.” I replied confidently. “I saw it on The Princess Bride.”
It wasn’t. It was a Nutria – an Italian river rat. And fortunately, it was herbivorous.
In Italy I discovered Gelato – like ice cream, only richer, creamier and infinitely more satisfying. I also had my first encounter with Italian fast food. “Spitzico” and “Pizza & Sfitzzi” were the McDonald’s of Italy (except for the actual McDonald’s that is). They served these huge, impossibly thin pizzas that came folded up in fourths in order to fit into their trademark triangular, cardboard boxes. This origami pizza was accompanied by a container of small, deep fat fried balls. These were formed out of ingredients such as rice with mozzarella and tomato sauce, cheese or bread and given intriguing names like, “Rustisfizzio,” “Crocche,” “Arancino,” “Frittatina” and “Pastacresciuta.”
The best meals were the simple ones we created ourselves. I loved that each food item in Italy was represented by its own store. Shops were dedicated to selling nothing but cheese or bread or meat. It made shopping for dinner a journey of sensations.
One night, a small group of us pooled our resources and bought a chunk of soft provolone cheese, a loaf of focaccia bread, a slab of chocolate and a bag of pears. We shared the whole feast, spread out across a bed in our hotel, reveling in the potency of each delectable flavor.
The art in Italy was ever-present and awe inspiring. I loved to mingle with the street artists. They crafted their paintings surrounded by work of the masters. It took guts. But that says something about human nature. We keep trying. We keep striving. Even when it seems that we might never be able to compete … we do. Eventually, someone does rise out of the pack. They beat all previous expectations, blowing through the latest glass ceiling to establish a new height of human achievement. More dreamers will rise up in their wake, all jostling for the chance to propel ahead of the rest.
These were the things occupying my mind these days – food, culture, art, gelato and the pros and cons of various toppings. I rarely thought of anything beyond the beautiful scenery and where I would be worshipping my next meal. The days were getting longer and sunnier as winter relinquished its hold on the peninsula, giving way to spring. Meanwhile, something similar was taking place inside my own soul.
This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.