My First Trip to Italy (November, 2000 – text)


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Venice by night


Driving in Italy is interesting, even fun (though note that I am no where near Roma). I think I have arrived at the outskirts of Venice and have parked my car. The main route into town, via the Grand Canal, is out of the question because they are on strike (is anybody surprised by this?). I'm told to take the bus instead. I follow the crowd onto a bus. Is this the right bus? Do I pay? How much? How? Where do I get off? I have no idea. Yet, here I am on my way. Will I arrive? I just don't know. It is 7:00 pm (Slovene time).


The view from the bus is of a very crowded place. Lot's going on. Reminds me of Tel Aviv, though of course different. The bus comes to a stop. Do I get off here? Who knows? Everyone else gets off. I follow, fighting the crowds getting on. I see water. Canals. I can't be too far, can I be? It's 7:10.


I'm looking for old buildings. Or a map. My (potential) tenure for a map! OK, I find one. How does one say, "You are here!" in Italian? Tu, usted, aqui? Que? I give up. I move on. (and how am I ever going to find my way back to my car. Egad!... the bus stopped at Santa Chiara Hotel. Where did it start?).


I turn around. I soon cross a bridge over a small canal. I see old buildings. I write as I walk. It is 7:18. From a map I looked at this morning I recognize this as the grand canal (I hope). I keep walking. Man this place is crazy nutso. So many people. I follow the crowd over a large bridge. More old buildings. Spectacular old buildings. Meanwhile, the city closes down - the shops close and cover their windows. A remarkable and old (of course) church chimes 7:30.


A farmers market. Shutting down for the evening. Beautiful food. I avoid eating. Haven't eaten in 12 hours. Don't want to tire myself out/weigh myself down. Perhaps (I hope) later. And the city continues to shut itself down.


Where am I? Teatro Italia! I duck down a narrow alley.


Another bridge, a small one. More veggies and fruit. A strange mix of people. Every now and then English with an American accent. Another remarkable building. I'm the only one in the courtyard. Church di St. Maria Maddalena. Amazing. I walk away from the crowded pathway.


A small bridge to the entrance to a building. A tunnel along the edge of another building. Sotoportego de le colonete(?) Motor boats in the canal berthed against a wall. I cross a small bridge to a narrow alley even though this seems to bring me back to the crowds. Another bridge, medium sized. Venice is a town of shopping, though not anymore, as it gets to be later in the evening. Must cost a fortune to live here. Another smallish bridge. Where are the Men’s Rooms? An eyeglasses store. A line of sunglasses called "Diesel". Diesel!


No idea where I am. No idea of where I am going. It's 7:49. How did they build this place? How do they keep it working? A building with a refinished facade. Strangely out of place yet still interesting. Narrow passage ways. Dark. Few people. Where am I? If I keep walking, will I get anywhere? Does it matter?


Video store. Video games. A young man walks from one to the other. Another intersection. I continue to aimlessly wander. Few fellow wanderers. An old woman struggles over a bridge ahead of me. Blind. Does one help? What an awful metaphor: The lost leading the blind? I wander on.


Music from an apartment window over head. The city goes to bed awfully early. Another bridge. A columned building up ahead. A large court yard. Only three others. They walk my way. I can barely see to write. I do hear a voice and the shuffling of footsteps. The columned building is dark. Is there a sign? Will I be able to read it if there is with this little light? The building is just too much. Too majestic. Oversized. A runner passes in front. I don't see any sign on the front of the building. Just another Venetian monument?


Massive, carved wooden doors, cracked with age. Covered with grime. A small piece of marble that has fallen from it, perhaps 5 cm long, sitting in front. Should I take the piece home with me? Should I leave it? I leave it. Who made this building? Why is there no sign? Another runner passes by.


No steps. No people. The water is ahead. A water taxi? Another runner. Same one, doing laps? Many boats. Touring boats, not taxis? I turn left. A deep rumble. The sound of a jet taking off. People returning home from their vacations in Venice. Water lapping against walls. Footsteps from behind, then to the right, then they move away. I can see the lights of the jet. The rumble fades. Only two others are along the water front. A boat in the distance. A man and a dog up ahead. Many dogs. Where do they go? Where will I? 8:07


The creaking of boats against their berths. A security guard. Guarding the boats? Where am I? Is this safe? Does the way I'm walking lead anywhere? Why isn't this a city that never sleeps? Perhaps it is. The end of the line along the water. I turn left down another alley. Calle Longa S. Caterina. A young man quickly walks by, talking into his cell phone. Small bags of trash. Who/What picks them up? 8:12. Where does one urinate? Answer: One, apparently, does not.


Calle S. Felice up ahead. An open window three flights up. White ceiling with many bare wood beams, almost as much wood as white. Pizza. Have I passed this shop before? Yes, I have. I recognize the "Telecom Italia" shop across from it. I turn around and head the other way on the Calle S. Felice.


I walk with a canal on my right. With no railings, a group passes on my left and I fear that I could fall into the canal. I pass a nice sit down restaurant. I am starting to get a little hungry. Less of a need to urinate, though I haven't taken care of that little problem just yet. Where does the urine go if the feeling goes away? Good thing I haven't been drinking beer, yet. Another bridge. Which came first, the canals or the bridges over them? Few people. A dog is barking somewhere down the canal. Street lamps but not much light. A rustling of plastic shopping bags. 8:26


Not only how did they build this place, but why did they build it? Why was this spot special enough to demand this much effort? I follow music down a narrow alley. I must be passing beneath the windows of a restaurant. The alley ends at water, no stairs. Why? I look behind me in case there could be someone who could push me into the canal. I'm alone, on this side of the water, at least. On the other side are footsteps and the rustling of plastic shopping bags. The music from the restaurant is in the distance behind me. It is strangely silent for a city. What kind of a city is this anyway? I consider relieving myself into the canal, but chicken out.


A public phone and a person actually using it (rather than using a cell phone). A couple recognizes the caller from her voice and turns to greet her. Time to look for a place to get dinner. A well-lighted building up ahead. Nobody is around. I go inside. "Influenza vaccination." A public-health building? A white tunnel through the building, twisting and turning. I pass a security camera. I continue to walk and arrive at the back of the building, at a door. No one is ahead of me or behind. A bird whistles in the distance. Plants, a garden, not well kept. Different from the rest of Venice, regardless. A modern building up ahead. A basketball court. The door opens. A basketball game. A toilet. I use it. Nobody seems to mind. I spend a moment or two watching the game, then move on. Foul! I return to the old city the way I came.


Laundry, set out to dry across the canal. What sounds like urination into the canal (OK, I admit it, definitely the obsessional body function of the evening). But not even I have a bladder that large. There must be a different explanation. Across the water another bridge. An empty alley. Back on a mainish drag, sort of. 9:00. Too late to eat?


Walking in circles. Completely lost. No sense of direction. I take random routes. A drunkard's walk, though without the benefit of alcohol. Trying to go back the way I came, wherever that is. I pass the public telephone I noticed before. The girl and the couple are long gone, but at least I have a clue that I am heading in the right direction. I cross a bridge and head towards people and lights. A stone bridge. Assumption: bridges are more likely to be made of stone the closer I get to the center of the old city. More lights. More people. Stone bridges. A familiar telephone. Check!


A just-closing pizzeria. I pause in my walking to buy dinner. I feel the cold a little after I step out of the shop. I'm back at the church di st. Maria Maddelena. Three pizza-like thingies, a spring water, and a can of beer. I sit on the steps of the church. Dinner across from a side canal, under a street lamp. People walking off in the distance. Time to eat before things get cold. 9:30


First slice. Warm, not hot. Great atmosphere. Second slice, also warm, not hot. Tastes a bit like fish. I wonder what is on it. Grease on my diary. I open the can of beer. Can one drink beer on the steps of a church in the middle of Venice? Can one eat? How could one not? We shall see. Heineken. Sure hits the spot. Third piece. A pocket of dough thingy. I have no idea what might be inside. It does taste pretty good, though I have no idea of what. Tomatoes, mushrooms, probably cheese. How could there not be cheese, eh? People continue to march by, off in the distance, never enetering the plaza the church sits on. I spot an artichoke heart in the dough thingy. Could that be the "fishy" flavor? We shall never know. Another big sip of beer. I finish the pocket thing. Still half a can of the beer. Getting full. 9:39


Three more "sips" and the beer is gone (I'm a big person who takes big sips). A touch of the high begins to spread from my belly. I clean up my mess and pocket the spring water. Now all I need is an all night internet cafe. Bingo!


11:22 - I send the e-mail. Back to the streets of Venice.


Venice by early morning


My last two days in Europe were a harrowing experience.  This is in no small measure a consequence of my unfamiliarity with the various cultures, but most prominently my inability to speak or understand Slovene or Italian or French or German. Surprisingly few English speakers out there. And my slight command of Spanish has been essentially irrelevant, except to the extent that I’m much more familiar with Slovene and Italian than I might have otherwise been. Yeek!


The “day”—Thursday the 30th—started at approximately midnight of the day before. After leaving the internet café (which I kept open late for my furious typing) I had started my way back towards the bus stop where I had originally been left off, hours before. Apparently, however, I hadn’t yet had enough of Venice, and rather than simply walking out from among the canals, I instead wandered away from the main path looking for a different way to the parking lot. This was both stupid and an inspired thing to do. Stupid because ultimately it kept me wandering about Venice (and points adjacent) for the next 3.5 hours. Inspired, though, because as a consequence I saw a lot more of Venice (and other places to which I would rather never return) than I otherwise would ever have.


To get a feel for the overall story, imagine Venice is a maze and you are the rat. You can accentuate this metaphor against said rat by imagining that you are not only in Venice, but there at night, tired and after midnight, with no map, an inability to converse in Italian to ask directions of the (mostly drunk) individuals milling about, and, in fact, lacking a sufficient knowledge of where you are and how you got there to intelligibly question in English much less comprehend an answer. Then add in a dollop of reckless disregard for reasonable norms of personal safety, a place that literally changes in appearance with time as the evening progresses, and you might have a adequate picture of me stumbling around the “streets” of Venice during the very early hours of an increasingly cold Italian morning.


After much effort attempting to locate an alternative way out I stumbled upon a ferry station. The ferry wouldn’t arrive for another fifteen or so minutes, but it was after midnight and I figured that there was no harm waiting for the boat to arrive. That was true so far as the wait was concerned. Getting on the ferry, and then off again were other things altogether.


Picture a bay, dark and unfamiliar, and an island similarly unfamiliar. There are only three ways off of this Island. One is locked. Another is hidden. And the third is a ferry that may or may not show up again for hours. It is here that I decided to depart the ferry, following a small crowd that presumably knew what they were doing and where they were going. Unfortunately, for them this was home, but for me it was desolate, forbidding, and literally nowhere.


Fortunately I was stubborn enough to locate a quasi-hidden escape route. After crossing a temporary walk bridge (as the larger structure was being repaired) and much walking across what seemed like yet another island, I finally stumbled upon a ferry just arriving to a dock, the whereabouts relative to the rest of Venice(?) I couldn’t even guess at. Fortunately, I had happened on this ferry, and upon boarding vowed not to get off again until I was absolutely sure that I was at the parking lot stop (assuming, of course, that the ferry stopped there at all).


This second ferry ultimately, unfortunately, did not get me to where I was trying to go, but did take me to where the tourists go. Finally I came upon the extraordinary Venetian architecture (if anything in that town can be described as simply ordinary). Without a map I had trouble naming just what I was seeing, but I did recognize them. We tugged back and forth across the water, but not to my long sought parking area. Finally the ride was over with all passengers asked to get off of the boat. Though clearly I was now where most of the tourists go, I still had little idea of where I was on a map, and since it was nearing two in the morning, the number of people had dwindled, though hardly were absent. I noted that while these extraordinary buildings were amazing, in fact it looked as though as buildings become more impressive and presumably newer (though that’s a very relative term in Venice) the builders apparently placed more emphasis on façade over the structure of the building itself. Presumably building technology and materials had been improved and standardized to some extent which took some of the challenge out of building the structure itself, thus freeing the builders to focus on embellishments, often to the point of gross excess. Very interesting.


It was time to get out of this place. It was late and growing later. My feet, especially my right foot, after at least five hours of walking, was starting to hurt. My legs were tired. I was tired, and no longer thinking clearly enough to do a good job navigating this maze. I randomly picked a direction and started walking. I managed to hit dead end after dead end but I persisted. There were strollers, mostly drunk, some couples, some in groups. Suddenly, before me, was the largest bridge I had yet seen in Venice. Figuring that I would need to cross the large canal ahead of me I walked up and over the bridge. This hurt because my legs were really starting to get tired. I paused at the top. The buildings behind me looked vaguely familiar. Then I started down the other side. Christmas directions were overhead. I recalled seeing something like these earlier in the day, though I could not recall when or in what context. This street was wide and dark. I pass a shop I recall looking through the window of or, at least, I think I had. A small plaza, also familiar, but where was I? I walk on. Suddenly I am walking down a long path with a canal to my left. Things are looking much more familiar. There are small boats, with cargo that I actually recognize. This is the street with the public phone box! How did I get here? Which direction had I been walking?


Naturally I chose to continue walking in the wrong direction.  I realize my error but am compelled, perhaps by habit or perhaps by exhaustion, to continue onward. Finally I am forced to turn around and I make my way back to where I came, down this same street. I’m sure I will pass the infamous public phone booth, and I actually do. Then I come across more sights I recall. But how did I get out of here last time? I follow my nose. All shops are dark and gated over. There are, again, vague familiarities, but mostly I’m too tired and it is too dark and different for me to recognize where I am. I pass over another familiar bridge. I must have crossed this bridge, or at least one just like it, five or six times this evening. But where was this bridge in relation to everything else, if it indeed was the same bridge? I continue on. I pass the Church di St. Maria Maddalena. Now I’m sure I know where I am, but still nothing looks completely familiar. The Christmas decorations again. Surely I know exactly where I am, but the transformation of Venice in late evening to Venice in the early morning is substantial. My first stroll down this main drag it had been full of light, open and well-lit shops, people selling things on the street itself, and people everywhere. Now it was dark and closed with only Christmas decorations overhead to suggest that I had been there hours before.


I continue walking. I come upon the very large and now very familiar bridge that crosses the Grand Canal. I climb to the top of the bridge and look ahead at the very familiar church on the other side, the vaguely familiar building I had seen as I passed walking in the opposite direction, only about an hour before. It was well past 3:00 AM by now. I think I understood my mistake. When I had approached the bridge earlier I had been walking at a 90° angle from how I had first approached it, from that same side, even earlier that evening. This was as I had been first entering the city. That slight change, though I had thoroughly explored the area approaching the bridge before climbing over it, was enough to cause me to walk over without a shred of recognition. Dazed and confused in Venice!


Venice: Epilogue


Clearly one gets only one opportunity to explore Venice at night, without a guidebook or a map, alone, and for the first time. This had been my opportunity. I’m not sure I would want to repeat the experience even if I could. But I was happy to have done it. Happy to recount it, too. And now ready to go home. Literarily I was tired and achy and no longer in an adventurous mood. As I approached the bus station, I paused at the ferry map to once again attempt to understand where I had been and how I had gotten there. Still there was no insight or recognition. Clearly this was not my finest of map-reading hours.


The walk to my car


If you thought my Venice odyssey was now over, you would, of course, be wrong. While I had managed to leave Venice proper, returning to the land of wheels and the internal combustion engine, I still had not yet reached my own personal internally combusted wheeled vehicle. As usual, knowing where I was, though nice, still was no substitute for being where I actually wanted to be. That place was my car and I still had a fair-sized walk left between it and me. A walk, I might add, though much more straightforward than a stroll in Venice proper, was not nearly as pretty.


Upon returning, finally, to the bus stop I decided to avoid giving in to additional temptation figuring that attempting to take a bus back to the parking garage could be more trouble than it was worth. Still, recall that I not paid much attention during the bus ride from the garage to Venice, so at best I had a vague idea of where I needed to head. However, I did recall that we had taken mostly right hand turns getting to the bus stop so perhaps by taking mostly left hand turns I could return to the garage. This strategy was a bit less stupid than you probably are now thinking. The garage was on the water, in fact on a neck of land or peninsula. If I had taken only right hand turns to get to the bus stop, then, perhaps, if I took one too many left hand turns while returning I would either (a) hit water (which would be a point that I would have to give in and temporarily take a right hand turn) or (b) I would return to Venice (at which point I would find a nice park bench to sleep on).


My first efforts one again led me to a canal. There was a bridge over the canal, but the bridge was locked (!) for the evening. Very crazy country. Regardless, I implemented my algorithm: Straight or left if don’t hit water, take right if do. So I turned right, and ultimately I find my way over the canal, whereupon I turned left. From this point on it was a relatively short walk to the garage and my car. Some of this involved walking along a highway plus on and off ramps, complete with trucks delivering what must have been tomorrows goods to Venice. This was all very strange following my hours of walking in Venice proper.


I reach my car. I’m tired, dirty, and ready to move on. I put away my stuff and hop in. The exit from the garage would have required that I wake up and pay the attendant “on duty”. I decide to let him sleep and search for another parking spot for myself.  I park, lean back the passenger seat, pull out my sleeping bag (doesn’t everybody travel to Venice with a sleeping bag?), whip out my portable pillow, disguise myself as a pile of clothing to avoid offending passerby’s, and then, instantly, I fall asleep—there, in my itsy bitsy Renault, parked just outside of Venice, in a garage whose exit is guarded by a man who is literally asleep at his post. It is 3:45 AM.


The Italian Dolomites and beyond


6:45 in the morning and I’m already awake. Three hours of sleep, without interruption. Not bad for a parking garage. I pay my 30,000 lira (about 15 dollars) at the gate to the now wide-awake parking attendant. No time to eat. No time to wash. No time to find a restroom. I have too much to accomplish on this, my last day of my first trip to Europe.


I want to head north and then northeast from Venice, well north of the coast but not quite in the mountains. First, though, I accidentally head to the east, along the coast. I turn around, many kilometers later, just before a tollbooth. Heading back west I again miss my turn to the north. At the next exit, rather than turning around, again, instead I head north but with some intention of soon veering off to the east and back to Slovenia. But as I head farther north I approach the mountains and I can’t resist driving right up into them. I ignore the turn to the east and instead climb and climb and climb and tunnel and climb and then climb some more.  The Italian Alps are, of course, absolutely gorgeous. Big. Spectacular. But, as with much of the rest of Italy, they are also overbuilt. Fun to pass through, but not a place I would be want to commit to. I continue onward. There is much snow on the sides of the road. I decide to return to Slovenia via Austria. But I’m also increasingly conscious of how little time is left in the day (even though it is still before noon). I stop at the top of a snow-covered pass and spend some time reading my map.

I look for a faster route back to Ljubljana. I choose to take a more direct route and not pass through Austria. All of the roads warn that you should be carrying tire chains. I assume that this is what the box in the back of my rental holds. These smaller roads still have some snow on them and I am unsure of my car’s handling. I press on regardless. I pass cross-country skiers who ply well-packed trails, but only a few. The season is still early (late November).  In fact, I pass very few people at all. Just me and my Renault on twisty mountain roads in the snow. I eventually warm up to the car’s handling. As the snow diminishes as I drive east I start double clutching my downshifts. Ah the joy of little engines and high revs. This is fun! Though by now I’ve been traveling at least five hours, I still haven’t eaten breakfast.


I choose to enter Slovenia on what must be the most obscure border crossing from Italy. To get there I drive up yet another amazing road, this time into relatively dry mountains, once again up a steep pass. At one point I find myself off the main road and climbing up an amazing series of switchbacks into a small settlement. I stop to ask a gentleman directions, pointing to the map to show where I want to be. He explains in rapid-fire Italian and, fortunately, gestures wildly, “Back down and then back up on the other side of the valley. “ “Prego! Prego!” [sic?] he happily replies as I repeat the gestures back to him.


The mountains are steep and the valley deep. I begin to descend again. It is greener down here. The streams are that aquamarine green from the limestone in glacial snow melt (I think that what it is). They are rushing fast as the snow at higher elevations melts. I’m in awe as I take in this brutal but compelling landscape.


And then, suddenly, I reach the Italian border crossing. Immediately the guard begins gesturing and exclaiming in Italian and I have no idea what he is talking about. It is 1:00 in the afternoon. I haven’t eaten in 15 hours. I am tired and still wearing the same clothing I had on when I left Ljubljana and that I slept in the night before, and I haven’t shaved in days, and here is this Italian border guard pointing and gesturing wildly. What does he want? Does he speak English? No. Do I speak French or German? No. Does he speak Slovene? I have a Slovene-English dictionary. But of course he doesn’t (this only being the Italian-Slovenia border).


I start opening doors and then the trunk, figuring he must be looking for something, so let him look. When I open the glove compartment he becomes excited, pointing in there. The car’s papers, of course! I hand him the rental package arranged and provided by the handy-dandy rental company. Fifteen minutes go by as he becomes noticeably agitated back in his booth. Gesturing wildly, taking into his walkie talkie (no cell phone?), kicking his trash can! I invite myself in. He points to what must have been a Slovene car registration. He points to the paper and says something that I interpret as, “This is not your name!” Well, of course it isn’t my name, it is the name of the rental car company. “Rental car, rental car,” he says. Ah, yes, rental car, but why isn’t my name on the registration? Clearly something is missing here. I go back to the car and search through it for the rental agreement. Nowhere. I know I have it since I had checked it over only a few hours before. But now where is it? I have no idea. I search my wallet. Nothing. I sit there wondering how I will ever get back to Ljubljana for my next morning flight.


The border guard gets even more agitated. He clearly does not want me to hang around with him inside of his booth/office anymore than is absolutely necessary. I start trying to ask him whether he had seen any additional papers in the neat little packet from the handy-dandy rental company. “¿Mas papel?” I ask hoping that my pathetic attempts at Spanish will sound similar to the Italian equivalent.  No idea. Where could it be? Please, I finally ask, can I check the thingy that you took from me? Yes? Good. I check the main pocket and, Voila! There is the rental agreement.


Finally he is now checking over my passport. He sees the Ben Gurion airport stamp.  “Ben Gurion, Ben Gurion (where????),” he seems to be saying. I try to explain, “Israel,” but he repeatedly shrugs. I say “Palestinians and Arafat and Jewish” hoping that he would pick up on the idea of Israel from familiarity with the Arab-Israeli conflicts. No chance. He has no idea what I am talking about. Finally I say, “EessRayEll” and the second border guard says, “Israel!” in Italian. The first guard, the one interrogating me, is not satisfied. I explain to him that I am a college professor. I show him my faculty ID. I tell him how I have to fly out of Slovenai tomorrow. “Ljubljana a Frankfurt a Toronto a Ohio en una aeroplana!!!!!!!”


Finally he relents. It’s taken only about one-half hour but feels like a third of the day. He explains to me that car documents are very important. I thank him though point out (fool that I am) that it was he, not I, who couldn’t find the (bloomin’) proper document (in other words, I said, “Sí,” then paused, then pointed at the document case). Then I said, “Gratsi, Gratsi!” I would have added, “Prego, Prego!” but by then I figured that I had already pushed my luck far enough.  Suddenly I was driving in the Slovene Alps. Halleluiah!