The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Venezia Magica, or, A Very Improbable Plot

Okay, before you read this, I promise it is all completely and totally true. Really.

Thursday, May 28 2009

Thursday night we stayed over in Milan, and had a lovely (if not air-conditioned) room not far from the central train station. The room had a balcony which looked out over a courtyard filled with flowers. When we opened the windows, the scent of roses and magnolias almost knocked us over, in the most pleasant way. The room flooded with sweet-smelling air and a welcome breeze. Delightful as this was, we were hungry, and therefore had to leave.

We asked the lady at reception for a restaurant recommendation, and she suggested a small place just a block away that was a very simple, small, family-owned place that locals frequent. We found it without trouble and were very happy with it. It was very bright and bustling. The couple next to us had their dog under the table, and they fed it scraps intermittently. The waitress was funny, too. I think she was a little intimidated by the idea of having to wait on us and our almost non-existent Italian. I could tell she was working herself up for it, and looked slightly panicked every time I mutilated her language in an attempt to order something. The friendly dog-owners next door helped us out, though, and eventually we got ourselves across. We had seen our neighbors eating what appeared to be pasta bolognese (tomato and meat sauce) and thought it looked good. I tried my phrase book's approximation of pasta with red sauce, but either it was translated wrong, wasn't the same dish, or I just mangled it so badly that she couldn't understand me. With the couple's help, we got it across that we each wanted a bowl of the pasta, and nothing else. See, in Italy, people usually just *start* with the pasta as a first course, then go on to have at least one other course, usually meat. I worked out enough with my phrase book to say "Solo pasta." (Only pasta). Her response? "Solo pasta?!?! Mamma Mia!!" I can't believe I didn't laugh out loud. I thought "Mamma Mia" was something they only said in cliché movies and ABBA songs. Still, we got our pasta, which was delicious, and and some very nice red wine, then went to bed.

Friday, May 29

Friday started out as another very stressful travel day for me; little did I know, I would be compensated for my troubles by a delightful twist of fate that evening. Still, at the time, I was as yet oblivious to the happiness ahead of me, and spent most of the day metaphorically pulling my hair out.

The headaches started with the train station. I don't know why I was surprised, since it took me a few *weeks* to get comfortable with the french system, but the Milan Stazione Centrale proved to be quite the puzzle for me. It is absolutely enormous, and from the outside it is very imposing with all its columns and stairs. Since we were dragging the bags again, I parked mom on a bench just inside the station and went off alone in search of the ticket windows. About half an hour later, I finally found the ticket machines on the lower levels. In my defense, I was following signs *carved* into the *stonework* that said "Biglietteria." Apparently, they were remodeling. Of course. Then I discovered that the machines, ALL the machines, were only accepting cash at the moment. Of course. Then, I found out there was no ATM in the station. Of course.

I had to collect Mom and the bags, and drag them all across the block to the nearest ATM before we could go back to the station and buy tickets. We waited in line for a machine, even though there were about 30 of them, and I tried very hard not to screw up buying tickets to Venice. Trains depart from Milan to Venice every half hour, so fortunately we wouldn't have to wait forever. It was nearing noon at this point, so I bought two tickets for 12:30. There were no more 2nd class tickets available, so I had to get 1st class. I was sure I had bought two tickets, but when the machine only printed out one, I nearly lost it. It cost about 70 euro, so I thought I must have screwed up and purchased just one first class ticket that was über-expensive. The train was leaving in half an hour, and I had one overpriced ticket. I looked to my left, to the line I would have to stand in if I wanted to talk to a human about an exchange. It was about 20 people wide and 5 rows deep.

I got that all-too-familiar horrible stomach-drop feeling I always get when I realize I've *really* screwed up. It's that "oh god I left something in the oven" or "oh god I left my purse on the plane (ahem: Mom)" feeling, and it is just about the worst feeling in the world. It makes me want to throw up and pass out at the same time, or just close my eyes and melt into a crack like Alex Mack. Hovering on the edge of sanity, I looked at the ticket again, and Mom looked as well. Within a few moments, we realized that I had indeed purchased two seats, they just printed out on one ticket. I'm sure this was the bright idea of some Italian bureaucrat trying to save money, but if that ticket had given me a heart attack and caused me to incur avoidable medical costs to the Italian health care system, it wouldn't have turned out to be much of a money saver, now would it? Anyway, crisis averted.

When we got on the train, we realized that not only were we in first class, we were also in the dining car. The dining car! I had never been in a dining car before. It was nothing like an airplane. The tables were set with simple but elegant places, and the food was quite good. The cost of lunch was not included with the ticket, of course, but it wasn't too overpriced and it was certainly convenient. Mom and I ate spaghetti and watched the Italian countryside roll by. As I had hoped, we even got a glimpse of the Alps in the distance.

The ride to Venice was not terribly long, only about two hours. We disembarked in Mestre, a suburb of Venice, to go to our little Bed and Breakfast. The place was actually in Spinea, which is the next town over, so we were going to have to take a short bus ride. I had been given (vague) directions by a woman named Morena, whom I *though* was the owner of the B&B. You'll soon discover just how helpful *she* turned out to be. I wandered around for a while looking for the number 6 bus, and finally realized we should have taken the exit on the other side of the station. We walked down a side street away from the station and finally came across a bus stop. I noticed there was a sign affixed to the bus stop pole, but ignored it in the hopes that it didn't say or mean what I was pretty sure it said and meant. I couldn't exactly read it, as it was in Italian, but it did have the exact day (Friday May 29) and time (3:00pm) we were standing there printed upon it, and what appeared to be a command to go to another bus stop. Various words were in all caps. It wasn't looking good. There was another man at the bus stop, and as I presumed he could speak Italian, and he wasn't moving, I thought I would take my chances and wait. We waited. For a while. An older lady came to wait. She stood a while, then looked at the sign, then stood a while longer, then walked off across the street. I grumbled to myself. Finally, the man took off in the same direction. He had tried to ask us a question a couple of times, but it didn't work out.

Finally, an angel of a woman came along. Believe me, I prayed to God to bless her that night. Blessings on that lady forever. There should be some kind of "blessings earned" scorecard (like a mudhouse punch card!) and she should get the whole thing filled up for life. There should be chads flying everywhere for this lady. She came to the bus stop, ostensibly to catch a bus, and saw us standing there confusedly. She didn't speak English, but as our predicament was pretty obvious, she tried to give us directions to the other stop. That didn't work out, so she actually *walked* us over to the other stop, about 4 blocks away in a funny diagonal line, then left us there and didn't even wait for the bus. I thanked her profusely, of course, and she was super nice.

Our bus came shortly after that, and we hopped on (ticketless- sorry God! We didn't know where to get tickets... but we bought extra rides later and didn't use them). As instructed by Morena's (crappy) directions, I asked the driver to let us off at the last stop of Chirignago, which I couldn't (and still can't) pronounce. He dropped us off, somewhere, and from there our only clue was the address of the place, which was Via L. Da Vinci. Now, I have good vibes for Signor Da Vinci, so I was feeling good about our chances of finding this place. Still, we were on a large thoroughfare with no other streets nearby, and no idea of which direction we should walk in. If I had a euro for every time hostel directions said to "walk 600m and see the hostel" but didn't tell me WHICH EFFING DIRECTION, well, I'd have a free night in Barcelona by now.

Fortunately, Mother and I are resourceful, and we saw a road sign that said "Spinea." Since our B&B was supposed to be in Spinea, we thought we'd best follow it. I tried to ask an old man doing yard work if he knew the Via Da Vinci, but had no luck. Before long we came across the *next* bus stop (the one at which we *actually* should have disembarked). Shortly after that, I spotted "Via Da Vinci" on the other side of the road. It was a quiet little lane of houses and we found number 10. Before we even reached the gate, a spry little Italian lady bounded out of the upstairs door of the house and sprung down to let us in. She showed us into the lower level of the house, which I soon understood we would have all to ourselves. It was decorated in typical little old lady fashion, and I was charmed by how many things seem to be the same amongst cute little old ladies, whether they're American or Italian. There were floral prints everywhere. The dust ruffles were out of this world. She had strange dried plant arrangements on the wall. The towels were sparkling white and bound together in a neat stack with a wide satin ribbon. She asked us not to set our (possibly dirty) suitcases on the gleaming white comforter of the day bed in our room. Mom and I each had a cute little twin bed. It looked like a room for a 9-year-old twin girls, who also happened to be porcelain dolls.

All was not well, however. I had originally booked 2 nights, Thursday and Friday, with La Zucca Dorata (which I *now* knew to be the actual name of the B&B). However, after looking closely at the schedules I had been forced to get realistic about the pace of things and realized it was impractical to try to make it to there Thursday night, after landing in Milan from Athens in the late afternoon. I emailed the woman I'd been in contact with, Morena, and told her I could only come for one night. The cancellation policy was 24-hours advance notice, and it was more than that. Also, I was keeping one night so it wasn't like I was canceling altogether. Since I'd sent the email, I hadn't had access to the internet, so I hadn't been able to check her response. Well. It turned out that my cancellation was not cool with Morena.

The delightful little old Italian lady didn't speak a word of English, and only very minimal french. I spoke almost no Italian, but I could understand what she was saying because as it turns out, many Italian words are also French words, they're just pronounced all Italian-like. Also, as it turns out, the little old Italian lady was *not* Morena. Morena worked at a "travel agency," and our host, the real owner of the place, just paid Morena a commission for the service of dealing with online bookings and communicating with people in other languages. Basically, our host had no problem with the cancellation, but the Morena chick said it wasn't okay and was demanding we pay for two nights. I tried to explain to our host that I had canceled in advance, and that I emailed Morena, but she didn't understand any of this. She called the "travel agency" so they could work as a translator for us. Morena, conveniently, was not in the office. Instead, one of her colleagues translated for the little old Italian lady. I told him my side of things, but he basically said he didn't care, it wasn't his job, and he hung up. The little old Italian lady was explaining to me (about 12 times) that she didn't care, if it were up to her, she would only charge us one night. It was *Morena* (who, apparently, is a mysterious Wizard-of-Oz type figure who never appears but must be feared and obeyed) who insisted we pay the extra. I finally decided it wasn't worth it and since I didn't want the nice old lady to get screwed over, I went ahead and offered her the cash for two nights. She looked at it and shook her head, moaning, in a universal expression of polite guilt, and refused to take it. She took the cash for one night and gave the rest back to me.

All this rigamarole took at least half an hour, and we were already exhausted from our long and complicated journey. Still, we wanted to at least *see* Venice last night, and the lady had told us that the shop selling bus tickets might close soon. It was nearly five o'clock when we left our cute little house and got on the bus to Venice. It was just a city bus, so the tickets were cheap and the ride short. Within 20 minutes we were pulling in to the Piazza Roma, the gateway to the old city. I was exhausted and strung out, of course, but I was excited to show Mom a place I knew she'd love. Venice really is totally unique. As stressed as I was, nothing beats the feeling of mounting the Ponte degli Scalzi for the first time and lingering in mid-air over the Grand Canal. I couldn't wait for Mom to see it. We climbed the bridge and I took her picture with the view of the Canal. We then walked down the other side, properly entering the labyrinth of Venice, and I promptly lost my mind.

I wasn't exactly surprised to find that I'd gone insane; the stress of the trip had been enormous, and I'd had a particularly difficult day. I wasn't even really concerned about my apparent insanity. I mean, after all, if you've gone insane, what more is there to worry about? It's all over, right? I felt as though I'd been freed of this burden of keeping it together. I'd always feared insanity (and hated things like Alice in Wonderland) because it's completely hopeless. If you don't even understand the basic laws of reality, you cannot hope to find your way back. I was pleasantly surprised to find that going insane was not horrible, but actually quiet a relief. I was slightly puzzled as to why it was at this moment--when things seemed finally to be going well--that I actually cracked, but it didn't bother me. I was sure, absolutely sure that I had lost my mind and there was nothing to do about it. How was I so sure? Well, I saw a face. A face that couldn't possibly be there. What's more, the face came with matching familiar clothes and even a giant backpack, and all of this was highly improbable. I'd been thinking about that face a lot, recently, and it was much more likely that it was a mirage conjured by my own feeble mental state than anything based in reality. The face said, "You've got to be kidding me," and I finally snapped out of it. I hadn't gone insane. Daniel was standing there, at the base of the Ponte degli Scalzi, looking at me in a very confused sort of way.

I crossed the distance between us very quickly, and there were many shocked exclamations on both sides. He had just arrived by train, from another town in Italy, and had been trying to find his way to a hostel when he turned around and saw me. He hadn't known I'd be in Venice that day, and I didn't know he'd be there, either. Even if one of us had tried to contrive something, it would have been impossible. Venice is a maze teeming with people, and we could have wandered around for days without running into each other. Our meeting was a complete accident, and it didn't take me very long to calculate the sheer volume of serendipity involved. Every delay, every setback, every frustration I'd encountered that day had led me to that bridge at that exact moment. I may never complain about Italian buses again. Maybe.


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