It was mysteriously foggy that late morning in the ‘Veneto Prefecture’ on my December Birthday Eve. The kind of baffling mist you see in movies where you can just see far enough to grasp what MIGHT lie ahead. I was on the ‘just warm enough’ 2nd class train heading to Venice to explore the city for a couple days. It was my second time visiting, of which the first time, I was a mere 18 years old on a 6 month hitchhiking trip through Europe. It was a short ride from Vicenza where I was staying with my wonderful Aunt and Uncle. “Zia” my Aunt was a ‘Master’ cook in my opinion and “Zio” my Uncle was a ‘Classic’ traditional suit-wearing gentleman. Nestled in my train seat, I was reading my very useful Italian Tour Guide book about all the sites in Venice and exploring the detachable map with all it’s historic landmarks. I knew this was going to be an epic adventure I’d never forget and I could not have been more spot on. Just the alluring and symbolic weather was enough to say “THIS is exactly why you travel Little Missy”. All I had was my day-pack stuffed with the travel guide, water bottle, some cash, toothbrush, and a change of clothes and undies. Short excursions didn’t need much! I was so excited!
I arrived at the Venezia Santa Lucia train station and just followed the hoards of people to the outside doors, and to think this was solely winter tourism! I could not imagine what summer would be like in the sticky humidity forming from the sea breeze. I decided right then and there that I would only visit Venezia in the off season as I did with many other countries. The minute you step outside those train station doors…POOF…it’s as if you have drifted into a Fellini dream dated back to the 18th century but with all the modern amenities. IT.WAS.SO.LOVELY and within minutes it became my favorite romantic city in the whole world and still remains so to this day….for more than one reason!
As I began to wind my way through the tapered passages and patchwork colored buildings to my end destination of Piazza San Marco Square, I was lost within myself and living each moment of each breath of my extraordinary “passeggiata”. THE STROLL as it’s referred to in Italiano. Piazza San Marco is an Iconic Square and still the most popular gathering place in all Venezia dating as far back as the 12th century and is dominated by the awe-inspiring St. Mark’s Basilica. It was a slow paced 30 minute stroll but I wanted it to last forever. Time stood still as I lingered through the passages and made my way over those narrow bridges that the gondolas passed under. I quickly realized a map was useless, so I was lead by my heart and soul instead. You could hear gondoliers in the faint hollows of the canals “canta” their songs of heritage with perfect pitch and tempo. It was a musical moment embedded into my mind which I can play over and over again like a broken record of love.
Alas I arrived at Piazza San Marco and after breathing it all in, with pigeons and tourists and sculptures and marble and and and and…..I made my way towards the open sea and the Bridge of Sigh. I found a small bench to relax on and rest my feet while I got out my travel guide and began to read. There was one short paragraph after the hotel information part that read something like “If it were the Off Season and you were lucky enough to meet a Gondolier who may have taken the winter off, and you were to make friends with that person, you would have an excellent tour guide to show you the city”. I remember thinking to myself wouldn’t that be an awesome stroke of good Karma when all of a sudden there was a shadow cast in front of me and an unfamiliar Italian voice spewing sentences in those delectable rolling r’s and musical like words. I was a bit startled having been engrossed in my guide pages, but when I looked up, there stood DON JOHNSON of Miami Vice…or at least at first glance! He was a wavy haired blonde, with blue eyes and a huge smile wearing a beautiful golden brown leather bomber type jacket in tight ass Italian jeans and nice brown shiny soft leather boots. My jaw must have dropped because my book nearly did too, as I fumbled. He continued on talking and finally I made out that he was asking if I needed help or directions or something…I had to pull myself out of my WTF coma and think.
In my minuscule Italian I explained that he needed to talk slower and that I was NOT Italian but in fact American…and from that mini conversation, and both of our 2 big smiles, our friendship was created in a memory flash. And of all things, at that very moment the SUN peeked out from behind the misty sky’s and shined so brightly over the Venetian sea I had wished I’d had my California shades. But it was then that I got a really good look at this man and a face I would NEVER forget. Roberto was his name and he was as charming as God had intended to make the Italian Stallion. We most certainly had that tiny sparkle that lovers often share.
As best we could between my broken Italian and his tourist English we made an instant bond. I explained that I had a couple days in Venice and that at midnight I turned 30 years old (kinda like my own Cinderella story, lol). Turned out he was also 30 years old. I explained in hand gestures and small words that I didn’t know anyone or anywhere to stay and in that 5 minute conversation he made it his mission to show me HIS city and take care of all the trivial details. In fact, from a GONDOLIERS point of view…yep, JACKPOT! Can you believe my luck? And to my good fortune, he had taken the winter holidays off! DRUM ROLL PLEASE… the excitement had just begun…Thank You guide book…AND THANK YOU UNIVERSE!
First he assured me he had a place for me to sack out. He had a good friend with an apartment in the historic center (with a hide-a-key) that was used just for out-of-town guests and not to worry I’d be safe and it was free, but that we should see the city and all it’s glory before it got dark. He began to steer me everywhere like a dust storm in the desert and I was mesmerized by his knowledge and his charismatic mastery. He explain the history of places, where Mussolini had visited, bits about Carnevale and the hierarchy of the Venetian ‘Old’ money. He borrowed his friend’s Gondola and gave me a short ride across the canal and sang the whole way…I was in Italian Heaven.
He made me try all sorts of little delectable “appertivo” snacks and warming winter beverages in little unknown local taverns. Sometimes he gently took my hand as we passed through the tiny shoulder width passages. At Sunset, we passed through one of the most micro walkways yet, and he stopped to explain to me the reason for the iddy bitty walking tunnels was to Keep the Drunks standing upright and for the Lovers to walk in embrace….then he took my hand and began to sing ” TORNA SORRENTO” and it echoed through the pass. That was the first time I remember hearing that song and quickly it became my all time favorite Italian “Canzone”.
As we exited that tight space, where our bodies were tightly wound together like rope, in a flash of fresh air he gently whirled me around like an Italian dance, held me tight against his body, looked into my eyes and said in his deep Italian romantic voice “Tu Sei Bellissima” You Are Beautiful….and he settled his moist lips upon mine and gave me a kiss that most scholars and historians would have written about. I recall looking up at the sky just a moment after our kiss and it was just then that the sun had lowered itself into the ocean and the moon began to appear through the reoccurring mist of the Venetian sky’s.
10 years ago I went to Venice to visit my relatives and took an excursion to Venice with my cousin, who was a student at the University of Venice. I told him this story as we were walking and when we turned a corner over a tiny bridge…there was Roberto, on a gondola and all I could do was to yell ROBERTO, he turned around smiled and waved. My cousin was in shock, but unfortunately we never had a chance to catch up and talk as he glided his tourists down the water ways. And it didn’t matter…all that mattered was my story. I went to Venice again January 2016 and without much trouble (asking other gondolier’s where to find him) managed to locate Roberto at the World Famous Rialto Bridge where he continues to glide down the canals in his gondola. We had a lovely conversation together, talked about our lives and smiled and laughed. 26 years had passed and although we were both middle aged and lived lives with different trials and tribulations, we both still manage to have that tiny sparkle as we glanced deep into each others eyes remembering the past of our youth.
True story! OK, so I embellished a little…but in my heart it will remain just like it’s written.