When one travels to foreign lands, one must accept that certain things are going to be different than that to which whatever one might have become accustomed. My girlfriend and I have a travel routine, for example, that involves the morning ritual of rising and preparing to meet the day. She is not a prude, but she does appreciate receiving a certain amount of privacy as she prepares herself, so it has been our custom for me to rise early, shower, dress and go get her a nice hot cup of tea. After bringing tea to her in the room, I go for my own coffee and read a newspaper or watch the lobby tube while she readies herself.
In North America, this routine is easily accommodated, as breakfast buffets that are entirely self-serve predominate and in-room coffee and tea are also common. But in Italy, it was not such an easy thing to do. Although breakfast in our hotel was always buffet style, coffee or tea had to be ordered through a waiter or waitress after one was seated, then one could avail oneself of the buffet offerings. Seeing this in operation and knowing that it really didn’t suit our preferred style, I asked the concierge if it would be possible for me to bring a cup of tea to my partner in our room. I was really hoping for a “nothing could be easier” response, alas, I discovered that the idea of me bringing a cup of tea to my partner caused a considerable stir.
The concierge said that she would have to consult her “colleague,” the kitchen manager. The kitchen manager had to consult the head waiter. The head waiter had to bring in the bellboy. As the four of them stood discussing this difficult request, the concierge spoke to me in an aside from the stridently whispered, four-way conversation. She said, “I’m sure we can bring tea to your room in a while.” No doubt there are some people who would simply say “fine” and let room service charges pile up like old newspapers, but not me. I intervened in the conversation. I raised my hands in surrender and told them that I could see that my request was out of the normal order of the way they did things and that they needn’t trouble themselves further, that we would adjust to their way of doing things. That seemed to soothe them all and after briefly ruffling their feathers with my request, their dining room returned to its sedate tradition.
I went back to the room and told my partner about the incident. She agreed that travelling did sometimes require adjustments of expectations and we coped for the rest of the week.
Late in the week, I arose at 6:45, earlier than normal, and went down to the waiting room to read the morning news. I was dismayed to see that the day’s newspapers had not yet arrived, so I contented myself with a British paper I had overlooked the day before. At 6:55 the day’s stack of newspapers was brought to the front desk and the concierge initialled for having received the delivery. Although the concierge had acknowledged my presence and could clearly see me reading yesterday’s news in the waiting room, the stack of papers remained on the front counter, presumably until a bellboy would notice them and take them eight feet to the dedicated table in the waiting area. Risking a reprimand for interfering with their process, I simply transferred the stack myself and grabbed the NY Times International Edition as my reward.
Despite those small quibbles with service traditions, Venice was everything I hoped it would be. No, it was not built by Disney Enterprises. It was built by desperate people who, in 452, correctly felt that Attila the Hun’s seemingly insatiable urge to slaughter people would not extend itself out onto the mosquito-infested mud flats of the Adriatic lagoon. On the relative safety of those mud flats, a people slowly built a city and a way of life unlike any other in the world. Today, much of their way of life amounts to entertaining and providing for the visitors who want to see what Venetians do and how they do it.
Tourism is a mixed blessing for the Venetians. It pours money into the economy, but because of the throngs who daily shuffle through the calles and amuse themselves by dipping through the sorto portegoes and stroll along the rivas and fondamentas, or perch in crowded numbers atop the few arched bridges that span the Grand Canal, Venetian life seems to have become about the tourists, how they might be cared for and how they may provide profit. It’s a fair exchange, but one wonders how genuine anything might be in this sort of bargain.
Want to buy a “genuine” Venetian paper maché mask for Carnivale, the Venetian version of Mardis Gras? Street vendors almost all over Venice will sell you one for €5 or $7.50 CDN. Inside the mask will be a sticker that attests to its genuineness. I do not quote verbatim, but paraphrasing, it says, “This is a genuine Venetian mask made in the traditional Venetian style using paper maché, decorative colours and ornamentation. Made in PRC. (People’s Republic of China). Ditto for much of the famous Murano glass.
But the architecture, the design sensibility, the art, the culture, the food, the wine, the people and their unique way of life are all Venetian. Still, everyone stands in awe as giant cruise ships slide into and out of port, mostly down the wide Giudecca Canal, but sometimes docking along the north shore too. The ships tower over and dominate all the surrounding architecture and because each ship unloads many thousands of passengers, when several ships are in port the whole nature of the city changes to become long streams of gawking or grumbling people following their own tour guide’s flag, with their ears attuned only to what the tour guide is narrow-casting to their earphones so that they won’t “miss” anything along their bought-and-paid-for journey. I do not say this pejoratively. I’ve taken my share of guided tours and I have not forsworn them. But this time I enjoyed the relaxed pace of sitting on a stone step in a campo or piazza as tour parades trouped through. I was glad I was not trouping with them as I casually got myself outside a few ‘balles’ of gelato and listened as a street-busking lute player got in touch with his Renaissance-inspired, inner-muse.
Yes, the essence of Venice is water, but a corollary to that is in the reflected light that moving water imparts and in the constant background sound of lapping or sloshing water almost always within ear-shot. Water seems to soften nearly everything. It softens the bricks, stones and mortar used in Venetian architecture, it slows transport, it may even soften people’s tempers. Though I saw disagreements, I saw no outbursts of temper while there. A coincidence? Perhaps. Maybe water soothes the psyches of souls just as it smooths stone edges and roughness. Maybe we all need Venice to be a part of our awareness, even if it remains only imagined and tucked away in our consciousness.
I haven’t travelled very much in life, but a couple years ago I bravely touched the marked centre of Paris. It was an act that was said to ensure that I would one day return to Paris. I have my doubts about that. Though I never touched any such token of luck in Venice, I know that Venice is the kind of city that instead will travel with me – forever in my mind, my heart, my spirit.