Wet in Venice: an unexpected gift in Italy

In October 2002, Bush and Cheney were gearing up to invade Iraq and I was encountering my first experiences as a not-so-welcome American in Europe. My whole trip had been carefully scripted, at least as far as where I’d sleep at night, but I’d left open the question of where to stay in Venice, the city I would fly home from. As I sat in the small office off the kitchen of the Tuscan farmhouse I’d been staying in, calling more and more places, the proprietress noticed I was hearing a lot of no’s. She took the phone, saying that she had a friend in Venice with an extra room who could probably use the money. “She’s had cancer, and I’d like to do her a favor,” she explained, already dialing. I was desperate, so the intervention was welcome.

Armed with a little slip of paper on which my Tuscan hostess had spelled out the unusually named Virginia’s address and phone number, I was off.

As it turned out, Virginia lived on a wide cobblestone square in the heart of Venice. Pulling my roller bag across the stones, the racket announcing my arrival, I could see that from this location I would be able to walk everywhere. Weeks earlier, on the flight to Italy, I’d met an elderly man who’d studied Venice, specifically its mosaic floors, his entire adult life. His face had filled with delight as he composed a list of the floors and places I must visit.

I pulled up to a stone building with a big glossy black door presenting a sturdy face to the square. I was buzzed into a foyer, with a notably nice floor, and walked up the steps to Virginia’s flat.Virginia opened the door onto a cozy and modern home. Shelves full of books lined the living area, with the flat tops of the shelves reserved for plants. Behind the plants were windows, opened at a slant. These were too high for me to look out of, but the plants must have had a nice view. There was a sofa, a coffee table with current magazines and a large farm table for dining. Beyond this was the tiniest kitchen I’ve ever seen — about three feet wide and four feet deep. Everything in it, including the refrigerator, was commensurately small. An eye-level window looked out on potted geraniums and other apartments.

My room was just off the main one, with the only bath to my right and her bedroom down a small hall to the left. The futon was already made up for me, with a little reading lamp on a low table nearby. There was just enough room for my suitcase on the floor alongside my bed. And there were more tall windows. Even standing on the futon I wouldn’t be able to see out. I could hear the sounds of the canal below though — water sloshing, gently slapping the building, and voices too, of children playing.

“Alberto will be home this evening,” Virginia said. Oh, there’s a husband, I thought, okay.

My hostess was about fifty-five years old. As I thanked her for making my room so comfortable, I searched her face for signs of illness. She seemed all right, even if her color was a little off.

She showed me how to heat water for instant coffee in the morning and placed a canister of “biscuits,” very plain cookies, on the table for my morning breakfast.

And so my first afternoon in Venice began. I made my way down narrow alleys, up and down steps, pausing to look into shop windows, and I felt like I’d been there before. Not déjà vu, but deja merchandise. This was the exact same stuff I’d seen in my grandparents’ home as a child, things they’d picked up on their travels here: gilt trays of gold, red, and green, blown glass birds, “paintings” made of tiny stones. Suddenly those things that had seemed precious and unique, some of which I now owned, seemed like very expensive knick-knacks, souvenirs Venice had been foisting off on tourists for decades.

As I walked along the canals, lined with picturesque businesses and homes, watching the water lap against the buildings, I noticed that mildew was growing up the sides of some. The place was soggy at its roots, decaying, but putting up a good front. I visited Saint Mark’s Square, had my picture taken amidst the pigeons that have overrun the place, and paused for a rest.

“Could this be?” I wondered. “I really don’t like Venice?” This was an unacceptable conclusion to reach, especially so quickly. I walked along the Grand Canal and looked at the anchored yachts with their matching helicopters. The Canal view was lovely, but I was unmoved. I walked further and further but a feeling that this was a fake place, like Las Vegas or Disneyland, was growing. I decided to review the list provided me by the lover of floors. I would faithfully follow it the next day.

When I returned to the flat, I met Alberto — an environmental engineer working on plans for a massive project that it was hoped would someday provide a shield that would rise and fall with the tides, protecting Venice from periodic flooding.

That night a mosquito was trapped in my room. I turned on the light and went through the routine of trying to see and smash it. And though I washed my hands after visiting the bathroom, they smelled like prosciutto back in my room — Alberto’s favorite, smeared on the bathroom doorknob.

The next day I ate cookies for breakfast, and then — why not? — gelato for lunch. This would become a daily habit. Since it was Alberto and Virginia’s place and Virginia seemed to stay at home, I felt obligated to vacate the flat all day. No afternoon rest, just walking and walking, all day. Fueled by sugar and a determination to like this damp place, I located an English-language bookstore and zeroed in on this title: “The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed,” by Mary McCarthy. “Ah,” I thought, “this will help me.”

Little did I know that Ms. McCarthy hadn’t bought Venice either, though it had lots to sell in her day and apparently had for centuries. I read that it was basically a place created by vendors — a playground destination made purposefully pretty in order to lure people in to buy expensive trinkets and entertainment, including the courtesanal kind. It really had been a forerunner of Las Vegas. I felt vindicated, but not happy.

I pursued the list. Two of the places suggested by the floor-lover improved my feelings about Venice, in part because they were relatively dry. One was the Scuola Grande dei Carmini, one of the guilds dating from the thirteenth century where artisans had learned, perfected and practiced their crafts. The other was the Peggy Guggenheim Collection museum. Its pebbled walkways, trees and gardens were as important to me as its works by Calder. It was one of the few places in Venice where I saw a profusion of plants growing in earth.

That night I was invited to join a dinner party. Virginia and Alberto jostled each other in the kitchen, preparing clams. Alberto was a very large man — tall and top heavy. Though he occupied a lot of space, he had a surprisingly high, sweet and melodic voice, and he giggled often, which made me able to forgive him for the prosciutto-slimed doorknobs.

Their friends arrived and we sat down to eat. This was splendid — candlelight, fresh pasta with clam sauce, red Italian table wine, real Venetians… Only I was on the menu too. Virginia set the tone with a passionate statement about the war the US was about to begin, and the intense suffering we would cause. Only much later would I learn that the Senate had passed a resolution that very day authorizing war. Everyone stared at me, expecting answers. They were as brainwashed as I once was that average Americans could actually deter someone like Bush and those behind him from their agenda. I stumbled through a highly unprepared statement: “I agree with you — I can’t stand Bush’s policies…”

But it was clear that Virginia had experienced the hardships of war’s aftermath as a child. She was furious, my clams were gritty, and it was a relief to escape to my little room. On this night I could not only hear the water outside, I could smell it. Sumpy. This place was sopping wet and rotting. And my only friend, the mosquito, had unfortunately not chosen to abandon me.

The next morning, Virginia was kind again, and gave me a ticket to a piano concert at San Giorgio Maggiore church. She also leant me her thigh-high rubber boots so I could slog through St. Mark’s Square at high tide. It was amusing to traverse the square thus clad, but as I did so, I realized I was weary of so much water.

I awoke the next day feeling very ill. I had a high fever, and was weak. No walkabout today. The next day, I felt worse. I huddled in my little room, hearing the water splish-splash, smelling it, feeling terrible, too wiped out to read, with nothing to do but sleep, take my temperature, and worry. It must have been the fever, because I don’t recall ever crying before over being sick. But I cried, and tried to hide this fact when Virginia knocked on the door and brought me tea. She could see I was disheartened, and I felt a sympathy from her I now attribute to her experience of being sick — sick with cancer, sick with the discouragement that illness brought. She quietly left and I cried some more, convinced I would die there and be buried on San Michele, the soggy graveyard island I’d seen on my way to Murano.

Later that day Virginia returned. She’d been out, she’d bought a bone, and she’d made broth for me. I needed to eat, she said, so I could get strong enough for my flight home, the day after next.

The next day, in spite of the morose place I’d descended to, I did feel a bit better. Virginia brought me more bone broth and a few crackers this time. And jewelry. She wanted me to have a necklace of hers: it was made up of twenty-four intertwined strands of tiny glass beads, the beads mostly blues and reds. The beads were similar to what we call “Indian beads” but finer, smaller and deeply colorful. She told me they were very special beads, endemic to Venice, and that she was only telling me this so that I’d know they were special. The necklace had a gold clasp. She also gave me a delicate chain bracelet with black oblong beads because she’d noticed I tended to wear dainty jewelry.

I slid my suitcase nearer, quickly dug out my little jewelry bag and produced a necklace for her — round onyx balls encased in silver, hanging from a thick silver chain. The look of joy on her face still makes me happy.

A year or two later, I received an email from Alberto. Virginia was dead. Having survived several bouts with cancer, over a period lasting more than a decade, she’d finally succumbed.

It took me many years to start wearing that necklace. Now it is one of my favorite things. I think of her when I put it on, and the bone broth she made, and how she helped me become well.

Suzanne Stroot cut her travel teeth watching thousands of childhood miles stream by the backseat window of a Plymouth station wagon. Though she likes the vantage point of traveling as an adult far more, she wouldn’t trade those early experiences for anything. Suzanne is now a writer based in Northern California.

[Photos: Flickr | Kent Mercurio; Kiernan Lynam; gnuckx; sirgini; gnuckx]