Personally Yours
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Personally Yours

The Trip To Europe: Part 4

Venice

“Take lots of baths in Venice!” yelled Mel from the taxi window as the Kingmans whirled off to catch their train for Switzerland. Parting briefly, each to pursue a divergent view of Europe, we were to be reunited two days later in Florence.

Mel wasn’t referring to the canals (although she may sorely have been tempted!), but to the room-with-a-bath awaiting Murff and me. Our travel agent friend, Jack Neuman, had booked us at a “better hotel” (one that had private baths), because he’d learned from unhappy clients that cheap rooms are particularly raunchy in Venice.

“People either love or hate Venice,” Jack had told us. “Usually it depends on whether the sun is shining.” We came into the Venice airport at night in a wet, dense fog, after having caught, in flight from Paris, a few glimpses of the Alps, snow-capped and remote, miles below us. The airport bus took us to the railroad station terminal, which was right across the street from our hotel. This wasn’t as convenient as it sounds because the “street” was the Grand Canal!

Our porter had to walk two blocks to the nearest bridge-of-steps, over which he laboriously hauled our luggage. Even so, he went at such a clip that we had to walk double-time to keep up with him, fearing he might disappear into the fog, leaving us stranded forever in one of our wildest dreams. The few furtive glimpses we caught of Venice as we scurried along were not to be believed.

To our relief, the porter led us to a brightly-lit hotel lobby where the room clerks spoke English. We were given an austere but deliciously new and clean room with its own shining bathroom. After our baths — we remembered Mel’s admonition and followed it to the letter! — we went out to have dinner and to explore. Queta had already informed us that our hotel was at the “wrong end” of the Grand Canal, away from St. Marks and the heart of Venice.

This was good news to Murff whose idea of world-traveling is to stay as far away as he can from sights and sightseers. (Came the dawn, we found sightseers from every country in the world stuffed into every nook and cranny of Venice, a city that is one vast “sight.”) We had a glass of grappa in a little outdoor cafe while a man at a nearby table — surrounded though he was by his entire family, including two small children — stared at me intently the whole time.

Murff had read about grappa in Hemingway, and we found it good. It was thick, fruity, and potent. Dinner — at still another cafe — was cheap, simple, and ample. For dessert, we were each served a bunch of grapes and some perfect pears and apples, in a large bowl of water. It was an Italian custom to which I became instantly and happily addicted.

Then we plunged again into the fog-shrouded city. We could hear the water slapping against the concrete sides of the canal, but we could barely see it. As we paused on top a bridge, gondolas, each with one tiny lamp in its prow, floated under us like ghosts. We walked down a street leading away from the canal, between old buildings. that looked like deserted factories. Our footsteps rang on the ancient stone pavement. Every few yards there was a dimly-lit sidewalk bar or cafe.

As we walked, men, singly or in groups, turned to stare at me, hard. The farther we went, the fewer the people, the more sinister became the scene, Suddenly, I was anxious to be back in our clean, snug, room. Next day, when we emerged from our hotel, the weather was still grey. But the fog had lifted, dispelling the air of Intrigue and leaving In Its place a tarnished fairyland.

Crumbling old villas were built directly on the canal. Many of the first floors — those on the water line — were boarded up. The encroaching water had obviously made them unfit for habitation.I kept remembering a line from a song in “Kiss Me Kate”: “Is she still drinking in her stinking pink palazzo?”

We took a ride on the water street car — the vaporetto — up the Grand Canal to St. Marco’s Square where we found hundreds of tourists feeding thousands of pigeons, a sight that did not bring us joy. We had foolishly gone off without breakfast though it was part of the price of our room. So we sat at a square-side cafe and were overcharged for coffee and a roll.

A band played semi-classical music and the crowd surged around taking photographs. There were cigar-smoking padres whose stomachs preceded them; hairy-legged women in sturdy walking shoes; and many couples who were surely newlyweds. The babble of many tongues mingled with the cooing of pigeons over the sleasy scene. “Let’s get out of here,” said Murff.

We started walking “inland”. At first, through narrow streets clogged with shoppers, we passed souvenir stands selling gaudy scarves and miniature gondolas. Next we passed a section of pretty cafes and elegant shops displaying fine clothing, Venetian glass, and objets d’art,

There was something for everyone — except us. So we kept on walking. And soon we had left the holiday crowd behind and had entered the workaday world of the Venetians. Women hung laundry from apartment windows, children played in inner courts, merchants dispensed their wares in little shops.

In the small canals which regularly dissected the streets, we saw delivery boats making their rounds and garbage boats at work. One boat was loaded with enormous raffia-wrapped wine kegs; another was weighted down to the gunnels with bricks and construction materials. We came finally to an open air market where rows of stands were piled high with fresh fish (including squid and octopus!), vegetables, and fruit in wild profusion. I could not look enough, and my heart filled with envy watching the Venetian women shopping for dinner.

We bought some of the great, deep, Navy-colored grapes we used to call “Concords” in the middle-West; Murff washed them off in a stream of fresh water from a fountain between two of the stands, and we ate them as we walked along. At a cafe in a tiny square, we stopped for a rest and watched children racing after muzzled dogs, old ladies stopping to gossip, women shoppers comparing purchases, and — at other tables — Italian men, reading their newspapers or gambling.

Hearing the beautiful Italian language as it filled the air in gay greetings — Buon giorno! — we felt inexplicably content. Sitting there at noon, with the sun vainly trying to come out, we were caught in the spell of Venice. Just as surely as, white, polished, sun-lit Paris had captured us two days before. The sun never did shine for us in Venice, and that night, as we boarded a vaporetto to dine on the Lido, the fog seemed even denser.

As we rode up the canal, the crumbling city became romantic and beautiful, shimmering mysteriously in the mist. Some of the lighted windows in the seamy-facaded villas we passed revealed richly-furnished apartments with gleaming chandeliers and painting-hung walls. I have concluded that in Italy, the people purposely — and, I believe, wisely — leave the outsides of their buildings to weather and add to the overall effect of antiquity.

The vaporetto was crowded and it was not my imagination that the eyes of all the men near me were fixed on my face. But by my second day in Italy, I was becoming more used to this extreme in male attention. (No one had to tell me; You don’t look back!) I had read in several travel guides that Italian men make a great sport of flirting, and that “if one is not careful, one is apt to get pinched.”

But nothing had prepared me for those bold, relentless — and impersonal — stares, from nearly every man of every age who passed me. The stares were sometimes accompanied with cold, half-smiles; others were sober, all business. Rather than feeling flattered, I felt nervous. Once Murff had left me sitting on a pile of luggage in a train station, and within seconds I was being circled and eyed, like a prey. Another time from a group of young men walking in the opposite direction, one peeled off and followed us some distance with an insinuating smile about his lips.“They can see I’m escorted,” I said to Murff. “What do they think will happen?” “Well,” said Murff, “maybe they think, ‘if not tonight, how about tomorrow nighť?”

He was being funny, but he may have been accurate. On the surface, at least, it would seem that most Italian males are constantly on the make — and the object of their casual and fleeting interest could be anyone, of any shape, age or description! One thing is certain. If they succeeded half as often as they tried, they wouldn’t have time to do all that woman-watching!

I want to add that I’ve only been talking about passing strangers, not the Italian men whom we met and to whom we talked during our visits to Venice, Florence and Rome, Those I found warm, charming, and gracious. Next week, I’ll tell you about our last — and magical — night in Venice.

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Judy Flander

Judy Flander

American Journalist. As a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., surreptitiously covered the 1970s’ Women’s Liberation Movement.