Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Caffe, and the Vaporetto

So there I was last Sunday morning, on the bus heading into Vicenza for a day being a quiet tourist. This is something I really enjoy, and do frequently ... just go somewhere and start to hang out. Look at the posters on walls. See what people are eating (yum!). Read a bit of my guide-book and decide (or not) to try my frantic and marginally-accurate Italian and actually DO something. You see, when you live in your head as much as I am doing here, with a very limited ability to talk to people, it is just amazing what you can do with the grammar of another language. Particularly one that seems sort of familiar, but really isn’t!

Chef had me working on octopus yesterday and there I was, sawing at tentacles and muttering ‘polpo, polpo’ to myself. At least that’s what I was trying to do. Polpo is octopus. But somehow one of the ‘p’s went south on me, and Sylvia and Chef watched and listened for a few seconds then burst into laughter. For a while they would, or could, not tell me what was so damn funny about me cutting up an octopus. I have done this, and worse, to octopi in the past. But there I was, cutting away and whispering ‘chicken, chicken’ (pollo, pollo’) to myself. The Italians, who value their lovely, expressive and musical language will all be tremendously relieved when I get on someone’s plane to leave for good.

Anyway, having snuggled comfortably into my bus seat for the ride into Vicenza I was nodding off in the sunshine when I felt my phone buzz and heard its annoying ring. “It is morning. Who on earth can that be?” I thought to myself. Canada is 6 hours behind me ... everyone is asleep (or should be). I glanced at the tiny screen without having my glasses on and it seemed to say $%*^ &($@@. I didn’t know that person so I answered, and it turned out to be another ALMA student, placed in Brescia, who was on the train into Venezia and wanted to know if I would like to join him for an overnight in the city, do some touristy things and just hang around, share thoughts in English and have a drink or six. At least, that’s how he put it.

In Vicenza the bus station is right beside the train station, so saying ‘yes’ and joining Chris on the train was simple. I just had to get off the bus, walk over to the train station, find out which train he was on and buy a ticket for it. Chris and I just texted and called back and forth about 5 times, and I wound up buying a second-class seat on the EuroStar Inter-City train that was due to arrive in 25 minutes and take me to Venezia. This gave time for a caffe.

A coffee in a shop here in Italy is not the long, drawn-out social ritual that it seems to have become in urban Canada; no long line-ups, no anemic swill in a cup. In Italy, from the most refined coffee bar to the ‘AutoGrill’ (the pull-off restaurants on the Autostrades), there is a simple ritual. Walk in, go to the bar and just glance at the bartender. Say ‘caffe’ (ca-fey’), and an expresso will appear in front of you within 20 seconds, often faster. Want a drink with milk? Say ‘cappuc’ (ca-pootch’), and within the same 20 seconds a lovely cappuccino will be plonked down in front of you. Now THAT’S service, and it is good coffee. Never in a plastic or paper cup. You are expected to drink the coffee within about 45 seconds, and then go and pay for it. The going rate seems to be about €.90 for a caffe, and €1.30 for a cappuc’.

There was time for two. :>)

So here I was on a train with my friend Chris, heading towards Venezia. He was SO loaded down with clothes, and his computer. He was staying three days. As he pointed out, he had three pair of shoes with him, just so he could always match properly. Chris said he’d found a hotel right near Piazza San Marco (the central tourist area, right with the Duomo facing it, around the corner from the Bridge of Sighs. It had a bit of a reputation as a dive ... but it was close to San Marco, only a two-minute walk.

We tried to check into the hotel, but were told that he had a room (he’d reserved it), but I could not share the room. No. Not at all. It was forbidden. The. End.

But they had one room left. A small room. Upstairs. A very small room. It did not have its own washroom or shower. But it was available. €60 a night. OK, I said, let’s see the room (knowing that unless it was a cot hung over the canal I’d take it). Well, up went the clerk to check the room, but he came back and with a small sigh and sad smile said that he could not FIND the room. I thought to myself ‘Who takes a room with them? You can’t steal the whole room’. The clerk explained that he had just started working at the hotel, and that the room numbering, like everything else (particularly addresses) in Venezia, sequence was non-existent. I said OK, I’ll take the room as long as it is there when I arrive later. I smiled and was assured that the room would be found for me. Inquiries would be made.

I don’t know about anyone else reading this, but does that last paragraph sound ridiculous?

Chris and I wandered off and did touristy things ... went into the Duomo and were simply stunned ... and up the Campanile and were ... simply stunned ... all of Venezia is stunning. Just don’t pay too much attention to the odours from the ‘canali’ (canals). The main part of Venezia, built long ago on islands in a muddy swamp at the mouth of a river, a site selected for protection from invading hordes of Visigoth looters, has NO cars (or trucks or busses or anything on wheels that is not worked by human power). Want to go somewhere? Take a good pair of shoes and start hoofing. Or take a gondola (only for tourists ... the locals would never use them ... too slow). Or the vaporetto (water-bus).

As Chris and I wandered around and got lost all over the place, we found two places several times ... the Rialto bridge, and a theatre that is the home of the Venice opera school. There was an affable young man at the entrance to the opera school, obviously selling tickets, and we tried, in our mangled Italian, to ask for directions. He replied in perfect Manchester English (he is a visiting student) and, after giving us advice, suggested that we buy a couple of tickets. Chris and I said to each other ‘when else are we going to have the chance to go to a Baroque opera in Venice, in full costume?’ That was quick ... we walked away with two student tickets (only €20 apiece) and instructions on where to find a good pre-opera dinner for cheap. We took advantage of the dining advice and found a lovely bar run by two ex-pat Japanese guys, and an Indian and a Chinese post-graduate business student! The language in the bar was a mixture of all their home languages, Italian and some creative hieroglyphics, I think. We walked in, thought we made an comprehensible order in Italian and were immediately replied to in perfect English, three different accents, all clamouring to be heard at once!

The bar was fine, the language a huge clamour, and fun for all.

Then we went to the opera, in the gorgeous old hall designed by Baldassarre Longhena, decorated by painters from the 17 and 18 centuries. It was an evening to remember. Everyone in the presentation wore 18th century costume, including full horsehair wigs and, for the ladies, full hooped skirts. The orchestral instruments were using modern strings, but the orchestration was true to period ... a harpsichord (2 manuals), a cello, a bass, two violins, a viola, an oboe, a transverse flute and an English horn. What absolutely perfectly balanced music for the room! The singers sang, the players played, and the audience ... of about 400 ... applauded wildly for a great set of performances, and we all ... sweated. The room has never been fitted with fans or any way to change the air, and there was a street festival going on outside, so the windows were at least partially closed! And it was a warm night.

We had to get back to the hotel, or into the area, after the concert because Venezia closes up fairly early (unless you want to move into a tourist hotel and pay through the nose). We asked the Manchester gent what the best way to get back was, and he said “Take the vaporetto”, and gave directions to find it. We did. It turned out that it was actually the highlight of our trip ... for €6.50 Chris and I each had a full frontal view, for almost an hour, from the vaporetto as we went up and down various canals. The Grand Canal is an entire civic statement. You can see the power and might of this ancient place. The other canals are as interesting, each with their little treasures or vignette.

Then the vaporetto leaves the Grand Canal and heads out into the open Adriatic, for a moment, before heading back into the fabled city, and it is a view to hold and treasure all one’s days. This is a city that knows things, that has seen a lot of history, has made so much itself ... one of the first places to try and understand what ‘the other’ was all about. Marco Polo came back here from Cathay and the land of the Great Khan, and tore open his clothes to have the riches of the orient spill onto the floor of the Doge’s palace from his sundered seams. And European culture has rarely looked back. This is the actual home of so much of all of western history and culture: It is, truly, awesome.

Then reality strikes ...

Back to the hotel, where my room had been found. No one could explain where it had been, and no one could explain where it was. I had to be shown.

And it was small. It had no loo or running water. It certainly was not in sequential order. But it was the last room in the hotel, and it was within 2 minutes walk of the piazza, so I honestly did not care. My options were really none and nil.

I checked into the hotel with no papers (no passport), and no luggage at all. Just the clothes I had on my back, my guidebook and my sunny optimism. The hotelier was suspicious. I reminded him that I had waited for him until the room was found, since it had been lost, and we each had a genteel little chuckle about that. He took my Monarch Park Collegiate staff ID card as sufficient proof that I am who I claimed to be, and said ‘Good night, gentlemen, pay in the morning’.

We collapsed.

In the morning I had time to go for a quiet walk in the piazza before any tourists got there, and was delighted to find myself in the company of the garbage collectors, several flinty-eyed seagulls and one open coffee bar. I ordered the usual ... caffe ... and was charged €2.50 for it.

The hotel offered breakfast with our rooms, so I went back and woke Chris up. We enjoyed breakfast together, then I said good-bye, as he was staying for another day, and I had to get back to Cogollo and get to work by 4 in the afternoon!

Away I went, into the labyrinthine tangle of Venezia, and emerged exactly where I wanted to be ... at the Rialto bridge. This gave opportunity to do a little tourist shopping for Gail. Then off to St. Lucia station and take the train home.

What a week-end

Please come for a visit ... I’d be thrilled to speak English (or French) with you, and show you the little of Venezia I have been enchanted by. We could go for a vaporetto ride together! Or go to the opera.