Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Trials of the Travelers. . .

Part 3

As we watched the conductor thumb through the pages in his book, we became more and more concerned. Our eyes shifted between one another’s and watching the conductor. If this train didn’t stop in Venice, it probably would cross the border into what was then communist Yugoslavia. We were dependents of U.S. military personnel. That would mean crossing a border without proper papers or permission to do so. That would get the government involved and probably wouldn’t have been pleasant.

“Ah, bene, bene,” the conductor finally said after about a millennia had passed. He held the book out and pointed with a finger to an entry that read “Venezia, arrivo 20:47”.

Whew! We thought. But what kind of conductor didn’t even know that the train he was on was going to Venice? We never knew the answer to that question, but at least we were on the right train!

The rest of the train trip was quiet and uneventful and when we pulled into Venice station, we were back in the land of cold and rain. It was dark as we looked out the glass doors of the train station and we didn’t have a clue where we would stay the night.

We were standing there discussing some possibilities when an ancient little Italian man came up to us. He was about 5 foot tall on a good day and looked particularly frail. He was wearing a very nice looking navy blue blazer that was a bit worn at the cuffs and white slacks and a white captain’s hat that had a navy blue band around it that read “Hotel Olimpia”.

“You signorina’s looking for place to stay”, he said in heavily accented English. “Hotel Olympia, molto bene, very good. Special price for you”.

My friend and I looked at one another, trying to access the situation. On one hand, we didn’t have a clue as to where to stay. On the other hand, we didn’t know this guy from Adam. On yet another hand, he was offering a solution.

“Let’s find out where this hotel is,” I tell my friend. She is busily looking around the train station for some help.

He understood what I said and started gesturing out the door and pointing to the left. “L'hotel è 1 blocco giù questa via il a sinistra,” he said, indicating the hotel was just one block to the left. I felt pretty good about that, but my friend wasn’t so sure.

“I know exactly where he wants to take us,” I said. I was so tired and cranky by this time that I probably wouldn’t have noticed if he led us to a box to sleep in. “Look, if he tries to take us anywhere other than where he told us, we can come right back here,” I told her.

As I stated before, he looked pretty feeble to me and I was sure that if he led us astray we could take him.

“Prezzo molto speciale, appena per voi,” he kept repeating, gesturing us toward the door. Very special price, just for you.

My friend finally nodded yes, but it was a very reluctant yes. Her eyes told me that if anything happened to us, she would kill me that is after whoever else got through killing us. I had to laugh, which didn’t really help any.

When he realized we were going to follow him, before we could stop and think he grabbed both of our duffel bags and started striding toward the door! Those things were heavy and here was this feeble little man hefting them without even breathing hard! We had to step lively to keep up with him.

True to his word though he led us to the Hotel Olimpia, which was exactly where he said it was. My friend sighed in relief—a huge sigh in fact. I laughed at her and followed the little man into the hotel. All these years later, after being shaped by today’s society I get chills thinking about how trusting we were. Ok, make that how trusting I was!

The Hotel Olimpia was a very interesting place. The registration desk was in a beautiful foyer. This building was probably at least a hundred years old, relatively young by Venetian standards, and had gorgeous woodwork and paneling. There were the requisite potted palms in the corners and we could see and very nice dining room to the left. Which was closed. And we were hungry.

The very special price turned out to be about 30 mille, which at the time was about 40 dollars American. That was a great price. After signing in the book and getting our key, the little man again grabbed our bags and started down a hallway to an elevator; a very small and somewhat rickety looking elevator, which didn’t really look capable of carrying 3 adults and two huge duffel bags anywhere.

When we got off the elevator on the 4th floor, he led us down the hallway and we crossed over into another building. This one was really old. Still clean, but definitely worn, from the carpets to the paneling, age was telling its own story.

He came to a set of double doors and unlocked them for us. Inside was a small, neat room with two small twin beds. Hey, it was better than a box!

We gave him a tip and he left us. We decided the first thing on our agenda was something to eat, since we hadn’t taken time in Florence for lunch and we were starving. It was around 10:30 at night, and other than a few clubs you had to know the location of (and we didn’t) we knew it wouldn’t be easy to find something to eat.

We started off on our exploration of possible eateries. Along the way we ran into two American college boys who were getting ready to catch a water taxi out to the isle of Lido, where there were lots of casinos. They tried hard to convince us to go with them, but frankly we were just too tired. They did take us to the place where they had just eaten. It was a small place, sort of like a sports bar. We sat down at an empty table, which wasn’t hard to find since they were all empty. There were red-checkered tablecloths draped over the tables and drippy candles lighted and burning softly in the center of each table. We realized as we looked around that we were sitting in a tourist place, but we were so hungry we didn’t care.

We each ordered a hamburger, fries and a coke. They tasted about as good as a worn carpet, but they were reasonably warm and filling and cost 35 mille, more than the hotel room! But when we left there, it had stopped raining. The air was still cool and sort of misty, and we looked out over the Grand Canal and watched a vaporatto, Venice’s’ equivalent to a city bus system chug down the canal toward its next stop, the Rialto Bridge.

The Grand Canal is almost magical; teeming with every type of floating conveyance, motorized or not. The smells of Venice, particularly the Grand Canal reminded me of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Redolent and pungent with the smell of fish, water, and wood that has been exposed to the water for a long time; it was a smell that was pervasive, intense and for some reason made me feel so alive. Yes, there were undertones of rotting fish and vegetation, of sewage and heaven only knew what else. You either loved the smell or you hated it, there didn’t seem to be any middle ground where the smells of Venice were concerned.

We walked slowly back to our hotel, meandering along the street that followed the Grand Canal. Farther down the canal in the opposite direction the Rialto Bridge was visible, brightly lighted and we could hear music coming from it, something lively and we could imagine people dancing to it. It was 11:30 on a Thursday night and we were in Venice, Italy! Life is amazing.

When we got back to the Olimpia, we went up to our room with the intent of taking hot showers and crawling into bed. My friend gathered her toiletries and the towel that is provided by the hotel and headed off to the shower room. She was back a minute later and said the door was locked. I asked her if someone was in there and she said she didn’t think so. The wing of the hotel we were staying in was pretty deserted. They probably didn’t have too many others willing to pay the “very special price, just for you” as we did. Actually they were probably just more prepared.

We wondered if maybe you needed a key and so we went down to the lobby to ask the desk clerk if you needed a key. No, he told us, no showers after 10:00 pm. It might disturb the other guests!

We reluctantly went back to our room, resigned to crawling into our beds feeling worn and icky, which we did. It was very quiet in our wing, and if there were anyone else in it, we certainly couldn’t hear them.

The doors to our room swung out toward the hall. There was about a half inch gap between them. We laid there in bed laughing about that, how secure we were. About that time someone else came down the hall, to use the restroom which was across the hall. The slight movement of someone walking down the carpeted hallway made the doors rattle and move! All we could do was laugh. We felt perfectly safe, but it gave us something more to laugh about the Hotel Olimpia!

The next morning we got up to a bright, sunny day and we got our showers taken and our bodies, as well as our spirits felt renewed. We went down to a lovely continental breakfast, (coffee, hot chocolate and rolls) and then found out that we could check our bags at the train station for the day while we explored Bella Venetia! So we headed off to the train station, checked our bags and went to the vaporatto station right outside the train station to buy tickets to take us to the end of the line and from there we planned to walk our way back to the train station.

We got seats in the front of the vaporatto which was fun. Usually you would just end up standing somewhere in the middle or back of the vaporatto. It took awhile to get out to the last stop, before the vaporatto goes out to Lido that is. There are always lots of cruise ships docked there at the 4 star hotels around there.

We wandered around to Murano glass and browsed at all the lovely glassware on display. We strolled through the small, ancient streets of Venice; some so small that only one person at a time could walk there and you had to bend down to go under balconies. We visited lots of little piazzas and enjoyed the sound of life without the normal sounds that invade our world without us really being aware they are there.

By around noon we were in St. Marks square, which was full of people and pigeons. My friend is petrified of the birds and I took so much delight in making noise which made them take flight around her and had her screaming, but mostly with laughter. We had been told that there was a Wendy’s hamburger stand right off of St. Marks square, so we found a policewoman and asked for directions. It wasn’t too far and we chattered in anticipation of an American hamburger!

Unfortunately it wasn’t, American I mean. It looked like a Wendy’s hamburger, but it really didn’t taste like it. The fries were wonderful, but as is typical in Italy, cooked in olive oil, so they didn’t really taste the same either. Even the frosty was different, but we had a good time anyway, chatting with some school girls from Australia.

We finished our lunch and started back on our journey to the train station. We wandered in and out of small shops, stopped for an afternoon soda in a trattoria and finally got back to the train station about an hour before the train, exhausted, but really happy. We hopped on the train and relaxed for the next hour until we got back to Vicenza. Our families were there waiting for us and we were so excited to see them. But as we left the train station, we looked at one another and thought of everything that had happened the last 4 days, of all that we had shared and even with all the funny, almost scary things that had happened, we knew we were so lucky to have experienced it all!

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