Walking along a narrow cobblestone lane, the walls of the buildings climbing sometimes three, four or even five stories above you and yet they are no more than a few yards away on either side. The sound of your shoes upon the thousand year old worn cobblestones mingle with the cooing of the ever present pigeons scampering around your feet, People, both residents and tourist slipping by like ants on an undisclosed mission. The humid air is close but fresh, the smells of baking bread, pasta and spice come at you from every direction and it blends effortlessly with the perfume of a decaying ancient city. A city floating on islands of clay and a Forrest of wood pilings placed there a millennium ago to serve as a foundation for what is now one of the most visited destinations in the world. If you let your mind slip back in time, you will remember that you are walking on the same streets as Leonardo Da Vinci, Titian, Vivaldi, Napoleon and Hemingway, you are walking on and in history. You are finally experiencing it for yourself and it is truly real, tangible, vivid and alive and you are now a small part of Venice’s colorful history, even if only in your own small world.
Finding my way to my hotel after a long day of wonderment and marvelous sights that left me spellbound, I climb to my second story hotel room that is the size of a large walk-in closet. I am not too discouraged by the rooms small size, after all, I did not come to Venice to hang around in my hotel room. It is clean and adequate for the purpose to sleep, shower and store my belongings.
I proceed to shower the exertion of the day away as I soak up the heat and reimagine the events of the day, setting them deep in my memory, hoping that I will be able to recall them in years to come. I dry off with the thin, worn white excuse of a towel that is barely large enough to complete the task. I am reminded of just how spoiled we Americans really are.
I change into some evening wear, a button-down collared black shirt, tucking into my tan docker styled pants that I bought specifically for this vacation. I knew about how the Italians admire a well dressed person and after all, we in the U.S. Are pitiful when it comes to fashion and I didn’t want to stand out like an “ugly American”. I slip on my black socks and shoes, thread my belt on and take a quick glance at myself in the tiny bathroom mirror and set off.
I plan to enjoy San Marco’s piazza and all that it has to offer a lonely traveler like me. I have no idea what to expect but from the images on-line and in the picture books, San Marco’s at night is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
It is sometime after eight o’ clock, the ambient light from the small retail stores windows selling leather goods, glass and Mardi Gras mask, lead me to the more intensely populated streets announcing the approach of a popular tourist attraction just ahead.
The city is starting the evening rush, it is the beginning of prime time for dinner, socialize and libations with friends, it’s when Venice finds its second wind and I am eager to be taken up and swept along with the tide, on this human river guiding me to an ocean of wonderment.
I cross the last bridge named Ponte Canonica. This bridge is always crowded with tourist taking pictures of the “bridge of sighs” that spans the second story of one building to the other suspended over the canal. But it is too dark now and is mostly vacant except for a few couples just lingering in a romantic pause. Most tourist don’t understand that this is not a romantic place at all but this bridge was the place where condemned prisoners could take their last view of Venice, as they did, they would sigh as they were led to their final dungeon cell before their execution. The bridge is beautiful and I can not help myself but slow my pace and take a lingering stare at it’s graceful arch across the simmering lime colored water that opens up on the port of Venice. I resume my pace and continue to move on to my final destination.
The streets are narrow for long stretches at a time, then there is this wide open expanse, it almost stops you in your tracks, at the least, you slow your pace drastically because you want to just take it all in. The architecture and layout of this old city is so that when you come upon a plaza it is like when I magician sweeps back a velvet veil to reveal his grand illusion. It is always a beautiful vista by design, it was the ‘living room’ of the island dwellers that built it, it is their ‘show piece’ to visitors. A city square, the location of their church, it was where they gathered at the end of the day and it held their produce and spice markets too.
Venice was built on over one hundred marshy islands and each one was separated by the canals until they started to build bridges to connect their islands and now they are the neighborhoods. The progression of this process over centuries created this magically unique and very condensed large city that once was home to over two hundred thousand Venicians but today only about sixty thousand make it there home. But even with the reduction of residents it is well made up for in visiting tourist.
I was no more that fifty yards beyond the Ponte Canonica bridge when I came to the grand expanse that is the Piazza San Marco. It dwarfs all other Piazza’a in Venice, it explodes in your eyes at night with the lights, the music of the three small orchestras and the two or three hundred people milling around taking pictures. It seems like a scene from a movie but you are one of the leading characters in this vast sweeping drama, it is real and it exudes romance, it is grand beyond belief. I reach into my leather messenger bag and retrieve my portable compact camera, I am instantly transformed and received as the tourist I hate to imitate. You can not help it, you must capture this living moment to share with yourself in the years to come, to bring this moment back to your fading memory some day in the distant future.
I clicked some images and capture a short video and ignominiously conceal my camera and try to hide my childish grin. I hate looking or acting like a tourist, I strive to blend in as much as possible to see how it feels to be a local. It is the only way I can try to feel the energy, mood, sights and sounds of an exotic place that I wish to remember forever.
I start to merge into the slightly crowded square, trying to ignore the pushy tourist hell bent on taking hundreds of pictures and video. I am inwardly embarrassed and outwardly annoyed at their lack of respect for the people around them and the hallowed space they wish to belittle through their thoughtless behavior. The difference between them and me is that I do respect the people who make this city their home. I wish to respect their customs and culture, I do this by not acting like a tourist, I am honored to be here. By contrast, they feel it is their right and privilege to run amuck and they can care less if they act like idiots. For this reason I stay clear of these touristy locations with the exceptions like this evening, tonight there are a fraction of the numbers of tourist as compared to the afternoons. So I do my best to push these disturbing thoughts out of my mind, I just want to soak it all up.
The three main resturant’s with their small orchestras playing the classics or sometimes versions of modern popular hits from past decades. It is sublime, the violins, clarinet’s, grand pianos, cello’s and accordions, welcome you towards their white linen clothed tables set for twos or fours. It’s enchanting, intoxicating and seems like a dream and you wade into it like breaching the crashing waves of a sandy beach. You feel yourself being absorbed by it, like being transported through time, back to the grand age of Venice’s golden age of opera in the eighteenth century. You can almost imagine the tourist are now wearing huge feather plumed hats and powdered white aristocratic wigs of the fashion in those days. You are one with the city of romance and beauty, you feel joy filling you like an unquenchable flame that inflates your hardened heart with buoyant air lifting your feet off the cobblestones and into a dream. But this is real and you are here.
I shake the dreamy thoughts and meandered around the large open space, studying the architecture and the way the modern bulbed fixtures in muted candle color schemes illuminates the facades enhancing the buildings in a picturesque vision. I study all this as an artist studies a subject, noting the contrast of light, dark and shaded hues preparing to apply my brush to capture the panoramic beauty flooding my mind.
I eventually find myself behind one of the groupings of elegantly arranged tables and chairs, they beacon me to take my place among them. As I start to search for a place to plant myself for dinner, I find myself drawn to a woman setting solemnly at a table for two. Although her back is to me, I see her figure and she is attractive it is in the way she is seated with her legs crossed, she is comfortably relaxed in the way she holds her form entirely absorbed in the music. She is casually entranced by the melody with her left hand touching the stem of her wine glass with the remains of the dark red liquid, her thumb stroking in rhythm with the music. The vision draws me to her, is it the woman or the solemnity that attracts me? Me a lonely traveler seeking company or something more? Perhaps it is both. I decide I will place myself in the table next to her, there are maybe forty tables arranged in the unframed spaced all neatly and purposefully aligned in rows and isles. There are maybe five tables at the most with inhabitants, with a halo of curious onlookers skirting them to enjoy the music for free from a distance. The chairs remain empty due to the exorbitant menu and the requirement to place an order to receive acceptance at their table.
My choice of a table near her was probably all too obvious and I did not care. I was making myself available to her and I would see where it would take the evening, I was still not certain she was entirely alone yet, though the evidence seemed to point in the direction. The table only had place settings for one but ‘he’ might be away or had not joined her yet, perhaps buying flowers to swoon her with.
As I pulled the chair out and proceeded to sit down, I avoided looking in her direction, I wanted to act nonchalant. After placing my leather bag under the table at my feet for security, I glanced toward her sitting to my left as though i was merely perusing my new surroundings. She was looking directly into my eyes, an unabashed friendly smile spread across her full chevron shaped mouth, she was very pretty and she turned back to face the orchestra in an equally nonchalant way. She had very large dark eyes, a rounded, yet angular face centered around a small, slightly upturned nose, she was elegant and had a proud air to her, she was perhaps in her forties. A flush filled my cheeks as I blushed and hoped it was not too obvious, I turned to face the music myself.
Even though the tables were at the least, slightly inhabited, it took the waiter many long minutes before making his way to bring me a menu.
“Signore, will you be dinning with us tonight?” That was their polite way of breaching the point of extreme importance, will you be spending money in order to be allowed a seat at one of their tables?
“Si, I will, do you also have the wine list available?”
“Of course Signore, it is here.” He turned to the page in the sizable fine leather portfolio and handed it to me.
“Please let me have a few moments to preview the menu.” I smiled at him as a dismissal and turned my attention to the menu.
“Prego, signore.” He walked away to attend another nearby table.
I took another glance at my attractive neighbor, she was smiling at me again and coyly looked to the players who were in the depths of Bach. This was exhilarating, all at once, I felt like a teenager again.
After a few minutes the waiter made his way back to my side standing slightly behind and between me and the beauty I felt compelled to impress. I could see her attention was drawn to us, I avoided noticing this as I ordered a half carafe of a regionally grown chianti.
“I will have the spinach quiche’ and some bread, per favore Signore.” I closed the menu with a slap and handed it to him, again as a firm dismissal and turned my attention the the band stand in front of me.
“Eccellente Signore.” And he strode away on his mission. His attitude seemed to shift from contempt to pride in the slap of a menu. I was feeling very good now.
My attractive neighbor whom i could see in my Peripheral view, was still smiling at me, now with an air of approval as to my choice and in the manor of ordering it. I was assertive, comfortable and I owned the moment and she recognized this. I nodded with a welcoming smile my acknowledgement of her approval and turned my attention back to the music. I didn’t want to let go of my command of the situation now that I had it so firmly in my hands.
The atmosphere was excellent, the musicians played flawlessly and the sights and sounds all around me made me feel as though nothing could improve my mood. It was the perfect night in a perfect setting, it was worth all the time, effort and money to be right here, right now, it has been worth the wait.
Many minutes passed listening to the players, recognizing every concerto, sonata, opera and even some of the authors of those familiar pieces. They even covered Queen’s, Bohemian Rhapsody, this was magnificent in how easily it translated to classical rewrites and this was received to a rousing applause by the whole of the freebie onlookers and my friends, the seated guest.
My companion to my left ordered another glass of wine, when she received it, I filled my glass and lifted it to a mock toast from my table to hers. She responded with a childish laugh and raised her glass up into the air to match mine and we shared the sip to seal our uncertain friendship. We rested our glasses down on the tables but we lingered our stare for a long flirtatious moment.
“Don’t you just love THIS!?” She waived her arm with the outstretched hand at the grandness that encompassed our dinner tables.
“I know, it could not be a more perfect evening.” I agreed
“Can you believe that we have it almost entirely all to ourselves?” Her face was filled with wonderment.
“Yes, we have it all just for us to enjoy. I can’t believe there are so few people here tonight!” As I looked around me, taking it all in again.
“And I love the music, it’s so romantic don’t you agree?” She asked me.
“Yes, I do, I love all kinds of music but this is…” I waved my hand accepting the orchestra into the conversation. “Is almost overwhelming.” I looked back at her beautiful happy face.
The orchestra started to to play Vivaldi and we were drawn into the rapture of the sounds. As the music played on we both kept looking at each other in long lingering moments as if trying to commit the visage of the others face to memory. But it was that feeling one has when they can’t get enough of a beautiful image, you just stare at it not wanting to look away.
“Where are you from?” She queried from her table.
“The U.S., and you?”
“London, I love it here though.” Her eyes quickly scanned the plaza and returned to mine.
“Me too, I had dinner over there last night, just as it started to rain!” I laughed at the memory of having my table moved under the portico to escape the rain.
“I come here every May, It is my annual pilgrimage” She giggled at her opulent habit. “Have you been here before?”
“No, it is my first time, I am sure I will need to come back, it’s overwhelming, hard to take it all in, in one trip.”
“Would you like to join me?” She slid the chair next to her out and obviously towards and next her chair as a welcoming gesture.
“I would love to. You’re sure I am not intruding?” I asked for pure politeness because it was obviously what she desired and I was already starting to stand up in acceptance of her offer.
“Yes, I am enjoying your company, we are both obviously alone so why not share a table and some conversation?”
I transferred my table items and my bag to her table getting an unnecessary acknowledgment from the waiter who frowned at me in his emasculated displeasure. I found glee in making him miserable, the waiters at these expensive places had an air about them that made you want to show them you were in charge. To ‘put them in their place’, as it should be, I am the patron, they are my server.
After I settled in, she had her glass of wine poised for a toast. “To a beautiful evening with great company.”
“Agreed, chin, chin!” We clinked our glasses for real this time and sipped our wine as we melted into a warm embrace with our eyes and leaned ever so slightly in towards each other. The music, the lighting, the ambience, the food and wine and a beautiful woman to share it with, it does get better.
We talked for over an hour, at times the music captured our attention and we relished it the moment. Then we would continue finding out about each other’s lives. She was interesting and intelligent, she had traveled extensively due to her fortune earned in the bond market while working in New York. Her British accent was enchanting and as I listen I could not ignore her full bosom filling the cleavage of her black dress. I noticed her catching me as I lingered upon this more times than I care to admit but she was proud of her body and of my noticing it. As the conversation went on we touched each other’s arm as we described our shared stories and the caressing started to become lingering and prolonged. It was obvious to everyone around that we were building a strong connection to each other.
This was a pure and perfect evening, it could have become something even more special had we continued on this trajectory. All that was needed was for one of us to suggest that we close the evening out at either of our hotels. The connection and emotions were that palatable.
“You know, as well as I do, that we could take this evening to the next level all to easily. I think we have made a very strong attachment but I don’t want to take it that far, does that make any sense?” I reluctantly said.
“I know exactly what you mean. I feel so drawn to you, you fascinate me, I am have a grand time getting to know you too.” She looked as pained as I felt.
“I think we should part here, before we make it something… perhaps messy. We both have shared how bad our relationships have turned out.” I laughed uncomfortably and she joined me almost in relief that we did understand the barriers we have built around us as individuals.
“I think you are right. Let’s part as friends, friends whom met in the night and shared a fantastic evening that we will remember for the rest of our lives.” She smiled into my eyes, her face not more than inches from mine.
“It’s settled then, ‘ships that passed in the night’, memories of a lifetime it is.” I felt happy and I smiled back at her, yet we both pulled back ever so marginally in recognition of the acceptance of our agreement.
We continued talking for many long minutes as though nothing had happened to change our situation. Eventually we both asked for and then paid for our dinner tabs.
Reluctantly we stood, knowing the time was at hand to go our separate ways.
“We will say goodbye then, in the European style.” She looked up into my eyes and softly kissed my lips for a lingering moment, then leaned to my right and we kissed each other’s cheek, then the other one. We pulled back to see the others face for the last time, we smiled, turned and started to walk away in different directions.
I walked about thirty yards and stopped to turn and see her walking away, she was looking at her cell phone as she moved away from me. So I sighed, feeling the pang of loneliness i turned around to see one of the most beautiful visions of my life.
The tide had flooded the square with an inch or so of sea water while we were enraptured with each other’s attention and hadn’t noticed anything around us. The San Marco Church was reflecting on the glass like surface making a double image that was so beautiful it took my breath away. I reached for my camera in my bag and snapped a few quick shots. I don’t remember walking to the hotel that night, I am sure I was floating on a cloud and lost in my thoughts of Romance in Venice.