Since I started this blog I’ve known that the missing ingredient was a dash of charm and a whole lotta honesty. It isn’t easy being totally honest with a bunch of strangers (no offense) and not-so-strangers. So finally, here is a true story – a huge steaming plate of reality from my life as a traveler – and a stellar example of why I am in love with traveling. I hope you enjoy.
A few weeks ago I was on a commuter train headed to Venice on a cold, quiet Saturday evening in Italy. Despite the rain and my exhaustion from a long week of teaching English and a late night the night before in Bologna, I decided to follow through with my plan to catch the last day of the Venice Biennale exhibition that weekend.
My English student appeared on the train from out of nowhere, jumping on seconds before the departure. He’s a captain with the Italian military police and was on his way home from work to his hometown of Ferrara, a short train ride from Bologna.
He sat down next to me. “Teacher! Where are you going?”
Caught in the middle of a daydream, I had to think a moment about my answer. “To Venice!”
He gives me a knowing look. “Alone? And looking so tired?”
These were legitimate questions. But I had a good answer. “I love to travel alone. I always make new friends.”
He thought a moment about my answer. “It could be.”
“But,” I continued, “tonight is going to be a quiet night at my hotel. I am exhausted.”
Famous. Last. Words.
I was finally in my room two and a half hours later, after a long and beautiful – albeit wet – stroll to Venice’s Dorsoduro district to my hotel near the Peggy Guggenheim museum. Too tired to put effort into my outfit, I stuck with my jeans (normally an absolute no-no for me on a Saturday night), grabbed my iPad, and set out immediately to begin the daunting task of finding a not-too-touristy restaurant for dinner.
Long ago a student friend of mine took me to a piazza in the Accademia area of Venice that was full of bars and restaurants. Pretty far from Piazza San Marco, I thought this was a good bet for finding a less touristy restaurant. Problem was, I had no idea how to get there. And direction is not so easy in Venice. Details! No biggie. I burst out of my hotel and walked in the general direction of the Accademia area.
After some helpful signs and some strategic following of the crowds around Venice’s infamous small and windy streets, I found the piazza. Campo Santa Margherita it was called. I was proud of myself for getting myself there. It was buzzing with people having drinks and aperitivo and preparing for the Saturday night festivities. Perfect. I had an excellent 4 euro glass of wine and examined the Google map of the area on my iPad. This is my shortcut for finding a decent restaurant on-the-go: I check out the restaurants that are actually on the Google map because they are usually good.
Google showed me three options around the Campo Santa Margherita area. En route to the first Google option, a restaurant called Osteria alla Bifora caught my eye. The windows were steamy, and it was packed. The atmosphere was great…not too elegant, not too straightforward. The menu was short and specialized. Good. But, no vegetarian option. I sighed and kept walking to the Google recommendation around the corner. A no-go: boring menu. The next restaurant was also a no-go: bad ambiance. I found myself walking in circles…what should I do? I was tired, and it was getting late.
I decided to trust my gut. I went back to the steamy restaurant with no vegetarian options. But as soon as I walked in, my heart sank. The seating was communal. There was no place for a single traveler.
But, I was hungry. I flagged down the hostess and explained my predicament in Italian. “I have two issues: I’m a vegetarian. And I’m alone.” She responded, “We’ll make a vegetarian plate for you. And…wait here.” She approached a full table near the door and said something to a man at the table, and then returned to me. “You can sit with them.” She pointed to the table she had just visited. I was mortified. “No, no, that’s ok. I just was hoping to take a chair at a table, I don’t need to join anyone.” Her expression didn’t change. “You can sit with them,” she repeated. Like a deer caught in the headlights, I looked back at the table. They were all looking at me. The guy she had spoken to stood up and offered me his chair. My feet carried me to the table but in my mind I was running away.
I paused for a moment at the head of the table. I was trying to understand the situation. Four guys and two girls. Their girlfriends perhaps? Are these girls going to hate me for butting in on their date night? No time for thinking, they were waiting for me to sit down. So I sat down. I don’t even remember the introductions, except that they loved my name and started calling me Peggy Guggenheim. It was all a blur.
The women were on my left. They were Germans and also in town for the Biennale. They didn’t know the guys either, and they didn’t speak Italian.
The guy across from me asks in Italian, “Do you like white or red?”
“Oh, whatever you are having is fine with me.”
“Sure. I’ll pay you back after.”
He gave me a little wave of disagreement and shouted to the waitress, “A bottle of prosecco!”
And that is when my vision of a quiet night officially came to a screeching halt.
The guys were very Northern Italian looking. Their light complexions and elegant dress were a welcome change from Bologna, a university town full of casually dressed students from across Italy. They told me they were from Venice. Wow. Awesome.
And what commenced can only be described as a feast. We enjoyed a cross-continental multi-lingual dinner over platters of one of everything on the menu and never-ending prosecco. And no one would touch my veggie plate, so I had it all to myself.
“You’re fun!” says the German girl next to me. “Come with us to the Biennale tomorrow!”
“But tonight, you guys are going dancing with us!” said the guy across from me.
“It depends where,” I responded. Venice is not known for its night life.
The guy at the end of the table who had given me his chair chimed in. “It is a beautiful place. You will love it.”
“Maybe,” I said.
Then came the after dinner drinks. We played a bit of musical chairs, put the new Daft Punk album on my iPad, and the party was on. Even the restaurant owner’s dog came over to join us. The hostess was watching me from across the room. She seemed surprised things had worked out so well. Somehow, I wasn’t. My gut had known it.
Finally, the moment arrived. To dance, or not to dance. Did I really have a choice?
I left this restaurant that I had entered alone just hours earlier, now accompanied by six new friends. We walked back across the piazza, through the windy Venetian streets, across the Grand Canal, and then I lost track. At the end of a small, dark street, a handsomely dressed man beckoned us into a beautiful, unmarked building. I found myself in a sea of wealthy Venetians in a gorgeous room I can only liken to a lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel. And there I was, just a normal girl from El Centro, California. In my jeans.
But I only worried about my state of being under dressed for a few seconds before other priorities took over: having fun. Music, dancing, new friends, mingling. But eventually the reality of life began to dawn on me and I realized my carriage was about to turn into a pumpkin. Problem was, my carriage didn’t know how to get home. Details. Again.
I remembered hearing that the guy that had given me his seat at the restaurant, Adrian, lived near my hotel. And, as my luck that night would have it, he was incredibly crushable. Well, let’s just be honest. I already had a crush on him.
And then, as if he had read my mind, Adrian appeared out of nowhere. “Peggy!!”
“You’re walking me home, right?” I responded.
My new friends and I left the club together, and then as quickly as they had come into my life, they disappeared. It was just Adrian and I crossing back over the Grand Canal. And I can now say, with certainty, that the romance of Venice is not just a myth. Whatever it is, whatever it was, we took the long way home.
And then, the knocking and shouting of the hotel maid asking if I needed a clean towel. The sun was up, everything was as I had left it. No sign at all of of my beautiful night in Venice.
I got up. I went to the Biennale. It was amazing. And as I was walking back to my hotel, I got a text. It was Adrian.
So I guess it wasn’t a dream. But I haven’t seen any of my new friends again. I’ve had nights like these before…Dublin, Brooklyn, Denver, Rimini, Paris, Stockholm…but somehow Venice has been the most unforgettable.
The hardest thing about these incredible experiences and finding these wonderful people in their own environments is accepting that these experiences are unique, like a gift from the heavens. And trying to recreate them is like playing with fate.
But that doesn’t mean a girl can’t have a little hope.
I think the next one will be sooner than later. And if so, you’ll be the first to know… 😉