Posted by: 4initalia | May 12, 2009



We went to Venice for a long weekend. Have you heard that the city is sinking? That’s from the weight of the money that Venetians extract from tourists. I think Venitians make it worse when they all hang out in one building, stomping their feet and pounding the walls with laughter. “Did you hear how much Mario charged for that gondola ride? He tells people he’s on his way home to take care of his elderly mother!! So he’ll cut the price!! BwwWAAAhaha!!!…” Ooh, there it goes, another inch lost to the sea.

Venice is insanely expensive, so we stayed in a nearby town, just to save a few hundred thousand euro. When we got to the hotel, we were asked for our passports. Italian law requires every hotel to register every guest with the local police. Technically, any stay over three days in a private house requires visiting friends to register. If Pakistan had taken this approach, we would never have lost track of Osama Bin Ladin. But for everyone else, it seems like overkill.

When you check into any Italian hotel, even tiny ones, the hotel has to fill out a form with your name and passport number. Often the hotel holds on to the passport, so the clerk can fill out the paperwork at night, when he’s not so busy, or when that guy who buys stolen passports stops by.

The little forms are supposed to deter terrorism, or tourism. Every guest, every friend, every stay, every time? How often do police officials actually read the forms? Wouldn’t they read the form only after you’ve….never mind.

When the hotel owner asked for our passports, Andy and I were embarassed; we had forgotten them. Because we weren’t crossing borders, or meeting with foreign operatives, we were staying for two nights in a cheap hotel outside of Venice. Europeans have identification cards and are used to showing them for every transaction. Americans, who are paranoid that our passports will be stolen and we’ll be locked in a Turkish prison, are afraid to give them to anyone, including airport security. But leaving them for three days with the hotel guy is not scary at all, except for the Turkish prison part. If you’ve ever used Turkish towels, you’ll know why you want to avoid that.

The hotelier was pleasant but adamant. “You must have your passport. For the police.” Apparently, while we strolled around Venice with our children, we could be arrested for not having passports, because if we had filled out that little form, once we committed a terrorist act, they could arrest us. I feel safer already.

We tried to look non-threatening but kinda threatening; did we have to go all the way back to Modena?

“Do you have anyone in Modena who can fax a copy of your passport?” Uh, no, in Modena we have us, and we’re right here. We are SO not getting the threat to international security posed by four suburbanites with rolling luggage. True, if Annalise were in possession of any state secrets she would spill them as soon as someone asked her. “Mom, do you know what Dad is getting you for your birthday? It’s a secret!! It’s….” But she doesn’t really run in those circles.

Weirdly, Andy remembered his passport number. I am lucky if I remember the number of offspring I have produced, even when they’re both chewing in my ear, in stereo. But Andy filled out the form, the hotel owner was satisfied, and I still don’t know whether Andy actually knows his passport number or is the kind of guy who risks Turkish prison to avoid six extra hours on a train. I love a man of mystery.

After our Passport Adventure, it was time to go to Venice. We took a bus. It was crowded, and the children were leaning against a space reserved for luggage, when I noticed that Alex was about to step on a long thin box. It was completely covered in bubble wrap, meticulously taped, and looked like an expensive souvenir. I asked Alex to move. A young man stepped from the back of the bus to retrieve his box; oh good, he’ll keep it safe. But at the next stop, when the rear door opened, he flung the carefully wrapped package into the bushes.

Game on. What just happened? Was the package flinger a drug courier, making a scheduled delivery?

Omniscient, and knew that the package contained:


Plastique explosives that don’t explode on impact with bushes?

Avon products, so it was okay to throw it off the bus?

I had no clue, but I smiled at him, hoping that at the next stop, he wouldn’t fling out my backpack.

We bumped along, moving toward Venice. The bus darkened; a cloud blocked the sun. No, tenuously clinging to the window was a wasp the size of Pennslvania. If that sucker had a saddle, we could ride it into town.

A young Asian woman in bright pink eyeshadow and a matching fuschia shirt was sitting next to the window, just below the beast. Her eyes widened. This was a good idea because her eyelids were the color of tropical flowers. Let’s just take a moment to imagine what a bee that size would look like on someone’s eye: “Aaaiiiiiieeeeee….”

Again the package flinger moved into action. He smoothly opened the window. But the wasp was too big to haul himself three inches, and heeey, is that an orchid? Signore Flinger gently trapped the beast in the curtain, then crushed it against the glass. The dead beast dropped to the floor with a thump, which was hard to hear over my muffled scream. If he was a drug courier, he was a darn thoughtful one.

I smiled at him again, but still kept a hand on my backpack.

The bus pulled into a parking lot growling with deisel engines. To get into Venice, you climb a canal bridge, and on your left, at the base of the bridge, is the train station. In front of the station a small crowd packed around a rock band; street musicians are common in Europe. But this was Venice, so it was no ordinary band. The group was four Native Americans encrusted with so much Day-Glo leather, feathers and beads they extended several feet in every direction. That garb was not native, even for Vegas showgirls. They were the Liberaces of the Lakotas.

They sang what sounded like traditional Plains Indian chants, but with a Madonna-esqe melody and a rollicky pop beat. Who knew that lyrics involving buffalo could be so infectious? Even their accessories were the Real McCoy: their guitar case, propped open against a plastic McDonald’s sign, was tastefully draped with a fox pelt. It was more a chunk than a slice of Americana.

That little tableau was a lot to absorb, just off the bus, with a canal in plain view, and it raised as many questions as the package flinger.

When career planning, how do you decide to don Native American regalia and sing Plains-Indian pop at the foot of the Venetian train station? Now that I am unemployed, it’s good to know there are job options not covered in “What Color Is Your Parachute.”

No worries, I thought. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

So we did. We climbed a bridge, and the bridge was over the Grand Canal, which is an extremely cool bit of very dirty water. Along the canal are the marble lace buildings you’ve seen in photos, but you may not have noticed the laundry hanging from some of the balconies. Apparently the Venetians have no trouble buying pants, either.

There were a bazillion tourists. Travelers, who are not tourists, always complain about tourists, who are. Am not.

Most of the tourists wore the usual attire, jeans and spandex strained to the breaking point, but some outfits defied explanation. For example, one young lady had on a t-shirt with a bare and bulging midriff, which was joined at the hip to buttoned-at-the-knee knickers. Her knee socks were made of thick tan lace shot through with ribbon that tied at the knee and clutched the knickers in a confusing embrace; the other end of the lace socks was swallowed up in beige suede clodhoppers. These kinds of overly complicated clothing choices dangerously interfere with my ability to process the landscape. It wasn’t as much to get into my head as the Shoshone Elvises, but still, it was a challenge to take in all of those unrelated components, while trying not to fall into a canal.

The guidebooks call Venice the most expensive city in the world. When I asked the hotel guy why Venice was so expensive, he smiled and said “Venezia e unica,” Venice is unique. That attitude only encourages the Venetians to hike up the prices, because when tourists expect to be gouged, they don’t complain. That little phrase has been used since the first tourist guide was printed on papyrus: “Holy Moses, Venice is outrageous!” If it’s written right there in Frommer’s, you’re not going to squawk. “Aaah,” you’ll say, when the waiter charges you 35 euro for three bottled waters. “No wonder the guidebook says…”

This calls for a new approach: if the guides were rewritten to say Venice is the biggest bargain in Europe, we could nip this overpricing in the bud. When a tourist is charged $9 for a coffee, he’ll throw a fit. If all of the tourists got huffy, maybe the Venetians would say “Notfahnothin, but we’re tickin’ a lot of people off, heah. Maybe we should knock it off.” Even better, if all the tourists threw their big fat guidebooks into the canal, that “Venice Is Unique” theory would hold a lot less water.

Because it’s not that Venetians are working any harder than anyone else, and are entitled to charge insane prices. While waiting for take-out sandwiches from a sidewalk cafe, I watched a waiter grab three packages of frozen pasta from a freezer. He tossed them to the cook, who ripped off the paper tops, threw the contents in the microwave, and sloshed the steaming tagliatelle onto pasta platters. For this backbreaking labor they charged twelve euros, a bargain lunch in Venice.

Ah, but isn’t Venice an island? No, actually. It’s a bunch of them, but Venice isn’t isolated, it’s attached to the mainland by a giant bridge that holds a highway and train tracks, and there’s a constant hum of busses, cars, and trains. It’s not like produce needs to be swum over, one grape at a time. Well, I guess it is pricey to keep the TV dinners cold.

For dinner we went actual restaurants, and had real Italian food. Pasta, pizza, seafood. But one place advertised fresh local seafood – dishes of fried local small fish. Is that a good idea? The canals are the green of antifreeze, with the neon glow dialed down a notch by a tinge of brown from sediment, or worse. Glistening on the water are chunks of floating large things, and empty water bottles. Maybe they leave the bottles floating so they can catch the little fish.

I am not going to talk about gondolas, that is so cliche, and hey, we’re travellers, not tourists, so we knew from the guidebook that gondolas are insanely expensive. And most of the gondola boarding areas are on big piers off of the Grand Canal, with long lines of, ya know, tourists. It’s not that you think that each gondoliere just happens to have a long thin boat and a pole, and a burning need to show you Venice, but still, the gondola boarding process at Rialto seems a little prefab. And you’d think that prices go down at night, when you technically can’t see anything, but apparently people pay a lot to make out in a gondola.


Night Lights on the Grand Canal.

So we weren’t falling for any gondola nonsense. But at the end of a golden day, I saw the perfect gondoliere photo opportunity: tucked into a bend of a gilded canal was a gondoliere parked with his slim black craft. He was tall, dark, with a red striped shirt and a straw hat with a big red ribbon. His perfect torso stretched his red stripes very wide across his broad chest, and very little across his narrow abs. He was posing for the cover of Time Magazine’s Gondoliere of the Year: his shoulders were huge, his straw hat with a red ribbon manfully askew, and he curled around his cell phone like…oh, never mind.

I took his photo. As we walked down the steps, he gave us the gondoliere schpiel. He would give us a break on the price if he could drop us off at Rialto, where he would cook for his aging mother, and oil his pecs. Or at least I think he said that about his mother. When I asked “how much,” I was preconditioned by the guidebooks to expect an insanely high price, so when he said 100 euro, which was in fact, an insanely high price, I thought we were getting a great deal.

So I said yes, and there we were, in a heavily enameled black boat, sunk into very comfy cushions. We were gliding past the former palaces of Guiseppe Verdi and Casanova, which were slipping beneath the waves from the weight of my kids’ college funds. Maybe we could scoop up a few bottles of fish, for dinner. Behind us, Marco’s pecs were working overtime, for his mother.

Sometimes a great deal will cost ya.


  1. It would be hard to not be distracted by the pecs, now, wouldn’t it 🙂

    Keep the stories coming, Andrea.

    • Did you see the real guy? He’s in my Venice album, on Facebook. He should have to have a license to look that good.

  2. you started me off on a super note…girl friend…you are going to be a “best seller”.

  3. My mum, at age 82 took her first and only gondola ride with me. Her one and only comment… “we should have brought some beer!”

    • We should have brought your Mum – she sounds like fun!

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