Sunday, November 13, 2011

Inept in Venice

When last I left you, dear reader, my mother and I had just arrived in Venice on the Orient Express. I'm happy to tell you that during our stay in Venice, we managed to miss our very expensive train to Rome, almost lose a hotel reservation, nearly get bounced from another hotel, and finally got my direct deposit account shut down. All in one day.

I blame Italy for this.

More to the point, I blame Venice. There's something about Venice that leads one to a certain slackening of purpose, a slow erosion of self-resolve. Schedules get lost, maps are retrieved in shreds from purses, the spines of umbrellas become quickly snapped from the storms that, this past week, continued almost unabated. The rain was so bad that my mother and I--native Seattlites both--had to hole up in our hotel for half a day. Venice is a beautiful city, a fact which seems to be less about good urban maintenance than pure "genetic" luck, as the city seems to have done very little by way of repairing, updating or even repainting the increasingly decrepit architecture. Everywhere you look, paint is flaking, bits of building are chipped or falling off, there's graffiti coiled around columns and dog shit smeared on cobblestones, and the urinary smell of sewage wafting up from every corner. Venice reminds me a little of Kate Moss: considering all the wear and tear from the coke and other sundry drugs that woman has inhaled the past 25 years, the only thing keeping her going now is a famous name, an increasingly skilled airbrushing industry, and a killer bone structure.

Venice is really one building short of being a cliché, actually: it's so ALMOST like those terribly bad velvet paintings you see in third-rate Italian restaurants, it takes awhile to adjust and actually SEE the city versus the less-great versions you've already seen of it. On top of this, Venice is the most confounding yet still navigable city I've ever experienced. I always knew basically where I was, but I could never, EVER seem to prove it on the map. No street I ever stood on seemed to appear on any of the maps I was given or found, or downloaded--all of which I had to do, as every map seemed to disintegrate as soon as I touched it, as if Venice printed all its maps on pressed sheets of talcum powder.

Venice is also full of the angriest people I've yet encountered. I'm surprised that Paris has the reputation for rudeness when not a day passed in Venice when someone didn't yell at either me or my mother, shaming us out of restaurants and stores with his or her near operatic vitriol. "MADAME," the Venetian of the moment might declaim. "IF A GATE IS PRESENT, IT MEANS 'DON'T GO'!" "NO PICTURES! DON'T TOUCH ANYTHING!" "NOT POSSIBLE!" "MADAME, NO!" were all the most common shouts snarled after us, worrying our pant legs like little dogs. (Speaking of dogs, Venice is full of tiny dogs running around without, it seems, any human supervision. These dogs are clearly owned by SOMEBODY, however, as each one was wearing either a tiny rain jacket or a tiny hand-knit sweater. Even the dogs are better dressed than I am in Europe.)

Perhaps this anger is the inevitable result of having 250,000 residents in a town that has to service about three times as many tourists. Perhaps it's the mortifying fact that Italy is about to take down the Euro. Or maybe it's the city's highly regulated and bureaucratic tourist infrastructure that, inevitably, seems to fail, thus creating even more work for everyone involved. Every sign in Venice comes in five languages, with posters on top of posters to indicate recent and newly disorienting changes, so you can never figure out exactly what new bit of information you are meant to process until you arrive at the information booth, at which point you will be yelled at by the ticket seller. ("MADAME! WE HAVE SIGNS FOR THAT!") Likewise, you can try and buy your own tickets for water transport from the automated booths, only to discover that the automated booths--which offer your particular fare and fee rate--has some internal computer glitch that won't actually let you select the option that you need, though the option is always, tantalizingly, presented.

And then there are the strikes. "MADAME! WE DO NOT GO TO THAT STOP TODAY!" was one of the things shrieked at us behind the ticket counter's glass on Monday morning. "NOT FROM 10-1! NOT AT 3!," was another warning swiftly echoed by other water taxi drivers and public transport people all that day, but with totally different hours and for totally different stops. "Why not 12-2?" my mother asked, timidly, at which point a taxi driver glared at her and howled, "LUNCH!"

In general, the fees for everything were set on a fairly easy to understand pay scale, based on one's age, student or professional status, and country of origin. The basic rule was that, as tourists, we would pay a HUGE increase on everything, as our hotel concierge told us, chuckling mightily as he ran our credit cards for the hotel bill. "And now," he said, smiling broadly, "Our genius Berlusconi takes another 12% from you, madame!"

It was nice to see him so jovial about this, considering everywhere we went the news was on Berlusconi's removal and, in the Wall Street Journal, the possibility of an Italian bank run (7% on a national bond is a blood-curdling sign of just how precarious a position the country was in) and it certainly explained some of the panicky looks certain shopkeepers had when they saw our credit cards. "Cash please," many of them insisted--or begged--one of them explaining that the taxes they paid otherwise were cripplingly ferocious. The concierge seemed to be the only one willing to make a joke of it, winking at us about Berlusconi's particular financial hand in this matter. "And now, madame," he smiled when presenting us another bill (to pay for the night we were supposed to leave but, well, forgot to), "it is time to jack you up again!"

After two months of living in Paris, two things struck me about this. One: It's been a long time since I heard anyone make a conscious joke. None of the waiters I've come across in France is funny. None of the service people, either. Even my French teacher, who is very nice, seems, in place of outright humor, to have developed an exquisitely attuned sense of the absurd. (There might be a reason for this. Typical Monday exchange in French class:

Teacher: How was your weekend?
Rose, wailing: I HATE HAM!)

Two: Venice (and Rome) make Paris--Paris! City of "Please fill this out in triplicate" and "No photocopies, only handwritten, madame"--look like a model of efficiency.

This effect is not mitigated by the presence of certain older Italians, either, at least in the most crowded airports or train stations, where they bum-rush the café attendants, cut in line, drop passports and wallets and books, shove, and generally start arguing with everyone about who's paying for what, where and why. The café attendants, probably exhausted by this, seem to disappear almost as soon as they see people coming or, if they stay, stand snippish and tight-lipped by the cash register, where you are supposed to pay BEFORE you order anything from the counter.

By the end of the week, I began imagining for myself the particular traits and character deficiencies of Venice and Paris. If Venice is your hot cousin who shows up at the big family wedding with the bags under her eyes and the run in her stockings, who saves herself from physical disgrace only by dint of her magnificent hair--never in its life brushed or styled, but always still thick and luxurious as a medieval princess's--then Paris is the cousin with the navy blue dress sheath and tenderly highlighted pageboy. Venice is the one trying to make it as a graphic designer while still working as a waitress, Paris is the one who just finished at an uber-posh law school specializing in artistic copyright infringement. Venice is the one who plops down at the wedding table set up for the still-unmarried younger generation, knocking over her drink as she dumps her purse out on the table.

"Shit," Venice says, rifling her spilled receipts, matchbooks, used Kleenexes. "You got a smoke?" she asks your 12 year-old cousin.

Paris drags on her own cigarette, gold-tipped, slim as a woman's finger. She narrows her eyes at Venice.

"You know," she says. "Berlin and I are getting married soon. I hope you won't be making a scene like this one there."

Venice scowls. Several years ago she had a thing with Berlin, too. Something nasty happened, however, and she still doesn't like to talk about it. To change the subject, she takes a gulp of someone else's (unspilled) wine and jumps up to start shimmying along with the other dancers now twirling on the floor, but as she does, the back of her multicolored beaded dress (fading in patches and stained yellow, Paris notices sourly, under each armpit) catches on something, and there's a sudden, sickening tear.

Everyone at the table stares in embarrassment as Venice's dress splits down the back. Beads scatter. Venice, weakly, mutters a joke about necessary ventilation, and starts to giggle.

"Venice," Paris snips, ashing forcefully in her cousin's uneaten millefeuille. "PULL YOUR SHIT TOGETHER."

At least, this is how I imagine it. Because by the end of our time in Venice, my mother and I were also not pulling our shit together. Sodden, disoriented, we staggered into and out of cafés, museums, stumbling over bridges, dripping and exhausted. Because it was raining, we spent too much time avoiding the elements in restaurants, eating too much and taking too many pictures of our food (in place of all the sights we couldn't see or photograph well in the rain, in part, but also in part for my next book project, tentatively titled, "What Will The Bitch Eat Now?" to be followed by my eventual masterpiece: "Fatty Want Another Snack?"). We lost museum tickets and guidebooks and maps. We lost track, utterly, of time.

Which is how, coming back from our hotel for what we thought was our final night in Venice, we were informed that we were supposed to have left already. Like, in the morning.

And that is how we also lost train tickets, as well, and a whole day in Rome and (almost) a hotel reservation. Which is also how I ended up shutting down my checking account, because I was now desperately trying to get cash to purchase new expensive tickets (the others being, naturally, nonrefundable as they were purchased via RailEurope. "MADAME! THERE IS AN OFFICE IN LONDON FOR THAT!") and, along with all the other things that seemed to have dissolved in my purse and brain from so many hours in the rain and in the company of dissolute Venice, I FORGOT MY PASSWORD. How that is possible, considering I live on that card, I don't know. Anyway, I tried different wrong options one too many times and my account got frozen.

So. That's Venice. Or, more accurately, that's us in Venice. Well-meaning but vaguely dim, clad in our best dresses with part of the hems dragging. Rushing wildly around as we try to photograph everything we can on the last, and only, partly sunny day we had in Venice.

"Well," my mother says, trying to fold her ruined umbrella back up into a recognizably umbrella shape. "At least we tried."

Somewhere, off in the distance, Paris rolls her eyes.


  1. I'm so sorry to hear that your time in Venice was so maddening and so rude-ified. It's one of my fave cities, and I have been treated far better there than in that stinkhole Rome. When I was there with my kid, everyone fell over themselves to fawn on us and assist. Maybe you should take my kid next time you go.

  2. Oh, Venice. I'm so allergic to mold and must that I've always thought Venice might just kill me. Now I know she'd just have fun keeping me out all night and making vicious sarcastic comments about me while doing it.

    So not even an art-deco encrusted wazoo impressed the Venetians? I thought for sure.

  3. They say a lot of my retreating wazoo, that's for sure. It is a gorgeous city, much more so than Rome, but definitely an angry place. I wonder if it really wasn't something to do with the political and economic tensions, all those austerity measures being proposed this week. Rome was crazy with news crews and police this week. But a kid! Yes! That's the ticket for traveling better in the Mediterranean areas. They seem to love kids there. Oddly, not so much in Paris. There seems to be real hostility towards them being in restaurants. You almost never see young kids at restaurants here, and old ladies on the metro are forever rolling their eyes at rude foreign kids. So, my advice is to have a baby in Italy, and drop it off somewhere before getting to the northern reaches of France.

  4. They saw a lot of my retreating wazoo. I swear, this auto correct is going to be the death of me.

  5. Naturally, you are in Italy smack-dab in the eye of the storm, that brief respite before all Berlusconi-hell breaks loose again. Good one. Hang on to those umbrellas.