Venice is for roommates
When Italian friends invited us to spend a week at their apartment overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice we didn’t have to confer very long before accepting their offer. The only question, and it was reasonably profound, was whether they came along with the deal?
Were they giving us the apartment to have and to hold for seven luxurious days? Or would they be joining us? That could affect our calculations. As much as we enjoy their company there comes a point in life when you’d prefer not to run into anybody during a three a.m. bathroom run. Also, if we were sharing the space would we be obligated to share meals with them? And what about the beach cabana we intended to rent on the Lido?
My wife, an optimist, was persuaded we were being bequeathed an empty apartment. She could already imagine the scent of cappuccino brewing in the fully equipped kitchen as she threw open the windows on a sparkling Venetian morning to watch the vaporettos and gondolas go by.
I, on the other hand, was convinced that Cristina, our host, was planning to spend significant amounts of time with us. Perhaps all seven days. Debbie interpreted an email from Cristina’s daughter to mean that her mother was driving from Bergamo, their hometown, to unlock the apartment and hand off the keys. Maybe she’d spend the night. Two max. I read the email as suggesting that Cristina intended to take full advantage of all “La Serenissima,” as Venice is known, had to offer.
My wife humbly acknowledged on either day three or four of our apartment share with Cristina and her girlfriend Maria Theresa, both recently widowed, that I was right and she was wrong. But you know what? It was fine. Conversation was a bit of a challenge for Debbie since she doesn’t speak Italian and the ladies’ English was as impoverished as my command of their native tongue. But what they lacked in syntax they more than compensated for with their hospitality.
I think I realized everything was going to be all right when for dinner the first night Cristina expertly cooked a delicious light, flaky orata in olive oil together with breaded peppers and eggplant. She’d purchased the fish that morning at Venice’s famous fish market a few minutes walk away.
It’s risky to stereotype the members of any nationality. But warmth, acceptance and a reverence for food and wine -- “La Dolce Vita” I observed to general acclaim as we clicked our glasses -- seems part of the average Italian’s genetic inheritance.
By the way, the apartment was as lovely as we’d hoped. Large double windows with window seats opened onto the Grand Canal. They came with long velvet seat cushions that Maria Theresa, Cristina’s friend, advised me, even have a name. They’re called “strapuntino”. That roughly translates as a jump seat.
We would leave for the beach early – jet lag worked in our favor and we were out of the house almost before the ladies arose -- and invited them to join us at our cabana in the afternoon. Fortunately, Cristina and Maria Theresa were as energetic as we were lethargic. The ninety-plus degree heat did little to thwart their ambition to visit museums and the Biennale, the city’s international contemporary arts exhibition, on several days.
In the end, we ended up dining together a lot. One night Cristina invited us to an excellent seafood restaurant on the Lido that’s a favorite of hers. The following night we reciprocated with a different seafood restaurant on the island that’s a favorite of ours. In Venice you can happily go for days without eating meat. A third evening it was Maria Theresa’s treat. Cristina told us that her friend’s husband had been Bergamo’s mayor.
In the same way that families return to Cape Cod, Maine or the Adirondacks summer after summer ours went abroad. I couldn’t tell you why, except that my mother was European and spoke seven languages, so places such as Venice felt like home to her.
But we’d always stayed on the Lido, at the same hotel, now sadly shuttered, where Thomas Mann set Death in Venice. This was the first time we stayed in Venice and commuted to the beach by vaporetto, the island city’s equivalent of the crosstown bus.
I enjoyed venturing out in the morning to score croissants filled with jam or nutella before the streets of Venice filled with tourists; and we discovered a café in a gracious nearby campo where you could sip excellent cappuccino and watch the world go by.
The cabana, with its shaded deck chairs and bed, didn’t just provide a respite from Venice’s over tourism. It may be one of the more gracious if anachronistic inventions civilization has devised. Especially in the Mediterranean heat, you’re allowed to feel virtuous for doing nothing at all.
Debbie and I dined alone our final night in Venice. Cristina and Maria Theresa understood. But they’d created a splendid farewell lunch the next day -- a smoked salmon, greens and mango salad; followed by prosciutto and melon, cheeses, fresh fruit and ice cream -- before the water taxi arrived to take us to the airport.
They want to do it again next year.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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