Comes a time

On my fifth day in Europe the train was rolling into Venice, across the long bridge that connects the Italian mainland to the tiny island city and I still couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that I was arriving in the magnificent city that built a trade empire entirely on water so many centuries ago. Still, I wasn’t feeling like a person should when seeing a place such as this for the first time. The skies were grey and I had been on 3 trains already and it was not even 3:00 yet . The crowded four hour train ride from Ventimiglia to Milan had left me with the feeling you get when riding in a car too long with the windows rolled up and the stale air leaves you slightly nauseated with a headache. Sure, I had ended up sitting next to a recently retired high school English Literature teacher from Naples on the way to see her sister and we connected immediately having one of the deepest conversations I have had in some time but I was feeling cranky and needed to stretch out a bit. That conversation turned from politics to educational systems to literature and for some reason she trusted me enough to tell me of the troubled relationship she had just escaped and it reminded me of the one I had with my ex-wife. As dramatic as it sounds, in some ways that conversation has changed my life and enabled me to grasp and accept things that I have been wrestling with but it was exhausting. The stop in Milan was all too brief and I only had 15 minutes to change trains and as is typical, the train I needed was 28 tracks down the platform and I rushed through one of the most incredible train stations I have seen and was perturbed that I didn’t have any time to spend there. The train from Milan to Venice was much cleaner and roomier than the one from Ventimiglia to Milan but to add to my perturbation there was somebody sitting in my assigned seat just like on the last train so I decided to sit in another and wonder if somebody would come along and find me in their seat and ask for it. One does not get arrested for sitting in the wrong seat so it’s not a huge deal but try as I might to find evidence to the contrary I live under the assumption that people are stupid and if it wasn’t for the idiots in society then civilization would be great. I only know that people are stupid because I am one but I do try to follow the basic rules. I guess I had woke up on the wrong side of the bed that day.

I jumped off the train and the way the station is situated does not give you any views of the city, which is good because I was not ready to see it and paced a bit while stretching my legs and trying to clear my head. Maybe I needed coffee. I also needed to change my dollars to Euros and did so, getting ripped off compared to the other places I had been. Deciding it was time to hit it I walked through the station towards the Grand Canal starting to feel that excitement a landlocked citizen gets when walking to the beach on the first day of vacation awaiting the salty breezes to hit them. Pulling my map out of my back pocket I was finally ready to do this….except  I had pulled my passport out of my pocket with the map and did not know it. A few steps and three people were running towards me from different directions with panicked looks on their faces pointing behind me and confusing the hell out of me. “Passport, passport!” they were all saying to me and as I turned around I did in fact see my blue passport and all the addresses I needed for the trip laying on the ground. A young girl had broken away from her group and was picking them up for me and as I walked back to retrieve them we both shared the look of relief that comes from realizing that a lifeline was almost lost. She was relieved for me and besides the obvious relief that I felt, I was again relieved for humanity, civilization, and people. The universe had once again taught me a lesson in humility that I was happy to accept. As I walked to the light of Venice life outside the station I heard several people telling their companions, “Wow, he dropped his passport and almost lost it”, “Could you imagine?” and the like. I still needed coffee but gratefulness had overtaken crankiness and I was barely ready for the brilliance Venice was about to smack me with outside the station doors. And the sun had just come out from behind the clouds.

Venice is a maze to navigate and if it wasn’t for the GPS in my phone I could have spent days wandering around lost (in a good way) and never find the hostel I had booked. My hostel was in the heart of the city and I had plenty of time to get there so I took it, traversing the streets, stumbling into open courtyards, walking across tiny arched bridges that spanned the canals and taking in Venetian life. It was a particularly festive day as hordes of people were marching the streets chanting a 10 or 11 word phrase over and over that I couldn’t understand. In different parts there were strange rituals taking place. In one corner of a square a person would read out a passage from a hand-made poster, the crowd would laugh, and someone would attack them with food. In another square a young man dressed only in skimpy underwear and a wreath on his head was running through a gauntlet with his head down and they would all smack his back. In another there were two young ladies doing a skit of some sort with a crowd of 12-15 people around them moaning and fake crying, then bursting into creepy laughter. I later found out that it was college graduation day and this is just what Italians do. After several hours of wandering I was getting hungry and needed to find the hostel. I was getting close so was not worried and took the time to stop about every 5 feet for photo ops. I was overwhelmed. Eventually the sun got lower and lower and I knew I had to find my place to stay. I had entered the hostel’s address into my phone before departing the states and could see the red pin of the address on the map and the blue dot of my phone approaching it. It was near a courtyard with several restaurants so I would just go check in, get a bite to eat and figure out what to do next. As I followed the blue dot I came upon the street, which is more like an alley and now that I think of it, there were technically no streets at all because there are no cars allowed in Venice. As the blue dot got closer to the red pin I was pretty satisfied until the blue dot passed the red pin and there was no hostel. There was a door that was locked that looked like someones home but there was no sign and the address did not match what I had entered. I was on the right “street” but the order of the addresses made no sense. Maybe it was down the alley or nearby so I walked further, the blue dot getting farther from the red pin. I checked the email confirmation I had and the hostel’s website to confirm the address and I had entered it correctly. There was a phone number but at that point I didn’t want to waste an international call just yet. I walked back towards the red pin following the blue dot and stopped at the same door where the blue dot was now hovering above the red pin and nothing had changed. No sign, locked door, crazy address. This time I knocked and got no answer. OK, so maybe it was one of those days after all but I was hungry and thirsty for Italian beer so chalked it up to that and walked back to the courtyard to eat, passing a building with an awning that said “HOTEL” and referenced that as backup plan A in my mind. As I leisurely ate the plate of ham and cheese, sipped the beer , and ate the lasagna I began to tell myself that I was not going to try and find the elusive hostel again but would stop in the other hotel I saw and stay there whatever the price. And then I began chuckling, thinking about Carter.

As a back story, I have a buddy named Carter that I went to high school with. I don’t think I actually met him until junior high but when I was in fourth grade my mom started working in the school district I attended as a secretary and had told me stories of this character named Carter. We did not run in the same circles in high school and I believe he moved away for a couple years then came back but I’ve always felt that I’ve known him forever and in some way feel close to him. We are Facebook friends and keep in touch sporadically. He is a Capricorn like me and lives in Arizona and has achieved an extraordinary amount in his life, living in an entirely different tax bracket than the rest of us. He is a truly nice guy and when I had posted on Facebook that I would be backpacking through Europe for a couple of weeks he commented on my post that I was a better man than him because he always has to stay in the nicest hotels when he visits Europe and then called himself a snob. It was a funny comment and yes, I had to admit that I did feel pretty proud of myself for having the guts to do what most college students do right after graduation. As I finished my meal and was walking to my “new” hotel I was still chuckling for realizing that maybe Carter and I aren’t that different after all.

I walked into the hotel and up the steps to the receptionist area and was greeted by a British man. The hotel was in a rustic building and was very charming. I asked the guy if he had any rooms and he said that he did have one but it had a shared bathroom and that it was sixty euros. A bit steeper than my 23 euro hostel I had booked but I wasn’t even sure the other one existed even though they were about to charge my credit card for the room whether I was in it or not. He went to show me the room and I have to admit it was crappy for the price but better than the four bed, dorm style hostel I would have been staying in so I agreed. He then turned to me and thought for a second and put his finger to his cheek and told me that he actually had a room in the bed and breakfast building across the courtyard and in his British accent said slowly, “I could probably do that room for…say…20 euros more and it has it’s own bathroom. It’s really quite lovely. Would you like to have a look see?” I said sure, beginning to feel like I was in the middle of a sales pitch he practiced often, but what the hell? It’s only money and I’ve been a sucker many times before and besides, Venice had already shown me that humanity is decent and I was in the mood for a game anyway. We walked over towards the other building and I began to tell him that I had already booked a room but could not find it. He asked which one and when I told him he exclaimed that he knew that one and that it was right down the road and he could show me. I told him I had already decided during the second beer at dinner that I was not going to stay there, especially if they couldn’t make it easy to find. And besides, twenty years ago it would have been cool to stay in a hostel but I’m already over it. “Yeah, I suppose there comes a time in all our lives when we need the finer things and are entitled to a ‘lil comfort,” was his response. I had to agree with him and he reminded me that I was going to love this room. What I didn’t realize was that it was going to be a palace.He unlocked the door and we began walking up to the third floor as I told him that I was having a great trip and the main thing I was in Europe for was to take photos. He replied that I would absolutely love the rooftop patio that was included with the room. Cool. As we got to the third floor he showed me the breakfast area which was close to my room. He unlocked the door to the room and watched my face go into shock. “Shame they’re going to charge your credit card at the other place.” Perfect timing to say that phrase but I didn’t hear him as I gazed over the magnificent room and walked over to the curtains, drawing them back to find two huge windows that overlooked a courtyard. He said it was time to show me that rooftop and like that we were up two more flights of stairs. On the fourth floor he stopped and opened up a little fridge stocked with champagne and told me that it was complimentary and added that they don’t count the bottles, they just stock the fridge each day. Sweet. I, of course, was already sold but if not, the rooftop would have sealed the deal. As we walked back down the stairs to go check in he told me that it was lucky that I came at this time. As it was not yet high season they were not booked and they rarely get any walk-ins past 4:00. His boss hates for rooms to be unoccupied so he just made up the price since I “looked like a nice mate.” Typically that room is 250 euros and whether or not that was true I knew that it was definitely more than 80 euros.

That night I went through Venice to take some night photos and had a really nice time doing so. I got lost once again, not just in the corridors, but behind the lens and anything that had frustrated me that day was well behind me and a calmness washed over me. I was able to find my way back to the room but was exhausted and my muscles ached. I am a shower guy and have not taken a bath in I don’t know how long but the bathroom in this room was completely modern, completely tiled, and completely luxurious with a huge tub. I drew a bath and sunk into it, poured a glass, and placed the champagne on the floor next to the tub as I sipped and slipped into a state of bliss, chuckling and not even bothered by the fact that I too, am a snob. Here’s to you Carter!

I slept like a rock that night waking up refreshed and hungry. I popped out of the room to check out the breakfast spread and was the first one there. It was hard to believe how much food was available compared to the chain hotel breakfasts I am used to in the states. I spent an hour at my table savoring everything they had to offer, getting up frequently to get something new and sampling the array of jellies and patés, washing it all down with coffee and juice. I was definitely ready to tackle the day and was certain that I had woken up on the right side of the bed on this day. I did stay in a few hostels during the rest of my trip and sleeping in general population isn’t a bad experience but it sure doesn’t come close to what I enjoyed in Venice.

Yes, there comes a time when we’re all entitled to a little comfort.

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