As I wrap up my travel stories begun two weeks ago, let’s be clear about this one thing:
I am confident in my sexual identity.
Which is the only reason I am able to tell this story, to anyone, ever.
If that doesn’t grab your attention, I give up.
This particular trip was pretty late in the semester, probably late November, because I remember having a really thick beard.
(Sidenote on the beard front: I mean full beard, not the little chin-wig I’ve sported more or less consistently for about a decade. Late in my stay, I decided to just let it grow out, given that A. I didn’t have and couldn’t afford any clippers and B. it was really cold and I needed all the extra warmth I could get. An unexpected benefit of the beard was that, combined with the somewhat tattered coat I wore at the time, I looked just sketchy enough to keep most strangers, including the obnoxiously pervasive gypsy population, beyond pickpocketing reach.)
Not having the money to stay in Venice overnight, I took an early train one day (thankfully it didn’t leave before I arrived at the station) and planned to spend a good nine or ten hours meandering the canals and streets of the Sinking City before leaving on the last train that night.
Unfortunately, I had my head in the figurative sand and found out while en route that the train workers were planning to go on strike that evening.
To be fair, they had deeply legitimate issues with management that could only be fully expressed via group action on a large scale, their primary grievance being that it was a Friday. However, the timing was certainly less than optimal for me.
Instead of having until the ten o’clock train, I now had until the four o’clock train.
I arrived at the station just before noon.
This left me with roughly four hours to get a replacement ticket, get to the central area of the city, frantically absorb as many sights as possible, and get back to the train station if I wanted to avoid spending the entire weekend homeless in Venice.
In order to avoid standing in line at the end of the working day and risk missing my train, I went ahead and got in line for a replacement ticket directly upon arriving at the station. Since nothing brings people together like complaining, I bonded a bit with the people in line around me, one of whom was a young Asian man named Louie who, though clearly not American, spoke English far better than I. (Or than me, depending on whether you are a conjunctionist or prepositionist.)
Upon being asked about his origins, Louie informed me that he was from Singapore and was a member of their Air Force. Since their airspace is comparable to some American shopping malls, and since most of their neighbors are not entirely thrilled at their continuing existence as an independent nation and would love nothing more than for the unwelcome city-state to engage in unauthorized military exercises in their atmosphere, they lease territory in friendly nations with more real estate for training purposes.
Louie, who was in charge of air traffic control for his air group, was stationed in France and had saved up enough money and time off for a quick excursion to a few major highlights in Italy. He had already dashed through Rome in a day and Florence in two, and was on his way to blaze through Milan after his truncated visit to Venice.
We chatted for a while during our sojourn through the line, and as we approached the window Louie asked if I wanted to hang out while sightseeing. We’d already discussed what we wanted to see and had pretty much the same list – San Marco, the Square thereof, the opera house, and maybe a museum or two if we had time – so I agreed enthusiastically and off we went, riding a “water-taxi” that smelled like it doubled as either a garbage barge or funeral bier after hours.
Of course, the smell turned out to be Venice itself – the tides were doing whatever it is the tides do in Venice that makes it smell like rotten fish for a few months each year – but it really didn’t matter much.
Venice is stunning.
During my time in Italy I kept thinking I would eventually tire of seeing beautiful cathedrals, seeing as every community with a population in the triple digits apparently warranted a bishop. I was wrong. San Marco in particular blew me away, especially since its Byzantine design and mosaics were pretty far out for a kid who’d been studying Renaissance architecture all semester.
The rest of the city is a blur by now, but I remember liking it a lot. Except for the pigeons on San Marco square, which were perfectly willing to perch and clamber all over your person if you remained still for more than a few moments. I was not willing to do so, but Louie, being the adventurer that he was, not only let them climb on him but asked me to take a picture of him covered in winged rats.
“Thanks – my little boy will LOVE it!” he said. I asked if he had a picture, which of course he did, and which of course he showed me gladly – an adorable smiling child on the lap of a beautifully smiling young woman.
I asked if they were in Singapore, and he told me that they were actually back in France at the base. They had originally planned to take the trip together as a family, but the son’s paperwork for the journey had been rejected on a technicality at the last minute, he told me glumly. He couldn’t rearrange his time off of work or get a refund on any of the train tickets, so his wife insisted that he go ahead alone and take lots of pictures of Italy for her.
Sensing that this was a sore topic for my newfound friend, I suggested that we hit up one museum and call it a day since we were closing in on our departure times. Louie agreed pensively, and we started to head along the canal when suddenly he stopped me.
“Hey man, do you… uh… do you want to go on a gondola ride?”
Now, to be completely clear, I did. I very much wanted to go on a gondola ride. But there were two factors that led me to hesitate in giving my answer:
1. I had four Euros to my name. This would, by most accounts of other travelers to Venice, cover me being allowed to look at a gondola for a full thirty seconds before being whacked on the head with the gondolier’s rèmo (which is like an oar, but Italian, so it goes on strike at least once every other week). An actual ride was drastically out of the picture for me.
2. I very much wanted to go on a gondola ride. At night. In the springtime, or some other time when Venice does not smell like offal. With a woman, preferably beautiful but honestly at that point in my life I wasn’t really that picky. However, in the mid-afternoon sun, which was baking up the aroma nicely, with my interesting but definitely male friend by my side, was not entirely perfect in its arrangement of circumstances.
But Louie was persistent, and I felt bad for him, traveling all alone and missing his family, so I agreed to at least ask a gondolier how much it would cost.
After I was revived from the brief fainting spell I had when I learned how much a BOAT RIDE IN A CIRCLE would cost, I said to Louie, “Man, I have four Euros. I’m sorry, I just can’t do this – I gotta save my cash for a bite to eat on the train.”
He wouldn’t hear of it. “Look, Michael, I’ve got money saved up for this trip. I will never in my life be in Venice again. This is literally my last chance, ever, to ride a gondola. I’m getting on one. It’s the same cost for one person as it is for two, so you might as well come with me. Come on.”
Did I mention that he was persistent?
So that’s how I ended up on a romantic gondola ride, in the mid-afternoon sun, which was baking up that fishy aroma nicely, with my interesting but definitely male friend by my side and a gondolier who so blatantly didn’t stare at us during the trip that he might as well have been poking us with his rèmo.
But I have to admit, it was really cool. There was a sense of timelessness as we floated along the decaying city, listening to the gondoliers yelling out their approaches to blind intersections, hearing our guide point out interesting houses and structures along the way. At the end of our ride, he was even kind enough to drop us off at the train station (where he promptly picked up a new and, to judge by his facial expressions, more comfortably paired couple). And along the way, he asked somewhat hesitantly if we wanted him to take a picture of us with Louie’s camera.
I really wish I could find this photo, which Louie sent to a long defunct email address, because it is without a doubt the single most homosexual image of me that anybody has ever had occasion to take.
I mean, the two of us, both presumably straight men in our twenties, were sitting, hands folded in our laps, in a gondola, smiling happily up at a camera, with (here’s the key point) our heads tilted inward toward each other.
When I showed it to my roommates the following week, they exploded with laughter – of course, I joined in, because it was just such an incongruous image that I just had to laugh.
At any rate, Louie had to immediately get on the train, and I never heard from him again. I think about him from time to time, and ponder the ephemeral beauty of friendships between travelers. We had a great time in the beautiful, if pungent, Sinking City, and ridiculous situation aside I’m glad he talked me into that gondola ride.
Granted, it was the middle of the afternoon, not nightfall – there was that omnipresent smell of lingering fish – and, of course, the fact that my companion was a dude. And a paying dude, which kinda made me the girl on this date.
But in hindsight I know that, like Louie, chances are that I’ll never be able to return to Venice, never have another chance to take a gondola ride. And I now believe that if I’d waited for the perfect scenario I would have lost the experience altogether, and that even an imperfect gondola ride beats no gondola ride.
With a rèmo.