Ciao Bella

The government arrived the day I left. I bought a newspaper, but most of it was used to keep the fish frozen.

I felt a twinge of guilt about this barefaced insult to the Italian press, so I kept eight pages to read on the vaporetto—I found nothing of interest, so they also got stuffed into the fish bag—insulation.

The cabbie in Piazzale Roma was speedier than his Fiat—you couldn’t shut him up. He went through the various taxi favorites: job loss, which inevitably led to Ubers, which are forbidden in Italy; the euro and the economic damage in Southern Europe; and immigration, always immigration: Gaddafi, negroes, France—the usual quota of random bigotry.

All the while, he eyed me through the rear-view mirror—since he wasn’t cross-eyed, that definitely impaired his forward vision. Except on sharp turns, he crossed his arms and used the steering wheel as a ledge for emphasis—it was a fun ride.

From gondolas to ambulances, life in Venice is always on the water. Lurking in the background are a bunch of gondolier boaters.

The new prime minister is a lawyer, whose claim to fame is that he is a ‘defender of the Italian people’. Given his background, I’m guessing he’ll make a balls-up of the whole thing pretty soon—never mind, one thing the cabbie and I agreed on is that Italy does fine without a government.

The Veneto region’s GDP is on a par with Greece, so Southern European comparisons are only relative—Venice is today a very affluent city, as it always has been. Nowadays the big play is no longer trade with the Orient, gone since the days of the Portuguese navigators—it’s tourism.

I was lucky to stay in Dorsoduro, far from the insanity of St. Mark’s Square—the city has a population of sixty thousand, and currently receives thirty million tourists every year—fifty-seven a minute.

The place is crazy—Americans, Chinese, Russians, Arabs, and the usual dusting of Europeans—crowding the narrow alleys, spilling out of cafés and bars, and cluttering the vaporettos.

Dorsoduro is calmer, stores are cheaper, and you do occasionally spot a Venetian or two. If the average tourist is in town for four days, then the ‘resident’ tourist population of Venice works out to over three hundred thousand—that’s five tourists to every local. The faces change, the numbers don’t.

It comes as no surprise that on occasion the odd visitor is taken to the cleaners—earlier this year, four Japanese were charged a thousand three hundred bucks for a meal of steak, grilled fish, and—wait for it—mineral water.

Amazingly enough, they paid up, and they only filed a complaint when they returned to Bologna!

I was hanging out with Scandinavians, and one night we were out a trifle late—by the time we were done, the boats had finished. That meant a twenty minute walk to the hotel, an ideal post-prandial digression—Venetian food is both rich and copious. We hadn’t been walking for three minutes when one of my partners in crime sped off towards the water and loudly hailed a passing speedboat, its starboard light dimly visible in the pitch-black night.

The boat did a U-turn and coasted into the jetty. “Come here, come here, speak to him! Tell him where we want to go!” My Norwegian friend was beckoning me with great enthusiasm, matched only by his linguistic shortcomings. After a brief investigation, it transpired that the good mariner would take us in his water taxi for the trivial sum of eighty-five bucks—a five minute ride.

The Norwegian took three seconds to accept the offer. No amount of argument could change his mind. By now the boat guy was smiling from ear to ear. I thought of this princely sum in vinic terms: what a splendid bottle of Amarone, or a brace of delicious Taurasi, this fare might purchase.

But off we went. And at some point in the journey, when we entered a narrow canal, the Norwegian raised his arms in joy and loudly proclaimed “I am the king of Venecia! For tonight. Only for tonight!”

When we docked, his friend thanked him warmly. “When you lose your job for presenting that receipt, you can come and work for me.” I bid the Scandies good night, and wished them well in their hunt for a nightcap—one thing I’ve learned at my cost: never try to outdrink Norwegians.

You see, I had an early start next morning—I was on a fish mission. The storage of this particular consignment had been a challenge—one hotel didn’t have a suitable freezer, the other was concerned with HACCP. So we negotiated with a restaurant and stashed it in their congelatore.

Sometime after nine in the morning, I found myself attempting to communicate with a large, white-coated Italian lady.

“I’m here,” I explained, “for the fish.”

She looked at me sternly. “No,” she said to the insane foreigner who had invaded her empty dining room. I repeated what I wanted. She put down her mop and wagged her finger at me. Despite her age, I felt this fishy business might come to a sticky end. I tried lesser known varieties of the Italian language—her eye sharpened. Finally, we woke up the owner.

I watched as the fish—a couple of beautiful Norwegian steelhead, some halibut, and a few other goodies, trundled safely into the airplane hold. Outbound, I had delivered a few bottles of late bottled vintage, in a remake of the medieval Hanseatic League. Replacing them, in my other case, a superb bottle of twelve-year-old Taurasi.

It won’t make it to teenage.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.



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