Italy, Chapter 3: Venice!

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We arrived in Venice at night. You’ll have to excuse the blurriness of my photos but you know, there was a lot going on and I didn’t exactly have time to set up a tri-pod.

It was magical. It’s a huge insult to say this but the closest thing I could think of to compare Venice to in my very small exposure to the world was that it felt like being on the Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland. That’s how surreal everything felt. I half expected the lights to come on at some point and I’d see ceiling panels in the ceiling. But there was no ceiling. We weren’t on a set. It was real.

It’s a really weird feeling, being in a village full of lights and surrounded by water on all sides. Water at night is just a creature all it’s own. Ask anyone who’s ever taken a cruise and gone out on top of the boat in the middle of the night. It is vast and creepy but also beautiful. Everywhere you looked there was water. Water was in place of streets and sidewalks.

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We caught a water ferry and slushed away off to our hotel for the night.

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Our hotel, The Hotel Palazzo Giovanelli, was something else. Teresa, our friend the travel agent, gets special privileges sometimes because she refers her customers to luxury hotels like this.  As her companions we got to take a sneak peak at how the rest of the world travels in style and let me tell you, IT IS QUITE THE STYLE! When I come back to Venice as a millionaire this is where I am going to stay. It was gorgeous AND very very old.

It makes you wonder how many generations of nobility have stayed here and how many ghosts might haunt this place? Thankfully I didn’t encounter any ghosts but I did encounter many staff members who had impeccable manners. It was really a special treat.

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Pretty bed, pretty chandelier, pretty bathroom…Not too shabby! And our view was the courtyard that you see in the first hotel picture. That was our bedroom with a terrace over-looking the courtyard. I can only imagine how magical the view of the Grand Canal was. Swoon!

So yes, we had a very nice stay there and no PTSD was experienced.

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The next morning we set out to see Venice by daylight. The first thing we did, and I highly recommend this, was take a gondola ride. You might think it is cliched and you could skip it but I would beg to differ. There is nothing like riding around in a gondola, experiencing the deftness of the gondolier first hand. They are masters of boat maneuvering! I couldn’t even believe how quick and clever our gondolier was. A little tilt here, a little nudge there, a quick push off a brick wall and a lean to the left and we were swishing by other boats with only a hair of clearance.

Our gondolier’s name was Pierre (of course) and he steered our boat in and out and around the tiniest canals filled with major boat traffic like he was walking down the street. That is what the water canals are to people who live here. Just another sidewalk! They grow up riding down canals (and falling in, Pierre told us) like it’s no big deal. It’s just a way of life. Can you imagine?!!

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We took a quick jaunt down the main canal and I was star struck. The open water, the buildings packed in together like sardines. Curves and lines, different textures and time periods all smashed together in a juxtaposition that made your eyes dizzy. Chapters and chapters of history all squished together before us. It was all just too much to take in!

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We obviously managed. It might have been a blessing in disguise that I had my camera stolen in Milan because I could focus exclusively on taking pictures with my phone camera and I wasn’t fumbling around with equipment and accidentally dropping it in the water.

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I loved the small canals. There is stone everywhere. No dirt, no grass just lots and lots of marble and stone. There is no rhyme or reason to the canals and where they streets and alleys connect. It’s like a giant maze. One alley will be narrow then it will off shoot into a larger street which dead ends in a canal… I did feel a little bit like a mouse in a maze with only my natural sense of direction to help me.

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The textures… everything is old and falling apart romantically! If only we could take some of this old world charm home and apply it to our bathroom that needs to be remodeled because the shower leaks. It just doesn’t work like that back home though. Old peeling paint and messily spackled cement is just not as beautiful as it is in Venice. Oh Venice, you age so well….

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As you can see boat traffic is a thing. But we never crashed once. Not even a scrape!

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After the gondola ride we headed straight for the famous Riato bridge. Along the way we happened upon a fish market. I had fun taking pictures of seafood that I would never ever eat. That’s the thing about me and visiting exotic locations on the sea. The local food is completely lost on me because I won’t touch it. I hate all sea food (except the very rare salmon sushi). Even seaweed grosses me out. So I pretend I am a vegetarian when I am visiting sea ports. It’s just easier. I don’t want to insult anyone over their cuisine. I’m sure it is very good. I just happen to have an aversion.

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This is the view from the Rialto Bridge. It was crowded with tourists taking the exact same photos we were. We had to wait our turn to get a shot by the railing. But you can see why it is so popular. It’s very very pretty no matter how many times you see it.

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The wonderful thing about visiting Venice in October though is that it was only slightly crowded. Christine told us that in Summer it’s just one long line of tourists everywhere. I can see why the locals are so annoyed. It’s almost like they have to carry on their daily lives on the rooftops to avoid the crush of tourism. By summer standards Venice was a ghost town but by my standards it was just how I like it.

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Shoppity, shop, shop! So many things to see and buy. I did fall for a few bags of lemon risotto (that I completely flubbed up into mush when I got them home) and some tasty lemon salt.

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I did not buy a mask though. At this point my suitcase was already stuffed to it’s capacity (with homemade items from Varenna and Bellagio) and there was no way I could squeeze in a fragile mask.

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We visited St. Marks Square twice. Once all three of us and then Christine and I went back in the early evening while Teresa schmoozed with the hotel staff. The unfortunate thing about getting robbed was that the thief also took my phone charger so I was beholden on Teresa to share her charger. She was very generous but during the time I visited St. Mark’s Square during the golden glowing light of sweet time, my phone was stuck in the hotel getting charged. I should have bought a new charger but I didn’t think of that until the very last day, like an idiot.

So I didn’t get to take any pictures of St. Mark’s Square during sweet time. But believe me, it was beautiful. We had the most lovely time sitting on the square drinking iced coffee and munching on biscuit cookies. It’s funny I’ve had biscuit cookies a million times but never fresh like they were here. I think the cookies I’ve had in the states are actually the same cookies except they are shipped from Italy and therefore stale! Tasting them freshly baked was out of this world! I spent time drawing in my sketchbook and enjoying the lack of a phone. Sometimes unplugging from your phone can be absolute bliss. Of course the documenter in me was aching to take photos but I was forced to just sit there and enjoy.

At one point a group of older gentlemen started singing mountain folk songs in the middle of the square. They just stood in a circle of old men singing their hearts out. Their voices harmonized and echoed off the surrounding marble walls. I got the chills listening to them! And guess what? One of them was Christine’s cousin (or uncle, I’m not sure) so they had a little reunion and everyone got hugs.  I felt like a local for a moment and vowed that when I get old I am going to join a singing group and travel the world singing. There is so much more to life! I see no reason to stay home watching television and getting depressed.

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We walked along the Adriatic Sea just taking everything in. I saw a woman modeling, artists selling art, young back packers lounging, at one point a cruise ship even pulled in. It was all the different kinds of vacationers on display. Everybody wants to see Venice and with good reason.

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I really love to take pictures of the locals though. I like to pretend I am a National Geographic photographer getting a slice of the local life. If anybody wants to hire me as a travel photographer I am over here waving my hand enthusiastically. Pick me!

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I’m sure this photo has been taken thousands and thousands of times but it is so special to me because I was actually there. I can feel the warm breeze, I can hear the lapping waves, I can hear Christine calling me to speed walk to the other side of the island to see even more amazing things.

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We had the best food in Venice. Pizza, Pasta Arrabbiata, Burratta Caprese and plenty of bottles of red house wine! I will never eat at Olive Garden again. Not that I was a fan anyway but soggy pasta is now dead to me. There is no reason to ever eat soggy pasta again.

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All the waiters flirted with Christine and Teresa because of course they are cute (duh) and their broken Italian endears the Italians. Everybody loves a tourist that at least tries to order in Italian. By the end of our trip I even picked up a few words. Italian is very similar to Spanish and by context I found that I could understand a lot. Speaking it not so much but I definitely got the gist of what was being said.23-textures-of-venice-1

Mostly, I love the rhythm and sing-song-y-ness of Italian. Everything has an upswing and a downswing when it is being said. I could copy it in a minute but unfortunately this is a blog and not a podcast. If you know me in person ask me to share how the Lake Como ferryman announces the destinations. It is unforgettable.

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Ah, locks! Not much to say about these but they were romantic like everything else in Venice. I am definitely bringing Payam back here someday. Payam was worried that it smelled in Venice and I don’t really think it did. It wasn’t fresh like a daisy or anything but the smell of the water wasn’t repellent. Just old and musty maybe but there was enough fresh crisp autumn air that I hardly even noticed it which reinforces my theory that fall is the best time to visit.

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Venice is full of curiosities. Every which way we turned there was something new.

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Remember that coconut fountain? They have fruit cup fountains too!

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And windows. Windows and windows and windows. I could make a whole coffee table book full of photos of windows in Venice. Every single one unique and different from the last. No homeowner’s association rules here!

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My travel mates took a lot of cute photos of me adventuring. Sadly, I don’t have high resolution copies of these images but I might have to track them down. I do love a travel photo of the back of someone’s head. It just makes you feel like they are going places. And I am!

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And then it was time to go. I kissed Venice an air kiss goodbye and promised that I would visit again.

Next up: Florence!

Italy, The Trip that Broke Us: Chapter 1

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I’m back from Italy and I’m sitting here realizing that I’m a completely different person than who I was when I left. Frankly, I think I’m experiencing a little bit of PTSD from this trip and what happened to us. It’s been really hard to process and part of me wants to just not blog it, like I do with all negative things: Pretend it doesn’t exist. If you don’t have something nice to say (or funny, you can say not-nice things with humor) then don’t say anything at all, right?

But my trip to Italy was an amazing trip also. There are lots of parts I do want to blog. I saw so many sights, I took so many pictures. I want to share! I have a lot of good stories too but unfortunately I can’t tell the good stories without including the bad stories because they shaped every part of this trip.

So this is my story:

On the day we left, the Santa Ana’s blew in hard and tore off a limb off our front yard jacaranda tree. I was a mess of nerves and excitement, filming the wind damage and dancing around with glee that I was leaving soon on a girls’ trip to Italy. I hardly slept the night before I was so excited. I LOVE ADVENTURE. But I was also full of anxiety, did I pack the right things? Did I forget anything? Would I have everything I needed? Check, check and re-check.

This trip came up out of nowhere, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Our friend Christine wanted company on a trip to Milan for business purposes. She’s spent all last year in Italy and is pretty fluent in Italian.  My other friend, Teresa, is a travel agent. We put it all together and decided we’d take a girls trip of a lifetime!  It all happened so fast I didn’t get time to buy trip insurance which is ridiculous . I figured it would be fine. Every other trip I’ve ever been on has been fine.

But it wasn’t. Note to travelers: always buy trip insurance. You have no idea what could happen to you.

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The night before our trip Payam bought me a new backpack. An expensive one that was really cool. I was going to buy it for myself but he swooped in and bought it for me like the generous loving boyfriend that he is. You can see it up there with the big gold clasp. I took a picture of my luggage while we waited for our flight because I was worried it might get lost and I would need a photo to show to the airlines if they needed to track it down. Funny, that was what I was worried about.

I don’t know why I thought I needed a backpack. Backpacks are really not that great for traveling. But I didn’t know. I thought it was just what I needed to carry my laptop and my camera. It worked pretty well, at first.

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Our flight was long and uneventful. It was really hard to sleep but what else is new, right? Long flights are always hard to sleep through. The arm rest gouges into your back when you turn sideways, your legs cramp up, it’s cold…everything is uncomfortable.

But who cares! You’re traveling across the world and it takes time! We were off and I was excited.

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Finally, we arrived in Milan and a van picked us up to take us to our Airbnb. My eyes were bugging out of my head, wanting to see everything at once. Maybe the car wreck in the oncoming lane should have been an omen of things to come but then again maybe the limb of our jacaranda tree getting ripped off could have been an omen. Maybe I don’t really believe in omens.

Some Prius-like vehicle was upside down in the oncoming traffic lane and it’s front was badly smashed in, most likely a fatality. Sirens wailed and traffic backed up for miles.  This was my first impression of Italy. I remember thinking that drivers were pretty aggressive in Italy. Our taxi driver drove very fast, dodging in and out of lanes with complete ease. It was just another day in Italy for him. For me it was whack-a-doodle bananas. But at that point I was strung so high everything seemed whack-a-doodle bananas.

When we got to our Airbnb we met Christine and she whisked us off to see the sights and get dinner out. I don’t remember feeling at all afraid until we got to the Duomo. It was very crowded.  Kind of like when I visited Notre Dame in Paris and gypsies and pick-pocketers swarm you.  You’re staring up at this giant church, ogling it’s massive presence and then suddenly you feel someone putting corn in your hand.  I didn’t know what to do. Why did I suddenly have corn in my hand?

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“Feed the pigeons!” a man said to me, standing right next to me. So I threw the corn in the air for the pigeons. “No!” he shouted. “Hold out your hand to the pigeons.” So I did and some pigeons started landing on my hand. It was kind of cool and crazy. I tried to take pictures of the pigeons in my hand but my camera was too close. It was a really weird experience but I felt a little vulnerable because I was so distracted. I couldn’t be sure someone wasn’t going to swipe my bag or my camera and my friends were calling to me to leave before the man demanded money for his pigeon trick. Somehow I got out of there.

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We walked around and looked at everything. It was all very overwhelming and exciting. I definitely had stimulus overload but in a good way. I love seeing new places for the first time. Everything is new and different.

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This fruit stand and gelato truck intrigued me with their freshly roasted hazelnuts and coconut fountain. Have you ever seen a coconut fountain? Not me!

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We walked through the galleria and I spun around for good luck on the golden bull. What a funny tradition. It didn’t really bring me good luck but I got a kick out of it.

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After a delicious dinner (that I unfortunately don’t have any photos of) we walked back to our Airbnb and settled in for the night.  I couldn’t sleep of course. I mean, how could I?!! I’m in Italy and it’s so exciting!

Somehow I got to sleep but then at 3 am I heard some noises outside so I got up to investigate. We had left our window open a crack because it was stuffy in our bedroom. We were on the ground floor but our window was a good six feet up from the sidewalk outside. For some reason it never crossed my mind that it was dangerous to leave our windows open. So at 3 am I peeked out the window to the street outside. I saw a man moving trash cans around, making the noise that I heard. I thought it was strange that he would be putting trash cans outside at 3am but I figured he was a custodian of some sort and maybe that’s how things worked in Italy. I do remember the man saw me. We made eye-contact.

Then I went back to bed. I slept fitfully, waking up half an hour later. I don’t know what woke me up but I remember staring at the door of our bedroom into the living room. It was open about half a foot. I remember thinking I saw something in the dark. A shadow moving. I couldn’t be sure. I told myself my eyes were seeing things and continued to stare at the door to see if it would happen again. It did happen again. I got up thinking maybe it was Christine doing yoga or something, though that was kind of a weird thing to do in the dark.

When I got to the living room I knew something was wrong. The living room window was wide open (not at all how we left it) and the contents of my purse were splayed out across the couch. My purse was there, my passport was there and my credit cards and driver’s license were there. My moleskin full of sketches was there and even my small pencil bag full of pens was still there. Everything else was gone, including the 300 euros I had gotten out for spending money. Even the cheap pleather card holder that I kept my license in was gone. Why would they go to the trouble of removing my cards and take the pleather holder? It was very strange. Maybe the thief didn’t want to leave me high and dry.

I ran to wake up Christine in the other room. I shouted, “We’ve been robbed!” Everything became a blur after that. I ran into our room to see if anything had been taken. My backpack that held my laptop and camera was gone. Everything except my suitcase and my phone that was plugged in under the counter was gone. I was lucky. I had my phone, my passport, my driver’s license and my credit cards. But I lost my laptop and my camera and my new fancy backpack that Payam had just gotten me. The sadness hit me like a ton of bricks.

I must have interrupted the thief because he didn’t make it to Teresa’s stuff or to Christine’s room that was separate from ours. He only got my things and snagged Teresa’s sunglasses that had been sitting on the dresser near the bedroom door. Everything else was left untouched.

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Christine called the police and stammered through a police report. It was really hard to communicate over the phone. Interpreters were involved and the phone connection was really bad. Christine kept hearing her own voice play back at her.  Police in Italy don’t exactly operate the same way they do in the US. They didn’t seem to think it was necessary to come and asked us to come into the station the next day to create a report. That was no good for us because we had train tickets to go to our next destination the next day and all of our travel plans hinged on getting there on time. This was a royal kink in our plan.

We were pretty freaked out. Everything was scary. I remember thinking the thief could come back at any moment. Here we were, three women feeling kind of helpless, shocked and vulnerable.  Were we targeted? Was it the trash man I had seen at 3am? Had someone followed me from the Duomo? So many questions. I just wanted to get out of there.

Two policemen did come and we made a report but they didn’t speak much English and they didn’t really have anything encouraging to say. I told them the story. I showed them the footprints on the windowsill that was not more than three feet from where I slept. We surmised that the thief must have come in through the bedroom window (right by where I was sleeping) and left out the living room window. It was so creepy to realize someone was staring at me when I was staring back at them in the dark.

The Airbnb owner came to help us communicate with the police and tried to comfort us. He told us nothing like this had ever happened before but I’m not sure I believe him. He did seem really nice and worried about us. He stayed for a while but eventually left us. We didn’t know what to do. We waited until dawn and then left for the train station.

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The picture above is the couch that my belongings were strewn across and the window on the right is the window that I peaked out and that the thief entered through.

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I vowed that I wouldn’t let this robbery ruin my trip. My heart was broken that I had lost my camera because I wanted to spend this trip taking pictures. The fact that my laptop was gone was a huge blow financially but I knew I could start over. I had made a manual back-up before I left and everything would still be there when I got back. It would just be another big purchase that I wasn’t counting on at all. This trip to Italy may have been the most expensive trip I have ever taken.

But all is not lost! Next up:Varenna, the sleepy little village that healed my soul.