If it’s true that knowing one Italian always begets another, this time I struck it lucky. The first time I see Dr. Pino I am left with the memory of a crisp white and blue shirt, freshly pressed pants and the manners of the old-fashioned gentleman he is. Venetian through and through, an ear and nose doctor and a veritable mine of information on the lagoon and its history, in the course of the few hours we will spend together, I will fall in love with his wit and quick humour, his intelligence and his gentlemanly but straightforward manners.
When we speak on the phone, he suggests we meet for a drink at the Accademia Bar, right under the bridge. I got to him through my best friend’s parents and a convoluted story of relations I will spare you but, when later that day, he comes to pick me up in his little boat, right outside my apartment’s door, the prim and proper shirt has been replaced by baggy jeans, tennis shoes and a polo shirt. I had agonized whether to wear jeans with such a proper gentleman and I sigh with relief when I see his attire.
Dr. Pino is about to show me Venice at dusk, the way everybody should see it, from the water. Every travel book will tell you that is what you should do but, short of renting a gondola for 130 euros that will only buy you a brief tour of the Grand Canal and a few adjacent smaller ones, the alternative is to befriend a Venetian.
Owning a boat is a bit of a necessity here. How else to take home that bookcase from Ikea, or a week’s worth of shopping or run any of the myriad other errands we take for granted when we drop something in the trunk? Boating etiquette dictates that one drives on the left in the canals but on the right out in the open water of the lagoon.
Two things happen while gliding on the murky water – first, the sounds of the city become muffled and distant and, second, the perspective of the buildings changes. Deprived of wide, open views, one is forced to focus on the framed “paintings” at the end of each canal and to look up, coming close to otherwise lost details of buildings whose fronts you are finally facing. The ghosts of Venice are all there in plain sight. It’s easy to imagine tall torches framing the large doors, casting light on the nocturnal visitors, or merry women being ferried to the casinos. It’s also easy to fathom large rats scurrying at sea level although, to be fair, I didn’t see any.
Under low bridges and even under a church, the city reveals its true maritime nature, the way it was conceived, and the fading sun dancing on the pastel and golden facades brings back the vestiges of what once was.
Leaving Venice proper, the imposing old Arsenael on our right, Dr. Pino is determined to make me see an unexpected side of the lagoon. Vignole and St Erasmo are the two islands on which fruit and vegetables are grown. Scarcely populated, if not by farmers and the few souls who choose to live in such a bucolic paradise, the islands are a mixture of small sandy beaches, forests and fields. We alight on one side for a glass of prosecco and a walk on the beach and then on the other, for a simple meal of seppie al nero (calamari in squid ink with polenta, one of Venice’s delicacies) and grilled fish. Darkness has fallen and the Serenissima’s lights beckon in the distance. Grappa and prosecco have made us talkative and from Dr. Pino’s mouth pour out the stories I yearn to hear, of how Venice has changed in his lifetime and on how wonderful and different life can be here.
As if I hadn’t seen enough beauty, on our way back, we approach the city by entering St. Mark’s basin – from the sea I can’t see the crowds or the posters marring the piazza, only the golden globes of the church and the imposing bell-tower with the lions standing vigil. And I take in what many before me saw when first arriving in Venice, from the Orient or the North, the French and the Austrians who took possession of it, they all saw it first from the sea. Proud, beautiful, exotic and difficult. Come get me, she beckons. You might have me but you will never fully know me. To this day, still.