floating relic: venice by gondola

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Venice by sandolo

I was content to keep exploring Venice on foot. While the idea of a gondola ride had its intrigue–is there anything more uniquely Venetian?–in reality the excursions looked less than romantic. From where I stood–on bridges, mostly, peering down into the polished boats–I saw sullen gondoliers wordlessly transporting families of six who videotaped the entire experience. I watched young couples who flicked through their phones and barely regarded each other or Venice as they were swept through the city’s canals.

Any charm seemed in danger of suffocation by the fierce overhead glare of the sun and the thick crowds on the Rialto Bridge. People were jostling, posing, and dripping gelato on the steps as one boat after another passed through the main waterways, nearly bumping up against one another as if this were Disney’s It’s a Small World instead of a private, 80-euro experience.

As I walked, though, with Victor, wandering far from the densest masses of crowd, I fell for the empty gondolas. Bobbing gently in quiet corners of the canals, their onyx-black hulls glittered in the sun, modest quests for attention. Their distinctive color, I later learned, dates back to 16th-century law: an attempt to halt gaudy competition between gondoliers.

Still, each gondola I saw was unique. Their interiors were scarlet and gold, or occasionally, cobalt blue. They held bright rugs and gold vases filled with sunflowers and glossy wooden chairs with floral upholstery and red cushions with white lions. Gold mermaids and winged horses and angels leapt from the sides.

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The gondolas were perfect objects, indisputably beautiful. The gleaming wood and elegant curves brought to mind musical instruments: the grand, glossy elegance of a cello or bass.

Italy is known to prize the aesthetic, with its concept of bella figura, its reverence for beauty and grace. This Cadillac of a boat, I thought, was a good example: moving at 3 miles an hour, walking pace, the gondola is a relic in the 21st century, wholly unnecessary and fully lovely. ACS_1031

It takes about two months to construct a gondola and costs upwards of 20,000 euros to purchase one. Eight types of wood–cherry, elm, fir, larch, lime, mahogany, oak, and walnut–are joined together in an ingenious, flat-bottomed design that allows the boat to navigate in water just centimeters deep.

There seemed no better way to directly experience Venice’s aquatic history than by getting into a boat. We decided to go for it, in our last full day in the city, as long as we could find one a bit off the beaten path.

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Gondola rides are price-controlled, currently eighty euros for a standard daytime ride and one hundred at night. But shopping around is worth it, as the experience differs greatly depending upon the starting point and the personality of the gondolier.

Victor and I walked until we found the neighborhood we remembered from a previous stroll. I don’t know how we found it, really. The endless tiny streets–some of them dead-ending into the canal–confounded my navigation apps, not to mention my nascent sense of direction.

We were in the quiet Campo del Ghetto, the Jewish neighborhood dating back to the 16th century. The English word ghetto originates from Venetian dialect geto, meaning ‘foundry,’ and this was the area’s purpose before Jews were isolated and forced to live there. Campo del Ghetto was cut off from the city until 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice and ended the neighborhood’s separation. Today, the Ghetto is a calm area with a Holocaust memorial and five synagogues.

We saw a boat coming in and waited by stone steps leading into the canal. The gondola was piloted by a woman– a sight rare enough to be striking, but I didn’t yet know how rare. Researching it, I learned there are so few women gondoliers that you can know them by name. Their names are Giorgia Boscolo and Chiara Curto: out of about 400 total gondoliers, there are two women.

Ms. Curto was the woman steering the boat up to the foot of the bridge, smiling and ruddy-cheeked. But she told us she was booked for the rest of the afternoon. It had been a day where we kept running into Closed signs; it seemed a fitting, disappointing end. But then she said she had availability for the sunset tour. She made a note and we hurried off into the maze of streets.  acs_0833

Freshly showered (and wearing distinctly clashing outfits), Victor and I returned a few hours later. The water and buildings shone soft pastel in the waning sun. Ms. Curto helped us into the boat, and then hopped up on the nearby bridge to take our picture. I didn’t have to fake my smile (and couldn’t have stopped it if I tried). If there’s ever a place to be a fool in love, it’s on a boat in Venice.

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Victor noticed the gondola didn’t have the distinctive iron ornament (the fèrro) that we’d spotted on the front of the other boats. That’s when we learned we weren’t in a gondola at all but a sandolo. Sandoli are wider and flatter than gondolas, used for rowing. They can access shallow spots in Venice most gondoliers wouldn’t go. They are also, Ms. Curto told us, even older and more traditional than the gondola.

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Chiara didn’t sing, but she was full of stories. In brief silences, the only sound was the oar moving through the water. We swept under bridges–Ms. Curto deftly ducking out of the way–and past churches, bars, and boats. We glided under laundry, the great equalizer, a cheerful reminder that behind these flung-open shutters and crumbling brick walls life churned on, messy and mundane. Whole duvets hung out to dry on the pulley systems spanning the canals.

As Chiara steered the boat back to the foot of the bridge, I stirred, dreamy-eyed, like I was waking from slumber. As in sleep, time had ticked by in secret, and the half-hour outing felt as if we should measure it in seconds.

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I wondered what would it be like to be any one of them. To work standing up in a boat, battling the cold and the sunburn. To bask in beginnings, to witness the unveiling of so many shining engagement rings. Might you be cynical, a poet, or some combination?

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Might you be proud: carrying on a centuries-old tradition that is in no way vital to the city’s operations…but surely vital to its heart.

travel notebook: alone in italia, day two

Cinque Terre teems with tourists.

Scattered about the rocks like camera-happy penguins, people are:

sinking into squats for the photo angle

showing their ‘best side’

crunching on fried things served in cones

dripping gelato (and offering bites to their dogs)

brandishing walking sticks like weapons, the hallmark of the serious hiker

carrying hot cardboard boxes of pizza down to the sea I can’t help but fantasize about these same streets: cleared of about three-fourths of the people. But I’m finding the Cinque Terre villages so lovely to look at and stroll through, I hardly mind. It was a long, sunny day and I am the best kind of tired. My morning started with a view of another nearby village, La Spezia, from my hostel window. The hostel is cheery and pleasant, a refurbished elementary school painted bright yellow. There is an Italian restaurant and a light-filled common room, where you can have coffee at wooden tables with a view of the village church. There are bookshelves filled with battered Hemingway and Salinger and foot-high vintage tomato cans.

I am sharing a four-bed female dorm room. In the morning, it was just me and Lauren, a Londoner who is currently living in Bologna and teaching English.

Greeting people as I go to brush my teeth, it strikes me how funny hostels are: sleepaway summer camp for adults. Something you sign yourself up for. You’re not forced to attend any activities or participate in cringe-inducing ‘team-building’ games. The friendships are all on you. There’s something so charming and old-fashioned about all this sharing, about the choice to live again out of lockers and bunk beds.

Lauren and I take the hostel shuttle together to the first of the five villages that make up Cinque Terre. Riomaggiore. We walk around a bit and then take the train. Typically you could start hiking from here, but landslides and falling rock have made that impossible at the moment. It’s only 9:30 and I am surprised to see that the regional train is crammed. Like nothing I’ve ever seen in France.

Lauren and I part ways for the day and I walk around Manarola, the next village down the coast. The air is woozy with jasmine from the bushes that dot the cliffs. It’s sweet and delicious, a natural eau de parfum.

I find a few picnic tables tucked under a bamboo roof. What a place to write. I am glad I gave myself so much time here (five nights is the plan). I can afford to sit down and write whenever the mood strikes.

It’s a different mentality from most of what I see. It’s approaching 11 and tourists spill onto Manarola’s tiny streets, rushing from the train, snapping selfies as they go. People are almost aggressive in their pursuit of fun: seeing it all, making the most of it.

Below me, a good ten feet down the cliffside, there is a small bar overlooking the bay. Some women sit, smoke, and slice through crates of lemons, limes, and blood oranges. A lazy hour passes and I hop on another train, jumping down the coast to Corniglia. Corniglia offers dizzying views of the sea and a scoop of my new favorite gelato flavor: ricotta, chocolate chip, and pistachio. So basically a creamy cold cannoli.

From Corniglia, finally the trails are safe to start hiking. I buy a 7 euro trail pass and set off for Vernazza.

The hike is rigorous, and filled with Germans and Swedes wearing sun hats and armed with walking sticks. There is sun and much sweat and soon, a view of the village we’ve just left behind.

People are peeling off their clothes in the heat. (This tends not to be the practical Germans and Swedes, but the young Americans and Italians of all ages). There is a way, I learn, to shrug out of your sweater and tie the arms in a bow around your back, forming a nifty tube-top. A few older women, sun-brown, skip the modesty and hike in bubblegum-pink bras. In this instance, I keep my shirt on.

Vernazza is a shock of noise and clatter. Its one main street is absolutely drowning in tourists. I hear the buzz of voices while I’m still high up on the trail. Here it is again, that aggressive enjoyment. Families on towels dot every available square of ‘beach’ next to the port, which is already covered with boats. Instead of sand, it looks to me like mud. But fun will be had, regardless. Vernazza is making me anxious, so I take the train back to Riomaggiore. This way, I’ll be ready when the shuttle comes. I still have four hours until then (I reserved for 8 pm), but I am wilting under the sun.

In Riomaggiore, I linger over cannoli and coffee. I walk around the port, dodge seagulls, and talk to an Italian guy standing on a high rock. You’re not thinking about jumping, are you? I ask, sure I’m joking. He answers like it’s nothing, plunging thirty? fifty? feet down into the blue.

I meet up with Lauren again and we eat cones of calamari, inciting bird envy.

More nauseating curves and then it’s back to the hostel. I run outside to see La Spezia before it gets dark.

The only “person” I cross directly is a disgruntled black bulldog that sticks its head between the bars of a fence and snorts at me.

Otherwise, as I walk I can see into living rooms, into lives, into what looks like a stone wine cave, several well-fed Italians pouring wine and listening to music.

Back at the Ostello, I meet our new roommates: Heidi from Australia and Élodie from France. It turns out we’re all here for the same, cheerful reason: we all just wanted to see what this place looks like.

Buona serata !

kicking it in cannes

I will be living and working in Cannes, France, home of the eponymous film festival, through next spring. My new city feels classic “South of France” with its brightly-painted houses, palm trees, and abundance of signs advertising moules frites. Yet, considering its element of celebrity, Lonely Planet questions if it still has a soul. Posters and paintings of movie stars from Marilyn Monroe to Brad Pitt stretch across the sides of buildings and dot the interiors of restaurants. Wealth and glamour live here (or at least play here).

It’s beautiful and surely complicated and I’m eager to, well, find its soul. Since I’ll be patronizing small cafés and corner markets much more frequently than the Casino Barrière le Croisette, this shouldn’t be much of a problem. (Though I’ll admit I did pack a brunch-with-a-movie-star dress.)

I have never lived somewhere with beauty like this. Somewhere that people choose to be. It makes me giddy. When I turn corners and see surprise views, or even step outside or see the pink sunset outside my window, I get a feeling in my stomach like the liftoff in an airplane.

On the train from Cannes to Nice, I stood with my substantial baggage, feeling a bit carsick and tired. Two women were mumbling about something and I heard a man interject: On est bien ici, hein? “Listen, we’re pretty good here.” He gestured grandly.

“To the left, we have the sea. To the right, the mountains.” He paused.

Et on va se plaindre? “We’re going to complain?” Oui, c’est vrai, the women agreed. Oui c’est vrai. 

I smiled. That charming French regional pride. Also the fact that I get to share in this. Those crashing waves, those mountain peaks. Whichever way I look, the reminder that I am small. There is freedom in that.

I have moved from a French town economically depressed, default color gray, cafés filled with unemployed men drinking in the daytime…to a town of color, sun, and warmth.

Each day so far has been filled with charm and surprise: Sunbathing in October. A huge piece of watermelon to eat on the beach. Hidden passages. Olive trees. Turning a corner to see a crew in the middle of filming a movie scene. Sitting there enjoying a piece of tarte tropézienne. Pure sunlight and a constant breeze. img_0601

Knowing firsthand how difficult moving to France can be, I didn’t expect all this. I expected the worst, and was ready for it. And I know I can handle the worst: I did that last year. But it’s looking like I can let my guard down a little bit.

When I arrived in Nice, I was warmly welcomed by the owner of the Le Petit Trianon, a charming little hotel in the city center. Manuela told me about the hotel and how she had decorated each room herself. She asked me about my situation, and upon learning that I’m looking for long-term housing in Cannes, gave me her phone number and told me she would call friends to see if she could help.

For at least a few weeks, I’m staying at an AirBnb in Cannes la Bocca, about a five minute walk from the sea. The two-story house with a big garden and blue shutters is also home to a cat named Mirabelle and an ancient pooch, Loula.

My host, Antoine (name changed for privacy), is the father of three kids about my age. He’s a math teacher, which means we both have the same vacation time. And he’s really kind. I purposefully chose to stay in an AirBnb with a stranger rather than by myself, and it has worked out even better than I imagined.

When Antoine welcomed me to the place, he gave me a beach towel and snorkel mask to use. I promptly ran down to the sea, looking for rocks and shells and swimming with schools of white translucent fish. Another day, he drove me around Cannes so that I would have a better idea of my bearings. I had mentioned I like to read, and on Saturday he drove me to a book festival in a nearby small town where I got to listen to French authors speak and even talk with some authors myself, including Cuban author William Navarrete. Being that neither of us is currently living in our country of birth (and we were both speaking a second language to communicate), we had a good conversation about cultural exchange.

After that, Antoine drove me to Gourdon, a tiny, 800-year-old town, to see the view. And last night, he invited me to dinner with his family. There were five of us and we sat crowded around a wooden table, talking and laughing and eating homemade lasagna. I could keep up with the jokes and the subtleties. It has been effortless talking to people this time around, and believe me, that was certainly not the case last year. I don’t take it for granted, though, so I’m really enjoying it.

I am spoiled by the beauty of my surroundings, and by this kindness. I am luxuriating in anonymity while also enjoying all these petits interactions with strangers and new friends. I am remembering why I travel.