Europe | Italy | North East | Venice – Venetian Hourglasses
Venice is supposed to be one of the most-romantic cities on the planet. Though I have no patience for the excuse that “I didn’t have anyone to go with,” even I was feeling lonely at the prospect of seeing what I knew would be an incredible place all by my little self. But in the end, I pulled my ego up by the bootstraps and said, “I’m going!”
From Budapest it’s a 16 hours train ride, so I rented a couchette in order to get a little shut eye. A couchette is a fancy word for a very tiny locker with bunk beds. Imagine six beds in the space of a small closet. A two foot aisle separates two rows of bunks three high. My backpack could hardly fit into the couchette with me. Having said that, once lying down, the couchette is really quite cozy complete with clean sheets, a blanket, a reading light, and even breakfast in bed (because there’s no where else to eat it!).
Renting a couchette is always a gamble, especially when traveling alone. There’s just no way of knowing how many other people will be in the couchette nor of what variety. I was blessed: no creepy guys, no robbers, no couples. My companions were Sofi, a 23 year old Hungarian on her way to Sicily to see her Sicilian boyfriend, Jeong Heun (pronounced Tsung Henn) traveling solo against her parents’ knowledge from South Korea, and another Korean boy who never became one of the characters in my life.
When the train pulled into Santa Lucia the next morning, the three of us girls decided to spend our Venetian time together. Setting out alone rarely means being alone. To the contrary, it means only beginning when you choose to meet others. I felt my spirit recoil for an instant at the prospect of spending my only day in Italy with two complete strangers. I recoiled for just a minute, my sense of independence feeling threatened, and then remembered where I was — in Venice — and it would be no fun at all to ooh and aah to myself. If I couldn’t be there with some handsome love of my life, girlfriends were the antidote!
All three of us had only one day, each of us departing at different hours, so we took off from the station unencumbered by baggage with the whole day ahead of us. What joy we found in simply wandering through the little alleyways of Venice with no idea where we’d end up! Sofi had been to Venice several times and spoke some Italian. Between her limited Italian and my Spanish we managed just fine, with little Jeong Heun trying to keep up with us the whole time.
It is so easy to fall in love with Italy. Venice is a tourist hot spot. Everything is more expensive than you’d like it to be, and yet the charm overrides the obvious tourism. It is impossible not to smile, especially as the Gondola drivers try to persuade you to fork over a small fortune for a ride through the canal by looking you deep in the eyes and saying ‘Ciao Bellas.’ Sofia especially garnered the attention of the Italian men. It seems hardly one passed without some look or comment towards her, but they were always more romantic and alluring than say the German Train Attendant from the night before. A side story: our steward, who slept in the car right next to ours, didn’t bother to flirt with Sofi at all. He simply came out and said, ‘Don’t you want to try it in a train? Come to my bed tonight.’ Needless to say, she did not. Strange to me, she felt comfortable going to bed in the next car anyway. I was glad to be me and not Sofi if only to avoid such ruthless come-ons from men. I mean, come on. The American Feminist in me would have kicked him in the nuts even if it meant being thrown from the train.
After just minutes of aimless wandering, Jeong Heun, Sofi, and I stopped into a deserted cafe for a cup of coffee. I’m not ordinarily a coffee drinker because caffeine wrecks havoc on my body, but in Spain and Italy I can’t refuse because they do coffee so well. Just being in Venice was occasion enough for me to drink coffee. While we sipped our cappuccinos, Jeong Heun listened attentively to Sofi and I chat away, mostly comparing Spanish and Italian. This must have been irritating to Jeong Heun considering she didn’t speak either language and was struggling to get by in English. But she listened with a full smile on her face. Suddenly, she started to speak. Then she stopped, pulled out her English dictionary, looked something up, and then as Sofi flirted with her boyfriend over her mobile phone in Sicilian, Jeong Heun said to me, ‘It is hard, in English, for me to express my heart.’ She put her hand over her heart as she said this. I thought to myself, how wonderful it is to hear non-native English speakers try to express themselves. Their limitations turn them all into poets, their sentiment deepened and profound. Usually, such depth happens by accident, but with Jeong Heun I suspected she was talking from a spiritual place within herself.
After the coffee, we went back to our aimless wandering which included window gazing. In many of the windows of Venice are displays of the colorful Comedia del Arte masks. Jeong Heun stopped to take some digital photos of the masks, saying they reminded her of Korean masks. She called Sofi and me over to her. Before we could take in all the colors and contours of the masks she took two small objects out of her bag, one was a small mask on a leather necklace, the other a miniature tablet drum with Korean letters etched on the outside rim. We admired the objects with curiosity and then Jeong Heun placed one in each of our hands, folded our fingers into a cup, and said, “They are for you.” I imagine in this way she was able to express her heart.
By noon we’d eaten pizza by the Ponte de Accademia (one of the hundreds of bridges in Venice), admired the view from the tower in Piazza San Marcos, and walked along the undulating tiles of the Basilica. Our time was running out. The sun sitting low. Sofi had a special mission. Four years ago she’d visited Venice with a former boyfriend and happened upon a street that she fell in love with. All that remained was a picture of the street which she’d left in her flat in Budapest, but she wanted to revisit its picturesque character. The only problem: she didn’t know exactly where it was. We wandered in a supposed general direction. Sofi worried that she would leave Venice without finding it. “Don’t worry,” I said, “We will find it. It will appear if we just keep walking.” I suppose that is my philosophy: in Venice I didn’t even bother to buy a map and despite the canals, bridges, meandering side streets, and dead ends, walking always lead me to the place. Sure enough, my theory worked and just at dusk we stumbled upon her beloved street, extra rosy in color from the sun baked hour. I knew immediately why she’d fallen in love here. In all of Venice, it had to be the most romantic corner. She’d been there with a boy she loved. Such memories don’t fade. They become etched forever instead. I could see Sofi sigh and in doing so take in the atmosphere, hoping to take it home with her. The paradox of travel is that you cannot take your journey home and yet you take all of it with you, always.
Shortly after discovering the street, Sofi had to depart for the train station and her 18 hour journey onward to Sicily. Jeong Heun and I walked with her to the vaporreto (the water bus). The three of us hugged, kissed, and made promises to write and visit one day, and I felt again that passing sadness. When traveling it is difficult not to live in the moment, and painful if you slip into the future. All relationships are forged with the full knowledge that they will not last, that most likely this moment is as good as it will get. And so you live those moments because the alternative is worse, but you suffer the mini-tragedy of goodbye. In my case, the frequency of such goodbyes has increased in recent days, perhaps as I step into my own travel rhythm and the universe bends with me, introducing me to the people I want least to leave. As soon as Sofi left, Jeong Heun gasped. She seemed to suffer this tragedy even more than I. I might guess this is because with her timid English, she less frequently makes the friends she will miss when the travel is done.
As the vaporreto pulled away taking Sofi with it, Jeong Heun looped her arm through mine and held on tightly. She said she got nervous at night and never walked around after dark. But she said she felt safe with me. I did not like this one bit. I suddenly felt responsible for her safety. It was enough to be to responsible for myself. She made no decisions about where she wanted to go or what she wanted to do. It was, for all intents and purposes, as if I had suddenly grown a tumor, one that was preventing me from navigating the narrow streets with grace. In the span of minutes, my mood had shifted from one of gratitude for my new girlfriends to one of distaste. I did not want to be anyone’s protector. I was at least one foot taller than her and with each step we took together, I lost the momentum of my own femininity. Jeong Heun was pulling the confidence out of me! I felt irritated, as men must sometimes feel when they find themselves in a relationship with a woman who is either helpless or plays the role of someone who is because she thinks it will boost the ego of her man or help her regain the womanhood she gives away on a daily basis. Then, to make matters worse, Jeong Heun said to me, “You are as tall as my boyfriend.” In my mind, I was being warped into an Amazon woman of masculine proportions against my will. I wanted to be released from this elbow lock! But I knew the only way to be released was to find empathy with little Jeong Heun, so I started asking questions.
And she answered. She told me she wanted desperately to marry her boyfriend, but that he did not want to marry her. Though she never said explicitly, I was under the impression that this trip was her way of making a statement, or perhaps a way to recover from the breakup, a sentiment I can relate to even though my relationship dissolved well over a year ago and the ones since need no recuperation. Jeong Heun, at times, was caught calculating her life. Already 29, I sensed her urgency to marry and get on with being a proper Korean woman. She invited me to Seoul, especially to meet her handsome brother also my age. I told her I’d be unable to make any major trips until 2005 when I finished graduate school. Her eyes rolled back into her imaginary calculator/biological clock and she said finally, “In 2005, I will get married.” She said so as if it were already arranged. But when I asked her to whom she would marry, she said she didn’t know yet. “I will be 31, so I will be married,” she responded. At 26, I admit I’ve tried to make similar calculations, but I have no answer. Luckily, I have room to budge and a culture that will at least partially understand if I never marry, even if I choose to never marry.
I liked Jeong Heun very much, her confidence and trust in me, her delightful giggle, her honesty, but her meekness (which I considered a cultural condition) bothered me too much. Even my attempts at empathy were failing me. I needed to get her off my arm so I could begin to respect her as the fellow independent woman and traveler that she was. So, I suggested dinner.
It was cold and dark out by now and though neither of us was especially hungry, we decided to find some food. First, though, we came upon a dog waiting outside a shop for its owner. Being the dog-lover that I am, I stopped to pet the pooch. Jeong Heun, still attached to my arm started to whimper and pull away from me. I sensed at once that she considered this a vile things I was doing — petting a street animal. Our cultures clashed in a most tangible and painful way as I wondered how some people in her country could eat dog at all. I did not dare ask. I lead us, instead, to a restaurant.
I was happy to be at a table, across from Jeong Heun instead of her Siamese though giant twin. I wanted to blend in for a bit, to take off the obvious tourist armor and just eat dinner. I even did my best to order my meal in Italian. I found myself ordering for both of us, still playing the role of some antiquated ideal of a gentleman. Next thing I knew my beloved Jeong Heun was taking out all of her maps and guide books. The dinner table was littered with tourist collections, brochures and ticket stubs. I cringed quietly inside. She wanted to discuss our rapid-fire itineraries. I just wanted to be in Venice, not in the Budapest of yesterday or the Chamonix of tomorrow. The couple next to us were chatting and I heard the woman say condescendingly, “Students traveling.” This irritated me to no end because I fancy myself more sophisticated and worldly than an Erasmus student. But even as my irritation bubbled inside, I laughed at the lunacy of my hypocrisy: when there’s a student discount, I always lie and get away with it. I straddle the fence at all times. One day, I hope I will feel content, though not complacent, with whatever cross-section of life I eventually find myself.
Perhaps all I really needed was the warmth of fresh ravioli pasta and an Italian beer in my belly to help the culture clash subside. I started to feel more peaceful. My annoyance returned to a healthy level of curiosity. I asked her about her parents, if they were supportive of her travels. She told me she’d lied to them. They didn’t know she was traveling alone at all. To the contrary, she’s told them that she was meeting people along the way. Suddenly my friendly admiration of Jeong Heun returned. I was proud of her for doing something for herself despite all the nay saying back home. I regretted that I’d been so critical of her clinginess. I had not acknowledged what an incredible leap of faith she’d made, what a risk she’d taken to be here in Europe. Jeong Heun was much stronger than I, and I felt humbled at her table.
After dinner we ate gelatos under the neon of the ice cream sign. Jeong Heun said, “I met many friend on my trip, but I will forget you.” I couldn’t help but giggle. She corrected herself quickly, and said, “I mean I will NOT forget you.” Then I walked her to the water bus station, showed her on the map where she needed to go to catch her train and her night connection to Zurich. I hoped she’d meet new friends in the couchette that night. Then we hugged goodbye, maybe forever.
I tasted my freedom return to me on the Grand Canal of Venice as I sailed to Isola de Guidecca and my comfy bed at the youth hostel, Jeong Heun and the dock disappearing in the distance.