Saturday, January 08, 2011

Venetian Life Lessons

Several times when I lived in Boston, the quickest route from my apartment to wherever else I may have wanted to go was an alley. This horrified my mother who felt I should be sensible enough to know that the extra five minutes around the block was not worth the possibility of being stolen. Sensible I was not, and I continued to walk through, although I stress that it was not that big of a deal. The pizza place I frequented opened onto the alley, and they knew me and so watched out for me, if only to see what stupid thing I would do next. My then-boyfriend’s apartment also looked onto the alley and if the walk was too sketchy I would just call out that I was walking through and to please come meet me. I’m positive this was endearing.

The problem is that I like quiet streets, especially ones hidden away in busy cities. Where my mother sees stealing potential, I see peaceful respite from the loud traffic and crowded sidewalks. This has always been a point of contention between us, from the shortcut I took back and forth to school in London when I was 13, to the time I walked around the other side of the castle my first day in Edinburgh, to the fact that I thought nothing of early morning runs (or afternoon walks for that matter) through the streets of Havana. Actually I’m not sure how much she knows about any of these. Mom, maybe forget you read this, ok?

I would argue (whether convincingly or not) that it’s worth it to occasionally ignore the warnings against random wandering in cities. Very rarely have I actually felt unsafe (and most of that was the fear of my mom’s reaction should she find out) and I think as long as you are not being stupid, beyond the actual wandering itself, these random trips can be some of the most rewarding. Luckily I tend to surround myself with people who feel the same way, so at least if I am wandering, I have other people with me. Never mind the fact that we are all short and look about 12, so being in a group hardly helps. But still.

Before our cruise in April, Aheli and I arrived in Venice a day early so that we could explore the city. Aheli, like me, tends to wander while travelling. She has also been to Venice before (albeit as a child) so we decided that we would not be purchasing a map of the city because it cost a whole two Euro. And why spend that on a map when you can get gelato instead?

Early in the day, this was not a problem. There were signs to the main attractions, and lots of good food along the way. We happily got a huge lunch of pasta and gnocchi followed by caramel gelato and sat ourselves in the Piazza San Marco to people and pigeon watch for a good portion of the day.

The sky was overcast, and so it started getting dark fairly early and we decided to be sensible and head back to the hotel. Now, both of us have a fairly good sense of direction, which combined, usually means we can find our way back the way we’ve come. And we did mostly, if you ignore a few extra loops around the Rialto Bridge. But I would argue that it is so pretty that it has to be seen from several angles to truly appreciate its beauty. Or something like that.

Anyway, we stopped spinning and were en route to the hotel when we felt something behind us. By this time the streets were less crowded and the sky was dark so we were on high alert. We turned, and saw nothing out of the ordinary, a few tourists, some kids, a man in those swishy track pants so popular in the 90s. Nothing special. We kept walking. But we couldn’t shake the feeling of being followed. We turned again: Different tourists, other kids, a man in swishy pants. Oh wait a minute…

Now we were definitely alert, and as we kept walking we realized that we weren’t so much aware of a presence as the sound of swishing coming up behind us. We stopped. It stopped. We took a few steps. Swish, swish, swish, came the answer. Was swishy pants man following us?! Before we panicked we needed to be sure. So we tested our theory:

We stepped: Step, step.
He swished: Swish, swish.

Step, step, step.
Swish, swish, swish.

Step, step, step, step.
Swish, swish, swish, swish.


He was! He was following us! We stopped, and turned ‘fiercely.’ He nonchalantly examined a nearby flower pot. We stayed where we were; it was a swishy pants show down. Finally, he had to concede and swished on past us, as we glared ‘menacingly.’ We waited until the sound of swishing had faded into the distance and continued walking.

There are several lessons that I could have taken from this: Don’t wander in a strange place, Always buy the map, Don’t go out after dark…

But I do all those things anyway. If anything (and you can’t convince me otherwise), my years of practice prepared me for this situation and allowed me to focus on being followed, while not being concerned with the rest. No, for better or worse what I came away with was: If you’re planning on following people, it’s probably best to make sure you’re wearing quiet pants.

Valuable lesson learned.

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