Italian Vacation Diary: Chapter 3 – The Gondolorian

Waking up in Venice was a treat, in more ways than one. The weather was nice, so we slept with the windows ajar. Being that there were no screens on the windows, I was awoken by some flying insects that morning. The damp musty smell of the waterways next began filling my nostrils. I recall thinking “where am I and why am I being tortured like this?”. My dismay quickly turned to delight when I looked at the window and saw the astounding buildings and unique landscape Venice offers.
Once we all gathered ourselves we set out to explore Venice for the day. We stopped at a small café where I had an ‘American’ breakfast which consisted of a ham and cheese omelette which I enhanced with a croissant and a Coke Zero. At the café we spoke with a local named Andrea who gave us great advice on visiting the Tuscany region later on our trip. Andrea and Paul talked for a while back and forth in Italian and Andrea complemented him on his language skills.

Before our trip I had studied up on Italian so I could pick up some of the words being said. At one point, Andrea, Paul and myself started laughing which confused the rest of the group. Andrea had asked Paul if we were his kids, which Paul replied blushingly with, “No, no, no”.

By the evening we had hit all the major touristy spots in Venice. We got around by using the water bus which normally costs €7.50 per person per trip, but because we’re dumb Americans we rode for free, illegally. Navigating the tight “streets” of Venice is very difficult because of all the dead ends and bad GPS signal. Several times we headed out one way only to turn around and go back the same way because it was either a dead end or the entirely wrong direction. As the reluctant navigator I took a lot of harassment from the group for these antics. We learned words like sinistra (left) and destra (right) which didn’t help us navigate any better, but were fun to say.
Later we had dinner, I had gnocchi again, and this is where Mike became attached to the word limoncello which he said with a very humorous Italian accent.

After dinner as close to sunset as possible the six of us sought to find a gondola ride. Since this is a busy time of day for the gondoliers we had to wait for one to come available. I started dancing around like I had to pee and saw a public toilet sign not far from the gondola station. I quickly walked to the W.C. and was surprised to find that it would cost me €1.50 to use. I only had 10 Euros on me at the time so I turned around and sauntered back to the group. I found Mike and he lent me a one Euro coin to accompany the 50 cents I had in my pocket. Next I turn around and run back up the hill to where the public restroom was, and by this time I was almost ready to go in my pants. On my trip to find Mike and get some coin, the bathroom closed before I came back. I had no choice but to hold it for the entire 30 plus minutes of the gondola ride.

We all piled in the gondola in random order leaving me to sit in the front facing away from everyone. The ride was delightful and the gondolier was very unrevealed. We quickly noticed we weren’t going on the main waterways and found ourselves traveling down what we would call the ‘back roads’. I looked back a couple times at our driver who did nothing more than steer the boat, poorly, and duck under bridges as we approached them. After a while Mike and I started to smell a distinct yet familiar scent in the air. Each time it wafted by, we would look at each other and chortle. The gondolier’s phone rang and of course he answered it, but this led me to turn around again and glance his way. It was then we all noticed at the same time he was smoking a joint of cannabis. Mike and I laughed and abruptly my urinary pains came back. As we maneuvered through tight waterways, bumping into boats, our high-as-a-kite gondolier seem to have everything under control. All of a sudden we heard a loud thud and a splash. The boat rocked and we felt like we might go overboard. Looking back at our captain we see him half hanging off the boat, on his back, trying to keep ahold of his oar. Shortly after he regained his stability, apologizing, and saying that he is fine, we learned that he had failed to duck low enough to clear a bridge. The concrete bridge clipped his back on our way under and sent him straight to the deck. I think we were all laughing so much it was hard to breathe. I’m pretty sure, though I’ll never admit it in person, I urinated in my trousers a bit when our gondolier went crashing down.
Every bridge thereafter most of us shouted at our driver “Attenzione!” Which is a word we learned earlier when local delivery drivers would want us to get out of their way.
This was another thrilling end to another night of a long trip ahead.

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Italian Vacation Diary: Chapter 2 – Venice

After we disembarked the plane, it was time to enter Italy through customs. We waited in a very long line with a lot of smelly sweaty people. When it came time for our turn with the customs officer, he either didn’t speak English or didn’t feel like talking because he said nothing. After a mumble, grunt, and a stamp, we were cleared to enter the country. Next we headed for the water bus and taxi area. The signs were both in English and Italian, but they still proved difficult to follow. We found a water bus to take us to the main island, bought tickets and 27 Euros later, we got in line. I’m not sure how many people the boat we were on was legally allowed to carry, but I feel like the passengers, crew, and luggage would have been over the weight limit. I was one of the last people aboard because I’m polite and let everyone go in front of me. They told me to sit on some wooden area that was clearly not a seat while everyone else got a padded area. I thought that it wouldn’t be that bad since it’s a short boat ride. I was wrong about that. Between not being able to see much and my lack of seat, the boat trip seemed to take hours. In actuality it was about 30 to 45 minutes.

We arrived near the Rialto Bridge bus station and started to drag our luggage through the small streets and over the hundreds of bridges. The first place we saw we stopped at to have a drink and some food. We had cappuccino and pizza at Gran Caffe aila citti di Torino. This was my first taste of Italian espresso and I was pleasantly surprised how good it was for not being a coffee drinker. Next we began searching for our airBnB which we had trouble getting to because of a lack of navigation or phone usage. Along the way we stopped at a TIM store to get local SIM cards for our phones. Because I’m addicted to the internet I decided that I should buy a one month data plan from a local provider. This turned out to be a great decision as I used over 25GB of data in two weeks and it only cost me 35 Euros. This is where we first got to experience Paul’s understanding of the Italian language. He translated what we wanted to the TIM clerk and we didn’t have any problems. The only downside was our phones weren’t active for another 30 minutes so we still could not use them to get around the city.

Eventually we found the area we were supposed to meet the host for the place we were staying. They were a really nice married couple who spoke pretty good English. They led us through the winding streets back some hidden alleys and we popped out at the place. It was a nice three bedroom second floor apartment with great views of the waterways. We all claimed our bedrooms and started to unpack. Later we headed out on the town to get dinner. We ended up at Dolfini restaurant which was basically empty. Being traveling Americans we had not yet adjusted our eating schedule so we were the restaurant’s first customers for dinner that day. I again payed close attention to Paul’s conversation with the wait staff as I was putting my Italian lessons of the past few months to work. We started with bread and some wine. I ordered gnocchi which has always been one of my favorite Italian dishes. It was dressed in a white alfredo-sque sauce. I ate it all very quickly and remember how delicious it was and how much better it tasted than any previous gnocchi I’ve had. Mike decided to be adventurous and order squid ink pasta. Basically pasta with black sauce all over it. By the end of the meal it had looked like he ate a couple bricks of charcoal; he had black teeth and tongue for a few hours after that. On the way back to our place we stopped at had some gelato, which became a staple for us on our trip. I opted for strawberry and cream flavor that was so buttery and flavorful I can still taste it.

1st Italian Cappuccino

Picture 1 of 4

By this point most of us were tired, but I was determined to stay up to a normal bed time. I found a nice loveseat that I could lay on with my feet dangling off the end and started to browse social media on my phone. The next thing I know I hear a loud bell ringing noise. Not the sound of a phone ringing or church bells, this was clearly a doorbell. I sprung up off the couch, now noticing it was darker than when I last remembered, ran to the door and tried to determine if anyone was there. I eventually unlocked and opened the door to find nothing there. I then heard the ringing bell again and it was definitely intended to be a doorbell. I was still confused on what day is was and what happened, but clearly I fell asleep for some time. Shortly thereafter Stephanie emerged from the bathroom after a fresh shower. It seemed she was trying to find a light and she pulled a string that triggered the doorbell. This was meant as an emergency alert system if you fell or needed help in the bath tub. Lesson learned and mystery solved. After that excitement we went to bed shortly have the sun had set.

 

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Italian Vacation Diary: Chapter 1 – Travel Day

Our first flight wasn’t until the afternoon so we had some time to sleep in and gather last minute items the morning of our trip. A two-week (15 days) vacation is a great idea, if you know how to pack for it. I may have overestimated how many different items of clothes I would need during the trip. Stephanie and I each had a carryon bag plus a backpack to bring on the plane. Additionally, we each had a larger bag to check. This much luggage for two people was not easy to move nor fit in many vehicles. We decided that for a 15 day stay we would get a ride to the airport from our home using Lyft rather than park a vehicle at the airport. To be sure we would get a ride and arrive on time, we requested a ride earlier than we needed to. In order to accommodate our excessive luggage we had to request what is called a ‘Lyft XL’. This is a driver with a larger vehicle such as a large SUV or minivan. Normally, this is for when you have up to six passengers, but in our case four of our passengers were bags of clothes. We were unable to find a Lyft XL in our area, so we had to go with Uber.

We arrived at the airport in sufficient amount of time, unloaded all of our baggage, both emotional and physical, and entered the airport. Some years ago I applied for the TSA Pre-check program which allows you to use the special security line which is usually shorter and less disruptive. Stephanie also got to go through the TSA Pre-check line because we booked our tickets together so we were both through security in less than five minutes. We walked quickly to our gate having shedded two of our bags at the airline desk. Upon turning the corner to the D section of the gates, we saw four smiling faces. Those faces of course were Paul, Natalie, Mike, and Alaina. They were all just as excited as us to get to our destination even though we had a long flight ahead of us.

We all decided that we better get some food before our first flight and we proceeded to the airport eatery. I believe between the six of us, we went to three different restaurants which is one of the benefits of airport and mall eateries; something for everyone. While we were eating Natalie saw someone she knew eating behind us. I usually refer to Natalie as “the mayor” because it seems like no matter where we go, she knows someone. This particular person turned out to be Reb Beach most famously of the band Whitesnake. He seemed nice but also in a hurry to leave, and so were we!

It’s now time to board the plane so Stephanie and I took our seats near the middle of the cabin. Back when we booked our flights I had the great idea that one of us would take the aisle and the other the window seat. With any luck we would have the middle seat empty for us to stretch out into. All of our luck must have been used up on a safe flight because a man sat down right between us. Normally I don’t mind sitting next to a stranger when that person is respectful of my personal space and doesn’t talk to me. The guy who sat between us, let’s call him Brian, took a phone call immediately after sitting down. Because I’m a nosey person I listened to his end of the phone call. In my opinion it sounded like he got good news from a medical test or health outlook. After thanking the person on the other end of the phone countlessly, he hung up, threw his hands up into the air and screamed “Whooooo!”. After a couple more “whooos” and fist pumps he stopped. I thought to myself, “Good for this guy, but I’m glad he’s done celebrating”. As other passengers were still finding their seats Brian decided to explain why we has so happy despite no one asking him for such information. Brian had received a phone call that he had been accepted into “his doctorate program”. Now I don’t know his history or even entirely what was involved in this but I don’t think this news deserved the amount of public display as Brian thwarted. I understand how exciting and proud someone can be when they achieve an education milestone but dude, you just got accepted. In my mind he just got approved for a huge loan in exchange for a future piece of paper. 

We both shared several “WTFs”, eyeballs, and giggles over our past two hours with Brian.

As our plane taxied out to the runway Brian turned his attention toward Stephanie and began to compliment her and ask her questions that made me think he was hitting on her. I know Stephanie is very polite and will never stop this guy or tell him that we’re together so I decided to let it play out. A few times things got weird with him touching her, but it wasn’t in a creepy way, more of friendly interactions. As we were taking off Brian gripped his armrests and put his head back like he had never been on an airplane before. I could see his hands turning white from how hard he was gripping the seat. I kept reminding myself of how I should have never willingly kept an empty seat between us.

Shortly after we were up in the air, Brian fell asleep and I had about an hour of peace on our short flight to Atlanta. Most of the time I listened to music as I was saving all my real entertainment for the long flight. As we descended into Atlanta Brian awoke from his somber where he seemingly forgot everything he talked about before falling asleep. Part of his short-term memory returned as he became instantly reinvigorated by his doctorate news. He mentioned again how excited he was with more fist pumps and “whooos”. This time he was talking to both of us instead of just Stephanie, but definitely didn’t know we were together. The one thing he did, that I will never forget, is he crossed his arms, put his head down and gave Stephanie and I both playful arm scratches from under his folded arms. He also let out a very weird and excited “Ewwwww!” as he touched us. I froze and didn’t know what to do because I never expected something like that. We landed safely and I rushed off the plane leaving Stephanie and her new boyfriend behind. I even saw Brian get Stephanie’s bag down from the overhead compartment. As I walked away I laughed to myself, “I’m a terrible husband”. They walked off the plane together and Stephanie joined me and I saw Brian walk away in defeat. We both shared several “WTFs”, eyeballs, and giggles over our past two hours with Brian. Now it was time to get ready for our nine hour flight to Venice, Italy.

We boarded the giant 767 plane and got settled in. Stephanie and I opted for the “Delta Comfort+” seating which gave us a little more room and two seats by ourselves. They were a lot less roomier than I imagined. This flight was much less eventful than the shorter flight before it. I tried to sleep and definitely fell asleep a couple times, but never to the point where I felt like I was rested. The person in front of me decided that they were going to recline all the way back like no one should ever do. He was essentially reclined back to in between my legs and I was left starring into the balding top of his head. I attempted to lean my own seat back, but didn’t want to disturb the people behind me like a good human being. They served dinner which was surprisingly good. I had brought a bunch of snacks and drinks but didn’t need any of it as they kept you well fed and well hydrated. Shortly after dinner, they served breakfast which was funny to me because yes we were landing in Italy in the morning, but we just ate dinner a few hours ago. Breakfast was also surprisingly good. We landed in Venice around 9am local time but really it was more like 3am at home. I can’t speak for everyone, but I was very tired.

 

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Italian Vacation Diary: Prologue

After a successful Outer Banks trip in 2016, Natalie, Paul, Stephanie and I tossed around the idea of the four of us doing an Italy trip together. The next year both of us couples bought houses and Natalie and Paul were unable to attend the follow up OBX trip so our Italy plans had become unknown. After settling in our new homes we had a chance to talk and we were all in favor of keeping the Italian dream alive. The planning commenced.

We decided that the next spring would be the target time and spreading it over Memorial Day would give us an extra day of vacation to play with. Word soon spread that we were going to Italy so it was expected that we would have some envious outsiders. Paul, Natalie, and myself work at the same company so we had a lot of time to think up ideas at work. Our coworker Mike quickly got word that we were planning this Euro-trip and expressed how he and his wife talked about going to Italy for a honeymoonesque getaway. We accepted Mike and his wife Alaina (who coincidentally works with my mother) into our travel group and began planning the serious details.

One late summer evening the six of us gathered at Paul and Natalie’s house and had a whiteboarding sessions of what and where we wanted to see. I was very ambitious with all the cities and landmarks I wanted to visit since this may be my only visit to Italy. We soon devised a plan to start in the north and work our way south. This was going to take a lot of driving and a lot of time.

As the autumn leaves began to fall our anticipation rose. It was still too soon to act on anything as flights were not available. By the end of the year we had pretty much solidified our plan as follows: Fly to Venice, travel south to Rome, maybe hit Pompeii before making the trek to Sicily. Easy enough right?

Fast forward to New Year’s Eve 2017… we booked our long and expensive transcontinental flight. We were leaving from Pittsburgh, stopping by Atlanta, and landing in Venice the next morning. It was going to be more than 9 hours on a plane, which was about 5 hours more than my longest flight ever. While I was nervous about the flight the once in a lifetime trip excitement conquered all.

After the flights were booked we set our sites on accommodations. We were going to stay in AirBnBs throughout the country as sleeping six in a house was much more affordable than hotels. Mike and Alaina decided that they would parts ways shortly after Rome and spend some time alone before heading back to the states. This was just another cog in our elaborate machine with shuffling of rental cars, hotels, and AirBnBs.

Paul and Natalie are Italy veterans. Not in the sense that they served in the Italian armed forces, but that they’ve vacationed in Italy a few times. They even made the trip all the way to Italy to get married. Paul is the ultimate Italian tour guide as he fluently speaks Italian and has family members living in the country.

We met one last time in March to go over final details and talk about logistics. You could see the excitement building the more we talked. By this time we had all the rooms, cars, and flights booked and I was pretty far into my Italian language app. The only thing we had left to do was pack. Packing for a 15 day trip is very challenging the subject may come up again later.

I want to write down my experience as well as share it with the world as I feel this was a vacation that may not ever be beat. Lots of adventure and great memories to share. Stay tuned.

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