30 June 2008

Lord Byron slept here

My lovely friend “S” likes to be useful. She sets quite a store by this, and she’s darn good at it. I thought of her so many times last week because I found myself with many opportunities to be useful, too, and well beyond my usual restaurant recommendations and meager Italian assistance. For example…

Not far from my house I bumped into an elderly German couple who could not find their way between La Fenice and their little hotel just past Campo San Luca. They were about to tear their map in two between them when I got involved. But the problem was that map – an advertisement was obscuring the way to their destination. Mrs. was satisfied with the directions I gave, but Mr. seemed suspicious, unconvinced… so I said it all again, exactly the same info, but a bit slower. His face softened. And then he said something very unexpected in his German-tinged English: “It is nice to hear a gentle American voice explain it.” I was very moved.

That night, while watching the Italy-Spain soccer match, I met a pair of pretty freshmen from Columbia University. Their first trip to this romantic city, it was easy to tell by the stars in their eyes. The only thing missing for them was – Hello! Where are the boys?! Amazingly enough, I knew just where to send them for that. And for the good, cheap pizza.

The next day I saw a very young, very polite, and very stressed Iranian man trying to communicate with two Australian smart alecks who were clearly doing more harm than good. He needed to locate his hotel, but he had only a sestiere address (almost useless! – you need a street name too). He had a telephone number, but no cell phone and zero Italian. I made a quick call and learned his B&B was just behind my house. Then, as we walked together, he expressed his great relief. He had left his wife and elderly in-laws back at the railway station while he scouted the route through town for them and he had feared he might fail. How gallant! As we parted, I was paid for my effort with a brilliant smile. (Not my first payment for such services, by the way. One time I was paid in cheese for some restaurant suggestions.)

At the fish market I met an Ohioan couple with lots of heavy luggage. He was a restaurateur, she was a lovely blonde, and they were certainly lost. The problem? They had exited the vaporetto at Rialto Mercato instead of Rialto, which put them on the wrong side of the Grand Canal. No wonder their map made no sense! I walked them over the bridge and got them headed toward their hotel. Later that evening I saw them again! This time they were searching for a particular restaurant that I just knew would disappoint them. I convinced them of that and took them to nearby Enoteca San Marco instead. I have no doubt it was a splendid meal.

Another day I met a pair of Asian kids who also had a wrong-side-of-Rialto problem. Following them on the Strada Nuova, I overheard their frusration with Venice’s arcane address system. He admitted he wasn’t even sure they were on the right street, which made her sigh tiredly. That’s my cue! They were way off-track for people seeking Campo San Polo. I explained the long route back to and over Rialto Bridge, and the directions beyond, which made them both sigh tiredly. Then it hit me! We were only a few steps from the Santa Sofia traghetto station – a cheap-and-cheerful solution that would be a real and memorable Venetian experience for them while also shaving off about twenty minutes of their walking time. From mid-Canal they waved to me, utterly delighted to be teetering in the traghetto.

The next evening I was in the Piscina getting email when I spied another couple, two women this time, squinting and craning their necks and coming dangerously close to a real lovers’ spat. These two were operating from a scribbled to-do list, most of which I could not read. And they spoke no English. There followed a long, halting conversation in Italian. I figured out one of them was a Lord Byron fan: she wanted to visit his home. She chattered on, absolutely convinced it was quite close, while I wondered how in the world I would ever direct them all the way to his Grand Canal palazzo from where we stood, or even explain that it’s private and not accessible to visitors. Then, again – a bolt from the blue! I realized she was searching for Byron’s first home in Venice, which is, indeed, in the nearby narrow calle. (I know this because my friend “E” had tipped me off when I first moved to the Piscina back in September.) As you can see above, the ordinary residence door is not marked in any way. No wonder the ladies missed it! It was great fun to be one of only a handful of people in Venice who could actually point it out for them. And weren’t they lucky that they happened to meet another Byron fan there in the twilight?

So why am I telling all these seemingly self-congratulatory tales? Well, certainly not to say, “Ain’t I great?” It’s to show more of La Serenissima’s magic. Last week – like no other I have ever had – made me realize I have a lot to offer Venice’s visitors. (And “S” is right – it’s wonderful to be useful. The pleasure was all mine.) I have toyed with the idea of a private concierge service long enough. Seems like I’m being shown the time has come to give it some serious attention.