Venezia: The importance of improv

Picture this:

You’re walking through Venice. It’s sweltering hot outside, as you can see from the sweat stains on everyone’s back (I’m talking at least 95 degrees plus humidity). And by everyone, I mean all the tourists, since Venice is crawling with them. You wander through the narrow alleys of the city, gawking at the notorious mask shops and resisting the urge to dip your feet in the murky, green canal water (the canals also serve as the sewage, you know).

Suddenly, an American girl in a sundress and sandals dashes past you, almost clipping your shoulder. She’s followed swiftly by two other Americans, and the trio seems to be heading towards the bus station. Clearly, they’re late for something.

Well, here it is: I’m the American girl in a sundress. The other two are my gracious hosts while in Venice, Joser and Brittany.

You see, when Joser checked his watch for the time, we realized that the bus station was about a twenty minute walk away. And at that point, we had ten minutes before the bus left. I asked if anyone was opposed to running, and when there were no complaints, off we went. Which brings us to this moment in time, in which we are sprinting through the city.

We arrive at the car with a little less than a minute to spare. Brittany throws the car into gear like a pro while I frantically grab my belongings that are strewn across the backseat and throw them into my purse. Two minutes later, we’re driving through the bus station. I think I see the bus parked in front, but with this particular station, we have to circle around the building before finding a place to stop. Joser offers to grab my backpack from the trunk so I can run to the bus. The car comes to a halt as I grab my purse and throw open the back door, and I bound through the station like a frantic American tourist who’s about to miss her bus. But when I get the the curb, the bus is nowhere in sight.

Joser appears a few seconds later with my backpack in tow. “Did you miss it?”

Yup. Yup, I did.

*Rewind to two days prior*

When I first arrive in Venice, Joser and I spend a few minutes coordinating a meeting place over the phone (“Do you see a yellow crane?” “Maybe… I’m next to this elevated train track that looks like it has teeth.” “Uh…what?”). Eventually, I find the yellow crane and, standing nearby, Joser. “Would you like me to carry your backpack?” he offers. “No thanks,” I decline, “it’s hiding the sweat stains.” He nods understandingly. It’s two in the afternoon and the sun is beating down on us relentlessly.

In spite of the temperature and the crowds, we meander along the streets of Venice for the next few hours.

Afterwards, we relocate his car and drive an hour to their home in Caneva, where Brittany is waiting for us. Brittany and Joser are actually my fiance’s friends from back home, and today is the first time I’m meeting either of them. We turn on a movie as the three of us chow down on the pizza and gelato that Joser and I picked up on our way back.

The next day, Joser whips up a scrumptious breakfast of potatoes and eggs while we discuss what to do. We decide to visit the Grotte di Pradis, a series of caves about an hour and a half away. Upon arrival, we manage to slip through the exit (totally an accident.. all of the “Do Not Enter” signs are in Italian), but we find that the staircase to the caves is guarded by the ticket man. We spend the next few hours scouting out the caves, including a cave that they sometimes hold Catholic Mass in.

On the way home, we stop at a nearby church with a panoramic view. Then we spot a cool statue in the middle of a rotary (or round-about or whatever you call it), so naturally we park the car on the side of the road and take pictures of it.

Brittany turns to me, “So, how are you doing on energy?”

“Great, why?”

“We have another place to show you.”

It’s called “The Hole” at Gorgazzo. The pool of water is only a short walk from the road and has the bluest water I have ever seen in my life. The picture isn’t lying. But that’s not even the best part. Joser points to a sign nearby–the pool is actually an entrance to a cave that is at least 212 meters (695 feet) deep. I say “at least” because no one’s ever reached the bottom… they stopped letting cave divers go down after two divers died from running out of oxygen.

We finish the day with a stroll in the nearby woods. Joser and Brittany discovered this trail after they arrived here and wanted to share it with me. And now I’m sharing it with you.

The next morning, the three of us decide to wander the alleys of Venice once more before I leave.

Which is when we wandered a little farther than we thought.

Which brings us to now, where I’m staring down an empty bus stop, convinced that if I stare harder, the bus will magically appear.

EPILOGUE (Warning: after this point, there are no pictures. But it’s a fun story anyway.)

After discussing the available options, we decide that I’ll stay the night with Joser and Brittany, and the following day, catch a train to Venice in time to get another bus going home. After buying all of those tickets, of course.

The train isn’t that complicated. “You can buy your ticket at the station. They take credit cards,” Brittany tells me.

The bus is slightly more so. The website won’t let me purchase a ticket online, but the lady on the phone reassures me that the Venice office has a credit card machine. (Here’s the thing about Italy: no one uses credit cards. Ever.)

The next day, Joser gets ready to drive me to the train station since Brittany is already at work. The train station is 15 minutes away, but just to be safe, we give ourselves 25 minutes to get there. Right on schedule, we lock up the house and amble out to the car. Suddenly, Joser stops mid-sentence, “Did I really just lock my keys in the house?” I stop fidgeting with the door handle and look up. He’s being serious.

A few minutes later, Joser is shimmying up a tree to climb onto the roof, since the second-story windows are open. A branch manages to go up his nose in the process (“My nose still hurts,” he tells me later). Nose injury or not, he stealthily climbs across the loose tiles on the roof and makes it to one of the bedroom windows. Soon we’re driving down the road with 15 minutes before the train leaves.

We get to the train station and I purchase a ticket as the train comes to a halt on the track. Excellent.

And for my next trick, purchasing a bus ticket. The only problem with that is that the station in Venice doesn’t have a credit card machine and the nearest one is in Bologna, 3 hours away. Awesome. The ticket man, however, is extremely obliging and talks to the bus driver about letting me buy my ticket when we stop in Bologna. The bus driver taps his watch impatiently as the ticket man talks to his contact in Bologna. My eyes shift uncomfortably to the floor as I wag my finger at myself in my mind. (“You are totally being that annoying American tourist who gives other American tourists a bad rep,” I scold myself.) Ten minutes and a phone call later, we strike an agreement and the bus driver lets me onto the bus.

Once in Bologna, I scurry to the agency where the ticket is waiting for me to purchase it. The wait is so long that the bus driver actually comes to check on me. Finally, it’s my turn. “Twenty-five euro,” the ticket man says as he takes my card. “But the ticket was supposed to be forty euro,” I tell him, determined to redeem myself to these people through my honesty. “Don’t worry about it. Twenty-five euro.” Well, if he insists. That night, I pull into the bus station and breathe a sigh of relief as I slide into the front seat of the car.

Here’s to adventure.

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Milano on a dime

Here’s the trick—don’t buy anything.

I know, I know… it’s tempting to get the Prada bag that’s on sale for a thousand-something euros. But let’s look at this from a logistic perspective: I’m a college student and, therefore, I have no money. What I do have is a few euros, so I have to spend the money on things that count, like touring cathedrals and buying gelato. And honestly, I think the gelato trumps the Prada bag anyway. But maybe that’s just me.

Vito, Arianna, and I arrive in Milan after a 3-hour train ride. Apparently, the train station is one of the must-see sights of Milan, and it’s not hard for me to see why.

Alberto, Vito’s cousin who lives in Milan, has agreed to show us around for the day and is waiting for us outside. First, we begin with a ride on the metro.

Even the metro looks classy.

Even the metro looks classy.

Shortly after we reappear on the city streets, Vito and Arianna vanish into store, leaving Alberto and me to walk around the city. I try mustering up something in broken Italian before Alberto stops me with, “Don’t worry. I speak English.” Maybe I shouldn’t rely so heavily on English here, but I have to admit that it’s helpful. Besides, I can always practice my Italian at the beach or with the grandparents.

Alberto and I begin at the Teatro alla Scala, a famous opera house. We aren’t able to go inside, but we walk around the piazza and admire the statue of Leonardo da Vinci. “Da Vinci was crazy,” Alberto tells me. “The man only slept for 10 minutes at a time and took several naps throughout the day.”

The world-renowned opera house.

The world-renowned opera house.

In the piazza outside of the Scala.

In the piazza outside of the Scala.

Next, we walk through the Galleria, a mall with breathtaking architecture. In the middle of the Galleria is a tile mosaic of a bull and there’s a hole where his (ahem) genitals are supposed to be. For good luck, you place your heel in the hole and spin around three times. Alberto watches from the side as I attempt it. How could I pass up an opportunity for good luck?

Yup, there is it. Or rather, there it isn't.

Yup, there is it. Or rather, there it isn’t.

Exhibit A for getting good luck.

Exhibit A for getting good luck.

We wait for Vito and Arianna in the Piazza Duomo, which is just outside of the Galleria. One of the buildings bordering the piazza is the Palazzo Reale, an art museum with a courtyard used for outdoor concerts. We try walking around the courtyard but don’t get very far, as a wedding is taking place and a throng of wedding guests crowds the entrance. Alberto announces that he needs his morning café, so we wander along the outskirts of the piazza until we stumble across a bar. As we walk, Alberto points at the statue in the middle of the piazza.

“Do you know why all four of the horse’s legs are on the ground?”

“Nope.”

“If all four legs are on the ground, the rider lived. If only one of the front hooves is off the ground, the rider was injured. If both front legs are in the air, the rider died in battle.”

I should probably pay more attention in school.

After Alberto gets his  café, we sit on the Duomo steps until Vito and Arianna join us.

We decide to do a little shopping before touring the Duomo. The only problem is that the stores are PACKED with people, as it’s the first day of a major sale. Luckily, we get out alive (and without buying anything).

A display made with plastic bags outside of Zara.

A display made with plastic bags outside of Zara.

Walking down one of the main streets in Milan.

Walking down one of the main streets in Milan.

Finally, it’s time to check out the Duomo. Although it costs a few euros per person, we decide to venture up to the roof. Climbing the 250 stairs to the top is cheaper than taking the elevator, so we opt for that. Afterwards, we go inside of the cathedral. Guards stand outside of the entrance, checking bags with a cursory glance and making sure everyone is appropriately dressed. I see the guards turn away a woman in a tank top and make another woman wait outside as she ties a sarong over her shorts.

We decide to get gelato before heading to the Castello Sforzesco, an old castle that houses and handful of small museums. On the way, we walk through the original marketplace. Alberto pulls us into one of the stores and orders macarons for Arianna and me to try. He hands us the tiny confectioneries and tells us to close our eyes before taking a bite. All I have to say is that Italians know their way around i dolci, or sweets.

Our last stop for the day is the Castello Sforzesco. We don’t pay to go into any of the museums, but we walk around the grounds for free. As we meander through the park, my right sandal decides it has had quite enough walking for one summer and snaps. I feel a bit idiotic tripping over myself as I keep walking, trying to play it off, but it’s painfully obvious that my shoe is broken. Luckily, vendors at a nearby food cart provide a rubber band, which I use to strap my shoe onto my foot. I feel quite stylish. I mean, what better place to walk around with a rubber band on your foot than the fashion capital of the world?

When the alarm goes off at 4am

ERR ERR ERR ERR

One eye peels open, glaring in the general direction of my alarm clock. Ugh. It’s still dark outside. Why did I set the alarm for 4am again?

Oh yeah. Because we’re going to Rome today.

After packing our day packs and eating breakfast, Arianna and I leave the house at 5am to pick up her two friends who are joining us, Elisa and Annalisa. We arrive just in time to catch the 5:30 bus. We’re scheduled to arrive in Rome a little after 9, so I use the time to catch up on lost sleep.

Once we’re off the bus, we head to the nearest metro station. After looking at the map, we decide to begin our trek through the city at the Colosseo and wing it from there. The metro reminds me of Boston and I feel quite at home underneath the city, even though I still can’t read the signs or the posters on the walls. Once at our stop, we lumber off of the train and climb the stairs to the exit. I catch glimpses of the Colosseum outside as we make our way to the door.

You know those moments when you see something for the first time and you just stand there and gape at it, pinching yourself every once in a while to make sure it’s real? Yeah. That happened. I mean, the thing is HUGE. Sure, I’ve seen it in pictures a thousand times, but you can’t understand the magnitude of something until you’re standing in its shadow, staring straight up at it.

My stomach reminds me that I haven’t fed it in a few hours, so the four of us navigate our way to an overlook with a cafe. Annalisa heads for the cafe while the rest of us unwrap the tinfoil covering our homemade breakfast sandwiches. We lean against the railing as we eat, soaking up the morning sunlight and the incredible panorama before us.

Then the real journey begins. We buy a map of Rome from a sidewalk vendor and start for Piazza Venezia after we finally orient ourselves with the map.

Anna figuring out our location.

Annalisa figuring out our location.

A fountain under construction that we passed on the way to Piazza Venezia.

A fountain under construction that we passed on the way to Piazza Venezia.

As we walk, I hear more English than Italian and it throws me off quite a bit. A family asks us for directions in English, then a couple of women ask us to take their picture. I almost have to remind myself to respond with “sure” instead of “sì.”

Next stop, Fontana di Trevi. For the largest Baroque fountain in the city (thanks, Wikipedia), the actual piazza is pretty small. Or maybe it just seems that way because there are so many people here. While we’re taking pictures, we hear several police whistles and watch a couple officers in uniform walk towards the fountain, motioning as if to say, “Get out of the fountain RIGHT NOW.” Curious, I look over and see a newlywed couple and their photographers near the base of the fountain. Apparently, they were trying to get a shot of the couple’s feet in the water, but it didn’t go over so well. Before we leave, Arianna hands me a coin so I can make a wish. Following tradition, we take turns standing next to the fountain and tossing the coins over our heads and into the water. And no, I’m not going to tell you what I wished for.

After that, we find the Piazza di Spagna and climb the stairs to the top. Arianna checks her watch and suggests we head towards the Vaticano so we can get there by noon. We skip down the stairs and walk down Via Condotti, a famous street in Rome that’s lined with designer shops. The road eventually leads us to the Palazzo di Giustizia where we cross the Fiume Tevere (Tiber River). From there, we can see San Pietro, the cathedral in the Vatican.

When we finally arrive in Vatican City, Annalisa, Arianna, and Elisa buy fedora hats from a street vendor. I watch as they haggle prices, talking the vendor down from 10 euros to 5. Apparently haggling is easy to do with the street vendors, but few tourists try it. Once we make it into the Piazza San Pietro (Saint Peter’s Square), Arianna tells me that  the Pope delivers a short sermon every Sunday around noon. We still have twenty minutes, but I’m surprised by how quickly the square fills with people. A few minutes before noon, a window opens and a red flag is unfurled. When Papa Francisco appears in the window a little later, the air fills with applause and excited cheering. He begins to address us, “Fratelli e sorelle. (Brothers and sisters).” I don’t understand much after that, but regardless, I still feel the sense of wonderment that comes when you know you’re having a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We spend the rest of the day doing what we do bestshopping. We wander into almost every shoe store we see and also spend some time looking for new sunglasses for Elisa. While we’re walking, Arianna stops in a local store and asks the owner where we should get gelato. At his suggestion, we walk further down the street to Pompi, a small store known for its gelato and tiramsù. And while I’ve said before that gelato is incredible, this stuff is divine. The dark chocolate melts in your mouth and drips down your throat, leaving behind a trail of contentment and happiness.

For the ride home, our seats are split up. I watch Arianna, Elisa, and Annalisa head to the second story of the bus where their seats are located before finding my own seat on the first floor. There’s a girl sitting in the seat next to mine, and as I motion that my seat is next to the window, she mumbles a quick “sorry” as she moves out of the way.

Wait. That was English.

I wait for her to sit down again before I ask, “Sorry, do you speak English?”

A look of relief crosses her face. She’s from Malaysia (apparently English is the spoken language there… something I didn’t know before) and attends a university in Australia, although she’s in Italy for a month studying law. She’s on her way back from a weekend at Disneyland in Paris. We talk for the next three hours about everythingbooks, culture, shopping, religion, meditation, my fiancé, families, dreams, traveling, Forever 21, movies, Harry Potter, K-mart. Literally, everything.

Half-way through the conversation, she pauses, “Wait, what’s your name?”

Oh, right. I guess we skipped that part. “I’m Susie.”

She laughs. “Me too! But I spell it S-u-z.”

It’s a small world after all.