Seeing the photo of the Gondola brought it all back to me. This is a true story: it all happened about forty years ago so here we go.
I was living and working in Zürich and had been there for approximately fifteen months. My boss had a small office in an apartment house that belonged to him and his wife and I was living on the same floor as the office. It was most useful to get up in the morning and just walk across the corridor and be in the office. My predecessor in the office was also an English girl, about two to three years older than me, I was then twenty years old: at the age where you did all sorts of mad things without bothering about the consequences. I had contact to the girl working before me in the office, let us call her Jill. Jill had left, gone back to England, but decided to return to Switzerland again. She had many contacts, and was working in the town of Basel as a waitress in a restaurant. I remember one of her ex boyfriends was a Hungarian, a most dodgy type, with some sort of illegal connections to the Hungarian mafia, but Jill reassured me he was just misunderstood.
The Easter holidays were approaching and it was the Thursday before Good Friday. As I did not really know many people at the time I thought my Easter would probably be in Zürich. I had good contact with my boss’s family and I also had my meals with the family. On this memorable Thursday afternoon Jill phoned me from her working place in Basel.
“Doing anything for Easter” she asked me.
“Not really” was my answer.
“How about a week-end in Venice.”
I thought why not so was all ears listening to see what would come next. Jill was a very impulsive person and you never knew what would come into her head next. She had left a trail of disappointed men behind her in Zürich. She was quite pretty and had a sort of air of being naïve. A very caring person and she would be the first person to help if an animal or person was suffering in any way. So to get back to the story of Venice, she explained further.
“I have the week-end off at the restaurant and so does my best friend, as well as another English girl both of them being au pairs in Basel. We thought we would take the train to Venice this evening and spend the Easter holiday there. I have been a few times in Venice and we have some friends there so we could visit them. Why don’t you come along as well.”
I thought “why not” so asked where we would be staying.
“We will find something when we arrive” was the answer. The train leaves Basel this evening at around ten and we have to change trains in Milan at five in the morning. We pick up the train to Venice from Milan and arrive around ten o’clock.
I decided to go, so after work packed a few bits and pieces in a case and made my way to Zürich main station to catch the train to Basel, which takes around an hour. We had arranged to meet at Basel main station at the ticket office. I cannot remember where exactly, but Basel station is big. It is in what they call the three country corner of Switzerland, together with France and Germany. I arrived and found Jill quite easily with the two other girls. I was introduced and we arranged that we would take two double rooms in a reasonable pension in Venice, me sharing with one of the au pair girls. The four of us were aged from 20 up to about 23 years old, so we had one thought in our undeveloped brains and that was fun in Venice. Perhaps a little bit of culture, but not necessarily. We decided to take a normal train without a sleeping compartment. We could somehow curl up on the seats and if we were lucky we could take over a compartment to ourselves until the train arrived at Milan main station at five in the morning.
The train was quite empty, and the seats we had could be pulled out to the seat opposite making a comfortable sleeping arrangement. One man decided to enter our carriage and then the fun started. He was not just drunk, I think the phrase is paralytic. He slumped into the last remaining seat in the corner and started snoring. We were all smokers at that time, but decided to avoid lighting a cigarette in case the alcohol fumes ignited. At that age we really just saw the funny side of the situation. The ticket inspector came and examined our tickets. He then shook our alcoholic corpse in the corner and asked to see his ticket. The corpse awoke and showed the ticket, the inspector said to him in a loud voice “You will leave in the train in Bellinzona”.
We picked up our ears realising this unwanted guest will no longer be accompanying us after the three and half hours the train needed to reach Bellinzona. Just to mention, and in this case quite important, Bellinzona is still in Switzerland and is the main city in our Kanton/State/County of Tessin which is the Italian speaking part of Switzerland bordering on Italy. From Bellinzona the next stop is Chiasso a Swiss-Italian border station travelling another hour from Bellinzona.
So the train pulled out of Basel and started on its journey to Italy. We sort of slept, although had a lot to discuss about what to do in Venice and organising our holidays. The train pulled into Bellinzona and our alcoholic corpse slept on. My friend Jill, having a sympathetic character said we should wake up our neighbour in the corner as his ticket is only up to Bellinzona. There were four English girls shouting Bellinzona at the top of their voices and even shaking our neighbour, but to no avail. He slept on. I am sure if his family were waiting for him they would be very disappointed. Some thirty minutes later the train stopped in Lugano. Again no chance, our corpse was not to be awakened. On the way to Chiasso the ticket inspector arrived once again and we explained that the heap of flesh and clothes in the corner should have left the train in Bellinzona. The ticket inspector went to work and managed to wake our extra passenger. He was still not exactly in this world and could only talk about Bellinzona. The inspector told him we would shortly be pulling into Chiasso and he would have to take the next train direction Bellinzona from Chiasso. Not only that but the poor man had to pay the extra fare on his ticket to Chiasso from Bellinzona and naturally back to Bellinzona. So our extra passenger eventually left our apartment and we could smoke and sleep in peace until the train pulled into Milan.
Has anyone ever been to Milan station at five in the morning? Well if you have you know what is coming and if not, do not ever go to Milan station at this time in the morning. It is teaming with people: naturally mostly Italians. Now Italians are such friendly wonderful people, helpful and they love to have a conversation with you, but don’t expect things to happen on time. We were four English girls longing for a nice comfortable toilet where we could freshen up a bit and naturally do our business in peace. This was forty years ago. It might be different today, I don’t know, but at that time it was another experience more. The toilet on Milan main station has just one door to enter. When you are in it the ladies go to the right and the men to the left. It was teeming with people and for every toilet there was a queue. It was also one of those toilets without a seat: sort of standing only. Somehow we braved the situation and decided a nice cup of coffee in the restaurant and something to eat would be a good idea. It was not a good idea. We were not used to the Italian way of dealing with things. Do not go to the counter and order what you want. Go to the cash desk and pay for what you want and then walk over to the counter and show the receipt and then you get your food and drink. Needless to say until we understood this method of communication another thirty minutes passed.
Luckily we had a good hours wait for our connection to Venice and eventually we found our train. Another civilisation shock: not only did we four English girls board the train but a few thousand Italians, at least it seemed this way. There were enough compartments, but in Italy if the compartment is made for eight people, four on each side, it is usual that ten people accommodated themselves in the seats. We had to fight for a place and if I remember rightly two of us found a seat and the other two were standing outside in the corridor. As said, Italians are very friendly people and they were talking all the time, although we did not understand very much. Then their food parcels were opened for something to eat and we were offered everything from salami, hard boiled eggs to apples and oranges. Two of us decided ten minutes after the train pulled out that they again wanted to visit the toilet. Now the train was packed full, not only the seats were taken but every standing room was occupied by an Italian and his family and their luggage. Our two brave colleagues left us on their way to the toilet and we only saw them again when the train pulled into Venice four hours later around ten o’clock in the morning. We were glad to see each other again.
I will never forget our arrival in Venice main station. As you all know Venice is more or less a town on water, composed of many islands. To reach the main station from the Italian mainland a bridge across the water had been built. The train travels along this bridge and there is water on each side. It is absolutely fascinating and that is one of the few memories of the Venetian landscape that remained.
So what to do next: Jill and her best friend had a certain amount of experience and said we should take the water bus (there are no roads in Venice) to the Piazza San Marco which is the sort of main place in Venice. We would probably find something tourist-like there to enable us to find a hotel. However, this was also not to be. On the water bus a young Italian started to “chat us up”, but his interest was not in taking us out, no, he wanted to know if we had a hotel. Honestly speaking I am suspicious of such individuals, but Jill believing anything and anyone, told him we did not have a hotel and if he could be of help.
“Of course” was his answer and then he proceeded to tell us in his school English that he knew the best and most price worthy pension in Venice and we should stay with him and he would take us there. I was still a bit doubtful, but I was proved to be wrong. He took us to a pension, spoke with the reception in Venetian dialect which only the Venetians understand, and I saw Lira exchanging hands which he put in his pocket. Afterwards we were told that they had two rooms free and I must say the price was really reasonable. We were shown to our rooms which were very clean somewhere on the second floor, with a view not exactly of a canal but the house opposite. Even this was impressive for us English girls that were the first time in Venice. Venetian streets have an atmosphere of their own. The passages between are very narrow and Venice being built upwards, everything you said in the streets echoed. We also learnt when we started exploring the canals, streets and bridges, that this echo accompanied you everywhere. Only the Piazza San Marco was large enough to be without this echo.
Gondola: yes, there were many, but mostly not being used. With the money we had at our disposal, we decided to avoid the use of a gondola. They were for tourists and their prices were calculated accordingly. They were pretty to look at, but we mainly used the so-called water bus. After our arrival I think we must have eaten something somewhere for lunch, but to be quite honest I cannot remember. I only know in the afternoon we parted company. Jill and her friend decided to go looking for their friends that they knew over the years. There is something complicated about trying to find someone in Venice, even if you have their address. There seems to be only one street called Saint Marks and the house numbers go up to around five thousand and they are not numerically ordered. I think Jill was looking for something like house number three thousand and two Saint Marks, but found this to be almost impossible task. So in the meanwhile while she and her friend were searching, my roommate and I (I cannot even remember her name) decided to see what Venice had to offer.
If I remember rightly we did not have to loose much time. At one point or another we met two Italian young men who were sailors, all dressed up in the uniform. Venice being on water, there was a naval base near bye and in Italy conscription still exists and these two young men were doing their national service. All I can remember is that we spent the afternoon with them and they invited us to an evening meal. I would mention that at this time my knowledge of the Italian language, although not fluent, was quite good as I had learnt the language for two years. I was doing most of the talking (as I usually do) and they took us to a genuine small Venetian restaurant just near the market. Yes Venice has a daily market which is very interesting. On each side of the street there are goods to buy, mostly fish. It smelt as such, but as this was Spring, the weather was pleasant and the canals were not yet smelling as their reputation says. So we went to a small restaurant which I believe was a family business. Their kitchen was open and it reminded me a little of the fish and chip places we used to have in London. You could see how they were cooking the fish and it was served with potato and tasted excellent. Our Italian sailors wanted to accompany us back to the hotel, but we said the near bye water bus station would be ok, we could find the way back ourselves. I mean a certain amount of care had to be applied. However, we arranged to meet them again at six in the evening at the water bus station on the next day.
The next day we saw Jill and her friend and they said they had not been successful in meeting their friends up to then. We now had a morning to dispose of and Jill said that we should go to the Lido by water bus, this being the beach for the Venetians as it was situated on the open sea. We took the water bus once again to the Lido and met four young men, all Austrians. We spent the morning with them at the Lido and they asked what we were doing in the afternoon. Before we had a chance to say anything Jill’s friend organised to meet them at the water bus station at six in the evening. Are you with me? We had a double date and I was beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable. We had a couple of hours to kill around lunch time and Jill decided to go looking for her friends again and took me and my new friend with them. We were still looking for St. Marks number three thousand and two or something like that. Suddenly we turned a corner and there was a bar on the corner which Jill recognised. She only seemed to recognise bars and men. We entered and we were at the right place. Yes the man behind the bar knew Giovanni, or what he was called and we only had to go round two corners and were there. As we left the bar Giovanni came round the corner with his friends. It was one big happy reunion for Jill and her companion and I must say they were very nice people. Giovanni said we must all meet mama and papa and so we did.
He led us to an apartment house somewhere near a Venetian canal (everything in Venice is near a canal), the entrance looking somewhat old and dirty. There was a fountain carved in stone with a figure which had seen better days and newspapers and other refuse lying around. However we climbed the stairs and entered mama and papa’s home. I was really impressed. I will never forget the floors. No carpets, but a dark wood which was so well polished you could see your reflection in it. Everything was spotlessly clean and it was a wonderful apartment. It showed us what lies behind the facades of Venice. The Venetians seem to go for good taste in furniture and drapes. We spent an hour or so there, and Jill said we will all go out together in the evening, arranging to meet at six – and guess where, at the water bus station.
So if four English girls go on a holiday for a few days, they tend to get things mixed up. We now had a triple date at the water bus station. I tried to explain, but Jill was so full of meeting her old friends that she didn't’t bother to listen. I would not mind, but I was playing the interpreter all the time as Jill had a little bit of basic Italian and the other two did not have a clue. It was a bit embarrassing going out with the sailors as the girl I was with thought they understood no English and was saying things she should not. One of the sailors understood a bit so I had to translate things a bit diplomatically so that they didn't’t think we were talking about them. I took this girl on one side and said she should be careful what she was saying as they did understand a bit of English.
Ok, so it was six in the evening at the water bus station. When we arrived Jill’s friends, Giovanni and company, saw us and it was all buona sera and kisses and handshakes. The Austrians were there looking a bit annoyed to say the least and the two Italian sailors, well to be quite honest I felt sorry for them. I think I even mumbled an explanation that the plans had been altered as we had met old friends, but they didn't’t look too happy. We spent a very nice evening with Jill and her friends and returned to the hotel sometime in the early morning after spending the evening in one of those nice Italian bars where the vino flows like water.
The next day was Sunday and we decided to have a day looking at the sites. I had only seen Saint Marco from the water bus up to then. At least I wanted to see a little bit of Venice. I even found the Rialto bridge, the bridge with the shops on it.
Some time in the late afternoon we again boarded the train to bring us back to Switzerland, but this time less eventful and I think we slept through most of the journey. We changed trains again in Milano but I don’t really remember very much. I remember arriving in Basel at about eleven in the evening and getting the train on my own back to Zürich. I think I spent most of Easter Monday in bed recovering from it all. Two days later I received a postcard from Venice from my Italian sailor hoping I arrived home safely and if I remember rightly I even wrote back explaining what had happened at the water bus station. I don’t know whether he ever forgave me, but at least we exchanged postcards afterwards.