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Love in the Time of Gondolas
Looking to renew her faith in romance, she did what any determined, practical, single woman would do: She tried her luck in Venice

By Patricia E. Dempsey
Sunday, March 25, 2007

I AM HUNCHED IN A FIVE-FOOT-HIGH PRISON CELL THAT'S HOT ENOUGH TO MELT WAX. At the urging of my 15-year-old son James, we've hiked, on a tour, up to the attic of the Palazzo Ducale, a Gothic architectural marvel whose sculpted facade was a cunning veil for the Venetian republic. Behind palace walls, a dance of power played out in passageways and chambers where Venice's notorious Council of Ten could denounce a man with a whispered accusation that sent him to the torture chamber, the gallows or, as in the case of one Venetian -- the swashbuckling libertine Giacomo Casanova -- to this prison cell.

A father and daughter from Lisbon squeeze in near the doorway. The father has his hand protectively on his daughter's shoulder, and with good reason: At maybe 15, she's a goddess with wide, green eyes, size double-zero jeans with a cuff turned up just so above her tanned ankle, revealing a tiny chain with a heart. Our guide, a petite brunette, is a university student who describes in sultry, heavy-lidded English how no one escaped from the dreaded I Piombi -- "The Leads"-- so called because the roof above us was laid with lead plates to ensure the misery of inferno heat in the summer and frigid air in the winter. She pauses, "until Cahz-ahh-NOH-vahh."

"One can imagine," the guide says, "Cassanova squatted in this cell, using a tiny metal spike to chip, chip, chip a splintered tunnel through the huge timber beam," she taps her foot, "right here." We gaze down at her pointed toe -- except James, who has a look of dazed wonder. He's looking at the girl. He edges near the teenage beauty to get on her radar. She looks over her shoulder, more than once, curious about this tall, blond American boy. Until her father tilts his shoulder forward and cuts in.

Our guide tells us that Casanova's captors, believing he was a model prisoner, moved him from this squatty cell -- just hours before he would have finished the tunnel hidden beneath his straw mattress. His new digs had books, a high ceiling and a view of the sea. Casanova persuaded a monk, Father Balbi, in the cell above him, to make the next tunnel; he did this by writing notes in Latin, which his guard could not read, in books delivered among prisoners with privileges. Casanova had the wit to have his guard deliver to Father Balbi his precious tunneling tool -- a metal spike -- hidden in the spine of a Bible; weeks later the monk tunneled through to Casanova's ceiling. As Casanova tells it in his memoirs, he hoisted himself into the monk's cell and used the spike to pry aside a lead plate. He scaled the roof, then reentered the palace far from the prisons, and a guard who mistook him for a high-ranking official let him walk out. His next stop? Paris.

As our guide herds us along, James manages to be a few paces behind or beside the girl. Bronzed skin, a profile that could have graced a Roman coin, sun-touched hair. She starts to inch closer to James, but her father's stern glance stops her. She smiles, holding back a laugh.

"Legend has it," our guide tells us, "that Ca-sanova stopped for coffee at Cafe Florian in the Piazza San Marco before hailing a gondola -- to the mainland, then Paris, where his published account of his escape from I Piombi, hugely flattering to himself, of course, became something of a bestseller."

As tall as he is, James is forced to hunch under the low ceilings as we walk, then he shyly -- accidentally? -- bumps into the girl. "Excuse me, Maria." He knows her name!

"Casanova was imprisoned for witchcraft," the guide continues, "probably to get him out of circulation, because his political contacts posed a threat to the republic. Venice the city-state did not concern itself with his many, over 100, amours, even a liaison with a nun."

James turns around, eyeballs two nuns in our entourage, then Maria, with a goofy grin. She starts to giggle, and James says, "Wow, he sounds like a real swinger."

As James and I walk down the wide slab steps where Casanova hitched a ride with a gondolier, he waves to Maria, blissfully unaware, as fresh and new as he is to crushes and romance, of what it means to say goodbye forever. Back at sea level, I'm happy to be outside, near this shimmering turquoise lagoon off the Adriatic, as gulls circle and caw. I'm done with dizzying heat and heights -- especially romantic ones. Yet I have come to Venice to rediscover romance. Perhaps this trip will help renew my belief in it.

THE IDEA FOR THIS JOURNEY BEGAN MORE THAN A YEAR AGO. I was standing in a mom-and-pop bookstore at Bethany Beach, surveying paperbacks and coffee-table tomes laid out like a rummage sale. I'm drawn to tales of life-changing wanderings and was captivated by yet another book by an American divorcee who makes an ecstatic conversion to all things Italian, especially food and love. In her memoir, A Thousand Days in Venice, chef Marlena de Blasi describes a brief encounter -- eye contact -- in the Piazza San Marco when she was in Venice for work; when this same man spots her again by chance a year later, he tells her, "I have been loving you since I laid eyes on you a year ago." Blasi moved to Venice and married this man whom she calls "the stranger." In another story I found later in one of those juicy, ubiquitous women's magazines, a single mom with two boys the ages of mine (14 and 16 at the time) described how she fell in love with her tour guide in Rome and then moved there with loads of baggage to live happily ever after, or so she says.

I was divorced more than a decade ago and have never remarried. There have been romances, yes, but nothing has restored my belief in a romance that lasts. I've been engaged and disengaged; I've learned about the exact stages of a romantic relationship, the 12 steps to happiness, how to decode online profiles, how to detect a toupee from 10 feet. And I've found other inventive ways of beating the soulful mystery of romance like a broken drum: I've walked a labyrinth, meditated, shared mantras, danced salsa and tango, and practiced aromatherapy to temporarily stir my soul.

Here in Venice, James and I strike a balance that works in this water-locked city, a safe three-mile-square bubble with no cars, a walker's paradise. The fact that James sleeps twice as long as I do and eats six meals a day to my three, leaves me plenty of free time in the morning and evenings. James is pragmatic -- this I have found to be one of the great joys in raising boys; they get right to the point. "Is there going to be enough to eat?" he wanted to know. Happily, there is.

THE NEXT MORNING, MY TEMPLES PULSE to the gargling engine of a supply boat idling beneath my hotel balcony. I lumber out of bed, swing open the floor-to-ceiling shutters to watch the captain unload crates of bottled drinks and Styrofoam coolers full of provisions. With a year-round population in the city of a mere 62,000, which swells, especially during summer and Carnival, to accommodate 18 million to 20 million visitors annually, the backstage logistics required to maintain Venice as the living theater it is are daunting. Almost everything -- meat, spices, flour, wine, cheese, umbrellas, coats, silk scarves, tables, fabric bolts, feathers, beads, glass windows, doorknobs, postcards, overnight mail, laptops, CDs, bandages, dog collars, coffee beans -- must be brought in or out by boat.

I crave cafe au lait, and slip downstairs to a homey breakfast buffet. In my rush, I forget how casually American I appear in cropped, baggy yoga pants, unbrushed hair splaying out of a scrunchee, sporting my son's "Surf's Up Dude" T-shirt that got mixed up in my duffel and that I put on in the dark before I tumbled into a deep traveler's sleep the previous night. In the dining room, I fill my cup, grab a well-traveled apple and scoot by the lobby.

Who's he?

A profile of smooth skin, dark, thick hair (the kind women like to run their fingers through), an aquiline Roman nose (the kind women like to run their fingers along). Working intently behind the front desk at the computer, the profile senses my gaze, looks down at my bare feet. I check out his refined, artistic hands. This is hardly eye contact at the piazza, but I'll take it.

"Bonjour." I begin in French, as I don't want him to think I'm an American tourist walking with a cup of coffee. His name tag says Marco.

He replies in English: "Do you need something? More coffee?" He's asking me if I need something. I've spent more than a decade catering to others as a mom, a wife, a daughter, and he's asking me if I need something. "Travel advice?"

No. It's worse than that, I say. And I spill the whole ball of yarn. I tell him about de Blasi's book, that I'm on a quest to rediscover romance while exploring the city.

He barely looks up. "American, aren't you?" he asks. "The young people" -- he eyes me, trying to discreetly guess my age, and I want to hide my gnarled, sun-damaged sailor hands. "The young people go to the osterie, the bacaros." A crowded wine bar! He waits a long moment. "There are quieter pursuits. The young people simply walk along the canals. You might try a quiet gondola ride. You love glass? I can recommend artists, glass masters on Murano."

I mention that my 15-year-old son is here with me. Marco looks at me, reassesses my age when he hears "my teenage son," and I sense my attractiveness slip into a graveyard spiral. Please, no gondolas, I say. I don't want to be in a throng of tourists.

He laughs. "You already are. You're in Venice."

He lists a few ideas in curlicue, scripted writing. In the time it takes him to shape a flowery "A," I tell Marco yes, I'll hire my own water taxi, but no gondola -- I don't want to look like a desperate romantic past her prime.

"So it's yes -- but no," he says, and smiles. He must be 10 years younger than I. I want to ask him when he gets off work, whether he likes dancing at Cafe Florian, but the vowels hover in my windpipe and emerge as . . . air.

FROM THE SQUISHY WHITE SEAT IN THE STERN OF OUR WATER TAXI, I look at Marco's list and tell the driver we're headed for Murano Island. We purr out into the cacophony of the Grand Canal: graceful black gondolas, bobbing just off-center, glide through the wake of a flat-bottomed vaporetto (water bus) as we swerve under the Academy Bridge. Farther along, past signs flagging the jumbled clutter of open-air markets, a small traghetto takes passengers -- the Venetian riders standing tall, like George Washington on the Delaware -- on a straight shot across the canal. The whole simmering scene ripples with that steamy mix of fantasy, pleasure and tidal tempo that draws me to coastal areas. Then we disappear like 007 into a maze of side canals, where I lose track of where we are going, craning my neck, mesmerized by a kaleidoscope peeling by -- crumbling, pastel facades, ornate sculpted arches and doorways, hanging laundry -- accompanied by the hornet-drone of our engine. All the gilded details blur, and the reeling history of this place where opera was born, spices traded, courtesans prized, Renaissance painters flourished, Byron reposed and Woody Allen married Soon-Yi -- all of it swirls around me as I look up from the shallow mud-caked canals. I now understand why Marco insisted that I see Venice in a gondola. Our speed in the water taxi separates us from these neighborhoods, which predate the Inquisition of the 1500s and are meant to be admired as people traveled then, slowly, in a gliding boat.

On Murano Island, we step inside one of the brick studios that line its main canal, where an open furnace blazes. A glass master twirls aqua-colored molten goo like taffy, then blows and sculpts it into a nebulous shape that becomes clearer with each pound and pinch of his tools.

"Is it a pig?" James asks.

My view is eclipsed suddenly by the broad shoulders of Roberto, a glass art dealer at this vetreria artistica. He turns to tell us about the glass making. I smell cloves. Cologne? My nose is inches from his tan chest, which peeks out of his casually unbuttoned shirt; he has a swaggering ease that my wise girlfriend in the United States says marks the ultimate bad boy. He asks where I'm from and when I'm halfway through the word Maryla -- , stops me. "I know it. Philadelphia? Bethesda?" Close enough. Normally, I would duck out right now, but I'm beginning to enjoy the gentle art of seduction that permeates life here in everything from an undone button, to savoring fresh calamari, a warm breeze at a cafe. I touch my pink silk scarf, toss it over my shoulder with abandon and ask to see the glass art.

Roberto holds out his arm like a wedding usher and escorts me away from the furnace room. We round a corner into a wall of delicate wine-goblet bowls with stems swirling in colors like fruit-flavored twizzle sticks. As Roberto shows me each artisan's work, he urges me to caress the pieces. He tells me that in the 13th century all the furnaces were moved to the island, and in later years, as the Venetians grew more commercially cunning, the secrets of Murano glass making were so prized the craftsmen who lived here were merely pri-vileged prisoners; if they left Venice and risked sharing its trade secrets, the republic's secret police would find and kill them.

He steers me on, and the ceiling is crammed with glass chandeliers that, to my plain American eye, are so gauchely elaborate it looks like bordello chic minus the velvet cushions. "Many find these to be perfect, one for every room. Imagine a bath beneath one, even. Romantic." Roberto tells me to close my eyes (I don't) and imagine bathing, even dancing, beneath the chandeliers. Then he starts humming a Viennese waltz.

He ducks away and returns with a tinted turquoise vase. "This is a beautiful curve. This line. Here, you must touch it." He takes my hand and guides it on the vase, as though I were blind.

"Mom -- that is so ugly," James calls out. "You're not buying that, are you?" James, who has photographed most of Murano's canal, is back and needs euros for food. As we leave empty-handed, Roberto slips his e-mail address into my hand and says he'll put me in touch with his happy clients in Philadelphia -- "I mean Maryland."

PERHAPS THE ONE ELEMENT THAT MAKES VENICE SO ROMANTIC, aside from its exquisite light, the intimate scale, and its mingling of Eastern curves and Western materials, is the sea. Venice's archipelago takes its shape from the water, from an organic pattern of canals created hundreds of years ago by tidal streams running across mudflats. Instead of a traffic-jammed boulevard, the two-mile-long Grand Canal gracefully S-curves through Venice's cluster of more than 100 spongy islets, with about 150 canals. Venetians have sculpted their homes and livelihoods around this labyrinth of canals. Its water creates a translucent tapestry of changing light, shrouded mists, romantic possibility.

For centuries, artists have celebrated the city, from poems by Byron and Browning to paintings by Manet and Monet, to films such as "A Little Romance," in which Laurence Olivier plays matchmaker to two young lovers, and "Summertime," which casts Katharine Hepburn as a lonely American secretary who finds love with a Venetian. Since the days of Marco Polo, travelers from east and west have thronged to experience its exotic nuances, even as sea levels rise and imperil the city.

Author Jan Morris, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, describes Venice as "the loveliest city in the world, only asking to be admired . . ." Morris originally went to Venice as a foreign correspondent for the London Times to write an objective dispatch about the city, and in 1974 published the first edition of the landmark book The World of Venice. Morris notes that "the allure of Venice . . . is distinct from art and architecture. There is something distinctly sensual to it, if not actually sexual. 'Venice casts about you,' as a nineteenth-century Frenchman put it, 'a charm as tender as the charm of a woman. Other cities have admirers. Venice alone has lovers.'"

MARCO IS RIGHT: I MUST NOT LEAVE VENICE without seeing some of her hidden canals on a gondola. The water taxis are too loud, too fast; the gondolas are graceful, with exquisite, hand-hewn workmanship. To find one, I wander far from the crowds and discover a peaceful church, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, with a lustrous pink-and-gray-marble facade. In front of it, a tanned, fit gondolier stands next to his craft, talking on his cellphone. He nods when he sees that James and I are game for a ride. Just as we step aboard, a family of three wanders out to join us. We give their son, who is 8, the thrill of sitting in the burgundy velvet throne in the middle of the lopsided boat -- tilted so the gondolier keeps his balance as he guides his craft with his oar. I ask our gondolier if he owns his boat. "It's expensive to own [$30,000 to to $40,000], so this one is in my family." I wonder at his strength, how he can make us glide so long and easily on one paddle. "Is the water deep?"

"I'm touching the mud," he says.

"God knows what's in there," the mother says. "Rubbish and muck."

The family is from Leeds, England; they have been on only two trips abroad -- to Disney World in Florida last year and now to Venice. "We're trying to decide which place we like more," the father says.

The son looks from one parent to the other and says, "America." Then no one answers. We float in silence.

We move so slowly that I can smell fish and tomatoes cooking in one casa, and as we pass the front door of another, a curled, hand-written "no parking" sign slowly reveals itself. Boxes of hot pink flowers spill across mirrored windows that toss back the light that dances up from the water. The laughter of children floats out and echoes off the walls. Our gondolier paddles, pulling us silently forward. In those moments between each splash of the oar, we glide, and another world opens up. As we drift, I realize this is what I am most comfortable with: a man who speaks to me through the silent paddling of an oar on a boat.

THAT EVENING, IT'S LATE ENOUGH FOR JAMES TO BE ASLEEP and Marco still at work behind the hotel desk. I have savored evening walks all over the city, crossing a handful of the more than 400 footbridges, and on this last night decide to visit one of the most romantic stops on Marco's list. I tell him I'm off to find the dancing he told me about. He looks up, smiles, "Don't stay out too late."

I amble across the Academy Bridge, where de Blasi says she and "the stranger" shared a kiss, past the open doors of the San Stefano church, where a chamber music ensemble often plays concerts, and through the open square where lovers lean against the fountain, then down an alley filled with the trills of a university student singing soprano as passers-by circle around her.

Tonight I care less about finding romance and more about embracing the spirit of it. For now, I am content to believe in romance with a place. If I am willing to accept this, then, perhaps, when I return home, I might take a larger leap of faith and discover it again, with a person.

As I near the arches that run the length of the grand piazza to the Byzantine spires of San Marco basilica, I brace myself to push through the throngs, but at this hour it's almost deserted. A smattering of couples talk softly at cafe tables amid the smells of perfume, a warm, salty breeze. This is a tourist haunt, and as I walk past Cafe Florian toward the lapping lagoon, the sounds of a live band, playing a jazzy swing tune, float onto the piazza. I should find this repulsively touristy. Yet, somehow it works here. Under an arc of stars, a lighthearted couple twirls, oblivious to anyone and anything else.

A clock chimes the hour. I wonder whether Marco is still on duty -- or better yet, what time he gets off work.

Patricia E. Dempsey last wrote for the Magazine about the National Symphony Orchestra.

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