Few things can compare with Venice in winter. You step out of the train station, and there it is – the Grand Canal, right in front of you. It winds its way through the islands that make up the city, as if it has the office to be wherever it likes, as if land must bow and back away in its presence. Stone bridges stretch over the Grand Canal like ornaments, like archways ushering the water underneath to continue in and through. Welcome. At the same time, they invite you to climb over and explore the endless labyrinthine corridors and passageways that meander through the piazzas, around the stone buildings lit by soft golden light, and to the water’s edge.
It is sunset. I am clearly a tourist, and obviously alone. Clad in a red peacoat and a black hat, and toting a red suitcase, orange backpack, and black messenger bag, I look anything but Italian. But I don’t let this bother me; instead, I walk through the streets, feeling enchanted simply by the knowledge that I am in Venice of all places. Spotting an empty gondola across the piazza from me, I look around to see if anyone is watching before setting my things down and tentatively stepping onto the dock. Nobody seems to notice, so I sit on the dock, feeling the soft undulations of the water lapping against the boat, enjoying the twinkling golden lights and the unique rococo architecture across the canal.
I know not a single soul in this entire country.
Out of nowhere, this staggeringly lonely thought infiltrates my Shakespeare-induced reverie, my fantasy of playing Portia in The Merchant of Venice. I am alone here. There is beauty here, and no one to share it with. Alone. And not just here. I am fundamentally alone. The sun has disappeared, and dusk is quickly turning to night. Alone, alone, alone. Alone, and I have to find somewhere to sleep.
I soon come to find out that not only does Venice not have hostels, but it is impossible to navigate. Before I know it, I’m hopelessly lost. I’m tired, and it is night, and I am lost, and I am fundamentally alone. I knock on a hotel door, and I am let in only to find that if I sleep here tonight, I won’t have the money to eat tomorrow. I try another a few streets away, and I am told that it is full, and maybe there’s room in the one across the piazza. Across the piazza, I ring the bell, and nobody answers, and I lean against the door, and not only am I tired and lost and fundamentally alone, but I am too mad to cry.
Startled, I whirl around, and I am met with the sight of two small boys. “You need…help?” the taller one asks.
“Hi yes I’m visiting here I don’t have a place to stay do you know of any place I could stay tonight I didn’t book in advance and I have no idea what I’m going to do.” It all comes out in a semi-involuntary burst of words, as if I had been waiting to tell someone an exciting secret for years. He looks at me quizzically, and it soon becomes clear to me that he didn’t understand. I try again. “I need a place to stay,” I admit, somewhat ashamed to be confessing my clear lack of planning to a twelve-year-old.
He motions for me to follow him and leads me to a pay phone around the corner. Digging in his pockets, he pulls out several euro and inserts them into the coin slot. I stand awkwardly beside him as he proceeds to speak in rapid Italian to someone on the other end of the line. I catch the word “signorina” and figure he is talking about me. After a few minutes, he hangs up. “Okay,” he says.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Hi, Jacobo. I’m Abbie.”
“Is this your brother?”
“What’s his name?”
I turn to him. “Hi, Matteo.”
He doesn’t respond. “He doesn’t know English,” Jacobo tells me.
He also tells me that his grandparents should be back soon, and that they have a guest house where I can stay. While we wait, Jacobo tells me about his school, and about learning English, about his grandparents, about growing up in Venice. Matteo just watches with wide-open eyes, full of curiosity and question.
I didn’t end up staying in Jacobo’s family guest house. I ended up finding a cheap hotel that gave me a double room for the price of a single, plus free breakfast. I ended up having a wonderful time in Venice, exploring the Piazza San Marco and riding a boat taxi down the Grand Canal.
Jacobo will never know what he did for me, in those moments. In all likelihood, he’ll never think of me again. I will be nothing more than a 20-minute encounter, buried in the recesses of his memory, and he will never have reason to go searching for this particular moment. But I will. For me, it is a story worth telling.
For me, it was one of those mystical whispers. You are not fundamentally alone.