The places travel really takes us to

I write a lot about travel and how it affects us because of the perspective I think it allows us when we get away from our own little corner of the world. I always re-enter my daily round with a fresh way of seeing things after I’ve been outside the US. It’s easy to construct a simplistic mental picture of what “out there” looks like from the vantage point of our front porches and I think a lot of us do that because it helps to manage day-to-day stresses  if we can just compartmentalize and reduce the larger world. To that end, I find I often fall into thinking of certain countries in stereotypes in my mind—until I visit them again and am reminded how basically alike we all are after all.

One of my favorite memories, and one that I hope I will keep vivid in my mind until I’m an old bent-over crone with pins in my hips, is the forty-five minutes I spent in Venice between midnight trains one night many years ago.

The forty-five minutes is a bit of an exaggeration but not by much. I was traveling Europe with my mother and my paternal aunt and I’d miscalculated the timing between trains for our trip from Nuremberg to Prague. A five-hour layover in Venice was the result. Later,  I realized I should have just booked us a couple of rooms and gone with the flow but at the time, staying to our schedule seemed important.  I parked my elderly companions at the restaurant, where we later had a memorable pasta dinner watching the cold drizzle  (it was October) from our table, and trotted the half-mile back to the train station to grab tickets for the next train. It was only a few blocks but it was already dark when I left the restaurant and the fog had dropped heavily onto the streets like a wet drape.

19212830I slipped down an alleyway that looked to me to be a short cut to where I remembered the train station was and when I came out of it, I saw I was standing in front of one of those arching stone bridges that crisscross back and forth over Venice’s canals. I took one step onto the bridge and stopped, for what reason I can’t imagine since I am nothing if not single-minded, needing constantly to be reminded to look around me. I realized that I was totally alone although it wasn’t late. I stood on the bridge, stopped in my mission and just needing to pause and look into the murky fog that blanketed the water below. As I watched, a single gondolier emerged from the mist—his back straight, his hat at an angle, the pole fluid in his hands. He began to pass beneath me on the bridge and just before he did, he looked up at me and languidly blew me a kiss.

Then he disappeared beneath the bridge and back into the mist.

If I hadn’t  continued to stare after him as he retreated, I might have convinced myself I imagined it. The feeling that that gesture evoked in me—so cavalier, so Italian, so romantic—registered an emotion in me that made my heart ache.

I’ve thought about it so many times since then. Why did it affect me so? Was I longing for love? Was I needing an affirmation of my youth? My attractiveness? And more than just what I felt when he did it, what about why he did it? Who was he? He certainly wasn’t expecting me to throw him a tip. I couldn’t see that he did it for any other reason than just the fact that we were both alive and the night was young.

I used to try to imagine who he was. Was he a complex man? Did he have  a wide range of deep emotions? Could he be the sort of complicated  individual who could have a fight with his wife that morning, maybe worry about paying an electric bill in the afternoon and then coast through the eerie mist and spontaneously blow a kiss to a lone woman on a stone bridge? Or was he simple-minded? Did he blow kisses to everyone he saw?

GondolierI honestly don’t know why the experience arrested me so. Or why I still think of it to this day. I just know that sometimes when we travel away from our own streets and subdivisons, we can find ourselves  mindful of the world around us in ways that we aren’t normally, and magic—unexpected and potent—can come drifting by in front of us where, for once, we actually see it.

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9 thoughts on “The places travel really takes us to

  1. I remember a “similar” experience many years ago. There is a painting in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts that I adore — and not because it’s particularly beautiful or in a style that I normally like. It’s called “Portrait of Florence Pierce” (1914) by George Bellows. (http://www.mfah.org/art/100-highlights/portrait-florence-pierce/) The first time I saw this portrait, it stopped me dead in my tracks and I couldn’t stop wondering about this woman. I’d recently read a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, and something in the woman’s expression conveyed some of the same tragic psychology Zelda suffered. At least to my imagination.

    Every time I visited the museum, I would go find this painting and sit on a bench admiring it (and her, for some reason). One visit, I was sitting on my bench wondering what cold, cruel experiences Miss Pierce may have suffered, a guy walked up. He wore a t-shirt and jeans, with wire rimmed glasses — closely cropped hair. He looked at “my” painting for a moment then looked at me and said “Best damned painting in the museum,” and walked away.

    That happened almost 25 years ago and I still remember the thrill of that momentary connection between two strangers in a museum.

    • That is so cool! I love those sorts of out-of-the-blue connections. The ones that transcend the usual intersections among strangers. I also loved hearing how you still remember the thrill of that moment 25 years later. I wonder how other many “moments” happen in our lives that look like nothing on the surface but touch something under the surface that makes them unforgettable.Thank you so much for sharing this, Laura. Nice to know I’m not alone! :-)

  2. This indeed is a wonderful memory for you – a singular moment made the more magical by the fact that it was such a brief visit to one of the world’s magical cities. I can’t help thinking that if you did have the answers to the gondolier’s mystery, the memory wouldn’t have the power that it does.

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