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Ciao, OaklandMarch 30, 2012

You know what I love about Italy? That you don't ever enter a place without saying the equivalent of, first, hello! Hello! Oh, hello, how are you, hello, hello! And then when you leave, it's imperative that you must say Goodbye! Goodbye! Goodbye, take care, see you soon, travel safely, goodbye, goodbye! 

And this is what strangers must do. If you know or like the person in question? Please multiple the number of Ciaos by approximately 17. I got no end of amusement sitting in campo cafes, watching people meet and leave each other. So much genuine affection! None of it sounded forced or cursory. 

Connection. 

That's what I got from this whole trip (along with an extra pound or three from the carb consumption but let's not talk about it). I was struggling with the language, but I was stubborn about it, so instead of falling onto people's mercy and their mad skills with English (because everyone in the service industry in Venice speaks good English), I would muscle my way through things. It was exhausting, struggling to be understood. 

And while I'd gone to Italy by myself in order to find quiet, I found myself strangely lonely sometimes. I wanted to laugh with someone, and to chat easily. I had coffee with my friend Santina, which was awesome. 

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But for the rest of the time, when I wasn't happily being quiet, I was searching for connection. I craved it. I didn't see that coming. I pictured myself in Italy, perfectly content to wander alone for eight days. But even with Facetiming Lala every night (what a world we live in! How cool is that that I could just DO that for free?), I was looking for someone to talk to.

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I would pick a likely-looking person sitting alone and plan on saying something casually (sometimes it felt like I was single again, trying to work up the nerve to talk to someone at a bar). And then, in all cases, their other half would join them. 

No one travels alone in Venice. 

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Now, I know that's not true. It can't be true. But in March of this year, I started to believe I was the only one traveling solo. It became a kind of game, watching for people who looked like tourists who were alone.

I became a connoisseur of the small connection.

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Like the screaming set of twins on a very packed boat. The girl baby and I bonded. Every time I caught her eye, she stopped crying and started smiling and laughing. I swear I was drunk on the ten minutes of love we shared. 

Or the cat lady (I will tell you about her at some point, I promise) who called me cara and kissed both my cheeks when we parted. 

Or the punk bartender who played Sinatra (I actually ended up lapsing into English with him, and it was okay). 

Or the lacemakers. 

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Or the very young waiter who, when I declined dolce, brought me a tiny plate of wee cookies anyway, to make my night sweet. 

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Or the young man, sitting opposite me, eating alone (oh! There was one!) and obviously completely miserable about it. Seen above, this is the way he ate his whole meal. I tried for a long time to catch his eye but he wouldn't look at me -- he ate with his head down or occasionally staring up at the sky. I was too shy to just speak out and grab his attention. But by the time he hit his dessert, I gave up and just spoke loudly, "How's your ice cream?"  He transformed, utterly. He sat straight. He grinned. He said it wasn't very good, that I should order something else. He left shortly thereafter and wished me a wonderful evening, still standing straight and walking away smiling from ear to ear.

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Those moments, those were the ones that made my trip. I know it seems obvious, but I was kind of caught flat-footed by it. I went with the intention to write, to finish the book I'm working on. I didn't do that. I only wrote in my journal and on the blog. 

I went with the intention of seeking solitude, and found it, but craved connection. 

I went with the intention to catch up on sleep. AND I DID. Hoo-yeah. Not a sleeping pill in sight, just glorious sleep. 

But I didn't know, I honestly didn't know, that other people would be such a big part of my trip. So I'm trying to bring that home with me -- that delight in hearing someone else speak, a stranger. 

Yesterday I was in my home post office, and an older gentleman told me I'd dropped a piece of paper. "No, I didn't, but thanks," I said. I think I had just kicked a receipt, but he was still worried. 

"You never know, young lady. You coulda written an important number on that. You don't want to lose that." 

So to humor him, I picked it up and flattened it, putting it in my pocket. Then I really looked at him. He was COVERED in military pins, from his military hat to his heavily-weighted jacket. Normally I would have smiled and wished him a good day. But instead I said, "LOOK at you! What IS all that you're carrying around there?"

His chest pushed out and he said, "Welp, happens I'm the most decorated veteran in the East Bay."

"Wow!" I said, impressed. I stuck out my hand. "Honored to meet you." 

"Abner Walton," he said [I know]. "I was with the army. Now I'm the owner of Dynasty Investigation, for the last thirty years. I specialize in finding people. And let me tell you, I find the ones who don't want to be found."

He told me stories, and I gawped appropriately, and it was a lovely, lovely few moments. It took maybe five minutes out of my life. And isn't that exactly what life is FOR? 

Being. Listening. Thinking. It means everything, doesn't it? 

Venice kissed me one last time as I left, giving me this as I took the bus-boat away, suitcase at my feet. 

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It was amazing to be there. And it was amazing to come home, which is just the right way to travel, I think. 

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Digit agrees. (Lala said by the last few days of my trip, he kept trying to get out. She thought he was trying to go look for me. Awwww.

* Boots for the win, by the way. I didn't see a single Italian woman under the age of sixty who wasn't wearing black boots. I brought a heeled pair and a low pair, and alternating them daily kept my feet happy till almost the very end when duct tape handled the two blisters I got (duct tape, the best thing EVER for blisters -- I never travel without some wrapped around a chopstick -- just wrap it around the part of foot where the blister is and it forms a new, thick skin that you can just keep walking on. Best thing I learned from running).

Ciao, ciao, salve, arrivederci, ciao! 

Comments

love. love this post. a good reminder to take things in and notice all the people, all the strangers, all the friends in your day to day life. thanks!

Thanks, this is too beautiful for any more words than that.

Moving post! I've had the most extraordinary exchanges with strangers. A young man on an elevator once told me his hands were very cold. "Why?", I asked. Because he'd recently had them REATTACHED after they'd been blown off in an explosion. I told him he was the luckiest person I'd ever met. He looked at me oddly. "Well, you had your hands blown off, and you still have your hands!" Who knows if it was true, or if he was just mentally ill. But it was certainly the most interesting part of my day.

In 1991, my mother died. Early in 1992, my dad gave me a trip to London. I went by myself.

So I get this trip for you. I get it, but I'm, not going to write any connections to mine except to say my bellman had a good listening ear.

Welcome home.

I'm so glad you shared this trip with us. We can live vicariously thru you lol. I have a dear friend from Italy and I can understand better, why americans are so odd to her.

Hey Rachael - I'm wondering if you ever saw the Italian movie Pane i Tulipane (sp?) or Bread and Tulips? Your writing reminded me of that movie as you mused about travelling sola in Venice. It's so good, try to see if if you haven't. Thanks for everything you put out into the blogosphere for us.

Laura

Sigh,it would have been better with Lala. Just saying!

St. Augustine said that 'The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.' Thank you so much Rachael for sharing your thoughtful and moving insights and letting us read the pages of your life.

Venice kiss. Wow. Perfect. And...Digit is so cute.

Amazing post, and - as always - your timing is impeccable. Emotional week here in Conifer, CO with a large wildfire, evacuations, and a family member funeral yesterday. It's been a week of gratitude for those same connections. As much as I enjoy my quiet alone time (and it's mandatory that I get some on a regular basis), this week I've just been so thankful for the people in my life. (I'm also reading Mindful Knitting, so I'm guessing no accident on the timing of that as well.)

Welcome home!

ohmygod. How wonderful! All of it. And duct tape? Good to know. Thanks. Welcome home.

good to have you back in California... but your trip sounds amazing.... wonder if any of the people you met will become some part of a character or two in your next novel.... just thinking of how easy it is to make someones day by just stopping and listening.... I started training as a customer service rep and I find the that listening to them really makes a difference and stopping to ask how they are and listening for the response is also a nice way to get us both on the same side of the table to solve a problem.... you reminded me of that when you wrote about Abner... I hope I run in to him too... Anyway, glad you are home and hope you have more stories to share.... and photos too.

I want a yarn in that sunset color way---I've already halfway mentally designed the cozy swirl style sweater with a wavy edge to mimic the ripples on the water. What gorgeous color.

You're marvelous.

This was a beautiful, beautiful post. (I've been enjoying this whole Venice series. And now I feel obliged to mention that I traveled solo to Venice last May. It was clearly unusual, but so freeing.)

Glad you're home safe. Was stunned to see you slept well in Venice. Am wondering where you stayed. We got no sleep while we were there. So much happening in such a small space. Drunks singing in the alley until 3 a.m. then at 4 the delivery carts came through with singing delivery guys. Very entertaining but we could have used a little rest. Did you stay in a hotel? Ours was an apartment in the Rialto area.

Aw, that sounds wonderful! And duct tape--I would never have guessed. It really doesn't take half your foot off afterward?

I also am someone very used to going places by myself. Last summer I visited San Diego and the area to consider whether I wanted to move there and to support my son who wants to move to LA (and be a star!). I was surprised how isolated I felt, I had a couple interesting conversations, one with a courtesy van driver (he works two jobs), a young man in line with me at the library to use a computer and both seat partners on the planes home. That was it!

Next time, I'd rather travel with someone to enjoy it with me. I also felt rather odd being by myself and I've never felt that way before!

Your photos were beautiful.

that's also the beauty of solo travel. the appreciation of the connections that occur AND the hunger for more. Serenissima just keeps on with the surprising gifts, eh? welcome home again, bella!

Have you read the short story "After Rain" by William Trevor? It's about a woman who travels to Italy alone, and the whole time reading your posts I've thought of it.

I'm really working harder at talking to strangers. I moved to a new city for grad school and it's so lonesome sometimes. I'm so shy, it's hard, but I do love when it happens, those small conversations.

I followed your Twitter posts and loved them all. Now I starting to read back through your blog backwards. I went to Venice with my husband and daughters years ago and remember it as being an insanely crazy part of a larger trip. You brought that all back to me! Grazie!

What a lovely post!
I totally agree - life is in the little meetings. All those short moments that, even though they pass so quickly, can contain so much.

Your post and the photo of Venice' last kiss to you gave me goosebumps. Digit tried to go out and find you? How do you measure the love that surrounds you? It is too big, too overwhelming. Thank you so much, you deserve all the love and more!!!
Terrie

Alone-time is great for honing our observation skills, which are key for great writing.. welcome home and thanks for the lovely travel memoir!

I'm so glad you shared your trip with us. I totally get it. I live alone, travel alone, etc., but if I can find one person each morning to say hello to - it makes my day. Just a little human contact - not too much because I can't stand too much - but it makes all the difference in my world.

Loved your post, made me want to get straight back to Venice. I remember how they all pour into the bars for a quick shot of espresso on the way home from work and the evening passeggiata with everyone out on the streets dressed to kill. Hope you visited Lellabella (http://lellabellavenezia.com/about-us/) close to La Fenice, a gorgeous yarnstore run by knitters Monica and her mum Lella. I've travelled all over the US on my own for weeks at a time and there were times when it felt like a million miles from home, but looking back, it's an experience I wouldn't have missed. Take care x

Lovely post! And I adore Abner. BTW, thanks for the tip about duct tape; not that I run, but as a devotee of our local LARGE flea market, I can see carrying some tape with me next time I go!

Ciao bella! Thanks for the wonderful trip reports, and for the footwear tip. I'll be bringing boots to Europe with me next week :)

Hi, Digit! ;-)

Aaawww ... Digit! Momma's camera is not for noms.

Oh, darling. I have missed you so. I'd still love to see your face sometime. Holla.

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