Wednesday, May 24, 2006

from Venice–Mestre: with guilt

I am a seven minute train ride away from Venice proper, I have a morning to kill before my train to Milan and yet I am avoiding Venice, as if she were some horrible irritant, someone you wish would not show up for a dinner date.

So what’s wrong with Venice? Or is it me?

It’s me. I adore Venice. I forgive her the crowds, the pigeons (and that’s saying a lot), I forgive her the junk stores. I just find her demanding and I am not willing at this moment to give all that she would demand of me: patience, money, attention – I haven’t any to spare.

I had stayed in Mestre once before. I was thirteen and my parents had wanted to see Venice. They thought, correctly, that it would be cheaper to stay in this industrial suburb. Our little hotel turned out to be mainly a house of ill-repute and we all got terrible rashes from what appeared to be an infestation of bedbugs. Three years later, still poor and still wanting to see Venice, we returned, this time to sleep in a tent on the beaches of the Lido. After that, my mother proclaimed that Venice wasn’t worth it. As usual, I disagreed.

And yet, here I am, minutes away and turning my back to her. The guilt, oh the guilt.

True, it is raining…


The train pulled in late from Zagreb last night. Mestre was, of course, somber and gloomy. It is to be expected. My hotel is decent – I chose it because it has a small garden. Really, no other reason. If you are going to stay in an inexpensive place in Mestre, you may as well look out on greenery.

One notable thing about it is that it is not especially close to the commercial hub of the city and so I settle on eating at the hotel restaurant. There aren’t many places in this country that will serve a bad bowl of pasta.

I enter the dining room and it is loud! No wonder – at one end some two dozen men are seated at a long table. They are not drunk, but they are happy. Boisterous. Animated.

My waiter apologizes for their noise, but I wave away his concerns. How could anyone complain about sharing a dining space with these guys – their love of the moment is so palpable! I ask what the occasion is and he tells me they are local taxi drivers. They come to his dining room once a year to eat dinner together.

It is late and the dining room is now empty except for the cab drivers, myself and, way across the room, a young family. She is calming a baby, he is making sure the son is eating properly.

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The baby falls asleep and the father takes the son out for a while. I watch the mother. She is oblivious to the taxi drivers. Simply dressed, with a look of hard work about her, she is, I think, beautiful. Her dark hair spills on her back, her face has the look of shyness. She is lost, in her world, dreaming. What of?

Her husband and son come back and she visibly shakes herself loose from her thoughts. She looks at me across the room. We smile the complicit smile passed between mothers the world over. You have beautiful children, it says. I know, is the response.

She whispers something to her boy. He turns around and looks at me. He asks his parents permission to leave the table. They nod. He pushes his chair, gets up and comes over. With a grin, he leans his elbows on my table.
My Italian permits me to find out that he is Matteo. He is all of five. Yes, they are here on vacation.

Permesso, let me light your candle. He takes mine and goes to the waiter. He asks for a light. The waiter obliges, the little candle picks up the flame, but on the walk over, it goes out again. Back goes Matteo, the waiter lights it again – as if there was nothing odd about a little boy looking to light the candle of a signora, sitting alone at a table, eating her pasta con frutti di mare.

The mother comes over now. Her smile increases her loveliness tenfold. Where am I from, she wants to know. America. Matteo, she is American! Does this have special meaning to a little boy? Do they talk about it? Do they have relatives there?

And you, I ask, where are you from? Calabria. Oh, the south! I love the south! I just was in Sicily.

It is late. The father has left with the baby and she now moves her boy toward the door. Matteo takes her hand. I wave to him, he waves back. The cab drivers are still eating, still laughing. I retreat to my room, upstairs, the one that overlooks a few green trees.

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Mestre dinner