Venice: between heaven and hell

If the devil is Venetian, wears storm-trooper boots, black sunglasses and operates via Couch Surfing, then Roberto (alias) is his name.

Roberto was our ‘fall back’ option for accommodation in Venice.
“Call me,” he said in response to our Couch Surf request, “in case of emergency, if you get stuck, or if you really can’t find a room.”

Within a day and a half (and a lot of rain) of arriving in Italy the conditions that Roberto had described had indeed come to fruition: we were stuck, it was an emergency, and we couldn’t find a room (that we could afford).

“Who should call him, me or you?” I asked Richie.
“You do it. You’re the one who wrote to him.”

Despite having a rather fearsome profile on Couch Surfing (think Sid Vicious crossed with Che Guevara) Roberto was gracious about letting us stay. He met us at Venice’s St Lucia stazione and took us back via a circuitous route to a squatted university building where a ‘happening’ was underway. He introduced us to his friends and gave us a running commentary on the history of the building; its apotheosis as a squat, and the reasons why Venice’s grand buildings were being systematically sold off as luxury hotels.
“There’s more tourists here than residents. We’re outnumbered 3 million to 60,000,” he told us flatly.

After the ‘happening’ at the university we were frogmarched to a bar on the other side of town where an anarchic bunch of rabble were loitering alongside the canal, drinking beer and listening to heavy metal music: more leather than the Fez tanneries and more dogs on leads than Miami beach.

It was not long before Jason wandered over and started talking to us… again. He’s joined us for drinks at the university, impressing us with his distinctive appearance (he wore what can only be described as a leather cape) and intriguing persona: part Ezra Pound, part Mick Dundee. His mother was Australian but he was born in Venice.

“Nice Irish accent,” Richie scoffed once Jason had excused himself to search out a cigarette.
“It’s no Irish, it’s Australian. Watch the pen. He’s got my pen. I bet you he’s going to pocket it. You can’t trust writers!”

After getting my pen back and saying goodbye to Jason we recommenced our earlier attempts to catch Roberto’s eye and emphasise that we would appreciate somewhere quiet to relax, take off our backpacks and prepare for bed. Roberto was still enthusiastically persuing his life’s core objective: sex, drugs, n rock n roll.

“It’s 1:00am. We need to be up in 6 hours to meet your parents off the cruise ship,” I panted in exasperation. Desperation was setting in.
“I’m going to go ask him if we can go,” Richie resolved.

After another half an hour, and a sterner request from Richie, Roberto relented, saying goodbye to the gang and marching us in the direction of home. It was 1:30am.

The apartment was smaller and cleaner than I had expected. I was relieved. It didn’t look or feel anything like a squat, though that was precisely what it was, we were told – one of the last 30 squatted buildings in Venice.

I tried to find a way to politely angle myself towards the bedroom: we were tired and in need of sleep, it was late and we had to be up early tomorrow. But Roberto had other plans.

Within the time it took for me to find the loo, do a wee, wash my hands and return to the lounge room, ‘goodies’ were cooking on the stove, riots were raging on TV, and Richie and the 2 other hapless couch surfers who had joined us for the ride were being subjected to tales from the frontline, when Roberto and his friends had opened missiles (fireworks) on the Queen Mary Ann – a cruise ship that made regular visits to Venice: swamping the city with waves and melting facades off buildings with its high-octane emissions.

“Don’t worry about sleep. It’s not time to sleep,” Roberto assured us. He still had his boots on and was pacing about like a thief, edgy enough to sharpen a knife on. I wasn’t down with this… this is not what I had been expecting. I cut to the chase, ascertained the direction of the bedroom, brushed my teeth and went to bed. “Stuff this,” I thought.

After 4 hours of sketchy sleep in the main bedroom of the squatted apartment Richie and I sleepwalked into our clothes, out the door, down the steps and onto the street. It was time to meet the Queen Victoria.

Richie’s parents were rapturous to see us. It was a big surprise. It had all been worth it.

After six perfect hours of wandering the streets, snapping photos, licking gelato and catching up over paper cups of bubbly, it was time for Kay and Steve to re-board their ship. We escorted them to the port and waved goodbye with tears in our eyes.

After their departure and our return to the Grand Canale, Richie and I felt just about ready to roll home, eat some dinner and go to bed. “Call me when you’re done,” Roberto had told us. So we called him at 4pm.
“Call me at 10pm, I can’t talk now,” was his response.

Okay. What now?

It was a hard task on empty batteries, with bleary eyes and aching toes, to fill the next 6 hours in Venice in the rain. We were at our wits end when we called Roberto at 10pm. No answer. We called again: at 10:10, 10:15, 10:30, 10:45, 11:00. Still no answer. What’s more, the public phone had started taking our money. We were out of our minds with fatigue and not-knowing.

By midnight we were seriously considering jumping into the lagoon to bring an end to our sorrows. Our host was un-contactable and we felt utterly doubtful about our ability to find our way unassisted back to the apartment. We didn’t have keys.

A beer and a cheese toasty later and we were still no closer to having a bed and a warm place to stay. It was now 2am. We had nothing better to do than try with all our might, using every faculty of our fatigued and foggy minds, to conjure up some direction… some hope. Eyes smarting and feet stumbling we began to retrace our steps from earlier in the morning when we had run from the apartment in the direction of the port.

By a series of twists and turns, bridges, alleyways, false starts and dead-ends we found our way to a part of the city that felt and looked familiar. We were getting close, we felt sure.

The closest landmark to our destination was a small square that I swore was called ‘San Marino’ and Richie was pretty sure was ‘San Maria’. When we found our way to Duomo San Marina we were the closest to happy we’d been in 10 long cold hours. I’d increased the volume of the lagoon tenfold with my tears and it looked like we might find our way home before the entire city went under.

“One more call. Let’s make one more call to Roberto,” I rasped. There was a phone booth. “You do it. I can’t speak to him,” I said. Richie took the slip of paper with the phone number on it and the coins from my hand, punching in the numbers desultorily.
“It’s ringing!”
“Tell him to let us in. Tell him to come and let us in right now. I’m not being held to ransom any more, this is bullshit,” I spat angrily.
“Hello. Yeah Roberto, it’s Richie. Where are you?” Long pause while Roberto answered.
“You’re at a party… you’re going to be an hour or two before you can let us in…?”
“No. No way,” I fumed. “Tell him to get his ass back here right now. What an Asshole!”
“Yeah okay. We kinda thought you’d let us in now. It’s been a big day and we’re a bit tired.”
“Tired,” I ranted. “I’m cold, I’m exhausted… you’re being too nice. Way too nice. Give it to me…”
“Okay mate,” he said resignedly into the receiver. MATE! This guy wasn’t our ‘mate’! Richie hung up before I could grab the phone from him and smash it to pieces.

“He got a ride out of the city,” Richie relaid to me. “They went to a party. It will take a few hours for him to get back. Maybe we could go walking and explore the city. That’s what he said.”

I was going to cry again.

Shortly after 3am a smiling Roberto let us in to the apartment. We were huddled on the steps under the umbrella. We were numb and I had a sore throat. I’d lost the will to fight.

At 8am the following morning, Richie and I closed the door on Roberto’s apartment. We’d be happy never to see him again. We were sad to leave Venice, and even sadder that our time there hadn’t been easier. It was an awful shame to have danced with the devil in a place as sublime at the floating city.

We were running again… running in the direction of Tuscany, in the direction of the hills. Running for cover… We didn’t look back.

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Filed under Architecture & Design, Culture, Earth Care, Social Justice, Travel

9 responses to “Venice: between heaven and hell

  1. Oh Nina — what an experience in Venice. Where is the photo of Roberto? He sounds amazing. I think I want to marry him.
    Love your photos of Venice. Have pinched one for my website. Hope you don’t mind. Happy travelling in Tuscany. Cheers Rita

  2. The best laid plans of mice and men. Hope the sore throat did not kick in.

  3. Great images and words. Thanks Nina.

  4. what a terrible situation to endure but had one somewhat the same yet in reverse…we had a student apartment in firenze, italy, which entails , crappy pluming, old moldy kitchen and rarely did we have heat. however, we kept it clean,let’s say we used a lot of bleach! one of the 4 room mates went a way for about 3 months. so we rented out a room to a guy who was on erasmas-sememster abroad program from turkey. this guy was studying to be a doctor so we all thought , great! he will be smart and clean. yeah, right! this guy smelled so badly it made my eyes water. for Mr. Doctor-to be this was the first time outside of his country and he was used to a pampered life where he had never cleaned a plate or washed even his own clothes. what made it worse was he listed the sofa in our apartment on the couch surfing website with out telling anyone in the apartment and then moved his friend into the bedroom where he was staying. we were all miserable! so i wish he would have rented the couch to you two because you both seem so nice and clean, from what i am able to see in the photos!! these squats are all over italy and are usually filled with non conformists types, like roberto. there are some great hostels in venice but you must book in advance, its just that kind of town. hopefully the next time you will at least have a bed for more than four hours, poor dears!!!great story loved reading it!!

  5. Holly

    OH MY GOODNESS! Major morry for you… x

  6. Kay

    oh no I didnt believe it would end up so badly for you both, thank you so much for making the effort to meet us, I hope you will be able to put it all behind you and remember the great time we had, I still cant come to terms with it I was overwhelmed. Another amazing blog, love Kay

  7. Sarah exasperating! At least it wasn’t dull? I’m sure all will be remedied by the warm magic of Tuscany and perhaps a good foot rub! x

  8. Rose

    Would you and Richie be interested in travelling to South Africa at some point? It is called God’s Golden Acre – a place that looks after children affected and infected by HIV/AIDS. Farm, school, community care, paleative care etc.

  9. Nicoletta

    Dear Nina, it was really nice to meet Richie and you and I’m enjoying reading your blog. I’m really sorry for the very negative experience you had in Venice since I am from that area. I can assure you that most of the people are not like Roberto and if one day you want to go back to Venice and Padova, I’ll be glad to help you. Good luck with your journey.
    A big hug

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