An intrepid band of adventurers (my family) set off in the heat to their Venetian palace..
***Placed 2nd in Passiton's "Oldie but Goodie" contest***
Written several years ago after returning from a family holiday to Venice, Italy. We all adored this marvellous, extravagant city, with its grand arching bridges lacing over a labyrinthine network of canals. I remember rows of hand-blown glass vases and ornaments amassed in shop windows, like fragments of captured rainbow; handsome gondoliers plying their trade from the waters; and stealthy, solemn figures, masqued entertainers-- being children, we ran away when they approached! But most of all, I remember the dusty, choking, all-consuming heat....
Disembarking from the riverboat, Venice’s equivalent of a bus service, our big mistake was to decide to walk to the hotel.
We weren’t quite doing Venice on a shoestring, but taking a family of five on holiday at once is never cheap. I don’t think he had bought or even looked at a map, but my Dad professed by some divine manner to know that the hotel couldn’t possibly be that far. My family - my Dad, Mum, me, my younger sister and younger brother - set off down the nearest side-street with jaunty step and bright eyes, curious to see the sights.
The midday sun beat down and I realized that this was easily the hottest I had ever felt. It was so hot I didn’t even feel the heat, but the sweat rolled off me until I was slick and glistening with perspiration. I glanced around and saw that the rest of my family were in a similar state - melty. Nevertheless, undaunted as yet and adventurous in spirit, we made our way through the narrow, high-walled paths and lanes of the great city, never wide enough for a car. In Venice the canals were the roads, the vital network that linked up the city and kept it going; water flowed and transported goods, people, gossip with it. We trudged along, heaving our bulging suitcases up and down steep stone stairs and over bridges, trundling through blazingly hot plazas.
We were soon hopelessly lost.
We began to argue: the heat, the heavy suitcases and the frustration were all too much. My brother complained that he was tired; my Dad’s back was obviously paining him and my Mum struggled to keep up (she’s only short), berating us for going too fast. My sister was in a grump and scowled at everybody. I decided on what I thought would be the most sagacious course of action: I shut up and plodded onward.
Despite the saying, “Only mad-dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,“ I did in fact see a few Venetians wandering by, as well as what looked suspiciously like a mad-dog - although I wasn’t wearing my glasses at the time. The mad-dog ambled past me in a gateway, black and bristling, its tongue lolled out of its mouth and it panted, content to be out in the heat.
Only my sister spoke Italian. She had studied it for a couple of terms and was very proud of what phrases and words she had mastered. Back in England, before we’d boarded the plane, she’d babbled on and on about the people she’d meet and chat to; she liked Italian boys. But once we were in Italy, in the noisy, bustling airport, she clammed up. The foreignness, the pressure of her responsibility as the family’s only means of communication - it was all too much for her. My Dad ordered boat tickets with the help of a pocket dictionary. Now with a silent, angry interpreter, the passers-by were in any case about as useful as a pair of sunglasses in a downpour. We trudged on. My Mum had gone a funny pink colour, like a boiled lobster.
None of us knows how long we wondered round the city, but the novelty soon wore off and I stopped gazing at the exquisite architecture, the stone bridges and aqua water of the larger canals. I stopped being amazed by the way that the water was all around me - down that alley, behind me, through this courtyard… I glimpsed it everywhere. I hate to think what happens to inebriated people in Venice. There’s not much room to stagger drunkenly. You’d quickly stumble into a deep, cold canal, and I believe (although of course I wouldn't know) that it’s hard to swim when drunk.
We were all reduced to automatons, walking without aim or purpose or hope purely because there was nothing else to be done when, by some miracle of chance, we suddenly found ourselves in the large square of our hotel. From there it took a mere few minutes to locate the tiny side-street, only broad enough for one person at a time, down which our hotel was situated. We had arrived.
My brother perked up immediately when he noticed the ice-cream parlour next door - a rainbow of choices. The relief as we squeezed down the tiny alley to the door of the hotel, however, was soon transmuted once again into uneasy apprehension. Our hotel, perceived as a goal and sanctuary on our hellish journey, suddenly lost the mental label of ‘sanctuary’ we had applied to it as we turned right into the hotel lobby.
A cloud of sawdust greeted us as we stepped inside, into the cool, dark interior. Our eyes adjusted to the gloom. The whine of an electric drill abruptly ceased and the sawdust drifted away, into the sultry air outside. My Dad’s expression altered almost imperceptibly as he stepped inside, but that twitch was enough to reassure me that he was worried too. We seemed to have come to a building site. Wheeling our suitcases carefully across a fresh, wet cement floor, we crossed the hotel lobby to an impressive marble reception desk. In comparison to outside, the gloomy interior felt postitively artic. My Mum’s flushed face began to pale. As my Dad apprehensively booked us in - we had no choice - I and my siblings gazed at the rubble around us.
A tanned Italian man with wiry short hair grinned at me, white teeth gleaming. He was an electrician, or something of that sort; pencil tucked behind one ear and tatty stained shorts. Coloured wires poked out of the wall by which he squatted like rainbow spaghetti. Other cables dangled from the ceiling, and power tools lay scattered about like gambling tokens at a roulette table. The electrician’s friend beamed at me from the other side of the reception, from a tiny alcove where he was laying floor tiles, one at a time. He had a smudge of white on one cheek and cheeky Italian eyes. I smiled politely back, too young to be certain of his intentions. My sister glowered. My mum looked worried. My brother sulked and kicked a wheelbarrow, the sound echoing metallic in the silence, punctuated only by the murmur of my dad negotiating in poor Italian and simple English with the hotel receoptionist.
Now I said that we were watching our purses on this holiday, but my Dad was not such a miser as to have booked us into a half-built hotel. And I could tell from his anxious expression and the tight line of his jaw that he wasn’t too pleased with the surprise either. No-one had mentioned to him the hotel’s lack of completion when he booked.
The jolly Italian at the reception desk grinned through a bushy greying moustache as he handed me our room key. He leant forward so that his belly spilled over the cream-veined marble of the desk and, in a thick Italian accent, he proudly announced:
“You are lucky to have that room. There is room to dance up there! To dance!”
His eyes gleamed enthusiastically -almost fanatically - and his eyebrows beetled. Highly sceptical, I accepted the shiny key from his clammy hand and, treading past my friend the electrician (still grinning ferally), we mounted a steep winding staircase. The signs of building work were everywhere: discarded tools, sacks of cement and extended tape measures, lying like snakes to trip me up.
The man who showed us to our rooms was silent, offering no explanation or apology for the unfinished state of the hotel. Glum faces indicated that everybody else in my family was feeling like I did: depressed that we had come to this horrible, hot city and annoyed that we were condemned to spend a miserable week in a half-finished hotel. We all suspected secretly that a ruined holiday lay in front of us, and it was depressing - holidays are meant to be fun from start to finish.
But all our assumptions disappeared when our guide halted at the second-floor landing and pushed open an old wooden door, carved from gnarled wood and pitted and grooved with the passage of time. As I stepped through, dragging my suitcase behind me, a rush of chilled air washed over me, instantly refreshing my flagging spirits and soothing my aching feet and throbbing head. It was deliciously, glacially, blissfully cool.
The room we entered was spacious and high-ceilinged, much too large to function as a bedroom. An enormous glass and gold chandelier was suspended from the ceiling, and I trod on a glossy red and white marble floor. Glancing at the walls, I was astonished to see that they were covered not in paper but padded material, a sumptuous golden colour and embroidered with intricate patterns. The room was empty of all furnishings, uninhabited as yet. As we crossed the ice-cold floor, gasps and murmurs of amazement escaped my family: what a beautiful room!
My brother’s eyes widened at the sight of the giant chandelier and my sister’s mouth hung open in amazement. I deposited my case and stroked the wallpaper, entranced.
Our guide led us to a room leading off this massive ballroom. Again, the door was fashioned of dark, mature wood. Opening the door, he gestured for my parents to go in. Clamouring to see, I and my siblings crowded round, pushing past the poe-faced hotel-worker.
My parents' room wasn’t huge, but it was lavishly furnished and decorated. The gorgeous marble flooring continued, the padded fabric wallpaper remained, this time in different colours - pale green and embroidered with silvery thread. The carved double bed had golden lion’s feet and an extravagant headrest; the bedclothes were mint-green, made of the same heavy fabric as the wallpaper. There were matching curtains concealing a large window, overlooking the square, and a gilt-framed mirror on the far wall; an elegant dressing table occupied another. My mum’s expression was that of a small child presented with a new toy. My dad grinned like a idiot in relief. A stately wooden wardrobe flanked the lovely dressing table, and an ornate wooden writing desk with a comfortable-looking padded chair was located in one corner. The effect was only slightly spoiled by the plastic travel kettle and welcoming teas laid out on the glass top of the dressing table, a jarring intrusion by the modern world. Staring, I felt as if I’d gone back in time and now we inhabited a Venetian palace...
I imagined myself the eldest daughter of a rich, important merchant - my father - while my mother became the lady of the house. She wore costly jewellery and splendid dresses as she instructed the servants about their household tasks. I and my younger sister, sparkling as champagne, were courted by all the young men - they hoped to gain my family's wealth and fortunes, to which our splendid riverside palace was testament. My father pronounced them all hopelessly unsuitable - for marriage does not make a man. My brother, cheeky, handsome and spoiled, was popular with the girls of Venice. Our family were known as moneyed, yet gracious and friendly, the envy of the Venetian upper class...
The hotel employee smiled stiffly at me, and gestured I and my siblings to follow him. Ducking down a narrow side passage - why was everything narrow in Venice? - we went along and turned a corner to find ourselves at a dead end. Our guide unlocked another large wooden door and we entered.
The sight of our room stopped me in my tracks. I realized with a start that the hotel receptionist had not been joking when he claimed there was room to dance in our bedroom - there really was!
High-ceilinged, light and airy, our bedroom might easily have been divided up into four smaller rooms by a stingier builder. A smaller version of the crystal and glass extravagance from the entrance hall adorned the ceiling, and again the floor was red marble shot through with scarlet. A generously-sized double bed occupied the longest wall, with ornate wooden bedside tables to the left and the right. An imposing wooden writing desk sat against the second-longest wall, and next to it a luxurious day-bed, upholstered in plump corn-gold fabric and supported by those golden-clawed lion's feet. All was pomp and elegance at the same time: curling light fittings, opulent mirrors and a dignified chest of drawers, sumptuous fabrics and polished dark wood, crystal and cool marble floors.
Through a tall window, I could see the famous square next door. People milled across it, past the steps of the tiny church; others sat on tubular chairs around circular tables and sipped coffee at their leisure. Two street entertainers in old-fashioned court frippery and finery, and scary, impersonal masks drifted about, thrilling and delighting tourists. Occasionally one would go up and have their photograph taken with the impressive spectres.
I recalled the suffocating heat outside, an oppressive sticky blanket that clung to your hair and your clothes. I remembered the sweltering force and the haze produced by the heat when you looked into the distance, spotting mad-dogs in the glare. I remembered the glow of sweat on my body, soggy t-shirts and my pulsing head and dry mouth. The stifling airlessness of outside contrasted sharply with the welcome icy atmosphere in here. I looked at my brother: hair spiked up damp from the strenuous walk but now drying, he had perked up enough to take an interest in the surroundings. My sister’s hands were a blotchy colour and her mascara had actually run, but panda-ring eyes regarded me and she smiled. Dishevelled but triumphant, we surveyed our kingdom, our Venetian palace.
The guide hovered nervously, and we pottered about, admiring the furnishings and desperately making polite appreciative comments until he understood he could go. As he departed, he turned up the air-conditioning to the highest setting. As soon as the door clicked shut, all three of us abandoned any pretence of being anything but exhausted, cast ourselves down on the cold, hard marble floor. I fell asleep with my cheek pressed against the freezing Italian stone, and dreamt of imminent visits to the ice-cream parlour downstairs, vanilla and strawberry and mint...
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