Suddenly there's water on both side of my train. I lean out the window and take a deep inhalation of tangy lagoon air. I love this approach to Venice. The mucky, marshy last bits of the Italian mainland give way to the island's umbilical causeway: train tracks and a highway. Ahead in the ha y distance, tilting bell towers wink their welcome. St. Mark's distinctive bell tower, the city's grandest, is on the far side of the island, but even from the train, it seems close by. Venice is a small town on a small island. The morning sun sprinkles diamonds on the Adriatic, as if to promise visitors they're in for a rich experience.
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The Venice train station stands like a bulldog facing the exotic Grand Canal. For new arrivals, the steps of the station provide a springboard from which to dive into a fanciful world. A hardworking vaporetto—one of the big floating buses that serve as public transportation on Venice's canals— glides by. I hop on and struggle past groups of Italians deep in conversation, gesturing intensely into each other's sunglasses. Gradually, I make my way to the front of the boat as it winds down the Grand Canal to the center of town at Pia a San Marco. Somewhere along the way I stand up, only to hear the captain yell, "Sit down!" It's great to be in Italy. Riding like an ornament on the bow of the vaporetto, I take photographs I'm sure I've taken on previous visits. Venice—so old and decrepit—always feels new to me.
This boat ride always settles me into Venetian time. Clock towers from an age before minute hands chime la ily near the top of each hour. They remind me that a sure way to be lonely inVenice is to expect your Italian friends to be on time. When mine show up late, they shrug. "Venetian time," they say.
Leaping from boat to dock, I feel like a stagehand in Italy's grandest open-air theater as singing porters wheel their carts. Cooing pigeons, jostling lanes, inky forgotten canals, ritual caf s, vested waiters, pia a schoolyards—there are pastel views in every direction.
Reaching the black door of the hotel I call home here, I push a bron e lion's nose. This brings Piero to the second- floor window. "Ciao, Reek!" he booms, and bu es the door open. I climb the steps eager to settle in.
Piero, who runs the hotel, shaved his head five years ago. His girlfriend wanted him to look like Michael Jordan. With his operatic voice, he reminds me more ofYul Brynner. "My voice is guilty of my love for opera," he says.
Renovating the hotel, Piero discovered 17th-century frescoes—from its days as a convent—on the walls in several rooms. A wooden prayer kneeler, found in the attic and unused for generations, decorates a corner of my room. Where the whitewash is peeled away, I see aqua, ocher and lavender floral patterns. In Venice, behind the old, the older still peeks through.
When Piero's cellphone rings, he rolls his eyes then talks into it as if overwhelmed with work: "Si, si, si, va bene ["that's fine"], va bene, va bene, certo ["exactly"], certo, bello, bello, bello, bello, bello ["beautiful," in descending pitch], si, si, OK, va bene, va bene, OK, OK, OK, ciao, ciao, ciao, ciao, ciao, ciao." He hangs up. "The night manager," he explains. "Always problems. I call him my nightmare manager."
Walking me to the window and tossing open the blind, Piero says, "Venice is a little city. Only a village, really. About 60,000 people live on this island." He continues: "I am Venetian in my blood. Not Italian. We are just one century Italian. Our language is different. The life here is another thing. It is with no cars, only boats. I cannot work in another town. Venice is boring for young people—no disco, no nightlife. It is only beautiful. Venetian people are travelers. Remember Marco Polo? But when we come home, we know this place is the most beautiful. Venice. It is a philosophy to live here . . . the philosophy of beauty."
I walk to the square that Napoleon, it is said, described as "Europe's finest drawing room"—Pia a San Marco. The exotic basilica of St. Mark's overlooks the huge square. On the basilica, a winged lion stands at regal attention while gilded and marble angels and saints, including the head of St. Mark himself, bless the tourists below.