There’s something about being in a place with friends who are locals to the area — it anchors the place, makes it feel more real and accessible than just being a visitor, on the outside looking in through the distorting filter that is tourism. So, we’d leapt at the opportunity to visit Venice with our new friends Andrea and Silvia, who had gone to university there and had a local’s perspective on the city! We jumped on the train and were joined by them in Padova along the way.
Whilst crossing the lagoon on the train and watching the surreal city approach, I got laughed at for eagerly pulling out Google Earth on the iPhone for an additional birds-eye view and showing it to Katherine — “How cool does this look!” — evoking the response that it also looked pretty cool out the window (she said bemusedly that I was missing it because I had my head buried in my iPhone). Andrea laughed knowingly, saying that he does exactly the same thing. We emerged from the train station onto the bustling streets of Venice. Andrea and Silvia took us up and over Ponte degri Scalzi, the bridge crossing the main canal, and proceeded to lead us through a warren of tiny streets, frequently crossing picturesque little bridges over narrow canals lined with boats.
It was very difficult to visualise the city as the collection of little islands that it is — it seemed decidedly more like a solid landmass interspersed by canals! As Katherine answered when asked later that night what she thought of Venice, “I thought there’d be more water”. It was quite cool to think that we were crossing between islands when we passed over those little bridges though. Katherine later remarked on the unusual quantity of graffiti (something I blithely failed to notice), noting that perhaps tagging a place so astronomically famous is quite the ego trip!
A big trade in Venice was in exotic carnival masks — there were lots of little shops selling them, representing a variety of Commedia dell’arte characters. These had Katherine feeling inspired, especially when she spotted the unpainted plaster ones you can buy and decorate yourself.
As we walked, Andrea pointed out one of the university buildings nestled amongst the narrow streets and canals, and introduced us to a great Italian word that we haven’t really been able to find an English version of: Simpatico, which Andrea and Silvia described as meaning something like funny, friendly; basically a word describing someone who’s good company, of pleasant character and who puts one in the mood they’re in just by being with them. (Admittedly, if said about a woman however, it means she has a nice personality but isn’t much to look at, as in “she has a great personality, but…“). It seemed apt, being introduced to the word by those two simpatici.
Andrea was explaining the verb ‘andare’ to me (to go), and a guy passed us and made a friendly comment to Andrea in Italian — something about giving the Americans language lessons and “Americani non parlano Italiano”. We stopped to talk for a moment; he asked us where we were from (actually, Australia!), and our conversation moved from there. and it turned out that Ben was an American who’d just kinda settled in Venice for a few months and had landed some sort of architect internship there – not a bad gig! He looked entirely Italian, and his Italian seemed pretty solid, so I was surprised when he switched to English to talk to all four of us. He was a friendly sort, and brainstormed with us about what to show his visiting mother later that day, given that Andrea and Silvia were being tour guides for the day, as well. When we parted ways with Ben, Andrea turned to us and explained “he is simpatico”.
Andrea grabbed simpatico Ben’s contact details, and we pressed on to Piazza San Marco, one of the main tourist draws of Venice. It was funny, our first visit there with Andrea and Silvia with the pressing hoards of other visitors had us almost entirely unaware of the square’s charms — it was difficult to appreciate the basilica with most of it covered with scaffolding, and the press of people left little breathing-room to look around.
Poor Silvia was feeling pretty drained by this point — our plans to have locals show us around had inadvertently resulted in us dragging a pregnant woman around Venice — sorry Silvia! With Silvia desperately in need of sustenance and a rest we sat down by the water and talked for a while, then pressed on and stopped for lunch at a little pizza cafe way off the beaten track (which made it consequently quite tasty, and very cheap!).
Some more ambling around back-streets and we came across a gelato shop — Andrea and Silvia had two rounds, so I suppose that must be high praise indeed. They laughed at our restraint (only one helping, pah!). We discovered later that the gelateria was listed in our travel guide: Quite a validation for Lonely Planet recommendations right there!
We jumped back on the train and made our way to Andrea and Silvia’s, in Padova. All four of us napped on the journey back (after plodding our way around most of Venice!), although not before Andrea and Silvia had to endure the apparently maddeningly inane chatter of two Italian women in the seats near us; the one benefit to not speaking Italian! We hung around on the couch for a while, and I pulled up an impressive recording on YouTube of Andrea and Silvia’s old band, “K”, playing a gig to a huge crowd.
Paolo and Vivian (Vivienne? Forgive me if I’m wrong on the names, Paolovigo!) had kindly invited us around for dinner, so the four of us joined them at “the cube”, their very Nordic-styled, gleaming house, along with Zage and his partner, and Paolo’s brother Robert and his girlfriend Alice. We chatted with Alice for a while, who spoke excellent English, and then gathered around as Paola and Vivian served up some absolutely awesome home-made pizza. We were startled when out came the shredded horse-meat — really, guys?
At the end of a really enjoyable evening with our new simpatici friends, Andrea and Silvia drove us back to “Monsangeles” (an in-joke name for Monselice that they couldn’t actually remember the origins of!). On the way we introduced them to one more favourite Aussie band, Powderfinger, which went down very well. We said a warm farewell, and promised that we would be back to pester them again — for longer, next time, and hopefully in Italian! Andrea gave us some Italian comic books to practise with – that’s how he learnt English! We’ve got no excuse now.
We’re really excited to have met them — for sure, they’re ‘our people’ — and we can’t wait to be back.