Getting Lost in Venice

People always speak of the romance associated with Venice.  Riding gondolas through the canals, strolling through a beautiful historic city, dining on fine Italian food.  What isn’t as commonly mentioned is the ease with which one can get Oceanic Flight 815 levels of lost trying to navigate the canals.  This would be the time I finally learned the lesson that not knowing how to read a map “is not fucking cute”.

It all started when I boarded  the train from Milan to Venice.  I was scheduled to arrive at the terminal destination of “Venezia S. Lucia” at 19:10, whatever that means.  As per habit I set my alarm for 15 minutes before the train was due to arrive, to ensure that I didn’t oversleep and wake up in Romania.  At five to nineteen (is that now how you word it?) I woke up satisfied that I would successfully exit the train and be able to use the google map I had preloaded while I was in a wifi zone.  High five planning!

At 7:10 on the dot we pull into a station that said “Venezia” and the train pulled into the station with the only exit being in the direction from which we came.  Following the map I walked to the exit of the station and tried to find a street sign.  After walking down a dark street that looked nothing like the Venice of my imagination I stopped a lady coming from the station and asked, “Parli inglese?” She gave me the typical “A little,” response and took a look at my map.

“Oh no, this is not here.  This is twenty, thirty minutes away.”  Fuck me.
And fuck you, you speak English just fine.

I walked back into the station and realized I had gotten off at Venezia Mestre, which is
a) apparently not the same thing and
b) not in walking distance of the canal ridden streets of the main area of Venice.

Stupid American.  I was about to look for an information booth when I saw that the next train on the platform was heading to Venezia S. Lucia, so I dragged my bag up the stairs and and got on the train.  In the tradition of my ancestors stowing away to get to America, I was going to be a bad ass and sneak myself onto a train to get to Venice.  Then I realized, I was broke, and if I got ticketed the way I had in Berlin and Copenhagen, I couldn’t afford to pay the ticket – so like a naughty puppy with my tail between my legs I hopped off the train and timidly asked a conductor how I would be able to buy a ticket to get to my desired destination.

Fortunately the conductor was super nice, looked at my ticket and saw that I had just underestimated my stop and overestimated the Italian capacity to run on a prompt German schedule, so he let me on the train for free and told me it was only stop further.  Grazie mille.

As soon as I stepped out of the train station I knew I was in the right place.  There was a large canal with boats jetting through the water transporting people into small canals and into the city.  The street was a broad well lit passage with vendors selling souvenirs and across the canal, classic buildings were illuminated as people strolled hand in hand along the waterside.  It is one of the few times I can ever remember being that blown away by my first impression of a city.  I also knew why people had told me not to visit this city with a guy I didn’t want to end up romantically involved with. The romantic ambience was as unavoidable as getting hit in the face by a wildly gesticulating Italian in the middle of a heated conversation while locked in a closet together.  Bippity boppity boopity.

I quickly pulled up my map and realized that Google had no intention of cooperating with me and had opted to not show my locational dot, and had also opted not to show any of the street names.  Still, the yellow brick road AKA blue line of accuracy was still displaying the general directions so I decided to just count streets, bridges and canals and hope I could follow along.  My estimated walking time was half an hour – which I judged to be worth the exercise to avoid a 30€ water taxi ride.

Walking through the well lit streets I saw tons of tourists walking around, warm and welcoming restaurants offering prix fixe menus, and souvenir shops selling beautiful Carnival masks.  Everyone seemed happy and in love and I almost turned around and left thinking I didn’t want to ruin this perfect romantic experience by coming here alone for the first time.  It was like walking through a wet day dream – wet because of all the canals and bridges, get your head out of the gutter – and I must’ve looked like a glass eyed doll with my eyes bulging out of my head trying to take everything in while smiling at my surroundings.  Twenty minutes, and an unsuccessful stop to try to get McDonalds wifi later I was what I believed to be half way to my destination, and that’s when things took a turn for the worse.  Literally.

The notoriously small, narrow, winding alleyways of Venice finally caught up with me.  The “street” I was supposed to turn down was about half the width of my arms span, completely unlit, and there wasn’t a single other person in sight.  I’m from New York, walking down a completely unlit alley way with no other people around, and the chance of an ambush from a hidden doorway sounds like the beginning of an SVU episode, so I turned town another street hoping I would ultimately cross a street I needed.  If you know anything about the way streets work in Venice you’re probably laughing at me right now.  Streets in Venice are about as direct and efficient as getting a sip of a frozen margarita from a mile long crazy straw with holes in it.

Wandering around, completely and utterly lost through deserted streets, and empty plazas I started to get nervous.  The carnival masks in closed shops that had initially conjured images of  festive partiers, had slowly transformed in my head into plague masks.  Lurking around every corner I expected to see a dark cloaked figure with a long beak nosed mask pointing at me as as Jack the Ripper hopped out from behind a building and slit my throat.  I have a very active imagination.  And yes I know they’re not even in the same time period or country, and I’m not racist or anything but, all you European alleyways look alike.

Quickly freaking myself the fuck out, I came across a restaurant that had Michelin recommendation stickers in the window which immediately distracted me.  Mmmmm food! Oh right, I’m still hopelessly lost and about to get murdered.  Despite being closed, across the street there was a hotel which I optimistically entered hoping they would let me use their wifi to update my map.

And while the concierge refused me wifi access he was happy to help me try to find my hostel – except he had never heard of it and couldn’t find it on the map even after I gave him the address.  Fortunately, he was able to place a call to the hostel and ask them for directions.  Ten minutes, lots of circles and lines on a map later I was on my way with the instructions “It is very close to here – if you don’t get lost,” which seemed to be tacked on there for the effect of an ominous warning that I would inevitably get lost again.  Which I obviously did.

About 5 minutes after restarting my journey I was standing in another dark alley way staring hopelessly at a map trying to keep my suitcase from falling over.  An older drunk Italian man walked past me, then doubled back.  My sympathetic nervous system started prepping me for fight or flight, when the fairly innocuous man asked me in broken English if I was lost and needed help.  I showed him the map and pointed out my destination.  “Dove qui?” I asked him wondering if he could at least tell me where I am.  He stared at the map quizzically for a minute before saying, “sorry” and walking back off.  Well that’s 2/2 locals that couldn’t tell me where the fuck I was or where I was going, leading me to believe that either Venice is impossible or my hostel didn’t exist.  Both seemed to be equally viable options.

With google maps being useless, and only a tangible map with street names in front of me I started trying to move my finger along the map as I walked to simulate a more technologically advanced map with location services.  Even if it was far from perfect, I hoped it gave me some idea of where I was.  And gave me an idea of exactly how addicted I am to technology.  Fortunately at some point, I crossed a canal that was labeled and findable on the map.  Hallelujah.  Several minutes later I arrived on the mostly dead street where my hostel was located.

I walked to the fourth floor (or third floor by European standards) on a winding staircase whose steps were smaller than my shoes, dragging my deadweight 26 lb (12kg) suitcase.  Panting and sweating I asked to check in and was promptly shown to my room where another girl was on her computer.  She looked at me, and as I raised my hand to wave she looked away completely disinterested without so much as a nod of hello.  Love female travelers.

And despite being on a budget, I felt that getting lost for an hour while dragging a suitcase through dark and treacherous alleyways, only to be greeted by a terrible staircase, and an unfriendly roommate, meant I could eat whatever the hell I wanted for dinner.  So I did.  And got myself some nice wine while I was at it.  Fat kid at heart.

Venetian style dry cod on polenta cakes
Spaghetti and with fresh local clams


Moral of the Story: It’s worth it to get a data plan just to use a map to navigate Venice streets if you’re not too fond of getting lost in the dark.

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