It was our last night in Italy.
The trip which had been planned for months to accommodate the needs and desires of all the participants. There was Rich, my best friend since High School, and his wife who had been living the last 9 months in Saudi Arabia. They were looking forward to throwing off the mantle of Shariah laws they had been living under and enjoying themselves while they were out of the country. For me, it was an opportunity to spend time with my best friend since High School in a country where I spent part of childhood. My girlfriend was there because she had never been to Europe and she knew that whenever Rich and I got together, fun often ensued.
Our journey had begun in Rome 10 days earlier at a Café on the Via Veneto. My girlfriend and I had arrived first as our flight from the US got us to Rome earlier than theirs had from the Kingdom. When Rich and Barb arrived hugs, kisses and all the normal backslapping associated with reunions were exchanged. There were also gifts. They had brought trinkets from Saudi Arabia to give to us and I had brought Rich the worlds ugliest tie. Years earlier we had made a bet that whoever was given this curtain fabric paisley monstrosity had to wear it for the entire day regardless of when it was given or what circumstances the person might find themselves when given the tie. It had been traded many times since then, often under embarrassing circumstances, the last time being when Rich had given it to me at his wedding.
Needless to say, I had been anticipating savoring this moment for a while. He less so. He asked, “Do I have to wear it now.” He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt which did not seem to need the added decoration of paisley cravat.
I said, “You know the rules.”
As he reached for the tie I said “You might want to check the lining before you tie it. But do so carefully.” He flipped the tie over and began rummaging through the lining and quickly found the three joints I had stupidly manage to sneak in the country. He smiled and said “Kopf, my man!”
And the party began.
It lasted three days in Rome where we managed to get jet lag out of our system by walking to visit all the sites in our Bedeckers guides such as The Trevi Fountain, The Spanish Steps, The Parthenon, Vatican City and the Colosseum. We challenged ourselves to never repeat the same pasta and sauce combination. At night we drank a lot of wine and laughed until we cried.
We then rented a car and I was made the designated driver as I had been voted. most likely to get us successfully out of Rome. It is still some of the most stressful driving I have ever done. But after a number of false steps we were heading north on an Italian A rode. Our destination was Siena where we lucked onto the Palio with all of its medieval glory.
The next day we headed to Florence but not before stopping at a family owned Chianti vineyard where we bought and consumed a few bottles of wine. Fresh chianti is wonderful, and it makes you think like an Italian which is likely why we found driving to Florence so much easier than leaving Rome. Florence was the Duomo, the Uffizi the Ponte Vecchio and we all bought leather jackets. We gorged on the sublime Tuscan foods and dreamt the dreams only Italian wine in the birthplace of the Renaissance can produce.
After three days in Florence we departed for Venice opting to use the winding, mountainous two-lane roads as opposed to the Auto Strada. It made for beautiful scenery and nausea inducing driving for those sitting in the back seats as they were being thrown back and forth with the constant cutbacks. We abandoned the lesser roads for the highway when we reached Bologna and made it to Venice by late afternoon. There, in the car park, where those entering Venice by car are asked to leave their vehicles, we were hustled by a 10-year-old boy who told us we had too many pieces of luggage for the Vaporetto water bus. That we must take a water taxi. He would guide us and when we got to St. Mark’s square, he would arrange for a porter to carry our things. By the time he had finished with us he had managed to scam $200 when the Vaporetto would have cost $15.
Getting hustled before you even set foot in place can tarnish a city for you. But it is hard to remain upset with Venice for very long. Its unique beauty is impossible to resist, and we spent the next few days doing the things that tourists love to do. We visited the Strand. We saw glass made. We bought glass. We took Gondola rides with singing gondoliers. We visited St. Marks church and its square which, along with the gondola, is the symbol of the city.
Now, after 10 days it was our final evening and we were determined to make it an epic night.
We began by having Margarita’s in our hotel room. This was a Rich thing. He thought Europeans charge far too much for alcohol. To save a little money and to practice his bartending skills he enjoyed making cocktails for us in the evening. We then moved onto the Devil’s weed to spur our appetite. Needless to say, by the time we left the hotel we were properly prepared for the evening.
We had made reservations for dinner at the Café Malamocco, a restaurant named for the first settlement on Venice’s lido that specialized in seafood. The restaurant itself was quite dark with a north African ambiance. The food was unbelievably good, and we managed, somehow, to consume several bottles of wine along with dinner. At some point, I made my way to the restroom where I was very confused as none of the sinks had any controls in which to control the flow of water. I thought I must be a lot drunker than I feel because I simply could not figure out how to wash my hands. Just when I had abandoned all hope of proper hygiene a man came in and used the sinks simply by waving his hands underneath the faucet. (In my defense, it was the first automatic sink I had ever seen, and they were not all that common in the mid ‘80’s)
After dinner, we decided to go for a Gondola ride. It seemed fitting for our final night in Venice. When we arrived at the quay to pick up a boat, we found the gondoliers all standing around doing nothing. When we asked them for a moonlight tour of the canals, they, much to my indignation, refused me. They claimed it was too rough. I told them that we didn’t get seasick. They claimed it was too dangerous at which point I might have used a New York invective in describing their cowardice and dereliction of duty. This may have led to harsh words being shared with me using coarse Italian that anyone who grew up in New Jersey would understand.
Fortunately for me, cooler heads prevailed, and I was escorted away by the other members of our party. As that plan had failed, we returned to our hotel to regroup and rethink our evening. After a little conversation, enhanced by a little port and a little more of Bob Marley’s favorite, we decided to go to a club and dance the evening away. On the way out the door we asked the front desk clerk for a recommendation who was only too happy to supply one along with a map and introduction to the Clubs maître de.
We set off with confidence and resolve. But if you have ever been to Venice you know that the streets are narrow with no set pattern and in general very confusing. Even when you are sober. Which we were not. Needless to say, we got lost. Hopelessly lost. For Barbara, Chris and myself this was a sign from God. That we should abandon our quest no matter how noble. For Rich, it was as if someone had thrown down the gauntlet. He was bound and determined to find that club. We persisted. Then we persisted some more and only managed to become more confused about where we were and how we would get to our destination. The majority view was we should quit this nonsense, but Rich was more determined than ever. When he saw a person walking on the side of the canal, he dashed across the bridge to see if the stranger could provide us with guidance.
We could see Rich show the man the map with the club marked on it and ask in English how we would get there. The man replied in indistinguishable Italian as he was far away. And Rich said, “And then.” To which the man replied in equally indistinguishable words. Rich replied with “And then.” This went on for five minutes. The man speaking and us not hearing always punctuated by Rich’s “And then.” Eventually, Rich thanked the man and return to us on the other side of the canal.
I asked, “What did he say?”
Rich responded “How do I know. I don’t speak Italian.”
Needless to say we abandoned our quest for the club and decided to go to the Piazza San Marco to have one last drink before turning in for the evening. However, when we got there, we found the Piazza and its cafes were close as it had flooded due to the high seas the gondoliers had mentioned. This was a rare event back then, only about 10 times a year, and it seemed that most of the young adult population of the city had gathered to celebrate. There were music and people were dancing in the flood waters.
We decided to join them. With an addition of a bottle of vintage Port from our hotel room, we sat in a water bound café and drank and danced until the early hours of the next day. The hangover was epic, but it was worth it for a night I will never forget.
I have been thinking about that night for a lot of reasons lately.
One is because my buddy Rich has been in my thoughts. His “and then,” has been a running joke with us for over 30 years. Whenever one of us is kibitzing and have lost the point of the story the other will almost always inquire of the other “and then” as a furtive plea to get on with it.
Sometimes when we ask “And then” we will not understand the answer. It is then we need to have faith. Faith that while you may not get to where you set out for you you will get to the place you need to be.
And who knows It might even be an unforgettable night.