A new world

On a gondola with Lynn (far left), Jim and Jean.

Lynn and Jean had never been to Europe before this summer. Britain, France, Italy. A whole new world opened to them, vastly different from East Aurora, a suburb of Buffalo.

Lynn at Piazza San Marco.

From food to dress to language, everything was unfamiliar. The girls took it all in stride.

I caught up with them and their father (my husband’s brother, Jim) in Venice. 

At first, Venice doesn’t seem the most kid-friendly place. But Lynn and Jean were enamored with the world of gelatos, pizzas and yes, cappuccinos (yes, the girls love their coffee, especially with lots of sugar).

Animals at a mask shop.

We took two gondola rides but it was more fascinating to walk the back streets of Venice — winding alleys and lanes connected by small bridges over the canals. We wondered about the lives of people who lived there — it was such a different way of life.

There are no cars, of course, in Venice. Only boats. The fisherman bring in their fresh catch from the sea. People get around by water taxi and private boats. The garbage man hauls trash by hand-pulled cart and takes it to a barge that transports it out. You probably don’t ever want to fall into the water here. Who knows what’s in it. 

The beauty of Venice charmed the girls. They were thrilled to sit at canalside trattorias and bars and return to America with memories of a lifetime.

A Venice mailbox.
The charms of outdoor trattorias.
Discovering Venice with nieces.


Magnificent and unexpected

Piazza San Marco.

I continue in this post my journey through Italy. Too quick, too hurried, but fascinating all the same.

(I dream of the day when I am not beholden to an employer any more and I can travel at will.)

The train ferried me from Verona back to Venice on a warm Sunday afternoon. I was curious to see, at last, the city of palaces built on a mosquito-infested swamp. What were they thinking?

Along the Grand Canal.
The train rolled into the Santa Lucia station and when I stepped out, I finally saw what Venice’s founders envisioned. What they built is truly magnificent, no other city in the world can compare. In fact, the entire city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Next, I boarded a water taxi at Ferrovia and 14 stops later along the Grand Canal, I’d reached my destination: San Marco. My hotel was a step away and just around the corner from the main plaza in Venice.

I was meeting two of Kevin’s brother’s here. Yes, I know. A strange thing to go on vacation with your husband’s brothers. But their trip was planned and how easy was it just to tag along? Kevin did not have enough vacation time to make it work.
More about the family in my next post.
Chatting with John and Sue Maso at dinner.

The first night, my brother-in-law Peter and I found a cute trattoria not far from the hotel. We were tired and hungry and filled up on spaghetti with seafood.

Next to us was a couple from Perth, Australia. She’d asked us if our food was good before ordering.
“Delicious,” I said. “Where are you from?”
“Oh, really?” I said. I lived there for a bit way back in the seventies.”
John and Sue Maso, it turns out, were on a multi-nation adventure. Their days in Italywere to be extra special. John’s parents were from Vittoria Veneto. But the family moved to Australiaafter World War II.
Johns’s father returned four times from Australia. On each of his first three visits, the pope died. It was an omen. The fourth time, he died. That was in 1991.
Veneto was on John’s bucket list. He had to go back to see it, meet family, he explained.
Bangladeshi Shipu Mollah served us our dinner.

I could see he was excited and nervous all at once. He savored his steak as did Sue her spaghetti and seafood.

We laughed and talked some more about Italy. They had enjoyed their day trip to the island of Murano, where glass blowing is an art honed to perfection.
Then it was time to pay the bill. Our waiter Shipu Mollah was young, handsome and I could tell from his speech, very Bengali.

He’d come to Venice from Bangladesh, looking for work.

What I did not know at that moment was that in the three days I was to spend in Venice, I would speak more Bengali than I have in six months in Atlanta.

All the men who sold gimmicks and toys and souvenirs to the tourists were Bangladeshi, as were many of the waiters and shopkeepers. Syad Shamim Ali told me he arrived only a year ago in March — from Libya.
Of course, I thought. I remembered when I had written about Bangladeshi laborers clamoring to get out once Moammar Gadhafi’s rule seemed uncertain.
They’d been transported to the borders at Tunisia and Egypt. Many spent days and nights in the open before they were able to board a ship to take them away.
Life was different in Venice, they told me. Of course it would be after war in Libya and the abject poverty of home. But they did not speak of cathedrals, palaces or aquamarine lagoons.
All they saw were the thousands and thousands of tourists. They were lifeblood.
The Bangladeshis missed their families, their homes — some had not returned in years. But it was possible to make a few dollars. There were a few possibilities here.
Their words would hang over me during my time in Venice.
In between the pricey gondola rides and bottles of Valpolicella, I thought of them, trying to just make it. Life in Venice was certainly no vacation. Not for them.
The basilica and tower at San Marco.


Wild West: first stop

From Denver airport, we drive to Steamboat Springs — a place that is as pretty as its name sounds. The slopes are closed for the summer but plenty of people are still around. As is the snow atop the mountains. On this day, everyone is excited about the sun. It’s the first day in a while that the wet stuff has stopped, the clouds have vanished. A magnificent statue of an elk graces a public park by the river.

At Chocolate Soup, Chelsea serves us a savory scone and strawberry rhubarb waffles. I can tell this vacation will be filled with many lazy afternoons and heaping plates of delicious food. Never tasted a waffle with rhubarb before. It made me think of the pies at Yoder’s in Sarasota. Only better.

From the picturesque Colorado ski resort, we drive northeast, through more rugged country. Just before the Wyoming state line, we come across the Hoopla shop in Walden — elevation, 8,100 feet. Amy Symonds grew up here. Her father was a caretaker of a flourspar mine. That’s the stuff they make fluoride out of. And very pretty pendants.

Her store is in the middle of a broken town. Nothing but a saloon, a barber shop and a host of trailers here. The opposite of Steamboat, I think.

Tom Waits is on the CD player. Symonds is wearing a giant fur hat on her head and stands behind the counter to greet her customers, all two of us. She sells all sorts of pelts — mink, ermin, skunk. She sells hat boxes, vintage hoop skirts and handbags, jewelry, furniture and a bunch of other assorted stuff. Her shop was featured in a western magazine. She’s happy about that. She sells me an old silver ring with a heap of copper on it. Looks like someone forgot to mold it into a more shapely sight.

We meander down the road, catch sight of a moose. I’d never seen a real live one before. We stop at Woods Landing, more out of curiosity than thirst, and sit at the bar with a folks who watch Fox News and hate CNN. On weekends, the dance hall is filled here with wranglers, ranchers and pretty girls. Bartender Mary Albright serves me an ice-cold Corona and tells me to never mind all those anti-CNN sentiments. She watches Anderson Cooper every night, she says. Tapes it when she can’t watch it live. She was born in Germany, grew up in Nebraska and worked at Home Depot in Denver before she came to Woods Landing four years ago. Now, she makes a mean vodka tonic and watches people twirl on the century-plus-old floor.

After a refreshing drink, we are off on a lonely highway, through Laramie, the town that became notorious for the torture and murder of Matt Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming. Must be tough to live in a town that’s become synonymous with something that evil.

The drizzle gets heavier in Laramie. The skies are gray. It’s the end of May but feels more like mid-winter in Atlanta. We hit the highway to Cheyenne, the state capital. My colleague Matt Smith lived here once and suggested we stay at the Plains Hotel, a no-frills lodging in a beautiful old building. Matt said we ought to eat at The Albany, and so we did. The place used to be brothel, named after the Union Pacific trains from Albany, New York. They carried troops going off to fight in World War II who had some fun on their stop in Cheyenne.

There was a lot of gambling and prostitution here until the interstates shut all that down, says owner Gus Kallas. I stare at a photograph on the wall of the Thomas Heaney saloon taken in 1888. I notice one of the workers behind the bar. He is a black man.

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