For no particular reason other than that I’m a grownup now and can do whatever the hell I like, I’ve booked myself four nights in Venice at the end of April.
[Note: this space left for you to fill with an envious sigh and for me to make a nonchalant and dismissive moue, as if to say, ‘Oh, this old Venice? I only go here when I don’t care where I travel to.’ There. Gosh I wish my life was actually like that.]
Now, I know Venice isn’t exactly the world’s most exotic location. Romantic, yes, freighted with centuries of artistic and literary inspiration, sure, but the road less travelled it certainly ain’t. As far as spontaneous solo travel adventures goes it’s about equivalent to popping down the corner shop. In order to counteract this discouraging sensation of boldly going where seventeen million annual visitors have gone before, therefore, I decided to do what I could to avoid the crush. The Piazza San Marco late at night, or at dawn. Lunch in bacari instead of tourist-friendly restaurants. A vaporetto pass rather than a gondola ride. I also wanted to learn a bit of Venetian, if I could; nothing that would allow me to pass as anything other than the white-washed bumbler I am, obviously, but hopefully enough to purchase the kindness of strangers upon which I am so perennially dependent.
I’ve always thought there’s something reassuring about a tourist phrasebook. Unlike the dictionary, the phrasebook tells you only those words it thinks you likely to need – and though the language may be new, the actual phrases are comfortingly familiar. Hello. How are you. How much is this. Please. Thank you. You’re welcome. ‘It’s OK,’ it tells you. ‘These people are just like you. They may be calling them something outlandish, but at least they have potatoes.’
Of course, there are many ways to peel a potato. The phrasebook can also function as a crude yet effective cultural barometer; the words and sentences deemed most necessary for the visitor can reveal a lot about the traditions and temperament of a particular place, whether it’s a long section on phrases for haggling or an unexpectedly frank lexicon of sex acts. Potatoes may or may not appear, in either context. Or both.
Anyway. To business.
The first word on my list of Venetian phrases is Welcome, in five different forms. This is encouraging. Clearly Venice is a hospitable place.
Next we have Hello, followed by How are you? An appropriate response is supplied – I’m fine, thanks. And you? – which not only shows excellent consideration and regard for the rules of polite conversation, but does not even allow for the possibility that you might not be 100% emsix. None of your half-arsed comme-ci comme-ça in Venice, no siree. For acquaintances we have an affectionate Long time no see, and even the usual enquiries of a stranger – What’s your name? Where are you from? – are rounded off with a hearty Pleased to meet you. If we weren’t friends before then we certainly are now.
Now my Venetian pal and I are firmly established, we move onto the second round of social niceties. Good morning, Good afternoon, Good evening and Good night are followed by Good luck and Good health; presumably at some point we’ve progressed to a bar. Have a nice day, says mine host, showing remarkable affability considering the fact we’ve apparently been here for at least twenty-four hours. Maybe we’ve been tipping heavily. Bon appetit and Bon voyage are up next, since the English are too crass to have our own equivalent phrases, as our sainted barman brings us something to soak up the alcohol and piles us into a gondola.
Conversation the next day is understandably a little stilted. I don’t understand, I groan as I slump over my espresso, Please speak more slowly, Please say that again, Please write it down. My friend remains patient, however, and gradually my grasp of the language improves. Do you speak Venetian? is answered Yes, a little. I begin asking How do you say … in Venetian? and we wander the Rialto markets together, saying Excuse me, How much is this?, Sorry, Please, Thank you. Finally I am confident enough in both language and intimacy to ask my companion Where’s the toilet?, where I sit for a moment and contemplate my progress with satisfaction.
Then, without warning, the tone changes: This lady/gentleman will pay for everything.
I am startled by this sudden volte-face. What? Where did that come from? Whilst the thoughtful nod to gender equality is certainly admirable, I don’t know if I’m entirely comfortable with this new development in our friendship. Oh, don’t be such a British prude: this is Venice! City of romance, mystery and excitement! Anyway, we’re still in the Rialto. I don’t mind someone treating me to a bunch of sage and some mackerel.
Oh, wait. We’re not in the Rialto after all. I don’t know where we are – perhaps back in our favourite bar – but the air is dim and smoky with candles. My friend smiles and extends a hand. Would you like to dance with me? We step out onto the floor, entwined in each other’s arms. I’ve barely had time to process before the next phrase swims through the air: I love you.
Bloody hell. That was fast.
Suddenly events start to spiral out of control. I’m leaning over a hospital bed, fighting down a knot of panic or guilt as I whisper Get well soon. Next it’s Leave me alone!, expressed three different ways, but it hasn’t worked, I race through the narrow calli crying Help! Fire! Stop! and now I’m cornered in a blind alley, whirling around to face the stranger I thought I knew, and in desperation I make one more appeal to the darkened shutters: Call the police!
Oh my god. Oh my god oh my god. My romantic minibreak has turned into a nightmare. The horrific lovechild of Death In Venice and Don’t Look Now. I don’t know whether there’s more or not, but either way I’m scared to read on. If this is the end of the list I’ve obviously been murdered. If not then I would imagine the next phrase will be something like Oh god, where are you taking me? or Please, no, I can’t swim—
Come on, come on. Just keep going. The flights are non-refundable, remember. At least put an end to this hideous suspense.
I take a deep breath, and hope for a swift and merciful death.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
OH FOR FUCKSSAKE—THANKS, VENICE. THANKS A FUCKING BUNCH.
Come se dìselo “you absolute twatting bastard” in Venessian?
That It Wouldn’t Get in the Way of Living.
What a cliche. Sorry, it slipped out like a beeriod* and I am reluctant to take it back because it’s TRUE. My life used to be fucking spectacular
a sun-shot gin-soaked barefoot blur
there were windchimes damn it
and now being a real person is getting in the way of all the dancing and I feel SO TRAPPED.
I want to walk into the sea and make everyone think I’m dead but actually just be wearing special water-tread shoes and paddle to Colombia and live here
with the ghosts.
There is another option. I will wake up on my 25th birthday and my hair will have magically turned white. But it’ll be OK, because I was expecting it. By the time I’m 26, my eyes will have developed a crazed, cataractine velocity, which will terrify my nephews and nieces so that they no longer come to see me. By 27, my front teeth will have fallen out and been replaced by shells and dirt. I’ll swish around my council flat in swathes of satin and taffeta, draped in diamonds, scratching Pythagorean theorem into the walls with my bare hands, bemoaning the negligent loss of my happiness and wondering why I didn’t walk to Bogota before I became old and infirm.
Meh. Probs going to go to uni now. Bye
*When your hangover shits are pouring out of you like menstrual blood. Booya.