Venetian Instant #1 | Mark Lindsay

Venice, Day 4. The office wasn't where it was supposed to be. And then when it was where it was, it was closed. This is the Italian bureaucracy. To ordered, logical minds it's infuriating. Yet, with some practice, dealing with the Italian statali, or government workers, can result in a pleasant, and altered, state of consciousness. Simply abandon your plans and any expectations. And find a bar.

The ACTV office would open at 10:00 AM. It was only a little after 9:00 and a long way back to the apartment. ACTV is the Venetian transit agency that operates the vaporetto, Venice's water bus. We wanted to pick up some reserved, ticket passes but suddenly had an idle hour ahead of us.

This should never be a bad thing in Venice and it wasn't. The Piazzetta San Marco was nearby and inside the arcade was a bar. Bars in Italy are quite different than they are in America. They offer snacks, sweets, panini, coffee, a previously-read tabloid (usually sports), and, of course, alcohol. It was cold so we went in for a cappuccino. The bar was untended. Empty. So, we waited.

A stocky, middle-aged man came in from the cold. "MARTA!" he yelled into an open door behind the bar. "MARTA!" Nothing. “MARTA! Dove sei?” "Where are you?" Still nothing. The man looked at us and shrugged. “Boh!” he said. (Boh is a useful Italian exclamation that sort of means "Well!" or "Um" or "Whatever!" It is almost always accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders, dropping of the jaw, and pout of the lower lip).

The three of us stood together at the bar, looking down at the enticing snacks, looking longingly at the espresso machine. The snacks made us hungry, the bar made us thirsty. We secretly wondered if it were too early for maybe a glass of wine, or prosecco. After a few minutes, a sleepy-eyed Marta came out from the open door./

The man began a spirited conversation in Venetian dialect that was too fast for me to understand. This went on for a few minutes until the man's buddies arrived. One of the buddies picked up the used, sports tabloid and started reading about Italian football. The rest joined the ongoing conversation. At this point the communal discussion grew in both scope and amplitude. The man with the tabloid put it down and joined in. The cheerful sounds bounced off the fogged, glass walls of the bar. A couple of the men decided it was time for a drink.

One learns early in the Venetian experience that there is no official hour when drinking alcohol commences. But, it almost always begins well before noon. My friend and companion—the one who needed the vaporetto pass and started this whole fiasco in the first place—and I nodded to one another and decided quietly—and unanimously—to order a prosecco instead of a cappuccino. Marta delivered them after the bubbles subsided in tall glasses. The closed ACTV office became a distant memory.

The prosecco was light and refreshing. It was getting close to 10:00 and we started to bundle up, tightening scarves and buttoning coats. Unexpectedly, two glasses of red wine appeared. "The gentleman has offered these to you," Marta said. We smiled and accepted them.

"May we offer the gentleman a glass of red wine as well?" I asked Marta. Marta turned and asked the stocky man if he wanted a glass of wine. He looked at her, then looked at us and shrugged again.

"Boh. But, only give me a half glass, Marta. It's not even 10:00 AM yet. Just a half glass or I'll get in trouble with my wife." Marta ignored him and poured him a full glass. He smiled and took it just the same.

"Auguri!" we all said in a toast.

"I deal with tourists all day," he said as he sipped his wine. By now, the glass was at the desired starting point—half full. "Germans, Austrians, Japanese, Dutch..." His list trailed off into weariness as he took another sip. He shrugged again, this time without the boh.

And then it was 10:00 as the bells of San Marco announced the hour. The ACTV office would open (perhaps on time) and the rest of the day would continue. It would continue for the stocky man and his tourists. It would continue for us with the statali of ACTV.

The repose in the bar of Piazzetta San Marco fortified us all against the cold and perceived insensitivies of the contemporary world. The ACTV office was open, the statali were pleasant and helpful. "This pass expires in five days so you'll need to come back then for the next one," the woman explained. By now none of that mattered. We were on our way back to the apartment in minutes. The fourth day in Venice was developing nicely.

We rode the vaporetto, using the new ticket pass to board. We crossed the Grand Canal, looking back at the Piazzetta and our new bar. The Venetian moment is ever unexpected. One must be open to the artful adventure. The labyrinth that is Venice will twist you and turn you and spin you in circles. You never really get to any destination but are simply along for the ride. And this ride, now on the choppy waters at the mouth of the Grand Canal, was most excellent.

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