Volume 3, Number 3
The Mother of All Mardi Gras
All my trips start out the same. Inevitably, I am coming off a mid shift, haven't slept for at least 18 hours, and the day is just starting. I know I'll be in pain before the day is over.
But today is a special day. It's one of those once in a lifetime opportunities to go see something special. Shrove Tuesday (aka Fat Tuesday), last day of Carnivale, in Venice, Italy. I go to the train station at Vicenza and buy my round trip ticket. 11,800 Lire. About 5 bucks. Can't beat that.
The train is crowded with people, all of them going to Carnivale. Some are in costume. A man is dressed like a dead soldier. Three women are dressed like the Queen, Jack and 10 of Hearts. The train is standing room only. The woman standing next to me is speaking French to her friend. She has daisies in her hair. Knowing the French, I can't tell if it's supposed to be part of a costume or not. A Swedish woman is on the other side of me. She wants to practise her English. Only two people in my compartment seem to be speaking Italian. After a few moments, I realize that, other than the dead soldier, I am the only male in our compartment. Of all the standing room only train rides I've ever had, this one, well, wasn't half bad.
When we arrived at Venice, I stepped out of the train station to meet a beautiful day. There's some big dome in front of me, just on the other side of the Grand Canal. Perfect, I can use the dome to find my way back. I go to the first bridge I see, Ponte Scalzi, and start following the crowds. I don't see the train station again for the rest of the day.
Venice is one of those places that has managed to hold on to it's fairy tale image for as long as it has existed. Old legend says the original inhabitants of Venice sprang up from the dew and mists of the Lagoon. True or not, the Venetians are comfortable with the water. There are no cars allowed within the city. People either walk, ride bicycles, or take water taxis along the many canals. Only tourists ride the gondolas.
In 829 AD, the Venetians decided they needed a decent spiritual protector. So they went to Alexandria and stole St Mark's body. They got past the Egyptian guards by saying they were carrying back pickled pork, causing the Moslem's to turn their heads in disgust.
When you live in impassible lands, you tend to do whatever you want. Nobody could conquer Venice, except Napoleon, and they didn't bother much with fighting him. He was French. What's the use?
Somewhere near the Rialto Markets, the crowd got thick. Officials estimate that some 180,000 people were in Venice that day. Despite it's fame, Venice is not a large city.
The Grand Canal winds North, then bends back South again, weaving through the city. The streets and alleys wind along with it. Signs are hung up that point you toward the things most people would want to see. Like any good labyrinth, vandals have modified the signs, pointing you down dead ends, where the sidewalk suddenly ends on open canal. I fall in behind a marching band of gypsies, who are playing their musical instruments and singing loudly. Their noise seems to be the only thing that can clear a path.
Hours go by. Costumes and masks. Thousands of faces. I've taken more turns down narrow alleys than I can keep track of. All around me there are drumbeats, leading the good people of Venice. I jump from band to band.
When the sun goes down, the children disappear. Family time has officially ended. I hop into the first bar I see for a little "Somethin', somethin'". I have been drinking Lambrusco and Muscato like water ever since coming to Italy, but the words of my noble Publisher, Andy Wallace, surface in my mind. I buy a bottle of 1993 Salcetino Chianti Classico.
Two glasses and I'm drunk. Oh, Lord, am I drunk. I've not eaten anything all day. Note to the worldly traveler: You've never been lost until you've been drunk in Venice. I finish the bottle. In for a penny, in for a pound.
The drums lead me where I want to go. I see the Ca' d'Oro, San Polo, the Dorsoduro, the Accademia. All names. I could never find them again if I had to.
Around 10 at night all the drums disappear. I wonder where they might be, when suddenly they all erupt to my right. The whole crowd of thousands follows their sound. It is a slow procession, with walking not really necessary. The crowd pushes me along like a wave.
"Hey, lovey lovey." A woman, I think she was Italian, says to me. She gives me a kiss. Worse things have happened to me. For those interested in, you know, scenery, I will now describe the typical Northeastern Italian woman.
The Italians live off one of the healthiest diets in the world, so the women are noticably thin and healthy. They are often small breasted, and a tendency to walk or ride bicycles has given them the gift of great legs. Legs for miles. They also tend to follow a simple, yet powerful rule: "Don't cut your hair, ever". Unlike the typical Italian seen on American television, these people are friendly, happy, and vary in skin and hair color. This is Northeastern Italy, they are quick to remind you. They are far more European, more continental than their Southern farmer cousins.
The drums lead us to Piazza San Marco, where all the magnificent costumes are on display. The wearers are being announced into the square, as if they were attending an unbelievable ball. The colors, the expense, amazed me and everyone around me. In the middle of the square, every person in Venice who owns a drum has gathered in a circle. They pound out the bone shaking heartbeat of the Carnivale.
After the parade, the costumed Venetians gather on the docks beside the gondolas. It's late at night.
I begin to wander back, concerned on whether it is even possible to find my way out of this city. The vandalized signs, which I once found humorous, have lost their charm. I travel in large sweeping circles. One street band starts playing Santana, and playing it well. I spend a few hours listening to them, dancing with strangers.
Until I notice my follower. Under the rosy glow of the street lights I see that someone is watching me intently. He is dressed all in black robes. Masked, with a long birds beak in front of his nose. The kind that can be filled with sweet smelling flowers to ward off sickness. Behind his spectacles his eyes follow me. He is Death, the Plague Doctor. As I move away from the music he follows me. He knows he has freaked me out. I suddenly feel alone.
But you don't just find your way out of Venice. Not on Fat Tuesday, not at night. Not with Death following you, stopping when you stop. I notice he has something in his right hand. It looks like an old medical instrument of some type. The kind you might pull teeth with.
Hours later I have finally ditched the Plague Doctor, and I have found the path leading to the Ferrovia, the train station. The last train leaves in 20 minutes and I am tired. My legs hurt from all the walking. I have a second bottle of Chianti in my backpack. Perhaps it would be best if I save it for tomorrow. Perhaps drink it with a good dinner, like a decent person would.
I watch the crowds. Many people are leaving Venice. Some are just arriving. These are not the day tourists. These people came to party. They are loud and laughing. Stay or go. Stay or go.
Three women walk by. I recognize one of them, but Heaven help me if I can remember where from. She smiles at me as she passes, heading for the Ponte Scalzi, into the heart of Venice.
Fuck it, I think. Grandmama takes the train home before sunrise. I follow the drums.