Posts Tagged ‘Souvenirs’

The Souvenir


(Writing a story after a long time. I hope you’ll overlook the wordiness and the errors. Since it’s way too long, I’ll post this in three parts.)

Part 1

The late evening sun poured a golden hue over everything it touched. I slumped down on a restaurant chair facing one of the larger fountains at Piazza San Marco and looked around. That feeling of having stepped into a picture-history book had not faded even though I had arrived a month ago. Every dome and marble and brick talked to me of something I had missed, because I was born at the wrong end of history.  Julius Caesar, frescoes, Hemingway, the Vatican, Raphael, orchestras, Godfather, the Colosseum, Charlie Chaplin, Gladiator, Pizzas, Toscanini, wine  … my thoughts were tumbling one over the other as it had been for the past few days.  As though in slow motion, a hand came into my field of vision and dived into the bag of groceries I had left on the table. Grabbing an apple from the bag, it started to move away.

Startled I looked up. An old man of 60, shabbily dressed with unkempt grey hair, the owner of the hand, was dawdling off into a crowd of pedestrians and motor cyclists. I jumped up and started running after him.

“Excuse me, sir? What do you think you are doing?”

He threw back a glance but didn’t stop. I ran up and reached for his hand. Angry words were frothing up but no sound came out of my mouth. Dumbly, I looked at him as if he was just another scene from history that invited me to take a look without allowing me to participate. After what seemed like a few moments, he shook off my hand. In a low bass voice, he responded,

“Yes, miss?”

I realized immediately how ridiculous it was to raise an alarm. He had taken just one apple. Was he hungry? Mad perhaps? Too dangerous to follow him. Simultaneous voices were screaming within me. Unfortunately, no one else had noticed the peculiar man.

“Sir, you have no right to take my apple”, I said cautiously.

“Your apple? Can you prove this is yours?” he asked in perfect English before biting into it. I was taken aback.  After taking a few steps forward, he paused, turned back and added,

“Perhaps I should carry that bag for you? You seem to be struggling under its weight.”

Incredulous, I stammered, “Are you mad? Do you think I will give this to you?”

With a crooked grin, he replied, “You look like you are new here. I can be your tour guide.”

I sized him up. Although his accent was without fault, his heavy jaw line and sharp inset eyes belied his Italian ancestry.

“Is this how you get customers, sir? If that’s so, I doubt you’ll have much by the end of the day. Perhaps that’s why you stole that apple.”

He chuckled. “You cannot forget your apple. Let me make it up to you. I’ll ferry you down the canal. It’ll heal you of much.” Catching the look in my eyes, he added, “They are expensive to hire unless you are rich. I don’t think you are though. Why would you grudge one apple, if you were rich? “Anyway,” he added, “I have a friend whose ferry I can borrow if I carry passengers for him in the morning.”

I was offended but surprised at the ease with which he spoke to me, his accuser. He was a con man for sure, a smooth-talker. But his offer was tempting. I hadn’t had the time to explore the canal with my busy schedule. To have someone who knew the canal take me on a near gondola ride was a glorious opportunity. I worked myself up into a reckless mood.  There was nothing much he could take from me except the groceries. I had left my passport and belongings in the room before walking down to the market. Besides, he didn’t look like he would attack me. My instincts had never failed me before.

“You are not going to lead me into a trap, are you? I asked a little naively.

He shook his head, “I won’t harm you. I need to take the ferry down anyway. You’ll have to come back by the vaporetto if you choose or take the train back.”

We had reached the end of the Piazza San Marco Street by now and were looking out at a vein of the Canal Grande of Venice. I looked about me while trying to imagine his story. Maybe he took this canal every day to get home. Maybe he was just a hungry and frustrated tour guide. And I – the rich tourist in his eyes.

I had dreamed of the gondolas and the romance of Venice’s waterways as a young girl. A chance to enjoy it without having to pay a fortune made me feel like a princess in a Venetian fairy-tale.

“Do you have 5 Euros?” he called from the bottom of the landing steps.

I gaped at him as he balanced himself onto an old and worn ferry, which had a few sacks and provisions arranged on the far side. That was half a month’s spending money, he was asking for. If that’s what it takes to enjoy Venice, I’ll part with it, I mused.  I handed him the money after counting out the 2 Euros for a train ride back. First he had taken an apple. Now he wanted 5 Euros. Robbing me with my permission, was he?

I climbed carefully into the long, narrow traghetti ferry (he told me the name) which would carry us down to St. Lucia’s Station.  It was not quite a gondola, but a cheaper version like a canoe and badly maintained. As he pushed off with the long oars, I ventured timidly, “You could have taken a tourist for $20 or more. Why me?”

“I wasn’t planning to use the ferry for service,” he shrugged.

I did not press further and looked across the canal. It was breathtaking all around me. The sun hung low on the western horizon and the waters shimmered golden green. The famous San Marco Basilica loomed high in the east and the Campanile’s pealing bells resonated through the waters from where it stood proud and tall.

The buildings further down that fringed the murky waters were like toy houses, colourful and at once surreal. Along the streets that lined the canal walked tired tourists, wayfarers returning home with their booty, street vendors – there was so much more than my senses could take in at once.

Sometime in, as he was navigating through the dark, mossy alleyways of the canal crammed in by red brick buildings on both sides, I noted that he was keenly watching me, so I asked him, “What do you do for a living?”

“I am an artist. Street artist.” I started.  A street artist in Venice who was also a ferry man and a thief was surely a find.

“What do you make?” I asked a bit too rudely as though I didn’t believe him yet. The sun’s rays were streaming in at the end of our alley forming a light bridge that we could pass through. Venice was pure magic.

“Portraits and landscapes” he replied.

“Do you earn enough to call it a livelihood?” the question came out before I could stop myself. I was being too inquisitive as was my habit with strangers.

He seemed to think about it for a moment before saying, “It’s what makes me happy. My art.”

A man who could not provide for his family could never be happy. So I asked again, “What about your family?”

“I have no family. I married once but that was not for me.”

“Ah the artist. Quite enjoy the free fare, and women, don’t you?” I bit my lip.

He gave a strange, even hurt look at my judgmental tone.

“What are you doing in Italy?” he asked after a long and awkward pause but his tone didn’t match mine. It was rather kind.

I averted his gaze, “I’m doing a short course on literature of the Renaissance period. I came as an exchange student.”

I tried explaining when he pressed me about my interest in the subject but he probably found me unconvincing for he didn’t bother me again till we reached our stop.  The programme had just been an excuse to escape from reality for a time, although, I didn’t tell him that. I watched the narrow waterway open into a wider section of the canal. It was already getting dark but I could make out the landing station in the distance. I felt sad for some reason unknown to me.

“So will you do a portrait of me? I would love to take back a souvenir,” I smiled.

“The light’s too dim. Come back to the piazza early tomorrow, to the eastern side of Doge’s Palace. That way you can see Giuseppe Poggi’s masterpiece and even enjoy a view across the Bridge of Sighs.”  After a pause he laughed, “The place reeks of Renaissance.”

He was already pulling the ferry onto the landing place. He gave me a withered old hand to step up.

“I will be there tomorrow for the art appointment, “he called in parting.

That should be my line if this were a movie I thought as I watched him struggling to climb out with an arthritic leg that was almost immobile. I wished him goodnight and walked down to the station.

“Hope he won’t charge me a lot,” I whispered aloud to myself in amusement. Maybe he was trying to redeem the apple.

(Continue to Part 2)

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