Gondola rides, watercolor sunsets and trying to say ‘sorry’

 

It’s our third day in Venice. We are cold and miss Santa Croce square and via dell’Agnolo. We go to a fancy cafe on San Marco square for lunch and order the cheapest items on the menu – penning ourselves in on the “snacks” page – and nothing to drink. An espresso here costs 6 Euro 50.

I wear the dark but plain jeans that I have been wearing since Friday because my backpack only had room for one pair of pants and dark but plain jeans are universal. I also wear old wool socks, dirty brown boots, cheap souvenir stand gloves and a fluffy white kubanka papakha hat (also bought at a tourist stand).

I take up too much space in the corner of the elegant cafe. Brittany, Dallas, and Josh inform me later that the adult daughter and her mom sitting at the next table over stared at me off and on the entire time we sat there underdressed and under-ordering. But later, in the upstairs bathroom, the daughter and I will giggle wordlessly as we try to operate the combined faucet/automated Dyson hand dryer sinks and mostly fail, patting our hands on our pants instead. The waiter brings us unrequested water in open mouth glass pitchers and does not charge.

We do the gondola thing and I come up with some melodramatic metaphors for gondolas, which I do not expect to be black on the outside and red on the inside, but they are. Wide spidery smiles in black lipstick oozing smug across the water. Wispy dyed-black ponytails holding people instead of… being ponytails. Half mussel shells floating like charcoal spoons in the canals, the surprising velveteen interior like the orange meat I awkwardly nibbled at lunch near the Accademia bridge the day before.

The floor of the gondola is dry, but my feet, even in two pairs of socks and beat-up but reliable boots, feel frozenly damp from walking Venice end to end before the clock strikes noon. We try to ignore how the boat feels imbalanced, unsteady, with, as Brittany diplomatically put it, “the two larger individuals on the same side of the boat.” We hold the watercolor paintings of sunset canals between our knees.

With my purse, a plastic bottle of water, and a small bag of Murano glass souvenirs, I can’t quite handle my painting with finesse on the boat bus back across the water to the train station. I sit uneasily in the backmost chair of the lower deck and immediately offer my seat to an older lady who pushes the narrow doors, as grateful to her for making me feel like I did something right today as she is to me for the place to rest.

As I stand for her to squeeze by, my gloves mute the tactile sensation in my fingers and my painting starts to fall on the shoulder of the person sitting in front of me. They make an irritated, alarmed sound like “ai ai ai” and I realize my clumsiness with just enough time to awkwardly apologize before the person turns back around in their seat. But I have temporarily forgotten the word for “sorry” in Italian so it comes out in slow, soft-spoken English. I hear what I just said and blush and readjust the painting in my arms to eliminate any chance of dropping it on an unsuspecting bystander for the remaining duration of the ride.

I flip through the mostly-blank roladex of Italian words I know, no more than a dozen lessons on Duolingo crammed into the last week of 2016. “Spiacente,” I say with the humility of someone kneeling waiting to be exiled from the kingdom when the person gets up for their stop. It’s not even the right word to say “sorry” in this context, a moment of apology. It means something more like pitiful or retched. They shake their head curtly and look down, saying “no, no” in a way that means I am forgiven. I sigh. I watch the sun set like lava over the water, not minding if my irises catch a burn.

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