I’m an Italian/Maltese-Australian, but our family is steeped in Italian culture rather than Maltese – whether it be language or food or tradition. Most of my extended relatives live over in the Boot, so a lengthy pilgrimage to meet them face-to-face is a familial rite of passage.
For me, that didn't occur until 2011, when, at the age of 29, I finally toured my ancestral land. First and second on the agenda were visits to Milan and Rome, and while the familial bonding was fine enough, the actual cities left me grappling with an unexpected anticlimax. Milan is pretty bland if you aren’t into catwalks or churches, while the pervasiveness of Western cosmopolitanism in the ancient city of Rome left me disappointed.
Luckily, my next stop was Venice.
As soon as I exited Venezia Santa Lucia railway station and caught a glimpse of the floating city, I fell in love. It looked like something out of a fantasy film and nothing like anywhere I’d ever visited. Somewhere with which mankind had known not to meddle too much; somewhere other-worldly.
As I dragged my suitcase over the length of a bridge, all thoughts of the world back home fell from my shoulders and into the canal below.
I wasn’t exactly a globetrotter, but I’d been to enough countries to know I can’t stand mindless tourists. I therefore try to blend into my surroundings so as to resemble an ex-pat or, if I’m lucky, a local. I’d been to Paris, and while I adored the place, the over-abundance of snap-happy, bum bag-wearing tourists with no regard for how much they’re disrupting the city’s atmosphere drove me a little nutty.
While in Venice, I didn’t care. On some level I may have noticed the endless shops and stalls devoted to Venetian crystal and masks, but no screaming American tourist wearing a Venezia tee and matching hat could detract from the gorgeous labyrinth that lay before me.
Never before has a city beckoned me to move my feet for as long as humanly possible. Despite the summer sizzle, I gladly walked the city from end to end, over and over again. While Venice is tiny, and its length should only take an able-bodied human 35 minutes to traverse, leaving the map at the hotel and diving eyes-first into its maze of piazzas and thoroughfares means no two traverses are the same, nor take the same amount of time.
On one particular day, I became lost in the maze for a solid five hours, enjoying the dead-ends as much as the new sights. I even sometimes re-entered the same piazza (or what looked like the same piazza) and passed through it from the other direction or along the other side. The end of the trek left me sprawled out in some park, so satisfied I merely laughed at the sight of the melted toes of my black sneakers.
While I was largely unfazed by the touristic aspects of Venice, I was finding it a little difficult to locate a restaurant that didn’t function primarily for deal-seeking tourists. Anytime I’d interact with a local Venetian, I’d make sure to ask for their favourite restaurant – and experienced a few seemingly authentic meals in the process.
However, it was one particular restaurant, one that was only open a few days per week for a few hours in the evening, that took my experience of Venice to a whole new level. I’m a stickler for good seafood and this tucked-away establishment residing where two cramped alleys met is where I ate the freshest, tastiest meal of my entire life. I didn’t care that I was the only patron – in fact, that made it all the more special.
To cap off this almost-perfect leg of my trip, I became quite friendly with the middle-aged waiter who served me the deceptively simple plate of seafood. He reminded me of Furio from The Sopranos, without the furiousness. We chatted about his life in Venice and mine in Sydney, and he explained every inch of my meal as if he’d personally fished for the ingredients before his shift.
He so appreciated my appreciation that after learning I was somewhat of a writer, he came out with a gift: a copy of an unreleased children’s book on the process of making pasta he had written in Italian and illustrated in bright colours.
As the restaurant was basically empty, he ended up sitting down with me and we took a drink. The other waiter took a photo of us, mid-handshake. It’s one of my favourite memories. Unfortunately, as I’m hopeless with preserving memories, I can’t seem to find the book or the photos, but both are firmly lodged in my head.
Watch Italy’s Invisible Cities on SBS on Sunday 28 May at 7:30pm. Missed the last episode? Watch it at SBS On Demand right here: