The email I received said:
“Go to Newark airport, go to the United booking desk and give them your name. Take proof of identity. Pack for five days, light.”
It was going to be, supposedly, a magical mystery tour. I read in a travel magazine, that a company offered five-day inclusive trips to anywhere. You do not get the destination, just what to take. Then, just be prepared for anything.
I paid the money and waited, until last evening when the email came.
I was ready.
When I presented my credentials as requested, I found myself going to Venice, Italy, a place I had never been before.
When I looked it up, it said it took about 10 hours to get there with one stop in between. Enough time to read up on the many places to go and see, though according to the instructions, everything had been arranged in advance.
I could also take the time to brush up on my schoolboy Italian.
When I got off the plane at Marco Polo Airport, in Venice, it was mid-morning, but an hour or so was lost going through immigration and customs. A water taxi was waiting to take me to a hotel where I would receive further instructions. I was hoping it would be on or overlooking the Grand Canal.
At the airport, I wondered if there was going to be anyone else on this trip, or whether I would be doing it alone. I’d read sometimes likeminded people were put together for a shared experience.
We had to agree and then fill out an extensive profile so they could appropriately match people. Sometimes, people joined at different times along the way, you just never knew what was going to happen.
That random unpredictability was just what I needed having just gone through a breakup after a long period of peacefulness and stability, and frankly, I would not have chosen this type of tour if I had not.
It was a pleasant half hour or so winding our way across open, choppy, stretches of water, then through the canals, having paid the driver extra to take a long route. I’d not been to Venice before, but I had read about it, and while some of the negative comments were true, it didn’t diminish the place in my eyes.
And the hotel, on its own island overlooking the main canal, was stylish and elegant, and my room was exactly where I’d hoped it would be. I think I spent the next hour just looking out at the city, and the boats going by, like a freeway, a never-ending stream of traffic.
A knock on the door interrupted what might have been described as a dream, by one of the concierge staff delivering an envelope with my name on it.
The note said,
“Take the hotel Vaporetto to St Mark’s Square and go to the first restaurant on the left as you walk away from the Doges Palace. Your reservation is for table 38, at 20:30 hours..”
All meals were included, each dinner at a notable restaurant in the town or city you spent the night or nights. I had already taken the time to wander around St Mark’s and look at the shops, mostly high-end, except for one, a confectionary store, next to a souvenir store.
That was a pleasant few hours working out what I would take home for various family members.
I also noted the many little alleyways that led away from the square, and if I had time the next morning I might explore. A gondola ride was also on the bucket list.
When I arrived and announced myself, I was taken to table 38. I was not the first, another traveller, a woman about my age, mid-thirties was sitting, with a drink in front of her.
She observed my arrival and approach, and it was a little strange. It looked like this was going to be not a solo expedition. “Ace Adventurer?” she asked.
“Not so sure about Ace, but adventurous, maybe.”
“I know how you feel. I was not sure what to expect?”
“Beautiful scenery, great Italian food, hopefully, and good company to share it with.”
The waiter asked if I would like a drink, and I selected an Italian beer. This was going to be a beer, and wine odyssey. I was one of those when in Rome, types.
“You like to travel?” There was a brief, awkward silence, so she opened the conversation with what was a safe question.
“Yes. Though I didn’t get many opportunities before this, because of work, and my wife’s illness. She passed recently, and I figured it was time to get out of the house and do something positive.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
To me, the moment I said it, I sounded like a lame duck, and had to wonder why I did.”
After fifteen minutes the waiter returned with menus. It appears we were going to be the only two. Interesting concept.
Selecting items off the menu, we learnt about each other, that we could both read, and speak, after a fashion, Italian. Immediately it became a thing to only speak Italian from that point.
We liked the same food, and almost ordered the same items. We liked the same wine, but she did not drink beer.
She liked photography, but more professionally than me, and her camera was worth more than my car. Me, I was happy with my cell phone. We drove the same type of car, liked to go to the same places, and she too had suffered a recent bereavement.
It was as if the tour company had found me a perfect match.
We were staying in different hotels and parted company at the restaurant. I was not going to suggest we wander along the canal front, she seemed tired. We were both staying, having not received the next instructions, so we left it with a perhaps we might see each other again in the morning.
If it was meant to be.
It wasn’t one of those I could have danced all night moments, but it was different, and I was glad not to be wallowing like I would have if I had not made an effort to get away. It certainly made the visit to Venice a highlight.
The next morning there was an envelope under the door, I was thinking it was a note from the hotel about checking out, but instead, it was a questionnaire, short and to the point.
“Would you prefer, a) continue alone, b) continue with Ms Bainford, or c) someone else?”
I selected b) but added a provision, only if she wished to continue with me, and then took it back to reception.
After a leisurely breakfast, I caught the Vaporetto to the other side of the canal, near a church, and then wandered back towards St Marks, had pizza for lunch in a quaint little restaurant outside yet another church, before exploring one of the alleyways going off the square, reportedly leading to the train station.
It was not far from the station I came across Lesley sitting at a café having coffee and watching the world go past. She smiled when she saw me.
“Lost?” she asked when I sat down.
‘No, well, at least I don’t think I am. You see a railway station around here?”
She pointed further along the lane. “That way. I think. I have been lost, but fortunately, I found a nice resident who knew the way. Divine coffee, you should get a cup.”
We both watched the world go by in companionable silence, until she asked, “Do you know where you’re going next?”
“No. I was surprised I was not moving on today.”
“Perhaps they thought we needed to soak in the aesthetic beauty Venice has to offer. Pity it’s not when the Carnival of Venice is on, dressing up and wearing a mask. It sounds like fun.”
“You could always come back. When is it?”
“February. I might just do that, it’s not as if I have anything or anyone that prevents me from doing anything.”
She stood and held out her hand. “Shall we roam aimlessly and soak in the aesthetic beauty? Let the alleys take us where they may.”
I took her hand in mine and stood. “Why not?”
The afternoon was a blur, dinner sublime, parting sad.
We both know instinctively that this could and probably would end, and the spell was broken when we parted, again at the restaurant. There were words to be said, but it was too soon, and enough ambiguity to part almost content, but with that little longing that it might continue.
I found an envelope on the desk in my room when I returned.
“Your next stop will be Florence, a city that is waiting for you to explore. Take the Italo Treno from Venice station to Florence, the ticket, with a seat assignment, is enclosed. You are booked at the Hotel Brunelleschi. Enjoy!”
It made no mention of travelling companions or anything else, but then, it was just my travel arrangements.
I checked out the flowing morning and took a water taxi to the railway station. I was glad I was travelling light, the station was crowded and it took a few minutes to find the train.
It was one of my hobbies, the methods of travel, whether it was trains, planes, trams, ships, ferries, or boats, all were fascinating in their own way.
This was a bullet train, similar to those in France, Japan, and China.
It was a relief to have a booked seat and business class. I expected no less.
I found the carriage and then the compartment. And then a surprise.
“Florence?” she asked.
“Florence. Did you …”
“Tick a certain box. I did. Please, sit. We have much to talk about.”
© Charles Heath 2023