Two if by canal

We arrived in Venice after a night of hell. As you might have guessed from the last entry, Vienna (and much of that part of the world) was under some kind of stagnant heat wave, the sort of thing that, back on the prairies, would be bringing thunderstorms around the corner. But in Europe.. enh. Who knows. So it was at 20:30 that we found ourselves onboard EuroNight 283 to Venice, in a T6 couchette with.. four other people, making a fully-loaded compartment. Our partners were an Australian pharmacist, and a family of Eucadorians — husband, wife, mother. It was, roughly, 35 degrees in that compartment before I managed to brute-force the window open, and with six of us cramped inside the humidity soared to over 80%.

OBB — the punk-ass organization that runs the trains in Austria — is a bunch of incompetent, passive-aggressive assholes. I mean this in the most derrogatory and insulting way possible. We were the only compartment that was full to the brim, and the three compartments next to us were empty. They had told us that we couldn’t move into the other compartments because the train would stop to pick up passengers along the way, including a middle-of-the-night stop in Salzburg, so no, we had to stay put. They even locked the other compartments, as if for emphasis. (K. pointed out to the woman that the whole reservation system was computerized so in theory it should be possible to know who was getting on and when; this didn’t seem to sway the OBB rep at all.) So fitfully, we went to sleep. The Eucadorians snored enough for everyone. The Australian stayed awake and read. K. fell asleep, eventually. I.. drifted in and out, waking up when the train roared through a tunnel or when we pulled into a station and the lights shone into the compartment.

Why, yes, the compartment did have a window shade. I’m glad you asked about that. The window shade had to stay open because we had to leave the window open because we believed the air conditioning was inoperative. I say “believed” because they unplugged us from the network at about 1:30 in the morning while waiting for an engine in the Salzburg rail yard, and the temperature immediately soared again. I didn’t think that little breeze was doing us much good; boy howdy was I ever wrong.

We got to Venice an hour late. To say that I am disappointed with my first encounter with European trains is an understatement; railway officials in Japan would have committed suicide over that kind of delay. I let it go and immediately sank into this gorgeous, sumptuous city that is easily my favorite spot on this trip, and I can honestly say I’m not sure how it might be topped.

“… The only way to care for Venice as she deserves it, is to give her a chance to touch you often–to linger and remain and return.” –Henry James

James was right about Venice: this is a city that will grow on you the more you let it. I’ve been here a whole whopping day and a half and I can honestly say that if I spent a month here I still don’t think I would have seen it all, or come to understand and/or know it. Things might be even better if I understood the history of this place more, but unfortunately the harried departure preparations precluded my spending any quality time with a European history book. Still, the parts of Venice that are impressive are impressively accessible even without knowing anything about the history. For instance, consider the Doge’s palace. Giant rooms. Huge, almost incomprehensible art. Big, scary-looking armory. Can you figure out that this was the seat of a powerful empire? Sure you can. You didn’t even need to look at the signs. If you understand, of course, that Venice used to be the seat of a seriously big republic that stood against the Byzantinium (and that later conquered Constantinople), and was a maritime empire for almost 500 years, then it starts to be a bit more comprehensible. Consider how rich you get when you keep invading countries and kicking ass — you end up with a lot of booty, the best of which got stuck in the Treasury in St. Mark’s Basillica.

The funny thing is, though, that the parts of Venice I like best have nothing to do with the history and everything to do with just being here. You know how you go to cities sometimes, and you know almost instantly that you’re going to like it? That’s Venice for me. Being here is incredibly easy in a way that other travel is not; in spite of the language barriers and the strange customs, it’s simple to find your way around, simple to get around, and simple to deal with the problems that come up. The historical awareness floats around you, kind of like the dead grandfather in Family Circus cartoons; you can think about it, actively, whenever you want, but if you ignore it and just be, it fades into the background of this deeply beautiful, deeply wonderful, deeply romantic city.

And, for my money, the most fun you can have in Venice is in St. Mark’s square. Buy an €1 bag of pidgeon food, and become, instantly, the most popular person in the square. I normally think pidgeons are filthy disease vectors; Venetian pidgeons are exactly the opposite. They’re like, I dunno, dogs that fly, or something.

One nit, though: I must be having Turkish decompression sickness, because I feel that there are entirely too many English-speaking tourists here, and in particular English-speaking tourists with a very specific accent. Guys, look. You’re in Venice. Take off that goddamn Miami Heat baseball cap, ok? You don’t have any idea how much of a dork you look like.

I love this place. I never want to leave. We are, though — to Rome tomorrow morning, with the hoards of tourists, touts, thieves, and 14% of the world’s historical sites.