Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Kidnapped in Venice

Venice was beautiful that May. While torrential rains flooded the rest of Europe, Venice was balmy with few tourists and puffy clouds here and there. My wife and I were crossing Piazza San Marco, discussing our plans for our three day stay in Venice. "We'll have to go to Murano", I said, "after all the Venetian glass we've bought, we should see where they make it." Hardly did I utter these words than someone gently grasped my elbow and in a low, heavily-accented voice told us that he could get us to Murano. Turning around we saw a burly gray-haired Italian, rather like a latter day Rossano Brazzi, heading off across the Piazza. We ran to catch up with him and he turned to us, never slowing his march towards the sea, and told us his son was traveling in the United States and asked if we were enjoying our trip. Before we could stop and consider what was going on he had ushered us to a waiting motorboat. He handed us in explaining that our trip to Murano and our tour there were free but we would have to catch public transport back to Venice.

With that he was off, walking quickly back into the Piazza without a backward glance.

The motorboat driver in the meantime had revved the engine and was backing out into the canal. My wife and I exchanged worried glances as we roared across the lagoon. The words kidnapping and kneecapping kept running through my head.

The nondescript driver never looked at us or said a word. A few minutes later the motorboat slowed and turned up a wide canal. I saw the words "Canale dell'Arsenale" and then just a lot of laundry drying from the windows of rather rundown looking apartments.

Emerging from the canal we moved out across the lagoon. The sky had gotten cloudy and the water was choppy. We were not in particularly high spirits. After a while we came to an island with ugly concrete retaining walls. We turned up a large canal and moved past shipyards and freight docks. The buildings looked even more deteriorated, just rusty sheet metal with crumbling jetties.

Suddenly the motorboat slowed and the driver steered toward an unmarked jetty, cut the engine, and tied up the boat. A rather smarmy looking Italian incongruously dressed like a Pocono lounge singer greeted us profusely and chattered away about how glad they were that we had agreed to come. He further explained that the tour started with a demonstration of how the artisans created their unique glass masterpieces. Unfortunately, they were all on strike.

Nevertheless the glass factory had managed to round up one of the lowly workers to demonstrate. We were then ushered into a cavernous warehouse made of sheet metal on the outside and trash on the inside.

The workman dipped a long metal tube into a furnace and brought out a glob of molten glass at the end of it. He rolled the end of the tube along the edge of an anvil and then, putting the other end of the tube to his mouth, he blew air into the glob of glass.

With long tongs he pulled the glass off the end of the tube, shaped the lip of the glass, rolled it some more on the anvil, and ecco! a vase! Well, this was truly worth the stress of being kidnapped and dropped off in beautiful downtown nowhere!

The worker took another glob of molten glass from the furnace and put it on the anvil. With skillful tweaks of the tongs he pulled parts of the glass like taffy. Within a minute he had a beautiful glass steed with arching neck and prancing hooves.

The lounge singer lookalike returned at this point to escort us to the showroom. We moved from the decrepit warehouse to a wonderland of room after room filled with glass treasures. Incredible crystal and glass creations, from paperweights to chandeliers, were displayed in beautiful surroundings with attentive (read: vulturous) salespeople.

The prices were easily double what we had seen in Venetian stores in smaller variety and quantity. Prices went into the thousands of dollars for many of the vases and chandeliers. After my wife and I determined that neither the prices nor the style would fit in with our California decor, we made our escape.

But where were we? We went from sumptuous showroom to storage yard where 5 foot high piles of broken glass had been separated into all colors of the rainbow, ready to be melted again.

Following a path strewn with glass shards we came to a sadly hanging low wooden gate and exited onto a quiet street. The time: noonish. Location: God only knew where ... and wasn't telling.

We walked for quite a while through neighborhoods with large front yards filled with flowers, lily ponds, shrines. Finally we came to the edge of the island. No people!

Walking another block we saw a restaurant - still no people around. Upon entering the restaurant we found all the people. Evidently this was the local place on the island to eat (if not the only place). It was filled with workmen, clerks, and a lot of good smells, and much laughter. The pasta was great, and the red table wine hit the spot for two escaped kidnappees.

Leaving the restaurant we saw a sign for the traghetto half a block farther. A few people were standing huddled in the lee of a rather inadequate shelter. The wind began gusting, the drizzle to fall as we stood in the rain waiting for our ride back to civilization.

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