(Please don't think me easily annoyed. I have, after all, never been annoyed back out again.)
I went directly to the hotel booth inside the station and requested three nights in an accommodation that I could walk to. Go ahead...laugh. It wasn't until I had my printed booking at a hotel “very near to Rialto and San Marco” - whatever those places were – that I ever even looked outside at Venice. I'd love to say that bells rang and birds sang and fireworks exploded all that the same time, but in truth I just felt relieved and lucky. I had escaped the worst train ever and discovered the most beautiful place in the world. It was an hour or so later, when I first arrived in Piazza San Marco, where in fact orchestras played and birds sang and bells rang all at the same time, that I burst into tears.
The next day, I met some young Venetians. Young women who hang around Piazza San Marco alone get lucky that way. Some not-so-young women do too. Few of them end up at dinner at Mamma's house. But, that's another story. I am a lucky traveler. My new friends showed me around a little and introduced me to the Lido. All those miles of beach! I was hooked. I went from the beach to the front desk, booked three more days, and bought my first map of Venice. I never opened that map.
I didn't see a single sight during my first six days in Venice. Of course I saw them, they were everywhere, but I had no idea what they were and I didn't try to find out. I was a young backpacker who, having packed more than she could carry, left all of her guide books (and all of her warm clothing) in a monastery in Patras, Greece. I never went back to the Lido during that visit either. I never even crossed the Grand Canal. You mean one of these canals is more grand than the others?!
I spent my budget for a day on wine and a “toast” at the Grancaffe Quadri. I didn't know a thing about wine, but I knew that I was seated in Piazza San Marco, that there was an orchestra playing and that my waiter was wearing gloves. Nothing was ever more worth it, except maybe, the wonderful dinner that I had at Caffe Quadri a few years later. Still, lucky for me, it eventually rained on me in Venice. Trying to stay dry! That is how I learned about standing in bars. I learned it in the Gran Caffe Lavena.
I didn't buy anything. I went past, around and into lots of stores. I saw thousands of beautiful objects and I worried a little about breaking them. I didn't know what I was seeing. My ignorance about Venice could not be overstated. Murano glass? What's a Murano? I wasn't uneducated, but world history classes in the U.S.A. don't teach you much about the city that was not bombed during World War II. Titian's paintings weren't part of the contemporary sculpture curriculum at my liberal arts college. And, before my first visit to Venice, I did all of my studying abroad in France. If I had even seen a picture of Venice, I didn't remember it.
I really did get off of that train just to save my sanity. It was what I found outside that made me lose my mind. Knowing exactly nothing and no one, all I wanted after that was to keep exploring Venice. My second trip to Venice was four days after the first. The train I was supposed to catch in Salzburg pulled in directly across the platform from a train to Venedig. I didn't even think about it. I didn't mess around with any more three-night bookings either. I did do some shopping.
So there you have it. I arrived in Venice as a grubby, Birkenstock-wearing, mostly broke and entirely ignorant American backpacker. I wasn't just a bad tourist. I was the worst. I had no knowledge, little money and no defined cultural goals. All I wanted - still my idea of a perfect vacation - was to spend my mornings wandering around the city looking at things, my afternoons at the beach, my evenings in bars with live music and to ride boats in between. Venice, as a place, suited me perfectly.
I did have one thing in common with the original Venetians: We all went there to escape the barbarians.
Becoming OG Venice
Now I know a little bit about a lot of things to do with Venice. I learned much of it through trial and error. Oh the errors I've made... I took the wrong boats by accident long before I started taking them on purpose and I've been caught without a ticket more than once. I bought bottles of the house wine from restaurants to bring home. I spent long long nights hopelessly lost. I paid four euros for espresso and I ordered cafe “caldo” when I really wanted cold coffee. I spent 2.50 euros on bottled water. I set out for hundreds of places that I never found. I ate from the tourist menu. Venice tricked me, spun me around, knocked me down and took my money more times than I can count. But I never took it personally and it never really wounded my pride. I was an anonymous one of the hundreds of thousands of people swarming the city.
Life is better with friends. I was always, and remain, more interested in everyday life in Venice than in Venetian history. I adore my Venetian friends. Yes, it enchants me that they live their contemporary lives in such an ancient place. But more than anything I find them smart, fun, funny and caring. Growing up in a labyrinth must make people smarter. They sail and make art, music and strawberry risotto. They know as much philosophy as I do. They're awesome! They have taught me a lot about their town, saved me from making innumerable mistakes, and given me countless hours of great company. I am very upset that what they've always told me is true: They really are an endangered species.
I also know lots of Venice experts. I met them all in bars. They teach me things about stones and islands and paintings and churches and tell me stories of historically significant debauchery. They're hilarious. I like them a lot. But, I'm still convinced that learning all of that in the first place is just their excuse to hang around in Venice. Did I say that I met them all in bars? That's not entirely true. I met some of them in beach bars.
I wrote most of the first draft of OG Venice Travel Guide from a sofa at the Aurora Beach Club. Which, incidentally, was a cultural institution that should never have been allowed to change. There, you learned what fruit your breasts were, where the gondoliers tattoos were and everything you needed to know about contemporary literature. Where else can you sit around mostly naked and mostly drunk and listen to a presentation about the book that exposed Gamorrah? I miss it.
If everyone has a super power, mine is doing things while appearing to do nothing. I wrote OG Venice Travel Guide. I wrote it while spending my mornings looking around Venice, my afternoons at the beach, my evenings in bars with live music and riding boats in between. I never took a vacation again. I wrote it as an iphone app, I wrote it as an ebook, and now I write it as a website. There's not a lot of romance or pretense to it. It really is a guide about finding things you need, discovering shops you'll love and having a good time during your free time in Venice.
In my mind, tourists aren't good or bad. They're people on vacation! Sooner or later, even in the magic of Venice, they all need or want something normal. That's where Venice gets tricky and that's what OG Venice Travel Guide is for. The romance comes from trying to do normal in Venice, where “normal is not on the menu”. The miracle is that it's in those places of semi-normalcy that we tourists actually experience what is called “the real Venice”.