A Typical Atypical Travel Day

I’ve written a lot about our days spent exploring destinations, but less about the transition days — those days that in some ways are the most interesting because we find ourselves scrambling and improvising like a team on The Amazing Race.

Getting to Venice from Rome was one of those days, at times completely nutty but oddly fitting with our new sense of normal.

When we woke Colly and Kyle up early with the phrase, “It’s a travel day,” they knew to pack, check under beds, and look for chargers and adapters left in outlets. We reminded them to eat a good breakfast since we’re not sure where or when lunch would be, and brush teeth quickly so we could pack the toiletry bag. The Rome apartment was the 63rd place we’ve unpacked and slept in since leaving home August 15, so they knew the drill.

Morgan and I packed up this bedroom in our Rome apartment.

We had to put the place back in order before the apartment owner came by at 8:30 a.m. Checking out of a hotel is what you do on vacation; checking out of an apartment while leading an itinerant life is something else completely. We had to do chores such as dishes and debate what groceries to keep. (I regrettably left behind breakable bottles of olive oil and balsamic, but I crammed leftover breakfast cereal into baggies.) The apartment manager showed up, returned our deposit and made a phone call in Italian to help us figure out how to check into our Venice place. The clock was ticking to catch our 9:45 train, so I enlisted the kids to guard our luggage in the lobby while Morgan finished the checkout and I went in search of a cab.

I walked six blocks toward the Coliseum to find a taxi queue, armed with only an Italian phrase book to explain that I would need the driver to pick up our family and then go to the station. The cabs were lined up as expected, but the first few were too small to transport all of us and our stuff. I approached a larger car that was fourth in the row, knocked on the window and said, Buongiorno, parla inglese per favore? He said the Italian version of “not really,” so I proceeded to use mostly Spanish, adding an “eh” sound on the ends of words.

The driver understood but then had to get out and exchange words with each of the drivers ahead of him so there would be no hard feelings that he was getting out of line. They exchanged lots of words — they seemed to be talking about family and sports — but finally we got on our way and I directed him back to where Morgan, the kids and our bags were waiting on the curb. We piled in and drove ten minutes, which cost 8 euros according to the meter, but the driver said in English, “No, it’s 12 because you have luggage.” We rolled our eyes and forked over 12.

At the station, multiple doors led to dozens of platforms, all of them crowded and everyone rushing. We had about 20 minutes to get our tickets and find our train. Morgan located an electronic ticket window, but it was broken; he found another, which was broken too. I waited with the kids and studied the train schedule to find our platform while Morgan found a third ticket dispenser that worked. Then he discovered the system had no record of the reservation that we made online three days earlier. With only 15 minutes left until departure, he had to go through the whole process of buying four seats, not knowing if they were still available or if we’d be able to sit together.

Colly and Kyle, meanwhile, stood by with a look they’ve developed this year: a very adult-looking blank expression, honed through myriad security lines and customs interrogations, that indicates they’ve switched to autopilot and are ready to cope with whatever happens next. At one point Kyle did a dramatic hyperventilating thing and said in double time, “I’m scared! We’ll miss our train! What’ll we do!” and for a second I thought his head might spin around, but then just as quickly he slipped back into a deal-with-it mode.

I cheered when Morgan pulled a piece of paper from the machine. Then we all rushed, as best as we could, to a platform half the station away. We found our train, but then we had to find the car with our seats. Once we found the right car, we encountered an aisle jam-packed with people and luggage. Our seats were toward the other end, so we told the kids to squeeze through and hold them for us while we figured out how to load and store our four packs and the heavy black rolling suitcase (the one we nicknamed “the tick” because it’s always bloated with schoolbooks and equipment and is such a pain).

We found ourselves stuck at the doorway, surrounded by people and struggling with bags. Morgan hopped off, ran down the platform to the car’s other door and ran back to tell me there was storage space down there. He told me to get the bags off and help him take them down to the other end. I looked at him, mildly aware of my armpit sweat soaking through my shirt, and tried to keep my voice calm as I said, “We are not stepping off this train when our children are seated in the middle and it’s leaving any second.”

Fine, he told me, we’ll split the difference; he hopped off again with as many bags as he could carry while I stayed and slowly maneuvered the rest of our stuff. In a minute, I looked down the aisle and saw him approaching me. Bag by bag, we squeezed past other travelers, took our seats with the kids and exhaled. “That was interesting,” Morgan summed up.

Victory! We made it on the train, got seats and found a place to stash our bags.

I abandoned my earlier good intention of homeschooling on the three-hour train ride because I wanted to zone out and figured the kids did, too. Colly pulled out her laptop and began creating a spoof Power Point presentation with clipart. Kyle watched The Simpsons on his iPod and read a chapter of Bridge to Terabithia. Pretty soon they were both sound asleep, and when they woke up at the Venice station, we realized we were famished.

Mmmmm ... train station pizza hits the spot.

We got off the train and headed for the station’s pizza bar. Colly and Kyle finished their slices and asked for gelato, so Morgan fished out some euros and told them they could have some if they figured out how to order it themselves. They wandered off on their own, out of sight — such is the trust, or foolish lack of concern, that we have developed after eight months on the road — and they came back grinning with scoops of stracciatella, the Italian version of chocolate chip ice cream. “Did you say grazie?” I asked, and Colly said, “Of course” with a “duh, Mom” tone, as though mildly insulted to be reminded to attempt to speak the language.

From there, it was just a few steps to the water taxi hub where we took in our first dazzling view of Venice. “Wow!” we all said, and just stood there, no longer in any hurry. This, I explained to the kids, is a place where not much has really changed over the centuries. Look, a city with no cars! Look, water lapping at the front doors! Look, buildings all built before Columbus even set sail! “Wow!” we all said again.

We pulled out the iPhone, which carried an Italian SIM card and local number thanks to Morgan’s cleverness, and called the not-very-helpful apartment manager who gave us baffling directions and told us a security code to punch in the door. Then we had to figure out which canal, boat, ticket and stop to choose. From there, everything progressed by trial and error, a classic case of three-steps-forward-and-two-back: buy four tickets, get on the wrong boat; no, no says the captain, pointing, quello (that one). Off the boat, down the dock, onto another taxi; no, no says another captain, pointing at a ticket machine. Oh, capisco, I get it, we gotta validate our tickets. Off again, fumble with the machine until a stranger takes pity on us and demonstrates the right way to do it. Finally we’re on our way — to where?

On our way down the Gran Canal to find our apartment.

“Um, excuse me,” I asked a couple from Hong Kong who spoke English and held a map of the canal, “can I take a look?” We realized that we had about 12 stops to go.

“You know, most families who come to Venice probably spend months planning the details,” I mentioned to Morgan, “and we’re just making this up as we go.”

We relaxed and soaked in the sights of the gondoliers standing and propelling their beautiful long boats and nodding hello to the water taxi captains who zoomed by in their fancy speedboats with the highly varnished wood sides. There were so many details to observe on all the buildings — so many mossy and sooty reliefs of faces and gargoyles that have looked down on travelers like us for who knows how many centuries. We went along the whole S-shaped Gran Canal before finally arriving at our stop, just past Piazza San Marco.

We heaved our packs on our backs for the last time that day and headed toward an alleyway a couple of bridges away. Around a nondescript corner and behind a gelato shop, we found the apartment front door, and as if by magic, the security code worked. The door opened to another extremely small passageway with nothing but a spiral staircase almost as steep and narrow as a ladder. Feeling like Alice in the rabbit hole but in reverse, I climbed up and braced myself for whatever we’d find on the other side of the next door.

The waterfront where we got off ...

... and the alley where we found it.

The apartment door was oddly decorated with sparkly smoked mirror panels that looked more Vegas than Venician. I opened it, and the first thing I saw was a remodeled bathroom with a large tub. “Oh, this is nice!” I called down to the others who were still navigating the staircase. Then I looked down the hallway to the rooms. “Oh, uh … this is weird!”

I saw a main room with exposed wood beams and antique hardware around the windows that gave a feel of Old Italy — but its orange sofabed and linens looked borrowed from a nursing home. The kitchenette, circa 1975, fit into a closet constructed of fake wood paneling. Then Morgan made the announcement we all have come to dread: “No WiFi, no data port.” Ugh, no Internet, no Skype.

I looked at the oddly oversized, decades-old microwave oven that sat perched like modern art on a tiny, teetering table in the middle of the hallway-that-passed-for-a-kitchen. Of course there would be no Internet in a place like this. Oh, well.

Our apartment had a lovely view, but ...

... the interior could have used some updating.

“C’mon, let’s go check things out,” I said. We dumped our stuff, secured our laptops and hid our money and passports as best as we could, and headed back out to explore. The kids, visibly wilting, perked up at the prospect of another gelato. (Our nutritional standards, like most aspects of our lives, have loosened up considerably.)

So goes our first-day-in-a-new-place routine: Find the market, buy some fresh milk and fruit. Scope out restaurants and the main streets leading to the main sights. Find a park with a playground and a good place to run. In Venice, this involved getting tangled in tour groups and lost down dead-end streets. Glassy eyed and loopy with growing fatigue, we had little sense of purpose or direction other than filling our stomachs and finding our way back.

We crossed San Marco Square ...

... explored streets like this ...

... and occasionally got lost in narrow passageways like this.

We used Morgan’s TripAdvisor iPhone app to search for nearby restaurants and were overwhelmed by listings for overpriced yet mediocre dining options. We didn’t want to cook in the slightly creepy new apartment, which didn’t have a proper stove to cook on, but we didn’t want yet another slice of pizza or overpriced noodles.

Then three things happened that reaffirmed my faith that things have a way of working out on days like this, as long as we get creative and don’t give up:

(1) We found a grocery store and I asked the checkout clerk, in broken English and Italian, if she had any restaurant recommendations for an affordable, good-quality place to eat. (Foolproof travel advice: When in doubt, ask a local.) She eagerly wrote out the name and directions to a restaurant not too far away. We had passed it earlier — it looked like nothing special, just long picnic tables covered with red-checked cloths and a TV playing sports — but we went there a few hours later, and sure enough, we were rewarded with a cheap but hearty and authentic meal.

(2) We had seen one of Anthony Bourdain’s foodie travel shows that profiled Venice on an airplane, in which he spotlighted one special hideaway where the seafood is remarkably fresh and the preparation is phenomenal. We figured it would be impossible to find in the maze that is Venice. And then, walking back to our apartment from the market, something caught my eye in the window of a restaurant: a small collection of stickers. One was from Michelin Guide and the others were for Italian food awards. I zoomed in for closer inspection at the menu. At about the same time, Morgan recognized the exterior from the show. Yes, it was Al Covo, the restaurant Bourdain profiled, and it was only about 30 feet from our front door. Of all the places it could be in Venice, it was virtually right under our nose! “This means,” I said, “you and I can have a date and leave the kids in the apartment watching a movie while we eat. We’d be so close, they could come get us if anything goes wrong.” And so we did a couple of nights later — and it was magical, and the kids loved having a movie-watching night on their own.

A couple of nights later, Morgan and I had a date here.

(3) Back at the apartment, Morgan figured out a way to wire the cell phone to the laptops and siphon a connection from Vodafone so we could have some Internet connection via the cell phone. The guy is a genius.

This day actually happened eleven days ago, and I felt ambivalent about taking the time to record these details in one of my longest blog posts yet. But then I thought about how we’ve had several more travel days in just the past week, each unique but similar in their unpredictability and sense of discovery. These travel days blur together, and I feel the ones from the first half of our trip slipping from memory. I want to be able to show others who ask about our trip what it was really like — how we functioned as a family while getting from one point to another — but mostly, I want to keep these days in mind to savor when I’m sitting in my permanent address and wanderlust, always simmering, heats up.

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