Hell came to the Norwegian Jade around 10:27, when the shows let out and the Chocolate Buffet opened up. Nothing like the Chocolate Buffet to show you how order and decorum would disintegrate during a sinking. Stampede to the Garden Cafe, where all the confections were arrayed at six stations; dark lights, a spotlit ice sculpture, and the tribe of MOAR MOAR ROOOARRRRH CHOCOLATE stomping around with plates and the kids darting around like minnows and the thin Europeans with well-balanced plates and the lumbering manatees and womanatees dropping the reins on their inner Kraken: EAT EAT EAT EAT EAT Oh God. I took a few items and retreated to my stateroom like a lower-order jackal going off into the bush to suck the marrow from a bone the alphas discarded.

Afterwards we were to meet at the upper lounge for The Quest, an “adult” game. Which means: sexy time.

It was amazing. Really, you expect the worst, but this was quite sophisticated. One couple, strangers both, did a tango; one woman did a strip tease but could only remove two items - she chose her glasses, and shoes. Brought the crowd to their feet. And so on, with devious subtlety and a true sense of “adult” behavior.

Hah! Kidding. “Adult.” Which means “drunk” and “announcer says ‘boobies.’”
Which means: young drunks with eminently punchable mugs preening and demanding applause because they are wearing three bras on their heads. Which means: a table of women who ran aground on the shoals of middle age jumping up to show the host their piercing or tattoo. Which means: lots of WHOOO and more WHOOOOOO! and Aren’t-I-Outrageous faces as they willingly engage in whatever form of self-abasement the MC commands. Which means: a drag contest for the finale, in which the men are wearing bras, women’s shoes and adornments - including lipstick - parading up and down catwalk style. Which means: a vast doughy creature who had the pectoral flab to fill out a D cup and had been strapped into a C, strutting around with his jiggly parts bouncing high and low to the music, a gross and hairy expanse earning the boundless accolades of the crowd. Annnnnd cut.

We left and walked out past the pool, sloshing in the dark, and into the Garden Cafe where the Chocolate Buffet had been held. All clean. All bright. Not a crumb. Five men were removing the ice sculpture. Curt orders, one-two-three LIFT, and the worst day of their week was over.

--

After a day at seat the cruise was over. We docked and vacated. With pride I strode to the cavernous barn where the luggage was stored; I’d attached a locator beacon that BEEPED when I pressed the button, so I didn’t have to prowl the aisles looking for the bags. Pressed the button.

It was two feet away.

Dragged the bags through the terminal to the water’s edge; crammed into a water-bus that made a Japanese subway train look like the annual convention of the More That Sufficient Elbow Room Enthusiasts’ Club, and enjoyed the view of the massive tubs dumping their thousands into Venice:

It’s the worst day for the crew, I imagine: clean it all up for the next batch, which streams in just hours after the last batch left. As a passenger you always think the ship was just sitting there for weeks before you got on board.

We checked back into the Hotel Firenze, greeted warmly by the cheerful Desk Attendant, who I hoped did not try to sell my wife on the Three Island Tour again. Oh, it would probably be fine, but I remember how he mentioned it the first day, and swung a monitor around with the sign-up instructions already loaded. Almost as if the hotel gets a cut.

Well, it’s possible.

We walked to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, since this was Art Morning. Wife shopped for some gifts for people back home while daughter and I took in an exhibit of work collected by a fellow who was stinking rich and no doubt debauched as hell, because it was all disturbing on one level or another. The rest of the museum was Modern, and all the greats were there - the most potent and condensed example of modern art I’d seen in a long time. I wished I liked it. A few pieces, yes. Daughter unimpressed. We argued about Mondrian. She recoiled at Dali, although she recognized him as the melty-watch guy. We dissed Picasso. All in all, better for the time spent together discussing art than the actual art itself. But! The admission had a coupon for another museum up the street, a five-room palace that held mostly Renaissance art. Would you like to walk from the museum to the Palazzo Cini? Of course you would. Do try not to get lost.


Found it? We didn't. At least not the front door. Took a bridge to a fondamenta - the sidewalk on the edge of the canal - and entered by a side door - to the great surprise of the attendent, who couldn't stop giggling about how we had missed the main entrance.

And here, I am proud to say, she was happy. As was I. A Bronzino. A Fra Fillippo Lippi. Turned the corner, draw in the breath: a huge Botticelli. The day was complete. Back to the hotel to confirm the airplane reservations before the rest of the day unfolded, whatever that was -

- annnd the website didn’t recognize my codes. No reservation. I ended up standing on the roof shouting into my phone on a horrible connection to confirm our flight, and learned that we couldn’t check in because of Security, specifically new procedures put in place after July 8th by the US in response to unspecified things you shouldn’t worry about, not at all, but we had to be at the airport three hours early.

That meant leaving at 6:20 AM. You can’t just hail a cab, you know. But I’ll get to that.

Whew: at least we were going to get out of here. Now what?

Wife had tickets for the three island tour!

The first was Murano, where you see artisans make the famous Murano glass. Actually, you saw a guy make a simple vase, and then make a horse. Then you had gift-shop time. I had no interest and was a complete and utter grump about the whole thing. Back on the boat, where the tour guide yelled rote memorized text in five languages; next stop, Burano. Another leaning tower:

 

   

It's like a small-town version of Venice - four islands laced together by tiny bridges over thin canals, little buildings around a quaint campo:

That guy. That poor trunctred guy. Meet Baldassare Galuppi, composer.

His father was a barber, who also played the violin in theatre orchestras, and is believed to have been his son's first music teacher. The young Galuppi was trained in composition and harpsichord by Antonio Lotti, the chief organist at St Mark's Basilica . At the age of 15 Galuppi composed his first opera, Gli amici rivali, which was performed unsuccessfully at Chioggia and equally unsuccessfully in Vicenza under the title La fede nell’incostanza.

He had better luck later, working his way up to working for the Doge. He was forgotten, for centuries. Lucky for us, his work survives:

He was buried at a church that’s no longer a church. Every time I passed it last week there were canvassers trying to get my signature on a drug legalization petition.

As for Burano itself: the city offices could stand a lick of paint. And plaster.

The obligatory old church had a post-war plaque for the honored war dead - at least I'm hoping it was post-war, because otherwise they included a panel for all the guys who'd be dead in the next one.

I love the stylized logos for the various branches. Saddened by the Intermittantly Eternal Flame.

One of the selling points for the tour was the Brightly Painted Houses, which celebrated the individuality and quirky go-their-own-way character of the island. They were charming. But:

The colours of the houses follow a specific system originating from the golden age of its development; if someone wishes to paint their home, one must send a request to the government, who will respond by making notice of the certain colours permitted for that lot.

And some official might, by an odd coincidence, run the paint concession.

   

Wife bought a lace scarf. I tried to buy three Cokes before we got back on the boat, but they were $5.65 each, and I have this thing about paying more for one Coke than I’d pay for a 12 pack back home. The third island was the home to the oldest church in the area, or Europe, or the world, and you walked along a canal for ten minutes to get to the ruins, and see the Byzantine area church. My wife looked through the scarves offered by a roadside stand, and found the exact same scarf she’d bought at the lace “factory” in Burano. Half the price.

With a tag that said “Made in China.”

So she’s not happy. And I had to make it worse, too; when she said “at least we got to see the glass factory,” I said “What factory? We saw one guy with a softball-sized piece of glass and a small furnace. Everything in that store came from China.”

So, yes, end-of-trip weariness, but again, my fault. I wanted to see churches and art, not a vase-and-tablecloth tour, as I put it. “It’s like going to New York to watch television,” I added. Oh, what a delightful man.

Here I am, delighted.

When we got back to Venice the skies were beginning to darken, and before long a storm unveiled itself in the distance:

 

   

What followed was the most apocalyptic scenario I’ve ever experienced - each thunderclap brought screams from the tourists, and I overheard one fellow say “it’s like they think Godzilla’s coming.”

Trust me: it was incredible to see.

That ship you saw up above? It was steaming out as the storm bore down. The people must have had an extraordinary view. This is not a Photoshop.

San Marco was thronged for a college graduation, and wife noted that we’d best make it to the exit quickly, because when the rain came there would be a stampede for the exits. Which are quite small. We made it - the skies opened - the thunder cracked with deafening force - and Venice was pummeled, beaten, and cleansed. When the rain abated we went out to dinner, and the city was once more a place of magic.

Walked through the narrow twisty streets, trusting the ancient signs to guide us back to San Marco, and everyone fell asleep at 10. I got up at 2, 3, 4:30 and 4:45, checking to make sure the 5:30 alarm was set. Woke at 5:25.

We’d arranged for a water taxi to pick us up down the street, and at 6:20 a boat puttered up to the ancient stones. A water taxi was out of the question, since it took too long to get there, and remember, we had to show up three hours ahead of time, according to the New Security Rules Hastily Put Into Place But Don’t Worry. At this point taking a boat to go some place was completely normal, and I was sad to give it up. You start to think that all cities should have boats as their primary means of transport.

Off and up into the air; down in Paris 90 minutes later. After we cooled our heels in the terminal for an hour we boarded another old Airbus and settled in for the 8 1/2 hour flight.

Which did not happen. Equipment failure. Mechanical repairs. No air conditioning. Sauna-stuffy. One hour. Eventually, yes, off and up - an interminable flight. You wake from a brief nap hoping you’ve chewed up half the time, and find there are four hours left. FOUR. No flight should be so long you wish you had two Hobbit movies on your iPad. But eventually the land crept up below; the plane made its long shuddery descent, and I put on my headphones and blasted American rock ’n’ roll as we thumped and screeched and slowed, and I was almost deliriously happy. We’d made it. We’d done it. A day that began stepping on a 16th century stone in Venice to get into a boat ended with me behind the wheel of my car driving the familiar highway.

And all the photos I’d take were already off the cards, named, placed in folders, and sorted for archiving.

Got home. Everything intact. Unpacked. Took out the one thing I bought, the one gimcrack tourist item I always buy: a refrigerator magnet. Placed it on the downstairs freezer with all the others. Got out something else I took from a beach: a lovely little rock. Just an ancient stone from an island, something that was old when Homer wrote and had been washed by the - all together now - the WINE-DARK SEA for centuries. Placed it on my desk. I’m looking at it right now. It fits in the hand as if it was custom-made to be held. Whenever I pick it up, I’m holding part of the old ancient places we saw. That connection will last as long as I do.

The bills for the trip, almost as long. But life is short, and I spent too many years in one place. Travel is an investment. Hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s dividends, and thank you for reading.

(If you're joining us late, the story begins here.)

 

   

 

 
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