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Amalfi Coast | Pompeii | Rome | Tucany | Venice

Venezia!

We pulled into the Venice train station with no plans for a place to stay. Dana made a few phone calls from the payphone (which made charades a challenge) while Will walked out of the station and practically fell into the Grand Canal. There it was — POW! Venice! — right out of a storybook.

Back at the payphone, everything was either booked or budget-breaking (i.e. heartbreaking). We suspect it was the uncertainty of war that made hotel owners shift the high season back about two months and ask premium prices. Having seemingly exhausted all possibilities, Dana explained the situation to one sympathetic hotel owner, who replied: "You call my friend Ivano. You tell him Georgio sent you. He take good care of you." And how! An hour and a mile of winding canals later, the charming grey-haired Ivano greeted us at the doorway of his restaurant with smiles, hugs, a kiss on the hand for Dana, and marsala wine in fancy glasses. He ushered us to the table where he'd been eating his own lunch, and pulled out two forks to share with us. "Oh, no, we couldn't!" we insisted, as he insisted that we eat from his plate. "Now, I take you to your room," he said, steering us by the elbows over canal bridges, pointing out sights along the way. Ivano turned to Dana and asked: "This your Faddah?" thrusting his thumb at Will. Dana couldn't help but giggle, already putty in Ivano's hands. He walked us through a sunny courtyard, motioning proudly that it was all his, and led us up the staircase inside a sunny building. He stopped just outside the door to our room, turning apologetically to Dana, saying: "Is two beds."

"Okay," Dana replied, happy just to get a room.

"NO!... is ONE BED!" he shouted laughingly, throwing the door open to reveal a beautiful room, then wiggle-pinching Dana's bright-pink cheeks — hard! "Okay, Signor Wallet," he turned to Will — "You no tell the other guests what you pay; they pay full price, capiche? You come to Ivano's restaurant for dinner." With that, he hurried back to his now-cold plate of pasta.

We did go back to Ivano's restaurant… again and again. On our first visit, he pulled out his guest book for us to sign, and we "poured" over the comments as we sipped the wine he'd poured from the tap behind the bar. Jason from Canada wrote: "Ivano — I thought I had a way with the ladies…the chicas… the senioritas…the fraulines…but you, my friend! My wife says ‘Oooh, là là,' with the emphasis on the ‘Oooh!'" We couldn't have said it better.

We gorged ourselves on gnocchi, zuppa, bruschetta, mussels, lasagna, and tiramisu. The vino flowed from the tap, and Ivano encouraged us to go behind the bar to replenish our pitcher ourselves. Ivano brought us complimentary strawberry champagne, tiramisu, and cappuccinos topped with a flourish of "Carneval!" (Jimmies, in non-Ivano speak.) We couldn't figure out if he was a terrible businessman, or a brilliant business man, but eventually decided it was the latter as we continued to eat dinner at his restaurant night after night, watching him charmingly greet couples on the side-walk, grab them by the elbows, and force-seat them in his restaurant, plying them with food and drink before they even knew what hit ‘em. Meanwhile the rest of the restaurants were nearly empty, as the maitre d's in the doorways greeted passers-by with a simple "Bon Giorno" and a nod of the head. By the end of our stay, Ivano had Will showing people to their rooms while he stood lookout outside the restaurant, holding two forks for his next unsuspecting customers-to-be.

Between meals at Ivano's, we got lost in Venice's million tiny little cobblestone nooks and crannies. As luck would have it, we often found ourselves lost in front of a panetteria (bakery). Venice is beautiful, with its arching bridges and green canals lined by gelati stands, restaurants, and red and yellow clapboard buildings with mysterious doorways. (The doorways were all fitted with slots where wooden and metal planks are inserted as mini dikes to hold back the floods from the warren homes beyond.) Dozens of little parks, piazzas, and panetterias round out Venice's interior. Romance runs rampant, as men in straw hats with long black ribbons glide down the canals in gondolas and couples smooch in the front seats to the sounds of string quartets. We refrained from letting the pigeons roost on our arms in St. Mark's square, and instead watched two little girls on tiptoe trying to see over the counter of a gelati stand as they chirped: "ciocolata, ciocolata," with their little mouths turned up towards their mother like baby bird beaks.

We had a hard time leaving Venice, for more reasons than one. We went to the train station several days in a row to try to buy tickets for the TGV — the only train to Paris. We were repeatedly sent away. On the third day, we grew frustrated with the attendant at the desk, and pressed him to explain the problem to us: "Is the train full? Is the computer system down? What? What? What is the problem?" we asked.

"Ze problème..." he sighed "is ZE FRANCH!" he expounded, pounding his fist and slamming his window closed.

Well.

The day before we left Venice, we found ourselves walking down the street in the middle of a surprise snow storm. It was as if someone had picked up the entire city and tipped it upside down inside a snow globe winter wonderland. We danced around in the street, catching snowflakes on our tongues, and hardly noticed our sandaled toes turning blue. We hadn't realized how much we'd missed snow while we were chasing summer around the globe.

The next day, we waved "Grazie, Grazie!" to Ivano, picked up our packs, and bid a sad "Ciao, Venezia!" as we jumped on a sleeper train to France and left Italia behind.

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