My first trip to Italy was back in the year 2000; Bernadette and I had just gotten married and for our honeymoon, I wanted to go to the “Motherland.” Having lived in Verona for 10 years and possessing a mastery of the language that even native speakers envied, my beautiful new bride was the perfect tour guide.
We arrived at Leonardo da Vinci airport on a hot summer afternoon and took the train into the heart of the Rome. After spending a couple of days experiencing the delights — and exaspareations — of the Eternal City, we headed to Verona to stay with some friends and the next morning boarded another train for a day-trip into Venice. Of course, when one visits Venice for the first time, the first thing one wants to do is see the city from a gondola so we headed over to St. Mark’s square ready to be taken for a ride. (In more ways than one.) Gondola rides can be pricey but, what the hell? It was our honeymoon and I really wanted to go, there was just one problem…
As sometimes happens in il bel paese, the gondoliers had decided to go on strike that day. It seems that they were protesting the city’s tolerance of some foreign gondoliers who were plying their trade without a license — a noble cause indeed but this was the only day we had planned to be in Venice! “Oh well,” I said, maybe we’ll be back someday and try again.
Disappointed as I was, I made the best of our day. We got lost in the back streets, stopped in a local market and bought some fresh bread, prosciutto and a couple of beers and had a “picnic” lunch on one of the bridges along the canals, stopped into a shop and bought a traditional Venetian mask and took a walk across the Bridge of Sighs that connects the Prigioni Nuove (New Prison) to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace.
Time flies when you’re having fun and before we knew it, the sun was getting low on the horizon and casting its golden light onto the Grand Canal signaling that it was time to head back to Verona. Still a bit disappointed over my ill-fated gondola ride, we started back towards the train station and then suddenly we heard it, off in the distance a cry of: “Gondola!…. Gondola!…” The strike was over! Well, of course it was over, it was a one-day strike and most of the protesting gondoliers had gone home but apparently a few enterprising young men had decided to try and get in a trip or two before calling it a day.
We quickly found the source of the cries and made our way towards the narrow boat and its captain. As we walked, Bernadette said to me: “Listen, we’re gonna ask him his price then we’re gonna come back with our own offer and if he refuses, we’re gonna walk away.” Is she crazy? I thought to myself. “No honey, I really wanna go on a gondola ride, let’s just give him whatever he asks for!” “Trust me.” she said, “They always quote you a high price at first, they expect you to haggle.” Reluctantly, I agreed.
We approached the gondolier and Bernadette began the negotiations. In Italian. Which I understood very little of. I understood enough, however, to know what was going on. He quoted 100 euro — which was extremely expensive back at the turn of the millenium — we feigned astonishment and came back with an offer of sixty. “Ma NO… signora.. non posso!” he said to Bernadette “Otanta!” — Eighty. She looked at me, I looked at her, we pretended to discuss it by whispering to each other then offered sixty again. He refused and, as planned, we walked away. We took several steps and by now I was getting antsy. “Honey! I know 80 euro is expensive but let’s do it!” “Don’t turn around,” she said. We walked a litter further. “Honey!” … “Don’t turn around!” Seconds later the gondolier ran up behind us “Okay, sixty!” We had a deal!
We boarded the boat and headed out onto the canal. The normally crowded waterways were completely deserted due to the absence of the formally striking workers who had all gone home for the day. It was surreal, like something out of a movie, my lovely new wife and I were taking a sunset cruise on the canals of Venice with not another tourist in site. People took our picture as we passed under the bridges, we obliged them by giving each other a kiss. It was the best moment of our entire honeymoon and one of my fondest memories.0