Love on the Grand Canal

by Elisabeth Robinson
Photograph: Illustration: Jonathan Bartlett

It’s huge: wide, long and heavy, more like a barge than the sporty skiff I had in mind. But this 30-foot topetta is all the Venice boat rental offered, so I step in, followed by well-fed Paolo, an employee who’s going to teach me how to drive it. He does this in lovely Venetian dialect, which I don’t understand. I watch his mouth closely, cocking my head like a dog when I recognize a word—destra (right)—and the other way when I catch a second one—vaporetto (water bus). I nod and grin as he demonstrates: To go right, push the outboard motor left; to go left, pull it right. No problemo, I tell Paolo in mangled Spanish. Minutes later, when I’m alone on the Grand Canal, I discover there is a giant problemo.

With a flotilla of gondolas on my right and the number-82 vaporetto charging for me, I forget that in reverse, the opposite steering rules apply, and my prow swings directly into the shrinking gap between me and the bus-boat loaded with amazed tourists. I gun the engine and execute a flawless, endless backward doughnut as bobbing gondoliers stop singing “Volare” and scream something about my mother and my ass. I want to burst into tears, jump into the canal and abandon ship; but I can’t, because I’m too proud. I’m trying to prove something here: that I can boat around Venice myself. And I’m ­going to love it. Especially when I zip past my ex’s place and wave.

Let’s call him . . . Giacomo.

I was in Venice for a few weeks, working on a new book. We met one foggy November evening on the northern promenade of the Grand Canal when I asked him for directions, which led to a drink and, a few nights later, to dinner. After the meal, I asked him if he’d like to see the wonderful view of the moonlit lagoon from the apartment I’d been renting. He would! From one of those quaint unscreened windows they still have in Europe, we gazed at the ­silvery sea, his shoulder electrifying mine, our lips mere inches apart—a romantic opportunity Giacomo maddeningly failed to exploit. When he cheek-kissed me good-bye, he invited me to Sunday ­dinner with his papa in the country. After that and a long walk to Giacomo’s Venice garret and three hours of prosecco and Tintoretto talk, he patted his horrible leather couch and said, “It is late and cold. I prepare the ­bed for you, and I sleep here.”

When you have only a few days left in a foreign city, you might actually say, “The only thing worth my not waking up in my own bed would be if we slept together.” He looked confused. Maybe he wasn’t familiar with the conditional tense? I distilled my run-on flirtation into a grappa-clear proposal: “We sleep together?”

He shrugged and said, “If you want.”

If I want? I thought Italians were supposed to be . . . enthusiastic. I was offering him some unhinged American tourist sex, and he was blasé. Or! Maybe in Venice, sleep together meant “sleep”! Thanks to that way-too-quaffable prosecco (which I’ve since dubbed pro-sex-oh), I cheerfully humiliated myself further: “I mean, let’s have sex!” Since I’d met him, I’d been looking forward to living my own Under the Tuscan Sun fantasy. I wanted to be carried away on the gondola of love to the land of Happily Ever After by a gorgeous, fascinating foreigner. Finally, he kissed me . . . and kissed me. He would have seduced me right away, he said later, but he was too shy and respectful. In the morning I canceled my flight back home.

I called Mom, who was expecting me for Christmas, and told her the writing was finally going so well, I needed to stay a few more days. “You know, honey,” she said, “Italians make terrible husbands.”

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