I was 19 years of age when Italy first entered my life. Young, enthusiastic, impressionable. Landing at Marco Polo Airport on the edge of the Venetian Lagoon in 1980 was a defining moment for me. In those days Venice was still a military airport, men in uniforms everywhere. It’s still the case – the Italians love their uniforms, carabinieri, alpini, guardia di finanzia – you name it they’ve got a uniform for it. As a young girl arriving in Venice for the first time all those men in uniforms were quite frightening.
A small group of us (gap year students from England) were bundled onto a coach and driven around the edge of the lagoon to Lido di Jesolo. A typical 1970s seaside resort. Seven miles of beaches, hotels, restaurants, bars and numerous souvenir shops. The Adriatic Sea lapping lazily at our toes. It was the beginning of the summer season – late April. We were put in a ‘pensione’ an Italian B & B and left to settle in for the weekend. We were well looked after – huge bowls of spaghetti at every meal, delicious salads, succulent chicken and great local wines.
So what had the biggest initial impact on me – cappuccinos in every cafe and bar, amazing food, great weather, history, architecture? No – none of these things. It was the boys, Italian boys, loads of them, smartly dressed in Benetton tee shirts and brightly coloured pullovers. As a British girl I couldn’t get over the charm of these guys. They were polite, courteous and smelled beautiful. Growing up in the north-west of England my interaction with boys was based on constant banter, sardonic humour and sarcasm. Once when a friend held a door open for me (I remember it distinctly) I assumed he was teasing me. But of course in Italy it was different, foreign, exotic, sunny, glamorous. For me it really was the land of romance. Our apartment was a magnet for the local boys – they’d appear below the balcony to chat to us and invite us for drinks.
I was employed for the summer season by an Italian coach company as a tour guide. The holiday makers could choose from: Venice by Day, Venice by Night, Full Day Venice, Half Day Venice, Venice and the Islands of the Lagoon. The more adventurous could enjoy a full day to Florence, Cortina (in the Dolomites) or even Postumia, in nearby Yugoslavia. I and the other young Brits worked as tour guides on these day trips informing our visitors of the treasures and history to be discovered in Northern Italy. The job was amazing, we all had to learn ‘coach driver Italian’ and fast! We had to deal with the customers and with the drivers – not necessarily in that order. We had to learn the history of the Veneto region from Roman times to the present day. I was young, I was keen, I loved it!
There was a pattern in Jesolo – fair-skinned Brits arrived in the resort, usually on a two week holiday. Days one and two were spent on the beach. By the third day the average Brit had chronic sunburn and resembled a recently boiled lobster. Unable to sit on the beach they would then book a trip to Venice. The next morning at 07.30 a relentlessly cheerful tour guide (me) and a devious (oops I mean charming) coach driver would arrive at the hotel to pick up the hapless tourists. The pick up process alone took about an hour. Starting at one end of the seven mile resort we would painstakingly collect guests (usually in 2s and 3s) from numerous hotels until we finally had a full compliment of about 50 guests. Once the coach was full Maurizio, Salvatore or Paolo would put his foot down and drive at illegal and potentially life-endangering speeds along the sandy peninsula to Punta Sabbione, where the ageing Fiat coach would grind to a halt and disgorge its passengers. Here we took the ferry across the lagoon to Venice.
To arrive in Venice from the sea is magical, truly spell-binding. The minute my charges and I were safely on the ferry I’d dash upstairs to the open deck and light a cigarette. Puffing on my Marlboro I’d admire the lagoon – Lido to the left and the Bell Tower of St Mark’s looming ahead. The ferries were mercifully slow and I’d have a good 45 minutes of contemplation before heading downstairs, unfurling my green umbrella and marshalling the troops. Even with a group of 50 people Venice is truly spectacular. The moment of arrival, stepping onto Riva Schiavoni was always defining, enthralling, embracing. I’d march into St Mark’s Square pointing out the Doge’s Palace, Bridge of Sighs (where Casanova was imprisoned) and head into the Piazzetta and then into St Mark’s Square.
Did you know that St Mark’s Basilica was extended in the 12th century to house the bones of St Mark the Evangelist I would chirp. Two courageous and heroic Venetian soldiers smuggled the bones of the great man out of Alexandria, according to legend, in barrels of pork. Thus deterring the Muslim port officials from examining the barrels in great detail……….
Once in Venice I had certain obligations, first I had to deliver the group to St Mark’s Square and hand them over to the official Venice guide. The party would then head into St Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace for 2 hours of ‘in depth’ history on the great buildings of Venice. Meanwhile I would sneak off to one of the cafes in the square and enjoy an espresso and another cigarette – I was just so sophisticated!
So let’s get back to those boys! If Italy is the country of romance then Venice is its queen. One thing I did discover that summer is that Italians like red heads. My hair in those days was red, and when the sun shone (which it did all the time) it was shiny and golden. I’m quite ordinary looking, I think my suitors were attracted by my foreign appearance. What I liked about the boys I met was their idea of courtship – it was just so romantic! If they liked the look of a girl in a restaurant for example, a note would arrive at your table (delivered by the waiter) saying that the guy in the corner would be delighted to buy you a drink. You could accept or refuse – no obligation.
Occasionally red roses would appear at the door of my apartment, or a guy in a sports car would turn up and invite me or my room-mate out for dinner. And it was all so innocent. There was no pressure, no assumptions, just chivalry. I have to confess I loved every minute. But then half way through the season I managed to fall in love – with an Italian coach driver called Luciano. He was attentive and caring, he smelled delicious. He took me out on his motor bike, we ate tiny tramezzini sandwiches in the pouring rain in Venice (by then it was August and the thunder storms had arrived). I met his mother and father and was invited to his house for lunch. I was totally besotted. But then I discovered a terrible truth – he was in fact married. I was horrified. I was powerless. I was seriously out of my depth. He claimed that there was no problem, that he was separated from his wife and effectively a free man. I was not convinced. He informed me that his parents loved me – and if I could just master his favourite recipes his mother would be very satisfied to have me as a daughter-in-law.
Hang on, hang on I thought to myself. I’m nineteen years of age. I have a place at Oxford University awaiting me. The world is my oyster. Am I really going to risk all for my ‘Italian Coach Driver’ who, by the way, seems to keep forgetting one small and very significant detail. He’s married!!! It didn’t take me too long to reach the obvious conclusion. I would head back to England in late September and start my studies at Oxford. Which I did. I arrived a bit late in Oxford – completely missing Freshers Week. I did manage – rather riskily – to have Luciano in tow. At the time I was joining an ‘all girls’ college and men were not permitted to stay overnight. I broke that rule on day one. Generally speaking the Italians don’t do well outside Italy and the lovely Luciano was no exception. A few days later he headed back to the Veneto. I was left alone – confused, lonely and sad. Apart from a brief encounter in Paris later the same year the romance was effectively over – it cooled with the change of the seasons as summer drifted into autumn.
Funnily enough a couple of years later I got a postcard from Luciano telling me that he had got divorced eventually and had recently re-married a local Veneto girl with whom he was expecting a child. He also told me that his mother was very happy and loved his new wife. I have to say in all honesty that I was delighted for him and the way that things turned out. He was certainly a key figure in that magical summer of 1980 for me!
- With special thanks to my fellow guides; Anne, Franca, Megan and Nick.
- I adore Venice – I love the people, the art, fashion, food and style. You can read about my Venetian hand-made shoes at: The Shoemaker of Venice
- The area just inland from Venice running up to Padova is called the Riviera del Brenta – ideal for escaping the summer crowds in Venice – you can read more at The Brenta Canal from Venice to Padova – The Brenta is lined by magnificent Palladian villas, each one more flamboyant than its neighbour.
- I run regular tours to Venice and the Veneto – send me an e-mail for dates and further information. Usually April/May and September/October – most years. I recently returned from Venice and I’ll be back there in a month or so.