The man came rushing toward us across the piazza at a dead run, hissing curses at every breath and pulling back his clenched fist as he drew near. My husband stepped forward and assumed a position to engage him.
“No, don't!” I shrieked, not knowing to which man I spoke, and threw myself in front of my husband with trembling hands raised, as though taking a bullet. “Stop!”
But the bartender ignored my plea and swung above my head. We simultaneously dodged his maneuver in opposite directions, but he wasted no time in regaining his footing and clasping my husband by the collar of his shirt. He was red in the face and spitting profanities as his arm curled back for another punch.
“Leave him alone!” I cried, and threw my weight at him with as much force as I could muster. He staggered a moment, and seemed to see me for the first time. “I said stop!” I cried again, and spat out a few English curses of my own.
“Okay!” our attacker cried breathlessly, taking two steps back. He heaved and panted, seemingly caught somewhere between rage and disbelief. “Okay,” he repeated, before raising his finger and rambling something no less colorful than before. I tugged at my husband's elbow, and we steadily began to back away, making for the nearest ally. A brief review of our surroundings revealed that we had caught the attention of a crowd of bystanders, now muttering with shocked expressions amongst themselves. I was melting into my boots.
We had romantic visions of a Christmas holiday strolling through the winding canals, absorbing ourselves in the ambience of lamplit waterways and the Venetian Gothic. We had no interest in boxing that Christmas eve, when our relaxed tour took a rather adventurous turn- over something as simple as a toilet.
Is there an unwritten law that Venetian bathrooms are reserved only for people who buy something? It certainly seemed to be the case then; overcome by an urgent need for relief, my husband began scouting for the nearest facility. We were immediately turned away with what seemed to be the most popular phrase in town: “riservato per i clienti,” customers only. Several miles away from our hotel with only a euro between us after lunch, paying seven bucks for coffee hardly justified a trip to the restroom. After being dismissed by four restaurants and a pub, the only bar advertising Eur 1.10 for a cappuccino looked especially attractive, in spite of it's dingy and rather crusted interior. Yet while the thick-necked, burly bartender stooped over the coffee machine, my husband slipped back out of the bathroom not more than 30 seconds after going in.
“Forget it.” He said under his breath. “It's dirty, and there's not even a toilet- just a hole in the floor. We're close enough to the hotel now, let's just go.”
“Oh!” shouted the barman as we exited, and ensued our encounter in the piazza. It was enough to dampen even the most festive mood, and a combination of embarrassment and guilt hung over our heads like the evening fog on the water. All the charm and decoration of the city only seemed to remind us that something untoward had happened that day, taunting us with a show of lovely things. Every passer-by looked as if they had seen us, as if they had been there muttering disapproving things. We sighed together and tried to think of other things.
“You know...” My husband finally put in. “Maybe I should just go back and apologize. I mean, it's Christmas, after all.”
We sought our way back through the meandering streets, struggling to navigate a labyrinthine path through fog and waning light. But coming upon the bar and its piazza, the surroundings were unmistakably familiar, as was the lone character inside.
“Why don't you wait outside,” My husband suggested.
I watched from the street as he went in, and approached the startled barman. In what was typical of Italian gesticulation, I read the man's reaction in phases: surprise, acceptance, apology, and gratitude. He held up his hands in a gesture of refusal as my husband laid a euro on the counter for the coffee he never drank. The man shook his head but smiled and offered his hand. They shook, and he smiled generously and waved goodbye.
He called after us as we walked off,