The heavy August sun shines over the Ponte Scalzi as tourists pose for photos with the glittering water and picaresque boats skimming across its surface behind them. Squinting in the bright, unrelenting sunlight that cast shadows across their faces, they bare their teeth at the cameras and grin. Further down along the Grand Canal, families order gelato in broken Italian, puzzle over maps and argue that the bridge they just crossed was definitely not the Realto… was it? Toddlers chase pigeons in the shadows of San Marco, whilst their parents watch from the neat little tables that line the piazza served by dapper white-suited waiters.
Further away from the heaving streets of tourists that cluster along the Grand Canal, which the outsiders follow in case they get lost, like a string leading them through a labyrinth, Venetians go about their day relatively uninterrupted by the press of crowds or the oppressive heat. Used to it all by now, they wave all problems aside with an extravagant hand gesture and a “Va bene”, stubbornly clinging on to this ridiculous, sinking, beautiful bit of land that has flourished so improbably.
But where am I in this picture?
Go back to Venezia Santa Lucia train station. Walk outside, and savour that first view of Venice. It’s exactly like the postcards, isn’t it? Now cross the Scalzi bridge and go up an alleyway and there, on your left, inside a hostel, you’ll find me. Am I having a siesta perhaps, or rushing back to my dormitory to grab some much-needed euros? No. I’ m the one sitting on the welcome desk, staring out the window, bored out of my skull.
Everyday new tourists would come and go. They’d arrive at all hours, and I’d be there, at that same desk, day or night, ready to check them in. They’d stay for a few days mostly, see all the sights, tick the boxes, and then head off to Milan or Florence or Rome. Meanwhile, I sat at the welcome desk, following a rotating fan in a wheelie chair. The owner of the hostel – a genuine madman – played Dutch house music on repeat and demanded that I write threatening responses in my native English to any bad reviews that we got online. He followed these reviews religiously, and then flew into an unholy rage at any piece of criticism. “They ask for so many deposits, I felt like they were trying to screw money out of me all the time,” wrote Sean from Austin, Texas, incurring a tirade of abuse even from the other side of the world. “Excellent location!” Faye from Perth began promisingly, “but the signs everywhere, and all the endless lists of rules, made me feel like I was in a prison camp.” In response to this the owner, with no sense of irony, ordered that I re-write all his lists of rules – which do indeed line every wall and surface with information about curfews, cleaning the kitchen surfaces and yes, even the numerous deposits payable – into one super list that takes up four sheets of A4. I’m pretty sure that most prisons have less rules than this one hostel, but keep quiet.
In agreeing to work at this hostel in exchange for staying for free, I’d unwittingly become the hostel’s prisoner. By wanting to be able to spend longer in Venice, I fell into not being able to see any of Venice at all, except when the madman sent me out on errands and I could feign having got lost rather than return immediately. But the odd stolen espresso or hurried foray into a mask shop didn’t make up for the hours of tedium sat at that desk, wishing that I was outside, so near and yet so far from the tourist scramble.
After a fortnight, a friend emailed me saying she was going to go stay with these American guys she’d just met who lived near Lake Garda. Did I want to go with her so she didn’t get murdered?
I chose possible murder over my current state of imprisonment and left, deciding that to be not seeing Venice while not in Venice was definitely preferable to not seeing Venice, in Venice.
Apparently if you go to the hostel now, you can read a new sign on one of the walls. It says “Guests can stay for free in exchange for work.” I do not recommend you read it.