Toilet paper floats past as we wade deep though flood waters in Mestre. I look at my companions Sara and Dinh, and I can see they also recognize precisely what we are walking though. We are well and truly in the merda.
A day earlier our train rushes through Italian countryside. Sara reads a book, but I can’t take my eyes off the landscape; the terraced hills where vineyards rest under blue skies. I fell in love with Italy years earlier, largely through the films of Bertolucci, Antonioni and Fellini. As if I can’t believe it, over and over in my mind, a voice tells me, “I’m in Italy!” That night we eat real Italian margarita pizza in a real Italian café. It’s a perfect day.
I wonder if I’m dreaming when I wake hours later to flashes of lighting across motel curtains, and echoes of thunder. It’s a huge, huge electrical storm. I sigh and fall asleep. Just rain.
In the morning it’s still raining and outside pools of water ebb at the steps of the motel units. Sara and I debate the merits of staying put versus trying to get to Venice. When we discover that, at this point, the buses are still running to Mestre train terminal, we decide to brave the weather.
I hold Sara’s hand. It occurs to me as we reach a flooded intersection and I begin to feel a tide pull against us, that people die in situations like these. How much deeper can it get? Moving forward we meet another tourist - a Vietnamese guy named Dinh who is also staying in the same motel. It’s a relief to see we are not the only ones stupid enough to be walking around in flood water. There is strange comfort in group stupidity. Sara waits on a wall while Dinh and I check out the subway tunnel that ducks under the motorway back to the motel. The ground is higher here, and while I hold out some hope I can see what’s coming. The tunnel is of course completely flooded. The only way back is over a wire fence and across a 4-lane motorway. This seems the least stupid of the available limited options.
I can see Sara is apprehensive about the idea. There is water everywhere. I suddenly regret all the shots of espresso earlier as I realize I desperately need to pee. Shall I try and find somewhere, or just do it in my pants? I look around and realize I’m up to my waist in far worse.
Earlier we get off the bus to find the train terminal completely submerged. By then the buses have also stopped. The rain is getting worse and the water laps against shops. We shelter in a café, along with other wet tourists where I regret not learning Italian 101 and can only seem to order multiple espressos from the unfriendly barista. Sara and I sit in a corner and sip espresso after espresso. After a few hours we decide to walk back to the motel. We make our way down a long tree-lined boulevard, at first only getting our shoes wet, but clearly the water is getting deeper. After a few more metres it’s lapping at our jeans. Of course no one in their right mind would wade into deep flood water, but this is a case of the boiling frog. The water slowly gets deeper and after a while we don’t notice.
“We’re wet already; we might as well keep going.”
So here we are, scaling a wire fence and barriers to reach the motorway. It’s surprisingly busy too; trucks and cars sweep past in rain at breakneck speed. Car horns sound at the three crazed humans making a mad dash across the lanes. Reaching the other side, we drop down an incline and there at last is the motel.
A shower, shuttle ride to another station and late night train ride across the Austrian Alps to the safety of Germany waits. My Italy experience has not been the dream-world of Fellini or Mediterranean beauty of Goddard. It’s been wet, cold, dirty, dangerous and unfriendly. We’ve been covered in soot, grease and who knows what.
What it has been I realize is an adventure, a story, and like my beloved Italian films, something I will remember. Also one day, I will go back. Venice?