I turned left, two marble steps down, and found myself looking at a row of small shops. I could close my eyes and pretend to be in Venice. The same string of arches framed the buildings on the canal edge, but this canal had no gondolas, and the buildings could use a fresh coat of paint.
Colorful wooden boats tied and left bobbing in groups of two or three didn’t look like they would be up for adventure or romance anytime soon. The rest of the boats, modest in appearance, were moored casually without any obvious order. Only a few had a small engine.
Where was everybody? My steps against the stone sidewalk sounded like the clippity-cloppity of a horse.
Oh, of course, siesta time. How about that? I picked the perfect time slot to stroll the town looking for something to do. If a foreign nation ever wanted to invade Italy without a fight, siesta hours would do the trick.
I walked, keeping my eyes focused on the opposite bank of the canal, searching for the palazzo, and nearly tripping on a chair occupied by an old woman.
“Oh, scusi, scusi, so sorry I wasn’t paying attention.”
She raised her head from what she was doing. Her face was weathered but her eyes reminded me of the pale blue eyes of a kitten, the same sense of wonderment minus the neediness. Her nod acknowledged my presence. I stood next to her awkwardly, staring at her hands.
A bundle like a rolled-up fat towel was on her lap, a white piece of lace pinned to it. Her fingers moved so quickly it took me a while to realize she held a needle between the fingers of her right hand. Her left hand pulled a white thread. It all went on with incredible speed and precision. Did she sense my curiosity? With another nod, she pointed me to the old wooden chair with a straw seat next to hers. My mother had inherited some old chairs like these from her mother. I wondered which relative claimed them after Mom’s death.
“Where are you from?” She spoke without interrupting her work.
“Son Veneta. I’m from the Veneto region.” I said it in the Venetian dialect, on purpose.
“You may be Veneta by birth, but you aren’t from around here,” was her shocking answer.
“How can you tell?” I laughed it off.
She pointed to the folded napkin sticking out of my pocket. A precautionary measure, in case of unplanned nature call. The logo from the restaurant where I purchased my cappuccino and cornetto was blatantly obvious. “Tourist’s spot,” she said with disdain.
Observant old devil.
“What are you doing? Your fingers move so fast, and yet I can’t see any progress.”
“Lace.” Not the talkative type.
“Oh, you mean like Burano lace?” I had a tablecloth back home with delicate panels of the exquisite lace.
“Look around,” she said. “Does this place look like Burano?”
I’d never been to the little isle outside Venice, but, seeing her so miffed, I dropped the subject. The stores on either side looked closed. The business behind us had the original look of the old buildings—no new glass front, no fancy windows or elaborate displays. A plain old door, bottom half of wood, glass upper half with a lace curtain that looked handmade. The work of my brooding new friend?
“You’re right. I’m not from around here.” A little diplomacy to smooth things over.
She ignored me.
I thought perhaps it was time to go back to the condo. The quiet of the early afternoon felt surreal, with the shy autumn sun reflecting on the peaceful canal and no one but the two of us there to enjoy it. We might not be able to turn back the hands of time, but in that place it felt very much as if time had stood still.
I gave another try at conversation. “Those are such colorful old boats.”
“Excuse me?” Was she insulting me? I had no idea what the word meant.
“That’s what the old fish boats are called—bragossi, mostly used for boat parades, tourist photos, and struggling artists practicing their talents. The boats look so colorful because they are made of wood, and are often repainted in those basic, vivid colors: red, blue, and yellow.” She glanced sideways at me. “It’s all about money, and tourists bring money. We have to adapt our ways to meet tourists’ expectations.”
“Oh, I see what you mean. That makes sense. I’m trying to remember Chioggia as it was when I visited. We stayed here in town, and my mom would ride the bike to Sottomarina. I would sit in the front. But those days are in the past, maybe forty-five years ago. I can’t even tell where we stayed. I do remember that the building was about four stories high. There were narrow corridors between the buildings with laundry hanging from balconies and kids playing in the streets, kids without shoes, in shorts, eating juicy watermelon.”
As I spoke my memories came alive and carried me back. “It was hot, must have been summer, a sticky hot. Mom had a wet towel and she would wipe my face often. The apartments had no doors. Instead there were curtains made with strings of wooden beads that clicked like castanets when you walked through. And the smell of fried fish ruled the world.” I snapped out of my trance-like state, looked at my new companion and shrugged.
The old woman looked at me with—fondness? “Tende antimosche.”
“Oh! Curtains anti-flies? You mean those beaded strings they used to keep out flies when it was too hot to keep the doors closed.” Italian-style screens?
She interrupted her work, and some of the wonderment faded from her eyes. Her face softened. She reached out and covered my hand with hers while her other hand caught a rebellious tear channeling between furrows. “That world is still here, cara mia, but a little farther from the tourist area. If you stay far away from Corso del Popolo and Canal Vega, you’re bound to find yourself in the middle of your memories. Sooner or later. I misjudged you. Welcome back.”