Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Value of Serendipity

I love to plan trips. I love to research them, to find out the interesting places I want to see, the history I want to search out, the unique and the out of the way places that simply need to be visited. On the trip we're taking now, to Italy, I planned eight days worth of tours to learn about everything from volcanic eruptions (Pompeii) to the effects of music on grape vines (Tuscany) to the composition of tuffa stone (Rome) to how to blow glass (Venice). But even more importantly, I planned time for serendipity.

Serendipity in travel is what happens when you're surprised. Either you have to cancel something (we had to cancel a tour of the Amalfi Coast because of one of our members' unforseen carsickness), or you end up receiving unexpected gifts (my sister and I wandered off one day to explore Amalfi). And while I think tours are wonderful, especially the personal kind where you have a guide and all of his knowledge and enthusiasm to yourself, sometimes it's even better to wander off and get lost.

That is what is so wonderful about Venice. Venice is a city to walk. Actually, the only thing you can do—besides take a boat up the canals—is walk. There are no cars, no scooters, no motorized transportation of any kind. I found out why when we were walking down one of the main drags and we saw what looked like tables covered in sheets of heavy wood placed at regular intervals down the street. The strollers tended to sit on them, especially strollers waiting for shoppers(there is a LOT of shopping in Venice). It didn't occur to me that they had another purpose. Until I tried to get into St. Mark's Square.

I made the mistake of going about noon, which, it seems is high tide. As you can see by the picture, it is fairly perilous to try and maneuver St. Mark's during high tide. The city, wisely, has laid out walkways so the tourists can visit the important places: the Cathedral, Florians, and shops.

That was when it dawned on me what all the scaffolding was doing in the middle of the streets. It wasn't only St. Mark's Square that tended to flood.

Which brings me back to serendipity. Because Venice is an island, it is impossible to be lost for long. Although it is amazingly easy to get lost in the first place. The city is ancient, with city planners who obviously followed the seagulls to lay out the grid. There are big streets, little streets, tiny streets, cul-de-sacs, piazzas and a thousand or so churches (you will quickly realize this when it comes time for the Angelus bells to ring). The great thing, though, is that each of those streets is interesting, quaint, picturesque, charming, and full of cafes to rest weary feet in, if not shops.

Stop a while. Get your bearings. Ask for directions. Even if you don't understand them (and as one guide warned us, when asking for directions from an Italian, never listen to the words. Watch the hands. If they say, “A la sinistra”, or to the left, and wave with their right hand. Go right. Trust me), you'll end up having a great interaction. Hand gestures (non-offensive ones, anyway), do quite well to supplant tourist Italian. With hand gestures and my catch all of “Mi dispiace”, which means I'm sorry, and makes everyone feel better, I got a lovely shopkeeper to make me a custom-made necklace for my daughter. And by the end of it, both of us were laughing and happy.

Serendipity. Even if it isn't Venice, give yourself the chance. Schedule in a bit of extra time to get lost. Definitely stop by a little cafe where you only hear the local language and made yourself known. You'd be amazed at how much fun you have. Because as much as I love planned fun, I love the unplanned kind even better.

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