Venice

This story follows Florence 2/Pisa in my collection of Italy Stories.

Mark Twain on the alkaki desert in Roughing It:

“The sun beats down with dead, blistering, relentless malignity; the perspiration is welling from every pore in man and beast, but scarily a sign of it finds its way to the surface…”

That’s how I felt about Venice.

Stepping out of the train from Florence, and on to the sizzling concrete and stone landscape, which composes Venice’s walkable portions, was the first of many regrettably hot situations to be experienced over the next two days.

Kay purchased a sun-hat in Rome, but had left it somewhere since then, and so to protect her face from the freckle-inducing sun she was using a map held above her head as a substitute. The hard, flat ground seemed to absorb heat as well as reflect it back at us, so any sliver of shaded space was bumped up to “shelter” status. Small areas of shade would have to do until we could locate our hostel, which was incredibly difficult to find within the watery maze that is Venice, Italy. There are no places for cars to drive or bikes to ride, because the streets are too small and bridges made with stairways are too frequent, so identifying major streets is difficult, and understanding whether the alley or cranny you’re walking through is indeed the same one you’re looking at on your map is near impossible. The only other way to travel is by boating through the waterways, which weave through the city in a manner so random it almost seems deliberately confusing. But we were boatless, and so we navigated, poorly, by foot. I felt like I was a child again, desperately wandering through the Water Temple from Ocarina of Time, and our map was a lazily written Nintendo Power Magazine. Except I really didn’t have access to the map, because it was Kay’s hat at the moment, and so she mostly led the way.

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After many minutes of crossing bridges, and going back and forth down alleys, slouched beneath our belongings, we came across a gate with a sign that read “HOSTEL” in large letters. I didn’t care if this was the particular hostel we’d booked for the night or not, we were staying here. The miserable heat had kept us traveling in silence, and the first words we’d spoken in some time were to the man at the hostel’s front desk.

After confirming that our reservation existed, the young man at the front desk slowly checked us in. He had tanned skin, a scraggly chin goatee, and long curly hair which swelled massively in the humidity, to the point that it had to be tied behind his head in order to be somewhat managable. Perhaps the rest of him was effected by Venice’s hotness as well, because I do not believe he could have completed the check-in process at a slower pace. Every move: reviewing our passports, typing information into the computer,  verbally communicating basic information—paint dried faster than this kid executed his job; cliches about slowness felt fresher and more exciting than watching him complete a task. It was pretty obnoxious, because in this heat every inconvenience was taken personally. Does he truly find this pace of work acceptable, I wondered, has he never seen someone perform a task before? Kay literally rested her head on the check-in counter for several minutes while the clerk sluggishly fuddled through his responsibilities.

Once our goateed friend was satisfied that he had dawdled enough, we received the keys to our room. We’d be sharing a room, just the two of us. There were two twin-sized beds positioned about a foot apart from each other in a small room, along with a dresser, a desk, and a chair. I sprawled out on top of the bed I’d decided was mine with the intention of falling asleep, but it was too hot. But then I noticed: a ceiling fan! It didn’t cool the room, but the new circulation of air was the only reason Kay or I were able to sleep at any point. Sweaty and on top of the thin covers, I slept for a few hours, and woke up when it was finally darker outside.

We left our room to get a better look at the city. Without the abusive sun, Venice was, with all of its disorganized streets and its intersecting little rivers, uniquely beautiful and fun to explore. After a fair amount of walking, Kay and I sat near the cool water on one of the southmost islands (Venice is actually composed of 118 small islands), near the Canal Della Giudecca, and watched the sun finish setting.

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Cool breezes drifted from off the current, and I just enjoyed the forgotten sensation of crisp wind teasing my hair, of it rustling my shirt sleeve. Kay and I sat in a comfortable wordlessness and listened to the sea’s waves waft and crash against themselves. I wanted to be in a boat on this water. I wanted to explore the sea. I wanted to be hauled by a marlin. I wanted to fish. I wished I hadn’t always complained about fishing when my dad used to take me. I wanted to catch a fish with my dad now.

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Eventually Kay and I gave into conversation, and we soon concluded that we’d like to get something to eat. We picked a restaurant at random—chances were, just like all the other restaurants, that its food would be delicious. Kay’s favorite dish is pasta carbonara—essentially an egg, cheese, and bacon pasta. She had it again on this evening, but had trouble finishing and said she started experiencing stomach pains.

“I get this way every couple weeks,” she explained, “It feels like I’m being stabbed in the stomach.”

I didn’t know what I would be able to do to help, and it appeared she was fairly familiar with her abdominal torment, but for whatever reason I asked more questions in case one of her answers sparked something helpful inside me. She clarified that it was not nausea—it was sharp, stabby pain. I didn’t have any brilliant ideas, and she seemed to have things well enough under control by hunching over, groaning, and pressing her hand to her tummy, so I suggested we grab a drink.

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There was a cool-looking pub just down the street from our hostel that I had been wanting to check out all day. When we first passed by in the early afternoon, it was closed, and so I just gazed in through its large windows. It was the only bar I’d seen during my entire stay in Italy that had a variety of beers on tap, instead of just Peroni or other pale lagers, in bottles. We walked into Il Santo Bevitore, and I never wanted to leave. Auburn wood composed the pub’s walls and the bar itself, which was lined with shiny bronze beer taps. Just right of the bar was a large glass shelf full of small sandwiches and hors d’oeuvres. Massive wooden barrels were topped with heavy circles of glass, in order to form tables, which were positioned every couple feet along the walls. High chairs and stools stood on either side of these barrels, and small shaded lamps sat atop the glass surfaces. A Jolly Roger was pinned to the ceiling, as was Great Britain’s flag, as was a large assortment of drink coasters. The pub was a first-class dive. The speakers played an alternating playlist of songs from Stevie Ray Vaughn and the band CAKE. I had found my American Embassy.

I scanned the names on the taps and noticed that his bar was serving a seasonal black IPA called Negra. Black IPAs are my favorite kind of beer, and I had already given up hope that I’d find an Italian-brewed one on this trip. I ordered the Negra, and because of the particular way this pub pours its beers, I waited for a few minutes. First my bartender washed what appeared to be an already-clean glass, dipped it in cool water to slightly chill the glass, and then poured the black brew slowly into the glass from the tap, then stopped, waited for the head to decrease, and slowly poured again. The Il Santo Bevitore took beer seriously. It was “legit,” as the kids say; the “real deal,” as the dads say. This drink and a show costed me a hefty 7€, but it was worth it, as the Negra was far and away the best beer I’d had in weeks. To what might have been the dismay of our wine shop-owning friend in Cinque Terre, I took mouthfuls, not sips, of the beer. I let the thick beer sit in my mouth while I tried to comprehend all of its flavors, before gulping it down.

Kay was still in pain and decided not to drink anything. She didn’t even want to try the heaven sitting in a pint glass right beside her, even though I offered. Kay decided to leave in order to rest back at our hostel, but said she didn’t mind if I came back. Perfect! I wished Kay felt better, but I was glad neither she nor I were going to let her stomach pain keep me from drinking alone in an unfamiliar area of Europe. I finished my drink and walked Kay back to our hostel. As she got ready for bed, I grabbed my journal and my pen, and acquired our room key from Kay.

I was unfamiliar with every beer at Il Santo Bevitore, save for the Negra I had previously drunk, and for Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which felt like an incredibly random choice to be the sole American beer on tap. So I asked the bartender for her recommendation, which led to a long discussion on beer. The bartender’s name was Elisa, and she explained that in order to work at this pub she had to be an “expert” on beer. She asked me about my beer preferences, and I told her I like dark, thick stouts mostly, and that I’d tried the Negra and loved it. Elisa said the Negra was the stoutest beer Il Santo Bevitore sold, and suggested I try a “heavy red ale” next. I agreed to try it, and the beer was served in a stemmed glass, as opposed to a pint glass—here each beer had a particular glass it was meant to be served in!

I remarked to Elisa that this pub really goes the extra mile—I mean, kilometer—when it comes to serving beer. She agreed and handed me a glossy brochure, which explained in Italian, and then in translated English, the way in which and the reason behind why this pub uniquely serves its beers.

Here is the brochure I was given in its [English] entirety, including misplaced commas, inconsistently used question marks, and all other grammatical errors:

WHY COOL PUT NOT COLD

Before passing through the tap and then into the glass the beer is brought to the right serving temperature by passing through temperature controlled environment. The best tasting temperature varies according to the type of beer, the beers at the “Santo Bevitore” pub are correctly served at a temperature of around 10 degrees celsius. Contrary to common belief, which is to serve beer at an ice cold temperature that numbs the taste buds giving the illusion of thirst quenching, it is preferable to serve beer at a temperature that enhances the taste and satisfies the palate, allowing to enjoy a good drink. Colds beers are more so for those who are not curious to know about the true flavours that they are drinking.

WHY DO OUR BEER HAVE A GOOD “HEAD”

A grated apple changes its colour and taste within a few seconds, this is also true about beer. This phenomena is called oxidation, for this not to occur the surface of the beer must be protected by the head, only in this way the tastes are not dispersed or altered.

The more persistent the head, the more it sticks to the glass as you drink it ,the better quality of your beer. For many beers the head has an important ascetic value that is also tied to tradition.

WHY ARE OUR BEERS “FLAT”

Just as the low temperatures suppress taste, the same thing happens when there is an excessive presence of carbon dioxide dissolved in the beer, its strong odour convers all the flavours.

Also nobody likes to have a bloated stomach and as tense as a bagpipe, it is anti-ascetic and annoying.

WHY DO WE WASH OUR GLASSES TWICE?

After the glasses are washed in our dishwasher, before pouring the beer the glass is washed with a special brush in a special detergent and then thoroughly rinsed in cold water.

There is one main reason for this operation. The eventual presence of dust, even dirt in a minimal amount , industrial detergents and limestone inside the glass interfere with the creation of a good head.

WHY DOES A GOOD BEER REQUIRE PATIENCE

Now let’s move on to the draft. In line with the types of beers served (Belgian beers, German beers with slow fermentation) the Santo Bevitore follow the German or Belgian method of drafting. First the glass is partially filled with foam; then it is put aside for at least 5 minutes until the foam lowers before filling the glass .Once the glass is filled the beer level reaches the level marked on the glass and the beer forms a “head” of about 2-4 cm. By drafting in this manner part of the carbon dioxide already found in the beer can be released.In this way the carbonation will not be excessive ,and secondly the reaming carbon dioxide will create the “head” that preserves the beer from oxidation and lastly make a presentable glass of beer.

WHY A GLASS FOR EACH BEER

The Santo Bevitore, respecting the tradition but also keeping a personal attention to the ascetic aspect, has a wide variety of glasses, each glass is dedicated to a different type of beer. The “pils are served in a “flute” that enhances the head of the pale yellow colour; the “trappist” beer is served in an important and open glass for good “meditation” beer…and so on for every other beer a different glass.

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There weren’t many people at the bar, and I liked that the room felt calm and somewhat hidden from tourists and locals alike, like I was in on Venice’s best kept secret. One couple who entered the bar were also from Missouri, and they seemed especially thrilled to be speaking with another American, presumably for the first time in a while. The three of us discussed where we’d each visited so far on our respective Italian adventures, and I ordered a strong trappist ale, at the suggestion of Elisa.

The beer was dark in color, but it wasn’t thick like the Negra, and its taste had hints of fruits and caramel. It was served in a wide-mouthed glass goblet, and I had to be very careful not to spill the head. At this point I mostly talked to Elisa, since there weren’t too many customers to keep her busy. The American couple stayed seated near me at the bar, but went back to talking to each other. Through our conversation, I learned that Elisa was from near Milan, but was living in Venice to attend school. She liked Venice, she said, but getting around could be really difficult, since one’s only options are by foot or boat. She didn’t have a boat, but was saving up for one. I really enjoyed talking with her—she was very smart and polite, and was very interested in beer and giving good beer recommendations. Her English was very good (much better than my Italian), and everything she said came in her small accented voice. With her short red hair, glasses, and small stature, I found her quite cute, but I found her more charming than anything else. I didn’t get any more writing done that evening, the two of us just shot the bull.

Earlier that day the tortoise at the hostel front desk warned Kay and I that the front gate to the hostel would be locked every night at 12:30 AM. Meaning that if you weren’t back within the hostel perimeters by midnight-thirty, you weren’t sleeping there that night. According to my phone, I was going to be locked out of my sauna/bedroom soon, so I told Elisa that I needed to leave, but that I’d be coming back tomorrow with my friend.

“Do you want my number?” she asked, before adding, “in case you get lost?”

“Yes! That would be great,” I said. “My phone doesn’t get service much, but I’ll try to call you if I need it.” I was partially lying. It’s true that my phone doesn’t get much service—in fact, it hadn’t gotten any service since I left Rome. But I wanted her to write down her number for me. She wrote it down on a bar napkin, and then wrote her name beneath it in all capital letters. Her boss poked his head out from a back room and said something in Italian, and she rushed away to the back room.

The woman from Missouri raised an eyebrow at me and said, “Nice job.” I laughed or semi-sarcasitically said “thanks” or bashfully said “thanks” or just blushed, or some combination of all of those things—it is hard to remember, I was in a rush to get to the hostel, and I had had three very strong beers. I said my goodbye to the couple and the three of us took a picture together using the camera on the woman’s phone.

“You might wind up on a blog someday,” the man from Missouri said with a smirk.

“You might too!” I said.

I didn’t know what Elisa giving me her number meant; I never know what anything means. But the discovery of those delicious beers and the napkin in my wallet made me overjoyed, and I basically skipped to the hostel. Though, technically, I did not skip—in fact, I literally ran to the hostel, in order to beat the locking gate. I came “home” to find the lights were still on. To my surprise, Kay was still awake, and apparently feeling better.

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One thought on “Venice

  1. Pingback: Venice 2 | [The website and blog of] Tyler Snodgrass

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