The Man from nowhere

November 23, 2011  •  Leave a Comment

We were sort of lost in Venice. Which, if you have been there, is understandable and probably the default condition for most tourists who are not standing either in front of their hotel or in St Mark's Square.

Venice up close is not as pretty as one would think – or hope. Most of the buildings are seriously shabby on the outside and the natives are almost predatory. I won't easily get used to paying $4.50 for a can of soda and the food just isn't that good, no matter how much it costs.

It was the third day of our visit, the very end of three previously wonderful weeks in Italy and we were pretty much churched out. The highlight of our stay in Venice had been our hotel which was a tiny but glorious place right near St Mark's Square. We had seen all the sights we wanted to see, had visited Peggy Guggenheim's collection and had just learned that all the public workers has scheduled a strike for the next day (no vaporetto) – and we were tired of Venice and wanted to be pretty much anywhere else.

So, enjoying the last day of public transport, we took the #1 vaporetto to the Rialto, crossed the bridge and just started to walk. The maps of Venice are a little misleading; the streets are shown as a little wide and straight. Not so. There are few 'streets' in Venice, there are many alleys between the blank walls of buildings and sometimes those alleys widen from 4 feet to 8 feet for a while for storefronts. Every once in a while, the alley will open into a square and that's often where you will find restaurants, shops, etc. It was heavily overcast and so there was no sun to orient us and we just wandered a bit, disoriented but confident; after all this was an island, we would eventually come to water and we could find a bus stop.

We ended up in a small square with a single restaurant, its chairs arranged out in the street and a menu board propped up on an easel.  There was a single dapper man sitting there drinking coffee and reading, who got up and left as we approached.   Not offput because I was hungry, also my default condition, and so we sat down. The menu board was irrelevant; every restaurant in Venice promises virtually the same food, always the best and the freshest. We were the only customers eating which wasn't really a negative thing; there are about as many restaurants in Venice as there are store fronts and this was, after all, the end of the season.

The waiter was immediate and pleasant and his English was better than my Italian; I speak menu Italian, he spoke tourist English. The simple and fine meal finished, my wife and I were sitting over our drinks; she, hot chocolate, me caffe americano decaffeinato and the waiter drifted over to ask if we wanted anything. Waiters don't rush customers in Italy and, after all, we were an advertisement as long as we sat there.

I asked where he was from; from his accent, he was clearly not Italian. He said that he was from Kurdistan. I am not a historian but I did know that Kurdistan as an independent state had not existed for centuries and their struggle for independence and sovereignty had resulted in several countries defining the Kurds as a terrorist group and doing some bad to terrible things to them. Saddam Hussein has a notable place in Kurdish history for killing 5000 Kurds in one day - poison gas, biological weapons or simply running them down with tanks.

I asked him to say something in a native Kurdish language; he did and then, somehow incited by my question, still standing by the table he launched into a history of the Kurds, indenting with his finger nail on the tablecloth as a map to show the Kurdish homelands in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. In a growing excitement, he was quickly beyond his English and he spoke fluently, fervently in Italian for perhaps 15 minutes, drawing and redrawing on the table, showing with crossed hands how he had been arrested, pounding his fist into his hand as he talked of repression, waving his hands in the air as he talked of trying to have a country.

As much as I could get the general ideas of what he was saying, in pauses, would bring my wife up to date.

Each time, he would wait until I was done speaking and then continue. Eventually, he wound down and he looked, back and forth at each of us, expecting us to say something, what I don't know.

I asked if his family was here; he replied his wife was here, his mother and father were, he tapped on a spot on the table cloth map, in Syria.

Just then another tourist couple wandered into the square and, perhaps encouraged by the fact that we were sitting there and not writhing in food induced ptomaine, sat down. He straightened up to again become the pleasant, smiling anonymous waiter.

My wife and I sat for a few minutes longer, pretty much speechless.  I had previously asked for the bill and, leaving money in the tray we got up to leave.  The waiter returned to the table, we shook hands and he said goodbye.

Before we turned into the calle that leads, with some twisting, to the Rialto bridge, I looked back. He had already taken the dishes to the kitchen and returned, As I watched he whisked away our table napkins and the tablecloth and the map of Kurdistan, drawn with the nail of his forefinger, disappeared.

 


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