O Murano, Murano!
Thomas D. Le

A Precipitous Landing

With hotel reservation freshly made in hand, eager light-footed, back-packing globe-trotters from Space City that we were, my wife and I jumped on the boat just outside the Venice Airport terminal ready for our long-awaited destination - the jewel of the North Adriatic Sea, the floating city of poetry in the Laguna de Venezia, the eternal romance that rises from the sea to capture every throbbing heart in this fin-de-siècle world. When our boat stopped at its dock, we charged onto shore with such abandon, enthusiasm, determination, resolve, and purpose that the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 looked like a picnic by comparison.

A Surprise Welcoming Party

After discharging a few passengers and picking up a few more, our boat putt-putted its way to an unknown destination leaving in its wake a sinking feeling in my stomach.

Left on the dock, my wife and I looked around for a few moments, then at each other.

"Where is San Marco Square?" my wife inquired timidly.

I was supposed to be the worldly-wise know-it-all leader of the "expedition," and she always deferred to my superior wisdom - only in foreign land, that is.

If what we saw was Venice, then we were ready to call off our incursion, pick up our toys, and slink back to Paris in a huff. What we saw were a few locals going about their business on the narrow dock, where some small boats were moored, and the waterfront animated by a row of colorful low-slung buildings and shops that displayed glass products, and a few narrow alleys leading off to only God knows where.

What a welcoming party! We were expecting an army of laughing tourists armed with single-lens reflex cameras, instant cameras, digital cameras, analog camcorders, digital camcorders, binoculars, and all the electronic paraphernalia that make up the formidable array of sophisticated weaponry of the modern touring hordes, whose sole purpose in life was to lick ice-cream cones, wolf down artery-clogging snacks, or guzzle down bottled water as if it was the last drop of water on earth.

In a tentative language uttered with a voice inflection that conveyed a great deal of emotional connotations, my wife’s inquiry became a bit more insistent,

"Where is San Marco Square?"

She had seen pictures of San Marco Square, and knew it as a bustling place, a rendezvous of all the polyglot tourists from all continents.

Sage commander that I was I had given the order to launch the amphibious landing. Actually, I did not give a verbal order; I led by example. I led the assault by jumping ashore, and my wife meekly followed.

And now, I had no idea where we were.

The Picture-Perfect Landscape

Unfazed by the totally alien landscape, I was looking for a breakout. Cock-sure of an "illustrious" (really!) military career that consisted of a tour of duty as an English instructor at the Armed Forces Language School, I knew that once an amphibious landing was achieved, the first thing to do was break out of the waterfront in order to gain a foothold in the hinterland beyond. Because that is where the action is.

In lieu of an answer to a hint of the beginning of despair in my wife’s query, I again led the charge. We had to get off the dock area quickly, and into the Piazza di San Marco, which, by my military instinct, surely lay just beyond this uninspiring row of waterfront houses. After all, the rudimentary "map" (sigh!) that the gracious clerk at the airport tourist window gave us clearly showed that St. Mark’s Square could not have been more than a few dozen yards away. And our three-star hotel would be no more than fifty yards beyond that.

Therefore, we sallied forth onto the nearest narrow alley that was hemmed in on both sides by more rows of colorful adobe-type houses. My thoughts immediately likened this vista with the urban landscape of Edward Hopper’s paintings. Simple, vibrant with colors, but otherwise unadorned, these houses looked every inch the epitome of homeliness and coziness. Not a wrong accent placement anywhere among these perfect examples of Old-World charm that delight and enchant.

For a good while we continued our march toward destiny, leaving one twisted alley only to enter another twisted alley. Still the same rows of houses unfolded on our sides, and the sameness with no change in sight finally began to shake me out of my torpor.

I had been living a charmed life since we left the boat. Nothing could hurt us, nothing could worry us, and nothing could scare us. Until now. When the sun had passed its high noon point and started its slow descent toward the horizon, and the scene seemed ominously deserted, I gradually regained my senses, and with as much tenderness as mortification looked at my wife,

"Don’t be upset, honey. I really don’t know where we are. Let’s go back to the dock and ask for directions."

If there is such a thing as a cherubic face, an angelic face, or a divine face, it must be my wife’s at that strategic moment, when her infallible hero admitted defeat.

The Helping Hand

We immediately backtracked, and in no time were standing in front of a small group of men who were eyeing us with ill-hidden amusement. They were the locals whose presence we had spurned on our way in toward destiny. Now they were our potential saviors.

With as much courtesy and grace as lost souls could muster, we approached them smiling,

"Excuse us. We are going to San Marco Plaza. Could you tell us how to get there?"

One of the group, a time-honored man with a healthy tan, looked up, curiosity mingled with pity on his face, while his companions were silently giving us a once-over. They must have seen foolhardy tourists like us before, those alien creatures armed with more funny ideas than sense.

"You must take a boat." the man replied in flawless English.

"Take a boat! Why," I retorted, "I thought St. Mark’s Square is only a short distance away."

Then trying to save a few bucks, I added,

"And we can walk!"

The man patiently explained,

"This is Murano. You have to take a boat to Venice." Then to emphasize his point, "Unless you want to swim!" The expression on his face showed a curious cross between amazement and wonder. We must have seemed to him like egomaniacal souls with a suicidal bent.

Swimming, of course, is out of the question. I couldn't manage to swim more than twenty feet, and I know Yvonne would fare even worse.

Crest-Fallen Disappointment

Our enthusiasm underwent a severe setback. Here we were, ready to take on the old mighty republic that during the Crusades had played a prominent role in supplying and transporting the knights of Christendom to the Holy Land. Yet hours after our arrival at the Venice Airport, it still managed to elude us.

We were like two Tantaluses, who suffered the agonizing punishment of eternal disappointment. The object of our desire was so near, yet so far. And still unreachable. We were so eager to see our beloved city, where Claude Monet came to paint, where Richard Wagner came to die, and from whose infamous Piombi prison across the Bridge of Sighs from the Ducal Palace Casanova escaped to publish an account of it in 1788. Instead, we were still miles away from our destination, and separated by the rippling waters of the beautiful lagoon.

Actually Murano is the manufacturing center of world-renowned glassware. The shop windows exhibited fine specimens of Murano’s master glassblowers, and for a fee, the shopkeepers would ship your purchase anywhere in the world. Murano and its glass manufactures offered a unique opportunity for us to see how beauty was created from silica.

But we were in no mood to linger and admire the artistic glass creations. Our mind was on another famous island. The delayed gratification was bad enough as it was, and we did not want to aggravate the situation any further.

Smooth Sailing

The next boat did not take long to arrive. We carefully inquired about its destination before boarding to make sure that this time around we would not end up on some other island in the multitude of islands dotting the lagoon.

Gone were our morning abandon and recklessness. With the afternoon fast declining we simply could not afford to run around the lagoon looking for Venice. We had to get there early enough to find our hotel. After misreading the "map" (a Xeroxed copy consisting of a few crisscrossing lines and fewer words) that we had been given, I could no longer trust its accuracy, or my military instinct. How much of this instinct there is was clear from the fix we were in. Now we had to be on the alert for anomalous circumstances and any contingencies.

Our boat sailed uneventfully to the next island; a few passengers got off, a few others came on. And this routine went on and on from island to island, to the point where we started to wonder if Venice ever existed at all. It turned out that these vaporetti (as the boats are called) in the Lagoon of Venice are like city buses.

The Living Room of The World

Just as we were getting restless from anticipation, like kids in a candy store who had been told "Don’t touch anything," we saw looming from the starboard side the familiar skyline, still quite a distance away, but unmistakable. Our hearts leaped with joy. The massive façade of the Doge’s palace punctuated with pointed windows over the openwork tracery of the loggia, emerged from the afternoon haze. Behind it rose the onion domes of the Basilica of San Marco. A piece of the Orient had been transplanted to Venice over the centuries as a result of its trade relationship with the Byzantine Empire.

When our boat was finally moored to the dockside, we stepped ashore and crossed the Piazzetta di San Marco to the Piazza di San Marco facing the Basilica. Throngs of tourists filled the square. And the square filled our hearts with unspeakable delight. Ignoring the frenetic activity going on in this huge open space, nicknamed the "living room of the world," we went looking for our hotel.

The hotel search was far from uneventful, but this is another story.

At long last we came out of our hotel into St. Mark’s Square, this time to marvel at the scene, the campanile, the basilica and the Doge’s palace, and also to reflect on the day's events. A sense of peace permeated our souls as Yvonne and I, hand in hand, mingled triumphantly among the crowds.

O Murano, Murano!

Looking back over the brief span of time we spent on Murano, we felt a strange feeling of longing. Somehow that morning’s unanticipated stopover was an excursion into a piece of poetic Venice that left an indelible imprint in our psyche.

O Murano, Murano! Have you a heart that beats with ours from here to eternity?

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