The irritating little Spaniard followed me onto the traghetto near dawn and we crossed the Grand Canal to the markets at Rialto.
“I’m like your codega, amigo!” He told me again.
“You know, I really don’t want you following me around again today.”
In Venice Italy the codega was a professional guide, an escort, protector, guide and storyteller for the wealthier class of the medieval and Renaissance Republic. The codega met the visitor or merchant or nobleman at the docks and guided them by lamplight through the city streets, warding off thieves and ghosts and demons until the traveler was safe inside.
“No te preocupes, amigo. It’s good to have a friend.”
“But I don’t want you to be my friend.”
“After I take you to the market, I will take you to Da Mori Bar,” he said and tugged on my jacket.
“You’re not taking me to the market.”
“Da Mori is where the gondolieri make lubrication of their throat chords. Then I will take you to San Pantalon to see the paint….”
“Listening to you is like watching paint dry, actually.”
~ ~ ~
The whole point of coming to Venice was to spend a few days alone, wandering the back streets and alleyways, looking into the nooks and crannies of the city, eating, drinking, writing and, taking pictures and forgetting someone.
“You don’t want to get lost,” the Spaniard told me when I said I wouldn’t be needing a codega.
“I DO want to get lost. That is why I came here – and if I’d wanted a circus, I would have come in the summer.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t let you get lost.”
Henry James said that “Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors. “ I could not agree more. In this case, the most disagreeable thing in Venice was this small, balding enigmatic man in purple jeans, white sneakers and a black and white checkered flannel shirt. He had overdone it with the splash cologne.
I think he wanted something from me I wasn’t about to give him. But that wasn’t the real problem; the real problem was that he just wouldn’t shut the hell up.
“I know everything about Venice Italy. And I will tell you everything I know.”
It was November. The air was wet and chilly and the city was covered in a creeping cappuccino-scented mist every single morning. The sky across the lagoon was so gray that most of the time you couldn’t find the rim where the water met the air. Most days, it wasn’t until just after noon before the sun was able to burn the fog away.
I had found an extremely affordable place to stay on a site like this right in the center where I could go almost anywhere on foot.
Below my room was a clean little café/bar where they served light single-origin espressos and time and a sweet, fizzy red wine in the afternoons. Unfortunately, on my very first day there, the Spaniard had found me, drinking a beer. I made the mistake of being nice.
“You need a friend,” he told me. “I am your friend.”
~ ~ ~
I scrambled off the boat before he could grab his camera bag and dove into the 700 year-old fresh food market Campo de la Pescaria, packed with shuffling shoppers in heavy, ankle-length coats.
Late Medieval visitors to the city were stunned by the variety of products in Venice’s markets. At the time Venice was the most urbanized area in Europe. There were sacks of spices from the east, food-stuffs that never reached other areas of Europe and clothing and adornments that screamed out the bizarre affluence of a city build on sticks in the mud.
Venice had access to things the rest of Europe had only heard about. From about 1100 AD on, the Venetians grabbed hold of one little island after another. They took this harbor and that. Before long they were in control of places like Corfu and Crete and Cyprus and held cities from the Lebanese Coast to the Black Sea.
Venice was a bully, a remorseless conqueror, exacting a terrible cost on anyone who stood in the way of the republic’s goal of complete monopoly over all their maritime trade routes.
“Once did she hold the gorgeous East in fee, and was the safeguard of the West,” wrote William Wordsworth.
The Spaniard was rather a bully and he caught up to me and began blabbing some nonsense about dancing and partying all night and that he wanted to take me to all the clubs….
~ ~ ~
I waded into the produce stands of the market. The Sant’Erasmo vegetables being most famous. Sant’Erasmo is a market-gardening island north of the Lido and the home of famous miniature purple artichokes called castraure. I made my way slowly through the beets, the bell peppers, the white asparagus, the red chicory and boxes of tomatoes that seemed to be already out of season. All the while keeping my head down and trying to simply disappear into the crowd.
I had had enough.
My “codega” had followed me to Burano on the second day and somehow turned up where I was watching a glass-blowing master on Murano the day after that.
He blabbered incessantly. “Do you know that….” “One time, amigo, I was….”, “Look at the ….”
Who was this guy and why had he decided to latch on to me?
The fourth day I had planned to visit a bunch of Venetian gardens but when he offered to tag along I hid in my room most of the day and he waited in the cafe below.
I dropped behind a pile of leafy greens and knelt down then scurried between the legs of shoppers. An old me kicked at me but I could see the Spaniard going off in the wrong direction. I could see him prowling the rows of stands for me.
I snuck out the back and dashed up the street.
The Pescaria caught up my nose and, looking over my shoulder, I headed that way. Once inside the white arched doorways of the pavilion I went straight away to look over the mucous-y piles of baby octopus, the inky squids and spidery crabs. Much of the fish was caught there in the lagoon. Even more of it had been flown in from Asia. For the moment, I had forgotten my codega. I felt more relaxed and turned down Ruga degli Speziale, where all the spice vendors used to sell goods from warmer lands.
Inside the Drogheria Mascari my glasses fogged up. I wiped them on my shirt and put them on just in time to see the Spaniard walk
past and turn on to Calle San Mattio.
He appeared to have given up and was on his way out of the area.
When I was sure he was gone I sat for an espresso then passed the late morning wandering down alley after alley, stopping at this osteria or that for coffee, then wine then fried polenta and later a crispy battered fish and beer.
I was finally happy – and I never saw him again.
In the evening gondoliers waited in the cold for the Japanese tourists. They were under-dressed and they bounced up and down in their shoes to keep warm. I walked past them to my door and the fog came back.
From my warm room I could see across the canal and all the twinkling lights of cozy little trattoria.
Now this is what I wanted, I thought. And it was.