My First Night in Venice

This is a story from about exactly a year back. It was a dark evening. My family and I were on a train which departed Florence earlier that evening, and it was around 7 pm. The train ride was quite wonderful and the views on both sides were immaculate. We were on our way to Venice!

On the train to Venice.
On the train to Venice.

Damn, was it surreal when were first got off the train on to the platform. The station’s atmosphere possessed a beautiful calm, one which was eluded in train stations of India, and all four of us were excited for our next three days there.

That was exactly where the excitement and thrill started. We were booked to stay in a house somewhere in the north-west of the island, near the seaside. Our landlord had informed us that it would be very easy to get there – we had to get on a vaporetti in front of the station (they have boats in Venice instead of metro trains for public transport) and get off at a station called ‘Bacini’ and the house was just about 5 minutes walking from there. Sounds easy enough? We were obviously new to the island and knew no Italian. It seemed like the only and best option.

…and it was. Until we learnt that – surprise, surprise – there was a vaporetti strike that day. “What the hell? How do we get to the house now? Let’s call up the landlord and ask for his advice.” But wait, the strike wasn’t the only surprise that night. When we tried to call the landlord, we also learnt that my dad’s phone very conveniently stopped working. Wow, were we pissed off and scared, at the same time. No one in the island was known to us, we didn’t know the language, it was freaking dark and the one known means of transportation to our house was on strike. To top it all off, it started drizzling and it looked like it was going to pour. Great start to the trip, right?

What did we do then? The only thing we could – we started walking. Thank goodness there were public payphones everywhere. We quickly got to one and searched up the landlord’s phone number from the reservation documents we had on us. Also, thankfully the phone had an English language option, so we weren’t left in the dark (literally) about how to use it. After a little figuring out as to how it works, we managed to call up the landlord. He said that since the vaporetti is on strike, we’d have to walk. He gave us the name of a landmark, Ospedale SS. Giovanni e Paolo. Confusing as it was, he told us to search for ‘the Ospedale’. Relieved that we had a little more information in hand now, we started walking again and constantly asking people for directions to the Ospedale. It was all going well – until we asked this one man on a street corner, chilling and sipping his coffee, as to where the Ospedale was. His reply confused us further – “There are two Ospedales in Venice! Which one do you want to go to?” Great, so now all we knew was that our house was near a hospital. Thankfully, my dad remembered the name of the one we were meaning to go to (trust me, it sounds easy written but when we heard it from our landlord in his thick Italian accent over the phone, it was a challenge to remember it). We were on our way again!

You know, European cities are a lot different than Indian ones. Not just in appearance, but also in their working. I noticed this in a lot of European cities I went to. In Paris, shops opened in the morning at 10 am. Closed in the evening at 6 pm. In Nuremberg in Germany, it was a similar story. Since it wasn’t much of a tourist town, the markets closed half day on Saturdays and remained closed on Sundays. In Venice, it was even worse. The entire city shuts off around 6 – 7 pm. That night we were walking in Venice, trying to reach the house where we could finally spend the night at, it was dark. It was raining. The streets in Venice are also very narrow – they looked scary. Barely any establishments were open. Continuously asking for direction to the Giovanni e Paolo Ospedale, we kept walking in the rain – all of our luggage in tow. That was also when one of our bags’ wheels decided to give way and break due to all the rough rolling on the streets. The night was still young.

Eventually, we reached the Ospedale. It was so grand and enormous. It was made entirely of rock, and looked ancient. Even though the next day I learnt that it was a beautiful structure outside of which small kids played around and ate gelatos, it looked incredibly creepy at night and in the rain. More so because I knew it was a hospital. So once we were there, we had no idea what to do. The landlord had just given us instructions to come to the Giovanni Paolo Ospedale. What do we do now?

We saw that there was one restaurant which was open. We tried entering it and asking for help, but there were barely any people inside. One man, bald as a ball and quite plump, came up to us and tried conversing with us and enquiring as to where we needed to go. He knew no English, and we knew no Italian. He seemed to start giving instructions to come inside and follow him, and that was when my mum told my dad in Hindi “Yeh ek theek aadmi nahi lag raha hai.” (he doesn’t seem to mean well.). I sort of thought that as well, and I can’t blame her – I’d seen way too many movies to hypothesise where we might end up if we followed him. So we just stood there for about 10 minutes, trying to figure out what to do. The payphone nearby didn’t seem to work (nothing in that city was working properly that night, was it?). The creepy Italian man came back, this time with a phone. He made a call to someone, and spoke in Italian. Turns out he figured out that we had to stay with that particular landlord (maybe his house was popular with tourists in that area?) and informed us that the landlord was coming to pick us up.

The landlord arrived. He was bald as a ball too and really tall and slightly lean. At first, he seemed quite scary too, especially since he was taking us to a house which was owned by him. Turns out he was a nice guy though. We kept walking through smaller and smaller walkways/streets until we finally reached the house. How relieved we were!

The house was nice. It had a nice kitchen/dining area where we could cook and eat. No one was in the mood of cooking that night though. We were all hungry. My dad and I decided to step out and look around for a place to grab some stuff to eat for all of us. We found this one pizza place which looked nice which was also thankfully near the house. We ordered two pizzas (they were HUGE) and set off back ‘home’. I had such good sleep that night, knowing that I was safe within the walls of the house.

And that’s how was My First Night in Venice.

How the German Exchange Programme changed my perspective.

Sometime around the beginning of 2011, I learnt that I was selected to be part of the group that was participating in that year’s exchange programme with Germany. The programme was a cultural as well as scientific one and the goal was to conduct research on the various uses and implications of spices in different cultures. At the same time, through a three-week home stay with a German host family, we were to learn about their culture and ways of life. Without thinking twice, I accepted the offer and it was a decision which I have not even once regretted.

In the month of April that year, we conducted research on spices; spending two weeks visiting various research centres and institutes in Bangalore to understand the ways spices are used in our culture. We ended up learning a lot more than we expected and the next step was to document our research in a way that could be presented at the partner school in Germany. We were divided into groups and were asked to create a PowerPoint presentation on the topic we had been assigned. My group was to create a presentation documenting the use of spices in different cuisines and my teammates and I spent about a month’s time reading and learning about the same, while creating the presentation together.

However, the major part of the journey started when we landed at Frankfurt on the 29th of June. We boarded a bus to the town our partner school was situated in – Lauf a.d. Pegnitz – and it was there I met my exchange partner and his family for the first time. Living away from my family and staying with another one in another country was something I hadn’t ever imagined myself doing! The prospect of living with a family I had never met before was very scary at first, but eventually we developed a strong relationship and I started counting my remaining days there.

The new surroundings were very strange at first. I had to get adjusted to a new time zone, new people, a new school, new food and a new house all at the same time! My host family was very welcoming and that made a lot of difference to the way I adjusted there. I made a lot of new friends and through the many conversations I had with them, I realised that everywhere, there are so many different opinions and thoughts! It was also very surprising to see that even in a different country 7000 kilometres away, all of us thought in very similar ways and had very similar moral grounds. I realised that even in different cultures the underlying thoughts and ideas are the same but we all just express them in different ways.

The German part of the project involved the 42 of us (21 Indian students and 21 German students) attending school as well as travelling to various places in Germany to learn about spices from a different perspective. At the same time, I was experiencing a new culture and a new lifestyle. School there was quite different from what I was used to back at home, and it took a while to get used to. Concurrently I was learning to be independent. I started developing a new interest in learning about things and made every effort to grasp as much as I could during my time there. I became very interested in travelling – and our group’s excursions to different towns only fuelled that desire further. I became globalised and ready to take on any challenge thrown at me.

I understood that in this day and age of immense competition and globalisation, without having a can-do attitude and being able to adjust to any environment, it is difficult to gain success. After the exchange programme got over, I found a completely new me – ready to adjust anywhere and also ready to make strong relationships with people I can connect with. I also started travelling a lot; visiting my host family in Germany, going to France and exploring the North Indian countryside in 2012 and visiting Italy in 2013. Everywhere I go now, I look at things in new light. Every situation and place has now become a new opportunity to learn.