I’m going to leave Macedonia a kinder person.
I realized that more and more each day while I was in Venice a week ago.
Now before you go thinking it’s all champagne and caviar here in the Peace Corps, the roundtrip flight was about 30 euros with a buy one, get one free seat sale on Wizzair. Oh and we slept in a tent at our hostel all week. (AKA keep those care packages coming. The Swedish fish stockpile is depleted.) My friend and sitemate, Iris, made the trip with me on a whim after we saw the sale.
I didn’t think Turkey could be topped – and I’m not saying it was – but it was a really different experience traveling with another volunteer.
The sweet Dutch girl who shared our tent at the hostel said when we first arrived we were weaving between Macedonian and English every other sentence. It was funny, because neither of us realized how much Macedonian has become a part of our everyday conversations. It was also neat to use it out of country to have private conversations, like saying something was too expensive in front of a shopkeeper. (Or, full disclosure, talking about attractive Italians.) When traveling, English is common. Macedonian? Yeah, you guessed it.
We spent our first night following the advice of every travel blog and article I’d read: we got lost.
We wandered around the city, around corners and across bridges and through narrow corridors. We snagged slices of spinach and ricotta pizza the size of my face for dinner and strolled till we found somewhere to sit along the water. An American flag hanging in an alleyway caught my eye, so we turned an ended up in one of the many nooks (or maybe it was a cranny?) the city boasts.
We had front row seats to a stunning sunset as gondolas and other boats floated by. We waved every time a ferry came by with tourists hanging over the side taking video.
We also had gelato – twice. (Green mint chip, oh how I’ve missed you!)
We dedicated Thursday to exploring the city with a few sites in mind. (I googled lists of what we could see and do for free. #helpmeImpoor). We tracked down the snail staircase, made our way into the Jewish ghetto and sat along the canal for a glass (or two) or prosecco.
Did I mention the weather was sweltering all week? I sweated through my clothes before I left my tent every morning. A lot of our days balanced between exploring and cooling off. Luckily Venice has fountains all over the city where we refilled our water bottles every sighting. Iris was also the perfect travel partner, up for exploring, but equally as content to just sit along the canal and daydream. (She was also a saint in tolerating the couple days I brought along my DSLR and let my tourist flag fly.)
We had planned on heading home early and having a glass of wine by the pool (our hostel was basically a summer camp) but decided to stay and watch the sunset first. On our way to pick a spot under one of the bridges we crossed every day, Lucciana heard us talking and invited us to join her English practice group. They meet once a week for English conversations.
Iris and I didn’t even bother looking at each other for confirmation. We just laughed and let her lead us toward a nearby café, where she introduced us to the gang. Hours later, we caught the last bus out to our hostel, but not before making plans to keep in touch with the Venetian crew.
Their eagerness to learn was so encouraging. We all sat along the canal together so there were several conversations happening concurrently, but I rarely heard any of them slide back into Italian just because they weren’t talking to me or Iris or Steffano, an English teacher who is the unofficial leader of the group. One man told me listening to me was like listening to TV. I sounded just like the American accents he has heard in the programs he likes. Several also noted gratefully that I spoke clearly and slowly.
It wasn’t intentional, but I guess teacher mode switched on. I also know how much easier it is for me to speak Macedonian when the person slows down and enunciates.
Meeting them was a gift. They were kind, excited to chat with us, and gave us great insight about Venice. (They also patiently answered all the questions I had planned to ask Google. The canal? It’s anywhere from one meter to 20 meters at its deepest point. About 56,000 people live there, but many commute in and out for work. It’s so clean because the trash crews come around every night, but some old school residents still periodically toss trash into the canal.)
Friday, we decided we wanted to wake up for the sunrise. Our hostel was about 15 minutes by bus outside of Venice, so we wandered to a clearing with a good view and sat on the sidewalk to take it in. After a bit more rest, we started our day with espresso and a pastry at a café on the way into the city. One of our friends from the conversation group said a real Italian girl has her coffee standing at the counter, so Iris and I pretty much have dual citizenship now. Then we spent the day in Verona, home to the Romeo and Juliet balcony.
We accidentally got off at the wrong train station, but it was a happy mistake that led to some fun wandering and a 1 euro tour of an old Roman theatre. We eventually found the famed balcony, but not before a lime and ginger gelato for me and a passion fruit for Iris. (We planned each day around gelato consumption.)
The balcony was neat, but it was buzzing with tourists. I loved the graffiti walls, but apparently the caretakers don’t. They had signs posted asking star-crossed letter writers to leave notes instead. I was also confused by a line of people waiting to take photos with a statue of Juliet. They all posed with one hand on her breast.
Now it’s been a while since the last time I read any Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet was way back in my freshman year of high school, but I didn’t remember that part of the story. Another Venetian friend later explained that it’s some sort of lucky thing people started doing over the years. We didn’t.
As we made our way back to the train station, we found the last big Verona site: a smaller version of the Colosseum. Our Venetian friends told us it was a must see, and it’s better preserved than the big one in Rome.
We spent our evening back at the hostel, where one of the friends we met put on an impromptu magic show for us and the hostel threw a late night pool party. (Summer camp for adults, seriously.)
Saturday was Fourth of July, so Iris and I started our day riding bald eagles over the city and shooting off fireworks. And by that I mean, I wore my American flag bandana and we took a ferry to the islands.
Murano is known for its glass, so we went to a glass blowing demonstration where I just stared in awe. The glass artist made a glass horse in less than 60 seconds and impressed me with every step of an elaborate vase. I bought a tiny glass penguin.
The best part of Murano for me though, was a family we met while taking a sun escape break at one of the canal-side cafes. They were from LA, like Iris, and more importantly, they spoke English, so we chatted for a while. They were such a refreshing part of our trip. It was really encouraging to us to share Macedonia with them and hear the positive experience it has been so far. So often, when volunteers get together, it’s easy to focus on the frustrations, but throughout the entire trip, Iris and I felt like a mobile tourism bureau. There are certainly tough moments, but overall we love it here. Macedonia is home. Talking to this sweet family really reminded us of that. They also overwhelmed us with their kindness, genuine interest in our service and their offer to send a care package if we had any needs. Just the offer was touching. Iris is planning to bring them some ajvar when she visits home next month.
We checked out one of the oldest churches with beautiful stonework and gold leaf and then we headed off to Burano, which may have been my favorite stop of the trip. Each house was a different, vibrant, smile-inducing color. Walking down the street was just simply, happy.
One of the shopkeepers recommended a good place for seafood that wouldn’t bankrupt our volunteer budgets and it was worth every penny. If there hadn’t been bread to sop up every drop, I probably would have licked my plate. (I’m glad I didn’t because we saw our LA family again just as we were finishing our meal.) The same shopkeeper also pointed out a spot where Burano-ans swim, so rather than hopping on another ferry to get to the beach, we just hopped into the water where we were. We were the only swimmers, but that only added to the experience. Then, because it’s just how the day was going, we ran into the LA family one more time.
After seeing them at lunch, we half expected them to just cannon ball into the water next to us, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when they strolled by as we were drying off for one more hello. This time we laughed and said, “see you later.”
Our last night in Venice, we met up with a guy I met through couchsurfing for an incredible tour of the city. We went through areas Iris and I had already explored, but he was able to point out details and history that I never would have noticed or known. I could write an entire blog post just on the details he narrated from a single column in Piazza San Marco or the back story on the clock or the Bridge of Sighs. And he gives tours just for fun, because he gets to rediscover the magic of Venice through the eyes of his guests. So neat, right?
We topped off the evening with a passion fruit prosecco drink that I’m already trying to import to Macedonia and then had our last night in our tent. Sunday left little time for anything but figuring out the bus schedule to the airport, but we still squeezed in one more gelato. We went for the double scoop for our last cone.
The whole trip was refreshing and a perfect pace. Iris and I just enjoyed things as they came, bringing the Macedonian “има време” (there is time) attitude wherever we went and embracing the unexpected opportunities. Arrivederci Italy, till next time.