Italy Roundtable: Becoming a regular

It was many moons ago that I realized that I could go to the same place twice in one trip to a city or town. This realization came when my cousin and me visited the same coffee shop twice in a row in Prague, 1992. We were not recognized. It wasn’t like that kind of coffee shop. It was just that I found the same place twice a day to get my coffee in a city I would soon be leaving and would not return to for over a decade. This made me a regular in my head.

A few years later, on a winter trip in Venice, I got a glimpse of what it was like to be a regular. The experience was captured in a journal entry that I wrote back then. It is now being rewritten for the Italy Roundtable topic of LOCAL. Although I haven’t been back to this area since my trip, I remember it fondly. You might soon find out why.

Venice was foggy, cold and damp as usual in February. The city was just taking a break before Carnevale began. I didn’t know if some of the restaurants I wanted to visit for dinner, so I went with my gut instinct and walked into the restaurant. I wasn’t expecting much.

The dining room was small and quiet. I settled down at my table with a book and my journal. I ordered dinner and struck up conversation with Stefano, my server. It is not unusual for a woman to dine alone in Italy, but in Venice, a city famous for its romantic atmosphere, I was probably the most odd.

To justify my solo status, I gave him my business cards. I was a travel writer on research trips, so that made sense. I soon found my tiny table covered in small plates of things Stefano thought I should order. Signorina Jessica was my name. Staff had the opportunity to talk, and to give tips, during the slow night. I noticed another couple at the table, a couple from Germany, who clearly had been there before and were given small samples of food from the kitchen. Stefano stopped by to speak to them, as if they were old friends.

They might have been. They might not have been. Perhaps they were just having a little fun with me because they were Italian men, and I was the only woman there. Perhaps it’s because you travel alone and do research on museums and hotels, and don’t care if someone is kind.

I was overstuffed, in good spirits, and had not written as much in my notebook that I intended.

Naturally, I returned for dinner the following night.

My second visit was more productive. Stefano was still at work, so they welcomed me with “Signorina Jessica” when I entered. Stefano ordered my food. I was soon able to sit down with my book, but it was busy and staff were overwhelmed. I had to stop reading when two locals came in. Staff yelled “Il Sindaco!” which meant “the mayor”, but I never found out what they were talking about. (And that I assumed was a nickname and not the real mayor of Venice. But who knows? Stefano placed them at my table and introduced himself to us. He told them to behave in Italian. He leaned towards me in English and said, “But, we can talk about their, because I don’t think they know English.”

Claudio, Giorgio and I spoke for the rest of the evening. We discussed music, politics, travel, Italian culture, as well as politics. The conversation was in Italian, and I didn’t know if they spoke English. It was beautiful.

The restaurant staff finally sat down at 10:30 or 11 to eat their meal. As the last diners finished eating, I waited and read my book. The last diners and staff left simultaneously, with us all leaving at the same time. After they had exited, the metal gates were pulled down by the latter.

Stefano offered to take me back to my hotel. He told me he didn’t want to see me fall into a canal.

A normal night I would have politely declined. After tasting my wine, some Claudio and Giorgio wine (they insisted), and sampling some Sambuca and a small amount of Scotch, I agreed to accept.

Stefano, a native Venetian speaker, was familiar with the city. As a tourist, I was unable to find my way around Venice. I relied on the detailed map that I had drawn to help me get there. The fog had settled in the city and we couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead of us. I soon realized that it wasn’t a very high-risk risk to fall into a canal. The air was very close to Venice, which was nearly empty.

It was times like this that I truly love Venice.

Stefano led me through dark streets of the city, not the way that I’d come. It was then that we suddenly saw St. Mark’s Basilica in front.

I gasped. I gasped.

St. Mark’s is my favorite church in the world. To see it again like it was the first time was a magical experience.

I was getting tired as the fog began to penetrate the layers of alcohol. I needed to get to the train early so I didn’t stay in the square too long. Stefano took me to the front door of my hotel, and he gave me a kiss on both my cheeks.

As I stated at the beginning, I have never been back in the restaurant.

My status as Signorina Jessica is not maintained by my frequent visits to Venice. If I didn’t recognize any workers there, I would be back at square 1. Instead of pretending it was a long-term affair, I believe what was most important was that I was there for the two days. It wouldn’t last. It wouldn’t. It was that moment that I felt what it was like to be recognised in foreign countries when you enter a restaurant. That was enough.

Only thing I need is a new local for my next trip.

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