I sprinted through Milan station, speed-read the departures monitor without stopping, and arrived gasping on platform 8 with two minutes to spare. The driver of the FrecciaBianca bullet train was waiting only for the guard’s signal to depart. The guard was standing on the platform beside the open door of the rearmost carriage, fingering her whistle. This short, plump, raven-haired woman was exuding geniality and relaxed informality through her far too big peaked cap and ill-fitting uniform as though it were fancy dress.
I was about to fling myself up the short ladder, but had to step aside for lust’s young dream in satin hot pants descending the steps with feline grace. She asked the guard if there was time for a last cigarette. The guard said something like, ‘Why not?’ or ‘What a marvellous idea!’ Out came a packet of cigarettes and a slim gold lighter; an inaudible spark produced a tall stiletto flame.
Bugger it: I got out my battered tobacco pouch, hastily rolled a fag and touched her for a light. Never before, I suspect, had that unwavering jet of electric blue been used to ignite such a pretty kettle of fish as my bent roll up. I inhaled and nodded thanks. She snapped out the flame and with it my presence. We stood and smoked unhurriedly and looking in opposite directions while the guard observed us calmly and benignly. When we had finished our smokes we bowled the buts under the train and climbed aboard. The platform clock showed that the guard had delayed the departure by two and a half minutes to accommodate her passengers’ drug addiction. Welcome to wonderful Italy.
I rode the train to the end of the line, and walked out on to the forecourt of the art deco station. Now I was in Venice and looking across the Grand Canal at St Simeon the Less, and the domes, towers and rooftops of the Santa Croce district of the old city, all golden and glamorous in the evening sunshine.
When I was last here ten years ago, Venice was like Mecca during the Haj. You couldn’t move. Now I bought a vaporetto ticket without queuing and a vaporetto number 1 arrived right on cue. I stepped aboard and went downstairs and took one of several spare seats beside a commuter in a rumpled suit assiduously reading his newspaper.
Presently a young lad with a smart haircut and a white polo shirt came below to check our tickets. The female half of the elderly Italian couple on the bench seat in front of us presented an invalid ticket. The lad patiently and kindly explained to her why he couldn’t accept it. The woman was adamant that he should. Then she and he contended articulately and volubly — but always amiably — for the entire 20 minutes of my journey, during which time virtually every other passenger on board offered an opinion on the matter. These apparently wide-ranging opinions were expressed also with articulacy and reason-ableness, and sometimes at great length, and each opinion was listened to carefully by everybody else, and weighed dispassionately. The young ticket collector, while extremely know-ledgeable about which vaporetto tickets were valid for which journeys, and who twice went forward to consult with the pilot on certain arcane points of ticket law, was neither dogmatic nor did he claim any extra weight for his opinions due to his position of authority. This highly civilised debate was raging still when I got off at San Zaccaria, my ticket unacknow-ledged and still pristine in my hand.
For the price of a room in a Premier Inn, I was surprised to find I had booked an enormous room in a lovely, peaceful hotel with courtyard and garden, breakfast in the garden included, and I slept like the dead in a bed big enough for ten. In the morning the manager solemnly handed me my NatWest bank debit card, which I had accidentally dropped, apparently, on one of the canal bridges. Miraculously, I had also dropped the hotel card with it, and the finder had dutifully taken it there and left it at the reception desk.
After breakfast I took a stroll across town to the Gritti Palace and I sat absorbing gin and tonic on the terrace and the spectacle of the traffic on the Grand Canal for two hours. I must have looked a picture of happiness and relaxation, because I was occasionally photographed by passing gondola or vaporetto passengers. (Or perhaps it was just the fascination of the horrible.) Then I collected my luggage from the hotel and, partly anxious, partly elated and partly pissed, I took a water taxi to the Cunard cruise ship Queen Victoria, to join 30 readers (plus Martin Vander Weyer, Johnny Ray, and the great Taki) for our week long inaugural Spectator cruise to Ephesus.
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