4 min read
It’s easy being famous. It’s also fun. For a brief, unbelievable moment I was the most famous person on an entire island. But, as with many celebrities, I hadn’t really earned it. Up until then, I had only been a legend in my own mind. Now, with throngs of admirers surrounding me, the legend was made manifest… as though delivered from destiny. But in truth, it arrived from a bunch of giggling 15-year-old girls.
I was in Torcello. This is a charming little island off the coast of Venice. It has its own cathedral and a population of about 20. This is down from its heyday of 20,000, but that was back in the 10th century when Torcello was a big deal – a lot bigger than Venice.
However, malaria and the plague did a number on the Torcellans and they fled across the lagoon to the growing suburb of Venice.
For the next 1,000 years tiny Torcello had to settle for being a quiet, gentle retreat for tourists, movie stars and artists. Ernest Hemingway went there for solitude in the 40’s, to write a novel, "Across the River and into The Trees." You see? People come to Torcello for peace and quiet.
So why, as a young man in his 20’s did I want to go there? After all the excitement of Venice… what was the attraction? It wasn’t like I was looking to get away from people, just the opposite.
I had been traveling alone for months through Europe as one does in their 20’s. I met people along the way, but invariably moved on as the next city or country beckoned.
I had planned a great circle route around the continent, even ducking behind the “iron curtain”, to the grim countries under Soviet domination at the time. Every day was an adventure, but the truth was, I was lonely a lot of the time.
Ever been to Venice? It’s amazing how much it looks like Venice. No really. Some cities just don’t look the way you imagined them. Not so with Venice. When you arrive, there’s no doubt where you have landed. The canals. The gondolas. This could only be Venice… or Vegas.
Some places, like some people, just don’t have an identity crisis. They know exactly who they are, take them or leave them. Venice doesn’t care.
Before I traveled to Europe I saw a movie called, “Betrayal”. In it, Ben Kingsley talks about visiting this very same island of Torcello with his wife. But then he suddenly finds out she has been having an affair with his good friend, played by Jeremy Irons. And this affair has been going on for five years!
Needless to say, Ben Kingsley and his wife do not visit Torcello together. Rather, Kingsley goes to the island by himself. There he dwells on the unfortunate state in which he finds himself and his marriage.
Later in the movie, Kingsley has lunch with Jeremy Irons. The two have this wonderfully understated British conversation – all genteel small talk, but with daggers just below the surface.
Kingsley brings up his visit to Torcello – how at peace he was there. How he never wanted to leave. Thinking back to Torcello is a moment of respite for him, as he briefly loses the homicidal look in his eye.
So what was up with me? Why did I want to take a break from the cafes and piazzas of Venice to visit this obscure, has-been of an island? Was it Ben Kingsley’s convincing performance? Did I think I would discover his secret to bliss after finding out one’s spouse was having an affair?
Who knows? I just remember being curious. The place hinted of magic, of something different. At that time in my life, my travel experiences weren’t very deep but they were wide. I wanted to keep feeding myself new sights, new impressions. So I jumped on a boat.
There are certain words in Italian that English can’t touch. I’m talking to you, cognoscenti (those in the know), paparazzi (the press) and vaporetto. A vaporetto is basically a water bus. As Venice is a water city, this is the easy way to get around.
I took a vaporetto across the Venice Lagoon for the 30-minute ride with a handful of other solitary dreamers. Ok, I had seen a Ben Kingsley movie – that was my motivation. What was their excuse to pay good lira to visit this abandoned island? Maybe they had seen the movie as well.
Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta
Everything about Torcello was little. It had little canals and a little piazza with a little cathedral, the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta. Sure enough, the island was quiet, empty and peaceful. But so is a cow field.
What to do with this place? Well, there were no lines to get into the cathedral, so that was my first stop. This basilica was known for its mosaics, and after 1000 years, they still impressed. I took in scenes of the Virgin and the saints. There was a depiction of Christ and the Last Judgement. All done in tiny gold mosaics. What has happened to the fine art of patience?
Had Hemingway spent time here looking for inspiration?
Had Ben Kingsley?
I was thinking about Ben Kingsley’s state of mind when the cathedral’s calm was crushed by a gaggle of rambunctious schoolgirls. They must have been around 15, all in their uniforms, all wearing daypacks.
Someone shushed them and they giggled, as schoolgirls do in cathedrals. They looked up at the mosaics but they were Italian girls – they grew up in places like this. This basilica was as ordinary to them as the local malt shop. What was the point of their coming here? Maybe it was for a history project. Or maybe their big trip to Milan had been canceled because of a train strike.
So instead, their school put them on the boat to Torcello, and they chatted with each other about who they liked and who they hated.
The Devil’s Bridge
Besides the tourist sites of a Cathedral, a piazza and a restaurant, there was also a small bridge here over a canal. It’s called the Devil’s Bridge. There’s a legend behind it about a young local girl who meets an Austrian soldier at the bridge, and falls in love with him.
But the two are separated by her parents. The girl enlists the help of a witch, who makes a deal with the devil, a bunch more stuff happens and the two are finally reunited at the bridge.
That’s the only Torcello story I know… besides the Ben Kingsley thing.
After the cathedral, I was checking out this bridge because there wasn’t much left on my checklist As bridges go it was okay, but I was feeling a bit let down. Torcello was a nice little island but what was the big deal here?
On the other hand, I hadn’t just received news that my wife had been having a 5-year affair with my friend, so maybe I didn’t need this quiet time to reflect and plan how to pick up the pieces of my shattered life.
I decided to head to the dock where I could catch a vaporetto back to the excitement of Venice. But as I descended the bridge, the school girls had now gathered there. As I tried to pass, one of them spoke to me… in Italian.
The only words of Italian I knew I had learned from “The Godfather” and the menu from Gino’s, my favorite sub shop. I shook my head at a complete loss, American style.
“American?,” she asked, her eyes bright and hopeful.
I nodded. This had the effect of perking up the girls. At least they could tell their friends they met an American on this dumb school trip.
“Los Angeles,” I proudly offered. I liked to name drop my adopted city when I was far from home. Everyone knows it. Everyone is impressed.
There was no reaction from them. No sign of recognition. I might have well have said, “Cedar Rapids.”
So I tried again. I knew it was corny but I offered the one word that is probably the most recognized in the world: “Hollywood?”
This time the effect was electric. Is there anything more delightful than a pack of Italian teenage girls bursting into excited Italian chatter?
Then the one who spoke to me did something. She grabbed at her daypack, yanked it open and scrambled inside, digging around. The others saw this and quickly followed.
What? What is this? Did they want to exchange money? Give me the numbers to their principessa phones?
It instantly became clear when the girl pulled out a pink notecard, a purple pen and thrust them at me. Her expectant eyes, left no mistake. She wanted my autograph! Me. A youngster myself, stumbling around Europe, looking for some kind of discovery. Or connection. Or meaning.
Her two besties, immediately followed suit and readied their own autograph materiel. There may have been some Hello Kitty accouterments being shuffled about. I can’t quite remember. I only recall lots of paper and pens pushed at me.
And then the whole thing went viral. The buzz quickly spread amongst the rest of their classmates and they surrounded me, pressed in. So this was what it’s like to be Brad Pitt.
Well, not really. At this point in the universe’s evolution, Brad Pitt was still in high school. Kim and Kanye were just past their sippy cups and there was so much still to come in our exploding world – iPhones, selfies. Who even asks for an autograph today?
So here I found myself, on the medieval island of Torcello, under the shadow of a 9th Century basilica, furiously scribbling my name for 30 wound-up Italian schoolgirls, all looking for some excitement in their young lives.
Well let me tell you it worked. They were thrilled, and it was pretty exciting for me as well. I made sure each one of them had my autograph. If I was going to be a celebrity, I was gonna be a good one.
And with that… there really wasn’t much left to say or do. I figured if I stuck around too long the magic would dissipate, and I would just become another regular human. That wouldn’t work for any of us. So…
I gave the girls a big grin and they smiled and giggled back. Then, standing a bit taller, I drawled out, “Cio!”, and gave it my best movie star walk as I strutted from the Devil’s Bridge, toward the piazza and the waiting vaporetto.
I didn’t even look back. The hero never looks back. I just let the fame carry me forward.
Sadly, there were no paparazzi around to record my moment of celebrity, but nevertheless, I was tasting La Dolce Vida – The Sweet Life… on Torcello.
And that’s how I found my 15 minutes. Or how it found me.
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