The heavy August sun shines over the Ponte Scalzi as tourists pose for photos against the backdrop of boats skimming across the water’s surface. Squinting in the bright sunlight that casts shadows across their faces, they bare their teeth at the cameras and grin. Further down along the Grand Canal, families order gelato in broken Italian, puzzle over maps, and argue that the bridge they just crossed was definitely not the Realto…or was it?
Toddlers chase pigeons in the shadows of San Marco, whilst their parents watch from the neat little tables that line the piazza, served by dapper white-suited waiters. Further away from the heaving streets of tourists that cluster along the Grand Canal (which the outsiders follow in case they get lost, like a string leading them through a labyrinth), Venetians go about their day relatively uninterrupted by the press of crowds or the oppressive heat. Used to it all by now, they wave problems aside with an extravagant hand gesture and a “Va bene,” stubbornly clinging on to this ridiculous, sinking, beautiful bit of land that has flourished so improbably.
But where am I in this picture?
Go back to Venezia Santa Lucia train station. Walk outside, and savour that first view of Venice. It’s exactly like the postcards, isn’t it? Now cross the Scalzi bridge and go up an alleyway and there, on your left, inside a hostel, you’ll find me. Am I having a siesta, perhaps, or rushing back to my dormitory to grab some much-needed Euros? No. I’m the one sitting on the welcome desk, staring out the window, bored out of my skull.
Every day new tourists come and go. They arrive at all hours, and I’m there, at that same desk, day or night, ready to check them in. They stay for a few days, see all the sights, tick the boxes, and then head off to Milan or Florence or Rome. Meanwhile, I sit at the welcome desk, following a rotating fan in a wheelie chair. The owner of the hostel plays Dutch house music on repeat and demands I write threatening responses in my native English to any bad reviews that we get online.
He follows these reviews religiously, falling into an unholy rage at any piece of criticism.
- “They ask for so many deposits, I felt like they were trying to screw money out of me all the time,” wrote Sean from Austin, Texas, incurring a tirade of abuse even from the other side of the world.
- “Excellent location!” Faye from Perth began promisingly, “but the signs everywhere, and all the endless lists of rules, made me feel like I was in a prison camp.”
In response to this the owner, with no sense of irony, orders that I rewrite all his lists of rules — which do indeed line every wall and surface with information about curfews, cleaning the kitchen surfaces and yes, even the numerous deposits payable — into one super list that takes up four sheets of A4. I’m pretty sure most prisons have fewer regulations than this one hostel, but I keep quiet.
In agreeing to work at this hostel in exchange for free accommodation, I unwittingly became its prisoner. By wanting to be able to spend longer in Venice, I fell into a situation of not being able to see Venice at all, except when my boss sent me out on errands and I could feign having got lost rather than return immediately. But the odd stolen espresso or hurried foray into a mask shop didn’t make up for the hours of tedium sat at that desk, wishing I was outside, so near and yet so far from the tourist scramble.
After a fortnight, a friend emailed me saying she was going to go stay with these American guys she’d just met who lived near Lake Garda. Did I want to go with her so she didn’t get murdered? I chose possible homicide over my current state of imprisonment and left, deciding that to be not seeing Venice while not in Venice was definitely preferable to not seeing Venice while in Venice.
Apparently, if you go to the hostel now, you can read a new sign on one of the walls. It says, “Guests can stay for free in exchange for work.” I do not recommend you heed it.