This was many years ago. I went to Venice with two pieces of information, the name of the train station where I was supposed to get off -- Santa Lucia  --  and the address of  the youth hostel where I was supposed to sleep at.  Most importantly,   I spoke the language;  that gave me the confidence that I will figure it out somehow (ah, youth!).  (No, there were no smartphones, nor Google maps back then.) In fact I was so clueless, that I was in total shock when I found out that the youth hostel was on an island,  Giudecca, and that there were no busses to get there from the train station, only boats (vaporettos); oh, and I needed to run because the boat getting ready to leave was the last one that night. It was already midnight, the end of a long day that involved a trip from beautiful Capri here back to the north, trip that was made even longer by a strike (sciopero, a new word I learned that day). This was the last stop of my several weeks of traveling through Italy after I spent a few months in Torino on a scholarship.

On the way to Giudecca, I watched  disappointed the industrial view and the murky water hitting the side of the boat. I was not  impressed and I questioned my decision to go to Venice in the first place, particularly since I had to part from the group I was traveling with and change my return date home.  Here I was, all by myself on the deck of a small boat, way after midnight, dressed completely in white, hanging onto my black backpack and orange umbrella, hungry and tired. Why did I think that I could not leave Italy before seeing Venice, that this had anything to show me, after the picturesque Cinque Terre, the magnificent Rome, the polished Sienna, the beautiful Florence, the blue Capri, or the spectacular Pompei? I was happy when I  got to the hotel and was finally able to go to sleep.

The next morning, after a great breakfast and coming out of the door of my hotel careful not to stumble, I raised my head to orient myself. It was early in the day and there were very few people around. Straight in front of me, across the canal, I saw for the first time Piazza San Marco. It's a cliche, but that's when I understood the meaning of the expression takes your breath away.  It's just what happened. Twenty-five years later, the thought of that image still makes me smile. Wonder is not planned, nor rehearsed. It finds us in little moments of unknown. Today it will be difficult to get the same feeling.   There are so many pictures of Venice and San Marco from all angles, there is so much information online, there are so many tourists. It is hard to be surprised. I had the chance to revisit it a few years back, and while it still looked perfect in pictures, I could not find the same atmosphere as before.

I was also not the same person and my view of the world has expanded. I grew up behind the Iron Curtain in a closed country, where there was very little information about the West, everything was subjected to  censorship,  and we were not allowed to have passports. One of the first things I did after the 1989 uprising was to stay in line for hours to get my first passport even if I did not have any plans (nor money) to travel, but just in case an opportunity will arise (it did :)). The trip to Italy was my first time abroad and I loved everything about it. I tried to visit as many places as possible. Venice surprised me because it was the place I knew the least about, so I had very little expectations. Having visited many places in Italy by then, I thought I saw it all.  This was one of the  lessons Venice taught me, there is always more to discover if you give yourself the chance. I blame it on Venice that a few years later I packed my bags and made the biggest trip ever, across the Atlantic ocean, and moved to America. It is that feeling of wonder when I saw San Marco for the first time that  I tried to relieve in most of my trips afterwards. It was never the same, just diluted versions of it. (Hong Kong came close.)

Venice was also the place where for the first time I experienced one of the best  benefits of  traveling.  At the time, there was a lot of uncertainty ahead for me, I was to fly back to my home country - another first -- since taking the train  was no longer an option because of the war in former Yugoslavia, I was to graduate college and decide what I wanted to do next; there were jobs to look for and relationships to sort out. None of that mattered though wandering through Venice. I was free.


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