Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about stories. How important stories are. How we each have a collection of stories - stories we tell ourselves, stories we trot out at dinner parties, stories that become a part of who we are.
I have stories. Stories I love that I tell over and over again. I decided it was probably time to record those stories.
This story is probably my first story. I’d had traumas and upheavals and just general drama in my life at this point. I’d had fun and fallen in love and had a couple crazy adventures. And yet, I knew this was different. This was the first thing that happened to me that I remember thinking - now THIS is a story. It’s a story I love to tell and as a result, a story some in my life are tired of hearing.
But too bad for them… because here it goes.
In the summer of 2000, I went to Italy. I had just finished my first year of college and had begged my parents to send me on a study abroad for the summer. A group from my school was going for five weeks to Rome, Florence, and Venice and I convinced my parents I had to go despite the fact I had just returned from a month in Europe the summer before.
The brutal truth was I had spent all winter and spring trying desperately to extricate myself from a terrible relationship and I needed to get away.
And get away I did. A week in Rome, three weeks in Florence, and then a final week in Venice. Throw in side trips to the Cinque Terre, Pisa, and Tivoli and I felt like a different person by the time I was standing in the Piazza San Marco with two of my friends deciding whether we were going to go to Harry’s Bar to try out the world famous bellinis.
“Excuse me, are you Americans?” a handsome older gentlemen asked as he approached us.
We told him we were and he said he’d love to go with us. He was a traveling alone. He said he was headed that way for lunch and would love some company. We agreed.
He bought us all bellinis and dessert. I remember being shocked and a little impressed by the easy way he spent his money. For five weeks, I had been counting every penny and still needed money wired from the States. Now, here was a man who barely glanced at the check before placing his credit card on the little plastic tray.
George (name changed to protect the generous) was incredibly friendly and talkative. He never said anything inappropriate or even implied ulterior motives. Now, every nineteen-year-old believes herself to be charming and interesting with little regard to reality but George seemed genuinely pleased to be around us.
After an hour or so, we told him we had to return to meet up with some friends. We had planned a gondola ride on our last night in Italy and didn’t want to be late. The gondola rides were another expensive tourist experience we had put off until the last day so that we could all pile in a boat together and share the cost. George said he’d had such a wonderful time he’d love to have us over for dinner at his hotel that evening.
We balked. There were three of us. We knew he couldn’t necessarily take us in a fight but it just seemed like a bad idea. He left it up to us and gave us the name of his hotel and a time to meet should we change our minds.
When we got back to our rooms, I looked up the name of his hotel on a whim.
The Hotel Danieli.
The guidebook described it as the most luxurious lodging in Venice but it was the next part that changed our minds.
It was where Princess Diana stayed when she came to town.
Done. We were going to dinner.
We met George in the lobby and had champagne. I know NOW the champagne was Veuve Clicquot but for years I could only identify the distinctive orange label. I knew the orange label meant it was the good stuff.
We took a tour of the opulent lobby and he showed us his hotel room. It seemed like everything was dripping in gold, except for the bed linens which were the whitest white I had ever seen.
For dinner, we made our way to the roof of the Hotel which looked out over Piazza San Marco. As I sat down and began looking over the menu, I felt overwhelmed by my options. I wanted every pasta on the menu, as well as every main course in the offering. I bemoaned the fact that I couldn’t possibly chose between two particularly delicious options.
“Oh darling, just order both and don’t eat it!” George instructed me smiling.
So, I did. I ordered pasta and a main course of sole. The first time I’d ever tried the buttery fish that I still remember melting in my mouth. The entire meal was fantastic and as we finished, George expressed regret that we’d missed our group gondola ride and offered to take us on one after dinner.
At this point, we were getting quite good at accepting George’s generosity so away we went. We took pictures in the gondola like some oddly constructed little family and went on our happy way down the canals of Venice.
I know you’re expecting the inevitable shoe to drop but it never did. George was a perfect gentleman. The gondola trip was fantastic and as the night came to a close, George walked us back to our rooms. He thanked us for keeping him company. He wanted us to know that this is how we should be treated and he was honored to be the one to show us.
I wish I remembered what we talked about but my memories have faded over the years. What I do remember is how the evening made me feel.
I was a girl - almost grown up but now quite - and the entire experience made me feel so adult. It felt like all my best visions of what adulthood had come true. The picture of womanhood painted for me in a million movies had suddenly become a reality. Men plucked your from the crowds and showered you with gifts! They took you out to decadent dinners and expected nothing in return!
It was positively magical.
It was also temporary. We boarded a plane and flew home. I had to finally face the terrible relationship I had been fleeing. Luckily, a few months later, I also found a new relationship. A relationship with man who made me feel special and charming and treasured. A relationship that would later turn into a marriage.
I won’t pretend George is the reason I found that relationship. That evening didn’t transform me into a confident woman but George did give me a taste of something more. He did give me memories I will cherish the rest of my life. My first sip of Veuve Clicquot. My first taste of sole. My first gondola ride.
More importantly, he gave me one hell of a story.