One of my trips to Venice came because the spouse was attending a conference on the Lido where we stayed. As always, it was memorable. I would ride the boat to Venice and take long walks through the city while she was at her meetings. I went to the lesser squares and heard from a church a soloist rehearsing for an evening concert. I stopped at markets and, being without Italian, pointed to foods to try. I saw apparent immigrants selling apparent knock-off goods outside fancy shops. It was late September, and the weather was generally beautiful, but on a few days, I saw some of the rising water which is common in autumn, and it was interesting to see how the Venetians coped. A movie scene with Heath Ledger was being shot next to San Marco, and it was fun to watch it–a rescue from a hanging for the movie Casanova.
Other times I walked throughout the Lido that was simultaneously part of Venice and separate from it. Here there were cars and buses, a bit of a shock. I went to the aristocratic, but aging hotel of Death in Venice and tried to picture the beach, empty at that time of year, as it was a century ago when Thomas Mann must have studied it.
Our hotel made good recommendations for restaurants in what were said to be the non-tourist parts of Venice. I doubted non-tourist places existed but since we often appeared to be the only non-Italians in the restaurants, or at least we heard no English or German, we weren’t in the usual Venetian places.
But most memorable was a dinner at the end of our stay with other scientists from the conference. My job had been to scout up a restaurant, and I picked a place on a canal on the Lido. It definitely was not a tourist place. The staff did not speak English. We were outside on a beautiful night and through nods and pointing and much laughter and wine, we selected local fish, which was wonderfully prepared. This was a night for Venetian memories, but the night became more memorable because of the stories of D and M.
D was a colleague of the spouse and M her husband. M and D were born, raised, and wed in Romania. Romania was still a communist dictatorship when they tried to leave some twenty years before, but permission was denied. They protested; they cited the Helsinki Accords; they spoke on a pirate radio station. The Romanian response was to imprison M. D, now alone with a new baby, did not know what to do. She did not know how M was being treated or when or whether she would ever see him again. Out of desperation, D contacted the American embassy, and some official there got word back that D should visit the embassy. D was afraid to do that. The embassy was ringed with Romanian security, and she expected to be arrested if seen approaching it. She called the embassy and told an official, whom she had never met, of her fears. The disembodied voice on the phone told her, “Meet me under the street lamp at this intersection at this time. I will be wearing such and such, and I will take you into the embassy. The Romanian military will not arrest you if you are with an American.” Not knowing what else to do, D took the leap of faith and did as the voice instructed. The man was there at the appointed place and time. With an American at her side, she walked into the embassy and told her story of how she and her young family just wanted to leave Romania. Apparently American diplomats worked behind the scenes, and after a few months, M was released. Permission to leave, however, was not granted; instead, the Romanians “punished’ the couple by expelling them from the country. No punishment was more gladly received.
It all sounded like cloak and dagger out of a modern Alan Furst novel, but not the way they told it. They wove it into an amusing story, concentrating on how naïve they were and how lucky. They elicited much laughter under the stars by the Lido canal. But surely anyone in a Ceausescu jail had to wonder about the possible fate that awaited the prisoner.
I thought, once again, whatever my country’s flaws, how lucky I am to be an American. And I wondered how harrowing times should best be preserved. In their memories, was it as humorous as they presented it?
Their story, of course, had a happy ending. Not only did they get to leave the country as they desired, M made a lifelong friend. After the conference, he was driving up to Austria to see again the person he first met as his cell mate.