The gondolier poled in silence until we had reached the middle of the Canal Grande together with many other gondolas, bobbing gently in the wake of the Vaporetto which was ploughing its way over to the Ca d’oro.
In front of the Rialto he told us about the bridge: it had been built by Antonio da Ponte in place of an earlier wooden bridge, it consisted of a single arch, and each pier rested on six thousand piles.
As I translated for Marlen he realized that she didn’t understand Italian.
‘I recognized you the moment you spoke to us’, I said.
‘I did, too. It was five years ago . . . and here we see the Palazzo Bembo, a Gothic building dating from the 15th century, which displays a wealth of ornamentation.’
Marlen couldn’t take her eyes off the pointed arches.
‘It was Venice’s most beautiful summer. Was there even a single rainy day?’
‘No, it never rained.’
‘This is a cold summer. Rain the whole time; it’s driving the tourists away.’
‘What is he saying now?’ asked Marlen.
‘He’s talking about the weather. He’s fed up with it.’
‘You’re married?’ he asked.
‘And you’ve come to Venice for your honeymoon?’
‘No, it’s not our honeymoon. We had that three years ago.’
‘What is he saying now?’ asked Marlen.
‘The gondolier thinks we are honeymooners.’
‘He’s no psychologist’, said Marlen.
‘He had better stick to his commentary. I should have brought the Baedecker with me.’
‘I want to know what the palaces are called.’
‘You’ll only forget them again.’
He pointed and explained: ‘Palazzo Dandolo, Palazzo Loredan, Palazzo Farsetti, Palazzo Grimani . . .’
I don’t think he forgot a single one.
‘Your name is Enrico, isn’t it?’
Just at the right moment I remembered his name, too.
‘And you are Francesco!’
‘Mamma mia! You still remember!’
‘It was a beautiful summer . . .’
‘Palazzo Papadopoli, Palazzo della Madonetta, Palazzo Bemado, Palazzo Corner-Spinelli!’
‘You don’t need to translate the names for me, I can understand them myself; but what is he saying in between?’
‘He’s telling me about people he has had in his gondola in the past.’
‘Does that interest you?’
‘I can’t forbid him to talk.’
‘Didn’t he say he was going to sing?’
‘My wife would like you to sing, Francesco!’
‘She is a severe woman’, he said. ‘Your girlfriend was always laughing. I have never had a girl in my gondola who laughed so much. She could laugh at anything and everything, and she couldn’t have given a damn about the Palazzi.’
He sang ‘O sole mio’.
The gondoliers in films about Venice have glowing tenor voices, they sing into a microphone, and the film studios have better acoustics than the Canal Grande.
‘I hope he stops soon’, said Marlen.
‘But you wanted him to sing.’
‘He’s no Caruso.’
Francesco had understood. He said: ‘Your girlfriend that time liked my voice, because she was happy, because she liked the whole world. And you were rather partial yourself, Enrico.’
‘I still do like your voice.’
‘Do you remember how jealous you were?’
‘Well, she spoke better Italian than you. She said such hilarious things, and you couldn’t understand them all. Her mother was Italian.’
‘Her mother was from Messina. Her father was French.’
‘You wanted to jump into the water’, said Francesco.
I did remember. I played the jealous lover, because she looked up at Francesco far too amorously and she liked talking with him far too much. She was fanning the fire. That was what she was like. I said, I’ll drown myself if you don’t keep your eyes straight ahead and put your arms around me this minute, as one is supposed to in gondolas. I leapt up onto the seat and she held me tight and embraced me.
‘What is he doing now?’ Marlen asked.
I turned round and saw Francesco dipping his pole into the water to show that the lagoon was no deeper than fifty centimetres. Francesco hadn’t forgotten the smallest detail! He was dragging the whole thing up from the past!
‘He wants to show us how shallow the lagoon is.’
‘What is he showing us that for?’
‘So that we can see that not even a non-swimmer could drown himself in it.’
‘Do you want to drown yourself?’
‘No’, I said. ‘It’s too cold for me.’
‘Once, five years ago, someone did want to drown himself, said Francesco, laughing.
‘Is that part of the gondola ride, too?’ Marlen asked.
‘Francesco is particularly attentive.’
‘And will add all the extras to the bill!’
‘What have you got against him?’
‘He talks too much for my liking.’
That time Francesco had refused the three thousand lire we had agreed upon before the ride.
A Venetian fairy-tale might begin: Once upon a time there was a gondolier who poled a pair of lovers through the Canal Grande and the intricate maze of small canals. He had decorated his gondola with coloured lanterns, he sang ‘O sole mio’, he poled them for two hours and refused the three thousand lire the young man wanted to pay him because his girl was so pretty and her laughter rang out like a bell. Indeed, he even poled them to a tavern not normally frequented by tourists and invited them to drink Chianti with him, to laugh and to dance half the night long . . .
‘Why are you suddenly so silent?’ Marlen asked.
‘Your gondolier seems to have fallen asleep, too.’
‘My wife would like you to tell her the names of the Palazzi to our left and right.’
Francesco expounded with his customary pathos: ‘On the left you can see the Campo and the Chiesa San Samuele with its typically venetian-byzantine bell tower dating from the 12th century; next to it the Palazzo Grassi, a particularly beautiful building, decorated inside with famous frescoes by Alessandro Longhi . . .’
While I was translating, Francesco said: ‘Why didn’t you come with her with a ring on her finger?’
‘And what about that palace over there on the right?’ This time I was thankful for Marlen’s interruption.
‘My wife wants to know the name of that Palazzo.’
‘It is the Palazzo Rezzonocco, a work by Longhena.’
By now we had almost reached the end of the canal. It had become dark, darker than usual because of some rain clouds building up in the west. Spotlights illuminated the dome of Santa Maria della Salute.
‘Shall we get out at St. Mark’s Square?’ asked Marian.
‘If you like . . .’
‘I’m freezing, and it looks as if it is about to rain.’
‘We stopped here for a long while that time, do you remember, Enrico?’
‘Yes, I remember . . .’
‘All lovers stop here to look at the dome of Santa Maria della Salute. Noelly wanted to, too—’ Francesco stopped short: he had let slip the name we had avoided so far.
‘Who is Noelly?’ Marlen asked.
‘Noelly is the name of a girl—’
‘Perhaps it’s his wife’, I said with sudden inspiration.
‘Noelly e mia moglie’, said Francesco.
‘No, it’s not true!’
‘It is true. — She came back a year later. Alone’.
‘What is that dreadful man saying?’
‘He’s talking about his wife.’
‘He keeps on talking about things which have nothing to do with us . . .’
Hans Bender (1907 – 1991) was a West German poet, novelist, short story writer, anthologist, and editor of the poetry journal Akzente. He lectured at Australian universities early in 1970.
Translated by Barbara Einhorn.