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Stairway to Hell

When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.— Susan Heller

The ridiculousness of my situation did not occur to me until the moment I was directed to climb the steps onto a train in Florence with 70 pounds of luggage in tow. My American-sized suitcase, twice the width of the aisle, had to be turned sideways and dragged, rather than rolled, to my assigned seat. People huffed and glared at me as my bulging messenger bag, purse, and suitcase crashed into their backs and legs. I finally arrived at my seat, having left a wake of bruised passengers and unaccepted apologies. David looked worse for wear as he plopped down across from me, having already hoisted our giant bags into surprisingly capacious overhead compartments. We had two and a half hours to regain our composure, two and half hours before we would have to heave our cargo through the gauntlet again and fight our way down the narrow aisle, off the train, and onto the streets of Venice. I sighed with relief when my feet hit the platform in the city of canals and tried not to focus on my throbbing toes, which had suffered greatly when I dropped my suitcase on them in the hustle of disembarking. We had only to take a water taxi a few stops away, walk over a bridge, and turn down an alley to arrive at our lodgings. David, who’d learned from his research that the archaic kingdom was labyrinthine, had marked our short journey on a satellite image. For all our study of the route, we had failed to notice a small but vital detail — the long bridge we had to cross was lousy with stairs. In fact, as we’d soon discover, all of the bridges over the sundry canals were replete with steps, and not one had a ramp. Apparently, people in wheelchairs and morons who bring more crap than they can carry are not welcome.

Getting from one side of the bridge to the other was an exercise in humiliation. Like running out of gas in the middle of the freeway during bumper-to-bumper traffic, I looked stupid while inconveniencing others, who could plainly see my “problem” was self-inflicted. After watching me struggle for a moment, a man with a British accent offered to carry my bag, a kindness that only embarrassed me further; when he shook his head and muttered, “suit yourself,” it was apparent he thought me all the more foolish for refusing his help.

By the time we made it to the other side of the Grand Canal, I was red-faced and panting, and the back of David’s greenish-yellow shirt was dark with sweat. We came upon a square in which a group of boys played soccer, using 1000-year-old stone arches as their goal posts. Following the course charted on our aerial reconnaissance photos, we passed through the arches on the far side and then down a dark, dank, this-is-the-part-of-the-horror-movie-where-my-husband-suddenly-disappears sort of passageway, lined with ruins of marble nudes. At the end of the hallway was a decayed wooden door. David pressed the buzzer beside it and we waited. The musty scent of mildew was overpowering, reminding me of the day my eighth-grade art teacher presented the class with buckets of clay.

A few minutes later, the door creaked open to reveal an unsmiling man in a white button-down shirt and black pants. Like a shorter, leaner version of Lurch, I could swear I heard him growl when he tried to lift both of our suitcases at the same time. David and I gushed a series of apologies and reached out to retrieve our bags, but the man pushed our hands aside and uttered a determined grunt. We followed him — feeling helpless and guilty for causing him strain and annoyance — up three stairs, down three more, and up yet another flight to our room. He handed us a ring with four keys attached, the minimum necessary to grant us access to our new home, and then disappeared.

Perhaps as punishment for being stupid, overpacking Americans, the Venetian Lurch “forgot” to explain that when the mysterious little red plastic plug lying on the low nightstand is inserted into an outlet, it repels mosquitoes. That night, we were eaten alive. The next morning, I discovered itchy red welts on my legs, arms, and face. One of the minuscule bitches even managed to get her proboscis under the cuticle of my middle finger, causing the flesh around my nail to swell and throb. I consider it uncivilized to grant bugs access to one’s body; the inability to control insects is the primary reason I have no interest in traveling to third-world countries.

We headed upstairs to take advantage of the “breakfast” part of “bed and breakfast.” While nibbling the stale, chocolate-filled croissant that comprised our breakfast, we were greeted by a couple checking out from one of the other three rooms. They had not a silver hair out of place, not an errant pleat of pants, and their movements were slow and graceful — by these things alone we could tell they were French, even before they introduced themselves in heavy accents as Nicole and Pierre Guenant. I looked insecurely at my toenails, half the burgundy polish chipped away by my suitcase the day before, and tried to smooth my frizzy hair. I watched knowingly as David pulled at his shirt and straightened his posture. As gracious as they were graceful, upon hearing that our next destination was the south of France, the couple invited us to visit them in Provence for lunch and a tour of their 550-acre vineyard. As they left to catch the water taxi that would whisk them to their private plane, we couldn’t help but notice the dainty, sophisticated suitcase that petite Nicole handled effortlessly.

It was David’s idea to ship home some heavy things we could live without, like books we probably weren’t going to read, an extra video camera, and three new pairs of shoes from Florence. On one of the hundred-or-so little islands, we found a FedEx office, at which we purchased a 25-kilo packing box. Back in our mosquito-infested room, we filled the box until it weighed nearly 35 pounds. But packing the box was only half the battle — we still had to get the thing back to the FedEx office.

David and I each took a handle and carried the box through the square where boys played soccer, pushed through people in the crowded narrow roads, bumbled across the ritzy shopping district, and plodded up and down the stairs of several bridges. At one point, a woman halted our path so she could take our picture, probably for her “Idiots around the World” photo collage. When we arrived at the FedEx office, we were, yet again, flustered, panting, and perspiring.

Because most of the stuff we put into the box was either newly purchased or from our carry-ons, the $280 exercise of shipping the box home merely restored our suitcases to the same weight they were when we began our trip.

When it was time for us to head to the train station to catch a night train to Nice, our growling assistant was nowhere to be found. Instead, a young woman with less muscle mass than me appeared and tried to maneuver my bag to the door. The charming, but frequently absent, host of the bed and breakfast had arranged for a water taxi to collect us. Our last struggle was to walk the gangplank behind the building, a rotting piece of wood on toothpick stilts that was 20 feet long and barely one and a half feet wide. I inched my way along the plank, convinced that my two-foot-wide suitcase was going to topple off the side and into the water below.

Once on the boat and cruising down the main canal, the evening breeze on my face, the lights of the town glistening in the ripples of the water, I could finally appreciate the romantic allure of Venice. The ten-minute ride cost 60 euros, or $84. But when David and I arrived at the train station, after the taxi driver lifted our bags from the boat and set them on a much wider, sturdier plank, we agreed that it had been worth every penny.

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