This story began 35 years ago and refuses to come to an end …
In the summer of 1987, my parents and I came to Italy from Moscow by way of Vienna. We waited for our American refugee visas by the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea in the town of Ladispoli, best known for sharing a train station with Cerveteri, site of the famous tumuli—Etruscan burial mounds. At the end of our Italianate summer my parents and I took a low-budget bus tour of Northern Italy, which brought us first to Florence, then Bologna and San Marino, and finally, to Venice. The organizers only allotted one day and one night for Venice, and in my immigrant memory, those 24 hours have lasted an eternity, preserved in a repository of beauty.
But unlocking this story about a Jewish Russian immigrant returning to Venice requires one more silver-plated key, one that has very little to do with emigration or the lives of exiles. In February of 2017, my wife, Karen, and our daughters, Mira and Tatiana, spent three weeks in Italy. On our first day of skiing in the Dolomites, a snowboarder lost control and rammed into me at full speed. He turned out to be a neurosurgeon from Berlin. I won’t bore you with the details of where his grandfather had served on the Eastern Front during the war, but I will tell you that I was very lucky to have ended up with only four broken ribs. Herr Doctor Death had been aiming for my spleen. In any event, I couldn’t ski. In the morning I would walk my wife and daughters to the nearest lift at Santa Croce, then return to our suite at the mountain resort, eat toast with bresaola, drink double espresso, and compose true stories. And I did my darndest to make sure that my loved ones wouldn’t develop a guilt complex.
The following summer I entered the sixth decade of my life, and my wife and daughters decided that I deserved a makeup week of skiing in the former South Tyrol. Everything had been perfectly conceived, but of course it’s well known that perfect plans augur calamitous complications. We were flying via Paris to Venice. In Venice we would have two days for jetlag therapy and total immersion in splendor. On the morning of our third day in Italy we were supposed to drive up to the Dolomites. The magnanimous calendar was putting us in Venice on the eve of Christmas, which appeared to us, righteous Judeans, as a particularly alluring prospect.
On Dec. 23, 2017, we arrived at Logan Airport, zipped through security, and boarded a Delta aircraft. The Paris flight was leaving at 7:15 in the evening. Here started our misadventures. First we sat in the plane for a whole hour, waiting for the luggage to be loaded—the cargo loader had gotten stuck due to frost. Finally our Boeing 767 entered the runway, gained speed, and then …some pebbly sprites began grating and vibrating somewhere inside the plane, which came to a halt. The captain announced that there was something wrong with the rudder and we were returning to the terminal. Then came an hour of utter chaos—waiting for technical assistance, taxiing back to the terminal, and finally receiving permission to deplane. All the while no instructions were given. My wife, who was born in Philadelphia and grew up in New England, said that the country was “falling apart,” and I readily agreed, visualizing in my head the pigeons of San Marco and the gondoliers in woven straw hats with dangling ribbons. Resorting to the entire arsenal of my Russian, Jewish, American—and former Soviet—rhetoric, I convinced a Delta shift manager that it was absolutely essential for my family to be in Europe in the morning, or else universal harmony would be disrupted. She promised us seats on a plane for Amsterdam, but then it turned out that they wouldn’t be able to release our checked suitcases from the original plane until they had figured out the source of the malfunction. And without suitcases they couldn’t send us off to a different destination (read: destiny.) She spoke all of this in a half-whisper, awakening heavy thoughts about the true reason for our flight’s delay. I won’t describe the next two hours. I’ll only say that they towed the plane away to some hangar to perform various tests, and finally at 1 in the morning did they announce that the flight would be leaving after all.
We landed at Charles de Gaulle not at 8 in the morning as planned, but at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Picture a plane full of travelers who missed their flights, all channeled into a seething line at the Delta/KLM/Air France service desk. After making our way to the counter we fell into the hands of a smiley agent by the name of Karim, who immediately assured us that he would be “taking care of everything,” including the “little lady” (Tatiana) who looked “fâchée et fatigué.” There were no more direct flights to Venice, and so we would be connecting in Rome and at 10:30 in the evening, G-d willing, we would land in the lagoon.
“What about our luggage? Our ski boots and all?” Karen and I asked.
“I’ve already sent your suitcases to Venice,” answered the coral-teethed Karim, handing us new boarding passes, meal vouchers, and silver pins with the Delta logo for our daughters (who politely accepted but never did wear them).
After that, things began to look up. The gelato at Fiumicino was genuine, and even the flight to Venice was only delayed by a quarter of an hour. At Marco Polo, we waited in vain for the luggage carousel to return our suitcases. There was only one agent at the lost paradise counter. A middle-aged Venetian lady with a big face peered into her computer and informed us, contempt in her voice, that our luggage had been sent “to Atlanta or someplace else.” Again feeling low on luck, we came out of the terminal. Nearby water taxis weren’t running due to heavy fog. It was already 11:30 at night, the airport was deserted, and it was Christmas Eve. At long last a taxi pulled up, and the driver agreed to take us as far as Piazzale Roma, and then miraculously called us a water taxi.
The real Venice revealed herself with glimmering lights on the surface of the Grand Canal. The entire family brightened up. At the boat landing of Hotel Saturnia (almost Saturnalia), a monocled night porter was waiting for us. The windows of our two-story suite faced Rio de la Vesta. We went to bed at 1 in the morning. Ahead of us lay an entire day in Venice. Only one day.
The day started and ended in San Marco. Like a brilliant poem or time-perfected work of fiction, Venice was unrecognizably recognizable. Venetian women clad in long tunics still threw themselves into canals from the embankments (pace Pasternak). Purple pigeons alighted from under the feet of my beloved K. while a melancholy winged lion lowered his Levantine mane over a bronze Gospel folio. Amid this beauty, a Jew nearly forgot that Venice was also the birthplace of the ghetto ... In the end, we never took our daughters to Cannaregio, where Venetian Jews used to wake up, hope in their eyes, and go to sleep, despair in their hearts. With lightness and ease, watermarks left our wallets, imprinting themselves on the golden canals and disappearing beyond the waterline. And of course, we bumped into my literary peer, a Moscow twitterato by the name of Dmitri B., who was sitting in a café with a view of the piazzetta and of San Giorgio Maggiore farther ahead, a tablet next to his empty cup, sitting there and furiously dispatching yet another declaration of love for Venice.
Having occupied ourselves with a guided tour of the Palace of the Doges, an abundant lunch, and a stroll to Rialto and back, we decided to swing by the hotel and check on our luggage. Gianluca, the porter whom the Russian immigrant in me had nicknamed Ivan Lukitch Portobelov, telephoned the airport and found out that the suitcases had already been located, picked up from the airport, and driven to a transfer point in Mestre, and from there they were supposed to be delivered by boat directly to our hotel. Here I’m relaying the dialogue I jotted down in my travel journal:
“It’s Christmas, so it would have to be tomorrow afternoon.”
“You’re joking, right? Tomorrow morning we’re leaving for the mountains. The suitcases have all our ski stuff.”
“I’m very sorry, signore.”
“You don’t look too sorry otherwise you would be doing something to help.”
And thus, first in Italian, then in English.
In the evening we had tickets to a holiday Corelli and Vivaldi concert at the Church of San Vidal. Remember The Four Seasons? There’s a moment in “L’inverno,” devastating, when in middle of the allegro non molto your heart stops for a split second. You know all’s lost but not forever …
When we returned to the hotel, our corpulent suitcases were lined up in front of our suite. All the contents were intact, save for one inexplicable detail. Packed into one of the regained suitcases had been three copies of the second Moscow edition of the Russian translation of my literary memoir Waiting for America, which I had intended to give as gifts to my colleagues—Italian professors of Russian literature. Imagine my surprise when, in one of the suitcases, instead of the Russian books, I discovered three copies of Aspettando America, the Italian translation of my book. Three copies with bright green covers, and a bottle of prosecco wrapped with a ribbon just like the ones worn on a gondolier’s straw hat.
We immediately uncorked the Italian bubbly, and I took one copy of the book and inscribed it to our Hotel Saturnia—where, as it turned out, Ray Charles used to stay. And so now my book rests in a glass display in the lobby, next to a vase of emerald green Venetian glass and a signed photograph of the blind American jazz player.
Would that we always had such occasions to unburden ourselves of the baggage of the past!
Maxim D. Shrayer is a bilingual author and translator and a professor at Boston College. He was born in Moscow and has been living in the USA since 1987. His recent books include A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas and Of Politics and Pandemics. Shrayer’s new memoir, Immigrant Baggage, was published in May 2023.