Traveling from Austria to Italy on another overnight train, I prepare myself for all the obvious differences we're sure to encounter. Language, cuisine, architecture—the hallmarks that distinguish one culture from another. I'm also readying myself for any temperamental differences between the local inhabitants, the gradations of emotional expressiveness that allegedly distinguish one nationality from another. Austrians are one species of exotic animals; Italians are another. Trying to be an "observant traveler" sensitive to the vast variety of national characters that comprise the European continent, I'm unwittingly fortifying my prejudices.
Vienna and Venice couldn't be more different places. Their names both start with the letter V, and, let’s see . . . well, they're both cities.
Dragging along a canine ambassador to both places, though, tends to obviate the starkest cultural contrasts. At the risk of sounding like a not-very-convincing greeting card, dogs teach the observant traveler that we're not elementally so different after all. (At least when it comes to cuddly animals that crave our affection.) Germanic or Italian, American or European, when we're around creatures like Ella, our best qualities, undiluted by nationalism, radiate outward. We're one tribe of nice people, in spite of the hackneyed stereotypes.
Now, although the inhabitants of Venice may be spiritually interchangeable with their brethren in Danzig or Dubuque, the place where they live is a singular oddity. Islands traditionally present a unique set of challenges to their inhabitants—getting stuff on and off chief among them—but Venice's oldness and compactness, and its dearth of unoccupied square footage, make it an especially challenging place to accomplish the ordinary tasks of everyday life.
That's the charitable way of putting it. A slightly less nice way would be: Venice, Italy, is an absurd, ridiculous, utterly impractical city that survives in spite of its fundamental wrongness.
Venice is also one of the most sublime metropolises on the planet, a place that everyone in the world (and his or her dog) ought to eventually experience. So there you go.
Here's another viewpoint, from a lifetime resident: "Venice is a great city for lovers. But Venice is not a great city for dogs." Case in point: One morning, walking through the Piazza San Marco with Ella, we encounter a piano tuner at work at an outdoor bandstand in front of a café, readying a keyboard for the ninety-six renditions of "O Sole Mio!" that will be played upon it before the sun sets. "Che bella" he exclaims, admiring the hound. And then, I gather, he asks if he might pet her. (As this is communicated in rapidly delivered Italian, I can only make approximate guesses.) Naturally I agree, and another Venetian love story begins.
While the Piano Man exchanges kisses with Ella, I ask him if he knows a place, maybe a park, where mio cane could relieve herself. In what must strike some of the early morning tourists as a peculiar Venetian custom—Look, Harold, how the Italians talk with their hands—and their arms and their legs too!—I pantomime squatting and lifting my leg.
Because of early obedience training, Ella has got it in her head that urinating on stones or sidewalks is bad. She needs grass to go, even if it’s a one-meter-square patch. Unfortunately, 99.9 percent of Venice is composed of rock.
The Piano Man enthusiastically recommends a nearby garden, adjacent to the water-bus stop for Calle Vallereso. I bid him arrivederci and he actually does the kissing-fingers gesture, seen only in television commercials for restaurant franchises and bad Hollywood movies featuring stereotyped Italian characters.
I speed-walk my desperate dog to what I hope will be salvation. As ravishingly gorgeous as Venice is to the human eye, it's something like a medieval torture chamber to Ella. Sure, there are countless public fountains from which she’s welcome to drink. But then where may she rid herself of the by-product? Similarly, there are dozens of seemingly refreshing canals, beckoning her to swim in them. But her dad won’t allow her in the foul, obviously polluted waterways. So much temptation, so little satisfaction.
The garden suggested by the Piano Man turns out to be a gated park conveniently located a mere fifteen-minute walk from our hotel on the Rialto, a distance that adds an element of suspense to our morning constitutionals. Will Ella be able to hold it, or will I be faced with the unenviable task of trying to clean a puddle off the narrow sidewalk in front of some elegant haberdashery, armed only with an ineffectual plastic bag and the ability to constantly repeat the phrase “I’m sorry” in Italian?
For reasons that become obvious within our first few hours in town, Venice is not home to many canines. (We see just a few, including a notably naughty beagle dragging his fashion-model owner through a small square while she attempts to talk on her palm-size cell phone.) The last thing I want is for Ella to be considered further evidence for keeping dogs out of this surreal city. This ancient community, with hardly a single “modern” building, somehow functions in the twenty-first century. (A constant rain of tourist dollars, euros, and yen doesn’t hurt, I’m sure.) In Venice, seeing a dog out for a walk is itself a surreal sight. The image of Ella at the prow of a water taxi, puttering down the Grand Canal, is, to my disbelieving eyes, perhaps the strangest sight of all.
Given the rarity of her species, Ella is herself something of a minor tourist attraction in Venice. Everywhere we walk, the sounds of “oohs” and “aahs” echo through narrow alleys. I briefly consider setting up a stand near the vendors in San Marco who sell grain to feed the pigeons: “Only One Euro! Have Your Photo Taken with the Cane Molta Bellissima!” A couple of busy afternoons and I could have my bar bill paid. (Almost.)
Venice is truly an “international tourist destination,” a label many places like to flaunt but few can actually support. Venice draws everyone who cherishes beauty, history, and pigeons. Now, I don’t presume to call Ella Konik an “international tourist destination” just yet, but I note that she tends to effortlessly attract everyone who cherishes cuteness, sweetness, and soft fur. In one Venetian day alone we meet travelers from England, India, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa, and Bergen, New Jersey—not to mention fourteen different Italian cities (before I lose count). We meet painters and real estate developers, psychiatrists and vintners, interior decorators and engineers. We meet a rabbinical student from Moscow named Moishe (whose persistent invitation to Friday night services I’m able to decline on having-a-dog grounds). We meet a retired couple from Barcelona, whose repeated question of “How much?”—they might mean “How long?”—I mistakenly understand as an offer to purchase my dog. And we meet children, dozens of children, from all walks of life, whose eyes widen in wonder at the friendly white beast who meets their smiles and giggles with a tranquil wag of the tail.
In Venice, I feel Ella is even more of an American ambassador than usual, and I’m proud that she creates so much joy, no matter how fleeting, for the strangers she encounters. I’m also proud that on the day she wears her American flag scarf she does so with dignity and grace, that she doesn’t visit shame upon our country by peeing in an inappropriate spot. Like, say, one of Venice’s seductive osterìas.
She may not be able to find many open fields, but Ella has no problem locating dining places that welcome her inside their air-conditioned precincts. The proprietors of Venice’s bars and trattorias embrace her presence—literally. (She gets lots of hugs and kisses, in classic emotionally demonstrative Italian style.) They’re used to having locals and tourists alike lounging for hours, drinking cool glasses of wine, sampling an array of cicchetti (snacks), and talking loudly (with and without hands) about important issues of the day, like soccer. But because Venice has far fewer doggies than the average European city, the restaurateurs here aren’t accustomed to seeing cani in their establishments. When one does turn up, particularly one that they deem molto tranquillo e molto educato, they can barely contain their delight. (Which, of course, takes me, Mr. Proud, to several astral planes beyond delighted.)
One night we pop into an osterìa antica during a violent rainstorm that rivals the one we endured in Prague. Normally, Ella would find a spot underneath the table, determine that she’s not getting any scraps until the plates are cleared, and promptly go to sleep. But tonight epic thunderclaps are in the air again, and no matter how much I reassure her with “good girl”s, she trembles like an underdressed Californian visiting Reykjavík in January. She refuses to drink the bowl of water the nice waiter has brought and even forsakes the Holy Grail of Begging: antipasti. I dangle salami before her snout.
But she’s having none of it. Ella’s inconsolable.
Then the unthinkable: A few minutes after Sandrine gets up from our table to use the restroom, Ella stands up out of her “down” position and, in a most un-tranquilla and un-educata maneuver, leaves the table to look for her. Before I can call her back, to my horror and shame Ella wanders into the kitchen. It’s one of those semi-open cucine, with a one-meter-wide slot in the wall, where the chef can hand the waiters plates of carpaccio and tagliatelle. Thus, I can see the whole terrible tragedy unfolding: Ella, frightened and confused, meanders among simmering pots of bolognese sauce, sautéed vegetables, and semolina pasta. Her investigation takes her past open containers of cuttlefish filets, platters of prosciutto, and scaloppini of veal. My dog is loose among the food!
I rush to retrieve her before the chef and owner, Marcello, calls the polizìa.
To my great relief, Marcello refrains from chasing the dog out of his kitchen with a broom and a cleaver. He doesn’t even yell at her in an apoplectic frenzy.
No, instead, sounding like Roberto Begnini at his most endearing, Marcello exclaims, “Aaay! Bellissima! Un bacio per Marcello!” Then he bends down from his chopping and stirring to accept a lick on the nose.
“Aaay!” he calls out to the rest of his staff. “Il cane è in cucina!”
The entire staff gathers around and begins gesticulating in the much-lampooned but incredibly charming way Italians gesticulate, as though they were all simultaneously conducting the triumphal march from Aida. And none of them can stop laughing—or kissing—my still-confused but incrementally less frightened dog.
To the best of my knowledge, none of the diners at Marcello’s osterìa contracts a fatal canine-borne disease that night. And I can say with some certainty that the Venetians in attendance, on both sides of the kitchen counter, enjoy one of the restaurant’s most memorable visitors.
This scene, minus the kitchen invasion, repeats itself at every place we go to eat, as well as some we merely pass on our itinerant strolls. In Venice, Ella isn’t tolerated; she’s celebrated. At one gelaterìa, upon spying Ella on the sidewalk outside, one of the ladies who serves the addictive treats puts down her scooper, dashes out from behind the counter, and throws her arms around Ella amid high-pitched squeals of (Italian) ecstasy that border on the erotic. (Several English tourists look on with compulsory disapproval.) The gelato lady’s unabashed joy—her nearly orgasmic howling—makes me laugh (and also blush a little). But it also reminds me that whether in America or Italy, Ella has the rare and priceless ability to generate smiles in others. I don’t know if she feels good about this talent of hers; she might mistakenly assume that every human being she has the pleasure of meeting just happens to be a really happy person. But I certainly do. Traveling with Ella is like having a fur-covered flask containing a constantly replenished magic elixir.
Some things in life are compulsory. You can avoid them on grounds of iconoclasm, originality, or sheer obstinacy. But at the end of the day it's often much easier to just give in and do them. When in Venice, for instance, hiring a gondola for a tour of the canals is so predictable, so usual, so touristy. But, really, how can you go to Venice and not hire a gondola?
This is what I’m thinking, strolling the crowded sidewalks of the Rialto, wondering what I’m going to do with Ella while Sandrine and I do what the traveler’s life dictates we must. I can’t leave the dog parked on the shore while we paddle away. (Well, I could, but she would probably dive in after us.) And surely the famous Venetian gondolas are like the famous Venetian churches: pretty, popular, and off-limits to canines.
As my mom is fond of teaching her bright and inquisitive third-grade students, there’s no such thing as a “dumb” question. Or, expressed as another cliché, it never hurts to ask.
That’s the thing about clichés: The ideas they express turn out to be true so often that they become, well, clichés. Thus, I’ve become a big fan of doing a job myself when I want it done right, treating others the way I want to be treated, and, yes, asking because it never hurts.
Usually that last practice is easy: You just ask. But I find my principle gets sorely tested when I have to do the asking in a foreign language I’m no good at, and when the question seems so silly I can already hear the derisive answer.
“Excuse me, sir,” I inquire of the first gondolier I see. “We’d like to hire your gondola for a ride. The two of us and, um, our dog. She’s very well educated and tranquil. Is that possible?”
The gondolier, a muscular fellow outfitted in the standard gondolier uniform of horizontally striped shirt and straw boater with a sash, tries to decipher my halting Italian. “You wanna come in gondola, yes? With dog, yes?” he replies, not at all offended by my request, it seems.
“Yes! Sì!” I throw out my magic phrase. “Un cane molto educata e tranquillo!”
The gondolier nods. He looks at me and Sandrine. Then he looks at Ella. She looks back at him blankly.
“Okay. You come with me.”
“All three?” I ask, worried I may not have made myself properly understood.
“Sì, tutti tre. Andiamo.”
We negotiate the price for an hour-long cruise, a process I normally relish for the let’s-play-a-game quality. Some cultures, I’ve learned, expect haggling and bickering to be part of the deal; without it, the transaction feels incomplete. If you don’t dicker a little, the local merchant feels mildly offended, albeit financially better off than had you made a fuss. The Italians have one of those cultures. Everything is up for discussion. In this case, however, I’m not going to press my luck—and I think the gondolier (Gino is his name) knows it. Perhaps every gondolier in Venice readily accepts American dogs on their gondolas. But I’m not willing to investigate that possibility on the slim chance that Gino is, in fact, the only boatman in town who doesn’t object to canine customers.
It’s dusk, that magic time when the sunlight bathes Venice in orange-pink light, painting the already gorgeous old buildings with a patina of warming hues. Gino wants to hurry. It will be dark soon, and, if I understand him correctly, he was supposed to be home for dinner half an hour ago.
We file into the gondola. Sandrine and I recline on a low couch. Ella lies at our feet. And Gino assumes his position in the stern, pole in hand. I’m waiting for the Mario Lanza soundtrack to begin, for Merchant-Ivory productions to call out “Roll ’em!” But the life of Venice carries on normally. Waiters light candles at canal-side restaurants; tourists laden with shopping bags return to their hotels; and boats, hundreds of boats, putter to and fro on the Grand Canal, like so many cells in a drop of plasma.
I look at my dog. She must have a vague idea that she’s on a boat, because the floor moves in a rocking, boatish kind of way. But she can’t possibly understand that she’s in a gondola. In Venice, Italy.
She lifts one of her hind legs and invites me to scratch her pink inner thigh. I whisper to her, like it’s the biggest secret ever.
“You’re on a gondola!”
The impossibility of the moment is lost on Ms. Educated and Tranquil. But everyone else in Venice, it seems, appreciates what they’re seeing. As we float beneath petite walking bridges, fellow tourists flock to snap photographs of me, Sandrine, and Ella, lounging in our waterborne chariot like three contented pashas. If they don’t get the shot they had hoped for, many of the amateur paparazzi run ahead to the next bridge for another chance. We must be an amusing sight: an awestruck American, a grinning Belgian, and a pettable white mutt trying vainly to stay awake.
We cruise through narrow canals flanked by stone buildings painted pink, yellow, and green, and faded by centuries of air, light, and water. So ancient; so implacable. Venice looks like all the movies made about it, only better.
As Gino silently paddles his trio of mesmerized passengers into the interior of the city, back through time, back into an increasingly mystical place, I quietly sing a few Italian songs (by request) to the ladies at my side. Some Verdi, some Puccini, a little Donizetti. The sound of immortal melodies echoes off the stone fortresses surrounding us, blending with the gentle splash of Gino’s paddle in the water. The eternal sun begins to set. The air cools rapidly. I snuggle closer to Ella, and I try to inhale the moment.
My sweet little puppy, now a stately old dame, falls asleep at my feet, rocked to slumber in her floating cradle. She’s off in a land of her imagination, writing happy stories in her head. I, too, feel as though I’m in a dream, a delicious and fantastic dream, from which I never want to wake.
Excerpted from ELLA IN EUROPE by Michael Konik Copyright 2005 by Michael Konik. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.