My cousin Max and I got lost in Venice on New Year’s Eve.
My parents and our Grandma set us off to the grocery store with a couple simple things to get for our New Year’s Eve dinner: a lemon to finish the salad, Pellegrino for my dad’s perpetually unquenched sparkling water craving, and Panetonne to celebrate the upcoming holiday like most Italians do.
As we left our rented apartment on the Grand Canal, the largest waterway in the city, I felt calm. Already six days into our trip and I felt like a full-blown European; mostly due to the fact that I was wearing a scarf and able to communicate with the bakers, waiters, and store clerks around Venice—one semester of Intro to Italian was doing wonders.
It was Max’s first time ever out of the country. Both of us had grown up running around small towns in Illinois and Wisconsin, but my parents traveled to Italy constantly for work, which meant I got to go with them. When I started middle school, my parents and I moved from the suburbs of Chicago into the city, which meant I dragged Max down from Wisconsin whenever possible; I always wanted to share my life in Chicago with him. This time I got to show him Italy.
As we walked down the Grand Canal by ourselves, we were deep in conversation about our New Year’s Eve plans. After dinner, we were going to post up in Piazza San Marco, scope out some music by the one and only DJ Macchi, and then watch the fireworks. We were giddy talking about it, so many possibilities running through our heads of meeting some Italian girls. More than that, it was the first time during the trip where it felt like we were in control; our family wasn’t telling us what to do or where to go.
We were talking so much that we completely passed the grocery store. Instead of ending up at the store we’d been using to stock our apartment for the last few days, we ended up in a piazza we had never seen before. Surrounded by young, lively Venetians, a steadily budding fog, and a seriously cold breeze coming o of the water, we bolted over to a supermarket in the far corner of the piazza.
The store buzzed with Italians presumably picking up a few last minute items for their New Year’s celebration; some people grabbing lentils for the traditional cotechino (a fresh pork sausage served over lentils eaten within the first hour of the year for good luck—lentils represent money and good fortune in the New Year) or even a box or two of Panetonne or Pandoro like we were. We grabbed some lemons, water, Panetonne, and even snagged a box of Italian cookies that we’d been eating the whole trip.
In the checkout line, people all around us were rapidly speaking Italian, sounding musical, syllables hitting like staccato notes. Trying to not be intimidated, I asked the cashier “Quanto?” handed her euros, and wished her “Auguri.”
As we left, Max tapped me on the shoulder. “Dude, wow, I am impressed.”
“Oh, that was nothing,” I said. Deep down I was pretty proud though.
We started to head back home trying to follow the path we had taken to get here, except now it was darker and foggier. There was no way either of us knew where to walk, which turns to take, or had any clue how to get us back to our apartment. In the moment, we didn’t really care. We were still enjoying the freedom, talking about stupid internet memes, laughing about how Max had yelled at me the night before for typing while he was trying to sleep, and capturing some of the beauty of Venice through Max’s camera. At no point did we ever feel scared walking over narrow, tiny bridges, over smaller canals, or down the many side streets.
As Max was taking a picture of some covered gondolas on a quiet side canal, we started talking about the moon and how it was crazy bright here. When we saw it the first night from our apartment, it had floated over the Grand Canal, visible from our bedroom window, and reflected off the water, shining its light down on a number of cathedrals and old buildings. I remember thinking about how I hadn’t seen the moon look like that since before I’d moved away from the suburbs.
As we were talking, we brainstormed whether or not following the moon could actually lead us back to the Grand Canal. If it worked, once we got to the Grand Canal, we could walk along the water which would lead us straight back to where we were staying. I knew a lot of people followed the North Star for guidance, but I had never heard of anybody following the moon before. Regardless, I knew we had to do it; somehow I knew that this was going to work. Even though this was in 2011, it felt like we were using a method of navigation that the ancient Italians might have used when traveling these same canals.
We trudged along down cobblestone streets still hauling my dad’s Pellegrino, letting the moon guide us, our breath visible in front of us. Before too long, we saw the Canal down one of the narrow streets. We couldn’t believe it, it had actually worked. We were ecstatic, couldn’t wait to share this with the adults, and felt proud that we had figured out this navigational puzzle ourselves. No maps, no Google.
As we came to the clearing, the Grand Canal in front of us, we considered which way to turn. We started to go right and immediately heard the blast of something loud and jarring coming from what sounded like a few feet in front of us. As we turned around and speed-walked the other way, we debated whether that was fireworks, gunshots, or something else ungodly. We weren’t sticking around to find out. As we continued walking, we passed the grocery store where we were supposed to go in the first place and eventually ended up back at our apartment.
We ducked in and saw my parents and grandma sitting around the table having a glass of wine.
We told them everything over dinner and got ready for wherever the rest of the night would take us.