This is what life in Italy is like: after casually dropping in on the amazing, nearly 700-year-old Giotto frescoes, you hop back on the bus and head for the canals of Venice.

First, though, you might stop in the mainland port of Mestre, where you can transfer to the train that will take you into Venice proper. Unless you have your own boat docked on the Mestre side, this is probably the easiest way to enter the town -- no motorized land-based vehicles of any kind are allowed past a certain point, not even those pesky Vespas, so parking is at a premium.

The typical first view of Venice

We rode the train on the long bridge/highway across the Lagoon of Venice, just as those undertaking the Grand Tour must have done in the century before, and ended up in yet another Italian railway station. But this was no ordinary Italian railway station, for beyond its doors lay the mazelike waterways and intricately linked walkways and pedestrian bridges of the old Republic of Venice.

The Rialto Bridge

Your choices at this point are simple: Get in a boat, or start walking. Since the city public transportation system of Venice works just like any other, except it floats, we buy a bundle of tickets for the vaporetto, or the "water bus," and wait next to the canal at the, uh, bus stop for our ride.

Ahhhh, the sweet life...

Here, indeed, is where hyper-impressionism comes fully untethered from its rational moorings and you can waste an entire roll of film just getting to your hotel room.

We began the process known as the "Passport Shuffle" which would be required of us on each field trip requiring an overnight stay -- the reservations having been made in advance, one person would be responsible for gathering up each student's passport to give to the hotel front desk as proof of identity and, I'm sure, to fulfill some sort of requirement for paperwork yet to be filled out for the Italian police. Walking through the maze of paths -- it's just like Italy, but even MORE precious! -- we arrive at our hotels, get roommate assignments, drop packs, and settle in for about thirty seconds.

Just because we arrived in Venice at the end of a travel day, don't you go thinking that Professor Layne Goldsmith is letting the reins loose just yet. Being a Monday, tonight is still Grad Student Seminar night, but Layne does allow as how the Grad Seminar could take place in a nice little trattoria over some fine food and drink.

A few undergrad students join the group, getting a separate table to allow Layne and the Grads their own space to discuss matters specific to themselves if necessary. Now don't get me wrong, because I'm sure the front desk guy at the hotel, who pointed us toward this establishment, had only the best intentions, but this first meal in Venice was an embodiment of why I wanted to be careful with my spending money so early in our adventure. The place was filled with tourists -- okay, maybe they're all native Venetians who happen to carry cameras with them to dinner -- it took an extraordinarily long time to get any attention from the waiter and kitchen staff, who presented us with a menu of somewhat ... pricey meals ... and to top it off, our dessert, a simple ice cream, was clanked onto our table still frozen solid as though it had been taken out of dry ice storage just moments before arriving in front of us. Well, at least we had a few good laughs over the meal with our lessons, and then we were off to explore this beautiful place in whatever way we chose.

For Waldo, Beau and I, that way would be straight toward Piazza San Marco -- might as well start at the top and work your way down, eh?

crazy cats, man!

In mid-October, it must still be tourist season -- we found a couple of bands performing at cafés in the square, each band dressed in outfits to match their respective café's colors, taking turns playing for the assembled crowd, some of whom sat in the chairs set up in front of each band, while most of the crowd stood behind the chairs and moved from one area to the next as the bands took turns playing.

"What the heck?!", Waldo, Beau and I mused. We sat down in front of one of the bands and instantly we were being served by waiters asking us what we would like to drink. Waldo signaled that he'd buy the first round, and we ordered our fill. The band seemed to be playing specifically to us rather than the assembled masses, so we cheered them on. After a couple of numbers, the band in front of the next café over started playing, while we sat in our same seats and watched, taking turns to ante up for a round of drinks.

Whether it was "Camptown Races" or "Ave Maria", the bands were equally adept at working the crowd and hamming it up for photographers. They seemed more adept at hamming it up for the photographers who sat in the chairs being served by the café's waiters, while those who were not paying for drinks would get an equally hilarious take -- without missing a beat, the musicians would grimace in a nearly gargoyle-ish frown as the person approached with their camera.

Too soon, it came time for the bill, and we certainly paid the price for the night's entertainment -- 50,000 lire for a round of drinks?! Thirty freakin' dollars! Ah well, once again we had a great laugh about it and this time we figured it was entirely worth it. The bands probably get a large share of the take, and they totally deserve it.

"É molto caro! This is one expensive town, but I LOVE it!" seemed to be the consensus among our youthful, exuberant selves. Why not? How many times are we going to have the chance to do this again?

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