DURING A RECENT VISIT TO VENICE, I WAS IN THE COMPANY of two American families. On the first day, I accompanied a mother and daughter duo in search of a cappuccino coffee and a ‘chocolat’. When we entered the self-service café, the widely travelled, pretty American mother walked up to the counter and placed the order. The proprietress, a plump, businesslike matron pulled a face, looked down her long Roman nose and said something in rapid fire Italian. Unsure of what she meant, we waited until the two cappuccinos appeared on the counter, which signified no ‘chocolat’ was to follow. Had I been the one placing the order, I would have felt humiliated. After all, ‘chocolat’ was very much on the displayed menu board. 11a.m. was not an odd time to be asking for the beverage. Besides what was the screwed up face supposed to convey?
The Americans thought nothing of it: “It’s the wrong time to be asking for chocolat,” said the daughter and fetched a pastry instead.
In the afternoon, we each ordered a dish for lunch at a very Italian restaurant. The daughter asked the waiter very slowly in English, “Do you think that would be enough for us?” The waiter’s face went red. “Why are you getting angry at me?” he asked dramatically.
None of us could make out what she had said to upset him. This too was brushed aside as being a communication gap, nothing more. If I had got that response, I would surely have labelled it racism.
A marvellous feature of Venetian life is the complete absence of cars. The waterhus transport system is fantastic. The waterbuses called Vapporettos zoom across the Adriatic Sea, small lagoons and the Grand Canal, arriving exactly on time, depositing and picking up hundreds of passengers at notified timings. Mothers with babies in perambulators, older citizens pulling trolleys for grocery shopping, hordes of tourists all use the Vapporettos, which run exactly on time. They are almost as crowded as Delhi buses and according to tourist guidebooks provide good pickings for pickpockets too!
I also noticed how browsing around expensive shops, special boutiques or roadside carts was perfectly in order, No salesman or girl rushed up asking, “What do you want? What’s your budget?” Or worse still ended up telling you whatever you asked for went out of fashion years ago. Whether it was Venetian glass on the island of Murano or handmade lace on the island of Burano, or coveting unattainable Gucci handbags displayed in the shops, just browsing around was a treat.
None of this is extraordinary. Indians are as laid back as Venetians. But there ends the comparison. Howsoever laid-back they might be, it is not reflected by unpunctuality of public transport, which works like clockwork. Our up-market shopkeepers also need not be snooty with people who just want to look around by registering their disgust if nothing is bought. Our Sarojini Nagar and Delhi Haat salesmen might sell a lot more if they stopped bullying tourists and leaping at them with merchandise.
Goa gets over a million tourists each year and ends up with many a tale of woe. Venice gets over ten million. Getting around Venice is cheap and efficient. Spending money is completely optional. The town makes a killing on entry fees to museums, churches and monuments, which no one minds paying. We could learn a thing or two about changing attitudes to making money.