In October 2002, Bush and Cheney were gearing up to invade Iraq and I was encountering my first experiences as a not-so-welcome American in Europe. My whole trip had been carefully scripted, at least as far as where I'd sleep at night, but I'd left open the question of where to stay in Venice
, the city I would fly home from. As I sat in the small office off the kitchen of the Tuscan farmhouse I'd been staying in, calling more and more places, the proprietress noticed I was hearing a lot of no's. She took the phone, saying that she had a friend in Venice with an extra room who could probably use the money. "She's had cancer, and I'd like to do her a favor," she explained, already dialing. I was desperate, so the intervention was welcome.
Armed with a little slip of paper on which my Tuscan hostess had spelled out the unusually named Virginia's address and phone number, I was off.
As it turned out, Virginia lived on a wide cobblestone square in the heart of Venice. Pulling my roller bag across the stones, the racket announcing my arrival, I could see that from this location I would be able to walk everywhere. Weeks earlier, on the flight to Italy, I'd met an elderly man who'd studied Venice, specifically its mosaic floors, his entire adult life. His face had filled with delight as he composed a list of the floors and places I must visit.
I pulled up to a stone building with a big glossy black door presenting a sturdy face to the square. I was buzzed into a foyer, with a notably nice floor, and walked up the steps to Virginia's flat.