We’d been dating for nearly a year. Everything was going great, when Emily said, “I have always wanted to ride in a gondola in Venice.”
I winced. “What?”
“It would be romantic,” she said.
Some people refrain from touristy activities because they look down on them. In my case, it’s fear. Fear that people who don’t do clichéd, touristy things will judge me.
“What kind of loser rides the horse-drawn carriages?” they’d whisper in Central Park, so I’ve never ridden one. I’ve never hopped on a cable car in San Francisco, never toured Buckingham Palace during visits to London. I lived in Tokyo for four years and never climbed Mount Fuji.
I tried to forget about Emily’s gondola remark, the way you might try to put out of your mind that your new partner snores, or dislikes uni. Attractive? Certainly not, but can you imagine a world in which it’s not a deal-breaker?
One day, we realized we had enough airline miles to take an overseas trip together.
“How about a street food tour of Southeast Asia?” I proposed.
“You mean a diarrhea tour of Southeast Asia?” was how Emily told me she would not be up for that.
She talked up the pizza and gelato, and I quickly caved for Italy. In other words, a gondola ride was on the table.
Before we left, I told my friend Carla, a third-generation Italian American, about my predicament. She had met and liked Emily, but now questioned whether this gondola fantasy might be grounds for reexamining the relationship.
My sister, on the other hand, took Emily’s side, scolding me over the phone:
“Andrew. All your girlfriend wants, to make her happy, is for you to get in a fuckin’ rowboat with her. What is your god-damn problem? You don’t even have to row.”
Here was my problem: Emily was a beautiful, intelligent, caring woman whose career was about helping non-profits make more of a difference in their communities. Was she also someone who would subject me to a life of hackneyed travel?
It didn’t help when, on the bus from Rome’s airport, she whipped out the bestselling guidebook Rick Steves’ Italy. That night, she consulted it to lead us to a restaurant where we dined surrounded by other Americans flipping through Rick Steves’ Italy. “Maybe hide that thing?” I said.
Incredibly, we made it out of Rome without breaking up.
Next, we rented a car and drove to Umbria. Maybe because Umbria is inland — far from any canals — I was able to relax. We rode a cable car up to the hill town of Todi, where we enjoyed the full moon and a plate of truffles, and we kissed for the first time in 48 hours. In nearby Fratta Todina, we stayed at a bed and breakfast where the owners served us homemade ravioli and goat cheese from a local farmer’s market, and we swam in an infiniti pool overlooking a never-ending valley.
Soon, however, we were back on the road, making the 260-mile drive northeast. With every inch we got closer to the coast, my anxiety grew. We hit the Adriatic at Ravenna, and while appreciating the Baisilica di San Vitale, I silently prayed — even though I’m Jewish — to a sixth-century mosaic of Jesus Christ that Emily might forget about the gondola.
After arriving in Venice, it became clear that no such miracle was forthcoming. Over the next three days — whether we were outside the Peggy Gugenheim Collection, or just walking around—Emily would stare out longingly over the water at all the people in the thin black boats. “They look so happy,” she would say. Once, while sitting in the front row of a vaporetto — one of Venice’s motorized ferries— I tried to persuade her that it was just as romantic, if not more so, than a gondola, and I saw a tear emerge from behind her big, round sunglasses, then roll down her cheek.
I might have held out, but on the last afternoon before we flew home, a hot sticky Sunday, I was flipping through Rick Steves’ Italy when I came across a review of what sounded like an excellent gelateria. It was on the other side of Rialto Bridge, which was packed with wet, smelly people.
“Oh god,” Emliy said. “We’d be like salmon swimming up a stream of B.O.”
Nevertheless, she joined me on the quest. We squeezed our way though the bridge crowd, holding our noses. We had searched for the gelateria for nearly an hour before I realized that I had been holding our map upside down. We had to retrace our steps and go back over stinky Rialto Bridge. When we finally found the gelateria, Emily was exhausted, and in no mood for ice cream. But she was beaming.
“Why you look so happy?” I said, licking a cone of the best cherry gelato I had ever tasted.
“Because you look so happy,” she said.
I know, this is going to sound as cheesy as the gondola. But Emily’s happiness about my happiness made me want to make her even happier. And there was only one way to do that.
The place was lousy with striped-shirted gondolieri, so we hired the closest one. He asked for 90 euro, but on Rick Steves’ advice we offered 80. He accepted.
We sat, side-by-side, on a red-velvet love seat. Our slim, silver-haired gondoliere snapped our photo (Emily’s request) and then steered us through a series of quiet back canals. He didn’t sing (thank God), breaking the silence only once, to point out Marco Polo’s house. I wondered: Does he mock tourists by saying any old house is Marco Polo’s?
But that’s when I stopped myself, and saw the question — and my whole embarrassment thing about doing touristy activities — for what it was: a way to sabotage the ride, in every sense of the word, with Emily. I reached for her hand, and as we glided through these quiet, hidden spaces, felt a peace that was new to me. I asked Emily how she was feeling.
“Bliss,” she said.
Two years later, the gondola photo appeared on our wedding website. It showed us starting to fall in love, but also served as a reminder of how far I’d come. On our honeymoon, as cheery Hawaiians draped leis of bright purple plumeria around our necks, I just smelled the flowers and smiled.
A version of this piece first appeared, under non-exclusive distribution license, in Afar magazine.