by Wanda Medina

An ex-boyfriend once told me about his stay in Venice while we were catching up during a lengthy and quite interesting phone conversation. I listened quietly as he regaled me with his Venetian experience staying in one of Italy’s top-notch five-star hotels amidst the old-world romance the enticing city had to offer.

“I rubbed elbows with ambassadors from all over the world,” he said. “It was like the U.N. I met an Indian diplomat and a wealthy Italian businessman,” and on and on. Everyone, it seemed, spoke English, making it quite convenient to get anything one wanted or needed during their stay. Staying there, he noted, came with all the exquisite amenities posh hotels had to offer: your own bathroom, first-rate room service, concierge, transportation services, fine dining, and unrelenting pampering. To him, staying there was a rite of passage of some sort, for I sensed the pride in his voice as he carried on. After a brief pause, I heard what I knew was coming: “So. Where did you stay?”

I stayed in a non-rated hotel in the Cannareggio section of Venice, on a tiny street off the Lista di Spagna. A few blocks from the Stazione Santa Lucia, it was the first place my best friend and I found that had vacancies. In the blistering July heat with enormous backpacks to carry, any place that had a bed and running water would have done the trick.

Upon checking in, we headed upstairs to drop off our bags, freshen up, and venture out. The first thing we noticed when we walked in was the leak on the ceiling and how it rhythmically dripped on one of the twin beds. Thankfully, it had not been there long and only the top blanket was wet. We removed the blanket and pushed the two beds together. Problem solved! After we unpacked, I noticed something else. There, on the cracked, plastered, pastel wall was a decimated cockroach— a souvenir from the room’s previous inhabitants, who were obviously too busy to remove the remnants of the bug they had pummeled. Naturally, I wasn’t going to stay in a room with the body of half a cockroach on the wall. Realizing the ‘hotel’ was definitely not going to give us another room because it was high season, I did what any un-phased New Yorker would do in a situation like this: I scooped it up in a towel and got rid of it. I walked into the hallway to our communal bathroom, washed my hands and came back to our room to open the windows and take in the breathtaking view. When I opened the window, I got a breathtaking view alright—of the next building’s façade. It was so close, we could have easily reached it had we climbed out and taken a little leap.

Undeterred by our less-than-perfect hotel room, we headed out and experienced the city as it was meant to be. Recently graduated and backpacking around Europe put us on a strict budget. As much as I fell in love with the Venetian masks sold in carts along the canals, or with the delicate murano figurines in little store windows, I didn’t succumb to the temptation of going home with a bag loaded with Italian souvenirs. In fact, even a gondola ride was out of our budget so we opted for the water taxis the locals used to get around. This type of mass transportation provided us with all the details a gondola would have, and as an added bonus, we sat with locals and other travelers who took joy in the picturesque surroundings that were quintessentially Venice.

Later that evening, we stopped at a local café and enjoyed a hearty meal for only few lire. My best friend and I were amused and entertained by the antics of our delightful waiters, but less so with their girlfriends’ icy stares. There, we ended up meeting two fellow backpackers from Chicago who were accompanied by a lovely Mexican woman they had met during their own travels. After exchanging stories about each of our adventures, we decided to take a stroll and find out where the night would take us.

It took us to a local liquor store where we all chipped in and bought a bottle of very cheap red wine that came with free plastic cups. We left and walked a few yards to a pedestrian bridge, sat down with other travelers who were enjoying the beautiful evening and shared our wine. There we were, surrounded by strangers from all over the world, telling us stories about people we’d never meet. Men and women who nearly died on the Alps of Switzerland, or who were on a train so intoxicated they fell asleep, missed their stop, and ended up in a remote region of a foreign country—lost, penniless and full of wonder and excitement about the endless possibilities an unforeseen turn of events could bring. We sat on those steps all night, drinking and talking, offering and exchanging tips and contacts for future trips. We took in the moment, knowing it would be short-lived as each one of us wandered off into the night in search of new adventures and stories with which we ourselves would entertain one day. We didn’t even take photographs, for we knew a picture would never do the experience justice.

The next morning, I didn’t wake to the noise of our ceiling leak dripping onto the tiles, but to the unfamiliar, yet welcoming voices of our neighbors—locals who were engaging in their morning routine. I woke to the echoes of their radio delivering the day’s news and to the smells of fresh bread and espresso. Our window was so close to theirs, it seemed as though they were right in our room with us, fixing us our very own breakfast.

These were the experiences I left Venice with and carry with me to this day when anyone asks how I liked it. I believed my ex-boyfriend had been cheated of certain experiences after I remembered what it felt like for me to stay in that city, if only for a little while. Surely we’d seen the same sights, taken the same pictures and marveled at the same architecture. The only thing that set us apart was that he vacationed, while I experienced. It is this, inevitably, what separates the tourist from the traveler.

So when he asked where I had stayed, I simply told him I checked into a relatively unknown hotel off Lista di Spagna.

“Hmmm, I don’t think I know it,” he said. I didn’t doubt it for one second.