08 Oct Storytime: Arthur in Venice 1970 and 2018
In 1970 during the summer of my sophomore to junior year in college, a good friend Alan Nagel, and I decided to go to Europe for a summer vacation/work adventure. I had a distant cousin by marriage who owned a shoe factory in Verona, Italy. Through family contacts, we arranged that if we were both there by June 14 that “Cousin Manny” could give us a job working in his shoe factory for the summer. We both had returned tickets through Icelandic air which stopped in Reykjavík Iceland and then proceeded to Luxembourg. When we arrived in Luxembourg both of us only had $100 dollars American at that time, and we started hitchhiking our way to Amsterdam. There was so much to do in Amsterdam that we got quite distracted. Eventually, we started our travel to Verona Italy. We arrived in Verona on June 21. My cousin informed me that we were a week late. Unfortunately, he could not give us the job at that time because the agent from Rome who needed to qualify us had been there on the 14th and had returned to Rome, and was not able to come back and give us the permit to work that we needed. Otherwise, he could lose his license to export shoes and we were not worth that loss. At that point, we were almost out of money, so I asked my cousin Manny if it would be possible for him to lend us $100 American and I would repay him once I got back to the states. Cousin Manny had never met me before, but I guess he was impressed with my boldness and lent us the money which I did repay him once we got home.
Our strategy was to go to Venice and see if we could get an inexpensive boat passage to go to Israel and then work on a kibbutz for the summer. From that vantage point, I could contact my Father and ask for money to book passage back to Luxembourg for our return trip at the end of the summer. However, the cheapest passage on a boat even sitting on the deck for this travel was more money than we had at that point. We were staying at a youth hostel in Venice and we’ve found a notice on the bulletin board that was an employment opportunity looking for two dishwashers. We immediately went to the restaurant Taverna La Fenice and found out that the job included a cold water flat to sleep in, two employee meals each day (the inspiration for the Penne Pasta with Chicken currently on the lunch menu), and 2000 lira ($3.20) for a 9 hour day.
When you are 20 years old all you really need is a place to sleep and something to eat and the money was not that important. Also at that moment, I guess I realize that I was willing to work for $.36 per hour and that would now be my minimum that I would take at any job in the future. Needless to say, if I was going to make a living in this world I realized that I would need to use my brain as well as my hands.
My friend Alan got the job of washing glassware at the bar and keeping the dining room clean. I got the job of washing dishes in the back and I was mainly the plates and glasses. There was an Italian man named DeNilo who did the pots and pans. It was a split shift I would work three hours in the morning and then come back and work six hours for the evening shift. I think one of the fantasies that I imagined for myself was that a patron would come in one night and asked to see the dishwasher. He would say to the dishwasher which was me that these plates and glasses were the cleanest he had ever seen and wanted to give me $100. I think the hundred dollars represented the ability to quit my job washing dishes and then be able to afford the rest of my summer vacation as a tourist, of course, it never happened.
We survived that summer making 2000 lira per day, and after two months we took short visits to Florence and Rome; eventually, we returned back to Luxemburg for our return flight to the states. Given that today I run a successful restaurant in Raleigh North Carolina. I think that the experience in Venice gave me the opportunity to see what full-service restaurants look like. In 1970 in Raleigh there were a few full-service restaurants. Mostly there were cafeterias where you were the service. So today The Irregardless has a maître d’ (Dodge), has head waitresses ( Ally and Kim), has regular waiters, has food runners, busboys, and hosts. In other words, we now run the full-service restaurant that I saw 48 years ago.
Last month in August, I with my beautiful wife, Anya had the opportunity to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip and spent two weeks touring Italy. Our first stop was in Venice Italy where we stayed in a first-class hotel and made a reservation to have dinner on Sunday night at the Taverna La Fenice. We had a marvelous meal, drank a great bottle of Barolo wine, and at the end of the meal asked to see the dishwasher.
He was a young man from Bangladesh and when he came out we gave him €100 note. We translated through the maître d’ that I had worked as a dishwasher in that restaurant 48 years ago, and I had always hoped that someone would surprise me, the dishwasher with $100. Since I feel like time is one, the past is constantly unfolding, and the future is always available. That by presenting the dishwasher today with the hundred euros I was fulfilling my past and affecting the future. I would say that I made his day if not his month. More importantly, it made me appreciate the Bohemian days when I could sleep on the floor, and now my days as an experienced restauranteur enjoying himself at the top of the “ladder”. I can only imagine that if I had ended up making shoes that summer I might be working for Nike today, and I am so glad that I don’t.
Written by Arthur Gordon, Owner