The Human GPS

You know how we all have one special talent: the gift big enough to fill a room; or so subtle only our id knows for sure? I believe everybody has a knack, a flair, call it what you want. We each enjoy our own superpower.

My wife is a human GPS. You could drop Mary in the deepest, darkest Amazon rain forest, and she’d find her way home no problem. Urban sprawl is a piece of cake. She pooh-poohs electronic navigation systems when we’re driving somewhere unfamiliar, finds the voices annoying no matter the gender or the accent. Mary grabs a map and takes over the navigation, which is fine from my perspective because I could get lost in our backyard.

There have been the occasional mishaps. We once drove to Gatwick, when our return flight to the USA was out of Heathrow. But that’s another story, and Mary was diagnosed with chicken pox the day after we returned. So I’m inclined to think the circumstances were extenuating. Even Superman runs into the occasional case of kryptonite, right?

This story is about Venice. The city is to tourists, I think, what the Himalayas are to mountain climbers. Don’t get me wrong. I love the place. There just happen to be enormous challenges when touring the canals. And some are more serious than the navigation.

Several years ago, we were driving through Austria en route to Italy. And true to form, Mary was scrutinizing maps and reading a travel guide that described “marauding bands of Venetian pirates.”

“Watch out,” the guide warned. “There are thieves are everywhere.”

Duly alerted, we resolved to keep our eyes peeled. But the “marauding bands of Venetian pirates” became something of a running joke during our drive. For that matter, the warnings seemed overblown upon arrival. There was a state-of-the-art parking garage on the mainland outside the water taxi stand. It was well staffed and well organized, the picture of efficiency. I think 747s would be lucky to receive the kind of guidance our parking attendants offered that day. No sign of bandits.

Right.

The drop zone for water cabs was our first hint something was amiss. Literally, it was a drop zone. The attendants—smiling and waving their arms in the manner that makes the Italian language so enchanting—guided us to the departure area, tossed our bags into the hands of the crew, and signaled for us to get in. Next stop Venice.

There was one problem. The drop was eight feet. There were no stairs or ladders, just lots of air separating us from the deck. It was, as you might guess, the kind of moment that gave us dry mouth.

We did it, grasping the walls, allowing our bodies to stretch as far down as possible, and finally dropping. Me first. I helped Mary, who stuck the landing, a couple of feet, no big deal. When we were both safe, we glanced at each other with knowing looks that said, “This isn’t right.”

Then we waited. Our boat captain explained that another family was arriving, which made me wonder what kind of monitoring system the garage used. After about 15 minutes, the couple and their kids arrived. They, too, stuck the landings, both Mary and me helping this time. The captain indicated we would go to their hotel first.

We drove across the harbor, breathtaking views of Venice, and exchanged pleasantries with the family. Like us, they were staying three days. Inside the city’s canal system, a turn here and a turn there, the captain announced to our fellow passengers with the Cheshire cat smile, “We’re at your hotel.”

That’s when Mary kicked into action. She marched up to the front of the boat and stated, emphatic, resolved, 100 percent certain, “No we’re not.”

Our captain pretended not to speak English. But he got the point. Mary gestured right, then left, and stabbed at her map of the canals with an insistent forefinger. He was cowed and, nodding his head with an expression that says “Yikes” in any language, started the boat again.

Mary tapped him on the shoulders when it was time to turn, her map and index finger always at the ready. After another twenty or so minutes, we arrived at the first hotel. The couple thanked us, packed up their kids, and disembarked. They told Mary, “Thank you. We would have been lost.”

Then came our turn. The captain turned down one canal and proceeded to a dock, which looked like all the others. “We’re here.”

Mary folded her arms and shook her head, tapping her foot on the deck. The captain shrugged and started motoring again. He had this guilty look on his face, like he should have known better than to try a second time. Twenty minutes later we pulled up to our hotel.

Phew.

In retrospect, I think we charged right into the marauding band of pirates from the guidebook. They wanted a quick drop, a quick buck, and a quick getaway. I don’t claim to have any special insights into pirates. But as pirates go, I suspect these guys were fairly agreeable. They just happened to meet their match that day, my wife, the human GPS, the modern equivalent of Red Chief in the famous hostage story from O’Henry.