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unexpected blessings
By Margo Fallis 2007

Ah, Venice – one of my favorite places in the world. During a recent trip to the romantic city, something happened that changed me forever. After a sudden divorce, I found myself feeling confused about life, not sure of the direction I wanted to take it, and worse than that, I didn’t even know who I was any more. When a friend suggested that I go on a vacation somewhere, I thought about it for a few days and decided that she was right! I needed to get away. “Go somewhere you’ve always wanted to go!” I’d always wanted to go to Venice, Italy. My children were grown, living on their own, and too involved in their own lives to need me any longer. Sometimes weeks would go by without hearing from any of them. There was nobody left to miss me. I withdrew my savings from the bank, ordered a new passport (with my maiden name on it), bought an airline ticket and soon found myself flying across the Atlantic Ocean. I was a little frightened because it was the first time I’d traveled alone. I looked at it as a new adventure for the new me.

I checked into a Bed & Breakfast close to St. Mark’s Square. As I unpacked my suitcase, I giggled with excitement. “I’m actually here in Venice, Italy!” I pulled the lace curtains back and looked out the window. When a gondola filled with people rowed past and I heard the gondolier singing, I leaned out the window and waved at them. I couldn’t wait to explore this city with all its canals, narrow streets and bridges.

Feeling hungry, I grabbed my bag and headed outside. A wave of humid, Venetian heat swirled around me as I ran down the steps. I embraced it and enjoyed the feeling of warm moisture on my skin. I headed into St. Mark’s Square, along with several thousand other tourists. On the flight over, I’d read that the Square was the most photographed place in Europe. Looking at the crowds, I didn’t doubt that for a moment. Located in the heart of Venice, Piazza San Marco is surrounded by boutiques, cafes, Gothic cathedrals decorated with stained glass and mosaics, towers, and palaces. There, children eating gelato can run around to their hearts content, lovers can stroll hand in hand under the Clock Tower, and tourists can find the perfect place to snap a photograph of the winged lion of Venice or of the ancient Greek statues of horses that were placed atop St. Mark’s Cathedral. Standing in front of the Doge’s Palace I watched the pigeons as they flocked throughout the square, wreaking havoc among the tourists. A few fluttered about the pink Venetian glass at the top of the painted green lampposts. Diving right into my tourist mode, I purchased a cup of birdseed from a vendor and scattered it around my feet. The pigeons surrounded me, pecking the seed with voracious appetites. Cameras snapped photos and video cameras captured the flock of hungry birds performing their feeding ritual. A small boy, about eight years old, stood watching me. While all the others laughed at the feeding frenzy, his sad, lifeless eyes showed no joy. He had a mop of wavy, chocolate-brown hair, big brown eyes, and a look of innocence about him.

A rogue pigeon landed on top of my head. Its claws dug into me. “Shoo. Go away!” I brushed it off with my hand, watching it fly over to another group of people. When I looked back up to see the boy disappear into the crowd.

I took the cup back to the vendor, thanked him, and sauntered further into the square. I was thrilled to be surrounded by such wonders of history. I spent the rest of the day exploring St. Mark’s Cathedral, the Doge’s Palace, and lazily wandering around the shops lining the square. The rumblings in my tummy reminded me I was hungry; I headed for a quiet restaurant someone had recommended to me, the Dei Dogi Veneziani, inside the San Marco Palace Hotel. That evening I feasted on Venetian antipasti, filled with succulent shrimp, bits of octopus and lobster, tender and flaky Murano crabs and risotto. Every bite was an ambrosial indulgence, worthy of the gods themselves. I topped off my meal by indulging in a cinnamony desert, bussolai. As I raised the fork to my mouth, the aroma of buttery sweetness seeped into my nostrils. Never had a meal tasted so nectareous. As the waiter fussed over and pampered me, I felt giddy. I pinched myself to see if I was really here or if it was just a dream.

As I headed back to my B&B, I saw the young boy again. He leaned against a gondola. It bobbed up and down on the choppy waves, lifting and dropping the boy’s arm along with it. The sound of the waves splashed in rhythmic beats, sloshing against the riverboats. I smiled at him and waved. When he didn’t respond, I ran up the steps of the B&B and shut the door behind me. I couldn’t resist peeking out the window to see if he was still there. With head hanging low, he kicked a pebble into the choppy water and then disappeared into the square.

Every morning I planned out my day, making sure I included as many sites as possible. I enjoyed myself and had sense of freedom and contentment. I gained confidence and relished the fact that I was privileged to see the world through different eyes. I was not the same person I’d been when I left the States. The magic of Venice urged me to seek the beauty in every day things around me and filled me with wonder and curiosity. Could life be more perfect than it was right now? The only thing that bothered me was that no matter where I went, the young boy appeared, staring at me with those vacant eyes. He wasn’t one of those street urchins I’d read so much about; his clothes were tidy, his shoes were polished, and his face and hands sparkled with cleanliness. He made me feel uncomfortable. Silly ideas popped into my head. What if the boy was planning to steal my purse and was following me around, waiting for the right moment?

I spent a day in the Rialto Bridge area. Aside from Piazza San Marco, it is one of the most popular tourist areas. Its famous bridge crosses the Gran Canal, connecting two of Venice’s many islands. I took many photographs of the arched wonder. The gondoliers rowing underneath added life to the pictures. I hoped one or two would turn out well enough to have framed when I got back home. I spotted the boy standing in the shade between two buildings. When he saw me looking his direction, he stepped back further into the darkness.

After shopping, I headed back to the B&B, fighting my way through the crowds. Instead of catching a gondola as I usually did, I chose to walk the narrow streets, hoping to find somewhere that sold reasonably priced Venetian glass. I passed a man selling vegetables and fruits out of boxes and stopped for a look. Never had I seen peppers as red, or corn as golden. I bought a ripe, fuzzy kiwi and a golden delicious apple and continued my walk. As I walked past a shop, hundreds of pieces of Venetian glass, in all shapes, sizes and colors, stared at me through the front window. A red, green and white striped awning hung over it and the door. The name, ‘Vincenzo’s’, spread across the window. The gold paint, outlined with black, invited all to enter. A bell tinkled as I opened the squeaky door and it didn’t take long for the proprietor, who I presumed was Vincenzo, to greet me and ask if I needed help. He reminded me of a thin Santa Claus, having a jolly twinkle in his eyes, rosy cheeks, and a long white beard. He showed me several exquisite pieces and rambled on about the authenticity of each piece. “A man in Murano brings the glass to me every Wednesday afternoon. You’ll never find a better glassblower than Lorenzo.” When he flicked the side of the glass with his finger, it pinged. It was sweet music to my ears and didn’t take much than that to convince me Lorenzo was indeed talented. Each piece was ornate, delicate, and unique. I wanted them all. One piece was a fish swimming in a bowl. “It’s made entirely of Venetian glass, even the fish,” Vincenzo assured me. Unable to resist, I purchased it, along with a few other trinkets for my children and grandchildren. As I waited for them to be wrapped, I saw the boy walk past the shop window. I recognized him immediately. I’d seen him enough to know his stride, the way his hair hung on the back of his neck, and his style of clothing.

With packages held tightly in my hand, I headed towards St. Mark’s Square. A few minutes later the boy was walking behind me again. I’d been in Venice for ten days and every day had been the same thing. He’d never spoken to me or bothered me in any way and I’d never felt threatened; he seemed harmless. I was due to leave the next day and curiosity finally drove me to turn around and confront him. When I stopped, the boy stopped. I strolled cautiously back to where he stood. “Excuse me, but do you speak English?” He nodded yes. “Why have you been following me?”

His eyes pooled with tears. I felt horrible. My heart ached for the boy, but I wanted an answer. “My mama…” he mumbled.

“Your mama? Where’s your mama?” I asked. I’d never seen him with another person.

“My mama and papa died. You look like my mama,” he said, bravely fighting back tears.

Suddenly it all made sense. This little boy had lost his parents and missed his mama. He was following me around because I reminded him of her. When I knelt down, my eyes were at the same level as his. “I look like your mama?” He nodded again. “I’m sure you miss her very much.”

He blurted out the story of how his parents were killed in an airplane crash near Rome. The boy now lived with his grandmother, not far from St. Mark’s Square. “When I saw you feeding the pigeons, I thought you were my mama.” Several tears dripped from his eyes. I wrapped my arms around him and held him as he sobbed. “I miss my mama and papa.”

Vincenzo opened the door. Scowling, he asked, “Is this boy bothering you?”

“Not at all,” I answered. I took the boy’s hand and the shop owner waved and went back inside. “What is your name?”


We strolled down the streets together. I bought Nicolo and myself a pastry filled with apricot jam and fresh whipped cream. “I hope your grandmamma doesn’t mind you having this,” I chuckled, licking the sticky icing off my fingers. Nicolo, with a mouth full of pastry, assured me she wouldn’t. When we reached St. Mark’s Square, I stopped a tourist and asked him to take a photo of Nicolo and I together. “This is where I first saw you and how I want to remember you,” I said, squeezing his hand.

When we reached his grandmother’s house, I rapped on the door. It creaked open. “Nicolo?” She looked concerned. “What has he done?”

“Nothing at all,” I assured her with a smile.

“Amica, Nonna,” Nicola replied. She didn’t speak English well. He looked at me. “I told her you were my friend.”

“Ah, amica!” Her eyes lit up and she invited me in for tea. I told her the whole story of our meeting, with Nicolo translating into Italian for his grandmother. We talked for hours. As I prepared to leave, Nicolo disappeared. When he returned he was holding a photograph of his mama and papa. His grandmother smiled and pointed at the picture of her daughter, nodding. “You look same,” she sighed. “Same eyes. Same hair.” I could see the sadness in her eyes. Nicolo handed me a paper bag of Italian cookies that his grandmother had told him to give me. “You take,” his nonna said.

Making sure their address was written in my book. I promised to send Nicolo a copy of the photograph I’d taken of the two of us together. I thanked them both and opened the door to leave. Nicolo rushed over to me and wrapped his arms around my waist. I started to cry along with him. “I’ll write you letters, Nicolo and we’ll keep in touch. I won’t forget you,” I said, prying his arms away. I knew I had to leave quickly or I’d never want to go.

I boarded the water taxi and as it pulled away from the dock, there stood my Nicolo, waving. Pulling a handkerchief out of my bag and wiping the tears away, I watched until Venice was only a dot on the horizon. I flew home that afternoon, Italian cookies in my flight bag and a warm smile on my face. I was ready to face the world and all its challenges and took comfort knowing there was a young boy in a far away land who needed me in his life.

I sent Nicolo a copy of the photograph and wrote him and his grandmother a letter every week. He wrote back as many. This continued for several years.

Last week, as I prepared to go to bed, my doorbell rang. “Who could possibly be ringing it at this time of night?” I wrapped a robe around me and opened the door. “Nicolo!”

In his hand was the photo of the two of us together. It had been seven years since I’d last seen him but I would have recognized those eyes and his wavy hair without it. “Mama,” he smiled and fell into my open arms and together we cried. We shared a glorious week before he went on to finish his summer holiday with his friends.

Sometimes unexpected blessings come to us in mysterious ways. If I hadn’t listened to my friend’s advice, or hadn’t found the courage to venture to Venice on my own, I’d have never met Nicolo and his grandmother. I thank the Lord each night for bringing this young man into my life and for helping me to see things in a different way. Nicolo was a gift from God, brought into my life, and me into his. We needed each other to heal and to move forward with life. For the first time in years, I felt important to someone – that has been the greatest blessing of all.

unexpected blessings - italy