Our benefactor was Great-Aunt Norma.
When she was young, she didn't have the money for such an adventure, she told us. When she was older, she didn't have the time. Now, in old age, she had both, but her health was lacking.
The ship, the Radisson Seven Seas Navigator, and its itinerary were a dream: embarking in Venice, Italy, and sailing to Split, Croatia; Malta; Sardinia; Livorno, Italy; Marseilles and Sète, France; Palma de Mallorca; and disembarking in Barcelona, Spain.
In exchange for the cruise, Aunt Norma extracted two promises from us: We had to take a lot of photographs to share with her, and Andrian and I had to spend every possible moment together. Aunt Norma had a hidden agenda.
Andrian and I had a strained relationship, and we tended to blow up over inconsequential matters. In fact, we hadn't spoken since an argument at Christmas five years before.
Because Andrian then lived in New York City and I in Los Angeles, we flew separately to Venice.
I arrived the day before he did, and it was already evening when I entered a Venice tourist office, cold, haggard and hungry after 18 hours of travel. My first night in Venice was on my dime, so I requested help finding budget accommodations, and booked a $47 room at a clean rooming house that appeared to have been recently renovated. My room had a view of a canal and included a continental breakfast of pastries served sealed in plastic wrappers.
The next morning, I returned to the tourist office and asked the same clerk for directions to the Hotel Cipriani, where Andrian and I would stay before the cruise. Her eyebrows arched with surprise; the expensive Cipriani consistently lands on annual lists of the world's top 20 hotels.
The night was on Aunt Norma: She had read about the Cipriani and its glories and had insisted we stay there.
Who was I to quibble? I took the No. 8 water taxi to Giudecca Island and checked in. The Cipriani exudes a confident, understated elegance. A bellboy and a butler showed me to the room, which was in a 15th century palazzo linked by a beautiful courtyard to the main hotel building.
To describe the place as a "room" is irreverent: Its floor was 900 square feet of marble and supported a fine assortment of antique furniture. The large bathroom was all red marble, including a sarcophagus-like bathtub with built-in jets. From the room, you could see the Giudecca Canal and a postcard view of the Venetian skyline: the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute and the renowned structures of the Piazza San Marco and, in the background, other landmarks silhouetted in a misty sky.
A perfect Venice noir
A few hours later, Andrian arrived. Fresh from a bath and wrapped in a plush hotel robe, I greeted him. We exchanged cursory hellos, and as I poured him a glass of champagne and showed him around the palazzo, he complained about flight delays and post-Sept. 11 travel hassles.
Then he stopped mid-sentence, taking in our exquisite surroundings.
I suggested (with a straight face) that as difficult as things were, we'd have to make the best of it.
A reluctant smile materialized on Andrian's face.
By any measure of reality, our circumstances should have engendered some spark of esprit de corps. But, as we discussed our sightseeing plans over dinner at Cip's Club, a cozy hotel restaurant, it was clear this was not going to happen.