Mr Tabubil was terribly disappointed about being unable to see any actual glass blowing. He had wanted it badly. But he was in a state of nobly not repining and put on a brave face and merely sighed, gustily, every five minutes or so.
I slipped out early the next morning and found two factories in Venice itself. We tried them both, but we were spotted fifteen paces out from the front door - men in sports coats and solid gold watches intercepted us, and scowling, said "Only package tours! Go Away!"
So I walked down to the waterfront and I found us a package tour. The lady selling tickets at a booth outside San Marco was really too sweet to be a tour-tout.
“Oh, Cara, REALLY? They did that to you? At Murano? They wouldn’t let you in? Oh HONEY. That's not supposed to happen. But look - our tour goes to Murano to visit one of the factories there, and after that we go to two other islands as well, to Torcello and to Burano – that’s the one with all the painted houses? And the lace?
Are you still a student? You look young enough to be a student. Does your husband look as young as you? He does? I’ll give you both the student rate, and then you can at least GO across to Murano and look at the glass blowing, and after that you can just slip away and come back to Venice afterward, if you like.”
We rather liked. It sounded like a lovely afternoon. The weather was fixing to rain, and an afternoon in a boat sounded like a better deal than slipping and sliding across damp cobblestone streets in the company of several hundred strangers.
It was a wild and wooly afternoon. Our boat plowed through the rough water (not QUITE storm-tossed, but quite tossed enough for us as we digested our Venetian lunches) the screw of the propeller groaning and shuddering below our seats, while a much-put-upon tour guide gave a lecture on the history of glass blowing. He gave it in five languages, one at a time, and not one version audible over the engine as it ground and chugged, fighting against the wind and the storm waves.
At Murano, we docked at a very PRIVATE dock, and were hustled through the pelting rain into a furnace room set up with a viewing stand three levels deep, where we watched an extraordinarily skillful man in shorts and gumboots spent ten minutes sweating rivers in front of the furnace door and doing things to glass that didn't feel QUITE possible -
He was playing with liquid fire. The things that he did were very simple – simple in the way of a fine work of calligraphy - a simple that takes ten years to master, learning where to put that one solitary brushstroke that turns a blob of spilled ink into a delicate spider web of poetry and bamboo trees -
It was a virtuoso performance. But it was over very quickly, and we were herded out of the factory and into the showroom, and there the REAL performance began.
It was parasitic prices and salesmen like prowling sharks in very expensive suits. The last time I'd been to Murano, I'd been let into a workroom where a team of glassblowers were engaged in the serious business of making a chandelier. I could stay as long as I wished, pass in and out as I chose, and on the other side of the workshop in the grand salon, I drifted at will and wandered out into the street, and nobody stopped me, but saw me out with a friendly wave and smiled to see me go.
Here there were endless floors of tall white rooms, flood-lit and spot-lit and filled with the most extraordinary works and pieces. Every time your eye lit - sideways and in passing - onto something, anything, a man in gold chains and diamond rings appeared beside you, holding tightly to your arm as he snatched at the piece and extemporized on special terms for international shipping, and always reminding you that you had only 30 minutes before the boat left, so minds must be made up quickly, quickly -
It wasn't sale by ambush - it was sale by kidnap into a bandit's treasure cave. Banditry indeed - the prices were three times what they were in the free shops of Murano and Venice. The heavy-handed refusal the previous day of the glass studios to admit anybody with the time for comparison shopping was beginning to make a great deal of sense.
We couldn't have gotten out of that tour if we'd wanted to. There was no way out than the way we’d come in, and if there was, the men in suits weren't telling. We were rather committed to the afternoon, but we were in the dry and the warm, and even the probability of captivity in a lace factory on Burano, with no chance to go outside and see the painted houses, seemed preferable to fighting our way out into rain and flooded streets through a wall of stubborn men.