No one sets out to buy a $35 club sandwich. You back into that kind of decision later and over time, after long miles journeyed, after tiny losses mounting on your stomach, after foolish choices and opportunities foregone, after hunger sets in and then settles in. The $35 club sandwich is a end-of-the-line choice, almost happenstance, but it happens, and when it happens, it happens all the way.
It was November 2007, and the journey was Venice. A dream city, the Floating City, Queen of the Adriatic. We left Florence on an afternoon train. For fun that morning we marched ancient streets and climbed Il Duomo’s 467 stairs–yes, for fun–which had us rushing to the station with train station snacks for lunch. In Italy, the presence of a service, in this case a snack car, never guarantees actual availability. Closed, reason unknown. A three-hour ride later, through Tuscany, through Bologna and Padua, we rode down the causeway to Venice’s Santa Lucia station.
Venetian splendor? Not yet. Santa Lucia Station offers nothing aptly labeled splendor. Buses and vaporetti, you bet. Pickpockets, sure. Cuisine options? Grim.
Most of Venice is centuries old, laid out before even before coaches and carriages. In Venice you go by foot or boat, and our hotel was 3.3 km of lagoon away. It would be boat. Hungry but excited, we skipped the snack bar chips and schlepped our bags across the piazza to the vaporetto.
The Number 1. The slow boat. Makes all the stops. 45 minutes to St. Mark’s Square.
Still, Venice is Venice.
In Venice, food, tours, trinkets, everything is priced to extract Euro. We had stumbled–and not out of hunger–upon the one bargain in Venice. For €6.50 (a direct water taxi was €100), the Number 1 takes you on a leisurely cruise down a most extraordinary Main Street, the Grand Canal. Traghetti ferry passengers around the gondolas snaking in and out. Centuries-old palazzi locked together, sinking arm-in-arm into the lagoon that Venetian merchant barons sought to claim for themselves. By day it is stunning. At night, magical. €6.50 for a lifetime experience? Sold. If only hunger wasn’t wanting to drag us down along with the palaces.
It turns out the hotel’s private dock was unmarked. Not a sign in Italian, Latin or any language. I should point out there is an entire bank of unmarked sloops. We trudged up and down canalside, loving the view but cursing the signage. An hour or so later we managed upon the hotel boat, and off we went, another 15 minutes of gorgeous lagoon to our hotel.
I probably should have mentioned that we off-season splurged. Hotel San Clemente isn’t a building – it’s an island. Its own island.
In 1131 San Clemente served as a base for pilgrims en route to the Holy Land. In 1432 it became a monastery, and since it has provided asylum for the devout, plague victims, the mentally ill, cats, and on that night us and our hungry bones.
So we walked through the windswept courtyards to the reception lobby, and found the island’s only restaurant closed. It was for the best, seeing the menu’s five-star prices. “There is food in the bar,” we were assured.
Except the bar looked like the sort of room where emperors used to sign peace treaties. Sounds great, doesn’t it? A little uninviting, but fantastic. And empty. The bartender regarded us the late-arriving, church-climb sweat-dried, train funked and vaparetto fumed interlopers that we in fact were. “There is room service,” we were assured.
Look, this is not like this is Les Miserables or anything, but somewhat desperate times call for somewhat desperate measures. On the room service menus were pastas and meat dishes that sung to the empty stomach. Their prices flirted with the absurd. For €21 ($35) we could split a club sandwich. The best terrible deal on the island, done and done.
It’s a complex thing spending that much a sandwich, and it plays out in stages. First, there is regret: that you didn’t look harder at the train station, that you didn’t brave the dingy bars, that $35 is just a lot to pay for a sandwich. Then comes the justification. It comes with pancetta, you tell yourself. And a side salad. The bargaining: we saved on the vaporetto and will eat simply tomorrow. And then, as time continues to tick by, comes peaceful acceptance. The conscious mind – and minibar wine – steps in, prepping the taste buds get ready for one damn fine sandwich. $35 worth of damn good. In crept the subconscious, hopeful but conflicted, inner belief systems pushed and pulled over the cost vs. need, economy vs. desire. We prickled with deep questions.
The sandwich arrived.
You study a $35 sandwich. It looked incredible. How would it taste? With that kind of sandwich in play, certain things cloud your memory, but I can tell you it tasted fantastic, like food magic plus pancetta. I remember the chicken on my tongue, a mealy tomato but amazing ciabatta and the fried egg thrown in Italian-style. Ah, sandwich, gone too soon. I remember it well, and the wine and the monastery grounds outside. Beyond the dark lagoon shimmered, its dark lumps for islands speckled with lights, the bright domes and marinas of Venice beyond.
Five years ago, in Venice we bought a $35 sandwich.
Fine sandwich. Better memory.