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Canal Zone

A San Jose writer succumbs to the lure of Venice's gondoliers in a new memoir

By Mandy Toomey

A YOUNG American woman strolls through the streets of Venice. As she walks near the canals, she gains the not-unwelcome attention of the local sun-blushed gondoliers. Mining these interactions, Kathleen Gonzalez, a San Jose writer and teacher, decides to tell the story of the city's modern-day Casanovas. The result is Free Gondola Ride (self-published; $15), released last year.

Gonzalez made her first trip to Italy in the spring of 1996. She found herself "immediately enamored with Venice." She returned later that summer, leaving behind a longtime boyfriend, and got to know two gondoliers; these encounters inspired her to write about the often seen and heard, but rarely questioned, romantic legends. At first, Gonzalez had envisioned a coffee-table book filled with glossy photographs of the gondoliers framed with interesting facts. While the book does include pictures of the stripe-shirted gondoliers along with some intriguing details, Gonzalez found quickly that her role would not be that of a journalist.

She arrived at her first "official interview" with Max and Giannino (two of the featured gondoliers) carrying a notebook and tape recorder. This method didn't work. "I knew I wasn't going to get past the face they put on for tourists that way," Gonzalez explains. What the men saw was not a journalist but rather a woman. That first interview turned quickly into a leisurely lunch.

In originally planning out the book, Gonzales wanted to show these stereotypical icons of Venice as real people. "The irony was that a lot of [the gondoliers] fit the Italian stereotype of the macho man hitting on women," Gonzalez confesses. As Gonzalez wandered around the traghettos (gondola stations), she would be inundated with "Ciao, bella" and free meal offers. Gonzalez decided to try the more casual approach: "I would sit with a book close to where the gondoliers would go by, and I tried to start up conversations." Thus the writing project began to take shape in the form of flirtations, fancy meals and free gondola rides.

As Gonzalez's relationships with the gondoliers began to evolve, she made her way from the passenger's seat near the front of the gondola to the back of the boat at the gondolier's feet. This position was not a place offered to just any casual tourist. Gonzalez' objectivity jumped ship along the way. She was transported to a place where she was forever doted on and called beautiful. "It was hard to separate the book from my interactions with [the gondoliers] and myself," she admits. The book begins with that first fateful interview, which turned quickly into a dinner date of sorts. The story then follows Gonzalez through the narrow stone streets of Venice as she befriends the at times overzealous gondoliers while warding off their romantic advances.

The highlight is a scene in which Gonzalez takes a free moonlight gondola ride, which leaves her not only questioning her objectivity--where to draw the line between friend and subject--but also her needs as a woman. The book straddles two genres as both travel narrative and romantic memoir. It comes off as a playful, light read as Gonzalez opens herself up and shares her inner struggles as a woman questioning a relationship back home in the midst of the romance of Venice and the modern-day Casanovas of the canals.


Kathleen Ann Gonzales appears for a booksigning on Monday (March 15) at 7:30pm at Books Inc., 301 Castro St., Mountain View. (650.428.1234)


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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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