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Binky the Rat

By Dave Fox
Venice Italy

Unlike the rats, Venice's pigeons are not known for their soccer skills.

People in the streets of Venice were cheering for the rat. At least that’s what I’m told. But I was missing the action. I was inside — warm and cozy on this rainy night, sitting at the back of a jazz bar with six people from my tour group, sipping wine as a Miles Davis video played from overhead screens.

Outside, the rat (I’ll call him Binky) was struggling to come in. Over and over, poor Binky kept banging his tender rat snout on the bar door in a desperate quest for a glass of Chianti.

Or maybe he was just a Miles Davis fan; we didn’t know. But the rumor spreading through the pub was that Binky had drawn a crowd of spectators who cheered as he scrambled to infiltrate our watering hole.

Don’t Drink the Water

Centuries ago, a northern Italian tribe called the Veneti kept getting whacked by another tribe called the Barbarians, who were bigger and meaner than the Veneti. The Veneti fled into the soggy lagoon off of Italy’s northeast coast. There was no inhabitable land there, so they went to work and built an island. They pounded millions of pilings into the swampy mud and created a city on top.

The Barbarians weren’t interested in this artificial land. It flooded often and was slowly sinking. They left the Veneti alone. The Veneti were soggy but safe on their new island.

Over time, Venice flourished. A crossroads between East and West, it grew rich from shipbuilding and trade. Majestic buildings sprouted in an architectural style found nowhere else. But every year, the city flooded — and still does.

Venice has no roads and no cars. Boats shuttle people through the canals. When writer Robert Benchley was covering Venice for the New Yorker magazine, he wired his editor upon arrival: “Streets flooded. Please advise.”

The canals are infamously filthy. In 1955 Katherine Hepburn was filming a scene in the movie, “Summertime” in which she fell backward into the Grand Canal. The polluted water almost left her blind.

The Venetian tourist office advises that anyone who falls in should go immediately to the hospital for a shot of antibiotics.

I heard the story from Mike, the youngest member in our group. Mike was a creative guy with a knack for storytelling. I doubted Mike’s tale. Why, I wondered, would a rat choose this particular bar? There were quieter places around the corner, where a rodent’s chances of getting squished were smaller. But Mike insisted Binky was out there.

The rain was coming down hard, and I thought it would be tough being a rat in Venice. Every year in the fall and winter, Venice’s streets flood, filling with more than a foot of water in some places. The Venetians cope, as they have for centuries, setting up makeshift walkways above water level, or donning hip boots, or just rowing through the streets.

Given the island city’s precarious footing, I was skeptical that a rat could exist here. It would require a harrowing swim through the sewage-spiked lagoon. He would have to hitch a ride on someone’s boat or steal a kickboard. And why would a rat go to such extremes? Surely there were equally good jazz bars on the mainland.

I figured Mike was just weaving another good story. The image of an Italian crowd standing out in the rain cheering for a rat to get inside a bar made no sense. But there was one thing I was overlooking. Soccer season was finished. An exhausted rat scampering through a doorway was the next best thing to a goal.

I forgot about Binky until 20 minutes later. That’s when Sherwin suddenly jumped. Sherwin was one of the more sober travelers among us. He had an uneasy smile now.

“What’s wrong?” we asked.

“The rat made it inside,” Sherwin said.

We looked down at the floor. Binky was nibbling on Sherwin’s sock.

We jumped up for a better view, which startled Binky. “There he goes!” Karl shouted as the rat made a beeline for the Sambuca.

I was the assistant tour guide. Our lead guide was back at the hotel. I had to take charge of the situation before someone got hurt. So I did what any highly trained assistant tour guide would do with an alcoholic rat underfoot. I leapt up on my chair and began shrieking in the shrill tones of a submissive 1950s housewife.

This was in accordance with the Official Guidelines for Protecting Your Tour Group from Rodent Attacks:

The best method of protecting your group from an attack by mid-to-large sized rodents in bars is to jump up and down and shriek in the shrill tones of a submissive 1950s housewife. This shows the rat several things:

  • You are incapable of harming it.
  • You are more afraid of it than it is of you.
  • You are too neurotic for the rat to want to sit down and drink Chianti with you.

Such action shows your group you are in control and will not cower in the face of adverse rodent situations. After several minutes of shrill screaming, you should mobilize your group and relocate to a pub with a no-rodent section.

— Official Tour Crisis Management Handbook, page 579

At breakfast the next morning, the room was abuzz with talk about Binky. He had grown faster than most fish that got away. Binky, I overheard, was no longer the cute-and-cuddly, Miles-Davis-loving, Chianti-sipping, white, fluffy rat that had been a hero to the Venetians the night before. No. The story had changed, and now Binky was more like Ratzilla — seven feet long, foaming at the mouth, with fangs the size of Cleveland and breath like Chewbaca’s.

According to these new accounts, Binky had strutted menacingly about the bar, puffing on a cigar and mumbling, “American tourists must be eaten” in an ominous Godfather-esque dialect of Old World English. He had come after Sherwin with a chainsaw and was also seen gnawing on the carcass of what appeared to have been our bartender. We were lucky to have made it out alive.

The rumors saddened me. Poor Binky couldn’t have been that big and evil. And so what if he had been smoking a cigar? This was Italy. Everybody smokes.

We heard worrisome news a week later in Paris. Venice was experiencing severe flooding — worse than usual. I wished I had bought Binky some lasagna to help him weather the storm when I had the chance. I hoped he had a lifejacket.

Published on Saturday, March 22, 2003

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