Medium Rare Trip to Italy: An epic lace chase in Burano

Three seconds on the clock. John Stockton passes the ball to Chris O'Brien. Two seconds. One second. Shot goes up. It's good! Jazz win! Jazz win!

Like every kid in their childhood driveway, I imagined taking the last shot of the NBA Finals. But unlike 99 percent of my neighbors here in Chicago, I spent 1997 and 1998 rooting for the Utah Jazz over Michael Jordan. When MJ hit that game winner over Bryon Russell, I was crushed.

What I didn't know was in that moment, 340 miles away, my future wife was celebrating that shot with her family in the Northwest Suburbs. Her dad was dumping champagne over his head in their basement. Bulls win. Repeat the three-peat.

And what I really didn't know, and certainly never practiced in the driveway, was what it would be like with five minutes on the clock, the last ferry boat of the day leaving for the hotel. What it's like to sprint the opposite way to a little lace store in Burano to buy Ashley some sort of shawl looking scarf thing.

Shot goes up. It's...

First Quarter

There are two smaller islands next to Venice called Murano and Burano. Both are peaceful little islands with a small channel running through the middle of town. The houses and shops are painted in either pastel or primary colors. Murano is known for their glass making. Burano is famous for these intricate hand-woven lace products.

Burano is further away, takes about an hour to get to via ferry boat. The boats depart every couple hours and if you miss the last one of the day you're either forking over $150+ for a water taxi or knocking on doors asking if you can crash for the night.

Ashley had two "must haves" on her Italy shopping list. A leather jacket in Florence and some lace in Burano. I don't really understand lace, but I figured a guy trying to wrap his head around lace is probably what it's like in reverse for a wife wrapping her head around why someone would watch the NBA or NFL Draft. Every lace thing she held up to me and said, "Isn't this incredible?" my thoughts were, "Yeah, I think so?" and, "Hey, it's kind of like those snowflake projects we did in elementary art class."

The first lace store we went into there was a 95-year-old woman hard at work hand-stitching. She only spoke Italian. Frustrated Italian. She kept waiving her right hand in the air then pointing down at the work, shaking her head.

"She says the other ladies are messing it up," one of the store workers said with a smile.

The employee who spoke English described how a team of grandmas and great-grandmas work on these projects in different shifts. Most of these women it's been passed down through their family, generations of the lace stitching profession.

The lady continued to rant about her co-workers in Italian. Even at 95, even in Burano, there's still some good old fashioned office drama.

Second Quarter

Ashley fell in love with the second store. There was lace everything; scarves, shawls, table cloths. There were these little lace baby shoes that even got a, "Hey, that's pretty cool" review out of me. The store owner greeted us and gave us the backstory.

"I run the store, there's my Mama, she designs, there's my grandmama, she does the stitching."

The grandma looked up, smiled. Like the lady in the last store, she didn't speak any English. But her Italian was way more calm.

Ashley picked out a couple things to come back and buy. We left to continue exploring the island. Ashley was torn because there was one shawl she really really wanted, but it was a little bit pricey. We'd have to pull out some more Euros. When we went back to the store, she ended up buying the other things, tried the shawl on again, but decided nope. Eh, try it one more time. Dangit. Nope. Put it back.

Another lady walked into the store as we were buying these items.

"That's my great grandmama," the store owner said. "She lives across the street. She's the real boss."

And I immediately sold the concept of this store as a sitcom to NBC.

Third Quarter

We get outside, Ashley's still wrestling with the lace shawl, or lack thereof. I assure her, you can get it, it's fine. She looks at me, tries to see if I'm making an empty gesture. No, I'm serious. It's ok. I up the game of chicken, walk us right over to the ATM.

Ashley puts in her card and I don't really understand what happened here but some combination of the ATM not working, the directions written in Italian, and Ashley thinking about that shawl resulted in, "It ate our card. Chris, it ate the card."

We ended up going back to the store for help. He followed us to the ATM, said that this sometimes happens. But the bank was closed for the day, wouldn't open until 9 the next morning. All of Burano was starting to close up shop. The final ferry boat of the day was in 15 minutes. We walked with him back to the store and exchanged emails, numbers, gave him the address for our hotel in Florence. His plan was to go into the bank next morning, get our card, mail it off to us. And we would just have to hope the train station took credit card.

Ultimately the ATM made the decision for us. There would be no lace shawl.

Fourth Quarter

We stood by the dock. Ashley looked through her purse. She closed her eyes, hit her hand on her forehead. What? She holds up the debit card. Again, not really sure what happened, but I think during the ATM confusion she took the card out, but put it in a different spot in the purse. There was now five minutes on the clock. I reach out my hand. Ashley passes the card to Chris O'Brien...

I sprint into town, running for the ATM. I find an English button. Alright. Sweet. We're cruising now. Enter your PIN. Crap. Momentum comes to a screeching halt. I try Ashley's birthday. I try another code she uses. I try my birthday. 0-for-3. And now there's three minutes left.

In the movies, the prince in shining armor rounds the corner with lace shawl in hand.

In real life, the husband rounds the corner (out of breath from the sprints) with a debit card in hand saying, "Yeah, I didn't know your pin."

But Ashley wasn't ready to give up. With two minutes left, she took the card, made a sprint back. I could see the ferry boat approaching as she left.

Sadly, she came back with the same result. It wasn't a PIN thing at all, it was just a malfunctioning ATM.

As the sun set in Burano, and our itinerary moved on to Florence, it was time for us to accept the outcome. It just wasn't in the cards...


I had already fallen asleep, but apparently Ashley was still wide awake running through scenarios for how to still make this purchase work. We technically hadn't gotten our train tickets yet to Florence. We really weren't on a tight schedule. Which means...

"I can't shake it," Ashley says the next morning. "I'll always regret not going back."

This was another one of those Jones is in the Super Bowl or nighttime tour at the Colosseum moments. Gotta make it happen. But before heading back to Burano, Ashley led us to a spot that felt like almost an apology or the ultimate thank you for accepting the epic lace chase. She led me into a writer's paradise. It was this famous bookstore in Venice that has a gondola in the middle of the store filled with books. There were books everywhere. Another boat filled with books next to another one. I don't know if I could write anything that puts this place into perspective more than this photo:


I was so inspired that I bought a copy of Dante's Divine Comedy in Italian. And I was fully convinced in that moment, like someone going all in on running the Chicago marathon, that not only would I learn Italian but I would read that entire book in it's original language. Totally brushed over the fact that I didn't read that entire book when it was in English back in high school. Didn't matter. I felt as determined on this mission as Michael Jordan at the end of a basketball game or Ashley with the lace shawl. And I'm happy to report that now back home, two months later, I have... yeah, I haven't started this project at all.

We get on the ferry boat. A couple times during the ride Ashley says things like, "I can't believe I'm doing this" or "This is crazy." We dock at Burano, walk back to the store.

When we walked through the doorway, both the store owner and his mom immediately light up with big smiles. And if you've ever wondered if Italian people actually say "Mama mia!" I can assure you it does actually happen.

"Mama Mia!" the owner said. "You came back!"

The mom called her grandma out. She walked out, another big smile, gave us both hugs. After we made the purchase, they grabbed a few things off the shelves, told us to follow them to their garden in the back of the store. They handed a lace umbrella to Ashley. Asked for her phone, took photos. The grandma took a seat with us for a few more photos.

"Now you can relax," they said to Ashley. Arm around her shoulder. "Come visit us again. You can stay with us."

When we got outside, Ashley started dancing down the street as this leaning clock tower chimed for 10 o'clock. We did it. Bulls win. Time to find the champagne. I thought about how cool it would be to come back to Burano in five, ten years with a family of our own, walk into that store again and say hello. Take some more photos with new family members. And yes, probably buy a few more things.

We left Burano for real this time. But next time we'll have a place to stay, just in case we miss the last boat of the day.

We've still got Florence, Cinque Terre, and Siena all on deck to complete the Medium Rare Trip to Italy series, but I'm going to throw an intermission here. On Monday, I'll be doing the next installment of "Please, Take This Idea" with a business idea that would help solve Fake News and Facebook arguments once and for all. The Monday after that will be Medium Rare Healthcare, my friend Jon Oldham will be explaining the surprising ways that sugar and carbs can lead to a stuffy nose and sinus infections. 

And if you missed any of the previous Medium Rare Trip to Italy posts, here they are:

Here or There

Hitting your Happiness Deductible

Relaxed People Stress me Out

But Maybe "living in the moment" is Overrated (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3)

From London to Rome, with a side of Jetlag

Roman Colosseum, Vatican, and Pope on the Slopes

Venice: Movie Stars and One Really Aggressive Pigeon

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