Jun
13

Gelato on the brain

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"Crema Classica" is just about ready. Stand by with your pointing' trowels to start gorging.

“Crema Classica” is just about ready. Stand by with your pointing trowels ready to start gorging.

And when its done he scrapes it out of the churn with a long spoon and scrapes it into the container which is headed for the display case. Does it look bland? I'll tell you what: It isn't.

And when it’s done he scrapes it out of the freezer-churn with a long spoon and scrapes it into the container which is headed for the display case. Does it look bland? I’ll tell you what: It isn’t.

This must be the place.

This must be the place: Soban Gelateria, 23 Piazza Gramsci, Valenza, Italy.

I have spent the last few months immersed –now there’s a thrilling thought — in gelato. Specifically, in the artisanal gelato made by Andrea Soban in Valenza, Italy.

Guess what?  It’s simpler, and also harder, than you might think. Simpler in the sense of ingredients and procedure, and harder because, like playing a Bach fugue, you can’t just up and do it one day when the mood strikes you.  And don’t think that even professionals always (or ever) reach this empyreal level.  Those images above represent a literal lifetime of effort.

As it happens, though, we can leave it to him to deal with the details.  Anyone who can make it to Valenza can enter this parallel universe where everything conspires to make you happy.

The following photos are not intended as a manual on how make sublime gelato (I’ve left out a few things, such as “equipment” and “expertise”) but to show the attention to detail and the quality of ingredients Andrea lavishes on his ephemeral creations.  In fact, he’s always one day behind the gelato staring at you from the display case; ordering the milk and cream, making the mixture and leaving it in the pasteurizer overnight to “mature” means that what he freezes today he actually brewed up yesterday.

I wish he lived next door.  Life would be so much better.

Of course he's smiling. He's making gelato.

Of course he’s smiling. He’s making gelato.

Fresh whole milk goes into the pasteurizer where it will await its companions.

Followed by fresh cream. more or less 10W-40 weight. (Made up.)

Followed by fresh cream. more or less 10W-40 weight. (Made up.)

Separating eggs by hand. The yolks act as an emulsifer, the whites are often destined for a sorbetto.

Separating eggs by hand. The yolks act as an emulsifier in gelato, the whites are often destined for sorbetto.

There is the machinery, but nothing beats fingers and brain for even the simplest tasks.

There is the machinery, but nothing beats fingers and brain for even the simplest tasks.

Yolks beaten, into the mixture they go.

Yolks beaten, into the mixture they go.

Peeling ten lemons, followed by oranges.

Peeling ten lemons, followed by oranges.

Fat vanilla beans on the right, thin, shrivelly little beans from Tahiti on the left, which are, despite being thin and shrivelly, the most highly prized vanilla beans on the market.

Fat vanilla beans from Madagascar on the right.  The skinny little beans from Tahiti on the left are, despite being thin and shrivelly, the most highly prized vanilla beans on the market.

His forebears from the Zoldo Valley in the Veneto Region were the first to bring gelato down from the rich and powerful and offer it to ordinary people. These gelato-makers spent the summer in northern Europe making their simple concoctions (freezing by hand) and selling them from pushcarts like the man shown here, the grandfather of the owners of “Gelateria Zoldana” in Treviso.

The families from Zoldo also worked in gelaterie abroad. Here is the Arnoldo family working in Vienna in 1934.

The families from Zoldo also worked in gelaterie abroad. Here is the Arnoldo family working in Vienna in 1934.

The ice-cream-freezing machine was invented by Nancy Johnson in Philadelphia in the 1840s. This system, in various sizes (this is a quart) was what all gelato-makers used till mechanization came at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th centuries.

The ice-cream-freezing machine was invented by Nancy Johnson in Philadelphia in the 1840s. This system, in various sizes (this is a quart) was what all gelato-makers used till mechanization came at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th centuries.

And speaking of differences, these are two pistachio pastes from the same producer. The darker one was sent as a sample; as soon as Andrea tasted it, the old product was benched.

Sugar! Or, to be precise, sucrose! Because there are some 100 sugars he could choose from.

Sugar! Or, to be precise, sucrose! Because there are some 100 sugars he could choose from.

Carob flour, a natural stabilizer.

Carob flour, a natural stabilizer.

So you leave it overnight and then put it in the freezer/churn and after just a little while you've got frozen rapture. You just have to keep doing it with all the different flavorings that your people want, as partially shown above.

Here we see how it all turns out.  After the mixture (with any added flavorings) is left overnight, then put into the freezer/churn, after just a little while you’ve got frozen rapture. Notice that each container has its own spatula.  No rinsing one lone scoop all day long here.

The point of it all: Eager crowds craving more.

The point of it all: Eager crowds craving more.

These men work in an office an hour away from Valenza, but have to come to town on business about once a week. How too bad is that? (The man on the right has been coming to Soban since the shop opened 40 years ago. Start 'em early is the best philosophy....).

These men work in an office an hour away from Valenza, but have to come to town on business about once a week. (How too bad is that?).  The man on the right has been coming to Soban since the shop opened 40 years ago. Start ’em early is the best philosophy.

This was dinner: A pound of gelato. Selling by weight means you can organize a sort of tasting menu. Clockwise from left

This was my dinner: A pound of gelato. If five scoops seems like a lot, it wasn’t. It wasn’t even enough.  Counterlockwise from left:  Brachetto (a wine from Piemonte) sorbetto, zabaione, mandarino sorbetto, chocolate (from Venezuela) sorbetto, vanilla cream.  My only regret: Not having bought two pounds.  A big shout-out to Andrea’s brother, Stefano, who mans the helm at the shop in Alessandria — carrying on the family tradition in a big way in another town.

Perhaps this image doesn't call for any explanation. There's so much I could say, but "Yikes!" probably covers it.

But all gelato is not created equal.  Perhaps this image doesn’t call for any explanation. This is the gelateria from hell.

Categories : Food
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May
26

What, me normal?

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I’m giving my brain a small holiday — what the British traveling public knows so charmingly as an “away day” — and not trying to string thoughts together. Or even to have very many thoughts, frankly.  Once I start, I usually discover that my brakes are unreliable.

But looking around is always a treat, to one degree or another, and Lord knows we don’t lack for material here.

Benches -- not enough, but still usable -- line the viale Garibaldi, the perfect spot of summer shade where people can sprawl and eat or nap. Lino calls the area respectively the "refectory" or the "dormitory." We sit there too, sometimes, when we can find a bench, of which there should be more. But that's not the real subject. Here, Exhibit A: Deterioration.

Benches — not enough, but still usable — line the viale Garibaldi, the perfect spot of summer shade where people can sprawl and eat and nap. Lino calls the area the “refectory” or the “dormitory,” depending on what we see going on.  We sit there too, sometimes, when we can find a bench, of which there should be more. But that’s not the real subject. Here, Exhibit A: Deterioration.  All the benches are tormented by now, but this is reaching a dangerous extreme. (Note: I do not blame either eaters or nappers for this.  It’s The Elements, of which we have so many.)

But wait! Has the world gone mad?

But wait! Has the world gone mad?

In this case, madness is not at work, but one of a few men detailed to spruce up the place, like you do before company comes. "Company" in this case I surmise is the Biennale of Architecture, which is opening just a few steps away on Saturday,

In this case, madness is not at work, but men detailed to spruce up the place, like you do before company comes. “Company” in this case I surmise is the Biennale of Architecture, which is opening just a few steps away on Saturday, May 28. They’ve also cut the grass in the small areas behind the benches.  Where will it end?

And speaking of observing, did you ever notice the half-moon window over the water entrance of many palaces? That was a window of the gondolier's apartment. If you had a palce you also had a gondola (sometimes more than one), and at least one gondolier. He had to bunk somewhere, so closest to the boat was the perfect spot. Lest you think they all had to be abnormally short....

And speaking of observing, did you ever notice the half-moon window over the water entrance of many palaces?  That was the window of the gondolier’s apartment. If you had a palace you also had a gondola (sometimes more than one), and at least one gondolier. He had to bunk somewhere, so the space closest to the boat was the perfect spot. Lest you think they all had to be abnormally short, the floor of the apartment was sometimes below the level of the window –here you can see that the brown facing indicates how low the floor was.

This is how the apartment looks from the inside -- in this case, a palace which is being used as a nursery school. Most Venetians didn't have plastic castles blocking the entrance to the canal.

Different palace, but here we get a look at  how the apartment would look from the inside.  It happens that this palace is being used as a nursery school. Most Venetians didn’t have plastic castles blocking the entrance to the canal.

But enough being serious. Let's visit the fountain on the Zattere. I remember when it was built, something like 15 years ago. Its astonishing inefficiency was immediately obvious, but what's really astonishing is that it has been left that way ever since. Perhaps you can see the curving jets of water. If not, never mind. You can certainly see the water the jets are distributing far and wide. This is clearly because the flow has not been diminished to fall into the drains at the feet of the pedestal. Or, the drains haven't been moved. In any case, this is what you have: wet (and occasionally algae) in the summer, and sometimes ice in the winter. Bonus points for putting a grille instead of a basin -- occasionally a helpful soul will put a plastic bowl or old ice-cream container beneath the water so that dogs can drink too. Whenever we see anything that is somewhere between inefficient and wacko, we say it must have been designed by "the architect of the fountain at the Zattere." Should be funny, but isn't.

But back to the madness. Let’s visit the fountain on the Zattere. I remember when it was built, something like 15 years ago. Its astonishing inefficiency was immediately obvious, but what’s really astonishing is that it has been left that way ever since. Perhaps you can see the curving jets of water. If not, never mind. You can certainly see the water which the jets are flinging far and wide. Obviously the force of the flow has not been diminished in order to make the jets fall into the drains at the foot of the pedestal. Or, the drains haven’t been moved. In any case, this is what you have: Sloshy ground in the summer, and sometimes ice in the winter.  And waste. Bonus points to the designer for putting a drain instead of a basin — occasionally a helpful soul will put a plastic bowl or old ice-cream tub beneath the falling water so that dogs can drink too. Whenever we see anything that is somewhere between inadequate and wacko, we say it must have been designed by “the architect of the fountain at the Zattere.”  And people worry about acqua alta?

"What -- me worry?"

Oh, sorry — are we in your way?

This is almost impossible to top. Elephants in Venice! (And people worry about tourists?). This photo is in an unidentified window on Barbaria de le Tole. Sorry about the reflection, but some sleuthing reveals that the Circo Togni came to Venice in all its glory at some date in the Fifties.  I’m impressed by all the people who act like this is as normal as the Fourth of July parade in Wahoo, Nebraska. But maybe they’re thinking that Venice is as normal as Wahoo.

Here’s the link, in case the clip hasn’t come through:  https://youtu.be/6MEwe6XL_ck

My “away day” is over now, leaving room for “back-here day,” which will be tomorrow.

 

Categories : Venetian-ness
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May
18

Vogalonga views

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I hadn’t thought of writing about the Vogalonga (my 20th, undertaken on Sunday, May 15); after all, the pictures tell the story just as well, or even better — what? — than I could.

For the record, there were almost 2,000 boats registered and something around 8,000 rowers.  What was unusual this year was the acute increase in single (or double, but mainly single) kayaks.  Not judging, just saying.  If this continues, before long we will be the eccentric guests at the Kayaklonga.

Our trusty crew awaits the 9:00 AM start aboard our equally trusty six-oar caorlina. Except that there are nine of us, which means the rowers were rowing an extra 400 pounds or so around the lagoon. Yikes.

Our trusty crew awaits the 9:00 AM start aboard our equally trusty six-oar caorlina. Except that there are nine of us, which means the rowers were transporting an extra 400 pounds or so around the lagoon. They’re smiling here because they don’t realize that yet.  From the front, our little floating United Nations is composed of Marianna Ciarlante (from Abruzzo), Axel and Sandra (Braunschweig), Pietro and Chiara (Rome), Camilla De Maulo and Marta Compagnini (Milan).  Invisible me from the USA on the bow, and seated astern, the ineffable Lino (good grief! a genuine Venetian!!)

Looking at the boats assembling is always entertaining, and the "disdotona," or 18-oar gondola of the Querini rowing club is always spectacular.

Looking at the boats assembling is always entertaining, and the “disdotona,” or 18-oar gondola, of the Querini rowing club is always spectacular.

There is the most wonderful energy and enthusiasm at the start. The cannon fires, all the bells start to ring, all the boats get going -- there is the sound of water rushing rushing past a world of boats.

There is the most wonderful energy and enthusiasm to the start. The cannon fires, all the bells start to ring, all the boats get going, and there is the amazing sound of water rushing past a world of boats.

We had our extra people, but this Sicilian tartana carried a piano and player. Reports were that she played during the whole event, but even though we were pretty close, I never heard a note. Was the playing "As Time Goes By"? "Nearer, My God, to Thee"?

So we were carrying our extra people, but this Sicilian tartana carried a piano and player. Reports were that he played during the whole event, but even though we were pretty close, I never heard a note. Was he playing “As Time Goes By”? “Nearer, My God, to Thee”?

IMG_1888.JPG vogalonga 2016 piano

IMG_1897.JPG Vogalonga 2016

Not long after the endless serpent of boats began to coast along the island of Sant' Erasmo, there seems to have been a mass decision -- lemmings with oars? -- to strike out in a straight line across the shallows instead of staying in the channel that curves its way along the edge of the island.

Not long after the endless serpent of boats began to coast along the island of Sant’ Erasmo, there seems to have been a mass decision — lemmings with oars? — to strike out in a straight line across the shallows instead of staying in the channel that curves its way along the edge of the island. Perhaps you can make them out, on the line separating water from sky.  We stayed in the channel, all by our peaceful, unhassled little selves.  First of all, our boat would have probably  been too heavy to make it across the shallows without ridiculous effort.  Second of all, at the farthest point of Sant’Erasmo. the boats came back into the channel almost exactly in the position they held when they broke free.  We certainly welcomed back a number of boats which had been beside us 35 minutes earlier.

The few pilings marking the channel at the northeast end of Sant'Erasmo are crowned by duck decoys. Evidently they mark a rest stop.

The few pilings marking the channel at the northeast end of Sant’Erasmo are crowned by duck decoys. Evidently they mark a rest stop.

Still rowing, still happy, almost at Burano.

Still rowing, still happy, almost at Burano, the halfway point.

Friends of ours from Cremona.

Friends of ours from Pavia.

A crew of hardy Dutch ladies who I thought, ignorantly, had escaped from the Daughteres of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. But closer reflection makes it obvious that they have ingeniously modified their traditional headgear to be boatworthy.

A crew of hardy Dutch ladies who I thought, ignorantly, had escaped from the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. But closer study makes it obvious that they have ingeniously modified their traditional headgear to be boatworthy.

"Burano" is Vogalongaspeak for "bananas and bottles of water or tea or other rehydrating agents thrown deftly from a barge into your boat." I think slightly more than a ton of bananas sacrifice themselves to keep us rowing. Not all in our boat, of course. I'll put a picture of the Great Banana Throw next year -- I was too busy catching them to photograph them.

“Burano” is Vogalongaspeak for “bananas and bottles of water or tea or other rehydrating agents thrown deftly from a barge into your boat.” I think slightly more than a ton of bananas sacrifice themselves to keep us rowing. Not all in our boat, of course. I’ll try to take a picture of the Great Banana Throw next year — I was too busy catching them to photograph them.

At Burano we finally got a glimpse of the amazing Mike O'Toole (astern) and Gary TK of "Gondola Getaway" in Long Beach, California. Not that they rowed from California, though I have no doubt that they could have/

At Burano we finally got a glimpse of the amazing Mike O’Toole (astern) and Gary Serbeniuk of “Gondola Getaway” in Long Beach, California. Not that they rowed from California, though I have no doubt that they could have.

Down the Grand Canal., and the end is in sight. After five hours of rowing, that's a phrase you could sing to "Country rooooooad, take me hooooooome..."...

Down the Grand Canal., and the end is in sight. After five hours of rowing, that’s a phrase you could sing to “Take me hooooooome, country rooooooad…”.

We made it through the usually-clogjammed Canale di Cannaregio with no problem and now it's down the Grand Canal to the finish line. Earlier boats are now heading upstream toward us, back to wherever "home base" might be.

We made it through the usually-clogjammed Canale di Cannaregio with no problem and now it’s on to the finish line.

The two best moments of the Vogalonga -- if one had to choose -- are the beginning and the end. Mike and Gary have made it back to the club, conquering heroes. If that sounds like an exaggeration, you must notice that the blue skies of the morning have turned grey and (you can't see it) very windy and cold. They're smiling also because they know that pasta with mussels awaits them. Well, many they didn't actually KNOW that, but they knew there was going to be wine!

The two best moments of the Vogalonga — if one had to choose — are the beginning and the end. Mike and Gary, conquering heroes, have made it back to the club, and they look like everybody feels when they’ve finally done it.  If that sounds like an exaggeration, you may notice that the blue skies of the morning have turned grey and (you can’t see it) very windy and cold. They’re smiling also because they know that pasta with mussels awaits them. Well, maybe they didn’t actually KNOW that, but they knew there was wine somewhere very nearby.  Because, you know, Italy.

 

Categories : Boatworld
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May
01

Budget this!

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Venice is so beautiful. But maybe she looks better from a little farther back.

Venice is so beautiful. So beautiful and so expensive.  She can’t even afford herself.

You want to help Venice with her budget problems?  Buy a  palace.  Or 13, if you’re in a good mood — that’s how many the city has recently mentioned considering putting on sale.

But this story isn’t about palaces, it’s about money, need for, lack of.

The thing is this: It’s easy to imagine that All Those Tourists who come through Venice are strewing cash like crazed monarchs. “What’s the problem?  Venice lives on tourism!”  Actually, it doesn’t. Venice lives mostly on an allowance from the national government which has been cut so far back that there aren’t enough coins left in the municipal pocket to make even one tiny jingle. Venice can’t be self-supporting because there are too few tax-paying residents (more about that in another post) to pay for the needs of a really big, super-old World Heritage Site trampled by millions of people a year.

The repairs that some good soul has made on this "capitello" are kind of a metaphor for this whole subject. I guess I didn't need to explain that.

The repairs which some good soul has made on this “capitello” using strips of plastic twine are kind of a metaphor for this whole subject. I guess I didn’t need to explain that.

Not metaphorical at all, though here again, some helpful person has placed a bit of plywood to help out. I'm not sure what it's helping but the spirit is admirable.

Not metaphorical at all, though here again, some thoughtful person has placed a bit of plywood to help out. I’m not sure what it’s helping but the spirit is admirable.  I think people tend to walk around holes, not through them, when they see them.  But, as I often ask myself, what do I know?

I feel like I’ve been reading about Venice’s financial problems all my life, but the stories come out in bits and pieces and aren’t very well connected, and the numbers are always up in millions and billions, so I’ve never had a clear notion of what was involved in paying for keeping Venice running.  Now I have some information even I can understand, so here goes. To save space converting numbers, just bear in mind that one euro = 1.12 dollars at the moment.

One reason it’s hard to understand how Venice can be so broke are the thrilling reports of money made from big events such as New Year’s Eve, the Biennale, and Carnival.  The numbers are dazzling to a one-celled organism like me.  A few months ago a story in the Gazzettino trumpeted the fact (I guess it’s a fact) that 40 million euros were expected to come pouring through the big chute labeled “Carnival.” Forty million euros!!  My first reaction is “Semo in poenta!” which is Venetian for “We’re in polenta!” which is Venetian for “We’ve struck paydirt!”  (Or “We can make next month’s rent!” or “We can buy the kid a new pair of shoes!” or “We can feed your mom this week!”).

But pausing for a moment to consider how this money is distributed — hint: it doesn’t drop directly into the city’s coffers — the reality is that (A) that much money is expected to be spent here (yes!!) by tourists paying for things like (B) hotel rooms (C) food (D) gondola rides (E) taxi rides (F) fabulous ticket-only costume parties and masked balls in palaces, tickets to which can reach 2,500 euros, and (E) extras. “Extras” is usually where my own budget strikes the reef.

The benefit to the city from all this spendage is supposed to arrive via taxes.  You know, the taxes nobody pays.  Sorry — almost nobody.  More about taxes in another post.

So forget big events and their resplendent ephemeral income.  Let’s look for a moment at the city’s everyday budget.

Income: The Special Law for Venice.  Before I continue, it’s worth knowing that billions of euros granted to Venice over the past decade or so for the benefit of the city and lagoon have been pretty much all diverted to the MOSE project.  This diversion was accomplished by the MOSE people, with a big assist from the city fathers and anybody else who could get close enough to stick out their hand.  I draw your attention to the phrase in the Law which mentions that the money is also granted to Venice “to ensure its socio-economic viability.”

As mentioned, the big news in both Venice newspapers was:

As mentioned, the big news in both Venice newspapers was: “The Special Law: 25 million are coming for Venice.”  “The Special Law: Half the money and no tax breaks 162 businesses into a chasm.”  You will notice that the poster here says 25 million, but the article it refers to uses the number 28 million.  Just go with it.  Because you get the same discrepancies between numbers in headlines and the article immediately following — the first will say there were five victims, the story will say there were three.  Actually, you get used to it.  It’s only when I’m trying to understand that it bothers me.

The Gazzettino reported the most recent allotment of funds via the Special Law:  Venice will get only half of the money that was hoped for. (“We have no money” is not exclusively a Venetian song.)  The city will receive a total of 65 million euros over seven years to be doled out thusly: 5 million in 2016 and 10 million per year from 2017 to 2022.  Looked at that way, it doesn’t sound like much at all, and of course the city fathers agreed; some politicians had pressed for 50 million per year for three years, while another political group had suggested 13 million per year for an unspecified number of years.  (They were probably estimating “forever.”)

To put those numbers into some kind of context, until a few years ago (by which the Gazzettino probably means 2008), the city spent 150 million euros a year.  Now it’s a struggle to the death to find the money for paying the policemen.

This is not the mayor meditating, but it could be.

This is not the mayor meditating, but it could be.  While he’s thinking, he ought to give his Border collie something to herd.  Like the annual budget, with all those numbers that keep running away to nowhere.

Good news:  The city has pulled itself up nearer to the edge of the deep hole into which it had fallen, thanks to the drastic cuts made in the budget by Commissario Vittorio Zappalorto (2014-2015).  When I say “drastic,” I mean along the lines of “We had to destroy the budget in order to save it.”  So at the end of 2015, after slashing and burning by him as well as the new mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, the deficit has been halved.  The 64 million debt is now 30 million euros.  This is huge news, though of course 30 million isn’t a particularly small number.

The Special Law allotment includes money for art works.  The Ministry of Culture is allowing 6 million euros to Venice (out of 13 million to the Veneto) for 241 projects defined as being at the national level, among which is legal tender for the following projects:

  • Finish the restoration of the great stained-glass window by Vivarini at SS. Giovanni e Paolo: 600,000 euro.
  • Complete the restoration of the church of the Gesuiti: 1,000,000 euros.
  • Restore the squero of the Bucintoro at the Arsenal: 400,000 euros.
  • For the recovery of the patrimony of furniture, fabrics, paintings, and other objects including the fittings of a gondola which are in the storerooms of the Superintendent of Beni Culturali, for the collection of the Palazzo Reale (royal palace): 300,000 euros.  (If you’re wondering where is the royal palace, it is a series of rooms in the “Ala Napoleonica,” built by Napoleon and now housing the Correr Museum; these rooms were occupied by him, of course, and then by the Hapsburg monarchs whenever they were in town during the Austrian occupation).
  • Updating the fire-extinguishing system in the Marciana library: 800,000 euros.
  • Surveying and conserving the 16th-century wooden ceiling of the vestibule of the Marciana library: 620,000 euros.
  • Restoration of State Archives, maintenance work, and bringing the lightning rods up to code: 841,000 euros.
  • Accademia Galleries: 1,500,000 euros for uses not specified by the Gazzettino.
  • Surveys, studies and security interventions on the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio: 390,000 euros.
  • Second phase of the realization and installations of the National Museum of Marine Archaeology in Caorle: 1,900,000 euros.  (Good going, Caorle city fathers!)

This is all very gratifying, and I’m not being sarcastic.

But now we come to the prickly subject of Outgo.  Moving our eyes from art treasures to the World Outside, things look less lovely.

The Special Law has provided 28 million euros, which is earmarked thusly: 5 million for maintenance of parks and green spaces; and 10 million for “cultural interventions” (theatre, cinema, programs at the Bevilacqua La Masa foundation and the Querini Stampalia.  I thought those were private?); and 13 million for ‘touristic interventions,” which despite the label are subdivided to pay the municipal police (7,500,000) on holidays and nights; 1,100,000 for the Venetian-rowing world; 1,600,000 for the “organization of events,” especially the promotion thereof.  This is the division of the spoils till 2018.  We’ll definitely be turning our shirt collars and drinking tap water to get through three years on that allowance.

Just thought we should pause for a breath of fresh air perfumed by wisteria.

Just thought we should pause for a breath of fresh air perfumed by wisteria.

A very interesting and detailed article in a magazine called “Il Metropolitano” outlined what it costs to keep Venice running (translated by me).  The subtitle gives a hint of things to come: “To guarantee the services in the Historic Center costs 41 million more per year than any city in the rest of Italy.  And Rome is sending less and less money.”  It’s true that Venice is the most expensive city in Italy, but now I see that it’s expensive not only for tourists and residents, but for itself.

An independent research organization, the Centro Studi Sintesi, recently did a detailed rundown of the city budget.  You don’t need to be some financial wizard to grasp that the 5 million euros allotted for 2016 falls slightly short of the estimated 120 million annually that Venice needs.  There’s more — due to drastic national cuts imposed in order to get the Italian economy in line with European norms, Venice did not receive the 1,250,000,000 (you read that right) it was expecting over the past few years, and only got 77 per cent of what was expected between 2010 and 2015, which makes Venice the city most-penalized by national economic restrictions in the country.

Let’s go to the videotape:

Garbage collection and street cleaning: 30,000,000 per year.  It’s commonly thought – I used to think it too — that the amazing quantity of tourist trash increases the spazzino‘s workload, but statistically this turns out not to be true.  The study says that the cost is high because Venice is the only city in the world in which, six days a week, the trash is collected entirely by hand.  The small streets and winding canals are implacable on that score. The average annual cost of garbage collection in Mestre, on the mainland, is 156 per family or entity such as a shop or restaurant.  In Venice, it’s 727 euros per family or entity.

Cemetery: 2,000,000 per year.  Stories keep appearing in the paper about how the cemetery on the island of San Michele is falling to pieces.  And it is.  But there are also 16 other cemeteries in the Comune of Venice and, the study specifies, eight in the Historic Center. There’s San Michele, but there are also two cemeteries on the Lido  one each on Burano (actually Mazzorbo), Malamocco, Pellestrina, San Pietro in Volta, and Sant’ Erasmo.  There are eight more in the Comune of Venice on the mainland.

Sewage treatment: 600,000 euros.  No, it doesn’t all go into the canals anymore.  For the past 20 years there has been a steady improvement in this necessary part of city management.  Septic tanks have been required to be installed in public buildings — hotels, restaurants, offices, museums, etc.  But again, the tiny, complicated spaces of which Venice is so fascinatingly constructed means that there isn’t one in the Historic Center.  You may have noticed that “honey boats” come and pump out the septic tanks, but the city doesn’t pay for that.  The sewage is taken to one of the 30-some treatment centers strewn around the Comune, which includes some of the mainland. There is one center on the Lido and one in Pellestrina, to which the houses there are connected.

Public parks (“green spaces”): 600,000 euros.   Although not considered technically an essential public service, there is a surprising number of big trees around, in biggish and smallish parks alike. And also shrubs and flowers, which are so desperately wonderful in the summer heat. But trees and bushes need to be trimmed, pruned, and lopped. Unhappily, this category of expense does not include trimming the bridges, which continue to sprout destructive plants and weeds because, in the organizational scheme, shrubbery on bridges is nobody’s responsibility. It’s not garbage, it’s not a green space, it’s not anything but just stuff.

Most bridges by now sprout something, lots of something, as in this case.

Most bridges by now sprout something — in this case, lots of something. You could probably cultivate marijuana for years this way, since nobody is paying any attention.

Tide Forecast: 1,200,000 euros.  Acqua alta is far from free.  First, there is the cost of putting out and removing the high-water walkways.  That is to say, hauling them all from the warehouse in September and stacking them at the crucial points; unstacking and positioning them when high tide is coming ashore, stacking them up again (to save space on the street) when the tide goes out, and on and on until April, when they are definitively hauled away to the warehouse.  But this is paid for by the garbage-collection budget, because it’s the spazzini who do this work.  Thereby leaving uncollected bags of garbage all over the city on high-water days.

But the real cost is the maintenance of the system of collecting data and forecasting the tide, which requires many instruments (maintenance of) and manpower to analyze and broadcast the data.  Somebody has to hit the button to sound the warning sirens, after all.  I can tell you that this department needs lots more money than it gets.  And then, of course, the citizens screech when the prediction is not fulfilled.  You can understand people yelling when the tide turns out to be higher than forecast, but people yell when it turns out to be lower, too.  If I had to work at the Tide Center, I’d be on drugs.

Street Lighting:  1,000,000 euros.  When I came here in 1994, there was still a good number of streets which were dark and romantic.  Or dark and ominous, as you prefer.  On our fondamenta (in another neighborhood), the only light at sundown was from the window of the deli across the canal.  I used to call it “the lighthouse of the neighborhood” – it was the only gleam in the gloom of a dismal, foggy night.  Then the city started to install more streetlamps and now there are some areas that are as bright as stadiums.  Here again, Venice’s fascinating interweaving of tiny streets creates unromantic problems.  On the mainland, 292 lamps per square kilometer are sufficient.  In Venice, you need 804.  And all that juice isn’t cheap.

School lunches: 300,000 euros. No need to repeat it – Getting cargo around Venice is costly (lots of canals, bridges, streets, and most important of all, very little storage space, therefore more trips).  A child eating in the cafeteria in a school in Venice pays from 76 – 84 cents more per meal than a child on the mainland.

Handicapped transport:  1,200,000 euros.  The explanation of this expense isn’t clear.  I can understand that making many places wheelchair-accessible is expensive, but once that’s been accomplished, the cost should diminish.  There are buses on the Lido and mainland which have extending ramps to help people in wheelchairs board, but to get on a vaporetto, the person still needs to be hoisted by hand.  Still, this is in the budget, so there we’ll leave it.

Ordinary maintenance: 4,100,000 euros.  To the naked eye, it appears that this generally consists of putting warning tape around spots that are dangerous (broken pavement, collapsing fondamente, and so on).  Canal-dredging has become a mere dream.  But let’s say that some problem crops up with the wiring in City Hall – fixing it will cost 20 per cent more than on the mainland.  Costs for construction are 30 per cent higher than on the mainland.  The biggest challenge (expense) has to do with the street pavement.  On the mainland, just throw down another layer of asphalt.  Here, the streets have to be torn up and reconstructed stone by stone.  Result: It costs 80 per cent more in Venice than on the mainland to fix a street.

I could fill pages, so to speak, with images like this one, but will limit myself to small things that represent huge things.

I could fill pages, so to speak, with images like this one, but will limit myself to small things that represent huge things.

This house near us has moved far beyond the level of plastic twine. Of course it's not city property, so the residents have stapled their building together at every possible point. Just a small illustration of the March of Time here. And maybe, now that I think of it, it's also an example of what a project looks like when you wait until it's reached crisis point. Perhaps 20 years ago just a few shingle-nails and some duct tape would have fixed everything.

This house near us has moved far beyond the level of plastic twine. Of course it’s not city property, so the residents have stapled their building together at every possible point. Just a small illustration of the March of Time here. And maybe, now that I think of it, it’s also an example of what a project looks like when you wait until it’s reached crisis point. Perhaps 20 years ago a few shingle-nails and some duct tape would have fixed everything.

I will tell you a revealing remark made to me many years ago by a Venetian who was showing me some of the destruction wrought by motondoso on fondamente and assorted streets and bridges.  He pointed out a few massive stones bordering the fondamenta at the church of the Salute.  Their relationship with the horizontal had been compromised by some trivial wound, and waves and gravity were obviously going to make it worse.  I, with my quaint, Anglo-Saxon “stitch in time,” “for want of a nail” outlook on life, asked him why the city didn’t intervene to repair this now, thereby avoiding more work later.  He said, “Because it doesn’t cost enough.”  Translation: Only when a problem becomes big, and therefore costly, and therefore worthwhile to some company to make loads of money fixing it, is the situation addressed.  This makes the same amount of sense as not clipping a hangnail because when it becomes gangrenous you can bring in teams of expensive surgeons and teratons of drugs and everybody makes some money.

There is even a saying to cover this approach: “Don’t bandage your hand until it’s hurt.”  To which I always reply, “If you avoid hurting your hand, you won’t have to bandage it.”  You can say it in Italian, but I haven’t found anybody who thinks it makes sense.

Let’s finish in a blaze of glory, or at least a blaze from some shorted-out circuit on the tram line.  My idea is this: If you can’t pay to fix the problems you already have, at least don’t create new problems that will cost even more money.  The tram holds a weird fascination for me, as it continues to reveal spectacular flaws in design and construction. There are almost daily breakdowns, delays, malfunctions of all sizes and shapes down to the fact that there isn’t an adequate system for de-fogging the windshields.  It cost 208 million euros to build two lines and buy the trains, but it costs twice as much as a normal bus to operate.  The electric bill is 2,500 euros ($2,820) a day.  Two carriages of the 20-train fleet are permanently out of service, left in the shop to be cannibalized for parts as needed, because the company which made the parts has gone out of business.

I think that’s enough for one day.

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