Jul
03

A girl gondolier? Not so fast

By

img_7509-sbessolin-7-comp

The last few days the atmosphere here has been roiled by the development of the latest chapter in the saga known as:   A Woman Gondolier.  

Summary: A woman has just passed the first test, for the first time in 900 years of 100% male gondoliering, to be admitted to gondolier school and get the chance to take more tests and  then hopefully to become a  certified gondolier.

Then she kind of stepped on a rake in the dark.   So now the story isn’t that she passed the test, it’s whether she’s going to be able to find a way to get back on the boat (so to speak) after having fallen so spectacularly into a channel of her own making.   Or whether her miscalculations will have provided her opponents with a reason  to keep the guild in male hands, if only till the next girl gives it a shot.   Or how much penance she’s going to have to do in order to make it all right again.

In the 18th century the gondolas, and at least some of the gondoliers, were different.

In the 18th century the gondolas, and at least some of the gondoliers, were different.

(Full disclosure: I am not opposed to women being gondoliers.   I am opposed to women doing stupid things, especially in public.   Men too.)

Her name is Giorgia Boscolo, and no, she’s not the first woman to try.   At least one other Venetian girl took and failed the last test a few years ago, though only by a very few points.   At least a few people saw this as a positive step, in the sense that   if a woman gondolier were to be inevitable, at least her being Venetian would mute the pain.

The gondolier's life looks so romantic.

The gondolier's life looks so romantic as he rows at sunset toward the Bridge of Sighs.

Meanwhile, over the past decade or so, a German woman named Alexandra Hai   tried and failed four times.   I think that’s a record, not only for Attempts but for Lack of Self-Knowledge and Willful Ignorance of the Terrain.   Hers is a tale for a completely different post, so I’ll merely remark that her lack of success wasn’t due to being a woman — how very simple that would be, and how very easy to refute, deny, or ignore —  but more the result of her fantastically obnoxious self-promotion and the insufferably  Prussian way she went about trying to crush all obstacles in her path.   I think it’s fair to say while she was the first to turn the dreaded subject of a female gondolier from a diverting theory into a credible possibility, she also created more antipathy to the idea than was ever needed; not only did she fail to crush the existing obstacles, she  left a few new ones  in her wake  over which the next candidate(s) had to struggle.   Thanks for the solidarity, babe.

Much of the day, however, is spent either waiting for work or dealing with the hassles of what comes along.  Hot, tiring, monotonous -- what's not to like?

Much of the day, however, is spent either waiting for work or dealing with the hassles of what comes along. Hot, tiring, monotonous -- what's not to like?

Back to Giorgia.   She is nowhere near being the first woman gondolier — yet.   What she did was to pass the first rowing test, which involves rowing in the  bow position of a gondola with another gondolier rowing astern.   Yes, you can screw up even something so incredibly simple, at least in theory,  but

Getting your clients ashore safely is often something of a challenge.

Getting your clients ashore safely -- not really part of the glamor.

she squeaked through, placing last in the list of 22 available spaces for aspiring gondoliers.   Squeaking is fine, but she also tied with someone, a man, as it happens.   But fortunately for people who might tend toward the sexist (pick her because she’s a woman, don’t pick her because she’s a woman) they can fall back on ageism, as the regulations specify that in  case of a tie, the younger candidate passes.   She’s 23 and the other guy, well, isn’t.

Her plusses:  

  • She’s Venetian.  
  • She’s young.  
  • She’s married and the mother of two small boys (well if she’s 23, they’d better be small!).  
  • She’s attractive, in a blonde, slightly zaftig way, the kind of girl you could picture coming from a farm in Wisconsin.
  • Her father is a gondolier.  

Each item on this list comes with the sound of a key turning  the  deadlock toward the “open” position.

Her minuses:  

  • She’s not actually 24-karat Venetian; “Boscolo” is a very common last name in Chioggia, a town at the southern end of the Venetian lagoon  which many Venetians regard with scorn and derision.   There are historical reasons for this viewpoint which go back at least 600 years.    
  • She’s young.   Lack of life experience has shown itself to be more important than one might have thought.  
  • Her father is a gondolier.   This is only a fraction of a minus; some unkind observers might have thought this gave her an unfair advantage.   In my view, it gave her a fair advantage in the sense that she was able to have unlimited access to a gondola and to expert rowing advice.
If you wnt to get ahead, you sometimes have to do the scutwork for real gondoliers, such as cleaning and setting up the boat for the day.

If you want to get ahead, you sometimes have to do the scutwork for real gondoliers, such as cleaning and setting up the boat for the day.

So what went wrong?   The day after the grades were in, a tsunami of publicity swept over her.   Blogs and the press went crackerdogs.   The First!   A Woman!   Blonde!   Venetian!   And so on.  

Did I mention the press?   It turns out that she forgot/didn’t know to ask  the Ente Gondola, the gondoliers’ association, for permission  to give all those interviews and pose for photographs.   But there it is, clearly spelled out in the by-laws,  a rule that states that any talking to the press by anybody about anything needs to get the prior approval of the officers.  

Not only did she make that error, going full-steam ahead on her own authority, she also made a few extra missteps which were reported (perhaps not completely accurately, but the damage was done) such as having referred interview  requests to her agent, and requiring payment to pose for pictures.    

Agent?   PAYMENT??

For virtually all its history, Venice (by which I mean Venetians, naturally) has had a fathomless aversion to self-promotion, conceit, and generally not getting over yourself.   It doesn’t mean that nobody ever says another person is great — they do, actually — it just means that a person can’t say it about himself without encountering some kind of consequences.

There are still some gondoliers who dress perfectly, down to the traditional beret with pompom.  Until the Sixties, gondoliers always wore a black wool beret in the winter, and a white cotton version in summer.  The now-ubiquitous straw hat -- once normally seen on farmers gathering snails - is now worn year-round, from blazing summer heat to winter fog, rain and snow.

There are still some gondoliers who dress perfectly, down to the traditional beret with pompom. Until the Sixties, gondoliers always wore a black wool beret in the winter, and a white cotton version in summer. The now-ubiquitous straw hat -- once normally seen on farmers gathering snails - is now worn year-round, from blazing summer heat to winter fog, rain and snow.

So now the consequences for her are that she may have risked her still-new  position.   If the Ente Gondola finds her importantly in the wrong, I’m not sure what the by-laws stipulate.   If I were her, I’d be worrying, despite her copious mea culpas and explanations in the paper today.   (Actually, she didn’t admit she’d made a mistake.   She said, “If I made a mistake, I apologize.”   If this   job doesn’t work out, she could always run for public office.)

But let’s say that she succeeds in rowing herself across this flaming lake of fire and gets safely to the other side.   (Her list of plusses, as above, ought to be of help.)   She still has a lot of work to do before she can say she’s passed to the next rung of gondolierdom.   The system works like this:

The aspiring gondolier who has passed the first rowing test must attend a series of courses  of at least one foreign language, and Venetian history and art.   Then comes another test, given by the Veneto region.   He/she eventually also has to pass another rowing test, this time much more important and difficult: Rowing alone astern, as a regular gondolier must do.   And this test doesn’t take you up the middle of the Grand Canal, but through the small side canals around all sorts of diabolical corners.   If the wind is gusting and  you’re going with the tide,  it gets even better.

At that point, the successful  aspirant must serve a sort of apprenticeship with  a licensed gondolier for at least  six months.   Then he/she qualifies as a substitute, and will continue as a substitute for whichever gondolier needs someone to stand in for him for whatever reason until a license becomes available.   Which isn’t often.  

So before we get all emotional about the first woman gondolier, we should keep in mind that she has a very long road ahead of her, traveling which she  will almost certainly  find herself burdened with a fardel of mistrust and bad feeling which  could make the going hard.   Memories are long here and everybody pretty much watches everybody else with the eyesight of the great horned owl.   And gondoliers especially tend to settle accounts their own way, even if it takes years.

Updates as they come in.  

P.S.: You will have understood that I  have not shown any photographs of our heroine because of her restrictions, as well as copyright on the  pictures already taken.   You’ll just have to imagine her for a while.

If only people were as elegant, responsive, versatile and trustworthy as this boat.

If only people were as elegant, strong, responsive, versatile and trustworthy as this boat.

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Categories : Boatworld

Comments

  1. Thanks for in-depth reporting.

    Here in Austria, I’m often surprised how much the image of the male gondolier is engraved in the peoples’ minds.
    Yesterday, people from the TV came to our Venetian rowing club in Vienna. We were rowing around in our small boats and they were filming us. We didn’t use the gondola. By purpose we wanted to present ourselves as a sports club, and not feed the “gondolier cliche”.
    But then, at the interwiev, the first and big question they asked me was: “How come does a woman do this sport??”

    • erla says:

      I wonder what the interviewer thought could make the sport so difficult for a woman. Standing up? Staying awake? Holding a piece of wood in both hands? Breathing? Perhaps the interviewer hasn’t heard that women ride racehorses, sail single-handed around the world, climb mountains, pilot rescue helicopters, and so on. Now that I think about it, though, rowing a boat around is so, so much harder than any of that. I hope you just smiled and said, “For the same reason men do it.”

      • Well you’ve guessed it exactly! I really said “For the same reason men do it.”
        Then I added that in Venice women row too, and that it’s normal.
        BTW the interviewer was a woman.

        Well, so today I saw it on TV, in the Viennese local news, around 2-3 minutes. The footage is nice and it was kinda special to see us rowing on the big TV screen.
        But it seems they didn’t even listen to the things we were telling them. What the speaker said was quite stereotype and included emphasizing several times that in our club “women are allowed to row”…

  2. Linda says:

    When i was in Venice i had a gondolier ride with Alex, she was amazing, very knowledgeable and told us lots of history. I had a amazing time, pity’d the poor people going with the men, who most of them were talking to there friends or convoying. Alex took me and my friend around only passed about 2 other gondolers the entire hour. highly recommend her if you go to Venice. good on her for going for what she loves and fighting for 10 years to get it.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I wouldn’t have thought she’d gotten what she wanted; she’s still not a licensed gondolier. It’s nice to know you had a good time, though.

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