Acqua alta: business as usualBy
As you may already have noticed, the world didn’t end last night.
First, it didn’t rain. So much for the Deluge from Hell. This is also a Good Thing because when there’s lots of rain it not only irritates me, it can also aggravate the acqua alta — not so much because of precipitation precipitating into the lagoon directly, but into the streams and rivers which then, overloaded, empty into the lagoon.
At 5:00 AM the sirens sounded, and I waited to count the tones. There were three. I enjoyed two seconds of relief, then checked myself because of the clearly demonstrated unreliability of the forecast. (It hasn’t rained yet.) But where the sirens are concerned, it wouldn’t have been the first time that one message arrived, to be followed by a revision. It’s better not to be too quick to heave those sighs of relief.
So I lay there in the dark, listening for clues to the water’s progress. I heard someone walking by the window: Normal footsteps. No water yet. Before long, I heard someone else pass making plk-plk-plk noises: Water only an inch or two. Not long after that, I began to hear sloosh-SLOOSH-sloosh-SLOOSH. Water deep enough to require shuffling instead of stepping. Oh well.
At 7:45 the water was still rising, which was to have been expected. I went out to get the newspaper. At 8:30 it had peaked and was still well within manageable limits. Excellent! What would I have called this on the official warning scale? Code Mauve? Code Robin’s-Egg Blue?
At 10:00 the tide was noticeably falling, and by 11:00 the streets were no longer, in Benchley’s famous phrase, full of water.
The scirocco wind, however, has been fairly strong (they said “moderate”) all day, and is predicted to increase to “strong” right about now. Then we’re supposed to have a thunderstorm, then everything should return to normal.
Speaking of normal, one thing which always happens here with acqua alta is that various people put out their bags of garbage for the garbagemen to collect, even though they must know that the men are not going to be collecting because they’re all supposed to be working like crazed beavers setting up and taking down the temporary walkways. So the bags sit there until the rising water lifts them from the pavement and eventually floats them away, out to sea.
Floating bags of garbage are NOT acts of God, no matter what their owners may think. Oh wait — the bags don’t have owners. As soon as a bag is on public soil, it suddenly becomes mystically orphaned, anonymous, invisible. Except to me, the maniac foreigner, who watches these plastic spheroids bobbing around and sees a big neon sign above each one flashing
The people out on the street were pretty much moving along with Monday morning as usual. Shops which are likely to be awash were indeed awash; their owners were pumping them out. Some others, like two different butchers, were letting nature to take its course while they got on with business. Evidently neither snow nor rain nor dead of night nor high water can stay these men from the swift completion of their appointed pork chops.
I ran into Paolo, the bank teller, out on via Garibaldi.
“No work today,” he told me. “Those idiots from Bergamo [owners of the bank] didn’t listen to us when they were designing the interior. We told them, ‘Put the electric outlets up high.’ They said, “What the hell do you guys know?’ So now all the electric outlets are under water and if we turn on the computers, everything will go poof. All they needed to do was put the outlets higher, but nooooooo…”
For the record, his plan for the day wasn’t altered all that much, because I went past a few hours later when the water had begun to subside and there he was at his teller’s window, working away. High water — unfortunately, if you really want the day off — does not last forever.
Walking back to the house, I passed a man who was sweeping the water toward the canal. I paused. He was sweeping the pavement of a large street which was still very much under water — hence the water was not being removed, only shifted. This required investigation.
“Dogs,” he said briskly, smiling. “High water is really a good thing for Venice. It doesn’t hurt anybody. And it takes away the smell so dogs don’t go looking for someplace where another dog has ever pooped.”
I recalled having heard a similar comment from Arrigo Cipriani (of Harry’s Bar) when I interviewed him years ago. A native Venetian, he too wasn’t especially impressed by high water. “It’s a great way to get the streets clean,” he declared.
“High water was a delight for us when we were kids,” Lino has told me more than once. “But it never made any sense — we’d be in school and the teachers would say ‘There’s high water! Everybody go home!’ And so we’d walk home in the high water; you can imagine what kind of state we were in by the time we got there. Soaking wet right up to here.” (He indicates his collarbone.) “What sense did that make, sending us home because there was high water? In just another hour, the water went down anyway.”
No boots in the old days, either. “Boots? Who had boots? Boots are a newfangled thing that began to come in after 1966. We went home barefoot, carrying our shoes.”
I too, may I note, have walked home barefoot in high water. More than once. I can’t understand people who stand there at the water’s edge looking trapped and helpless like lemurs on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Just take your shoes off and get going! Besides, I can attest that the water is virtually always warm (if that helps to convince you.) The scirocco wind is warm, and we haven’t even had a real cold snap yet. How cold could the water be? Get a grip, people.
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