Archive for Venetian Problems
You know the old saying: “Expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed.” (Is that an old saying, or did I just make it up?)
Following that bit of wisdom gave me a Carnival which was modest to the point of self-abnegation. With lots of fritole. The only unpleasantness was the acqua alta, but it did not reach the predicted epic proportions. (In fact, let the record show that one positive aspect of the imminent threat of water in the house is that, when all the stuff was piled on our two pieces of furniture, I cleaned and washed and dusted objects and places which hadn’t seen the hand of man since we moved in.) We had no plans or projects or desires or dreams or anything which could have been frustrated or ruined. And we didn’t lose power.
Reading the rundown in yesterday’s Gazzettino, though, I get a picture of a Carnival which for lots of other people — most of whom had needs far surpassing ours, primarily to travel in some way or to some degree in the culminating days –should have been called, not “Live in Color,” but “Going to Hell in Color.”
If you wanted to come to Venice on Monday night, with or without an expensive costume — or more to the point, if you really wanted to leave Venice on Monday night — you’d have found yourself involved in a sort of Ironman Triathlon: Riding the Train/Bus, Crossing the Square, and Finding Your Way Home in the Dark.
I could write a long post full of details, and I’ll keep the paper for a few days in case anybody asks me for more information.
But the headlines howling from a few pages of the paper tell enough. The thing to keep in mind is that island Venice covers some three square miles; mainland Venice covers some 21 square miles (Mestre is 8 square miles, Marghera is 13 square miles). It’s not Mexico City. It’s not even Hampton, Connecticut.
Translation: How hard could it be to clear away some snow and keep the buses and trains running?
Answer: Hard. Very hard. Harder than building the Eupalinian aqueduct. Especially since it appears that nobody believed this storm was really going to hit.
There is a rundown in the paper of how many squads were working, and how many snowplows and salt trucks. Unfortunately, they must have been phantoms; hardly anyone seems to have seen either them or evidence of their passage. In fairness, I note that there were people out working to deal with it all. Not enough, but some.
The second thing to keep in mind is that this large and violent storm, with snow and high water thrown in at no extra cost, was forecast for at least three days. And it had already hit the west coast of Italy, and much of the south. In other words, it wasn’t some bizarre anomaly which struck without warning.
In the order in which they appear, starting on page one of the local section (translated by me):
Under the snow, the inefficiency of the Veneto. The prefect calls in the chiefs of public transport. Consumers resort to the Procura (that is, the court. The prefect is the local representative of the President of the Republic, and pretty much outranks everybody.)
The precipitation caught just about everybody unprepared, from the Comune of Venice to the trains and at the airport. There were photos of people deplaning and struggling across the slippery slush covering the tarmac to get to the terminal. The baggage handling system went haywire. And so on.
There were blackouts all over the place, including the train stations in Venice and in Mestre. Not only tourists, but lots of commuters were either stranded or left to wait indefinitely for trains that were late, late, and late.
SNOW PLAN, everything has to be redone. If you read the whole article, you’ll ask yourself what they think “plan” might mean, when you consider how it worked out. The plan is ten years old, for what that’s worth. And why, you ask, does the municipality keep a plan that has to be dusted every year because it’s never used until it’s useless?
Acqua alta, a night of terror. The wind saves Venice and Chioggia. As previously noted by me, but without the “terror” part, at least in our little hovel.
Bad weather freezes the arrivals; Fat Tuesday for 60,000. This would only concern people with something to sell, because it’s less than half of the numbers which were expected. Having fewer people around was the only good news I can see for emergency crews or any other group which had to contend with the breakdown of the plan. I mean “plan.”
Transport chaos: the prefect isn’t having it. Ca’ Corner (headquarters of the prefect) retorts to the accusations of the transport people and wants to shed light on the reasons for the inconveniences (meaning no excuses).
“Crushed in the few buses which left Piazzale Roma.” Needs no explanation except why there were so few buses, something the prefect also will be wanting to know. But remember that the buses to the mainland are operated by the ACTV, which has shown such impressive skill in managing transport by vaporetto.
Burano: Blackout on an island which finished under water — volunteers at work the entire night. High water doesn’t affect only Venice, when you stop to think about it. The people on the islands have to get out the mops too. In this case, they had to do it in the dark. Fun.
Between water and blocks of ice; the fear finishes at midnight. Bridges and streets slippery, people walking with tall boots alarmed (the people, not the boots) by the prediction of 160 cm. Merchants on alert. Nobody could help that there were blocks of ice floating around, which actually were more like heavy slushy shards; the street outside our door looked like the polar sea in spring, and so did the Piazza San Marco. Unlike the last acqua alta, there were no bare-chested tourists frolicking blithely in the gelid waist-deep water.
On the Giudecca, fondamente in the dark because the electricity was out.
Chemical toilets (port-a-potties) adrift in campo San Polo. Wow….
A storm of protests; the snow plan has to change. The Comune demonstrates the efforts made to deal with Monday’s weather emergency, but even City Hall admits that in the future it will be necessary to do much more. Brains on fire! Smoke coming out of their ears!
No buses at the hospital (in Mestre); the employees forced to sleep in the hospital.
And so on, and on, and on.
There are 220,000 Scouts in Italy; surely somebody in the Comune must have been a Scout at some time. But “Be Prepared” seems to have been replaced by “Let’s just hope for the best.”
For some reason, water events seem to prefer holiday periods. Not just in our little hovel, but in Venice in general.
Example: Some years ago, when we were living in a rental hovel on the other side of Venice, our New Year’s Eve afternoon was enlivened suddenly by the sound of running water. As we were one floor up from the ground, it wasn’t the rushing of high tide. A quick stupefied glance revealed that it was the rushing of water from the bathroom of the tenant just above us. Water coming down the wall and forming a pond. Happily, it was clean water. Unhappily, it was bringing part of his floor/our ceiling with it.
We were able to call our landlady (this was in the epoch before cell phones, so it was a certifiable miracle that she was at home, and answered the call. I say this because if you were a landlady and your phone rang on New Year’s Eve, would you answer it?).
She came, she looked, she called some mysterious shadow-dwelling plumber she undoubtedly paid sotto banco, as we say here (small, unmarked bills….), because a plumber with all his papers in order and tax receipts arranged by date would have been unreachable till Epiphany.
He stopped the flow. That’s really all that matters to our story. The rest of the work got done in a scheduled sort of way, and I made the most of the chaos and dirt to sand the kitchen walls and repaint. Tiny apartments are so annoying, until you have work to do. Then you’re really glad that you have so little space.
Years pass, and we’re in our new hovel. I think it was the day before New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago when Lino remarked, “Do you hear a noise in the kitchen?” (Why is it always the kitchen? Maybe we should wall it off and cook outside, like nomads.)
Behind the tiled wall under the sink, there was indeed a liquid sound, the sort of sound that is so soothing when you have it on your white-noise machine. In ErlaWorld, it’s a sound soon to be followed by hammering and cracking. We found a plumber by urgently appealing to the man at the Bottegon, our mega-hardware-and-everything-else-except-jars-of-buckwheat-honey store. My “urgent appeal” look must be something like the eyes-getting-larger-and-more-pathetic of Puss in Boots in the Shrek movies. Added to which gaze would be desperation and a tinge of threat.
Yes, there was indeed a porous pipe behind the wall, joyously leaking water out of the conduit and onto our water bill that month. The plumber fixed it. He didn’t fix the hole in the wall, though. It’s still there, as are a couple of the tiles. He had to get home for the rest of his holiday and we had no intention of paying a plasterer to make it all perfect again. Besides — what if we needed to get at that pipe again?
This year’s event didn’t involve water that you could fill a glass with, but water there was. Our refrigerator door came off, so the warming machine gently released liquid from here and there. No, the door didn’t come off just like that; it had been giving every sign of imminent prostration for months. If it had been a mule, we’d have just kept hitting it on its rump and yelling. As of New Year’s Day, no more rump, no more yelling.
So the day after New Year’s we went to buy a new consumer durable. If we didn’t have all that fish frozen, I’d have suggested we experiment with living without a fridge, at least till summer. (Lino would certainly have considered that an americanata).
Consumer durables after Christmas usually mean plasma TVs and other glamorous frippery. We’re just as happy with our new appliance. It was delivered this morning, and we’ve washed it and re-stocked it, and its own mother couldn’t be more proud of it than we are.
But there’s more, and it doesn’t involve New Year, as in the holiday, but the New Year, as in 2013, I fear.
The latest low-grade chronic water event to moisten our lives is a blocked tube or pipe passing from somewhere upstairs (there are two storeys above us) down into the ground by our front door. This tube, like many tubes in Venice, is concealed in the wall, which makes dealing with it unpleasantly inconvenient.
But we know it’s there because its oozing dampness is deteriorating the wall indoors, and outdoors as well. I’d be willing to overlook the humidity outside, but what we see inside isn’t good.
The retired builder living on the top floor came to look at it, and deepened his investigation by knocking open a hole. This was intended to release the humidity (otherwise known as solving the problem). He wanted very much not to have to theorize that the water might be blocked at his level. However, Lino went up to see his apartment, and says there are more humidity-releasing holes in his walls than the perforations in the proverbial Swiss cheese.
Rising damp in Venice is implacable, and capillary action here evidently is constrained by no force we know of. We can see it in the bathroom wall, if you’d like to know. If there were a building in Venice that went as high as the exosphere, there would still be dampness in its walls making those ugly blister bubbles.
I appreciate that the man upstairs didn’t really want to go so far as to discover the location of the blockage, in case it should turn out to be on his floor. So he left the hole to do its dehydration work (or not), and now he gives us fresh fish occasionally when he comes back from a session out in the lagoon. I interpret this as hush money to prevent us from pursuing the subject. So far, it has worked very well. The wall just stays as it is, and we eat the fish. I guess this will be fine till the wall falls down.
Seeing how catastrophes prefer holidays, I figure that whatever is likely to happen next won’t be before next New Year’s Eve. I suppose we could take the Situation in Hand and apply ourselves seriously to Finding a Solution, but everything here is just too much trouble. Or expensive. Or both.
This, in a microcosm, is one explanation of the picturesque degradation that makes Venetian houses and streets so charming to everybody but their tenants. Small problems don’t get fixed in order to prevent their becoming large problems because if you’re going to have to be hugely inconvenienced and impoverished by the expense of repairs, you might as well wait till it’s utterly unavoidable.
Water from below doesn’t afflict only the humble residents. The city got a direct shot of it just a few days ago when a water pipe busted under the Riva degli Schiavoni. In minutes a sort of vortex had deranged an area of pavement between the Danieli Hotel and the Londra Palace. And the residents of those, and nearby lodgings, found themselves without water.
There is something a little droll about living in the middle of water and not having any when you need it (of course it’s not the same water — I merely jest). And I suppose I’m sorry that people spending hundreds of euros a night should not be able to turn the tap and brush their teeth, or whatever. A quick-witted person prone to philosophy might have said, “This is great! It’s just the old days, when doges roamed the earth and people got their water in buckets from wells.” But probably nobody said that.
We experienced a brief period of low water pressure, that was all, and the water wallahs installed a shunt in record time. One has to be reasonable; that particular pipe was 130 years old, like a number of pipes still slaving away under the paving stones. Eventually, like our fridge, it just couldn’t do it anymore.
We went for a walk toward San Marco the morning after. ”Well,” said Lino; “let’s go see where they struck oil.”
I can’t resist — well, I don’t know if I can’t, because I haven’t tried — recounting the latest arabesques from the ACTV. And lest you think I am obsessed with the public transport system here, let me defend my little manias by saying that it’s not so much the ACTV that I’m obsessed with so much as I am with absurdities and preposterosities. They have a fatal fascination for me. My father was the same way. And the ACTV is the Venetian equivalent of Old Faithful, gushing an unfailing flood of reckless absurdity over the the lives of innocent, unoffending travelers who have paid their money to go somewhere and have found themselves instead on the road to the looney bin.
Christmas Day. I thought everybody knew that the entire world has important plans which involve some sort of travel. But if you were to have been so ill-starred as to need to go between the Lido and Tronchetto (d/b/a/ the mainland) on the morning of our Saviour’s birth, you’d have spent all morning praying in your car. A car almost certainly loaded with children, gifts for relatives, and perhaps foodstuffs not packed for long-term transport.
According to the report in the Gazzettino, the reserved spaces for cars on the ferryboats for Christmas Day had been sold out almost a week earlier. Which meant that — not to put too fine a point on it — the ACTV had time to prepare reinforcements, because it is obvious to anyone who has ever been alive on Christmas Day that masses of people who needed to travel but hadn’t managed to book a space would just show up. And so it was: On the morning of one of the busiest travel days in the year, hundreds of cars were lined up, at the Lido and also at Tronchetto, just waiting.
This was Olympics-level waiting, waiting on the grand scale. Because the ACTV had put only two (2) ferryboats into service that morning. One (1) going each way.
The two “flagships” (“Lido di Venezia” and “San Nicolo’”) were out of service for scheduled maintenance work. Not emergency maintenance, which would be moderately excusable, but work that had been scheduled by some large intellect for the holiday period. Not only does this border on madness from the public-service point of view, it’s also insane because who would be working over Christmas? Except, I mean, in an emergency capacity.
The enraged would-be passengers began a surge of protest on Facebook and (I suppose) Twitter. The ACTV, roused by this from its torpor, launched extra boats — the two smallest ferries, “Marco Polo” at 12:05 and “Ammiana” (no heating, but who cares at this point) at 12:20. For someone who might have had a two-hour trip ahead of them, this wouldn’t translate as “Way to go, ACTV, you’ve saved the day,” but “Thanks, ACTV, you’ve dismembered my Christmas.”
Note: Due to the “excellent work” of Mauro Minio, may his tribe increase and all go to work for the ACTV, the “Lido di Venezia” was sufficiently repaired in order to begin service that afternoon at 4:00 PM.
All this needs no comment from me, but why should that stop me? The ACTV isn’t expected to stop the war in Syria. It isn’t expected to eradicate malaria. It isn’t expected to adopt Ukrainian orphans. It isn’t expected to anything but provide the means, for payment, by which the public may go from here to there. But that seems to be too much to expect. Pay, yes. Transport you to where you’re going? In the immortal words of Jack Benny, they’re thinking about it, they’re thinking about it.
Breaking news: The ACTV has announced a severe crackdown on scofflaws who ride for free. Naturally there are people who skip the ticket-buying process. The company makes cheating irresistible, what with gouging the passengers with the price of tickets and then not bothering to maintain any system of checking them (I cannot remember, even if you promised me a house in Aspen, the last time a ticket-checker appeared).
Furthermore, ever since the new, computerized system of electronic tickets replaced the old paper version, you’re required to “beep” your ticket on a little machine before climbing aboard. Even if you have a month’s pass, you’re required to “beep.” Anyone caught with an un-beeped ticket is counted as someone who didn’t pay.
No one has ever understood why a person with a once-beeped monthly pass has to keep beeping it or be punished. The ACTV says it’s to get accurate statistics on ridership.
For a while, the ACTV put posters up in the vaporettos and buses complimenting themselves that the percentage of freeloaders had dropped from 8.20 percent to 1.16 percent under their intense vigilance. But the numbers conceal an unpleasant fact, which is that the directors’ bonuses are directly linked to the percentage of deadbeats they catch. In the real world, that would make sense. Prizes are supposed to be given for performance. But wait.
Davide Scalzotto wrote about this in the Gazzettino a month ago, headined (I translate): “The mystery of onboard evasion, and the mystery of the company’s bonuses.” It was inspired by the press conference held to announce the new program to install turnstiles on the docks (there already are some in operation) and buses, turnstiles which are going to stop freeloaders forever. But the company didn’t give specific numbers to delineate the dimensions of the problem, making it impossible to know how efficient they actually have been and, more to the point, how necessary these expensive turnstiles really are.
As Scalzotto points out, the ACTV is stuck. If they admit that evasion is high, they don’t have any basis for awarding bonuses. But on the other hand, if they say evasion is low (“We did it!”), they don’t have any basis for justifying the new turnstiles.
The data provided by the ACTV shows that in 2009 (one year after the electronic, or IMOB, system was instituted), the rate of evasion on the vaporettos was 0.49 percent, and on the buses was 1.72 percent. In 2011 the rate was 0.64 percent on water and 2.12 on land.
The limit below which bonuses are automatically awarded is fixed at 0.70 and 2.0 percent. This is extraordinary: The numbers given for diminished evasion are just a squeak under the limit which permits the bonuses. I’m not sure how they got around the 2.0 ceiling, but bonuses to the ACTV are like rain in Cherrapunjee, India: Inevitable.
Now a city councilor, Sebastiano Costalonga, has opened an inquiry which will seek to obtain the certifiable passenger/evasion numbers from 2010 to today, and discover the parameters which are used to determine the bonuses.
But keep this in mind. The ACTV has declared that they’re 8 million euros in the red. The turnstiles will cost around 5 million euros. Apart from the fact that these turnstiles will create a sack of problems, as we say here, for the passengers, how can the ACTV keep raising ticket prices because they’re broke, if at the same time they’re so ready to spend money they don’t have?
For something which — if their own numbers are to be believed — isn’t necessary in the first place. Because if they really have driven down the percentage of cheapskates with hardly any turnstiles, what’s the point of adding more turnstiles?
I promise to change the subject in 2013. Not for the entire year, but at least for a little while.
Happy New Year.
Every time I tell an arriving friend that a single ride on the vaporetto here is going to cost 7 euros ($9.26), I stifle a shriek. Though if I were to let myself shriek, it might cover the sound of my friend’s shriek. Or gasp. Or disbelieving laugh.
Why vocalize at all? Because the city covers roughly a mere four square miles (ten square kilometers), and while ten dollars may not seem unreasonable if you want to travel the length of the Grand Canal on the faithful #1 from Piazzale Roma on to the end of the line at the Lido (apart from the crushing crowds, it could qualify as one of the cheaper scenic boat tours in the world, I guess), it seems a demented price if you only need to go four or five stops.
For the record, I have done some calculations, and the average distance between stops is 1,141 feet (348 meters). The time involved in each leg is usually around five minutes. If you only need to go a few stops, the price comes to a lot per minute. It’s true that you can often reach your destination faster on foot, but not if you’re lost, and dragging suitcases the size and weight of the foundation stones of the Great Ziggurat of Babylon.
Note to readers: There are unlimited-ride tickets available for specified lengths of time for much less per ride, but that’s beside my point.
Returning to my point: The cost of public transportation in the most-beautiful-city-in-the-world. It wasn’t always thus, back when there were more residents than tourists. But over the years, although the number of residents has fallen, the number of tourists has risen which, according to my primitive notion of economics, ought to mean that the price of a ticket should shrink. Silly me.
“We have no money” remains the one-size-fits-all justification given by the ACTV, the transport company, for anything it does or doesn’t do; it has adopted this motto from the city government as a whole (note: the city is a part shareholder in the ACTV).
But why do we have no money? One reason could be the effect of the thieving ticket-sellers; there was a lively period in which sticky-fingered employees were turning up all over, discovered selling tickets worth a fraction of the price they charged for them and pocketing the difference, or counterfeiting tickets (back in the paper-ticket days), or other simple little dodges that worked surprisingly well for a surprisingly long time, taking home what amounted to multiple thousands of euros.
Another reason for the belt-tightening which was given in the somewhat distant past (and my favorite): “Do you have any idea what a can of paint costs?” Visions pass through my mind of surging oceans of paint upon which little bits of tickets are floating.
But a new glimpse of why they have no money may be discerned in a recent series of detailed articles in the Gazzettino, and the reason is the simplest of all: The ACTV has no money because they’ve spent way too much of it, particularly on failed conveyances.
There was the revolutionary vaporetto dubbed the “Mangia-onde” (or Waves-Eater, a nice, Norse-saga sort of nickname) which was going to banish waves and make their destructive effects a fading memory. It was built by the M Ship Co, of San Diego, California. One craft was bought and came to Venice in 1999 to great fanfare and trailing clouds of glory and the promise of the salvation of the city from motondoso.
But it was too good to be true. Not because it created waves, but because it created problems. For example, it wasn’t adapted to lagoon conditions (I take that to mean it was unstable); it didn’t pass under the bridges, such as the Ponte delle Guglie, and also the hull wasn’t fireproof.
The Mangia-onde was taken to a shipyard in Castello where it sat, abandoned, for 13 years. A few weeks ago this once-proud herald of the future, which had cost 900,000,000 lire (464,811 euros, or $651,061) was sold to a private buyer for 20,000 euros ($26,465). Without the motor. Nobody seems to know what happened to it.
The current director of the ACTV, Maurizio Castagna, was also director in the late Nineties. He explained that the boat was put aside because “It didn’t meet the standards of the Italian Naval Registry, and also because of a series of onerous (that means “expensive”) maintenance interventions and adaptations of the boat to the lagoon area.” One certainly couldn’t be expected to know what the legal nautical standards were (I’m thinking of the fireproofing), or what characteristics a boat has to have in order to putter around the lagoon, especially if you’re in the aquatic transportation business. So that was that.
Bonus digression: The saga of the bargain ferryboat a few years back. Just more of the same old from the ACTV.
There is now the “Sandra Z.” to consider, a motonave which the Gazzettino has dubbed the “latest ‘hole in the water’ of the ACTV.” She too was built and unveiled to great pomp in 1999, and since 2006 she too has been nestling in mothballs.
She was built (in Messina, curiously, not at a Venetian shipyard, but let’s not get distracted) to carry 1,200 passengers — the perfect vehicle for the pilgrims traveling around Italy in the Jubilee year of 2000 (who never materialized, in Venice, anyway). But even if they had shown up, they’d have had to start a new round of prayers and supplications after climbing aboard.
The system of propulsion created serious problems of maneuverability. The “Schottel” (name of its German company) enables the propellers to work at 360 degrees, which — says the Gazzettino — transformed the ship into a sort of spinning top that couldn’t be managed by its captains, not to mention the unpleasant effect on the passengers.
I am not qualified to make any judgment on the qualities of this propulsion system; I have no doubt that it is excellent in many situations. Just not on a motonave. Which couldn’t have been tested, it seems, before it was too late.
Four months after its launch, it ran into the wall at the cemetery island of San Michele (four injured); not long after, it ran into the dock at Punta Sabbioni. The electronic system went crackerdogs. Finally, in July, 2002, the “Sandra Z.,” pulling away from the Ponte della Paglia by the Doge’s Palace, caused two gondolas to run into each other and their passengers ended up in the drink.
She kept on randomly running into docks until 2006, when the ACTV tied her up and turned her into a floating storehouse.
Cost: 7 miliards of the old lire (4,000,000 euro, or $5,293,000).
“No ghe xe schei.” We have no money. I begin to see why. And I begin to see why vaporetto tickets have to paid for with small gold ingots.