Archive for Venetian Problems
As all the world knows — or that part of the world that reads this blog — the ACTV, or Azienda del Consorzio Trasporti Veneziano, is the local public transport company. When it’s in the mood.
The ACTV is an apex predator, which means it can do anything it wants. Strike? Bring it on. Send boats to the shop for repairs on a holiday weekend? You bet. Raise ticket prices again? Great idea. Do we regret any possible inconvenience? With all our hearts.
People in other human settlements might regard public transport as a public service. The administrators of the ACTV seem to regard transport as a favor, an onerous, tiresome, inconvenient and irritating sort of favor they’re compelled to grant the traveling public, like having to take your mother-in-law to the gynecologist on Saturday morning because you promised five months ago.
I can almost hear the murmuring soundtrack in the administrators’ brains. It says: “If only we didn’t have to haul all those people around every day, and repair boats, and go out in unpleasant weather, running a transport company could be so much fun. But no.”
I bring all this up not because two days ago the Gazzettino reported that two ticket-sellers have been fired for having recycled vaporetto tickets, pocketing large amounts of free money. That is a non-story because there will always be more. I say this because there always are more.
No, I bring it up because this weekend is election time all over Europe, in which the citizens of the EU are voting for their representatives in the European Parliament. Sunday will be election day in Italy. Yes, Italians vote on Sunday.
And who will be working the polling places? Employees of the ACTV. Why does this matter? Because bus and vaporetto service on Sunday is almost certainly going to be curtailed for lack of drivers, ticket-sellers, and so forth. The agency is alerting us to this already.
Sunday, you may recall, is a peak day for day-tripping tourists, especially when the weather is sunny, which it is expected to be. Just another example of how thoughtless people are regarding the ACTV’s convenience, to want to come to Venice on a Sunday.
Here is how the long-suffering officers of the ACTV phrase it, on the company’s website (translated by me):
“…seeing the experience of the past years…we estimate that an increased and unpredictable number of employees could be called to serve at the polling places… in past years, the phenomenon was so pronounced as to oblige the company to suppress some runs, whether of boats or of buses.
“Therefore the same risk may be run this year, and given the unpredictability of the absences, the possibility can’t be excluded that the agency could be constrained to apply reductions of service (vaporetto and bus) without being able to indicate in advance the lines or the precise runs that could be involved.”
I dwell with incredulous eyes on the lavish phrases of warning and exculpation. Why are the absences unpredictable? Why would the agency be constrained to limit service? Do they not have enough employees to go around? Why can’t you indicate in advance the lines and times that could be involved? And why, now that I’m busy asking questions, can’t you prepared to call in replacements? This election was scheduled months ago. It’s not like the fog.
If you would like to ask something, you might inquire as to what kind of idea of public service this might be. It’s the “We can do whatever we want because you have no alternative” idea.
And as long as there are questions in the air, you may further ask why ACTV employees have been given this assignment — and why they will get time off with pay to provide this manpower, especially considering that the people working the polling places also get paid. The answer is simple: Because getting money twice to do virtually nothing is a wonderful way to spend the day.
You may then ask (as I did) why ACTV employees enjoy this little perk, and not, say, members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, or the Red Cross, or the World Wildlife Fund, or someone else.
Because the ACTV contracts stipulate that their members will be allowed time off with pay for providing this service.
This is a marvelous clause, and if their contract were to contain similarly marvelous clauses, it would only make me more astonished that they ever bother to go on strike. It’s a wonderful life on Planet ACTV.
But I noticed that, at least as Lino explained it to me, the contract doesn’t stipulate that ACTV employees must be called. So why doesn’t the Board of Elections ring up the grain millers, or the Red Cross, etc., and just tell the ACTV employees “Sorry, but you’re going to have to go to work today. The panda-counters will supervise the voting. You’re going to have to do your job carrying thousands of people around the lagoon. Bummer.”
I don’t know why. But all this makes me think disagreeable thoughts. The ACTV is eager to take money by fining a passenger who hasn’t beeped his ticket before boarding, even if the ticket is a monthly pass which obviously has been paid in full. They demand this immaterial beeping, and punish non-compliers. We demand a boat every 12 or 20 or 30 minutes, or whatever the timetable is at the moment, and we get “Sorry, we can’t guarantee service because we’ve been constrained, obliged, and otherwise compelled to suspend runs by forces beyond our control, beyond even our ability to predict, which causes us to feel distress at the plight we have inflicted on you totally against our will, even though we’re inflicting it anyway.”
The world belongs to the ACTV, in the same way that it belongs to killer whales, Nile crocodiles, Harpy eagles. Because although you can kill these creatures, if you really try, you can’t possibly make them afraid. Or even vaguely apprehensive.
If you don’t think this could be a correct assessment, you should know that the ACTV has announced a 24-hour strike for May 30.
No, we don’t have bikini-clad babes rocking in-line skates zooming up and down via Garibaldi — yet — but one evening a while back we definitely had the beach.
Strolling up the street, we noticed an animated group forming. It was composed of people of various sizes and they were looking at something, and talking to each other about it, and looking some more.
A pool of water was forming at the juncture between two stretches of pavement, stretches which were not on the same plane, hence the pool. And we could see water flowing toward the pool from an undiscernible source.
That’s a fancy way of saying: What? Where?
The “what” is a trick question — it was obviously a burst water pipe. But the “where” was beginning to concern everybody.
And there was also the “who,” as in: Who’s going to come find the lair of this rampaging beast and vanquish it?
There wasn’t any “why?,” though. Considering that most of Venice is held together with flour paste and baling wire, bits of the city breaking, separating, subsiding, or otherwise deteriorating does not, in itself, inspire surprise. So the fact that a pipe had burst appeared to arouse reactions no more urgent than “Gosh, wouldja look at that,” or “It could have been worse.” Why does that thought never comfort me?
So: A city falling to bits and water passing through pipes. So far, so not-worthy-of-wonder. Water would be the easiest thing to imagine issuing from a water pipe.
What surprised me was the sand. Unlike the Lido, most of Venice isn’t built on sand dunes. It’s built on mud, clay, or other forms of soil not containing a high percentage of silica.
But the silica is here now, because — as a fireman friend explained it to me — as pipes were laid over time, snaking around under those tough trachyte paving stones, the workers noted that the softer the soil, the easier it was to open up the street and work on the pipes, as needed. So over time the soil they replaced when the work was finished was more friable, more granular, just generally softer.
This is the main reason why the paving stones are now so apt to subside, especially near the fondamentas where the pounding of the waves caused by thousands of motorboats a day (not made up) pulls this now more fragile material out from under the stones and out to sea.
Help came in a relatively short time, the break was located, the water ceased to flow, the sand no longer swam out from the underworld into the light — artificial,true, but light just the same. Next day, the traces were hardly noticeable.
But now I know there’s all that sand just under the stones, more than I had suspected. This doesn’t bode well for anybody, except for babes in bikinis. And the maintenance men, naturally, for whose sakes Venice is now even more fragile than before.
Over the past decade (or so) there have been periodic swells of indignation and revulsion toward the monster posters screwed (or nailed, or glued, or whatever — I’m sticking with screwed for obvious reasons) to many facades in or near the Piazza San Marco.
The posters’ reason for being was not to inspire anger, because there’s enough of that around already to supply everybody in the city with two tons per year. It was to provide money, via the advertiser (politely referred to as “sponsor”), for the restoration and repair work which was supposed to be going on under the poster.
The billboard on the Ala Napoleonica — the stretch of building facing the basilica — measured 78 feet (24 meters) long, occupying somewhat less than half the 187 feet (57 meters) of the entire facade. However noble its intentions may have been, that’s still a honking great lot of commercial space to tack onto a world-class monument.
But now it’s gone!
Before we rejoice, which we certainly will, let me mention that it was there for eight years. While that fact is sinking in, I pause to ask myself — or anyone listening — what degree of restoration could have been required on a sheet of stone, however ingeniously carved or damaged by airborne pollutants, that would require eight years. Seventy-eight feet is big when you think of it as the length of the blue whale, but it’s not really all that long for a building. It’s the length of a tennis court.
So a little arithmetic: 78 feet repaired in 8 years, means that they did nine feet a year. That’s not even one foot per month. I’d wager that archaeologists unearthing prehistoric tombs with eyebrow brushes get more done in a year.
Naturally I’m indulging in a little cadenza there. It’s probable that the team wasn’t working every day for eight years. Or even every month.
But let’s move on. Why was the poster removed? Presumably because the work was finished, but one presumes at one’s peril here. The work might have been finished six years ago, who knows?
One reason might have been the cumulative effect of protest from Venetians, Italians, Europeans, and world citizens of assorted types. Protest, though, is an unreliable weapon; it either fails to fire, or is surprisingly inaccurate, or isn’t strong enough to pierce the armor of its target. I’m finished with that metaphor now.
It didn’t hurt that Ugo Soragni, the Regional Director of the Superintendency of Cultural Goods (Beni Culturali) had recently taken an interest in the situation. I interpret that to mean that he looked at the maxi-poster and said “Hold hard! And what culture does this belong to?”
But what is the determining factor in almost every decision, or lack thereof? One syllable…starts with “s”…we never have any…sounds like “bray”…”fray”…Schei! Yes, a city councilor reviewed some figures and pointed out that the maxi-poster did not appear to be the fountain of eternal money that had been supposed.
Now we’re on to something. The poster was ugly and unprofitable? Off with its head. And its scaffolding.
Probably nobody is thinking about New Year’s Eve anymore, no matter where they spent it. But here in Venice it’s not over yet, as the papers continue to publish a cascade of ever-more-detailed articles, personal stories, and editorials on how things went.
In a word: Badly.
So I’m going to back up from my earlier post and try this report again. Because in case you don’t know, the three most beautiful words in the English language are not “I love you” (though they’re not the worst, either).
Nope. The three MOST beautiful words are “You were right.” And in my case, its close cousin: “I was wrong.”
I admit that I felt uneasy writing that sunny little post about New Year’s Eve. Even as I wrote it, I had the strange feeling that I was unaccountably speaking in some unknown language from the planet where life is beautiful all the time.
I must have inadvertently disconnected my internal smoke-detector, because the news is demonstrating, in ever more lurid detail, why I will never go near the Piazza San Marco on the night of Saint Sylvester. And how inexplicably incapable the city is of organizing big events in some reasonable manner. And when I refer to the organization of big events, I have some small experience elsewhere; for example, the Fiesta of San Fermin at Pamplona, which I have attended twice. And I’d go back again, no matter how much I hate crowds, and one of many reasons is because it is organized and maintained in the most dazzlingly intelligent and diligent manner for nine solid days and nights. And a mere twelve hours drives Venice to its knees.
From 9:30 PM, rivers of young people arriving by train filled the streets heading toward the Piazza, smashing bottles and setting off firecrackers as they went.
Far from being a scene of frolic and light-hearted conviviality, as the night dragged on the Piazza San Marco (and Piazzale Roma, whence thousands tried eventually to depart the most beautiful city in the world) resembled a war zone, or a frat party of intercontinental dimensions. Words such as “assault,” “devastation,” and “outrage” highlight the reports of the night, and the morning after.
Piles of shattered glass bottles and pools of biological fluids from either or both ends of homo stupidus prostratus were only some of the abundant remains. There were also the bodies of comatose sleeping revelers scattered around the streets, lying where they fell when the fumes ran out.
The story in figures:
80,000 partyers, 10,000 more than the past two years. Most of the yobbos weren’t Venetian, but from everywhere else — what in New York are called “bridge and tunnel” people. I’ve seen them there at the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and it’s not lovely. It’s no lovelier here.
50 interventions by the 45 emergency medical personnel from the Green Cross, Civil Protection, and SUEM, the ambulance entity; most crises related to alcohol drunk, alcohol spilled (rendering the already wet pavement dangerously slippery), cuts by the broken glass of bottles blindly hurled into the air, blows to the head, and panic attacks caused by the mob and the explosions of firecrackers at close quarters.
100,000 euros ($135,868) the estimated cost to the city, excluding fireworks. This approximate number comprises: 60,000 euros for the collection and removal of 135 cubic meters (4,732 cubic feet)of garbage, of which 20 cubic meters (706 cubic feet) were of glass; 15,000 euros for the 60 Municipal Police agents on security duty. And the cost, not yet quantified, of the extra transport personnel (50 bus drivers and an unspecified number of vaporetto pilots). And the fuel required by the 20 garbage barges.
60 extra buses coming into Venice from the mainland; 123 extra buses between midnight and 7:00 AM from Venice to the mainland. Does this sound like a lot? Au contraire; the ACTV, in its wisdom, put on extra vaporettos, which worked well, but reduced the basic number of bus runs on a holiday eve. Because it’s, you know, a holiday, and the drivers want to be at home. New Year’s Eve in Venice, with reduced bus service. Explain this to the masses of tired, cold, exasperated people who were trying to get back home, who even overwhelmed the relatively few taxis in Piazzale Roma. Explain it to anybody, if you can. And I still can’t figure out how 50 extra bus drivers were sent to work if there were fewer buses. Or were they put to work scrolling the “Out of service” sign onto the buses’ forefronts?
The story in voices:
“It was hard, if not impossible, to move. Funky air, a mix of piss and drugs, the pavement “mined” with bottles, cans, and every sort of garbage…The Piazza was a disaster. Electronic music at full volume incited the crowd that was already drunk and out of control. A great number of young people had taken over, armed with every type of alcohol…the center of the Piazza was an inferno. Not just fireworks, but young people, Italian and foreign, were competing in a new entertainment: the launching of bottles…I didn’t see any security agents that would have forbidden this behavior…The day after, the marks remained on our city, heritage of humanity, devastated by barbarism.” (Margherita Gasco)
“According to a recent international survey, the night between the last and first of the year shows Venice to be among the principal capitals of the festivities on the planet. This shouldn’t prevent us from … reflecting critically on how these events are carried out — if they’re worth the trouble, if they still have their original sense.” (Gianfranco Bettin, the assessore for the Environment).
“Such a high number of people wasn’t predicted, nor predictable,” said Angela Vettese, the assessore of Culture and Tourism Development. (It wasn’t predictable? Does she not read tourism surveys?). “In the future, more prudence is necessary to protect the Piazza, and to invest in more surveillance, so that the police can check, count, and keep access to the Piazza within a determined limit. Furthermore, it’s necessary to organize only high-quality events, with spectacles that involve the public (more involved than they already were?), maintaining greater tranquillity.” She’s still new on the job, or she wouldn’t be talking like that; all these things have been said before, and before, and even before that.
Social network comments were divided between those who think New Year’s Eve in the Piazza is the greatest thing ever, and those who think the care and protection of the already fragile city is more important; those who insist it was just a normal night of festivity, and those who characterize is as another example of sheer lunacy.
“I urge the church to make itself heard, seeing that the civil authorities don’t feel any special need to safeguard the Piazza San Marco…Can we imagine an event like last Tuesday in the Piazza San Pietro in Rome?” (Franco Miracco, art historian).
“San Marco can’t be the only stage for events” (Mons. Antonio Meneguolo, diocese of Venice). “It’s not the number of people which creates bad behavior,” he said. “We can increase the security but it would be better to organize other activities elsewhere, and remove the emphasis of the publicity for “New Year’s in the Piazza,” seeing how the event ends up.”
“Venice continues to be seen as a city to exploit touristically down to the bone,” said Lidia Fersuoch, president of Italia Nostra. “More than limit access to the Piazza, it’s necessary to limited access to the city itself, because it’s impossible to contain more than a certain number of visitors.”
“Certainly, if we take as the limit the Pink Floyd concert of 1989, anything even just barely below that is considered tolerable…But hurling bottles, explosion of firecrackers, people who urinate and vomit in the streets, are these part of the normal course of public socializing? For some people, yes, but for us, no. Especially if it happens in the Piazza San Marco, which isn’t just any piazza, but a monumental area, as it was defined when concerts were stopped (because they have an excessive impact on the Piazza itself)… But why no to concerts, and yes to New Year’s Eve? We speak of “outrage” precisely because it’s a monumental area; you can’t remain indifferent seeing people climbing up the 16th-century columns of the Loggetta of Sansovino at the feet of the campanile. The piazza has always been the place for socializing, for events. But what events?” (Davide Scalzotto)
Here is what I ask myself and anyone who might be listening: There is a Superintendency of architecture, of art, of treasures. There is the Polizia di Stato, the carabinieri, the municipal police, the Guardia di Finanza. There are ordinances forbidding almost every dangerous and tumultuous form of behavior and the hazardous objects associated with them. Why is there no evident point at which any of these elements meet? The behavior and objects are at Point A, and any uniformed persons authorized to intervene are at Points Q, X, and Z. All told, there may have been more garbage collectors than anybody else at work in the Piazza, which seems backwards, to me.
In theory, if there were more agents of public order on duty, there would be less need for the First Aid stations, not to mention the ambulances and garbagemen.
But let me move on to a much more distressing thought.
Venice is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which, unlike many of the 981 sites on their list, is a real place where real people live and move and have their being. This presents special problems which nobody seems able to anticipate, or resolve. I am at a loss to say why, except that with ten fingers per city councilor, there’s plenty for pointing at other people.
There are 49 UNESCO sites in Italy, more than any other country on earth. So far, none is marked as being “in danger.” I think Venice should be. I cannot conceive of shenanigans such as New Year’s Eve in the Piazza San Marco being tolerated in Angkor, or Machu Picchu, or the Alhambra, or the Red Fort Complex, or the Etruscan Necropolises, or the Potala Palace, or the Galapagos Islands. And this is not the first time. And yet, it goes on.
And I’ll say one more thing, as long as I’m on the subject: Of all the “properties” on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, only two, so far, have been de-listed. The reasons are given on this page of their website.
Between the catastrophes visited upon Venice under the ever-fresh rubber stamp of the Superintendency of Architectural Treasures (the tormented issue of the maxi-posters in the San Marco area has only been moderately resolved, among other things), and the continued abuse of the lagoon, which is also part of the World Heritage designation (from the Canale dei Petroli to MoSE and now to the imminent approval of the digging of the Contorta canal), I don’t think it’s inconceivable that eventually Venice could see itself de-listed from the UNESCO panoply.
This is not the most improbable scenario I’ve ever come up with. Except that I’d love to be able to say “I was wrong.”