Archive for Venetian Problems
A few times each year, the subject of motondoso leaps into the headlines. I wrote about some of this phenomenon a good while ago. While I wait for more pressing news to emerge, I will add this post to the general fund of knowledge. Don’t be looking for a happy ending.
- Studies by the Venice Project Center have shown several facts in crisp detail.
- The height of the waves increases exponentially as speed increases. A small barge traveling at 5 km/h would produce a wake about 2 cm high. The same boat going at 10 km/h produces a wake of nearly 15 cm. (Multiply the speed by 2, multiply the wake by 7.)
- Virtually all boats exceed the speed limit. The average speed on all boats in all canals was 12 km/h, which is more than 7 km/h over the maximum speed limit.
- Therefore, reducing the speed of the boats would drastically decrease the size of their wakes.
The area available for waves to dissipate. This is a crucial factor because all these hydrodynamic formulas wouldn’t have to matter except for those pesky canals, whose walls trap the waves.
The waves travel till they hit a wall, then bounce back, then hit the other wall, and this continues till they wear themselves out and disappear. Depending on how much traffic passes in the canal in question, they might disappear sometime around midnight. Typically, enough boats a day(and it doesn’t have to be thousands) pass through so many canals making so many waves that they don’t have time to dissipate, so they just keep going, banging back and forth into each other and into each side of the canal. each time giving just another little hammer-blow to whatever building they reach. That probably didn’t need to be explained. The depth of the water also influences the waves in certain ways, but of course the depth varies according to the tide, so let’s move on.
Building foundations. This is obvious. Some Venetians have told me that they believe nothing will be done to resolve this situation till an entire building collapses. Stay tuned.
- The lagoon, more specifically the barene and everything that depends on them. I will say more on this on my page about the lagoon, but briefly, the barene (bah-RAY-neh) are the marshy, squidgy islets strewn about the lagoon.
They form 20 percent of the lagoon area, and their benefit is to the entire lagoon ecosystem: microorganisms, plants, animals, birds, fish. For millennia they also slowed down the speed and force of the tide, but as the waves continue to obliterate them (50 percent of the barene have been lopped away by waves in 60 years), their benefits are denied to everyone. So it’s not only the foundations of buildings which are under attack, so are the foundations of the lagoon.
People. Waves are a hazard to ordinary people in several ways. The most obvious is the risk of capsizing. Even on land, you can’t be sure you’re safe. The insidious subterranean erosion caused by the waves continually sucking soil out from under pavements means that sometimes a person suddenly falls into a hole. It happened to a woman walking along near the Giardini one day — she put her foot on a stone, it collapsed, she fell into a hole higher than she was. Nobody in the neighborhood was surprised; they’d been sending complaints to the city to no avail. Then there was the child playing on a stretch of greensward at Sacca Fisola facing the Giudecca Canal who suddenly fell into an unsuspected weak spot in the ground. If a man with quick reflexes hadn’t grabbed him, the child would have long since gone out to sea.
The Venetians have a saying: “Water has no bones.” This means that water can go anywhere it wants to. They should know — Venice has a long history of brilliant hydraulic engineering, up to and including cutting the river Po to re-route it southward, thus preventing the eventual silting-up of the lagoon. If they hadn’t done this in 1604, Venice would have long since been surrounded by cornfields. Or more probably by the world’s biggest parking lot. This knowledge and sense of self-preservation now exists only in a vastly sub-divided and disconnected form which only serves one tiny, specific purpose, usually unrelated to any larger context.
Division of jurisdiction. The term “battle against motondoso” is now a cliche. But exactly who is conducting this battle? By now there is “an exuberance,” as the Italians might put it, of agencies and organizations involved in some way in managing the lagoon. The Magistrato alle Acque was established in 1501 to resolve administrative conflicts and simplify redundancies. Now it’s just one more in the herd. The lagoon is divided into areas overseen by agencies representing a large array of sometimes incompatible interests, charged with enforcing laws which sometimes contradict each other. The waters lapping at Venice’s feet are subdivided according to their primary use: shipping channels, small internal canals, approaches, which are variously overseen by the Capitaneria di Porto, the Magistrato alle Acque, the city of Venice and/or the province of Venice. Parts of the lagoon have been designated as Special Protection Areas (SPA) under the European Habitats Directive, but they exclude the central part of the lagoon, the major shipping lanes, and the shoreline Industrial Area — just the places where motondoso is most likely to be found.
Everybody with a boat. Over time, the voices blaming everyone else blend like an entire city singing “Three Blind Mice.” (I would say “Row, row, row your boat,” but that would be silly.) The vaporetto drivers say it’s the barges. The barge drivers say it’s the taxis. The taxi drivers say it’s the private boats. The private boats say it’s everybody but them. And so it goes. I’m not sure what the legal value is of a defense strategy formed around “I did it, but he did it worse.” But whoever is in a motorboat for work reasons considers himself to have a free pass. And whoever is in a motorboat for fun automatically counts himself out because he’s not there every day, so how could he count as a culprit?
Studies by the Venice Project Center have revealed that the highest wakes are produced by the small barges (“topo-motore“). Next were the taxis. Vaporettos produced the least, but that doesn’t let them off the hook entirely, for two reasons. One, “least” doesn’t mean they produce no wake, so I don’t regard “least” as any kind of gold star. Second, instead of bigger waves they produce something which none of the other motorboats do, which is a powerful whirlpool.
Every time a vaporetto ties up to the dock to let passengers on and off, the motor stays in full-steam-ahead mode. The reason given is that it makes the boat more secure for the passengers in transit. I won’t contest that here, but will say that the vortex creates a kind of suction effect (think of rinsing out your mouth) which is also damaging to the nearby foundations.
What to do? Stricter enforcement of speed limits. It’s the most obvious solution, even to Venetians. Generally speaking, the limit in the small inner canals is 5 km/h, in the Grand Canal and some larger canals it’s 7 km/h, and in some others (such as the Canale di Tessera leading to the airport) it’s 11 km/h. But, as noted earlier, these are just numbers on a page. Many and varied have been the proposals, most of which have some merit but which frequently suffer from the fatal flaw of being unenforceable. Shortage of personnel, inter-bureau jealousies, and lack of consistency and simple lack of will on the part of everyone has shown this solution to be impossible. I don’t mean literally impossible, I just mean impossible here. Require hulls and horsepower to be changed to the minimum-wave-producing conformation. Nobody wants to pay to get a new boat with a less wave-inducing hull, though it occurs to me that now would be a brilliant moment to launch a “Cash for Clunkers” program for commercial boats. If cost is the only thing holding people back (it isn’t) this would be an intelligent place to start. If it’s not cost, what is it? Civic pride isn’t even mentioned as an incentive.
It’s Sloth. “We’ve always done it this way.” “It’s too much trouble.” “Why me?” How to overcome that? You can’t. It’s as difficult to convince workers-with-boats as it is poachers that they are gradually killing their source of livelihood. You can only create a new situation and then enforce it till it becomes habit. I have several solutions in mind, each of which would have an appreciable, even dramatic, effect on motondoso. The costs involved are all to be considered as investments in the future not only of the person using the boat, but of the city itself.
- Redesign the vaporettos. Actually, this was on the way to being done, then the project slowly sank from sight and history into the swamp that is the political biosphere here. You should have a look at the Mangia Onda (wave-eater) hull design, and the prototype airport launch. The prototype had the advantage of being paid for by its inventor, which got it very far down the road. That was in 2001. The documents must be in a drawer somewhere. Or as one site sums up: “Don’t even ask what happened.”
- While that is going on, reconfigure the timetables to impose slower — much, much slower — speed limits on everybody. I don’t know why this seems to be such a difficult idea; evidently the mania for speed has blinded everyone to the fact that these changes would only involve five or fifteen — let’s say twenty, hey — minutes more for each run. Passengers, be they residents or tourists, can’t plan for an extra twenty minutes in transit? Why? They do it on an unplanned basis on the mainland all the time — all it takes is an accident somewhere and traffic backs up forever. Why do water-buses have to go faster? To carry more people?
- There are already so many vaporettos in operation that, especially in the Grand Canal, they have to just float there in neutral, waiting their turn to tie up at the dock while the previous boat finishes and casts off. If we were to see buses on the mainland pulling over to wait until their stop became available on a regular basis, we’d think it was kind of nutty. Same for boats. It’s a sign of unintelligent management.
- Install permanent cofferdams to protect anything a wave can reach. This would be most of the city and its canals. Not pretty, perhaps, for tourists who like to think the city is still living in the 15th century, but then again, the same tourists use vaporettos, taxis, launches, and other motorized boats and don’t seem to find it aesthetically jarring. This approach has always been used in the short-term to make it possible to repair ravaged structures; 50 years ago, squads of men beat a row of tightly connected wooden pilings into the sediment, and blocked it with dense lagoon mud to keep out the canal’s water. Today, there are always places in the city where you can see iron cofferdams serving the same purpose. I’d say if you’ve got them, just leave them there. And add them to the rest of the city’s edges.
- Change human nature. (I’ll get right on that.) Or how about changing the political landscape? Not much easier. But the city government has a view of its purpose in life whose range is far, far too short. Grandiose goals, certainly, but they’re sliced and diced, doled out here and there, or left to rot. The political philosophy here appears to qualify as what Herbert Marcuse called “repressive tolerance.” A good example is when your father says, “Yes, you can have it, but not today.” You don’t say no, but it never happens anyway. The city government has become expert at this maneuver.
If I were in charge, I would add the following to all of the above:
- Require completely new hull forms for each category of boat (for instance, returning the taxi to its primordial motorized shape, with the motor in the center of the boat rather than the stern, which creates much more wake).
- Most, if not all, of these hulls would be of the “wave-eating” form, a heretofore experimental design invented in 1998 by Americans Bill Burns and Charles Robinson . Its few demonstration runs have shown it to be effective but nobody has studied the effect of large numbers of them. Still, it’s a dramatic start. There is a saga behind all this, too, because in 2001 the company announced that one of these boats would be in service by the end of that year. As another web-site devoted to this project put it, “As for what happened, don’t even ask.”
I would also stipulate a limit on the horsepower of each category, including pleasure boats. Since people can’t retain the concept of slowing down on their own, I suggest requiring their equipment do it for them. As for those who might protest, I would have a one-size-fits-all response: Do it or seek employment elsewhere. The world must be full of people who would be happy to work for even one quarter of what your average taxi driver (I refer to the legal ones, not the fleet of illegal ones) makes in a year. Or even what they make in a month. If this notion for some reason is deemed unfeasible (I can’t see why), I would suggest immediately hiring a large quantity of extra police solely to enforce speed limits, imposing fines so steep that a quick calculation on the back of an envelope would show that it made more sense to buy a new, non-wave-making boat right now than pay two fines. The vital element here is that a person has to be at least 99 percent convinced that he will be caught and fined, a certainty which can’t exist today when the forces of public order have been reduced to skeleton crews who mainly race around solving emergencies.
The councilor for Tourism and Decorum, Augusto Salvadori, made a proposal some while back (I think he even may have made it twice): Engage squads of volunteers from the ranks of the rowing clubs, whose job would be to row around and blow whistles at whatever transgressors they encounter. This might possibly work (I’m being generous here) if there were enough people, if there were immediate and drastic follow-up, and if the transgressors weren’t inclined to run you over. My sense is that none of these conditions apply. Well, there’s prayer. They’ve tried that too. A few years ago there was a big initiative to amass members of all of the rowing clubs at the church of the Madonna della Salute (Our Lady of Health) on November 21, her feast-day. Considering that she saved Venice in 1630 from the catastrophic plague which was destroying the city, there was some poetic power in the notion of everyone going to her church and offering a candle in supplication for salvation from this latest plague. Grand symbolic gestures are so much fun; they make everybody feel so good. Reminds you of why Italian opera is so impressive. Then it’s over, and everybody goes home. And tomorrow begins just like it did yesterday, and nothing has changed.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Both phenomena can be extreme, disagreeable, and unavoidable. (Well, altitude sickness is avoidable, theoretically, if you have enough time to acclimate yourself.) I haven’t discovered a way to acclimate to tourism here, at the point it has reached, except by avoidance. Which is like solving altitude sickness by not climbing the mountain. No taking the vaporetto on the Grand Canal on Sunday afternoon, for example. No Piazza San Marco pretty much ever until winter.
But yesterday morning at the Rialto Market vaporetto stop I had a useful exchange of views with a heftily-middle-aged German lady. (Useful to me; she was untouched by the experience.)
So we’re standing on the dock, as I said. I snap a photo of some people I know from the rowing section of the Railway Employees’ Afterwork Club, as they rowed their gondola downstream. They were followed by a caorlina from another club. I didn’t raise my camera.
She speaks: “Don’t you want to take a picture of them?”
I reply: “No, I was just taking a picture of the other people because I know them.”
“Are they training for something?”
“No, they’re just out for a spin in the morning. It’s something people in the boat clubs like to do.”
“Well, I’ve never seen them and I’ve been to Venice many times.”
“Oh. That’s odd.”
“So you live here?”
“Yes I do.”
“HOW do you STAND IT with all the TOURISTS?”
I could tell — as perhaps you can too — that she wasn’t asking because she wanted to know. She wasn’t asking, actually. She was announcing her opinion on what it would be like to live here, and clearly it would be worse than five forevers in Hades. But I decided to go with it for a while, just to see where we might end up.
“Well, every place has its positive and negative aspects,” I said. (Aren’t you proud of me for being so tactful?) “If there is a perfect place on earth, please tell me where it is, and I’ll go there immediately.”
But she was not to be pried loose from the subject of all the TOURISTS. Though now that I think of it, I should have asked her which corner of paradise she comes from.
“I’ve always come to Venice in the WINTER when there is NOBODY. I went to (I can’t remember where) in the winter and there was NOBODY. It was WONDERFUL. I don’t LIKE people.” Something in her voice made me picture a scene of utter desolation in which she, rejoicing, wandered solitarily through deserted streets as the evening shadows thickened over the stiffening corpse of a large rat in the main square.
“So why did you come in April?” (The obvious question.)
“Oh, I’m on a CRUISE.” As if this made her presence on the dock at the market inevitable. Do they drive people off the ship with whips? And I suppose she had examined the itinerary, hence was not taken by surprise to find herself in VENICE. But I didn’t reach for any of these flapping loose ends.
Our vaporetto was pulling up to the dock. “I hope you enjoy your cruise,” I said. She didn’t reply but I had the impression she was already doubting that that would be likely.
As I thought back over this very unsatisfactory conversation, I realized that I had missed my chance to throw her to the mat and painfully pin her, even if she did weigh twice as much as me.
It would have been easy. All I needed to do was to say, ” If tourists annoy you, what are you doing here? Because you’re just as much a tourist as the rest of them. Maybe you’re annoying everybody else. So why don’t you get the ball rolling by going away?”
I know that Lino would have put it more succinctly; he’d have said “So go home already.” But that lacks the philosophical twist that interested me.
Who gets to decide who should be allowed to be a tourist in Venice? They’re irritating because they’re here? You’re here too.
As Stanislaw Lec observed, “No snowflake in an avalanche feels responsible.”
I’m referring to the crumbs of May, a month which becomes more intense every year with boating events, friends flying in and out, and work of various sorts, much of which needs to be done more or less simultaneously.
The word “May” normally conjures up a pretty, flowering little month set to the melodies of those warbling madrigals. My soundtrack is more like the Ride of the Valkyries. And all this is voluntary.
So yes, there has been a lapse in blogification, which I will now attempt to rectify, if only slowly. Energy is still low, and more to the point, I may be reaching my personal Plimsoll line on the overload of bizarreness that this amazing city continues to heave onto my psyche.
I haven’t had much time to read entire stories, but the headlines kept me abreast of a few extraordinary developments.
One was the announcement by (somebody) that the decision had been made by (somebody) to remove all the garbage cans from the Piazza San Marco. Not only does that notion, in itself, make no sense whatever, it gave my memory a little vibration recalling how much municipal effort has gone into trying to keep the Piazza decent, and providing more garbage cans was certainly a positive step in that direction.
The fact that these bins are virtually always crammed with trash leads me to surmise that they are useful. The amount of trash that swirls around the area at the end of a hard tourist day also implies that there might, indeed, usefully be even more.
Some phrase indicated that the Plan was to remove the bins because they’re unsightly. The unsightliness of their contents roaming free wasn’t a factor because evidently the tourists were going to be expected to take their trash with them, you know, like Himalayan mountain climbers always do.
But never fear. For those bits that were somehow to escape the backpacks and pockets of the tourists, two garbagemen would be stationed in the Piazza to titivate its venerable stones from time to time, as or if needed. Two sweepers instead of 60 bins. I think that’s the number; it might even be more.
Then the newspaper fell silent, and I see that the bins are still in place. Whether good sense or sheer sloth deserves credit for this, the tourists can continue to leave cans, bottles, little plastic ice-cream cups, and forests’-worth of random paper all over the place, when the bins are full. But at least the bins are there.
Moving on. A right cross-uppercut were dealt to my staggering brain with a controversy concerning a “work” of “art” for the Biennale perpetrated by a Swiss “artist” named Christoph Buechel representing the noble country of Iceland.
Mr. Buechel’s specialty is political provocation, ideally creating things that offend people. So he asked to borrow the church of Santa Maria della Misericordia, in Cannaregio, which had been closed since 1969, though not deconsecrated.
What he (or Iceland) requested was the use of the church for an “exhibition space.”
He proceeded to turn it into a mosque. Rugs on the floor, shoes outside, a mihrab, a mimbar, Muslims praying on Friday, everything. All this was done with the participation of the Islamic Center of Marghera, the Icelandic Art Center, the Ministry of Education (of what country I don’t know), the Ministry of Instruction and Icelandic Culture and also Ibrahim Sverrir Agnarsson, the president of the Islamic community of Iceland. Though not, as it turned out, with the participation of the diocese of Venice because it was the only entity evidently not aware that the “exhibition” was going to be of quite another sort.
Mr. Alessandro Tamborini, a professor of Religious Science, met provocation with provocation. He walked into the church/mosque/work of art on opening day with his shoes on. Then he called the police, because he said he was being ordered to remove his shoes, which demonstrated that the place was not a work of art, but a place of worship.
If it’s a work of art, then it’s not a mosque, was his reasoning, and he can’t be required to obey a religious restriction if it’s not, in fact, a religious place. He then formally asked the police to inquire about the exact nature of this installation, and whether the necessary permissions had been granted.
They hadn’t. So ten heated days were spent in which issues of religion (freedom of), art (freedom of), city ordinances of every sort (no freedom allowed there) got all mashed up together. Many people were offended on religious grounds, but the art crowd sneered at this reaction because it showed lack of comprehension of art, even though, may I note, if offending people was the primary purpose of the project, being offended demonstrated that people comprehended it all too well.
Then the government of Iceland got into the scrum, with heated objections to perceived prejudice. And everything got all tangled up in the long-running complaints of the Muslim community at being compelled to pray in a mosque in Marghera, and not in the center of Venice, to which they feel they have a right. Drawing attention to this knotty problem, it turns out, was the motive of Mr. Buechel’s project.
But bureaucracy to the rescue! The fact that the paperwork wasn’t in order settled this very disagreeable situation in an extremely simple way. No permits? No mosque. The place is closed.
I’m ready for May to be over now.