Archive for May, 2009
I regret that this report was held up by technical traffic backed up over my computer. But I promised a report on the effect of stage one of the Giro d’Italia on the Lido, so here it is. Note to self: Don’t be so quick to make promises.
So far, the report from assorted Lido People I know is that they overcame the trauma of being without transport like real troupers. I’m very glad about this, otherwise my sunny Sunday morning trip to the erstwhile “Golden Isle” would have been spoiled by what I anticipated would resemble the final scene of The Trojan Women.
I think the impact of this event was mitigated, not by a resurgence of civic pride — the wildness that bursts forth when, say, Italy wins the World Cup — but by the wealth of stuff that was on sale. Violent pink being the official color of the winner’s jersey (as crocus yellow is for the Tour de France), the crowds were speckled with pink baseball caps, T-shirts, rubber bracelets, and other paraphernalia.
We took the special boat from Venice to the Lido and got off at San Camillo, the rehabilitation hospital, to visit Lino’s oldest sister who’s been there for a month for problems I don’t understand (polite way of saying “Didn’t ask, didn’t listen”), related generally to her being past 90. We took her outside and sat by the edge of the road with a batch of other inmates and watched the squads shoot past. We managed to identify a Spanish and a French team, but I never did locate the Italians. In any case, it was an Englishman, Mark Cavendish, who won today’s effort. You probably already know that.
No more than five minutes after the last team whizzed by, the army of Giro workers passed, tearing down their signs and collecting the plastic cones in the street and all the temporary metal barriers. That was much more impressive than the race itself, perhaps because it was so dazzlingly efficient.
We were favored with a rare sighting of the Mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, who passed by with his bike and his characteristic nonchalance, an attitude of pretending the rest of the world, primarily its humans, doesn’t exist. (“It’s him,” “It’s him,” the people on our side of the road were murmuring excitedly, as if they’d managed to glimpse the last great auk.) Being a professor of philosophy, whose Ph.D thesis was on Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Judgment,” he might have been giving us a demonstration of Kant’s approach toward the problem of the other six billion people on earth: Walk away.
I realize it was his day off, even though I wouldn’t have thought that politicians gave themselves time off when they go out to move among the voters. But scorn is his default position; I have been in a small room with him during a press conference, and this is pretty much his approach to everyone, even people who are two feet away. His personal philosophy appears to be to ignore people as long as possible, but when forced to interact with them, as in a meeting with the city councilors, to shout them down. He is a passionate fan of cycling and told a reporter that he’d once dreamed of becoming a sports journalist. I’m not sure how good he would have been; sooner or later, you do have to talk to people, unpleasant and inconvenient as they may be. And sometimes even listen.
Years ago I interviewed him for 30 minutes — everyone was so impressed that he gave me a whole 30 minutes! — and he didn’t let me ask one question. I realize now that instead of taking the usual mayoral approach to interviews (I’ve done four by now, anyway), which is to give non-answers, he cut out the whole answer category entirely. What I got was a monologue about the history of Venice, which I already knew and if I hadn’t, could (and should) have read in a book. Interviewing mayors is a bigger waste of time than popping bubblewrap. And less amusing.
I don’t follow bicycle racing that much (polite way of saying “at all”) but I do know that there is a hugely important annual Italian event which corresponds roughly to the Tour de France: The Giro d’Italia. It has to start somewhere, and this year, its centennial, it will start on the Lido of Venice.
The oddness of that fact may not strike you immediately, but I have no doubt that it was a major PR coup for Venice, even though I’m not clear on exactly what the benefits might be. But never mind. Perhaps the TV stations covering it are paying for the privilege.
(The view from Venice: The long dark strip on the horizon is the Lido.)
Why is it odd? Because you can’t get anywhere from the Lido. Your choices are to go forward till you hit water, then turn around and go forward till you hit water. However, it does have the advantage of being very flat. Also, to be fair, one could hardly be expected to race around Venice itself, and Mestre would be just as weird. And Venice, as the Most Beautiful Stage Set in the World, inevitably lends itself to big events which want to benefit in some way from the backdrop.
So how is this supposed to work? The racers will be divided into squads, and they will do a team time trial by the chronometer. Then they’ll eat and drink and get their vitamin injections and take the ferry and leave the Lido and pick up the race the next day on the mainland, where the terrain has some verticality and they can really get their teeth into each other.
(The Lido is the long narrow island on the right. Detail from the EuroCart map LAGUNA VENETA, Studio F.M.B. Bologna.)
The city has been working dangerously hard to get the island spruced up and ready for the onslaught. The positive side: Banks of flowers have been installed (usually when plants are put out to beautify a public event, such as the film festival, people begin to liberate them. We’ll see how long these last). Even better, every bump, pothole, crack, fissure, bubble, or other anomaly in the road pavement for the 20.8 km (12.7 miles) course has been filled, smoothed, buffed. The residents are thrilled about that.
The downside: The Lido is being taken hostage by this event. Residents have long since been notified that they are forbidden to use their cars tomorrow. Period. (This would be obvious, but it needs to be stated because there aren’t so many roads on the Lido which would offer other options to residents wanting to drive half a mile to do something.) Not being able to drive anywhere means that life will have completely stopped. Forced to take the bus? There will be no bus service. No taxis. No vehicles. This is officially from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM, with some inconvenience tacked on at each end. For the Lido People it will suddenly be like they’re living in Brigadoon, for the 99 years and 364 days it’s invisible.
Anyone who needs to go somewhere on the Lido (Lino and me, say, if we were to want to go rowing that afternoon) tomorrow will have the option of once-hourly boat service which will make several stops along the lagoon shoreline. At which point you debark and walk inland — presuming they let you cross the road.
Well, it won’t kill me not to go to the Lido one day. Au contraire. But it’s the drama of the logistics that has overwhelmed the world- and life-view of the Lido People. Whereas citizens of other towns experiencing world-class events (Monaco comes to mind) might feel a kind of excitement and even pride, people on the Lido are thinking only of how hard life is going to be tomorrow. They are among the most provincial, isolated people I’ve ever known, and about the only thing that has any reality for them is their own little island life. (I exclude shopkeepers, who I imagine are hoping for some kind of windfall from the tornado passing through.)
I would love to have the chance to announce that Jesus is coming back tomorrow and He’s starting on the Lido, just to hear what the Lido People would say. It would either be “Will Billa [the supermarket] still stay open till 8:00?” or “So, does that mean that the vaporetto will follow the Sunday timetable?”
I’ll let you know how it goes.
We ran away. We ran far, far away, out into the lagoon in a little three-oar sandolo called “Granchio” (crab) with our best friend Anzhelika.
By “running,” I mean rowing, naturally. We left the Lido about 8:00 and rowed all the way to Quarto d’Altino, on the mainland shore out beyond the airport. We got back around 6:00; it’s about 45 miles roundtrip, and we were going against the tide. Both ways. And there were also waves, in the sense that after a typhoon you might say there had been wind. I woke up the next morning feeling as if a battalion of small people with big hammers had been pounding me all night.
We’ve done this before, with various people on various types of boat, and it’s always wonderful. The reason is simply because we go out into a distant, seemingly wild part of the lagoon which is so different from the area we’re used to, near the city. We wend our way through the barene, or marshy islets, and along reed-lined channels that seem luxuriously remote (if you can ignore the sound of airplanes taking off from Marco Polo airport just a mile or two away).
This is something like what the lagoon looked like, in a broad sense, to the earliest Venetians who took refuge here from the passage of Attila and his Huns. (I say “broad sense” because most of the barene that formed much of the lagoon landscape even 50 years ago have been washed away by the motondoso, or waves from motorboats.) We had to face our share of motorboats, but what mattered was the haunting loveliness of the waterways.
As we rowed easily along (in the stretches without motorboats), listening to the musical soft sound of our oars and the answering music of the water sliding under the boat, we could also hear the crooning of turtledoves, and a few nightingales, and a distant cuckoo, which sings only in May. There were gleaming white egrets, and one stately heron that flew heavily away. The hawthorn trees were lush with clusters of creamy blossoms, and I could see some tangly bushes of pink wild roses. The surface of the water was streaked with the faint but clear wake of scattering fish, usually grey mullet, and once or twice one sprang into the air, attempting something resembling the long jump. When the breeze shifted, or the clouds let more sunshine through, the wetlands would give off a faint muddy smell which seemed oddly clean. There was a hawk wandering around overhead. And a pair of swans, not far from the fish-farms.
All of this, and much more which I haven’t yet seen, or didn’t know when I saw it, is — of course — under phenomenal pressure from all sorts of human activities. The most dangerous and, for us, the most maddening, and even painful, were the motorboats. Big honking mothers full of trippers from somewhere back in the countryside, or smaller boats roaring past with teenage boys, or even cruddy little old boats with cruddy motors carrying some sort of decrepit men with old fishing tackle.
We stopped for half an hour at the trattoria “Ai Cacciatori” at Mazzorbo, just before Burano, for the usual sopressa sandwich and plenty of water. Lino, naturally, had an ombra, a glass of white wine. Venetians call this morning refresher (or afternoon, or evening…) a “shadow.” The story goes that back in the very olden days, when the Piazza San Marco was something between a Levantine souk and the Roman Forum, there was a man who sold wine from a small stand in the shadow of the belltower. As the sun moved, he would shift with it to stay in the shadow, and so people went from saying “Let’s go have some wine in the shadow” to just suggesting, “Let’s go have a shadow.” That’s the story, which I have no plans to research further.
We got to Altino past noon, and somewhat past the time when I had begun to wish we were already there. For all the breeze, you could still feel the sun, beginning to shine back up from the water onto your face, and it was hot.
We tied up the boat in the reedy little canal that ends at the very old pumping station; there are still fields stretching out here that need to be irrigated, or drained. Altino was an important Roman town on the main road heading northeast, and farmers still turn up assorted Roman relics of metal or marble. We had lunch at the trattoria “Antica Altino”and started the row home around 3:00.
It was about the time we were passing Sant’ Erasmo that I began to feel really tired. Being tired doesn’t impress me, but I wasn’t happy because I knew what was coming up, and it would have been so much better if I hadn’t been tired: Traversing the lagoon between the island of the Certosa and the vaporetto stop on the Lido at Santa Maria Elisabetta. If I were to say “Recreating Lawrence of Arabia’s life-threatening trek across the Sun’s Anvil,” or “Sailing around Cape Horn with only a torn jib and a busted rudder,” I’d be saying about the same thing.
Of course I knew there’d be waves, but they were worse than I had anticipated, caused by the ferries, and the big motonave to and from Punta Sabbioni, and tourist launches, and taxis, and vaporettos, and all sorts of private motorboats. As far as the quantity of boats is concerned, this was one-quarter or less of what it will be on a Sunday afternoon in July. But it was enough for me. Big, heaving, confused waves came from all directions; small, invisible waves tried to suck the boat back out from under our feet; tall, curling waves surged toward the bow, threatening to send sheets of water into the boat; clustering waves just pounded the boat from all sides, with no design, no rhythm, no pauses. And did I mention we were also rowing against the tide? I believe I did. By the time we reached the tranquil home stretch of water, halfway along the Lido, my left knee was stabbing, my right shoulder felt like a hot anvil had been dropped on it, each palm had a stinging red blister, and I was pretty much at the blind staggers stage.
Of course we swore we’d never do this again. We may have sworn this last year as well. If we do this next year, I will undoubtedly swear it was for the last time. Does that mean it wasn’t punishing? Of course not. Next year it will be even worse. But by the next morning — about the time I became conscious of having been bludgeoned with crowbars — the black, fermenting rage that darkened the return had already faded to pale grey in my mind, and now all I really remember are the birds calling and the boatsong, and the scent of the watery land, and what a great thing it was that the old Venetians had diverted a couple of rivers, because otherwise by now we’d only have had fields and parking lots to row across.
There’s so much to say about tourism in Venice I’ll have to go in easy stages, filling many pages and posts. Let’s start with last weekend, which demonstrated the rough outlines of what the term “tourism” can mean here.
The first of May is a holiday in much of Europe, its version of Labor Day in which we celebrate workers and excoriate employers.
Nothing quite so simple anymore as sending armies and tanks marching across Red Square; this year saw mass demonstrations of angry workers (and ex-workers) in Greece, France, Turkey, Spain, and Germany, and even Russia, which once reveled more in its military parades than rallies of irate trade unions.
Here in Venice, it was just another day in the march of money, and in fact there are plenty of days you could label “mayday mayday,” when holidaying legions of tourists from all over Europe march across the city. So far this year the Horde-Meter has registered Carnival, followed by Easter weekend, then by April 25 (which fell on a weekend this year), and finally May 1.
There were roughly 60,000 tourists per day, instantly doubling the city’s population, shuffling along the narrow streets, overwhelming the Piazza San Marco, and turning the vaporettos (when and if you finally managed to get on one) into something from the Pushkar Camel Fair. Hundreds of tourist coaches unleashed their day-tripping multitudes onto a city whose only public space, the Piazza San Marco, is 320 times smaller than Red Square. Let’s put it another way: The Piazza covers 255 square meters, and crowd-density experts estimate that one square meter can reasonably (we’ll leave some latitude for what that means) hold 3-4 people. That means that ideally there would be no more than 1,000 people in the Piazza at any given time. Let’s say that the crowds peak at noon, and let’s say that that amounts to 40,000 people. Or even 30,000, half the daily total. Or even 20,000, one-third the daily total. Numbers aren’t my strongest point but I think I could already have guessed that there might be as much as 20 times more people in the Piazza than would be pleasant.
The ACTV added three runs per hour to its already heavy Grand Canal vaporetto schedule (reaching a total of 37 extra runs), as well as nine extra runs to Murano and Burano and 13 extra back to Venice. But it’s never enough, in the sense that “enough” would mean no waiting, no crushing, no delays. It would be an impressive spiritual exercise for anyone wanting to determine how much compassion they can feel toward their fellow humans to board the #1 local vaporetto line at Piazzale Roma on any Mayday (which amounts to virtually any day from May 1 to September 1) with their soul full of love for humankind, and then measure what’s left by the time they reach San Marco.
If you look at tourism in Venice in strictly logistical terms, you can see that it’s a fascinating little problem, which so far has defeated solution. There are approximations of functionality (more vaporettos), but essentially there is no way in which a city which covers only three square miles can prevent or neutralize the stress caused by this particular kind of mass demonstration. It can only be minimized, sort of.
I spent an hour in the Piazza and I came away with one unexpected insight: It’s entirely possible that the gondoliers at the two “stations” (stazi) there were not born crazy. I’ve always wondered about that. I believe it’s likely that they have been made to go crazy by too many days like this. And don’t think all these tourists represent wallets on the hoof. An inverse ratio between quantity and quality has been noticed by almost everyone, something I’ll go into on another occasion.
Me, I have no idea how much money you would have to pay me — in cash, even — to go to San Marco on a holiday weekend, at least any later than 7:00 AM. I need to protect what little sanity I have left.