Archive for July, 2009
Most of the journalism about Venice, either print or TV, points out tourism as Venice’s main defining characteristic, which is about as simple a discovery to make as that water fills the canals. Apparently the appeal is eternal to the average journalist and editor looking for a story which is immediately sensational and not at all hard to do. A story on tourism here practically writes and photographs itself.
In doing so the reporters universally bewail it, to one degree or another, in the same way one would bewail any uncontrollable natural disaster such as grasshopper swarms, tornadoes, avalanches. You’d almost think that tourists come to Venice deliberately to wreak havoc on an innocent, helpless, unsuspecting, undeserving victim. The lines in these stories are usually pretty clear: City Good, Tourist Bad.
Pictures of mass tourism at its most intense are the easiest images in the world to take, the journalistic equivalent of hitting the bull’s-eye from one foot away. Anybody can do it — I’ve done it myself. You don’t even have to open your eyes to take impressive pictures of the worst aspects of mass tourism. In fact it’s probably better if you don’t.
But there is much more to the situation than the simple outlines sketched by the just-passing-through journalists.
I am not defending the behavior of large segments of the mass tourist population. These are generically labeled ”turisti da culo,” which literally means ass-tourists, but generally conveys a wide range of rude, thoughtless, generally sub-civilized behavior. There is never any lack of examples, especially in the summer. This race of tourist is horrifying, demoralizing, offensive, depressing. I could tell you stories. And yes, of course there are too many of them.
But I want to pause for a moment in mid-cliche’ to regard the situation from two important points of view which are rarely addressed as everyone is busy wailing and gnashing their teeth.
First, the city officials who have been assigned the role of City Councilor for Tourism over the years are politicians. They are not trained in the industry of tourism, an industry as demanding and complex as making steel or developing drugs. Further, it is the nature of the political breed to be cautious and easily swayed by conflicting demands, which makes planning, and then executing any plan, hugely difficult. And unappealing. Politicians on the whole tend to avoid “difficult” and “unappealing.” So a lot of tiny, disconnected actions are undertaken to minimize, if not solve, whatever is the most pressing problem of the moment.
The current Councilor for Tourism, a native Venetian lawyer named Augusto Salvadori, is famous for his impassioned oratory on behalf of his beloved city, the need to protect her and defend her and nourish and cherish her. It’s like the wedding vow. He is often on the verge of weeping before he finishes. People have come to expect it.
But he has no program, he has only little temporary fixettes. My favorite was the recent day to promote Decorum (yes, that’s the word they use for clean, tidy and polite), one of whose more publicized aspects was that the city offered to donate geraniums to anybody who wanted them, in order to brighten up the windowsills. If he had thought of donating the same number of large trash bins to be distributed far and wide to mitigate the incessant leaving of garbage on said windowsills because no alternative is to be found, the city wouldn’t need flowers in order to look better. You can walk from the vaporetto stop at San Pietro di Castello as far as the Bridge of the Veneta Marina (a straight shot of about 20 minutes, if you dawdle) without finding one (1) trash bin of any size whatsoever.
There aren’t many people who are willing to walk around town indefinitely with their empty soda can, beer bottle, or plastic ice-cream cup in their hand, searching for a place to dispose of it.
So: Point One is that the persons in charge of tourism here are unprepared for anything other than Making Suggestions. Which isn’t the same as Having Ideas.
Tourism is Venice’s only source of income. Yet it is inexplicably and profoundly — even stubbornly — even proudly, it sometimes seems – mishandled. The individuals charged with managing this important, complicated, potentially destructive resource could be compared to a person hired as director of a mercury mine whose previous job had been, say, as the Judges and Stewards Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association.
“We need some truly visionary people,” professor Fabio Carrera told me the other evening. “There’s no long-range thinking. It’s very short-range.” A few months ago there was tremendous blowing of trumpets and waving of banners to publicize “VeniceConnected,” the next big step in tourism management here: One-stop online booking. Carrera snorts. “All these ideas that were good maybe five years ago, like VeniceConnected online. We should be doing ten times better in the future. But they think ‘We’re innovating’ by doing this crap.”
The fact that there is chaos at the top naturally leads to chaos all the way down to the poor bastard trying to find a place in the shade to have some kind of lunch that won’t cost a fortune. Bathrooms — can’t find them. Open late, close early. Vaporettos — confusing. Signage — random and often homemade. Street vendors — insistent and vaguely disturbing. Which leads to Point Two.
Point Two: Nobody ever takes the trouble to report on what is demanded of a tourist here. I see it every day and even as it repels me it also inspires something like pity. It must be the vacation equivalent of the Ranger Assessment Phase at Fort Benning, especially if you’ve got kids. I once stopped to help a family of three standing at the foot of a bridge with their eight suitcases (I counted them), unable to figure out where they were, much less how to get to their hotel. They had been standing there for a while.
Visiting Venice in the summer will almost certainly be hot, tiring, baffling, occasionally even upsetting, and it can cost far too much. A one-ride ticket on the vaporetto costing 6.50 euros ($9) is far too much. Two euros ($2.80) for a half-liter (two cups) bottle of water is far too much. Disposing of the result of the water you drank, if you avail yourself of one of the few but very clean municipal bathrooms costs 1.50 euros ($2), which is far too much. But cheaper than the original bottle of water, true.
I am not defending or excusing the type of tourist of which one sees way too many here: Oblivious, rude, loud, and often, yes, ugly. The garb, the behavior, the everything is impossible to defend. When people leave home, many evidently leave their manners at the kennel with the dog. (The fact that there can also be rude, loud, ugly Venetians is noted by the court, but doesn’t have any bearing on this case.) But to be a tourist here, enchanting as the city is, must be debilitating.
Still, that doesn’t explain why they have to shuffle around the narrow streets like wounded water buffalo, stopping with no warning and blocking your passage, or to ride the vaporetto with 60-pound packs on their backs, nonchalantly laying waste to everyone around them as they turn this way and that, admiring the view.
So let’s sum up the situation: The city puts up with aggravations and discourtesies and even damage, large and small, all day, every day, and also at night, but it gets money. And the tourist struggles around a bewildering, overloaded bunch of Baroque/Renaissance/Veneto-Byzantine-laden islands, but gets lots of pictures of canals and belltowers.
I don’t know. Something is definitely missing from these equations.
Now I’m going to reveal something that I have confided in only a few people: my passion for laundry. Not just mine, everybody’s. It’s more than a mere passion, it’s more like a fixation, really. A mania.
Clotheslines, fluttering with their victorious domestic banners, are like daily bulletins, footnotes in the ongoing family story. Plenty of people walk around Venice snapping pictures of laundry, I suppose because by now it’s something you don’t see very often back home. I can tell you that when I see people photographing my laundry, it annoys me. I don’t regard it or myself as either quaint or picturesque.
But why do I love it so much, in my own secret connoisseur’s heart? It’s not the laundry itself, but the drying thereof, because that is the linchpin of the entire domestic enterprise. Not having a clothes dryer (I only know one person here who has one, and she uses it about twice a year, in the winter), you develop, quickly or slowly, a sense about the weather and its capacity to dry your garments that you’d never have imagined possessing in more appliance-laden towns. It’s a jungle-lore sort of skill.
This week is a case in point. We have been having a stretch of dream weather: breezy, sunny, dry, cloudless. It’s weather which inspires rational people — and there are more of them than I imagined, judging by the troop transports which are the overloaded vaporettos heading to the Lido – as I say, rational people to obey the seductive call, ”Beeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaach.”
But I, and I think I’m not alone, look out the window and think “Laundry!!!” Because with this perfect concatenation of elements you feel invincible, capable of drying anything, and by the look of the clotheslines around this part of the neighborhood this weather inspires a sort of primal instinct (cue the voice of David Attenborough), an irresistible urge to wash heavy cotton terrycloth bathrobes, double-bed-size comforters, vast thick beach towels, all sorts of blankets. Mattress covers. Sweatshirts (Go Big Red!). Many pairs of jeans.
If you have ever tried to dry anything on a winter day of chilly fog, or even those few days when it’s so cold your underwear literally freezes solid (I did not make that up), you don’t need to be reading this, because you know. Also, I think laundry is beautiful.
So what happens is that I am not only in love with the texture and fragrance of the socks and T-shirts as I gather them in (is that really what sunshine smells like?), I can’t resist looking at other women’s laundry. How’s it going? What time did she start the washing machine to have it out already at this hour? How can one family have so many black undergarments? This is an irrefutable sign of going bush.
Speaking of mysteries, there was a person living in the top floor corner apartment on the west side of Campazzo San Sebastian who every day hung out a man’s medium-blue dress shirt. I became fascinated with this, not because it was happening but why. Does he have only one? And more to the point, where is the rest of his garb? In ten years I never saw any other item of clothing, for man, woman, or beast, hanging out there over the street. It almost reached the point where I was ready to ring his doorbell to find out. But then I realized that I was enjoying wondering more than I would knowing.
My friend, Cristina, who has the clothes dryer, told me this: When she and her husband and twins moved into their new apartment in a very unprocessed part of Dorsoduro called Santa Marta, she accepted that as newcomers they would be under round-the-clock surveillance by the other women in the neighborhood. Everybody pretends nothing is going on, but they see everything.
She already knew that a certain type of housewife — I use the term not in a sociological but technical sense, because here housewifery still a respected full-time occupation, as respected as being an airplane mechanic — cadres of such women inspect the hung-out laundry with a terrific list of parameters. They draw numerous conclusions about you, your mother, your ancestors, how many languages you speak, whether you’ve ever read Proust, not so much according to what you hang out to dry (there’s only so many items a family uses) but how you do it.
Socks hung out at random? Say, colors not matching, or thrown in with the briefs or bras? Bad. Do you hang your husband/son/uncle’s shirt out by the hem, or by the shoulder? (Ditto any kind of trouser — there are two distinct schools of thought on whether hanging them by the waistband or the leg-hems is more effective, aesthetically pleasing, appropriate, etc. Pantyhose also falls in this category.) Matching items grouped together in perfect sequence are what you want to aim for, as they bespeak scrupulosity, forethought, and a commitment to doing things the Right Way. (I am not making this up.)
But Cristina happened to be using her dryer in those early days and therefore not hanging out any laundry at all. The neighbor women couldn’t stand it. Eventually one of them stopped her on the street and asked her, point-blank, where her laundry was. “I don’t know what they were thinking,” she told me, “like maybe we never washed….”
All you need is sun, at least for a little while (we get it in our courtyard for approximately an hour), no humidity, and a certain kind of breeze — not so strong (though of course it’s gratifying to watch your laundry thrashing around outside), but steady. Today it’s perfect, a sturdy, efficient little zephyr that has kept going all day. I feel such a sense of triumph when I bring in the heavy stuff, all dry, that I have to remind myself that I get absolutely no credit for either the sun or the wind.
Daily trivia: The common word here for laundry is bucato. This literally means “holed,” as in, having holes in it. Not holes that it came with, holes that were caused by countless washings, which until not so long ago was still accomplished with a washboard and tub.
More trivia: The washboard was the perfect tool by which to teach your kid how to swim. Generations of Venetian children learned how to swim by hanging onto their mother’s washboard.
So all those people photographing laundry on the line might as well be photographing Neolithic rock art. They know what it looks like, but they have no idea what it means.
I am convinced that when the Last Trump blows on Judgment Day, there will be at least one woman in the world who is too busy hanging out socks to even hear it.
One of the fundamental elements of Venice’s national mythology was that her government was just, equitable, and fair; that the law was equal for all, and that corruption, corner-cutting, re-interpretation of certain inconvenient clauses, and other such variations on the theme of smashing all ten commandments, would not only not be tolerated, they should be virtually unknown. Hence the elegant figure of Justice depicted in prominent places (including the campanile of San Marco; perhaps a little hard to appreciate from her perch atop two lions at 324 feet high, but all the more imposing for that), complete with blindfold, scales and sword.
However, human nature being what it is/was/and evermore shall be, there were occasional individuals who fell off the bandwagon. Self-interest is a powerful force, even when it turns out that whatever you did actually accomplished the opposite of your goal. Like poaching.
There are several plaques in the entryway to the Doge’s Palace. I don’t know if these were their original positions; on the one hand I’d tend to think so, because certain kinds of news really needed to be made public. That was part of the punishment, even though at the time everybody already knew the story, but seeing it there, incised in stone, must have added to the general unpleasantness. For the perp, I mean, not for the government (very pleased with itself) or his enemies and/or victims (glad to extremely glad). But the wear these plaques have suffered leads me to suspect they were placed outside, exposed to the elements for a longish time, which would have increased their publicity value.
You will notice that the commandment that has been smithereened at least four times in Venetian history is #8.
I will let them speak for themselves:
While we’re on the subject of Crime and Banishment, it wasn’t as heavy a penalty as it sounds, because it almost never lasted for very long. It certainly didn’t last forever. Like various family fights, it often became clear after a while that it would be better for all concerned just to get on with things. In the meantime, however, because they had been “bandito,” that is, banished, they were, in fact, bandits.
Provender: Otherwise known as biade, or biave. The biavaroli sold cereals and legumes — dried beans, split peas, chickpeas, spelt, and so on — and were subject to strict public regulation, to wit: First, the members of the guild had to swear an oath that they wouldn’t cheat by putting better wheat on top of inferior moldy skanky wheat. So far, so good.
Then, the product had to be registered before it could be sold, in the registry maintained in the public fondaco, or warehouse, at Rialto. The vendors were forbidden (of course, there’s nothing simpler than forbidding, but I’m just reporting here) to suggest to their retailers that they charge any price which would vary from the officially established figure. Their shops were state property. Those who sold wheat were forbidden to sell barley and NOBODY was allowed to keep merchandise acquired from two different suppliers.
But as we see by the plaques above, laws and decrees are only as good as the people who carry them out. Or not.
Before we move on, you should know that near the Doge’s Palace there was a garden; in Venetian, called a brolo. In Italian, broglio. Here the senators would find themselves before a vote in the Great Council, in order to do a little horse-trading with their votes. Hence the word “imbroglio,” which has about 30 different meanings nowadays ranging from bunko and chicanery and flimflam to fraud, hoax and swindle. These were the men who were making these dramatic decrees.
I’d like to write a book about human nature, if I could find the time. And if I could figure out what to say.
The festival day actually started the evening before, with a huge storm. (Everyone agreed, obviously, that it was better to have had it Friday night than Saturday night.) It was inevitable; we’d spent the whole week under a hot, wet woollen blanket of weather, one of those classic mid-summer heat waves that makes you hold very still and concentrate on breathing.
At around 7 — actually, earlier — a large swath of gray-black clouds began to draw itself across the sky and the breeze picked up, but we knew the storm would (couldn’t, in fact) hit until the tide turned. So we were inside, around 8:00, when the first raindrops began. Big, heavy, aggressive raindrops, smashing into the pavement one by one. Then the rain really hit. And then it turned to hail. I love the hail, it hits the canal so hard the water looks like it’s boiling. The bits of ice blew and cracked and bounced against the Venetian blinds. And the air turned cool and we could breathe again.
Lino said, “Anybody who’s out on the water in a boat right now is a coglion (male anatomical part which is commonly referred to when needing to describe a person who is a dangerous mixture of stupidity and incompetence at a level which can create inconvenience or even danger to those around him.) This storm had been threatening since 4:00 and Lino has very little patience with people who can’t take care of themselves on the water due to ignorance of what, to him, are the most elementary elements of survival. Kind of like somebody who might sit down to read “War and Peace” who wasn’t too steady with the alphabet.
Saturday morning, the Big Day, 8:30 AM: I went to the cut-rate supermarket behind our place to get some last-minute supplies. I wasn’t the only person who had thought of getting a head start on the day; there were at least five people in line ahead of me.
As it happened, the late- middle-aged man in front and the attractive middle-aged woman behind me knew each other, so they were schmoozing over and around me, in a friendly sort of way.
Man: “Remember when we used to decorate the boat with the frasche (small leafy tree branches), and the paper lanterns with candles in the them. That was really beautiful.” (The yet older man ahead of him chimed in, “Really beautiful.”)
Man: “One year when we were boys we went and rented a boat to go out to watch the fireworks.” That was still the era when the late, lamented affittabattelli were in business. “There were about five or six of us. And we had bought fireworks, too, which we stashed under the prow of the boat.”
The boat was something like a sampierota, whose prow is covered; it makes a very useful storage place, which is precisely why it’s made that way. I guess you have to be a 12- or 13-year-old boy to understand the point of bringing fireworks to a fireworks display.
“Then we saw a man on the fondamenta in a tuxedo. He asked, ‘Hey, I’m late to get to the galleggiante — can you ferry me over?” “We said, Sure. So he got on and sat down on the prow.”
(“The galleggiante” literally means “floating thing,” and specifically referred to a large heavy platform which years ago on the night of the Redentor moved slowly around the Bacino of San Marco, festooned with lights, carrying a band playing music. They have attempted a version of it the past two years, but I think it may have lost its true beauty when everybody became capable of bringing their own music aboard their boats. Or maybe it cost too much. Remember: No ghe xe schei.)
The story continues: So the boys were rowing across from here to there and somehow all the fireworks under the prow ignited. Which means “exploded.” I never heard what set them off, but once they start, that’s it.
“The man in the tuxedo had to jump in the water and swim,” our guy continued. “In fact, we all did. It was like a powder magazine going up. The boat pretty much caught on fire and just kept burning.
“It took us two years to pay off that boat,” he concluded. “We’d go by and pay the boat-renter 5 franchi, 10 franchi, whatever we had.”
What did your parents say? I had to ask.
“Oh we never told our parents,” he answered.
This was a fantastic start to my day.
The rest of the festa went pretty much as anticipated:
Beauty. Merriment. Friends — some 14 of them, assorted. Food: the strictly traditional bigoli in salsa (whole-wheat spaghetti with anchovy sauce), sarde in saor (fried sardines in sweet-sour onion sauce), and bovoleti (tiny snails in oil and garlic). Some non-traditional meatballs, too. Lots of wine. And shortly before the fireworks began, we slaughtered the watermelon — there must be watermelon, it’s non-negotiable. The next morning you can still see shards of watermelon rind floating around.
The fireworks started 15 minutes late. This put a serious brake on the merriment, which is emotionally calibrated to the start of the uproar. At least I personally am so calibrated. Fifteen minutes is too long to keep your anticipation at its peak, especially if it’s practically midnight.
I will say that while there are no bad fireworks, there are those which are great and those which aren’t. These were not great. The Gazzettino reported the next day that they were “probably the best there had ever been,” which is preposterous. Last year they were the best that there had ever been, and ever will be. This year we had lag, and long pauses, and repetitions. I can say they were louder than usual, but I don’t give points for loud. The hailstorm the night before was much more exciting.
We rowed the caorlina back across the dark lagoon, as other homeward-bound boats chugged past us. Put the boat away, policed up the campground, so to speak (many bottles and other detritus to dispose of), and then home. Which on the Lido means waiting for the night bus, which is not frequent, and then the night vaporetto, ditto.
It was a fine Redentor, but I wouldn’t put it up in my top five, if anyone is keeping score. Apart from last year, the only other truly unforgettable one was the year we heard that a friend of ours had just ”come off,” as climbers put it, a mountain in the Dolomites the afternoon of the Redentore. I’ll never forget sitting in our little mascareta that night, not eating, the fireworks all blurry, throat hurting. Poor Giorgio. I think of him every year.
But the next day happiness reigns once again, as the sun pours itself all over the city and down on the three afternoon regatas, and the stands in front of the church selling balloons and candies in alarming colors, and then the solemn mass and blessing of the city by the patriarch.
Of the three races, the One that Counts is the third: gondolas raced by pairs of men. Back in the barely rememberable past the racers were all men who were not exactly athletes; in fact, the broad sash each rower wears (matching the color of his boat) originally functioned as a sort of truss, I think you’d have to say. Nowadays the competitors train in a seriously focused way, and so instead of having a race in which the battle lasts for the first five minutes, and then everyone just stays where he is till the finish, as it once was, now you have battles to the death all the way through. Especially between two specific pairs of men whose rivalry has reached a level not far from blood feud. I refer here to the brown gondola (Ivo Redolfi Tezzat and Giampaolo D’Este) and the yellow (Rudi and Igor Vignotto).
The patriarchal blessing is bestowed on the city from an ecclesiastical station assembled at the entrance to the church of the Redentore. The current patriarch, Angelo Cardinal Scola, seems to like the vantage point. But there are plenty who remember other patriarchs of Venice, who were also cardinals, then popes, then saints, who did it differently.
Both Pope John 23rd (“Papa Roncalli”) and Pope John Paul 1st (“Papa Luciani”), when this was their humble parish task, took the ciborium containing the consecrated Host and walked to the middle of the votive bridge and intoned the benediction first facing the San Marco side, then turning and facing upstream. One can debate the various merits of each approach if one wishes. One can debate anything, but the old way was more beautiful and more appropriate. I have spoken.