Archive for March, 2010
I realize it may sound strange to refer to there being “plusses” to acqua alta. Let me just say I don’t mean “plusses” in the sense of winning a large chunk of the lottery. But there are in fact some positive aspects to it.
For instance, many Venetians have told me that acqua alta is a good thing because it washes the streets. This is true. Unfortunately, it also deposits a fine layer of silty slime. And while it does remove some of the dog poop, it also leaves detritus behind, so the general landscape isn’t much prettier than it was before the water rose. So, you know. We could go on like this, pro and con, all day.
But let me point out something that is hardly ever remarked on, in the many and varying accounts of this event: Acqua alta is actually a very good thing for the barene (the lagoon’s marshy wetland islets). If we can focus our minds briefly on something other than our own immediate convenience, it’s worth remembering that the lagoon has its own needs which are being met ever more rarely. So if it likes a good soak, I don’t see why it (by which I mean the whole ecosystem: microorganisms, plants, birds, etc.) can’t have it. Also — speaking selfishly — rowing when the water is high is magic.
Back in town, here are a few of the positive and less positive aspects of acqua alta, as I see them:
- It doesn’t last long. Acqua alta is a tidal event. Unlike your raging rivers, it has a predictable time frame. The tide comes in for six hours, and goes out for six hours. True, sometimes it doesn’t go out as much as it should, but it eventually does go out. This coming and going means that it’s really bothersome for only about two hours.
- It’s fairly tranquil. Inexorable, I grant you. Anyone who hasn’t watched the water rising near one’s front door (as we have) hasn’t fully grasped the fundamental meaning of “Time and tide wait for no man.” But the typical reports of high water in Venice make it sound as if Niagara Falls is pouring through your living-room window (CNN once referred to the “Adriatic bursting its banks.” Banks? Bursting? Are we suddenly in Holland?), when in reality it’s more like the bathtub slowly overflowing. Water in both cases, I agree, but not really the same.
- It is predictable. True, raging rivers are also predictable, but some of the factors influencing acqua alta, such as the direction of the wind, can change. In addition, we get plenty of warning. If you don’t want to wait for the sirens to blare, just look at the barometer. (You do have a barometer, don’t you?) The lower the pressure, the higher the water. Check the sky: Full or new moon? There will be more pronounced highs and lows. Wind from the southeast? Not good; it will prevent (or slow) the regular retreat of the tide. We want a southwest wind (garbin) or better yet, northeast (bora). Those will settle acqua alta’s hash.
I’ll tell you what’s really annoying about acqua alta, apart from the distraught articles that keep getting published. It’s not that you have to put on boots for a few hours. It’s that:
- When the tide goes out, it leaves all kinds of detritus
all over the sidewalks. Stuff that was just floating gently comes to rest on whatever pavement was just below it when the last inch retreated. Also, if anyone puts out a plastic bag of garbage the night before (yes, despite the warning sirens — dumb, I agree), that bag will be floating around the street and either settle on the pavement somewhere or drift out to sea. Neither case is highly desirable, though obviously the second is worse.
- The garbage-people will be extremely slow in collecting the trash and/or — make that just “or,” they can’t seem to do both in the same day, even when the sun is shining — sweeping away the detritus, which means the streets look more or less like a slum. The garbage-people are slow because … I’ve tried to understand this… It may be because they are already so desperately overworked that high water adds an insuperable burden (you’re believing this, yes?), and because they are otherwise urgently and industriously occupied in setting up or taking down the temporary walkways over the high water (sometimes yes, mostly no). But they seem to get a special pass on their normal work when the acqua is even moderately alta. I can’t explain it, except to compare it to the mysterious sore throat which a kid who doesn’t want to go to school suddenly develops when it rains or snows.
- Transport gets all scrambled up, not only for taxis and barges but also some vaporettos and/or motoscafos. They have to change their normal routes because the high water prevents them from passing under certain bridges. There are alternatives by which they resolve this temporary dilemma, but it adds inconvenience to your own trajectory. As for heavy work boats and taxis, they either have to pick another route from A to B, or wait for the tide to turn. Tiresome, true, but hardly the stuff of calamity.
- Your front door swells. If you have been so unfortunate as to have even an inch of water come inside (and for many people, this just means it has reached the edge of a staircase leading up to their apartment, not the apartment itself), and your front door is made of wood, it will soak up the water and then want to stick. It will take a while to dry out. Like, maybe weeks. You may end up having to sand it down some. Irritating. Not disastrous.
I think if you’re going to live here you need to accept the fact that you’re sitting in the middle of a tidal lagoon. If that creates really too many problems, it might be good for you to consider moving. At least to the second floor, or maybe across the bridge to the mainland. No more worries about the tide coming ashore over there. All you have to deal with there, even as nearby as Mestre, are rivers and rain and totally inadequate storm drains. Which leads to flooded basements full of water that actually has little or no natural urge to recede. Fun.
No emotional articles about that, though. Who cares about a foot of water in somebody’s garage? Nobody — at least not until that somebody snaps a picture of a person rowing around the car or trailer.
If there’s one thing people everywhere know about Venice, it’s that sometimes those romantic canals try to barge into your house.
Rather than “flooding,” Venetians call this acqua alta, or “high water” (literally “high tide”). Or, depending on how deep it’s likely to be, sometimes they call it “acqua in terra,” or “water on the ground,” which is less dramatic and often more accurate.
I’ve got water on the brain at the moment because night before last, the warning siren sounded again. It indicated the lowest predicted level, one out of four, which was nice, and in the end we barely got any at all. With rare exceptions, acqua alta, more than being some kind of apocalyptic affliction, as it is often portrayed, is really a low-grade nuisance. If it happens often, as it has this winter, it becomes as annoying as any other uninvited guest who doesn’t realize it’s time to go home.
There are so many notions people have about high water, based on the generally inaccurate and overwrought accounts in the press, that I thought I’d review and readjust a few of them.
- It’s always happening, or likely to happen. Not really. This winter we’ve had more acqua in terra (again, not really what I’d call “alta”) more often than many other winters. On the other hand, there have been years when I haven’t put my boots on even once. Yet all kinds of claims keep being thrown around in stories written about this little phenomenon. The website of the basilica of San Marco states that water begins to flood the Piazza San Marco, just in front of the church, 250 days a year. Check my math, but that works out to 8 months. A photo caption on the National Geographic website claims that Venice has high water ten times a month. That’s crazy talk.
- It creates, or will create, really big, really bad problems.
I’m not sure what people think those might be, but the words “acqua alta” seem to inspire a lot of hyperventilating outside Venice (and even inside Venice, mostly from merchants around the Piazza San Marco). I’m not saying that having to put the stuff in your store up on higher shelves isn’t annoying, or that having to sweep out the receding brackish water and then wash the floor with fresh water isn’t annoying. But in 9 cases out of 10, the situation doesn’t exceed the annoyance level — not much worse than having to shovel the snow out of the driveway for the fiftieth time this winter.
- It’s going to be alarmingly deep. Those fun photos of people rowing boats in the Piazza San Marco don’t ever show how deep the water actually is. (In fact, those boats can be rowed in four inches of water.) Venice isn’t flat as a griddle — the streets undulate as much as the water does, which you discover when the water comes ashore. There can be dry spots even in a wet street.
- The entire city’s drowning. The municipal tide center reports that when the tide is predicted to reach 110 cm above mean sea level, 14 percent of Venice has water on the ground. And that that might not be a depth of more than an inch or two. Fourteen percent doesn’t strike me as an immense area, and several percentages of that would always be the Piazza San Marco, the lowest point in the city.
- It’s going to hurt you, or hurt something. Not that I’ve noticed. Acqua alta is nothing like real floods. Rivers overflowing their banks in torrential rainstorms are dangerous; tsunamis are dangerous. With acqua alta, nobody dies. People survive, buildings survive, art works are fine. The water rises very gently, even politely. Despite the distraught tones in which the event is almost always reported, I still don’t understand why the mere term seems to have acquired such a menacing overtone.
Acqua alta is not dangerous. It’s not even especially upsetting. In my experience, if it happens more than a few times, though, it can begin to seem like a two-year-old who’s gotten into the “Why?” groove. Nothing wrong with it, really, except that it gets to be irritating. The kid turns three, and spring and summer come, and all of this fades from memory.
In my next post: A few real-life aspects of acqua alta which tend to mitigate its fearsome reputation.