Archive for November, 2010

I have often mentioned that predictions of high water in Venice turn out to be as accurate as weather predictions anywhere else.  Sometimes even less accurate, given how sensitive the whole lagoon situation is to all sorts of factors, including wind.

1x1.trans How would you like your acqua alta? Well done? Medium rare?

The reality of acqua alta at a modest level is that it doesn't uniformly cover many streets. Here you see people going from dry to wet, then it will be back to dry again.

The last week or so has undoubtedly been rather trying for the dauntless Paolo Canestrelli, director of the Tide Center. Because while the Gazzettino, rightly or wrongly, published a series of articles that sounded fairly alarmist: “Feast of the Salute with your hipboots,” “Feast of the Salute with no walkways,” “F of the S at 120 cm [four feet] of high water,” and so on, it didn’t turn out quite that way.

These stories were irksome for a few reasons, none of which had to do with whether or not I had to put on my hipboots.

First, the area around the basilica of the Salute is much higher than the Piazza San Marco, therefore a tide prediction which sounds drastic in one place won’t be nearly so much so in another.

1x1.trans How would you like your acqua alta? Well done? Medium rare?

As you see here in via Garibaldi. The board as walkway is a great idea but only if it's long enough.

Second, so far this autumn few forecasts have turned out as given.  The 120 cm repeatedly predicted for Sunday morning? We got 103 [3 feet].

The tide did finally manage to pull itself up to 122 cm, but that was at 12:10 Sunday night, when probably there  weren’t many people or taxis or barges around to be inconvenienced.

A few nights later, the sirens sounded with two additional tones, signaling the probable arrival of 120-130 cm [4-5 feet] of water.  Two tones means that we will have some water about halfway up the street outside our door. But in the end, our canal did no more than kiss the edge of the fondamenta. The fact that there was virtually no wind also helped.

Regardless of the height or non-height of the eventual water, articles dramatize that the city has “water on the ground” without specifying the depth — sometimes it can be two inches, but the term “high water” is usually used by the media to sound as if the levees have broken. And these articles never mention how much of Venice has water, making it sound as if the entire city were going under. Someone might be sufficiently original as to publish a story that says “Two tones means that  up to 29 per cent of the city is under water,” but I have yet to see one that says “71 per cent of the city is bone dry.”

I realize that drama is entertaining, but why dramatize it at all?  It’s not dramatic.  It’s temporarily slightly tiresome, at a very low level on the Zwingle Slightly Tiresome Index.  I’d rate it a 2, the same as hanging out the laundry.

1x1.trans How would you like your acqua alta? Well done? Medium rare?

This would qualify as a true annoyance. For some reason this delivery-person was put ashore at an ill-advised spot near San Marco, and now his way forward is completely blocked by the walkways. (They spread out in a long T-shape beyond the edge of this picture.) He has obviously recognized that his only option is to wait till the workmen make a break in the barrier, which will be soon, considering how far down the tide has already fallen.

Now let me turn a sympathetic eye on the indomitable Canestrelli at the Tide Center.  Because no matter what prediction he gives — predictions which are always made according to information which has been scientifically gathered, even if journalists then recast them to sound like the last act of “Gotterdammerung” — people revile him. This is either because the prediction turned out to be accurate, and inconvenient, or because it wasn’t accurate, in which case people throw another armload of brickbats at him.

This is regrettable because the Center has just recently created a new mathematical model which has attained notably higher precision — an accomplishment for which Canestrelli was recently awarded a prize by the Italian government.  No rude remarks, thank you.

But nature resists our assumptions, as Canestrelli is the first to admit. “Look at the disastrous rainfall on the Veneto on November 1,” he told the Gazzettino on November 11; “it turned out to be ten times more than what was predicted.   Unfortunately, even with progress, there is still a wide margin of error.”

In the case of the high water on November 10, he explained that  “On Thursday our models didn’t predict anything over 100 cm. Only in the early morning [Friday, November 10] did we see indications that it might be higher, so we activated the sirens to warn it might reach 110 cm.  We then raised the forecast to 115 cm.  But unfortunately high water, like other weather phenomena, is very hard to predict even if you’re continually monitoring it.”

That particular series of unpredicted events was caused by a number of factors which aren’t taken into account in the simplistic popular impression of the Tide Center’s skills.  “Even though the weather was improving,” Canestrelli continued, “there was the return of a seiche wave in the Adriatic” [the public, including me, isn’t very good at keeping track of the seiche waves out there], “a significant rise in the barometric pressure, and a drop in the wind.

“This was a very strange situation in that the increase in pressure didn’t blunt the tide; in my 30 years here I’ve only seen that happen once or twice. The problem is that the pressure, in spite of the increase of 10 millibars, remained at an extremely low level rarely seen in our latitudes.”

1x1.trans How would you like your acqua alta? Well done? Medium rare?

Technically one could say there was still acqua alta at the Piazza San Marco but it has obviously begun to subside.

All this gives the tiniest indication of how many different and mutating factors affect the height of the tide and the accuracy of the forecasts.  Now let’s move on to another element which is much easier to grasp: Money and manpower.

“What can we do?” he asks more or less rhetorically.  “Few departments are as indispensible as the Tide Center, but we risk sinking to the bottom.

1x1.trans How would you like your acqua alta? Well done? Medium rare?

True, just on the other side of the walkways there is still water in the Piazza. Evidently the person with the big bag isn't too worried about its contents, or about waiting ten minutes. It's obviously on its way out.

“For 2010, the budget is for one million euros.  But 46,000 euros are for operating costs, and another 500,000 — allocated, but so far never actually seen — are earmarked for the maintenance of the equipment.

“How can we keep going with funding like this?  The money that remains is all we have to give to the personnel, who are on call 24 hours a day.

“How can it be that a department which is crucial to the well-being of an entire city isn’t regarded as the apple of the eye of the emergency services? There was a time when we had all the interest we needed to guarantee efficiency and accuracy. Now times have changed.

1x1.trans How would you like your acqua alta? Well done? Medium rare?

At 9:20 this shop in the Piazza San Marco had water on its floor, an event for which, judging by the paving, it has been well prepared. The shop is supposed to open in ten minutes and you can see how agitated the owner and staff are. They're not even here yet.

“Furthermore,” Canestrelli goes on, “we risk reaching the limit of our capacity. Up until last year the Center had 17 employees; now we have 13 and those include people in administration and motor-launch drivers. This leaves very few who are involved in the forecast service.  With this level of personnel, during the high-water season of October till May, we can’t monitor the situation 24 hours a day.”

And a note that is drowned-out in the chaotic chorus of who needs to know how high the water’s going to be is from the so-called ecological workers. Not so much for collecting the trash, which they overlook on high-water days, but because they have to know — in advance, please — whether they’re going to need to muster the troops to set up the passarelle, or temporary walkways.  Preferably before the water is above the ankles.

The clever thing to do, it would seem to me, would be for the Tide Center to estimate the tide toward the higher end of the scale.  Just to be on the safe side.  I was very proud of myself for coming up with this clever and amusing idea.

Then Canestrelli told the Gazzettino that that’s  pretty much what they’re doing.

So all this being said, let us dial down the volume on the wails preceding the next expected high tide. It may turn out to be a little — or somewhat — or a lot — different than you thought it was going to be.  I suggest you buy a pair of boots and get on with your life.

Categories : Nature, Problems, Water
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Venice salutes its Madonna

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Of course you already know that “La Madonna della Salute” does not mean “Our Lady of the Salute.” She is Our Lady of Health, and every year on November 21 everyone in Venice who can walk, and even some who can’t, make the pilgrimage to her church to offer a candle and say however many prayers are filling their hearts.

1x1.trans Venice salutes its Madonna

Just as at the feast of the Redentore, a votive bridge is installed -- here spanning the Grand Canal. It is intended to carry the faithful piously over the water, but it's also an excellent vantage point for snapshots.

Yesterday was not a propitious day, meteorologically speaking.  For two or three days the  Gazzettino had been feverishly predicting acqua alta of 120 cm [four feet] that morning.  (It didn’t happen.) There was plenty of water, however, in the form of a frigid rain.  It wasn’t heavy, but it was determined, the kind of rain that isn’t thinking about anything else.  And it got dark early.

1x1.trans Venice salutes its Madonna

Perhaps they look innocent enough to you. That's because you can't smell them.

There had also been an anxious sub-theme, which began circulating several days early, on the impending castradina famine.  Castradina the basis of  the traditional dish for this festival, a soup made of cabbage and a haunch of mutton which has been dried, smoked, aged, slathered in dark malodorous spices, and possibly even beaten with sticks and dead-blow hammers. It’s an impressive little piece of meat.

But this year, the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, or Festival of Sacrifice, fell in the same period.  Which meant that the general supply of castradina — which has never been huge, seeing as the tradition had fallen into general disuse — had suddenly shrunk to almost nothing.  I have now learned that Muslims favor this foodstuff for their religious observance, and that they offered a better price to the few remaining wholesalers who carry it.

This is amusing, in a way (it takes so little to amuse me), because for years many people didn’t care about castradina.  We’ve had Venetians over to dinner who had never eaten it. We’d see these hunks of black flesh hanging in the butcher shops and would wonder what they did with the ones they didn’t sell.

But in the past year or two, castradina has come back into fashion.  So Venice, according to the Gazzettino, was pullulating with desperate people seeking castradina by any means, in any place, at any price.  I can’t think of a credible substitute.  You couldn’t fake it even with tofu.

1x1.trans Venice salutes its Madonna

Getting ready for the big day doesn't mean just cooking castradina. It means getting the area ready for every contingency.

Back to the weather.  It was cold, dark, and wet.  Just what I think of as perfect weather for this feast, though the women in the mink coats were thwarted by the rain.  As you know, they come out in force on this day even in the driving sun.  The need to show off their fur is just too strong. If you’re wearing beaver or seal, fine.  But minks do not like rain any more than their humans do. I kind of missed seeing these self-contented matrons in their luscious garb.  They do love it so.  Lino calls this the feast of Our Lady of the Fur Coats.

1x1.trans Venice salutes its Madonna

And the delivery of several hundredweight of neatly boxed candles.

1x1.trans Venice salutes its Madonna

There are at least five stands and they all sell exactly the same thing. I don't get it.

This year, to my surprise, we got into the church without having to battle a rugby scrum, and we walked right up to the candle-lighting station and handed over our candles. This was an odd but very pleasant sensation.  Last year there was such a crush of people that I honestly thought we’d be trapped there holding our candles till Christmas Eve.

Then, as usual, we joined the file of people who elected to walk past the high altar and venerate the little Madonna on the other side, crossing themselves and tossing some cash, and walking out through the sacristy.  We found two seats in the heavy wooden choir stalls and sat down to watch people go by. Even though there weren’t massive crowds, the flow was steady.  So far, so normal.

You can’t force pious thoughts.  If you try, they just slide off your brain.  So I sat there not thinking at all, somewhat lulled by the rosary recitation floating over from the other side. And then a thought came to me — more a realization than a thought. I realized that we were being faithful.

All those thousands of frantic, distraught Venetians had been watching people die of the plague all around them till all they had left to offer in exchange for their lives was to promise the Virgin that if she would intercede and save what was left of the city, they would build her a church and come to offer her candles and gratitude every November 21 forever. And after 380 years, people (us) who are so far away from the original promisers that their vow could be thought of as symbolic, or even meaningless, are still maintaining that vow.

Crumpled-up little old people, children of every shape and temper, families of various nationalities, teenage boys, an assortment of tourists — anybody who was there formed another link in the chain tying us to those helpless, despairing people who made a promise that they believed we would keep.

And we did.  And we will.

1x1.trans Venice salutes its Madonna

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If anything has ever happened to you which was totally not your fault, but for which you are going to be massively penalized, read on.

We know that air travel can sometimes seem like a penalty in itself.  Missed connections, or canceled flights, or harassed cabin staff, or getting stuck sitting next to a drunk, just-divorced cement mason whose wife got the dog. Oh, and lost luggage too.

1x1.trans Lost your bag?  Just keep walking...

I'm assuming his bag didn't look like this.

Yes, if you check your portmanteau you may have worries bigger than crying babies and overpriced beer.  Especially if you’re a 25-year-old Serbian tourist who may not have developed the finely honed instincts of a frequent flyer when it comes to finding the best way to resolve any problems.

I refer specifically to a young man whose initials are D.V. (perhaps you know him?) who was flying from Ankara to Venice via Vienna a few days ago.

He checked his bag.  But his bag did not arrive on the carousel at Marco Polo Airport when he did.  Obviously he couldn’t know which leg of the itinerary had snagged his valise, but he wasn’t happy.

1x1.trans Lost your bag?  Just keep walking...

And I'm sure it didn't look like the Henk Travelfriend, at $20,000 the most expensive suitcase in the world.

So far, so normal: Long trip, check.  Being tired, check. Huge annoyance on arrival, check.  So he went to report it, and also made it clear just how hugely annoyed he was. Do you people not know how to do your jobs, fer cripes’ sakes?  Or however they say it in Serbian.

Good news!  They found it!  It only took four days, but they got it.  They notified him and he went straight to the airport to claim it.

Bad news!  They looked inside it!  And there, all bundled up safe and sound behind a fake panel, right where he’d stashed it, they — the Guardia di Finanza — found 2300 grams (five pounds) of pure heroin. Street value: One million euros ($1,369,480, or 107,171,684 Serbian dinars).

Back to his question about job skills: I’d say that while the baggage handlers at one of the three airports were pretty incompetent (including the fact that, unlike baggage handlers in many places, they didn’t look inside that lonely little suitcase sitting there all by itself), the gendarmes at Marco Polo were at the top of their game.

So now D.V. has been arrested for international drug trafficking and is looking at a probable 8-20 years in the bastille.  Plus he doesn’t have the doojee anymore, which is now a whole lot more irritating to his employers than it is to him.  It is a situation compared to which sitting next to a depressed cement mason would begin to seem, as they say here, a Carnival ball.

This is at least an interesting twist on a depressingly routine subject; drug runners arriving at the airport usually have stomachs full of condoms crammed with cocaine. The latest, a few days ago, was a certain M.R.A., a 19-year-old Pole, who was caught with nearly 2 kilos, or 4 pounds, of the stuff inside him.  Or else you’ve made the journey via ferry from Greece, origami’ed inside somebody’s vehicle with no food, water or air for two days.

1x1.trans Lost your bag?  Just keep walking...

No bags at all, a sight to freeze your follicles if you're waiting for something worth a million euros. This is Dubai airport, but Marco Polo has the same type of carousel. (Photo: MoHasanie)

Just a note about the Polish kid: He was admittedly waving a fistful of red flags, to so speak.  He was visibly nervous.  He flew in from Istanbul.  He had no luggage.  He had very little cash.  His roundtrip ticket was booked for a very short stay in Venice. Is he coming to visit his dying aunt?  Only if she’s in the next cell.

So many, many questions and thoughts roil through my brain on a cold, foggy afternoon here. Such as:

While it’s obvious that attempting to board a plane (or two) carrying heroin in your hand luggage would be infinitely stupider than checking it, I keep wondering why his employers wanted him to fly.  Aren’t there trains?  Rental cars? Dogsleds?

1x1.trans Lost your bag?  Just keep walking...

A Finance policeman (here patrolling Malpensa airport) is an even less welcome sight than an empty carousel. (Photo: Massimiliano Mariani)

And: If he had to check it — which he did — why didn’t he borrow the defensive stratagem of photographer I once knew, and stencil the outside of the suitcase UROLOGY DEPARTMENT VISNJIC (or whatever his last name is) HOSPITAL?

And: Does he realize how very, very lucky he is to be in jail now, where maybe his extremely irritated employers can’t get at him?  He must be doing laps around the rosary hoping to get the maximum sentence.

If he wasn’t religious before, I bet he is now.

Categories : Problems
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The big water event in the Veneto region in November has had nothing to do with Venice and high water and the temporary walkways and how inconvenient or amusing the tourists find it and how aggravating it is for the merchants to deal with some water on the floor for a few hours.

1x1.trans Acqua alta? Real floods create real problems

A scene of downtown Vicenza, a city which, unlike Venice, is not accustomed to seeing water in its streets. (Photo:

The real story, which is still unfolding in all its drama and grief, has been the catastrophic flooding in large areas of the region caused  by diluvial rains and overflowing rivers.

I mention this as part of my modest personal crusade to give acqua alta some useful context for people beyond the old Bel Paese who read the endless and fairly repetitive  articles on Venice.  I’d like  to provide some recent perspective on the subject of water in these parts.

On November 1 the sky fell on the Veneto region.  I actually can’t remember whether we got acqua alta in Venice — if we did it couldn’t have been a problem. But what happened out beyond the shoreline showed, at least to me, that anyone living near a river is going to be facing bigger and uglier problems than anybody does  in Venice when the tide comes in.

1x1.trans Acqua alta? Real floods create real problems

The town of Caldogno has declared 80,000,000 euros in damage. (Photo:

Areas in or near Vicenza, Padova, Treviso, the mountains of Belluno and the countryside around Verona have been declared disaster areas.  In a 48-hour period 23 inches of rain fell on Belluno, 21 inches on Vicenza, 15 inches on Verona, 14 inches on Treviso.  Roughly the amount that falls in a normal year.

The total damage to houses, property, municipal infrastructure and agriculture in the Veneto has been estimated (this will undoubtedly increase) at over one billion euros ($1,365,530,000).

Garbage: Many of the Veneto’s 200 km (124 miles) of beaches, usually covered by vacationing Germans and other families, are now covered by seven million tons of garbage deposited by the swollen  rivers emptying into the Adriatic. By “garbage” I don’t just mean bags of coffee grounds and orange peel but plastic of every sort, sheets of metal, uprooted trees.

Experts meeting in Treviso are trying to figure out not only how to remove this amount of material, but how the sam hill to pay for getting rid of it, seeing that this type of trash costs between 170 and 180 euros ($232 – $245) per ton to destroy.  I’ll help you out: That comes to more than one and a half billion dollars just for the garbage.  I’ll send them a contribution but it probably wouldn’t pay for destroying more than a shopping-bag’s worth of detritus.

Mudslides: That amount of rain has drastically undermined the character of the land in many places.  Cleaning up and consolidating the areas of mudslides is another entire problem which will cost an amount of money I’m not going to bother calculating.

Businesses: On their knees.  Loss of merchandise, damage to buildings and interruptions in transport have immobilized many businesses.  Parts of many roads are still under water.

1x1.trans Acqua alta? Real floods create real problems

A scene of the countryside outside Vicenza, where we see that traffic has run out of road.

Agriculture: Fields and crops destroyed.  Some 500 farming operations are now at risk of going out of business. The government has estimated the damage at 25 million euros ($34,138,250).

I realize that you can replant sugar beets and chardonnay grapes but you can’t replant the Doge’s Palace, should water ever inflict comparable damage on this incomparable monument.  But still.

Very recently, but before all this happened, Giorgio Orsoni, the mayor of Venice, took a trip to Rome to make the rounds of government ministers and rattle the tin cup.  He didn’t come back with much, and now the future will inevitably be even more austere.  It’s not hard to picture how urgent it’s going to seem to preserve a couple of palaces and churches  to a government struggling to help an estimated 500,000 people get their lives back.

1x1.trans Acqua alta? Real floods create real problems

These are the most recent figures on the damage, which probably need no translation. The numbers will undoubtedly rise. Among other items is the damage to the Prosecco vineyards, so don't expect an excess of this delicacy next year.

1x1.trans Acqua alta? Real floods create real problems
Categories : Events, Problems, Water
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