Archive for March, 2012


Sensing Venice: Space

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Out in the lagoon, there's plenty of room to go around. On land, the situation changes.

Some time ago I embarked on a series of what were going to be five posts, each dedicated to one of the classic senses, and how I indulge them here.

I haven’t yet shared my thoughts on the remaining two (sight and touch) and I’ll be putting that off for a little while longer.

What has pushed ahead of them in line are few non-traditional senses which have inordinate importance here.  If you awaken these senses, the benefits ought to be many, such as helping to increase your enjoyment of Venice and, at the same time, minimize your impressive ability to spoil it for others.

By “you” I originally meant “tourists,” and much of what I’m going to say is, in fact, aimed at people who are just passing through.  But I have to say that Venetians themselves can be astonishingly oblivious to the world around them. I just want you to know that I recognize that, in case anyone is tempted to retort “Well what about them?”  Fine: They’re guilty too.  But this is their city, and their country, too.

So today I present the sense of space.  There isn’t much of it here.  The city covers only about two square miles, and I estimate that 97 percent of that area is occupied by buildings or water. So you can see how tricky it’s going to be to fit everybody, particularly 20 million tourists or so, into a town not much bigger than New York’s 41st Precinct.

And it’s not useful to imagine there’s any difference between “public” and “personal” space.  All the space here is personal.  I mean public.

This street, Ruga Giuffa, is actually something like a major artery. The value of not taking more than your share of space is easy to see here.

Venice has always been crowded — in fact, it was once almost three times more populous than it is now. But that didn’t particularly  bother anyone, if the songs are to be believed.

There are many which praise some aspect of the city’s beauty or the beauty of life here.  I’m not aware of a modern song praising Venice.  (I do not regard “Ciao Venezia” as a song, even if it is transmitted by human vocal cords.) Maybe I should try to write one.

Anyway, one particular Venetian song (which naturally sounds better in Venetian) contains this refrain: “Long live this great immensity/only Venice is beautiful/only our city.”

“Great immensity”?  Besides being redundant, it seems crazy.  This is a city that’s all twisted up in lots of skinny little streets and random knotty open spaces swarming with people pushing children in strollers, dragging overloaded shopping trolleys, brandishing large open umbrellas, or merely groups standing stock still at the exact point where there is no room to get around them.

The “immensity” praised in the song about Venice refers, I believe, to its environment: the lagoon.  Anyone who has ever gone out in a boat even a quarter mile from the city realizes that this extraordinary city is floating in the center of a vast amount of water and sky.

My experience, and — I deduce — that of countless Venetians who have come before, shows that the lagoon is not only the matrix of the city but the only known antidote to its compression.

A not unusual sight on the biggest vaporetto there is, the #1 local going down the Grand Canal. Theoretically, the correct thing would have been to have made a pile of his baggage in the outside area and stayed with it. What the picture doesn't show is that he or his things are occupying all three seats, and the aisle.

But even if your only chance to feel this spaciousness is from a vaporetto (which will be crowded….), I hope you will somehow feel the enchantment and, yes, immensity of the city’s surroundings.

In any case, you’ll have to go ashore eventually, which is where your sense of space is going to have to get to work.  Because your awareness of where you are, and what you do there, is going to have a really important effect not only on how you feel about Venice, but how everybody around you — especially any Venetians, if you care — feels about it too.

I respectfully recall to your attention the fact that Venice, small as it may be, at its apex was both the home and the workplace of almost 200,000 residents, not to mention an uncounted number of visitors, here on either business or pleasure or even displeasure. Among other things, Venice was a major port for pilgrims headed from Europe to the Holy Land. They could have been here as long as a month, waiting to find a berth on a ship (no reservations, obviously). This was much longer than the average modern tourist’s visit, and there were periods in which there were 50 ships leaving in a single month, or roughly two a day. (Not made up.) Which adds up to a fairly crushing quantity of people.

Furthermore, if you think the city is crowded now, spare a thought for the old days, when everyone who had a choice lived as much of their lives outdoors as they could. Except for sleeping and eating, families (which were numerous) spent most of their day out in the courtyard or the street, or somewhere other than home, where there also was no space.

This lady decided that her carryon bag would be more comfortable on the floor in front of the central seat rather than in the aisle. You want to sit there? Good luck with that.

And then there was the cargo: Vast amounts of often really space-intensive items being offloaded and transported from A to B.  Bricks.  Blocks of marble. Lumber.  Bales of wool. Imagine yourself walking down a street behind three people who are carrying enormous wicker backpacks loaded with coal. So it’s always been pretty cramped here.

Nevertheless, today we have all sorts of modern ideas about comfort and manners which make Venice demanding in an equally intense way.

Having said all that, I’d like to offer a few fundamental suggestions as to how to minimize the crampage. If you accept them, you have a chance at making life more pleasant for you and certainly for everyone around you. If you don’t really care — and there seems to be an abundance of visitors in this category — then you may fire when you are ready, Gridley.

Equal time here for Venetian transgressions: The woman on the right has claimed the space (single seat and open area) intended for people in wheelchairs with a friend. Since her trolley needs all that space, the tourist in the wheelchair has to sit half-out in the aisle.

There are three situations in which you have no choice but to share space outdoors: Walking, standing, and sitting.

Walking: To keep everybody, including you, moving in even some semblance of progress, try to imagine that you’re driving your car.  The same general rules apply here when you’re walking.

If you’re moving slowly, keep to the side.  Do not make sudden stops.  Do not make sudden turns.  Do not stop in the middle of the street and just stand there. Check your rear-view mirror often, because it’s very likely somebody is coming up behind you intending to pass you. In which case, move aside and let them. You’d be astonished at how many people do not do any of those things.

Forget the car metaphor and keep in mind that you are living in three dimensions.  Fingers: Tempting as it may be, try to avoid suddenly pointing at something, no matter how surprising or beautiful  it is; for some reason, a person pointing is often indicating something dangerously close to eye level. Elbows: If you stand somewhere with your hands on your hips, you’ve just taken space away from the persons on your elbow side for no clearly necessary reason.

If somebody wants to get past you, they will most likely start with a polite “Permesso.”  (Or “con permesso.”)  Venetians may say this as many as three times; if there’s no reaction, they push. The international language. If it happens to you, there was a reason.

Standing: If there appear to be too many people, you can be sure there will be far too much of their stuff.  If you need to stop to check your map or hold an unscheduled meeting of the family committee, make an effort to put your boxcar-load of baggage somewhere out of the way.  Slalom races are fun if you’re aiming for a medal in the World Cup, but not for somebody trying to get somewhere that’s important to him, like his accountant or home to his kid who’s running a fever.

This curious construction behind the wheelhouse is, in fact, an excellent place to stash your baggage. Just so you know.

On the vaporetto, try to organize your bags in as little space as possible.  A person (for example, me) shouldn’t have to explain that  you could put your smaller bag on top of your larger bag, instead of next to it.  I mean, when you think about it.

If you’re carrying anything larger than an empty messenger bag, handle it with the awareness that wherever you put it, it’s taking precious square inches away from somebody else. I know it’s really hard to haul all that baggage down cramped streets and over bridges and so on. I know that there is little or no space on the vaporettos for anything larger than you, and often not even that. But the fact that many people devote more attention and concern to their steamer trunks or Himalayan-expedition backpacks than they do to their fellow passengers is something that baffles, and can often irritate, any nearby Venetians, especially if they’re trying to get past you (see: “slalom,” above).

What to do?

First: Minimize the space you occupy.  For example: Do not put your suitcases/duffel bags/backpacks on the seat next to you.  Seem obvious? Apparently it isn’t.  “Hey! Empty space!  It’s mine!”  Actually, it’s not!

For a while, these signs were up on many of the vaporettos. As Einstein said, Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Judging by the public response (which was nil), this design is so simple that almost nobody understood, it.

Second: Take off your backpack.  They’ve even made it a rule on the vaporettos, but the simple sense of this little act continues to elude nine and a half out of every ten people. If it’s on your back, take it off.  Even a daypack is a huge nuisance to everyone around you.  You may think it’s part of you, but the only person who wouldn’t annoy their fellow passengers with something protruding from his or her spine would be the hunchback of Notre Dame.  If you can take it off, do so immediately and put it at your feet. Or in a corner. Or maybe don’t even bring it.  How far could it be to the next oasis?

Third: Get out of the way.  Every day, oblivious people stand right where everybody else needs to pass.  On the street, on the vaporetto, wherever.  On the vaporetto dock — particularly, for some reason, at the Accademia stop — masses of eager people who want to get on fill the entire area needed for the arriving passengers to get off. If there is an explanation for this, it will have to come from the realm of astronomy, where matter retains all sorts of contradictory characteristics.  Here, though, matter occupies space.

Then there are people who find a spot that works for them and just……you know…..stand there….as if nobody else existed. They block doorways, they block aisles.  It’s not as if their kid is having an asthma attack and nothing else matters. They just stand there.  Even the fact that you have to contort yourself to get past them doesn’t make any impression whatever. That’s where they are, just deal with it, Maude. I have never understood what attracts people to standing in the vaporetto doorway.  Go out, or stay in.  Why are you trying to do both?  Are you not able to decide where you want to be?

Then there are all those time when you must force your way onto a vaporetto because it’s crammed with people in the open middle space where boarding and exiting takes place, while the interior of the boat is almost empty.  I realize that visitors want to be outside where they can look around and take pictures.  If you’re determined to stay outside, please do everything in your power not to block the only area available for getting on and off.

I cannot grasp the idea here: We'll just sit here blocking the street right near a corner. No one else exists.

Sitting: People between the ages of 12 and 18 seem to have decided that the floor is their tribal territory.  Sitting or sprawling in groups on the ground anywhere that appeals to them is not merely the best thing ever, it has become something like a right.  I’ve seen teenagers literally lying on the ground where lots of people need to walk. One memorable pair of girls (American) was stretched out across the wooden dock in front of the ramp leading to the vaporetto dock. Hundreds of people needed to walk there. (See: “slalom,” above).

It all seems so obvious.

But wait! — I hear you cry — what about all those rude Venetians who do all those rude things (except for sitting on the ground), as if WE didn’t exist?

I know.  I know they’re there, and I know they do those things, and they don’t have any more of a good excuse than anyone else.

I know theyalso position themselves in the exit area of the vaporetto dock so that they can get on the vaporetto first.

I know they somehow manage to slither past you to claim that minuscule empty spot in front of you. You might feel that they’re jumping a queue, but they don’t see a queue.  I have finally concluded that a person who does this has decided that since you’re not occupying that space, that means you’ve relinquished it and it’s available to anybody who wants it.  Now I actually do it myself because it makes sense to me — seeing how little space there is around.

So what solution is there to the problem of trying to put 100X of people and things into just 1Y of space?

Be aware.  Be courteous. Create as few problems for other people and you will simultaneously be creating fewer problems for yourself.

That’s the only possible solution.

Just like on the highway.

There's not an abundance of space in the canals, either, and parking your boats like this is guaranteed to cause problems. No tourists are guilty of creating this situation, I just wanted to show another way in which ignoring other people can make life challenging. It annoys me, not because I need to pass through the eye of the needle here, but because I simply can't grasp the concept at work. .

To drive a barge here you need a Ph.D in geometry, and a tote bag full of tranquilizers. And the tide chart, too.

Or you can just go back out into the lagoon, where you can breathe.


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Celestial coffee

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An image of the inverse proportion between quantity and quality.

This is a drastic departure from one of my most deeply held beliefs about my blog, which is to make no recommendations about any commercial enterprise or product.  I make plenty of recommendations about behavior, but so far I’ve never mentioned any person or object that was involved in making money.

But the Time has Come to change that.  This once.  For the simple reason that it just seems wrong to me to keep this place to myself.  And since I consider anyone reading these lines as a friend — don’t worry, I’m not going to come visit for the weekend — I would have brought you to this place personally if you were in town. Even if you do come to Venice, you can skip me and just follow the instructions below to a bar/cafe whose coffee is provided by the heavenly host, by means of two women who act like it’s normal to brew something that only the angels are accustomed to drinking.

Even if you don’t care about espresso — I’m going to say, even if you hate espresso — you will be thunderstruck by the ambrosial quality of this liquid. I’m not going to attempt a description because it will make me sound stupid, though I will say its quality is a dazzling blend of aroma, flavor, and texture.  Hard to get even one of those to rise above the average.  So far, it’s been impossible, even here, in the homeland of coffee, to taste something which gets all three of them totally right.

Lino and I go to the Rialto Market at least once a week, and even if we have no intention of buying anything, we have every intention of stopping here for coffee. The trip could therefore never be called a waste of time.

I want you to go to this place the next time you’re in Venice.  If you don’t agree that their coffee is exceptional, I’d like you to tell me what you think is better.  I’d really be curious.

It just occurred to me: If they ever thought about making coffee-flavored gelato, they could rule the world.

The cafe is called L'ERBARIA, because it's in the fruit-and-vegetable section of the Rialto market. Like many shops, its name is nowhere to be seen. So all I can tell you is to go to the corner of Calle de le Donzelle and Campo de la Pescaria.

I’ve never thought to ask their names. Does it matter? It’s enough for me that they’re there and that the machine is turned on.

L'Erbaria is at the corner of C.po de la Pescaria and Calle de le Donzelle. If you come by vaporetto, get off at the "Rialto Mercato" stop, take your first right, and it's at the next street, on your left.

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The calafati party down

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I’m guessing you haven’t been giving much thought to ship caulking lately. Probably about as much thought as you haven’t given to San Foca — a point you share with most Earth-dwellers.  I can help you with this.

San Foca is the patron saint of caulkers, hence he is also the patron of The Societa’ di Mutuo Soccorso fra Carpentieri e Calafati:  The Society of Mutual Aid between Carpenters and Caulkers.

I can’t say there’s much work for either of these categories here anymore — certainly not as much as there was when the Venetian Republic was in full cry. But these craftsmen were always near the top of the food chain, considering that Venetian power was essentially naval.  A statement to this effect was recorded in the Venetian Senate, for what reason I know not, on July 13, 1487 (translated by me):  “… carpenters and caulkers, have been at all times the most appreciated and accepted on the galleys and other of our ships because in every need of any sort these men are the most adapted and necessary of any other kind of man.”  Considering the wear and tear a Venetian ship was likely to undergo in its life, especially after cannon began to be used, your caulker would have been up there with the navigator and the cook as far as the well-being and probable safe return of the crew were concerned.

Glimpse of a battle under the ramparts of Zara (now Zadar) Croatia, from the facade of the church of Santa Maria del Giglio. Just to give an idea of how useful it was to have a carpenter and/or caulker aboard.

The Society's standard, brought out for the occasion.

If you’re still not convinced that caulking is such a big deal, consider how much, as the song goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.  An example: On the night before a certain battle, which I’m not going to pause to look up just now, the Venetian admiral was pondering the odds for winning the imminent battle with the unpleasantly superior Turkish fleet.  Hope for the best?  Or just send a batch of men at night to swim under the Turkish ships and rip out the caulking sealing the planks of their hulls?  Dawn broke to what must have been a quiet but busy sound from the Turkish bilges, something like blub-blub-blub….

Back to the mutual aid society. March 5 is San Foca’s feast day, so he was celebrated at a special mass in honor of him as well as the departed members of the sodality.  And then, naturally, there was a party. You’ve heard it before: “All the psalms end with the ‘Gloria.'”

The church was full, something you don't see every day.

Seeing that I am a newly fledged (or whatever the ship-caulking counterpart might be) member of the SMSCC, Lino and I went to join in.

The ceremony was in the church of San Martino, which is right under the haunch of the Arsenal, and which is full of assorted tokens of carpentering and caulking.  There was nothing especially noteworthy about the mass, except for the unusually large number of people attending.  And the party followed tradition in its simplest and clearest outlines:  People!  Noise!  A small, hot room crammed with loud, hungry humans and vats of Venetian food!

I don’t know if San Foca had a favorite dish, but I’m always going to associate him with tripe soup. An ancient and honorable comestible which deserves a wider audience and which I’d bet money you would like as long as you didn’t know what it was.

And I think next year we should all plan to hold the party in Calafat, Romania. It was founded by caulkers from Genoa, but I suppose we could overlook that for the sake of harmony.  I’m going to get to work on the convoy’s banners: “Calafat or Bust.”

The priest blesses the gift packets containing a candle, an image of San Foca, and a small bread roll. The painting over the altar depicts the Holy Family with San Marco and San Foca.


My gift packet. The image of San Foca is from the basilica of San Marco. I suppose he is depicted hefting a rudder rather than a bag of dumb irons and a couple of mallets because, as patron saint of seafarers in general, it was thought best not to show favoritism to any particular craft.

Symbols of caulkers' tools in the main aisle of the church of San Martino.

We eat! Of COURSE we can all fit into the tiny room of the parish hall. Where's the food?

Keep that tripe soup coming.


Just the thing on a cold winter night. Be lavish with the grated parmesan, even if it isn't pasta.


















The soup keeps you going till they bring out the bigoli in salsa. Or you can just keep snacking on peanuts, pickles, beans, salame sandwiches...


If you go away hungry, it's your own fault.

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Close harmony

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This ad was prominently displayed last fall to publicize Vodafone, the European telephone behemoth.  Here they are helpfully informing us that they are sponsoring at least some of the restoration of the church of San Bartolomeo, just underfoot near the Rialto Bridge.

Their main message, though, is to promote their new package of special rates for calls to the people who  matter the most to you — in their shop just underfoot, etc.

Whatever you may think of them or their packages, their advertising agency is above average.

The line says:  “The most beautiful things are done in pairs (literally, ‘in two’.”

This shred of philosophy made me smile, though probably it doesn’t stand up to heavy pondering.

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