Archive for August, 2013

Aug
31

Could you make change for me?

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Despite the fact that he represents a doge (see ducal "corno"), this lion looks just like lots of Venetians when told they're going to have to change something.  Even if it's something dangerous and futile, it's change.  We don't want that!

Despite the fact that he represents a doge (notice the ducal “corno”), this lion looks surprisingly like lots of Venetians when told they’re going to have to change something.  Baffled.  Apprehensive.  Disbelieving.  If it’s change, make somebody else do it!

My recent silence would typically have been due to the winding down of the summer, the winding down of me, an annual process which usually is distinguished by….nothing.  Sloth, heat, tedium, what the doctors might call general malaise.  (The tedium, unhappily, is also caused by the endless, predictable procession of homicides, femicides, drownings, drug overdoses, fatal mountain accidents, political did-so-did-not, and miles of traffic backups on the major days of departing and returning from vacation.)  It’s practically a tradition.

There are usually some slight variations.  Today we read “After he slit his friend’s throat, he went out to drink a beer.”  That’s a little different.  Or the young man who was accosted by a prostitute on the street in a town out on the mainland who got fined 450 euros for the verbal exchange even though he turned her down.  The law says clients are criminals too, and it appears that even telling her no counts as much as hiring her for the weekend.  But on the whole, a typical 30 summer days, not so unlike what people experience in many other parts of the world.

By now, though, we all know that August, which is supposed to be the Nothing Month, was very much a Something Month, for the gondoliers, ACTV, and city as a whole. Which also explains my recent silence because (A) I was trying to keep up with the constantly evolving situation and (B) doing so made my brain seize up, therefore (C) we went to the mountains for a few days where my brain wasn’t needed for anything but maintaining basic life functions.

Returning to Venice, we immediately fell into the groove, right where we had left it.  There is a traditional sequence of events in this sliver of time, which involves lots of people moving ceaselessly around the city, especially in our neighborhood, not to mention the Lido.

Plenty of visitors are still going to see exhibitions of the Biennale; every evening, when the doors close at 6:00, we sit at our favorite cafe and watch the migration moving sluggishly from the distant Arsenal outposts toward and along via Garibaldi, in search of food, drink, and a place to sit.  I’ve seen a lot of really nice dresses this year, if anybody wants to know.

The Venice Film Festival opened three days ago, so although actors and fans aren’t to be seen in our little cranny of the city, there are plenty of badge-and-totebag-and-camera-bearing journalists around (a reported 3,000 have come to cover the festival. How could there be that many outlets in the world that want hourly bulletins about movies and their makers?).

Here's a Film Festival tradition I really like: the megayachts.  They're not for going anywhere, they're merely for parties.

Here’s a Film Festival tradition I really like: the megayachts. They’re not for going anywhere, they’re merely for parties.  But if you’re looking for a film contract, these boats will take you somewhere, if you’re lucky.

In fact, a number of traditions here are pleasant, even reassuring.  I enjoy the eternal cycle of seasonal food; right now the grapes and the warty, gnarly pumpkins (suca baruca, “the veal of Chioggia”) are appearing in the market. And I feel the onset of the Regata Storica, to be fought out tomorrow, and there are the signs in the shop windows selling new backpacks and school supplies. That’s the happy side of tradition.

Then there is the also-traditional way in which events have been unfurling since the death in the Grand Canal.  Everything that has happened since two weeks ago today has been as predictable as dusty bookshelves, but they are not positive developments.  In fact, they’re not really developments at all.

In the days following the accident, there was a mighty outcry from all sides demanding change.  That was predictable.

What is also predictable is that change is now being resisted with every weapon that comes to hand.  Life here obeys Newton’s Third Law, the one about equal-and-opposite-reactions. Newton’s Laws are among the few edicts nobody objects to, mainly because Newton isn’t around to argue with.

When I say “laws,” I am referring specifically to the recent regulations that have been proposed to establish order on the traffic in the Grand Canal.  Because even if you say you need them and want them, when you get them, you have to fight back.

The mayor and assorted sub-mayors and people who wear uniforms worked mightily and also rapidly to devise a new way of organizing the assorted boatly categories.  In record time, a 26-point plan was presented, and published in the Gazzettino.

This plan contained a number of dramatic innovations, such as collecting garbage at night, and requiring the barges to have finished their chores by 10:00 AM.

But this is the point at which the true, fundamental, guiding-more-surely-than-a-compass tradition took over.

The tradition is: I’m not changing anything.  Somebody else can change if they’re that dumb, but not me.

I knew the minute I read it that night work wasn’t going to fly.  If people hate working by day, which it seems many do, they would hate even more doing it by night.  Then the barge drivers said that working those hours would make everything more expensive. And so on.

So the very people who clamored for change in the heat of the moment have shown that they don’t want it.  They want somebody else to want it.  This is tradition!

People hardly had time to finish reading the list of 26 proposed changes to the traffic on the Grand Canal before the protests began.  The Nuova Venezia says:

People hardly had time to finish reading the list of 26 proposed changes to the traffic on the Grand Canal before the protests began. The Nuova Venezia says: “Limits in the Grand Canal, it’s a revolt,” and the Gazzettino says: “Revolution in the Grand Canal: Immediately there’s a storm about stopping the #2 line and garbage collection at night.”  I could have read these with my eyes shut.

I can tell you how things are going to go in the next few months, or perhaps merely weeks: Some tiny tweaks will be made, and everything will return to the way it was.  The #2 vaporetto is scheduled to go out of service on November 3, because it’s a high-season traffic-overflow adjunct.  The proposal to cut it earlier makes moderate sense, but it’s really window-dressing, because then there would have to be more #1 vaporettos to handle the traffic.

The “Vaporetto dell’Arte,” an enormous, lumbering, amazingly underused and overpriced vehicle, will also stop on November 3.  They could stop it now and nobody would notice, but it must be somebody’s pet project because it keeps on going.  Empty and big and expensive and pointless.  (The “pointless” part is a special ACTV sub-tradition.)

As for what everybody else thinks about revising the way things are done, Grug from “The Croods” put it best: “Change is always bad.”  As his son replied: “I get it, Dad!  I will never do anything new or different!”  Just a cartoon?  Maybe not.

By the staircase in the Palazzo Grassi, the original owner, Angelo Grassi, had the following phrase incised in 1749:  CONCORDIA RES PARVAE CRESCUNT, DISCORDIA ETIAM MAXIMAE DILABUNTUR.”  With harmony the small things grow, but with discord even the greatest things are brought to ruin.

One thing you can really count on is the instigation of new rules (otherwise known as "change") on the vaporettos.  The ACTV must have a team of people dedicated only to devising new and preposterous regulations which are almost impossible to enforce. But they take them so seriously, I don't want to hurt their feelings by laughing.  I might scoff, but I would never laugh.

Here’s a tradition that never fails: the invention of new rules (otherwise known as “change”) on the vaporettos. The ACTV must have a team of people dedicated only to devising new and preposterous regulations which are almost impossible to enforce. But they take them so seriously! Here’s the latest, in the so-called effort to eliminate freeloaders who don’t pay for their ticket.  This says “People found without a validated ticket on the floating pontoons will receive a fine.”  How will these deadbeats be found?  By whom?  The ACTV doesn’t have enough ticket-checkers on the boats themselves — they can spare them to roam around the city looking for unticketed people just standing on the dock?  Most of the world is satisfied to have people buy a ticket to take the bus.  Here, they have to buy a ticket just to wait for it.  You’re stuck in the rain waiting for your friend?  You have to buy a ticket.  You want to help your grandmother get her shopping trolley onto the boat?  You have to buy a ticket.  Hard as I try to grasp this concept, it just slips away.

 

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Aug
21

Latest on the gondola disaster

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A view from the Rialto Bridge.  I took this on a morning in April, 2009 -- nowhere near the height of the tourist season, but still. While the commercial traffic is momentarily light (I could have stood there all morning making pictures, but time was short).  What's useful about this image is the number of vaporettos visible in the space between the Rialto stop on the left and San Silvestro on the right.

A view from the Rialto Bridge. I took this on a morning in April, 2009 — nowhere near the height of the tourist season, but this gives you a rough picture of the space available and the dimensions of the daily vehicles.  At this instant the commercial traffic was momentarily light (I could have stood there all morning making pictures, but time was short). What’s useful about this image is the number of vaporettos visible in the space between the Rialto stop on the left and San Silvestro on the right, a distance of 409 feet (125 meters) between the two closest docks, and 669 feet (204 meters) between the furthest.  The distance between the starboard side of the vaporetto on the left and the stern of the gondolas on the right is 67 feet (20 meters).  This picture doesn’t show all the additional vaporettos which are out there now:  The #2, the “Vaporetto dell’Arte,” and the Alilaguna airport bus.  There are usually at least two of each arriving or leaving, going up- or downstream.  There can be as few as three minutes between dockings of one vehicle or another, the paper reported.  My personal experience is that there can be a boat ready to tie up to the dock as soon as the previous boat has left enough space.  If anyone is interested, a vaporetto on the average is 69 feet (21 meters) long, and 13 feet (4 meters) wide. I don’t think you have to be Archimedes or Euclid to appreciate the problems of this geometry.

I will correct my earlier post, but as the details begin to come into sharper focus, I want to report that the gondola with the German family did not capsize, so I can’t interpret early reports on the gondoliers diving into the Canal.  Of course they did what they could to help, but the boat remained upright, if damaged.

I know that the gondoliers recovered some small floating objects belonging to the littlest girl, and placed them on the fatal dock with a bouquet of flowers: one small rubber duck, and one very small pink shoe.

The gondoliers have carried their proposals to City Hall: To start with, a ban on any vehicle overtaking any other vehicle.  Vaporettos in line, taxis in line, gondolas in line.  (I don’t know about barges.) As anyone who has seen the Grand Canal knows, this procedure has not been the case so far.  I have no opinion on the feasibility of the idea but presume that men who spend all day in the area know something about how things work.

They are also proposing revisions of the vaporetto schedules, to prevent backups such as the one which contributed to the disaster (three vaporettos were idling in sequence, awaiting their turn to use their respective ACTV docks).  That would seem to be a no-brainer.

Hence another correction to my report: The fatal vaporetto was not moving slowly; it wasn’t moving at all, until it was time to engage the gears to move forward, which involved backing up first, which was the point at which the gondola was struck.

Two other vaporetto drivers have also become involved in the legal situation. I don’t know what the formal accusations are.  I could know, but I am not following every single sentence being written about the case.  The important thing isn’t what’s being said today, but what is done tomorrow.  Or next year.  Or whenever or if anything is actually done.

If something meaningful occurs, I’ll try to let you know.

 

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The gondola version of the black armband.

The gondola version of the black armband.

I’ve waited a few days before reporting on the latest news in the hope that some rational element would emerge from the wreckage of an appalling event. The event’s ugliness is only compounded by the context of chaos which everyone has come to take for granted, but which now is revealed as indefensible, idiotic, criminal.

As I mentioned recently, “imminent” is the only danger that gets attention.  Last Saturday, the danger flashed from “imminent” to “actual” for Joachim Reinhardt Vogel, a professor from Munich on vacation with his family.

Perhaps you have already heard: The family’s gondola ride ended in his death.

It's just supposed to be a job, not an extreme sport. (This is not the gondolier in question.)

It’s just supposed to be a job, not an extreme sport. (This is not the gondolier in question. At least, I don’t think it is.)

The general outline is still somewhat blurred by missing or conflicting details of the dynamics of the catastrophe.  Here is what I can tell you:

At about 11:30 AM on Saturday, August 17, Professor Vogel was in a gondola with his wife and three small children. They were approaching the Rialto Bridge on the downstream side, an area which is not only the narrowest part of the Grand Canal, but by now is fearfully crowded with vaporettos, taxis, barges, and assorted other boats, all of which clog the limited space in a manner worthy of downtown Naples.

The gondola was behind a vaporetto which was not very manageable because it was going very slowly.  The driver made a brusque maneuver and rammed (going backwards, blindly) the gondola.

The professor, according to his wife, had just finished saying, “With this many boats and at their speed, I wouldn’t dream of driving a boat here.”  Then the impact. One report referred to the gondola as having been “harpooned.”

The professor threw himself between the vaporetto and the gondola to shield his three-year-old daughter, and his chest was essentially crushed.

The force of the collision pitched the young gondolier onto the nearby dock of the Magistrato alle Acque, his oar broken.  Gondoliers on the fondamenta rushed to help; bystanders were yelling at the vaporetto driver to stop as he continued upstream, oblivious, dragging the splintered gondola behind him.

The little girl was rushed to the hospital with a deep wound on her face which may require reconstruction.  The father was taken to the morgue.

That afternoon the gondoliers all stopped work for the rest of the day as a sign of respect.  The next day many of them put a strip of black tape on their gondola’s ferro, symbol of mourning, and organized a simple ceremony of commemoration.  The gondoliers’ association will pay for the funeral and the costs of repatriation.

But now that I think about it, why was it them and not the ACTV to show so much sorrow and solidarity, not to mention offer to defray expenses?  Oh wait — the ACTV ordered the little flags on the stern of each boat to fly at half mast.  That’s touching.

The young gondolier is in shock — not clinical, but certainly emotional.  The driver of the vaporetto has been charged with manslaughter.

Gondolas occasionally capsize — not often — for various reasons, but the last fatality was an American woman, in 1992. In that case, a vaporetto was also involved.

Everybody looks at the bridge, but what goes on beneath it doesn't always comes into focus.

Everybody looks at the bridge, but what goes on beneath it doesn’t always come into focus.

The context which makes this so terrible — as if it needed context to be terrible — is that traffic has been rapidly increasing for years.  More vaporettos?  Got to have them.  More taxis?  Sure, let’s add them too (25 more licenses have just been approved by the city).  Let’s add more of everything!  The municipal police has estimated that as many as 4,000 boats per day pass in the Grand Canal.  We’re surprised that something happened?

Now there are meetings of the gondoliers, of the city government, of everyone except you and me.  What to do?  How to do it?

The motto of the city, at least until now, could well have been “Everything’s fine until it isn’t.”  Certainly there has been the traditional outpouring of mutual blame from every political corner, everyone singing some version of “I told you so” and “We knew this would happen” and “I’ve been warning about this for years but nobody listens.”

As the head of the gondoliers’ association stated, all the regulations necessary for orderly traffic already exist.  What we need is for them to be enforced.  I could have said that myself.  So could everybody, including the people involved.

But if everybody knows that the regulations exist, and that lack of enforcement renders the waterways dangerous, the logical conclusion would be either to insist on enforcement (a moment of humorous fancy: Taxi drivers and barge drivers and vaporetto drivers massed in front of City Hall, with pitchforks and torches, bellowing “We demand that you make us obey the laws! We refuse to work until you compel us to obey the laws!”  Humorous moment over.) or for each person to regulate himself, otherwise known as obeying the law, thereby obviating the need for enforcement.

So simple, so easy, so cheap.  That must be why it doesn’t work.

I love Venice so much.  I don't know why it can't be worthy of itself.

I love Venice so much. I don’t know why it can’t be worthy of itself.

 

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IMG_4064 rose

I came across this this morning.

I’ll never know what happened, but my first reaction was to feel sad for whoever dismembered the rose and scattered its bits to the wind, to the gravel, to the pigeons. To feel sad for the reason why it happened.  To feel sad for how they’re feeling now.  To feel sad for the rose, too, while I’m at it.

But because I really, really hate feeling sad, especially that early in the morning, when the sun is shining, etc., I let my  brain wander around seeking other possible scenarios to account for what had happened that might make me feel better.

Maybe this is an original way for two people to pledge undying, eternal, infinite love.  Buy a rose and decapitate it.

Maybe she said, “If I have to choose between having a rose and having you, this is how much I need the rose,” and destroyed it and flung it away.  Avaunt!

Or maybe he pulled off the petals one by one and let each float down on her head, saying “I love you” in a different language as each one touched her hair.

Or maybe she hit him with the rose till it fell apart.  Maybe they laughed.  Maybe they didn’t.

Maybe he said, “If you ever die, I will rip away every remnant of your beauty and sacrifice it to the sun.”  (He’d have to have been moderately drunk if he got that far.) (However, I am not.)

I am not going to say that the petals were the color of blood, because that's just too obvious and trite. But they came darn close.

I am not going to say that the petals were the color of blood, because that’s just too obvious and trite. But they came darn close.

I’ll tell you what: I’m going to stop all this, and I’m going to stop imagining writing a poem, or a short story, or a one-act play, or anything else.

I’ll leave the subject — and the carcass of the hapless scion of the family Rosaceae — with two thoughts, either one of which makes me feel strangely better.

One — maybe it’s just some work of art from the Biennale, a fragment of improvised performance art.

Two — this observation from an unidentified person:

People say hate is a strong word; well so is love, but people throw it around like it’s nothing.

Or maybe there's just something about this part of the neighborhood that impels people to strew bits of red vegetable matter.

Or maybe there’s just something about this part of the neighborhood that impels people to strew bits of red vegetable matter.

 

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