Archive for gondoliers

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.


Categories : Events
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This year the students at the Francesco Morosini Naval School, aided and abetted by the chaplain, Don Gianni, put together a lagoon Nativity scene. It’s very cool that the Three Kings are arriving aboard a classic boat, a “sampierota.” They wisely left their camels behind, perhaps to leave space to bring everybody back to the mainland from this little sandbank after Epiphany.

Christmas this year (so far) has been the most subdued I’ve ever seen.  It’s not the spirit that is lacking, but the fundage.  I don’t need to remind you that yes, we have no money.

Christmas lights no longer festoon via Garibaldi, though a few indomitable individuals have put up some illumination.  I salute them. They obviously have nothing to fear from the energy companies.

And speaking of indomitable, I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the neighborhood pastry-wizard has outdone himself in widening the space between size and price in his festive offerings.  An ingenious little creation (note the use of the word “little”) of chocolate shavings and lumps of torrone, representing an Alpine village — the sort of thing which usually adorns a liquor-and-mascarpone-sodden cake — is now being offered without the cake.  For the same inflated price.  If I were to want to spend 30 euros ($40) for a plate of chocolate fragments, I would…. No, I wouldn’t, actually. If I had 30 euros to spend on a present, I’d give somebody a batch of bees via the Heifer Project.  At least that way the gift would propagate.  No propagation powers yet discovered in the world of ostentatious confections. End of sermon.

An example of the minimalist approach to the Christmas cake. He has made a version which costs “only” 30 euros, but you see the style. It’s on a cardboard base about the size of a luncheon plate, if anybody uses those anymore. Not small, but not big, either. Not 30-euros big, in any case.

This is what a normal, standard-issue Christmas cake looks like. True, you can’t eat much of it, and what you do eat sort of haunts you for hours. But at least you’re getting something in return for your cash.

Day before yesterday, feeling the onset of the big day, we had a party at our rowing club.  It was great.  Because the tornado last June destroyed our clubhouse, we now cling to the edge of the lagoon with our boats parked under two big tents, with a container serving as locker room, kitchen, and bathroom. The kind of container they give to earthquake survivors.  It works, but it’s not a long-term plan.

A table, panettone and wine, and people: It’s a party! The fog invited itself.

Just to give an idea of the atmosphere. We’ve had more fog than high water so far this year by a factor of at least ten, and fog is arguably more dangerous than acqua alta to most activities (I’m thinking of fatal collisions, and also getting lost). But fog just doesn’t seem to excite reporters in the same way.

It was a modest, Bob-Cratchity sort of celebration but the most important elements were there:  Fizzy wine (not the usual prosecco, but somebody’s home-bottled lambrusco), panettone and pandoro (my favorite, as is anything involving extra sugar), and smiling people. The frigid foggy wind was thrown in at no extra cost.

Another bonus was having time to hang around with some of the old guys and hear them geeze about the old days.  I pick up unexpected bits of lore this way.  This time I learned why gondoliers hate the nickname “pasta e oca” (pasta and goose).

Lino (whose grandfather was a gondolier, as is his son) says that they ate pasta and goose because they’ve always been “grandoni” — that is, tending toward the grandiose.  Someone added, however, that in his opinion they hated being called this nickname because the dish (which I’ve never tried) is a sort of viscid, mucilaginous preparation which is so revolting it makes you want to barf.  As it was told to me.

In any case, the preferred rejoinder to “Hey, pasta e oca!'” is “And yo’ mama gets the neck!”

Christmas spirit comes in all shapes and sizes, and I liked our standing-around-outside-in-the-freezing-soggy-air version.  There weren’t very many of us, but it didn’t matter.  This would be the only point on which I might agree with the pastry-shark.  When it comes to a festa, it’s not about quantity.

So auguri (ow-GOOR-ee), as we say here.  Technically, “good auguries.”  We no longer practice divination by studying the liver of sacrificial animals, or the flight of birds, so I’ll translate this as “Good wishes!”

Our irrepressible neighbors along the canal have thrown caution somewhere — to the wind, or into the water– and favored us with all these sparkles.  In these purlieus, the Christmas star leads , not to the Baby Jesus, but to the laundry on the line.

Heading out to do some errands this morning, I came across a festive garbage collector. He turned the corner about ten seconds ahead of me, and when I turned it he was nowhere to be seen. Nowhere. I’m thinking Santa has turned his sleigh in and is working with the ecological operator’s wagon.

Near San Giovanni Crisostomo, I came across a kiosk selling a vast assortment of figurines for your own Nativity set at home. In addition to the Holy Family, shepherds, angel, ox, ass, and Three Kings, you could have a woodcutter, with wood.

Here is a couple eating pizza, something I’ve always felt that Nativity scenes lacked. And a butcher with large sections of just-cut-up animals.

The sign says this woman is a “battipanni,” or rug-beater, though technically the battipanni referred to the woven wood paddle she’d use to pound the dust out of the carpets. Just so you know. Still, an excellent person to have in your Christmas creche, what with all the swaddling cloths and probably saddle cloths too, for the donkey.

A tailor would be an excellent person to have on the team; here she’s busy making shirts.

Someone to re-upholster your sofa or ottoman. You could get everything in your house fixed up by Epiphany, at this rate.


Categories : Venetian-ness
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How not to get gondoliered

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It pains me to write this, but I hope that doing so will serve some useful purpose.

Gondoliers are arguably the symbol of Venice, and as such could be expected to evince a sense of the importance of same.  That’s just my opinion.

What is not opinion, but fact, is that they are independent, masters of their own boats, lords of their lives, and — yes — of their money.  I mean, of your money.

I know a good number of gondoliers and can attest that many are fine, professional people and first-rate ambassadors for their amazing city.  Among other things, they’re often the first to fish tourists out of the canals when the said tourists have misjudged the slipperiness of the algae on that stone step, or to have miscalculated other maneuvers.

You can see the required card impaled by the small flag on the prow. Seeing does not mean reading.

Then there are the others. There are some that easily inspire apprehension, who resemble inmates out on a work-release program, with boats to match.  But don’t be distracted by the externals, because how a gondolier behaves depends on many and easily shifting factors apart from his housekeeping and personal care, and you don’t want to find yourself in the middle when the shifting is going on.

I wouldn’t bring it up at all, but there has been a recent situation here, amply reported in the Gazzettino, in which a gondolier charged a Russian couple 400 euros ($496) for a spin in his gondola that took less than an hour.  You could probably justify that price if you included a bottle of the Shipwrecked 1907 Heidsieck champagne poured into Baccarat flutes while the gondolier rowed you to Trieste singing the “Improvviso” from Andrea Chenier.

Then again, he could skip all that and just ask for the dough.  Which he did.

As you see by the rates standardized by the Ente Gondola, the gondoliers’ sort-of governing body, he should have asked 80 euros, or 100 euros, depending on the time of day.

But no.

People tend to be intimidated by gondoliers.  People need to get past that.  The Ente Gondola has tried to help, by insisting that the gondoliers exhibit the price scale.  Most gondoliers have done so, by attaching a piece of plastificated paper 5 1/2 inches square to the prow of their boat — a place a potential passenger isn’t likely to approach, even if armed with the necessary magnifying glass to read the type.

This card measures 5 1/2 inches square.

And it’s printed on both sides, so you’d have to turn it over to get the complete information.

Let’s move on to the happy ending: The Russian couple registered a complaint and got their money back, with a promise from the Ente Gondola of a free ride next time.  To which I’m pretty sure they replied “There’s not going to be a next time.”  It doesn’t sound better in Russian.

So here’s the simplest solution.  Let’s say that you and a gondolier have begun to converse.   Whether you approached him or vice versa, you’re talking about money.

He mentions a figure that doesn’t sound like what is printed on the Ente Gondola’s site.  So you say, “Would you please show me the rates printed on the card on your gondola?”

If he doesn’t have the card on his gondola, you move on.  If he has it but can’t explain why the rate he quoted you doesn’t match what’s printed, you move on. No need for complicated discussions or heated words.  It’s a big world, and there will always be another gondolier.


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