Archive for Lido


Budget this!

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Venice is so beautiful. But maybe she looks better from a little farther back.

Venice is so beautiful. So beautiful and so expensive.  She can’t even afford herself.

You want to help Venice with her budget problems?  Buy a  palace.  Or 13, if you’re in a good mood — that’s how many the city has recently mentioned considering putting on sale.

But this story isn’t about palaces, it’s about money, need for, lack of.

The thing is this: It’s easy to imagine that All Those Tourists who come through Venice are strewing cash like crazed monarchs. “What’s the problem?  Venice lives on tourism!”  Actually, it doesn’t. Venice lives mostly on an allowance from the national government which has been cut so far back that there aren’t enough coins left in the municipal pocket to make even one tiny jingle. Venice can’t be self-supporting because there are too few tax-paying residents (more about that in another post) to pay for the needs of a really big, super-old World Heritage Site trampled by millions of people a year.

The repairs that some good soul has made on this "capitello" are kind of a metaphor for this whole subject. I guess I didn't need to explain that.

The repairs which some good soul has made on this “capitello” using strips of plastic twine are kind of a metaphor for this whole subject. I guess I didn’t need to explain that.

Not metaphorical at all, though here again, some helpful person has placed a bit of plywood to help out. I'm not sure what it's helping but the spirit is admirable.

Not metaphorical at all, though here again, some thoughtful person has placed a bit of plywood to help out. I’m not sure what it’s helping but the spirit is admirable.  I think people tend to walk around holes, not through them, when they see them.  But, as I often ask myself, what do I know?

I feel like I’ve been reading about Venice’s financial problems all my life, but the stories come out in bits and pieces and aren’t very well connected, and the numbers are always up in millions and billions, so I’ve never had a clear notion of what was involved in paying for keeping Venice running.  Now I have some information even I can understand, so here goes. To save space converting numbers, just bear in mind that one euro = 1.12 dollars at the moment.

One reason it’s hard to understand how Venice can be so broke are the thrilling reports of money made from big events such as New Year’s Eve, the Biennale, and Carnival.  The numbers are dazzling to a one-celled organism like me.  A few months ago a story in the Gazzettino trumpeted the fact (I guess it’s a fact) that 40 million euros were expected to come pouring through the big chute labeled “Carnival.” Forty million euros!!  My first reaction is “Semo in poenta!” which is Venetian for “We’re in polenta!” which is Venetian for “We’ve struck paydirt!”  (Or “We can make next month’s rent!” or “We can buy the kid a new pair of shoes!” or “We can feed your mom this week!”).

But pausing for a moment to consider how this money is distributed — hint: it doesn’t drop directly into the city’s coffers — the reality is that (A) that much money is expected to be spent here (yes!!) by tourists paying for things like (B) hotel rooms (C) food (D) gondola rides (E) taxi rides (F) fabulous ticket-only costume parties and masked balls in palaces, tickets to which can reach 2,500 euros, and (E) extras. “Extras” is usually where my own budget strikes the reef.

The benefit to the city from all this spendage is supposed to arrive via taxes.  You know, the taxes nobody pays.  Sorry — almost nobody.  More about taxes in another post.

So forget big events and their resplendent ephemeral income.  Let’s look for a moment at the city’s everyday budget.

Income: The Special Law for Venice.  Before I continue, it’s worth knowing that billions of euros granted to Venice over the past decade or so for the benefit of the city and lagoon have been pretty much all diverted to the MOSE project.  This diversion was accomplished by the MOSE people, with a big assist from the city fathers and anybody else who could get close enough to stick out their hand.  I draw your attention to the phrase in the Law which mentions that the money is also granted to Venice “to ensure its socio-economic viability.”

As mentioned, the big news in both Venice newspapers was:

As mentioned, the big news in both Venice newspapers was: “The Special Law: 25 million are coming for Venice.”  “The Special Law: Half the money and no tax breaks 162 businesses into a chasm.”  You will notice that the poster here says 25 million, but the article it refers to uses the number 28 million.  Just go with it.  Because you get the same discrepancies between numbers in headlines and the article immediately following — the first will say there were five victims, the story will say there were three.  Actually, you get used to it.  It’s only when I’m trying to understand that it bothers me.

The Gazzettino reported the most recent allotment of funds via the Special Law:  Venice will get only half of the money that was hoped for. (“We have no money” is not exclusively a Venetian song.)  The city will receive a total of 65 million euros over seven years to be doled out thusly: 5 million in 2016 and 10 million per year from 2017 to 2022.  Looked at that way, it doesn’t sound like much at all, and of course the city fathers agreed; some politicians had pressed for 50 million per year for three years, while another political group had suggested 13 million per year for an unspecified number of years.  (They were probably estimating “forever.”)

To put those numbers into some kind of context, until a few years ago (by which the Gazzettino probably means 2008), the city spent 150 million euros a year.  Now it’s a struggle to the death to find the money for paying the policemen.

This is not the mayor meditating, but it could be.

This is not the mayor meditating, but it could be.  While he’s thinking, he ought to give his Border collie something to herd.  Like the annual budget, with all those numbers that keep running away to nowhere.

Good news:  The city has pulled itself up nearer to the edge of the deep hole into which it had fallen, thanks to the drastic cuts made in the budget by Commissario Vittorio Zappalorto (2014-2015).  When I say “drastic,” I mean along the lines of “We had to destroy the budget in order to save it.”  So at the end of 2015, after slashing and burning by him as well as the new mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, the deficit has been halved.  The 64 million debt is now 30 million euros.  This is huge news, though of course 30 million isn’t a particularly small number.

The Special Law allotment includes money for art works.  The Ministry of Culture is allowing 6 million euros to Venice (out of 13 million to the Veneto) for 241 projects defined as being at the national level, among which is legal tender for the following projects:

  • Finish the restoration of the great stained-glass window by Vivarini at SS. Giovanni e Paolo: 600,000 euro.
  • Complete the restoration of the church of the Gesuiti: 1,000,000 euros.
  • Restore the squero of the Bucintoro at the Arsenal: 400,000 euros.
  • For the recovery of the patrimony of furniture, fabrics, paintings, and other objects including the fittings of a gondola which are in the storerooms of the Superintendent of Beni Culturali, for the collection of the Palazzo Reale (royal palace): 300,000 euros.  (If you’re wondering where is the royal palace, it is a series of rooms in the “Ala Napoleonica,” built by Napoleon and now housing the Correr Museum; these rooms were occupied by him, of course, and then by the Hapsburg monarchs whenever they were in town during the Austrian occupation).
  • Updating the fire-extinguishing system in the Marciana library: 800,000 euros.
  • Surveying and conserving the 16th-century wooden ceiling of the vestibule of the Marciana library: 620,000 euros.
  • Restoration of State Archives, maintenance work, and bringing the lightning rods up to code: 841,000 euros.
  • Accademia Galleries: 1,500,000 euros for uses not specified by the Gazzettino.
  • Surveys, studies and security interventions on the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio: 390,000 euros.
  • Second phase of the realization and installations of the National Museum of Marine Archaeology in Caorle: 1,900,000 euros.  (Good going, Caorle city fathers!)

This is all very gratifying, and I’m not being sarcastic.

But now we come to the prickly subject of Outgo.  Moving our eyes from art treasures to the World Outside, things look less lovely.

The Special Law has provided 28 million euros, which is earmarked thusly: 5 million for maintenance of parks and green spaces; and 10 million for “cultural interventions” (theatre, cinema, programs at the Bevilacqua La Masa foundation and the Querini Stampalia.  I thought those were private?); and 13 million for ‘touristic interventions,” which despite the label are subdivided to pay the municipal police (7,500,000) on holidays and nights; 1,100,000 for the Venetian-rowing world; 1,600,000 for the “organization of events,” especially the promotion thereof.  This is the division of the spoils till 2018.  We’ll definitely be turning our shirt collars and drinking tap water to get through three years on that allowance.

Just thought we should pause for a breath of fresh air perfumed by wisteria.

Just thought we should pause for a breath of fresh air perfumed by wisteria.

A very interesting and detailed article in a magazine called “Il Metropolitano” outlined what it costs to keep Venice running (translated by me).  The subtitle gives a hint of things to come: “To guarantee the services in the Historic Center costs 41 million more per year than any city in the rest of Italy.  And Rome is sending less and less money.”  It’s true that Venice is the most expensive city in Italy, but now I see that it’s expensive not only for tourists and residents, but for itself.

An independent research organization, the Centro Studi Sintesi, recently did a detailed rundown of the city budget.  You don’t need to be some financial wizard to grasp that the 5 million euros allotted for 2016 falls slightly short of the estimated 120 million annually that Venice needs.  There’s more — due to drastic national cuts imposed in order to get the Italian economy in line with European norms, Venice did not receive the 1,250,000,000 (you read that right) it was expecting over the past few years, and only got 77 per cent of what was expected between 2010 and 2015, which makes Venice the city most-penalized by national economic restrictions in the country.

Let’s go to the videotape:

Garbage collection and street cleaning: 30,000,000 per year.  It’s commonly thought – I used to think it too — that the amazing quantity of tourist trash increases the spazzino‘s workload, but statistically this turns out not to be true.  The study says that the cost is high because Venice is the only city in the world in which, six days a week, the trash is collected entirely by hand.  The small streets and winding canals are implacable on that score. The average annual cost of garbage collection in Mestre, on the mainland, is 156 per family or entity such as a shop or restaurant.  In Venice, it’s 727 euros per family or entity.

Cemetery: 2,000,000 per year.  Stories keep appearing in the paper about how the cemetery on the island of San Michele is falling to pieces.  And it is.  But there are also 16 other cemeteries in the Comune of Venice and, the study specifies, eight in the Historic Center. There’s San Michele, but there are also two cemeteries on the Lido  one each on Burano (actually Mazzorbo), Malamocco, Pellestrina, San Pietro in Volta, and Sant’ Erasmo.  There are eight more in the Comune of Venice on the mainland.

Sewage treatment: 600,000 euros.  No, it doesn’t all go into the canals anymore.  For the past 20 years there has been a steady improvement in this necessary part of city management.  Septic tanks have been required to be installed in public buildings — hotels, restaurants, offices, museums, etc.  But again, the tiny, complicated spaces of which Venice is so fascinatingly constructed means that there isn’t one in the Historic Center.  You may have noticed that “honey boats” come and pump out the septic tanks, but the city doesn’t pay for that.  The sewage is taken to one of the 30-some treatment centers strewn around the Comune, which includes some of the mainland. There is one center on the Lido and one in Pellestrina, to which the houses there are connected.

Public parks (“green spaces”): 600,000 euros.   Although not considered technically an essential public service, there is a surprising number of big trees around, in biggish and smallish parks alike. And also shrubs and flowers, which are so desperately wonderful in the summer heat. But trees and bushes need to be trimmed, pruned, and lopped. Unhappily, this category of expense does not include trimming the bridges, which continue to sprout destructive plants and weeds because, in the organizational scheme, shrubbery on bridges is nobody’s responsibility. It’s not garbage, it’s not a green space, it’s not anything but just stuff.

Most bridges by now sprout something, lots of something, as in this case.

Most bridges by now sprout something — in this case, lots of something. You could probably cultivate marijuana for years this way, since nobody is paying any attention.

Tide Forecast: 1,200,000 euros.  Acqua alta is far from free.  First, there is the cost of putting out and removing the high-water walkways.  That is to say, hauling them all from the warehouse in September and stacking them at the crucial points; unstacking and positioning them when high tide is coming ashore, stacking them up again (to save space on the street) when the tide goes out, and on and on until April, when they are definitively hauled away to the warehouse.  But this is paid for by the garbage-collection budget, because it’s the spazzini who do this work.  Thereby leaving uncollected bags of garbage all over the city on high-water days.

But the real cost is the maintenance of the system of collecting data and forecasting the tide, which requires many instruments (maintenance of) and manpower to analyze and broadcast the data.  Somebody has to hit the button to sound the warning sirens, after all.  I can tell you that this department needs lots more money than it gets.  And then, of course, the citizens screech when the prediction is not fulfilled.  You can understand people yelling when the tide turns out to be higher than forecast, but people yell when it turns out to be lower, too.  If I had to work at the Tide Center, I’d be on drugs.

Street Lighting:  1,000,000 euros.  When I came here in 1994, there was still a good number of streets which were dark and romantic.  Or dark and ominous, as you prefer.  On our fondamenta (in another neighborhood), the only light at sundown was from the window of the deli across the canal.  I used to call it “the lighthouse of the neighborhood” – it was the only gleam in the gloom of a dismal, foggy night.  Then the city started to install more streetlamps and now there are some areas that are as bright as stadiums.  Here again, Venice’s fascinating interweaving of tiny streets creates unromantic problems.  On the mainland, 292 lamps per square kilometer are sufficient.  In Venice, you need 804.  And all that juice isn’t cheap.

School lunches: 300,000 euros. No need to repeat it – Getting cargo around Venice is costly (lots of canals, bridges, streets, and most important of all, very little storage space, therefore more trips).  A child eating in the cafeteria in a school in Venice pays from 76 – 84 cents more per meal than a child on the mainland.

Handicapped transport:  1,200,000 euros.  The explanation of this expense isn’t clear.  I can understand that making many places wheelchair-accessible is expensive, but once that’s been accomplished, the cost should diminish.  There are buses on the Lido and mainland which have extending ramps to help people in wheelchairs board, but to get on a vaporetto, the person still needs to be hoisted by hand.  Still, this is in the budget, so there we’ll leave it.

Ordinary maintenance: 4,100,000 euros.  To the naked eye, it appears that this generally consists of putting warning tape around spots that are dangerous (broken pavement, collapsing fondamente, and so on).  Canal-dredging has become a mere dream.  But let’s say that some problem crops up with the wiring in City Hall – fixing it will cost 20 per cent more than on the mainland.  Costs for construction are 30 per cent higher than on the mainland.  The biggest challenge (expense) has to do with the street pavement.  On the mainland, just throw down another layer of asphalt.  Here, the streets have to be torn up and reconstructed stone by stone.  Result: It costs 80 per cent more in Venice than on the mainland to fix a street.

I could fill pages, so to speak, with images like this one, but will limit myself to small things that represent huge things.

I could fill pages, so to speak, with images like this one, but will limit myself to small things that represent huge things.

This house near us has moved far beyond the level of plastic twine. Of course it's not city property, so the residents have stapled their building together at every possible point. Just a small illustration of the March of Time here. And maybe, now that I think of it, it's also an example of what a project looks like when you wait until it's reached crisis point. Perhaps 20 years ago just a few shingle-nails and some duct tape would have fixed everything.

This house near us has moved far beyond the level of plastic twine. Of course it’s not city property, so the residents have stapled their building together at every possible point. Just a small illustration of the March of Time here. And maybe, now that I think of it, it’s also an example of what a project looks like when you wait until it’s reached crisis point. Perhaps 20 years ago a few shingle-nails and some duct tape would have fixed everything.

I will tell you a revealing remark made to me many years ago by a Venetian who was showing me some of the destruction wrought by motondoso on fondamente and assorted streets and bridges.  He pointed out a few massive stones bordering the fondamenta at the church of the Salute.  Their relationship with the horizontal had been compromised by some trivial wound, and waves and gravity were obviously going to make it worse.  I, with my quaint, Anglo-Saxon “stitch in time,” “for want of a nail” outlook on life, asked him why the city didn’t intervene to repair this now, thereby avoiding more work later.  He said, “Because it doesn’t cost enough.”  Translation: Only when a problem becomes big, and therefore costly, and therefore worthwhile to some company to make loads of money fixing it, is the situation addressed.  This makes the same amount of sense as not clipping a hangnail because when it becomes gangrenous you can bring in teams of expensive surgeons and teratons of drugs and everybody makes some money.

There is even a saying to cover this approach: “Don’t bandage your hand until it’s hurt.”  To which I always reply, “If you avoid hurting your hand, you won’t have to bandage it.”  You can say it in Italian, but I haven’t found anybody who thinks it makes sense.

Let’s finish in a blaze of glory, or at least a blaze from some shorted-out circuit on the tram line.  My idea is this: If you can’t pay to fix the problems you already have, at least don’t create new problems that will cost even more money.  The tram holds a weird fascination for me, as it continues to reveal spectacular flaws in design and construction. There are almost daily breakdowns, delays, malfunctions of all sizes and shapes down to the fact that there isn’t an adequate system for de-fogging the windshields.  It cost 208 million euros to build two lines and buy the trains, but it costs twice as much as a normal bus to operate.  The electric bill is 2,500 euros ($2,820) a day.  Two carriages of the 20-train fleet are permanently out of service, left in the shop to be cannibalized for parts as needed, because the company which made the parts has gone out of business.

I think that’s enough for one day.

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So how is Venice these days?

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A neighborhood character who occasionally puts up dire notices of mal- and misfeasance taped this up the other day.  It says:

A neighborhood character who occasionally puts up dire notices of mal- and misfeasance taped this up the other day. It says:  “From the Gazzettino and the Nuova Venezia 3-3-2015 The Crisis of Ca’ Farsetti.  A chasm between income and expenses.  The budget is falling apart.  No money from the state.  At the Toniolo (theatre, in Mestre) dramatic exposition by Zappalorto of the Comune’s accounts.  A “hole” of 56 million euros in 2015 that there’s no way to close.  A hole of 56 million.  The exponents of PD don’t bat an eye.  Brugnaro shilly-shallies, and Scano (Movimento 5 Stelle) attacks.  But this is only the tip of the iceberg!  From the Nuova Venezia April 2, 2012, In Total the Comune has debts of 398 million in installments of 40 each year!  And from the participating societies (business groups) obligations crop up for half a billion.  Direct debt in millions 398  Indirect debt in millions 187  Participating societies in millions 470 Total debt in millions 1,055  Per person that comes to 4,120!! Of debt!  A people which elects corrupt people, impostors, thieves and traitors is not a victim.  It’s an accomplice!”  Sounds stirring, but there’s one problem: I don’t know anyone who goes to the polls saying, “I’m going to vote for corrupt people, impostors, thieves and traitors, I hope there are lots of them.”  People vote from whomever is on the ballot.  How do those malefactors get there?  So ease up on accusations of the people who vote.  If all you’ve got is mine tailings and radioactive waste on the ballot, then those are the people who end up in office.

It’s been a while since I grappled with any serious aspect of Venice today.  (History is so much more amusing.)  But I feel a strange sense of obligation to update the situation for people who are interested, and who may have the impression from assorted news reports that the city’s biggest problems are tourists or big cruise ships or acqua alta.

Part of my silence is because Venice is in an exceptionally confusing, depressing, and frustrating situation and I am becoming allergic to confusion and frustration.  And by reading the daily bulletins, it can be difficult to grasp the big picture.  So I’m here to provide it for you.

In my opinion, Venice is living (enduring, suffering) one of those critical moments which occur in every life, whether personal or municipal or national or whatever.  I have no doubt that people are already writing books about it, and will continue to do so till the next critical moment strikes, and may it be far, far in the future.

This little update seems appropriate just now because yesterday there was a “primary election” to decide who will be the mayoral candidate from the political party known as PD, or Partito Democratico (Communists). Three men were vying for this nomination from their party, and this is already strange because normally the officers/directors/stringpullers of the party decide who their candidate is going to be.  It’s rare for there to be such conflict within a party that the public has to intervene to decide who to run.

The election is scheduled for May 31, and many cities are going to the polls that day.  Here in Venice, some politicians have already commented that the state of the city is so catastrophic that it might be better not to waste money on elections, but to just stick with the emergency governor, commissario Vittorio Zappalorto (or someone like him, appointed by the prime minister).  I realize that this approach probably shouldn’t be a long-term plan, but if the electorate here were to take seriously the suggestion by one candidate that nobody from the previous city government should be permitted to run, that would leave slim pickings indeed.

My own feeling is that anyone who would want to be mayor of Venice would be someone who would want to scale Everest, walking backwards, and naked.  There can’t be much difference between the two adventures — painful for him, and close to futile.  Sorry, I meant fatal.

Just like the political and business fandanglers, the egrets are always on the lookout for some tasty bit.

Just like the political and business fandanglers, the egrets are always on the lookout for some tasty bit.

Before I relate any specifics, I share this observation by Professor Guido Vittorio Zucconi which I found on the homepage of the Ateneo Veneto, one of the city’s major cultural institutions which offers lectures and other presentations on a variety of Venetian themes.

He said that the programming of events will undergo some innovations (I translate): “To give more weight to topics tied to the ‘city that is being transformed,’ rather than those of the ‘death of Venice’: the city is not dying, but it is changing radically, showing itself too fragile for the tasks and for the impact which it must sustain every day.

I’m clear on the fragility and the impact, but it’s the economy that has become the new instrument of daily torture.  Basically, Venice doesn’t have an economy anymore.

First, the global economic crisis that began in 2008 dismembered the Italian economy.  In an effort to get the country back on a steadier fiscal footing, the parliament — urged on by the heat-seeking missile which is the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi — passed a “Pact of Stability,” intended to establish budgetary limits all over the country and get everybody back on the black side of the ledger.  If not?  Budget cuts and penalties, and penalties and cuts, all outlined in the Pact.

Second, Venice, which for years has lived on the fat of government money via the “Special Law” for Venice, suddenly found itself not only required to prepare a budget according to the new limits, but one that would be based on real income, and not on subsidies.  (Another “subsidy” of sorts, the income from taxes from the Casino, went into a death spiral about the same time.)

The city government tried all sorts of things: selling the Casino (failed), selling palaces (mostly failed), and a few mastodontic projects which instead of creating income, created only debt and grief.  And money from the Special Law which had been intended for many uses had been funneled into the pockets and personal bank accounts of the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, otherwise known as “MOSE,” leaving everybody else with that “It’s only the sixth of the month and I’ve already spent my entire paycheck” feeling.

Even the baker in Campo Santa Margherita has to deal with economic complaints, in this case from his customers.  But they're not nagging about the cost of bread, but the fact that he's charging 10 cents per plastic bag if they want one to take the food home in.  Written in Venetian, it says: "

Down at street level, the cost of everything is also a major subject.  The baker in Campo Santa Margherita has had enough of his customers complaining that the plastic shopping bags cost too much.  (They used to be free, and now most merchants charge 10 or 15 eurocents each.) Written in Venetian, here’s how he sees it: “Notice to clients.  The bags are freaking expensive and don’t hold a dried fig.” (He is evidently summarizing the complaints in this way).  “Therefore if you bring with you a bag that can last a lifetime, 10 cents here, 15 cents there, at the end of the month you’ll really save some money.  THANKS.”

In 2005 (before the crisis) the national government passed a special decree called the “Mille Proroghe,” and repeated it each year till 2014 (it skipped 2012).  A “thousand deferments” is a rough translation, and was meant to resolve or — better yet — offer extensions to facilitate the resolution of certain urgent financial problems.

But by 2008 Italy was leaping on ice floes across the raging financial river, like Eliza fleeing to Canada, except that unlike Eliza, it fell in.  And cities that couldn’t make their budgets balance were on their own, even big cities such as Torino and even Rome.

Eliza fleeing across the frozen river, from "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (photo:

Eliza fleeing across the frozen river, from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (photo:

On June 4, 2014 the city government imploded, and on July 2, 2014, Venice was placed under the administration of a temporary governor, Vittorio Zappalorto, whose assignment was to do whatever it took to force the budget even somewhat close to reality. In one of his first interviews, he said “I’m worried, but I’ll straighten out the accounts.”

That was then.  After months of pitiless toil, cuts and slashes everywhere, Zappalorto finally concluded that there was nothing more that could be done to save the ship; he was even quoted as saying that if Rome didn’t step in with funds, all the sacrifices people had been forced to make would have been useless.

But Rome wasn’t feeling Venice’s pain; in fact, there were enough other cities in the same desperate straits that it seemed impossible, if not absurd, to favor one town ahead of the others.  Why Venice and not Aquila? (Not a completely rhetorical question.)

Commissario Vittorio Zappalorto at one of the last meetings to save the budget. It speaks for itself. (La Nuova Venezia, photographer not identified).

Commissario Vittorio Zappalorto at one of the last meetings to save the city from default. It speaks for itself. (La Nuova Venezia, photographer not identified).

Desperate meetings finally produced a way to save Venice from default.  At 4:03 AM on February 16, 2015, the “Salva Venezia” (save Venice) amendment was inserted into the Mille Proroghe bill 2015 to be voted on.

This was only slightly good news, because there appeared to be a great reluctance on the part of the Prime Minister to give any special consideration to Venice, and hundreds of parliamentarians from all over Italy weren’t necessarily clear on the reasons why Venice deserves more help than their own region or city.

Of course, cutting spending (good) also means cutting jobs (very bad), and social services, and other non-frivolous aspects of city management.  An example of what “cuts” mean: Only one and a half million euros of what ought to be nine million euros were allocated in the budget for 2015 for the 3,000 city employees.

Last year it was the then-mayor, Giorgio Orsoni, who went to Rome pleading for mercy. But now it was Zappalorto, the very man sent specifically by the Prime Minister to shape up the city, who had to step forward to ask for clemency.

On February 22, virtually at the last minute, the “Save Venice” amendment was passed, on the condition that the city’s budget be subject to monthly reviews for the next year.  It’s sort of the equivalent of being grounded for the next twelve months.

The problem is how to fill in a hole in the budget that amounts to 56 million euros.  I won’t start listing categories and amounts of cuts, or the various exceptions, but it’s worth noting that the city government isn’t going to have money to buy anything for its own daily operation except “paper, office supplies, and toner.”  Not made up.

One of my favorite trees is this baracocolo (a type of plum) which blooms for about three days and that's it.  We need to turn our thoughts to beautiful things from now on, and I didn't have a picture of a puppy.

One of my favorite trees is this baracocolo (a type of plum) which blooms for about three days and that’s it for the year. We need to turn our thoughts to beautiful things as much as we can, and I didn’t have a picture of a puppy.

Before leaving this excruciating topic — and before anyone feels too tempted to weep — I have to say that although the city is broke, it has to a certain extent brought this on itself.  Essentially, the city maxed-out its credit cards several years ago, and many things it has spent money on have not proved to be useful, and some are sitting half-finished, or not even started, growing weeds.

Somewhere there is a comprehensive list, but I’ll just give a few examples of the money that has been thrown out the windows with wild abandon on the Lido, summarized by the Gazzettino on March 6 under the headline “Projects and public works A flop of 100 million” (euros, rounded down).  You may not care about the Lido, nor do I, but the following will demonstrate some part of the mentality which has driven the Good Ship Venice onto the pecuniary reef.

About ten years ago, more or less, a number of huge “improvement” projects were confected which would “re-launch” the island, which had lost its luster and also most of its tourist income.

The star project would be the new Palacinema for the Venice Film Festival, which was designed as a sort of multiplex with numerous theaters; another would be a vast yacht marina at San Nicolo’, a space which would be as big as the Giudecca; and another was the conversion of various buildings which comprise the once quite marvelous (and useful) Ospedale al Mare, or Hospital at the Sea, to private uses such as apartments.

The new Palacinema was approved in 2004; time was spent in the search for additional funding, work began around 2008 with the ripping out of a shady pine grove near the old building, and some excavating began.  And then almost immediately stopped, because in 2009 the diggers began to pull up loads of asbestos trash, thrown away by God knows who over the years and then covered up by other occult hands. Nobody thought of taking soil samples before bringing in the backhoes.

And there the Palacinema sits — or rather, the hole sits — frozen in time, and 38,613,000 euros have been spent on a site which remains devastated and on which not one brick has yet been laid.  Some wag has put up a street sign with the fictitious but too-true name, “Piazza Quaranta Milioni” (Forty Million Square).  It’s a lot to pay for a hole that’s 9 feet (3 meters) deep.

Palacinema, Part 2: Seeing that the costs were rising, the city removed the project managers and installed a commissario, or temporary overseer, which cost an additional 1,500,000 euros.  (I can’t explain this, I merely report it.)  The financial magistrates stated that this whole affair was a “handbook example” of waste of public money.

Violets are running riot all over the neighborhood.  I've never seen so many.  It must be a good sign of something.

Violets are running riot all over the neighborhood. I’ve never seen so many. It must be a sign of something good.

Ospedale al Mare: Cleaning up and preparing the areas for the new uses, which have yet to even begin being realized, has cost 1,600,000 euros.

The glorious yacht marina at San Nicolo’: 8,000,000 euros spent, with nothing done so far except court cases with lots of accusations.  If I had time (and cared), I’d do more research on what could have cost that much for no results.

New traffic layout on the seafront: 2,000,000 euros spent, with no results so far.

Hotel Des Bains: This legendary landmark Belle Epoque hotel, famous for its starring role in “Death in Venice” (book and film), not to mention its 100 years of fabulous guests, remains closed since the project of turning it into a luxury-apartment complex failed.  30,000,000 euros spent so far, and its extraordinary decorations (fabrics, curtains, furniture) were put up for sale, even on the internet.

The mythical Hotel Des Bains, waiting for someone to bring it back to life, if not to beauty.  This was one of the great hotels of Europe, if not the world.  Oh well.

The mythical Hotel Des Bains, waiting for someone to bring it back to life, if not to beauty. This was one of the great hotels of Europe, if not the world.  Oh well. (“Hotel Des Bains 01” by Florian Fuchs con licenza CC, 2009).

So yes, we should feel bad that Venice is broke, but we should also feel bad that it got this way because nobody cared about much of anything but themselves.

Prosperity depends on a simple choice: Make more, or spend less.  They just got it backward.

The sun rises on another day.  Let's hope for the best.

The sun rises on another day. Let’s hope for the best.


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Farewell Bruno

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The gondola bearing the casket from the church of San Zaccaria to the Lido was rowed by Vittorio Orio -- known for his dedication to the New York firemen -- and Franco Dei Rossi "Strigheta," son of the deceased's lifelong friend "Gigio." The other rowers are undoubtedly important racers, probably d'Este and Tezzat.  The picture would have been better if I hadn't snapped it from a moving vaporetto.  The daily traffic stops for no man.

The gondola bearing the casket from the church of San Zaccaria to the Lido was rowed by retired gondolier Vittorio Orio — known for his dedication to the New York firemen — and Franco Dei Rossi “Strigheta,” son of the deceased’s lifelong friend “Gigio, as well as Giampaolo d’Este and Ivo Redolfi Tezzat. The boat to the right is a 10-oar gondola belonging to the Francescana rowing club.  The picture would have been better if I hadn’t snapped it from a moving vaporetto. The daily traffic stops for no man.

IMG_3316 signoretti detial

I’ve been noticing all sorts of interesting things around the city over the past few days, and while I regret to imply that a funeral qualifies as “interesting,” I will state that often the deceased is extremely interesting and makes me sorry I never knew him or her, and often never even heard of them until the dread news was published.

A case in point is Bruno Fusato Signoretti.

The “interesting thing” was his funeral cortege this morning, which didn’t completely surprise me when I saw it from the #1 vaporetto.  I had only heard of him two days ago, when his obituary in the Gazzettino alerted me to the human behind a name with which I was familiar in exactly one way: Glass.  That is, I knew that the name Signoretti was an important one on Murano, and that this company, or person, had begun (like many commercial ventures here) to sponsor some of the racers of the major Venetian regatas.

But there was much more to say about him, which I have learned now that he’s gone.

I have mashed up a few biographies, one written by Tullio Cardona in the Gazzettino, and the other by Maurizio Crovato  on the website  Here goes:

Bruno Signoretti (La Nuova Venezia).

Bruno Signoretti (La Nuova Venezia).

Gondoliers and Murano are in mourning.  On October 5, Bruno Fusato “Signoretti” passed away in his house on the Lido.  He was 74 years old, and had been fighting a difficult disease since last March.

Fusato began working as a gondolier, son of a centuries-long tradition; his family was noted among gondoliers since 1600.  In more recent times, his grandfather Vincenzo, nicknamed “Cencio,” was chosen by Prince August Wilhelm of Prussia for his excursions in the lagoon in 1907, and when Cencio got married, the Prince sent him a silver coffee service and 1000 lire.  (The new gondola he was able to order cost 300 lire, to give some idea of the magnitude of this gift.)

Bruno’s father Luigi was the gondolier of Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth II.

When young Bruno began his career as a gondolier, he was known for being able to make six “murane” a day (roundtrips in his gondola from San Zaccaria to Murano).  He became the substitute gondolier for Albino Dei Rossi, the legendary Venetian-rowing champion known as “Gigio Strigheta,” filling in while Gigio was training for the races.  “Thanks to this young man,” Strigheta quipped, “when I’m not working, I make twice as much.”

What with his love for the gondola, and for the regatas, and for his city, Bruno began to diversify. He retired from gondoliering and began to organize tourist traffic to Murano.  Then he opened stores in London, and finally, in 1986, he acquired an abandoned glass furnace on Murano and established an important center for glassmakers and designers.

He also lived a kind of parallel career of philanthropy and benefaction.  As Crovato states, he always kept the “old gondolier” in him.  There was not one racer, not one aged gondolier, alone and forgotten, who didn’t receive help from him in moments of need.

In 1991 he dusted off the abandoned tradition of the “disnar” (dinner) of the competitors before the Regata Storica.  He sponsored difficult art restorations, and when La Fenice opera house went up in flames in 1996, he was a founding member of the reconstruction fund-raising initiative, and its first private contributor.

After September 11, 2001, he created the idea of the “Baptism of Venetian-ness” (battesimo di venezianita’).  I can’t tell you how it worked, but it raised funds for the firemen of New York.

His last joy, as they put it, was the victory of Giampaolo d’Este and Ivo Redolfi Tezzat of the Regata Storica 2014, a team which he had sponsored.

In remembering him, Tezzat gave Signoretti the baptism of gold, at least in Venetian terms:

“What he said, he did.”

In a city where words outnumber deeds by an impressive margin, this is a statement whose brevity conceals a universe of meaning.

Racers are now permitted to wear a sponsor's badge, and Signoretti's name was on several champions' backs -- here, Franco "Strigheta" Dei Rossi, at the regata of Redentore 2014.  Notice the addition of the link with the firemen of New York -- "per non dimenticare" -- to not forget.

Racers are now permitted to wear a sponsor’s badge, and Signoretti’s name was on several champions’ backs — here, Ivo Redolfi Tezzat at the regata of Redentore 2014. Notice the addition of the link with the firemen of New York — “per non dimenticare” — to not forget.

Last glimpse of the two gondolas rowing toward the Lido, and his final resting place.  The air didn't look so misty in front of San Zaccaria, but gazing eastward, it's a different atmosphere.

Last glimpse of the two gondolas rowing toward the Lido, and his final resting place.


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Another run around the Venetian obstacle course

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Every so often, someone will say/ask/opine: “You live in Venice?  I really envy you!  It must be so wonderful!  What’s it like?”

Because dreams are fragile and precious, and we all need more of them, not fewer, I usually answer in a generic way, while still lingering somewhere in the vicinity of the truth.  Yes, it’s beautiful; yes, it’s amazing; yes, it’s unique, etc. etc.  But I usually limit myself to one word: “Arduous.”  Not all day, not every day, and the rewards outweigh the drawbacks. Also, “arduous” is simpler than “obstacle course.”

No cars — how great!  No elevators — how somewhat less great! And so on. With all due respect to every person who has ever lived, in every military in every country, here is a glimpse of what a particularly demanding day here feels like.

There are at least two ways to say “obstacle course” in Italian.

The simpler and less emotionally-loaded term is “corso ad ostacoli.”  You can figure that out even if you don’t speak the language.

The other, which reflects more clearly the reality as she is lived, is “percorso di guerra.”  If you know that “guerra” means “war,” you don’t need to examine the subtleties of “percorso.”  However, my dictionary renders this as  “assault course.”

You can already see how “arduous” is better.  I’ll give you a little example of what that can mean in ErlaWorld.

A few weeks ago I got a new desk.  I ordered it online, and it was delivered to our door in a box (assembly required). Just like in the real world.

But then I needed a new bookcase to accompany it.  Space here being measured in micrometers, I had to be cunning and clever regarding materials and dimensions and cost.  So I spent days researching “bookcases.”

Nothing on Amazon, nothing from IKEA.  Nothing from my other two or three dependable vendors, such as Staples. This was annoying.

Hacking my way through the online underbrush, I managed after several hours to locate a company — Leroy Merlin, for the record — which sells the steel-chrome wire elements I wanted, in dimensions that would work.  But this company did not enable online orders.  I had to go to the store.  The store is in Marghera.

We do not have a car, so the bus is our only option, short of asking for a ride from somebody, which is always more trouble than it’s worth.  So the bus, in itself, is no novelty to me, and on the whole it’s not a hugely inconvenient way to get from here to there.  But this expedition was going to be into uncharted territory.

I checked maps, I checked the ACTV website.  Then I called the store to ask which bus would bring me from Venice to them.  “Take any bus going along the Brenta, or to Padova,” I was told.  And get off where?  “The stop called ‘Industria.'”

The ACTV website listed one bus that made sense, but did not identify a stop called “Industria.” (Much later, which is typical in these sagas, I found a stop called “Incro. via Colombara,” or intersection with via Colombara, which would have solved my dilemma. But I was still working on the assumption that the man knew what he was talking about.)

At this point I began to notice the familiar sensation of moving forward, but on terrain which felt progressively less stable, so to speak.  It’s the point at which a project goes from “time-consuming but logical” to “perplexing,” and  onward to “You’ll just have to figure it out for yourself.”

The Industrial Zone of Marghera, which doesn't look especially good even from across the lagoon at a distance of

The Industrial Zone of Marghera, which doesn’t look especially good even when seen 7 km (4 miles) across the lagoon from the Lido.  The town behind it looks pretty much as you would expect a town would look that was built in the Thirties to house thousands of workers.

Lino and I left the house at 1:30.  We got to Piazzale Roma in time to miss the bus that left at 2:10, so we took the one that left at 2:25.

We asked the driver to let us off at “Industria.”  He looked blank.  “Do you know where the “Industria” stop is?” He shrugged.

A look at this map will give a general overview of the terrain to be explored. Our destination was just above the traffic circle in the center, where “SS 11” can be seen.

I had consulted several maps, so I had a general idea of the territory, but not the bus stops.  So we got off two stops early, as we quickly discovered.  We walked back to a bar where we could get some details.  Retraced steps and proceeded on foot, as per plan, to the store.  It only took about 15 minutes, but as usual in unfamiliar situations, it felt like more. So we were at the store by 3:00.

The map on the ACTV website is only relatively clear (blue line).  We should have descended at stop #13, but instead got off at #11.  Bonus: Each bus stop has a sign with a number, but the number does not correspond to the numbers on the ACTV map. So far, so normal.

If you ever need to know, there are six stops on via Fratelli Bandiera, listed as “1/6,” “2/6” and so forth. Then the road changes its name to SS 11 (State Road 11), or “via Padana,” which is also not marked on the map.  And the numbering begins again: “1/6,” “2/6,” etc.  As for “Intersection with via Colombara,” the street name is not written on any surface within a radius of 40,000 miles.  It might be written on the side of a yurt on the Golodnaya Steppe.

This is what I was looking for, more or less.  I wanted something taller and broader, but still, it didn't seem that I was asking for the Holy Grail.  Which was not on their website anyway.

This is what I was looking for, more or less. I wanted something taller and broader, but still, it didn’t seem that I was asking for the Holy Grail. Which was not on their website anyway.

Finally inside the store, we went through the identifying-the-components phase and were well underway with the salesperson till I asked about getting a “controventatura.”  He looked blank.  (Maybe I should have asked him where the “Industria” stop was.  Oh wait — he already knew.  He walks to work from the bus every day.) This wasn’t encouraging — not only is it his language, it’s his job.

I had to explain that it’s a brace.

He said they didn’t have them.

I mentioned that they were listed for sale on their website.  But this meant nothing because the website evidently is created in France, the company’s home base, and the goods are distributed according to some system.  The “bookcases in Italy don’t need braces” system.

Complete order: Four metal stanchions 180 cm (70 inches) high.  Four metal shelves 121 cm (47 inches) long and 20 cm (8 inches) deep.

A package of four small round wheels.

Total cost 141 euros, which is not important.  What is important is what we were told when we asked the charge for having it delivered to our little hovel in the historic center of the most beautiful city in the world.

“120 euros,” was the reply.

Rico, give me options!

The store could deliver our modest amount of merchandise to Tronchetto, and we could pick it up there; cost, a paltry 60 euros.

We could have rented a car for about half that, to drive to the store and bring our stuff to Tronchetto.  But that would have added way too many more moving parts to the already self-complicating project.

So we paid the 60 euros, and were told it would be delivered to Tronchetto next Tuesday (a week to wait for this minuscule amount of merchandise?  They must have been waiting for somebody to order a new set of doors and windows, or 90 bidets, or something else that would make the trip worthwhile.)

We walked back to the bus stop, where the bus was just pulling away.  We waited for about half an hour, standing on the shoulder of the road in one of the more dreary parts of the Venetian hinterland as traffic hurried past us.  A scattering of small, monotonous houses ahead of us, interspersed with abandoned land.  Behind us, the deteriorating grey hulks of cast-off factories, part of the now mostly derelict Industrial Zone which once provided work to thousands.  Up the road, more houses, some bar/cafes, intermittent small hotels, and the church of GesuLavoratore, or Jesus the Worker.

As the sun dropped, the girls began to appear, strolling along the roadsides to lure commuters, truckers, taxi-drivers, or anyone else who had the time and the space to pull over. Now I understand the hotels.

The view from the bus stop looking up via Fratelli Bandiera.  I was impressed that there could be a trash can here, out in the middle of they'll-never-find-me-here land, and not in the middle via Garibaldi. As for the view, of course there is a difference between "ugly" and "inconvenient."  Only here the area manages to be both.

The view from the bus stop looking up via Fratelli Bandiera. I was impressed that there could be a trash can here, out in the middle of I’ll-never-see-home-again-Land, while there is only one in the middle of via Garibaldi. As for the view, of course there is a difference between “ugly” and “inconvenient.” This part of the municipality of Venice manages to be both.

Finally the bus came.  In 20 minutes or so we were at Piazzale Roma.  We walked to the vaporetto stop.  We waited with about 180 other people to get on the next vaporetto.  We managed it.  It took 25 minutes to reach the Giardini stop.  Then we walked to our house.

We walked in at about 5:30.  We’d been on our feet for almost the entire four hours of this little Venetian pilgrimage.  Part of that time was spent discussing what sort of boat we were going to be able to wrangle in order to get to Tronchetto and pick up our stuff and get it home.

If you don’t own a motorboat, which we don’t, the options are to borrow one, with or without driver (raising the question of remuneration), or… row.  I think we’re probably going to row all the way over and back.

Yes? A question in the back? Why didn’t we carry our purchase back to Venice on the bus and vaporetto?  Because of the 180-cm stanchions.  Lino was convinced that they would be a big problem on the vaporetto, not to mention the bus.

However, we saw someone on the bus hauling a pair of skis and a big IKEA bag with two pairs of ski boots; I pointed him out to Lino saying, “Well, nobody minds him carrying his skis on the bus, and they’re no longer than the stanchions.”

Lino retorted that the bus wasn’t crowded, which wasn’t going to be true of the vaporetto; in any case, logic is a frail reed — you can’t lean heavy arguments against it. Besides, we both know that it’s the marinaio (the person who ties up the boat at each stop) who gets to decide what to allow on board.

A plumber once told us that he was about to get on the vaporetto one morning with his cart loaded with his tools, and the marinaio told him he couldn’t get on.

“The vaporetto was half-empty,” the plumber said.  “So I asked him why?’

“He told me, ‘Because I said so.'”

I didn’t especially want to have to wait on the dock with my stanchions, which in fact are no higher than plenty of people, till a marinaio arrived who wouldn’t consider my cargo excessive.  I would have risked it, but Lino drew the line.

Now I have to start thinking about how I can construct a brace, seeing that there are none to be had, not even for ready money.

Then again, it's not hard to find reminders of why it's worth putting up with all the inconvenience.

Then again, it’s not hard to find reminders of why it’s worth putting up with all the inconvenience.

IMG_0733 marghera beauty

I must remember that one reason it still works so well for the egrets is because they have very few needs.  Least of all for a bookcase.

I must remember that one reason it still works so well for the egrets is because they have very few needs. Least of all for a bookcase.

And speaking of logistics, I withdraw m y objections to everything, Your Honor, and yield to the honorable new mother of twins.  'Zooks!

And speaking of logistics, I withdraw my objections to everything, Your Honor, and yield to the honorable new mother of twins. Zounds!


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