Archive for MOSE


MOSE: It’s just money

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By this point, the mechanics and components of MOSE could only be interesting to engineers, and maybe not even to them.  So here are some pictures of the lagoon which do not show it at as the monstrous adversary against which Venice must be defended at all costs (“all costs” will be broken down below).

It’s not that I want to talk about MOSE any more than I want to gnaw off a hangnail, but it’s not my fault if wondrous developments continue to pop up in the endless saga of this undertaking.  And even if you are not a connoisseur of wondrousness (wondrosity?) in bloated public works, there may be a few people left who still are interested in how this thing is getting along.  By which I mean those people who used to ask me about it with such eagerness and curiosity and goodwill and hopefulness, seeing that until just a few years ago the Destiny of Venice was trumpeted by the press to be hand- and leg-cuffed to the success or failure of this … thing.

One recalls that the most recent date projected for finishing its construction (and beginning the TWO-YEAR TESTING) was the end of 2018.  But brace yourselves: It’s going to be later.  They say that the conclusion will be January 1, 2019. Or when the cassowaries return to Capistrano.  Or when Jesus comes back.  Everything depends on everything else, which is a fancy way of saying “money.”

“Creation of the animals,” by Tintoretto (c. 1550). It could be my imagination, but I detect a resemblance to the teeming Venetian lagoon here, which I suspect was not accidental.

Here is a rundown of the situation as outlined by Roberto Linetti (Interregional Superintendent of Public Works) to the city councilors a few days ago:

The job needs more money.  (I can’t comment on that anymore; it’s like saying the sun needs to come up tomorrow.) It needs 221 million euros — as do we all — to finance the completion of 60 remaining aspects of the project, 40 of which must be finished this year.  Only 40 million euros have been released from the total allotment so far, and the rapport between work done and payments made is not encouraging.

“The construction sites are not going well,” Mr. Linetti admitted.  Everything is slowing down because the private companies have slowed down, which they’ve done because of the financial and legal Gordianosities of the Consorzio Venezia Nuova, the former governing consortium, and its collapse under the weight of its financial skulduggery.  The companies have slowed down on working because payments due them are arriving even more slowly.  “If the private companies aren’t motivated to go ahead,” said Linetti, “it’s hard to make them go ahead, even by kicking them.”

But every day that the construction is stalled, the underwater parts are deteriorating, which will only require more expenditure down the line.  It’s a situation that brings to mind the notion that “We can’t stop fighting because otherwise our boys would have died for nothing.”

The MOSE annual budget also earmarks 15 million euros for caring for the lagoon (in unspecified ways).  Considering how much damage to the lagoon the whole project is causing, that seems fair.  Sort of.  Nice they remember there is a lagoon.

You know — this lagoon.

Projected cost of administration and maintenance.  This is a big one, which few people paid much attention to in the giddy days of selling contracts and all.

“We think that the administration of MOSE will cost about 80 million euros a year,” Linetti told the city councilors.  “And that’s not much for a work of this importance and complexity in an area like Venice, considering that between 20-30 million are solely the cost of the utilities for the system’s functioning.  Between 15-20 million euros a year will be for personnel, at least 100 of them.  Then there are 30-40 million for the maintenance itself,” including the undefined work in the lagoon.  Let me repeat that: The maintenance work itself will cost 30-40 million euros a year. “The State surely won’t fail to maintain its support.”

The maintenance work will be undertaken in the Arsenal, where the gates will periodically be brought to be cleaned, stripped and revarnished.  Naturally a new hangar will have to be constructed for this work, which will cost 18 million.  There are more zero’s swarming around the MOSE accounts than there are mosquitoes on Sant’ Erasmo at sunset in July.

Let the swans go live somewhere else, we’re busy operating big machinery and big bookkeeping programs.

And the use of the gates?   The news is now that to protect Venice from exceptional high tide, it will probably be necessary to raise only the gates at the inlet at San Nicolo on the Lido, leaving the gates at Malamocco and Chioggia peacefully reposing underwater.

“The experts have verified,” said Linetti, “that closing only the inlet at the Lido will result in a significant lowering of the level of the tide in the historic center, without the necessity of closing the entire system.”  So all that work and expense to build gates at all three inlets was…….pointless?

In fact, knowing that the Lido gates would be used the most frequently was the reason, according to Linetti, why more “materials” were dedicated to the construction there.  And therefore, he says, “There will be a saving on the costs of maintenance.”

He has now totally lost me. Where do these savings on maintenance come from? On the gates that will be used more often (theoretically), or those which therefore will be used less?  I could take high-powered binoculars and I still don’t see savings anywhere. At this point I’m not even sure what savings look like.

He’s looking for clams, not savings.

(I am indebted to the excellent reporting of Enrico Tantucci in La Nuova Venezia of 10 January 2018.)

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MOSE again, still, forever

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If it weren’t for the lagoon, maybe people wouldn’t care quite so much about Venice. Interesting thought to ponder. But the lagoon would probably be better off without Venice, because then it wouldn’t be abused and tormented to make sure that Venice won’t have some water in the streets sometimes.

What everybody loves about Venice (among many things) is how old it is.  And that is indeed a thing to love.  I imagine all those amazing designers and builders and artists working away centuries ago, believing that their handiwork would last for, oh, maybe ever.  And because they were first-rate craftsmen, it turns out that most of them were right.

You might say that MOSE is also going to last forever, but not in a good way.  I don’t write updates on the continuing calamity that is the world’s most preposterous project because I’m bored by the mendacity, magnitude and monotony of the problems.  Everything has gone, is going, and will be going, wrong with this thing until Jesus comes back, so updates are pointless.  In fact, I’ve begun to suspect that the whole thing started with a bunch of drunk people sitting around one summer afternoon on some rich person’s yacht or private mountain, who decided to break the boredom by inventing a game in which the winner is the one who finds a way to waste the most money on the most pointless enterprise in the history of the world.  If you can call it “winning.”  Bonus points for environmental damage, or if somebody dies.

But the latest headlines have barged into my brain and made me think about it again, if only briefly, and my thoughts are not lovely.  I can sum it up for you:  Yet more things have been discovered to be screwed up, and fixing them will cost lots more money.  This has become the refrain of the Marching Song of the MOSE Squadron, while the bass singers set the jaunty rhythm “Money for me, money for me, money for me…..”  And as you read, consider (as I have) that if I had done the calculations, it’s obvious they would have come out all wrong.  But I am not a civil engineer (I’m hardly civil at all) and I do not have a piece of paper from some institute which implies that I have studied how to do this work.  But we must face the fact that the perpetrators of all this have such certificates.

Is there something about water that just baffles engineers in Venice? They ought to be experts, yet somehow the smallest details are just left unfixed. One might say that the flow of the water and/or the position of the grate of this fountain don’t really HAVE to match up, but then one considers the possibility that the designer was later hired to work on MOSE.

Here’s the headline on September 

MOSE, the gate of the lock at Malamocco has to be redone.

I will translate the main points in this and the following article:

The gate on the lock basin (“conca“) at Malamocco has to be redone.  After the 400 million euros already spent, another 20 million will have to be invested for the “lunata,” the semi-circular breakwater shaped like the moon which protects the ships from waves and current as they position themselves to enter or as they exit.

Here is the inlet between the Adriatic (to the right) and the lagoon (to the left). It’s sort of like two boxers facing off  before the gong. Clockwise from “lunata” we find: The construction yard of the caissons for MOSE, the tiny hamlet of Santa Maria del Mare, the lock to permit shipping to pass when the floodgates are closed in the inlet, the nature park at the Alberoni, the inlet which will be blocked by the raised floodgates in the case of exceptional high tide, and the Alberoni seawall.

The lock, you may recall, was dug to permit the passage of ships between the Adriatic and the lagoon whenever the floodgates are raised.  But evidently every good idea contains the seeds of its own destruction, if you play it right.  It was constructed in 2007 by the Consorzio Venezia Nuova (by means of the mega-company Mantovani) and designed by Technital ten years ago, which Vitucci recalls as  “the golden age of MOSE, when money poured in without limits and without too much control.”  But even then the design was clearly flawed, for which almost everybody involved is now paying the consequences.

Inadequate.  Even though the breakwater extends 1300 meters (4,265 feet), its basin is too small for the latest generation of container ships, making it too risky for the big ships to attempt to enter the lock.  Other than that, the “mobile” parts of the lock — the gates — cannot function because the water exerts too much pressure.  The persons making those calculations might have been interrupted by a phone call, or the arrival of a pizza; anyway, it doesn’t work. This problem was discovered in 2015 when the gate gave way in the first storm.  Urgent interventions are now in the hands of a Belgian company.

But not to worry!  The president of the Magistrato alle Acque, Roberto Linetti, says that fixing it will only cost 18 million euros because the foundations are still good.  And meanwhile, they’ll be able to add a few meters to allow the ships to pass. So you see?  In the end, it was a good thing the gate didn’t work.

Infinite.  Or “unfinished.”  Or “unfinishable,” perhaps.  What now bears the tired title of the “MOSE scandal” consists, as Vitucci lists it, of: “Bribes and consultants, off-the-books payments and always-positive evaluations rendered by friendly experts, extra costs due to the lack of competition and the necessity of accumulating “black” (untraceable) funds to pay the bribes.  But also there have been obvious errors, such as the lock. What was intended to be a structure to prevent penalizing the port activity when the floodgates were up has been shown to be, at the end, the umpteenth useless big project.

Waste.  The lock is far from being the only problem — there are the collateral “major works” connected to MOSE, each one of which is its own little one-act tragedy. The “jack-up,” the large “ship” which cost 50 million euros for transporting and moving the gates constructed by Comar and Mantovani, remains anchored at the Arsenal and has never been used because it doesn’t function, despite the repairs that have been made. There is also the damage to the seawall at San Nicolo’ on the Lido, which collapsed a few days after it had been tested.  Tens of millions of euros thrown into the sea, as Vitucci (and probably many others) puts it.  Damages will need to be paid for all those, too, but it’s not clear by whom.

This is the “jack-up.” Big, expensive, impressive, it makes no pretense of working.

But wait!  There’s more!  Is anyone wondering how the various components are managing to resist encrustation and mold?  I can tell you!  But before I do, pause to marvel at the astonishing presence of salt in seawater, not to mention algae and all sorts of cretures which insist on attaching themselves to things. Who could possibly have known, or even guessed at random, that the Adriatic contains salt and water?

The headline in the Nuova Venezia on September 7, 2017, on a story written by Alberto Vitucci:

Mold and degradation, the MOSE gates are already blocked. 

“Big works = big mafias.” I don’t usually agree with graffiti, but this sums up the situation with admirable clarity.

The encrustation is increasing; the paint is already old.  And without electricity it’s impossible to raise the barriers.  Mold and degradation in the corridors of the caissons beneath the lagoon.  And the gates, exposed for six months to the weather and salt at Santa Marina del Mare, have to be repainted.

The installations.  The latest problem is the delay in building the electric plant to raise the gates.  MOSE needs energy to raise the gates because it doesn’t exploit the natural energy of the sea and waves.  … Unlike the sequence of events at San Nicolo’, where the power plant was installed first, at Malamocco it was decided to position the gates on the lagoon bottom before the power plant was built.  Result: For several months the gates have lain on the bottom but it’s impossible to test raising them.

Corrosion and fouling. The first inspections revealed corrosion and encrustation.  The lack of electricity has prevented the correct ventilation underwater where the cables and systems pass, not to mention the workers.  The walls are covered with a layer of mold 5 centimeters (2 inches) deep. MOSE is a system conceived to remain underwater, and without maintenance, the problems multiply, such as the corrosion of the hinges (of the gates) that was reported several months ago. What to do? The Consorzio Venezia Nuova announced a competition for bids on the construction of the systems.  Two groups won, the Abb Comes of Taranto and the Abb Idf of Brindisi. But the proposal to realize some temporary systems to move the gates wasn’t approved.  It would have cost 14 million euros, so just let the gates sit underwater, blossoming.

Several months ago, the gates underwater at Treporti began to show accumulations of barnacles, mussels, and crabs — sea-dwelling creatures which were not exactly unknown before the work started.

The paint is peeling. Because there is no electricity or apparatus to install them, the 30 gates that were supposed to be lowered into the water have been waiting for months on the construction site of the caissons.  The delay is due to the non-functioning of the “jack-up.” (Some gates were constructed in Croatia and brought across the Adriatic from Split.)  During these months, the workers have battled the weather and the seagulls, which have begun to nest in the gates, as follows…..

MOSE: Even the seagulls are stripping the paint.

Information from the article by Alberto Vitucci, La Nuova Venezia, 29 April 2017

It turns out that the beached (so to speak) gates sitting at the construction site are a very attractive home for nesting seagulls, sort of like LeFrak City for waterfowl.  But their guano is damaging the paint, and eventually corrodes the metal too.  The birds stab at the peeling paint with their beaks, trying to strip it off (boredom? sport? snacks?).  Protective tarpaulins have been spread over the gates, but large spaces have been left open for work on the hinges, so ….

Bring on the scarecrows! (I mean gulls): Deafening recordings of frightening sounds.  They tried an amped-up donkey braying because an ethologist said that birds are afraid of it.  Birds, sure, but not gulls, who fear almost nothing anymore.  Next, a high-volume dog growling. Nope. In the end, the only thing that works is a cannon firing blanks, so cannonfire is now periodically heard in the lagoon, followed by the wild flapping of hundreds and hundreds of wings of birds that soon return.

How long will all this be going on?

The timetable.  According to the latest schedule — after deadlines passed from 2011 to 2014, then 2017, then 2018 — the work will be finished by 2021.  Four (or five or ten?) more years of astonishing stories to come.  And I haven’t even said anything about the subsidence of the lagoon bottom beneath the caissons due to the powerful force of the tides (tides? there are tides in the sea? what??) which appear to be distorting the position of the gates…..

Life on earth requires many adjustments. Shown here is a reasonable solution to a problem. I have no images of a reasonable solution to any of MOSE’s problems.



Categories : MOSE, Problems
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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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This is not a cretinata tree, it's one of the most amazing wisteria trees in a neighborhood billowing with wisteria.  I wait for it all year.

This is not a cretinata tree, it’s one of the most amazing wisterias in a neighborhood billowing with wisteria. I wait for it all year.

Cretinate” (kreh-tee-NAH-teh) are actions or statements perpetrated by one or more cretins — a far too useful term in these parts, and one I’m sorry doesn’t exist in English.

But maybe it’s not that there are so many cretins here.  Maybe there are lots of highly intelligent, profoundly sensitive, extremely kind and rich people who just happen to say cretinous things.  If so, there are still too many of them.

A few days ago we heard the latest of an infinite string of fantasies stated as facts by Paolo Costa, the president of the Venice Port Authority.  He gives every sign of being a born believer in the inherent importance and value of Mastodontic Projects, as they put it here, because he has spent the last few years pushing ferociously for approval for the excavation of the Contorta Canal to bring the big cruise ships to the Maritime Zone by way of the lagoon, and not by the Giudecca Canal.

Apart from whether or not this would be a smart move for Venice and its economy (read: keep the port working at full speed), the canal itself has been recognized by an array of environmentalists and even politicians as being enormously damaging to the lagoon ecosystem.  (May I note, once again, that the lagoon is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a fact which apparently is difficult to remember, seeing how casually everybody goes rampaging around doing whatever they want, though if harm were done to the city to the degree that it’s done to the lagoon, the world outcry would resemble several sonic booms).

Let us revel in the double-cherry trees, especially this one which was flowering its heart out in a completely meaningless fragment of Mestre.

Let us revel in the double-cherry trees, especially this one which was flowering its heart out in a completely meaningless fragment of Mestre.

I’m coming to the cretinata, uttered by Mr. Costa.  He has uttered many since the subject of banning the big ships has been current.  The reason he utters them is because it appears to be his heart’s desire to be involved in a Mastodontic Project, seeing as he missed out on the riches lavished on everyone involved in the last one, which is MOSE.

Actually, I don’t know that he missed out.  Perhaps he got his share that time around, and is determined to have a reprise.

Whatever the case may be, no Crusader ever made a vow that could match the vow he seems to have made to himself to get that @#*$%! canal dug.

So where’s the cretinata?  Here it is:

The Contorta Canal is the only intervention which can save the lagoon and the jobs of the cruise business.”

First, it can’t be the “only”  intervention” that could be effective.  There are a number of alternatives which are struggling to be considered, pushing frantically against the inert bulk of the Contorta proposal.  To be accurate, it is the only intervention which has the active interest and support of Mr. Costa, and he is applying pressure for its approval by every means known to humans.  After all, sheer dogged perseverance finally got the MOSE project approved, although it took 30 years.  So it ought to work just as well for this project.  That seems to be the approach he’s taking.

In my opinion, saying that something or someone is the “only” one of its kind, when that just happens to be the thing the speaker wants, is a statement more often made by young, distraught children than mature, responsible adults.  It sounds fishy to me.

Second, I have never heard anyone except Mr. Costa hazard the statement that the excavation of the new canal would “save the lagoon” (though he doesn’t say from what).  I totally understand his desire to keep the port humming, but his opportunistic addition of saying the canal will “save the lagoon” is like telling a woman “By the way, you’re beautiful” when you’ve just asked her to lend you $500.

Many Venetians have long been aware that the lagoon needs saving (from the voracious motondoso, from devastating illegal clam digging, and from the incessant erosion exacerbated by the Petroleum Canal — another Mastodontic Project!).  I didn’t realize that digging a new canal would be a positive step in any direction except more erosion and more environmental degradation.

Since Mr. Costa has never made anything resembling an environmentalist statement, I have to assume that “saving the lagoon” is Costaspeak for “doing what I want.”

Here endeth the first cretinata.

No lilac trees at all in Venice, as far as I can tell, but I'll take what I can get at the Rialto for the few days the lilacs are on sale.

I’ve never discovered lilac trees in Venice, which makes me all the more grateful to see these at the Rialto for the few days they’re on sale.

Interlude: I used to know a little boy who, at the age of about 2 1/2, had already grasped that saying that he wanted something didn’t inspire the desired response from his mother.  So he cleverly switched to saying “I need it.”  That little boy did not grow up to become the President of the Port Authority; perhaps he was a cousin.

These were the pioneer blooms, now gone for another 12 months.

These were the pioneer blooms, now gone for another 12 months.

On to the next cretinata, which comes from the Princess Bianca di Savoia Aosta, quoted in “An Insider’s Guide to Venice” in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago.

I admit that statements from people whose names start with Princess (or Defender of the Faith, or Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, or Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great) get attention.

Having a fancy title doesn’t necessarily mean that you know things, but it does mean that your statements will probably be taken as true.  Such as the Princess’s following remark:

VENETIAN MOPED // Brussa IS Boat. Rent a “topa,” a zippy four-meter boat, at Brussa, to go for a relaxing and fun spin through the canals before heading out into the lagoon. It’s not as intimidating as it sounds—locals use the topas like mopeds.”

Words such as “zippy” and “spin” give the impression that the canals, like the city itself, are here mainly for entertainment and diversion, just one big amusement park with peeling palaces.  They don’t give any hint of the reality — that the canals are narrow, crowded, and full of boats doing real work which take up space and aren’t especially accommodating to high-spirited gilded youths out for a little run about town before drinks at the Cipriani, or wherever.

Second, “locals” do not use the topas like mopeds.  “Locals” have their own boats, usually, or have friends with boats.  Topas are for special jobs or projects — most often like work — which usually do not involve either zipping or spinning.

Third, apart from being awkward and difficult to perform, zipping and spinning would be a challenge to do without breaking the speed limits, which are now being more strenuously enforced since the new traffic regulations went into effect.  The only boats I can think of whose zipping or spinning is overlooked are the fireboats and the ambulances.

“Like mopeds” implies speed, agility, and quantity, like the swarms in Rome and Florence.  There is no craft here which could be compared in any way to a moped. Not one.

Which leads me to conclude that the princess either doesn’t know what a topa is, or what a moped is.  It would be like me saying “Lapps use reindeer-sleds like mopeds,” or “Somalis use camels like mopeds” or “New Zealanders use dolphins like mopeds.”

For a tiny sliver of time each year, ordinary leaves are as beautiful as flowers.

For a tiny sliver of time each year, ordinary leaves are as beautiful as flowers.

But I’m being too serious, it’s one of my major defects.  So let me offer a more effervescent cretinata, perpetrated by two incredibly clever employees of the ACTV who went fishing on company time.

Connoisseurs of lagoony creatures know that this is seppia (cuttlefish) season.  Even if you don’t happen to be a connoisseur, all you have to do to realize the season is on is either go to the Rialto to see what’s on sale, or wander along your fondamenta-of-choice in the morning or evening (or night) to peruse the men who are standing there with their fishing rods and nets and ink-stained buckets.  The Zattere, the Riva degli Schiavoni, the Fondamente Nove, and even scabrous old Tronchetto are all excellent places to snag some seppie.

Unless you’re supposed to be doing something else, like work.

I realize that seppie exert an irresistible fascination, but it's better to indulge it off the clock.

I realize that seppie exert an irresistible fascination, but it’s better to give in to it off the clock.

On the evening between Tuesday and Wednesday, two employees of the ACTV were on duty at Tronchetto in the area dedicated to the ferryboat from the Lido, and one of their tasks was to keep an eye on things in general and to make sure that nobody was doing anything near the landing-stage that could create problems for the ferry.

It would appear that these two zealots decided that seppia-fishing on the nearby fondamenta was likely to create problems for the ferry (actually, for their own fishing plans), so they wasted no time in banishing the fishermen from the fondamenta.

Shortly thereafter, the banished fishermen, watching from a nearby fondamenta, noticed the two zealots pulling out their own tackle and beginning their own great seppia-hunt from the now-liberated good spot.

This was unwise.

The banished and extremely annoyed fishermen proceeded to phone the Provincial Police, who are responsible, among other things, for checking fishing licenses.  Before long a patrol-boat appeared, and the officers showed as much zeal in the execution of their duty as the two ACTV bullies had done in theirs.

The officers took away their traps, their fishing lines, and their seppie.  The officers also searched their cars, and fined them for fishing without a license.

The officers then reported the incident to their employers, who were probably less concerned about the fines than they were about the fact that their two trusty agents had been amusing themselves in an off-duty sort of way when they were, technically speaking, very much on duty.

Moral: Don’t antagonize seppia-fishermen?  That’s a good one.  Another good one would be: Don’t behave like a cretin.

It rained the other day and I happened to be at the Villa Foscarini Rossi in Stra.  Not exactly next door, but well worth the voyage.

It rained the other day and I happened to be at the Villa Foscarini Rossi in Stra. Not exactly next door, but well worth the voyage.

In spite of all this tomfoolery, spring is proceeding in its appointed course, and I am loving every aspect of it.

The trees are fully-leaved, as of about ten minutes ago, and the greenery still looks as fresh as salad.  Trees are blooming according to plan: the white-flowered plums have come and gone, followed by forsythia and cherry and double-cherry, and now the wisteria is slowly being transformed from purple blossoms into green fronds. Random flufflets of cream-colored spores float away from the poplars, and the redbud (called “Judas-tree” here) is making up in color what it lacks in size.

A few days ago I smelled cut grass for the first time this year.  It’s a moment that’s almost as enchanting as hearing the blackbirds at dawn.  And today I got a bonus: Someone had cut a stretch of herbage which contained chives (here called “sultan’s beard,” or “friar’s beard), and the fragile oniony scent was wafting faintly away.  It will be gone by now.

This is one of those perfectly poised moments, when the air is still cool but you can feel the sun’s warmth (if the wind isn’t blowing).  At any time of the day the streets are full of people dressed for every possible temperature: There are couples in T-shirts and even tank tops and shorts, and at the same time there are people in trim down jackets or woolen coats.  Those with bare arms don’t seem to be cold, and those wrapped in feathers don’t seem to be hot.  It’s extraordinary.

Which means that we are approaching one of the tiniest hinges of the season: The moment when everyone ceases to move from the shady to the sunny side of the street, and begins to move from the sunny to the shady side.

When that happens, I declare summer officially open for business.

Down jackets and sunscreen.  We've got weather that everybody can love.

Down jackets and sunscreen. We’ve got weather that everybody can love.

Fred here, or whatever his name is, has found the perfect spot for the perfect dreams.  He's probably dreaming about chasing artichokes.

Spring can be so exhausting.  He’s probably dreaming about chasing artichokes.


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