Archive for Piazza San Marco


bring on the laurels

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Let’s see…1,124 graduates were allowed at least two people (let’s say their parents) — that means 3,372 people in the Guests enclosure. There was still room outside the barriers for plenty of unofficially invited friends, relatives, and the curious to mill around, which was pleasant until the sun began to go down. Then a chilly breeze began to make the event feel more like waiting for an overdue bus in Buffalo.

Two wonderful young women who have rowed with us over the past three years (when their studies would permit) graduated from Ca’ Foscari, the University of Venice, last Friday: The middle of the Piazza San Marco was awash in diplomas, theirs along with 1,122 other exuberant “doctors” of whatever their subject was.

This was the 20th year that a mass graduation ceremony has been held here for students from Venice and Treviso.  The typical procedure, as we have seen in the case of some other friends, is that the candidate confronts a panel of professors and is interrogated on the subject of their thesis, nerve-wracking for the candidate and just wracking for the friends and family sitting behind him/her because there are no microphones.  It’s like watching a closed-circuit television with the sound off, except you’re right there.

But for whatever administrative reason there may be, the November group was rounded up and given the graduation ceremony all’ americana, complete with mortarboards crowning their heads (though some received their more traditional laurel wreath afterwards).  Clearly one reason why it was held in the piazza was because there isn’t anywhere else, except maybe the soccer stadium, that would hold three thousand people.

Anyone getting their degree is said to have received their laurea (LAOW-rey-ah).  Or, as Toto’, the immortal Neapolitan comic, earnestly termed it in a film, their laura (LOW-ra), which cracks me up because that’s just Laura.

Apart from the amazing setting, the experience was Classic Graduation: There was confusion, emotion, and the boilerplate commencement address(es) focusing on their future and the need to continue to nurture their dreams and not to ever let the world beat them down.  “Yours is not a point of arrival, but of departure,” said Paola Mar, councilor for Tourism representing the city administration.  “Be passionately curious and ask yourselves every day the ‘why’ of things.  Curiosity can guide you into new paths.”  There was praise for their perseverance and their talents and collective hopes for whatever comes next in their lives.  I have no idea how a graduation can be considered official without the majestic soundtrack of “Pomp and Circumstance,” or at least the Triumphal March from Aida, but graduate they did.

I have no pictures of our friends together because I never saw them, being on the outside of the sacred enclosure where parents and close relatives were huddled, shivering as the sun slid behind the Ala Napoleonica.  Everyone was listening to the names as they were called — the list was so long that the university divided it into half at the letter “M,” and called out the names in pairs.  Happily for me, Marta and Camilla’s last names begin with “C” and “D,” so I went home (by now I was shivering too) as soon as I heard them called.  I missed seeing the jubilant thousand fling their mortarboards into the air, so no photo of the peak moment.  I’m happy enough just to be warm and imagine it.

The entrance for guests was on the east side of the Piazza, facing the basilica of San Marco.  The sun and anticipation made everybody happy.

Security was definitely checking tickets at the entrance. No “I’m with the band” dodges here.

Speaking of security, there was a certain amount around.

Family festivizing at the Caffe Lavena.

And there was plenty of this, of course.

The crush and confusion was even greater on the “Entrance Students” side, because each graduate seemed to come with an entourage of friends and admirers.

But why so many in black? Isn’t this supposed to be a happy occasion?

Though black was clearly not always to be taken seriously. I think.

Not black at all! Who is this free spirit who has burst his way into the spectrum?

And this personage in a suit and tie. This ensemble is shocking in its perfection, not to mention originality. I hope he wasn’t being ironic.

Bouquets were everywhere.

I’d consider going back to school if this guy would bring me a bouquet.

I could have dedicated this entire post to bouquets, now that I think of it.

One family said it with balloons. As each name was announced there would be scattered bursts of cheers from the reaches of the piazza, like little fireworks of happiness.

As the names dragged on, and the air got cooler and people got more tired, the edges of the piazza began to take on a “Just get it over with” atmosphere.

Still, if you were to need two official witnesses, who better than the Venetian Republic represented as Justice, and the archangel Gabriel covered with gold leaf?  They’ve got your back, graduates, at least for today.


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Is Venice that way?

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The Venice Marathon finishes in the most beautiful city in the world. Or maybe not.

The classic foot race known as a marathon is generally predictable, from the distance (26 miles/385 yards or 42 km/195 meters) to the winner (so often an athlete from Kenya or Ethiopia or Eritrea).  And why should the 32nd Venice Marathon, which was run last Sunday, October 22, have been any different?

Why indeed?  That’s what people would really like to know.

Because in 31 years here no competitors in the lead have ever somehow taken the wrong road at the 16-mile point.  And yet on Sunday there was a little peloton of East Africans who were some distance ahead of the 5,962 other runners.  Abdulahl Dawud, Gilbert Kipleting Chumba, Kipkemei Mutai and David Kiprono Metto were following the motorcycle at the head of the race, as per normal, and when it turned right, going up the ramp onto the overpass leading to Venice, naturally they followed.  Except that they were supposed to be on the highway below the overpass.

The drone — or helicopter — showed this scene in real time. Unbelievable. (

Of course there’s nothing strange about seeing the front runners on an empty road.  It just turned out to be the wrong empty road. (Sports Illustrated)

As two precious minutes ticked by, somebody else on a motorcycle caught up with them, yelling (I imagine) “What the hell, you guys?  You’re supposed to be down there!”  I imagine this because Lino and I were watching the live broadcast and you could easily see the men begin to turn around and trot back the way they came, no longer in the lead although still all by themselves, race essentially over. In fact, it was literally over; they withdrew immediately.  One doesn’t run 26 miles/385 yards, or at that point one hour and 15 minutes, for the sheer euphoric joy of it.  Who was responsible for that wrong turn?  If you know, the world would like to hear from you.  And so would the four runners.

As if we needed another problem, here it is: The winner, Eyob Faniel — who finished with an amazing two-minute lead over the rest of the pack — was born in Eritrea but is a naturalized Italian citizen and runs for the Venicemarathon Club.  Fun fact:  It has been 22 years since an Italian won the Venice Marathon.  About time, you say?  Somebody else might have been thinking the same thought.  I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories, but the optics here, as the current expression has it, are not attractive.

Here is what Lorenzo Cortesi, general secretary of the Venice Marathon, has said (translated by me): “We need to evaluate if this was an error by the vigili urbani (a sort of local police), or by us.  The service autos exited the barriers and the local police didn’t close the street.  The motorcycles, then, weren’t able to transit the underpass.” (I totally do not understand this last bit.  You want the people to run on a road that the motorcycle is forbidden to take?)  “But I wouldn’t want the significance of this race to be limited only to this.”  Of course you wouldn’t.  Neither would I, if I were in charge.

But enough unpleasantness!  Backpats generously administered by Signor Cortesi to the 2,000 volunteers involved, not to mention to everyone involved in the successful completion of all the unusual elements which the Venice Marathon requires: “Just think of the fact that we have to transport from the mainland to the arrival area, with 12 big trucks and 12 boats, the sacks of all the personal effects of the athletes.”

I can confirm that the organization was impressive as seen from ground level, from the chemical toilets to the bags of snacks to the massage tables with massagers waiting for massaggees.

But although the scaffolding and some bridges and the bleachers have all been removed, the questions refuse to go away.  It used to be that everybody would be talking about how people ran.  Now the only thing they’re talking about is where.

On Thursday, things began to be done on the Riva dei Sette Martiri. Unusual things for the Riva, normal things for the marathon, which is held on the fourth (and usually also the last) Sunday in October.

This spacious area in the Giardini Pubblici was soon to be revised to accommodate the immediate needs of thousands of exhausted and sweaty people.

The accommodation was, first of all, big tents for changing your clothes. Smaller tents were for medical attention of various sorts.

Masses of runners downshifting after the 10K race, which preceded the main event by a few hours. The brown-paper bags contained cartons of fruit juice, cookies, fruit and something else — I only got a glimpse inside one. The broad plastic wrappers were temporary blankets doing double duty as large posters for the main sponsor, Huawei Technologies. I should have mentioned that the official name of the event, as announced by the speaker in virtually every sentence, is “Huawei Venice Marathon.”

Yes, there will be garbage. Let’s see…thousands of plastic blankets and paper bags of food and busted shoelaces and fistfuls of used tissues, or whatever runners throw away when the party’s over, all have to be collected and carried off by the hardy trashmen and women of Veritas.


Three of the 12 enormous boats loaded with bags which contain the bags of runners’ personal effects trundled toward the Giardini to wherever the pickup point was organized.  If you’ve ever had any reason to inquire about the cost of renting one of these boats, you won’t have to ask why there are so many sponsors for this event.

As you see: Sponsors. Job lots of them, which is the only way these affairs can exist.

We sat in the bleachers watching the overjoyed 10K runners cross the finish line. The sky threw down some gobbets of rain but it didn’t last long.

The jumbotron was a great way to watch the big race as the runners coasted along the Brenta river. It all seemed so peaceful and normal…

A few sections of the temporary bridge used for the feast of the Redentore bring the runners from the Zattere across the Grand Canal to San Marco.

There was a little soupcon of acqua alta in the Piazza, but the higher stretch in the center of the square meant the runners kept their feet dry (which was not the case on one memorable day some years ago when “sloshing” entered the event’s description).

The fabulous finish by Eyob Faniel was pretty exciting. I don’t want the backstory to discolor what was a great moment for the spectators anyway.  Nobody had truly grasped the whole situation at this point, and a guy running with nobody to be seen behind him is irresistibly thrilling.

And of course, crossing the finish line was a huge experience for the myriad unsung runners racing against themselves.

And after the glory come the showers. Follow the helpful hand-drawn arrows to hot water and soap, the happy ending after the happy ending.


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No tourists will be pictured in this post.

Several thoughtful friends and readers sent me a link to a recent article in the New York Times, just the latest in an endless, repetitive series of articles that bewail the imminent degradation of Venice to the level of Disneyland.

Me, I have to say that this is a slur on Disneyland, where the behavior and the trash which are inescapable here would never be tolerated in Orlando or Anaheim (or Paris, I guess). I’ve often thought that running Venice like Disneyland might actually be a good thing.  But I realize that the comparison is intended to contrast something “real” (Venice) to something “phony, pretend, not real” (Disneyland).

I thought the New York Times published news, but this is not news!  It must have been a slow news day (remember those?) because they might as well have published a story revealing that water runs downhill.  This subject comes up at least once a year — it’s part of a squad of topics that are as predictable as the tide.  Motondoso is another (one or two blitzes a year, many fines, much outrage, everything goes back to the way it was), as is pickpocketing, and brawls involving assorted illegal vendors, and corrupt city councilors, and matricidal sons with histories of mental illness, and also that the city has no money.

Back to Venice as Disneyland, which is code for “daily pillaging and sacking by barbaric hordes of unspeakable tourists.”  This happens in the summer, of course, which is when tourists go on vacation, and when it’s hot an irresistible desire wells up in your tourist to soak his/her feet in the canals and also to jump off bridges. IT HAPPENS EVERY YEAR, PEOPLE.

I am not excusing it, but I do want to mention a few things which are not the result of outrage fatigue (though there may be some of that).

One is that Venice is not unique, at least in this regard.  The most superficial exploration online reveals that the same imbeciles, or their cretinous relatives, go to Florence and Rome and do stupid things and damage monuments there too. I don’t know if anyone jumps off the Ponte Vecchio, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Maybe this behavior is somehow more objectionable in the Venetian setting than historic cities inland, but that makes no sense.

Clearly these tourists are not visiting irreplaceable cities with incalculable value in the history of the world.  They are on vacation and aren’t at home, their parents are nowhere to be seen and they can drink all they want to.  Even if these tourists were in Ulaanbaatar or Rancho Cucamonga, I would be willing to bet they’d be drinking and doing stupid things.  As for loutish tourists who are adults, I cannot find any excuse for them.  At all. If you don’t know that walking around half-naked and leaving your trash on windowsills is ugly, I can’t help you.

The most obvious solution would be to turn Venice into Singapore-on-the-lagoon.  Let’s place five policemen with truncheons on every corner (hm — how many corners does Venice have? That would be a research project for the next time we’re snowed in). No disrespect meant to Singapore.

But even if all those policemen were to exist, which they don’t, the city is not capable of or interested in dealing with these masses of tourists, regardless of age.  Stories written in high dudgeon come out every single year about the slobs and their antics, but by that time it’s too late.

There have occasionally been neatly dressed squads of multilingual young people — the “decorum” agents —  fanning out around the Piazza San Marco to intervene in cases of nasty and brutish behavior.  But this year they only began their work a few days ago.  We’ve already had two full months of summer and you wait till August to bring them on?  That’s kind of crazy.

There is either a short or a very long story behind the disposition of this wedding festoon, whoever did it.

My second point is that “tourists” is too general a term to be useful. Sure there are plenty of revolting ones, but I see a good number of tourists in via Garibaldi who have undoubtedly come to see the Biennale, and many of them are dressed really well.  Some of them really well.  I like them, so I guess that means they don’t count as “tourists” in the New York Times sense.  And, may I also say, I see plenty of Venetian men and boys (also girls and women, to be fair) in the summer in our zone that look and dress like they’ve just been rescued from the rubble — the same scuzzy tank tops and skeezy shorts and crappy crocs and everything else that makes those terrible tourists so objectionable.  But that’s okay because they’re Us and not Them? Just asking.

What about the tourists who do not mill around in massive droves and provide dramatic photos that make the world shudder, but who stand on the vaporetto dock smack-dab in front of the exit area, making it impossible for all the people on the boat who want to disembark to actually get off? Can we get policemen to deal with them?   Or the suddenly oblivious tourists in the supermarket who leave their just-emptied shopping trolley literally at your feet at the check-out counter?  Do they do that back home in Braunschweig or Rostov-on-Don, or is it just that old Venetian magic that makes them act like they’ve never been out of the house?  Let’s get policemen to deal with them too! My point is that if everybody who comes here wants to behave as if they’d never heard of common sense, much less minimal manners, how many policemen will we need?  And the real question, which will never be answered, is why do they act that way?

On the other hand, let’s look for a minute at the much-maligned day-trippers, who I see at 4:30 PM along the Riva degli Schivoni, huddled, sweating, exhausted, waiting to board the big launch back to wherever they came from, scrunched onto church steps in order to sit for a minute or clustered in nearby calli where they can have at least a shard of shade.  There are plenty of tourists here that I feel really sorry for, because basically the city has given them a jumbo-sized “Just suck it up!”

I act like I’ve read the article, but I just skimmed it with half-closed eyes because these articles are always sprinkled with misstatements and half-truths, and drone on about the same problems which are never resolved, thereby rendering the droning pretty much useless.  One such half- (actually quarter-) truth is found in the caption of the Times’s photo showing the young woman with the police.  It states with refreshing fervor that the feast of the Redentore is “one weekend of the year when Venetians take back their city.”  Well, not really.  Before a journalist starts patting the Venetians on the back for somehow briefly escaping the clutches of all those tourists, he or she should know that about 90 percent of the festivizers are not Venetian.

Nope, sorry.  They might be Italian, and many are from the Veneto, but they’re still tourists; some come up the lagoon from Pellestrina and Chioggia in their big fishing boats, but most of the big motorboats are carrying people from the hinterland who come down the rivers from Padova and Treviso and all around the lagoon but who are definitely not Venetians.

Furthermore, the past few years has seen a terrific increase in enormous party boats which provide the ride, dinner, and deafening disco music to hundreds of passengers.  I don’t know who they are, but I’m pretty sure they’re not Venetians.  Some dauntless Venetians are still willing to risk their lives in their smaller boats, with or without motors, because it’s lovely to float around for the fireworks, but they know that after the grand finale this flotilla of hundreds-of-horsepower motorboats of all sizes will head out at high speed, in the dark, driven by people who have been drinking who pretty much don’t know the area.

Excuse me for going on about this, but that photo caption needed correction. In our neighborhood, and at Sant’ Elena, many Venetians now eat the Redentore dinner at home, or on tables set up outside, then watch the fireworks from the fondamenta.  I don’t think that qualifies as “taking back” their city.  We used to love to go out in our boat, but we can’t anymore because we want to survive the night which has been taken away from us by non-Venetians.  And by the look of it, it’s never coming back. Who am I supposed to blame this time?

So people want to come to Venice? They can’t all be crazy.


Categories : Tourism in Venice
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Just something to think about

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This is the snap I made which gave the lady to suppose that I was a tourist. But wait -- she then proceeded to complain that there are too many tourists? Was she referring to me? I totally missed that.

This is the snap I made which gave the lady to suppose that I was a tourist. But wait — she then proceeded to complain that there are too many tourists? Was she referring to me? I totally missed that.

Talking about tourism in Venice is like talking about altitude sickness on Kilimanjaro.  I speak from experience, as you know.

Both phenomena can be extreme, disagreeable, and unavoidable.  (Well, altitude sickness is avoidable, theoretically, if you have enough time to acclimate yourself.)  I haven’t discovered a way to acclimate to tourism here, at the point it has reached, except by avoidance.  Which is like solving altitude sickness by not climbing the mountain.  No taking the vaporetto on the Grand Canal on Sunday afternoon, for example.  No Piazza San Marco pretty much ever until winter.

But yesterday morning at the Rialto Market vaporetto stop I had a useful exchange of views with a heftily-middle-aged German lady. (Useful to me; she was untouched by the experience.)

So we’re standing on the dock, as I said.  I snap a photo of some people I know from the rowing section of the Railway Employees’ Afterwork Club, as they rowed their gondola downstream. They were followed by a caorlina from another club.  I didn’t raise my camera.

She speaks: “Don’t you want to take a picture of them?”

I reply: “No, I was just taking a picture of the other people because I know them.”

“Are they training for something?”

“No, they’re just out for a spin in the morning.  It’s something people in the boat clubs like to do.”

“Well, I’ve never seen them and I’ve been to Venice many times.”

“Oh.  That’s odd.”

A pause.

“So you live here?”

“Yes I do.”

“HOW do you STAND IT with all the TOURISTS?”

IMG_1387 blog german woman tourists

Certainly the number of people in town — especially the Piazza San Marco — exceeds the maximum capacity allowed by any fire department you can name. But how do we decide who gets to stay and who gets sent home? Is Venice going to become some demented reality show, like “Survivor”? Now that I think about it, it kind of already is.  What’s missing are qualified judges.

I could tell — as perhaps you can too — that she wasn’t asking because she wanted to know. She wasn’t asking, actually.  She was announcing her opinion on what it would be like to live here, and clearly it would be worse than five forevers in Hades.  But I decided to go with it for a while, just to see where we might end up.

“Well, every place has its positive and negative aspects,” I said.  (Aren’t you proud of me for being so tactful?)  “If there is a perfect place on earth, please tell me where it is, and I’ll go there immediately.”

But she was not to be pried loose from the subject of all the TOURISTS.  Though now that I think of it, I should have asked her which corner of paradise she comes from.

“I’ve always come to Venice in the WINTER when there is NOBODY.  I went to (I can’t remember where) in the winter and there was NOBODY.  It was WONDERFUL.  I don’t LIKE people.”  Something in her voice made me picture a scene of utter desolation in which she, rejoicing, wandered solitarily through deserted streets as the evening shadows thickened over the stiffening corpse of a large rat in the main square.

Perhaps this is the lady's ideal view of Venice, or will be, just as soon as the two annoying people in the distance are eliminated.

Perhaps this is the lady’s ideal view of Venice, or will be, just as soon as those two annoying people in the distance are eliminated.

“So why did you come in April?” (The obvious question.)

“Oh, I’m on a CRUISE.”  As if this made her presence on the dock at the market inevitable.  Do they drive people off the ship with whips?  And I suppose she had examined the itinerary, hence was not taken by surprise to find herself in VENICE.  But I didn’t reach for any of these flapping loose ends.

Our vaporetto was pulling up to the dock.  “I hope you enjoy your cruise,” I said.  She didn’t reply but I had the impression she was already doubting that that would be likely.

As I thought back over this very unsatisfactory conversation, I realized that I had missed my chance to throw her to the mat and painfully pin her, even if she did weigh twice as much as me.

It would have been easy.  All I needed to do was to say, ” If tourists annoy you, what are you doing here? Because you’re just as much a tourist as the rest of them.  Maybe you’re annoying everybody else.  So why don’t you get the ball rolling by going away?”

I know that Lino would have put it more succinctly; he’d have said “So go home already.”  But that lacks the philosophical twist that interested me.

Who gets to decide who should be allowed to be a tourist in Venice?  They’re irritating because they’re here?  You’re here too.

As Stanislaw Lec observed,  “No snowflake in an avalanche feels responsible.”

Foggy thinking doesn't help you understand anything.

Foggy thinking doesn’t help you understand anything.  Though if you’re lucky you might sound poetic, instead of merely incoherent.


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Categories : Tourism
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