Archive for Tide Center


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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Relentless brilliance

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A sailor awaits the sunset signal to lower the flag on the sail-training ship "Palinuro."

A sailor awaits the sunset signal to lower the flag on the sail-training ship “Palinuro.”  This has no relation to anything that follows, it’s just here to remind us of why we love Venice.

As has become hugely evident, I am temporarily (I trust) slowing down on not making things up.

I discover that it isn’t easy to find new topics that interest me (“new” and “interest” don’t always coincide).  Two decades into my life here, a certain amount of repetition in daily or annual events can make it difficult to whip up enthusiasm to address them again.

Also, as I may have hinted not long ago, I am somewhat worn down by the relentless stream of bad, crazy, incomprehensible, infuriating news that steamrolls over the city every day, and if it depresses me to read these stories, it would depress me even more to write about them.  I used to find it sort of entertaining, and imagined that examining the entrails of Venetian life could be interesting to people who don’t live here but who care about the city.  Examining entrails used to be one way of predicting the future, and the technique still works extremely well — but the future I glimpse is even less appealing than the entrails themselves.  (Full disclosure: I happen to like tripe, which is prepared in various ways here.  But I’m not sure if tripe qualifies as entrails.)  End of metaphor.

There are the infinite variations on the theme of corruption.  If I wanted to focus on that, I’d have to change the name of my blog — there’s just too much material.  It appears that just about the only person who hasn’t been stealing money from the city, the region, the nation, her employer (which I don’t have, but that’s a detail), or her clients and customers or suppliers, is me.  When a general of the Guardia di Finanza AND a platoon of his troops are found with their hands plunged deeply, up to the shoulder, into the municipal pot, it does make you wonder what this world is coming to.

But what now fascinates me is the ever-increasing number of projects that are living demonstrations of a phenomenon we all know too well and for which the Germans have even invented a word: Verschlimmbesserung, a supposed improvement that makes things worse.

Beauty is the keyword here. Don't forget it.

Beauty is the keyword here. Keep this at the forefront of your brain.

These are projects devised by professionals, remember, but perhaps being a professional is becoming a handicap, because so many seem to lose their way in their professional brain-thickets and forget the simplest, common-sense details that are obvious to any user — amateurs! — of their projects.

The two most recent examples, and then I’m finished for today:

The tram.  I’ve already mentioned the hideous installation at its terminus at Piazzale Roma.  But you don’t have to look at it, so let’s consider that issue settled.  What I’m talking about are the almost daily discoveries of inexplicably stupid mistakes.   I define a mistake as “inexplicable” if it was performed by a professional.

From the day of fanfare in which the tram made its maiden voyage from the mainland to Venice, there have been technical problems (losing electrical power, often, for assorted reasons; a nexus where the tracks just didn’t switch the way they were supposed to, etc.).  But these, theoretically, can be fixed.

But the other day a car broke down on the bridge from the mainland to Venice, thereby blocking all traffic behind it (normal! there’s no breakdown lane!) including the tram (wait — what?).  Yes, the tram’s track was installed in the same lane as the wheeled traffic.  A normal old bus can just groan, downshift, and inch around a stalled car or truck.  The tram can only sit there until it’s all cleared up.  The bridge is 4 km/2.5 miles long, and all the passengers had to pile out and walk the rest of the way to Venice, thereby easily making their healthy daily quota of 10,000 steps.  And making hash of their morning schedule, doctor appointments, business meetings, Scout jamborees, whatever was on.

These are the two lanes available for wheeled vehicles to reach the city (or depart from it). The concrete center barrier is moveable, so part of the excellent experiment is going to be shifting it to make a temporary extra lane when needed. Thereby reducing the other side to just one lane.

These are the two lanes available for wheeled vehicles to reach the city (or in this case, depart from it). The concrete center barrier is moveable, so part of the excellent experiment will be to see if shifting the center barrier to create a temporary extra lane when needed will work out, even though even I, sitting at my desk, realize that doing so will thereby reduce the other side to just one lane. Creating a problem by solving another — hasn’t that already been tried?  (Photo: Davide Dalla Mora, Facebook.)

Never fear — an excellent experiment will begin in November.  For three months (note: containing all the high-traffic holidays), the tram lane will be reserved only for public-service vehicles, which I suppose are considered less prone to breaking down.  Did I mention there is no breakdown lane?  The bridge has only two lanes in each direction, therefore creating a temporary one by moving into space on the opposite side will crush all the private vehicles into one lane.

If that doesn’t sound especially shudderworthy, consider that about 1,700 vehicles per hour cross the bridge.  In 2014 there were 162 cases of stalled vehicles — one every other day, essentially.

So bring on the tram!  And bring your hiking boots and Nordic-walking sticks!  And just think: You still have to pay for a ticket.  The Casino says people aren’t gambling so much anymore, but they’re obviously not thinking of the thousands of people who play Tram Roulette on the bridge every day.

I don’t think an advanced degree in engineering is necessary to help you understand how to keep people’s feet dry getting from the platform to the temporary walkways (neatly stacked in the background). Or maybe it is.  All they needed to do was to ask Mr. Canestrelli before it was too late.

Let’s move on to the Rialto area.

The subject is the platforms to which the vaporetto docks are attached.  The past few months have seen a mammoth undertaking to build new ones, bigger ones, more efficient ones.

But now that high water has come calling, it has been discovered that these improvements have un-improved the necessary space to set up the temporary walkways.  I have disembarked at Rialto when there was very high water, and without the walkways I’d have had water up to and even past my knees.  Walkways at Rialto are not some crazy new idea.

And yet the new platforms haven’t taken the walkways into account, and it was suddenly discovered (cue sound of sloshing water) that the spaces involved don’t work anymore.  The temporary walkways can’t reach all the way to the fixed platform, so there will be a gap between the platform and the walkway which will be full of water.

Unhappily, the large brains designing the new docks didn’t think to contact anybody, least of all the steadfast but shot-riddled Paolo Canestrelli, director of the Tide Center, to discuss anything so trivial as height of water, need to calculate for.

To raise the fixed platforms at this point will require another huge undertaking.  Just think, everyone had so enjoyed the big inauguration ceremony.

Much of the most beautiful city in the world is beginning to resemble those municipal offices where the employees have to adapt by attaching things with rubber bands, hand-writing signs and labels with Sharpie pens, sticky-notes everywhere.  Just make it work somehow.

But now I’m going to make you laugh.  It’s only fair.  I mean, I laughed, even though on paper (this is paper) it isn’t so funny.

Giancarlo Galan, the former president of the Veneto Region, has been sucked deeply into the MOSE corruption scandal, the details of which will be oozing out even after the trumpet call to the Last Judgment.  Among other things, he was convicted of having taken 15,000,000 euros in bribes.

He has done some token jail time (he was sentenced to two years and ten months, of which he spent only 78 days in prison and much of the rest at home in his luxurious villa on the mainland).  And the state confiscated this villa, worth some 2 1/2 million euros, to pay off part of his debt.  The rules said he had to vacate the premises and leave it in habitable condition.

He did vacate the premises, but the next people to go in discovered that there were no more bathrooms.  Workmen, presumably not on their own initiative, had torn out all the radiators, toilets, bidets, and sinks in the place.

So now he has added to his list of misdeeds the formal accusation of having damaged state property.  And of not having honored the agreement to leave the villa in useable condition.

His lawyer immediately said that this had been an “error,” and of course everything is going to be put back, right away.  How anyone could make such an error baffles and perplexes me.

You see?  I don’t have to make anything up.  It’s all right there in front of me.

One just keeps on making the best of things.

One just keeps making the best of things.


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Carnival for everybody else

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Monday night looked sort of like this, except that the water was much higher and there was more snow, which was lifted up in large undulating slabs like polar icepack. But this is just our little corner of the universe. Multiply all this by quadrillions and you can imagine the Piazza San Marco. Still, the real problems weren’t where there was water, but where there was snow. And ice. And so forth.

You know the old saying: “Expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed.”  (Is that an old saying, or did I just make it up?)

Following that bit of wisdom gave me a Carnival which was modest to the point of self-abnegation.  With lots of fritole.  The only unpleasantness was the acqua alta, but it did not reach the predicted epic proportions. (In fact, let the record show that one positive aspect of the imminent threat of water in the house is that, when all the stuff was piled on our two pieces of furniture, I cleaned and washed and dusted objects and places which hadn’t seen the hand of man since we moved in.) We had no plans or projects or desires or dreams or anything which could have been frustrated or ruined. And we didn’t lose power.

Reading the rundown in yesterday’s Gazzettino, though, I get a picture of a Carnival which for lots of other people — most of whom had needs far surpassing ours, primarily to travel in some way or to some degree in the culminating days –should have been called, not “Live in Color,” but “Going to Hell in Color.”

If you wanted to come to Venice on Monday night, with or without an expensive costume — or more to the point, if you really wanted to leave Venice on Monday night — you’d have found yourself involved in a sort of Ironman Triathlon: Riding the Train/Bus, Crossing the Square, and Finding Your Way Home in the Dark.

I could write a long post full of details, and I’ll keep the paper for a few days in case anybody asks me for more information.

But the headlines howling from a few pages of the paper tell enough. The thing to keep in mind is that island Venice covers some three square miles; mainland Venice covers some 21 square miles (Mestre is 8 square miles, Marghera is 13 square miles). It’s not Mexico City.  It’s not even Hampton, Connecticut.

Translation: How hard could it be to clear away some snow and keep the buses and trains running?

Answer: Hard.  Very hard.  Harder than building the Eupalinian aqueduct. Especially since it appears that nobody believed this storm was really going to hit.

There is a rundown in the paper of how many squads were working, and how many snowplows and salt trucks.  Unfortunately, they must have been phantoms; hardly anyone seems to have seen either them or evidence of their passage. In fairness, I note that there were people out working to deal with it all. Not enough, but some.

The second thing to keep in mind is that this large and violent storm, with snow and high water thrown in at no extra cost, was forecast for at least three days.  And it had already hit the west coast of Italy, and much of the south.  In other words, it wasn’t some bizarre anomaly which struck without warning.

In the order in which they appear, starting on page one of the local section (translated by me):

Under the snow, the inefficiency of the Veneto.  The prefect calls in the chiefs of public transport.  Consumers resort to the Procura (that is, the court. The prefect is the local representative of the President of the Republic, and pretty much outranks everybody.)

The precipitation caught just about everybody unprepared, from the Comune of Venice to the trains and at the airport. There were photos of people deplaning and struggling across the slippery slush covering the tarmac to get to the terminal. The baggage handling system went haywire. And so on.

There were blackouts all over the place, including the train stations in Venice and in Mestre. Not only tourists, but lots of commuters were either stranded or left to wait indefinitely for trains that were late, late, and late.

SNOW PLAN, everything has to be redone. If you read the whole article, you’ll ask yourself what they think “plan” might mean, when you consider how it worked out. The plan is ten years old, for what that’s worth.  And why, you ask, does the municipality keep a plan that has to be dusted every year because it’s never used until it’s useless?

Acqua alta, a night of terror.  The wind saves Venice and Chioggia. As previously noted by me, but without the “terror” part, at least in our little hovel.

Bad weather freezes the arrivals; Fat Tuesday for 60,000. This would only concern people with something to sell, because it’s less than half of the numbers which were expected.  Having fewer people around was the only good news I can see for emergency crews or any other group which had to contend with the breakdown of the plan.  I mean “plan.”

Transport chaos: the prefect isn’t having it. Ca’ Corner (headquarters of the prefect) retorts to the accusations of the transport people and wants to shed light on the reasons for the inconveniences (meaning no excuses).

“Crushed in the few buses which left Piazzale Roma.”  Needs no explanation except why there were so few buses, something the prefect also will be wanting to know. But remember that the buses to the mainland are operated by the ACTV, which has shown such impressive skill in managing transport by vaporetto.

Burano: Blackout on an island which finished under water — volunteers at work the entire night. High water doesn’t affect only Venice, when you stop to think about it.  The people on the islands have to get out the mops too.  In this case, they had to do it in the dark.  Fun.

Between water and blocks of ice; the fear finishes at midnight.  Bridges and streets slippery, people walking with tall boots alarmed (the people, not the boots) by the prediction of 160 cm.  Merchants on alert.  Nobody could help that there were blocks of ice floating around, which actually were more like heavy slushy shards; the street outside our door looked like the polar sea in spring, and so did the Piazza San Marco. Unlike the last acqua alta, there were no bare-chested tourists frolicking blithely in the gelid waist-deep water.

On the Giudecca, fondamente in the dark because the electricity was out.

Chemical toilets (port-a-potties) adrift in campo San Polo. Wow….

A storm of protests; the snow plan has to change.  The Comune demonstrates the efforts made to deal with Monday’s weather emergency, but even City Hall admits that in the future it will be necessary to do much more. Brains on fire! Smoke coming out of their ears!

No buses at the hospital (in Mestre); the employees forced to sleep in the hospital. 

And so on, and on, and on.

There are 220,000 Scouts in Italy; surely somebody in the Comune must have been a Scout at some time.  But “Be Prepared” seems to have been replaced by “Let’s just hope for the best.” 

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The Carnival of the Weather

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At certain moments even the sky began to dress itself up. This little costume was delivered by a ferocious northeast wind.

The same moment as the picture above, but looking sunset-ward. To give you an idea of how strong the wind was,  you should know that those mountains silhouetted in the center of the scene are the Euganean Hills, 30 miles away.

I haven’t communicated in a bit because I was waiting for Carnival to end (midnight last night, as everyone knows) so I could sort through the rubble and look for something to report.

Judging by the mass of photographs clogging my computer, I evidently found plenty to chronicle, but mainly within the confines of our little lobe of Venice. We didn’t go the Piazza San Marco even once; the revelers aboard the vaporettos were enough for me.

Every year, the organizers of this event form it around a particular theme, something they hope will be irresistible.  This year’s title was “Live in Color,” but I can tell you that it ought to have been called “Drenched in Color,” or “Freezing in Color.” Or “Sloshing in Color.”  The colors mainly being the blue of your bloodless fingers and the gray of your bloodless lips.

This year’s carnival was all about weather. In the space of the festivities (Jan. 26-Feb. 12), we got rain, wind, snow, and acqua alta.  Sometimes together, sometimes separately. Several keystone events had to be reshuffled (one good reason to extend Carnival — this year, it was 18 days) not only because there wouldn’t have been any spectators, but because in some cases it would have been dangerous for the performers.

It didn’t matter to me because I hadn’t spent thousands of dollars making or renting a fabulous costume whose purpose in life was for me to wear it where people could see it and admire it and envy me.  There are many people — primarily French — who spend months planning and preparing their appearance (not to the extent of the samba schools of Rio, but still).  I hope they’ve taken home some beautiful memory.

The open salvo didn’t exactly make you want to dance: A headline at the start of Carnival announced that the President of the Province of Venice (bigger than the municipal area) had declared that she was banning confetti/coriandoli that would naturally be strewn festively by and among partyers in the main piazza of a town called San Dona’ di Piave. Why? Because “It makes a mess.” That’s the point! If there were any time in the year when it would be laudable to focus on civic hygiene, I’d say that Carnival isn’t it. But maybe this is her way of saying “We only have ten garbage collectors this month, please don’t give them more work to do.”  Or, based on my experience in this neighborhood, don’t give them any work to do.

Here is a look at Carnival in ErlaWorld: 

Our first clue that something out of the ordinary was on the way was the work that went on one morning to fill in the depressions in the long gravelly walkway toward the lagoon known as the “Viale Garibaldi.” Being as heavily traveled as Grand Central Terminal by people going to and from the Giardini vaporetto stop means that it has long since been worn down into assorted shallows. These weren’t so apparent in dry weather, but when it rained, we called this stretch of Venice “Bacan’,” after our favorite lagoon mudbank. You could see the same rises and depressions in the ground, interspersed with pools of water. This particular patch became a lake. Great work! Whatever came over them? Did somebody suddenly find thousands of euros that had fallen between the cushions of the sofa?

Then the kids, the dogs, and the confetti began to come out into the sunshine. (Yes, the sun did shine occasionally. Just enough to make you miss it when the next wave of weather passed over us.)

A little executioner out for a stroll with his grandfather, looking for someone to dispatch.

Kids get started early in the dressing-up game — not that they need any help or encouragement.

We had noticed a stage and small soccer area being set up over the course of two days, and a crowd gathered to see the first match of a new Carnival diversion called the “Palio dei Sestieri,” roughly the Trophy of the Sestieri, which are the six districts of Venice. The teams were made up of boys organized in teams of increasing age over a few days, and they played “calcetto.” It’s regular soccer, but with only five players, not eleven, per team. For the record, at the end of the series our very own sestiere, Castello, took home the victors’ cup. Coincidence? I really hope so.

Excellent block by the goalkeeper of the Dorsoduro team. I can tell you that hurling himself to the ground to intercept the ball wasn’t any fun on the granite paving stones. But all the goalkeepers did it. Bruises. Contusions. Fun.

And of course there was a half-time show, to music.

At the next break, another show, this time with smaller dancers and big pompoms. Go Big Red!

One morning around 9:30 I got on the #1 vaporetto heading uptown. At the Arsenale stop, several exceptional Beings boarded, going (I thought) to San Marco to display themselves. All normal so far, except that one Being was wearing wings with plumes, which stretched out as far as her/his arm on each side. (There is a person in there, between the wings.) Needless to say, this occupied an amazing amount of space which nobody else could use. I’m accustomed to luggage taking up square yards of space, but it’s not often a costume is so big that it probably ought to pay for an extra ticket. Every time he/she turned around, people stood back.

This very impressive quartet got off at the train station. Maybe they had to catch a train back to Brigadoon. They are a good example of the people who give Carnival everything they’ve got, though I didn’t hear what language they were speaking. Maybe when you’re dressed like this, speaking is superfluous.

Last Sunday morning saw the traditional (by now) regata in costume organized by the Settemari club. These were the two front-runners, as they sped past us approaching the Rialto Bridge.

My friend, Antonella Mainardi, rowing like mad as Her Britannic Majesty, led by her faithful corgi, steered by her faithful prince. The backwash from a passing vaporetto created a brief challenge to her nearest competitors, a pair from the Giudecca rowing club decked out as a pair from the Giudecca rowing club. No points for creativity there.

And on they sped, providing a highly wrought spectacle for the gondola hordes. And the gondoliers, too.

Monday, the next-to-last day of Carnival, we got mega-weather. But it wasn’t yet up to speed in the mid-afternoon, when these  intrepid revelers headed out to find some frivolity somewhere. Snow means nothing when you’ve only got 48 hours left to party.

It snowed all day, gradually intensifying, with a northeast wind that blew up to 30 mph (50 km/h). That’s why all the snow is sticking to the east parapet of this bridge; the other side was completely clear.

The slick packed slush on our bridge was inviting anyone who crossed to slip and fall and break something.

Via Garibaldi looked like the Great White Way. Amazing how hard it is to walk on deepening wet snow, even if you do have the wind at your back. The return was even more amusing.

Garibaldi on his pedestal, unimpressed, unimpressible.  Perhaps nobody had yet advised him that the Tide Center was predicting an exceptional acqua alta tonight: 160 cm.  Of course, why would he care?  He lives on the third floor.

We, sad to say, do not. We live on the ground floor, and while we are high enough to stay dry with a tide that reaches 150 cm, after that, it’s all hands to man the pumps. Or to be more precise, put all our belonging up on something. Here, the contents of a few bookshelves and God knows what else are up on the sofa, and sofa is up on two plastic storage boxes, and if the storage boxes get wet, they’re on their own.

And everything at high-tide-level in the bedroom was up on the bed, including whatever was on the closet floor, and the lowest drawers of the three bureaus. High water: Romantic? Dangerous? I’m going with “damned nuisance.”

But we had no worries about the appliances, having learned several years ago that when the water comes in, it makes itself comfortable everywhere. So we had exerted ourselves a year ago to take  measures to protect them from dampage.

But we were reprieved! The next morning the world was smiling again. The wind had changed direction when the tide turned (signaled by a single thunderclap), and the water only came up to 143 cm. However, we had to stay up till 12:15 to know this. These high-water vigils only seem to take place in the dead of night. Waiting for the water to turn around and go out is like sitting by somebody’s bedside listening to them breathe.

I’m glad somebody had a good time last night. I discovered these relics not long before the slowly warming morning returned them to their primal element.

And toward the shank of the afternoon on Fat Tuesday, we headed out — like a few hundred other savvy neighborhood people — to feast on the free fritole and galani offered by the Calafati.

Here they are, in all their glory: The feeders of the five thousand. Full disclosure — I am a member of this august society, but I do not presume to man the deep-fat fryers. It seems to make them happy enough for me to come and make a fool of myself eating.

Lino Penzo, who is also president of the Remiera Casteo, has no scruples about feeding my addiction. “Here — knock yourself out,” he didn’t bother saying. I took them, and I did. They were great.

The man in the red jacket, front and center, is Dino Righetto, the creator of all these fritole. He made 700 of these little suckers, and they’re so light and fragrant you couldn’t believe that what they sell in the shops would have the courage to call themselves fritole.

I wasn’t the only one scarfing up the fat and sugar.

There was plenty to do between snacks — like pour confetti over your friends.

Or play hide-and-seek with your friends, who seem at the moment to have hidden themselves so completely she’ll never find them.

Carnival doesn’t always have to be about masks and garb. Why not just grab a soft plastic hammer that squeaks on impact, and go around bopping people with it?

This little sprite has one of the best costumes ever, showing (yet again) that you don’t need square miles of tulle and sequins and paint to show that you are a fantasy creature. She’s like a sketch by Picasso: A couple of quick lines and there you are: Carnival!

Then again, why waste precious time getting dressed up when the fritole are still warm?

While we were all scarfing and laughing, the hardy trinket-sellers were packing up the Carnival masks for another year. I never saw anything that said “The party’s over” quite the way the sight of the boxes of masks did.

And stealthily the afternoon departed — the light drifted upward, the dew began to fall, everybody was pretty much played out. That was Mardi Gras on via Garibaldi. It’s totally good enough for me.

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Categories : Venetian Events
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