Here's a shot looking down at a flat bottomed lagoon fishing boat called a sandolo. It was taken on the Rio delle Convertite, not far from the spot where we heard the hissing crabs.
Late one night, Lorraine and I were crossing the bridge by Molino Stucky near the Rio delle Convertite on the Giudecca when we heard a loud hissing noise, like air being let out of a tire, only 10 times louder. Poking around, we found it was coming from a little fishing boat moored on the riva. There, inside a huge burlap bag, were hundreds and hundreds of small crabs, scuttling around on top of one another, the catch of the day.
Billa, one of the only supermarket chains to operate in Venice, has its own web site, I recently discovered. From my window, I used to watch the massive semi-trailers with super-saturated saffron and cherry-red Billa graphics as they floated down the Canale della Giudecca and unloaded at their dock near San Basilio.
Venice, in general, is wary of these food giants, as they threaten a way of life that prefers to pluck earthly necessities from 5 stores in 2 hours rather than 1 store in 15 minutes. I gradually came to understand the ritualistic beauty and soulfulness of this radical inefficiency. It's good to know your butcher, cheese man, and baker. But even they sneak across the canale to the big yellow monster from time to time, as we all did. It was the only place you could buy Winner Taco ice cream.
To the average person, the gondola is even more a symbol of Venice than the lion of St. Mark. A Venice without them is unthinkable. But the kitsch factor is something that stops me from truly loving them, and for this a feel a little guilty.
Ten century tradition collides with tourist trap totem.
Old soul and brio meets O Sole Mio.
Somehow, Venetians can reconcile these contradictions. I can understand why they would be reluctant to surrender their patrimony (dating from 1094) to cartoon-level commercial vulgarity. After all, it's only in the last 5-10% or so of Venice's life that gondola transport devolved into the overpriced amusement park ride we see today. Behind the scenes, there's still a (shrinking) cadre of brilliant, passionate "squeraroli" and "remeri" that handcraft each and every gondola in the exact same manner as the generations before it. The physical aspects of a gondola remain as real and gorgeous as they ever were during the Serenissima.
But things have changed around the gondola. It' s got a new and hollow context. Since it holds no transportation value (except the traghetti), it's now simply something to be consumed, like a gelato, and licked off the list of "things you must do in Venice", especially for daytrippers, for whom this will be the first and only visit.
The Comune of Venice laments, and I agree, that so many of Venice's visitors have an excruciatingly superficial view of Venice. Ex-Mayor (and 60's radical philosopher) Massimo Cacciari actually once spearheaded a campaign to discourage tourists from visiting. In this sense, I guess, the idea was to kiss off the crowd for whom the the Piazza, gondola, lunch & mask shop itinerary constituted "doing Venice".
I suppose I'm in danger of capsizing the gondola with deep meaning. It's only a boat, after all, not a vessel for the collapse of Western Civilization. People who ride them are not stupid, mean or vapid. Gondoliers are cool and colorful, and quite serious about what they do. I've been in one (on someone else's dime) a couple times and found the whole thing pleasant.
My only point is this: sometimes subsisting on pre-fab fantasies can blind us to the wonder of the reality in front of us. And there's no worse place to be blind then in Venice.
In today's Gazzettino, there is a report of a female falcon that is hunting pigeons in Piazza San Marco. There were falcon sightings in past years, but this one seems to be settling in, much to the joy of a local bird enthusiast's group.
According to the article, the pigeon population is estimated between 80 and 100 thousand. This overpopulation is driven, in part, by the lack of natural predators.
The birders say that the falcon reappearance is strong argument against trying to control the pigeon population with birth control-laced grain. Because falcons who munch pigeons on the pill may find that they are shooting blanks too.
I picture a tourist having one of those pigeon-on-the-head photos taken at the moment of attack.
This picture was taken in Cortellazzo, at the mouth of the Piave river, on a deserted little cove beach overlooking the Adriatic where I made the grave error of spending my first night of a two week journey through the lagoons and rivers to the north of Venice. About an hour or so before the picture was taken, the boat had sunk in the Adriatic. I had anchored it there in this peaceful cove, pitched a tent for the night, and felt quite Hemingwayesque.
In the morning, the tide came in, raised the water level higher than the rope on my anchor was long, and the boat foundered. All my gear was in the surf, bobbing around. In a frenzy , I was able to collect most of the stuff before it floated to Albania. I pulled the boat as close to shore as possible, allowing me to bail it out without the surf pouring over the sides and filling it back up with seawater.
Then the tide went out.
Of course, this left the boat in the sand, impossible to move. Mercifully, the engine was not inundated. After 3 hours or so, two German gym-rats jogged by, and we managed to drag the boat, with great effort, back into the drink.
Going around in a private boat is not something that average Venetians do. Make no mistake, there are boats everywhere. It’s just that most are commercial or governmental. The public water bus system -- the vaporettos -- does the trick for 99% of all travel for normal folks. A water taxi will work in a pinch or for a Big Night Out. Except for those who depend on the canals and lagoon for their livelihood, the topic of owning a boat almost never comes up. And of course, nobody rides in a gondola, unless they are tourists, or perhaps, getting married.
That’s not to say that there isn’t an impressive navy of private boats. There’s a developed sub-culture. There are lots of Sunday fishermen. Better weather brings summer joyriders, heading out to sunbathe or cool off with a dip in the lagoon by the Porto di Lido. Teenagers surge about in the aquatic equivalent of rice burner street racer, screaming across the open waters at interstellar speeds, with Italian hip-hop pumping out their tricked-out subwoofer systems. And there are the rowers and the sailboaters, many who belong to a club like the Reale Società Canottieri Bucintoro where they can rent or store their boats.
The point is, while there is a colorful mosaic of personal watercraft out there, it’s really made up of only a tiny -- some say eccentric -- fraction of the population.
So when, shortly after arriving in Venice, I got it in my head that I needed to own a boat, the Venetian friends I had recently met kind of rolled their eyes. “For what purpose?,” they asked, almost as if I were a Manhattanite with a sudden urge to own my own dump truck. It was clear that none of my romantic visions meant much to them. The notion of exploring abandoned islands, slipping through the frost covered rushes in some silent corner of a marshy inlet, or inspecting an Adriatic lighthouse seemed, well, more than a little kooky, especially in January. At best, I could say that there was a kind of snickering respect for my determination.
The quest for a boat became something of an obsession, and perhaps not a completely reasonable one. I had never piloted a boat of any kind before, and Venice, I later learned, is one of the most complex navigational ciphers imaginable.
I didn’t want anything fancy. Just a little open boat with an outboard and a place to tie it up. After asking around, I was hooked up with a local Giudecchino everyone called Gianni Caribiniere, a retired caribinieri whose real surname was a mystery even to his friends, and for all I know, his wife.
I made the deal. The fiberglass boat was around 14 feet long, stem to stern, with a compartment in the front a little too small to sleep in, but perfect for stuffing all kinds of gear: ropes, gas containers, tools, life vests, food and a boom box. It came with a noisy little 10-horse Evinrude motor which clamped (precariously) on the back of the boat. It also came with the use of a posto barca: a place to tie up the boat nearby on the Rio Ponte Piccolo, by the Ponte della Scuola.
According to Paolo, an ancient mariner an ex-crew hand on the famed Moro di Venezia racing yacht, my boat was a Triestina, a design typical of the Adriatic fishermen of Trieste, 100 miles up the coast to the north. In all the time I have spent in Venice, I have never seen another boat exactly like it. Unique, but not sublime, I’m afraid. I never once got a compliment on it, or drew so much as a single longing glance. In retrospect, it was just as well. I did not know the first thing about boats. Drawing attention was a bad idea. Blending in, as unnoticed as possible, was the best strategy.
It’s amazing, and a little frightening when you think about. Anyone with a few bucks and the inclination can get a boat in a day or two and find themselves buzzing through the labyrinthine Venetian waterways with virtually no restrictions.
Not that it’s fully lawless. You need a license for an engine over 20 horsepower. You need some cheap liability insurance. There are speed limits that are increasingly being enforced by radar, especially in the historic center of the city, where wave action (“moto ondoso”) threatens the foundations of the palazzi and quays. And the Canal Grande is off limits to non-commercial traffic during the heart of the day. But aside from these pretty broad guidelines, you’re on your own. Get a map, and go.
By the time I left Venice, a year and half later, I had been transformed from a public safety threat into a pretty competent marinaio: one who had ridden out serious storms, spent weeks away from home at a time prowling the inky veins of the lagoon and its tributaries, survived a sinking disaster, and even learned to tie a pretty formidable clove hitch. But more importantly, I had come to understand Venice from the outside-in, from the eyes of the gull and the prow of a Triestina.
Well, it appears that I registered the veniceblog.com domain name with the wrong registrar. Without getting boring about it, the domain is effectively held prisoner for another couple months or so, and can't be activated for use here on typepad until around Thanksgiving. I was holding off on doing any major site publicity until I got the domain thing figured out. Cazza!