Friday, October 24, 2014

Bella Figura Alla Valesana

photo credit: Jen
Most people in Venice these days row either for recreation or sport, and are dressed accordingly. This man, however, in slacks, dress shirt and tie, is a dapper exception.

("Voga all Valesana" is a form of Venetian rowing in which one person uses two oars, as above and below, usually shorter and lighter than the single oar one would use when rowing "all Veneta"--ie, as gondoliers do, most famously.)

photo credit: Jen

Monday, October 20, 2014

Lost & in Danger in a Rented Kayak: Part 2

I snapped this photo of the above work boat after it had rounded a corner not 25 meters from the new kayak rental business as evidence that any kayak renter should immediately be prepared to encounter some very real and very large hazards
The big headline on local papers two days ago was that the family of the German tourist killed in a collision near the Rialto Bridge between the gondola in which he rode and a vaporetto has filed a suit asking for 6 million euro in damages.

A headline in yesterday's paper noted that another vaporetto had collided with a moored gondola near the Rialto Bridge. No one, fortunately, was injured.

And one month ago there were headlines about yet another incident between a gondola and vaporetto almost directly beneath the Rialto Bridge, in which a gondolier's oar became stuck in the rudder of a vaporetto.

In other words, it would be impossible to imagine that Venetian authorities have been able to forget about either the the fatal accident of just over one year ago or overlook the fact that the dangerous bottlenecks of traffic around the Rialto have in no way been resolved. Yet not only has no new approach to water traffic been implemented but, as I posted 10 days ago (http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2014/10/clueless-and-imperiled-in-rented-kayak.html), a new kayak rental business has been allowed to open just a short distance from that dangerous area.

Still troubled by my meeting with those two very lost and frightened kayakers that I wrote about in my prior post, I decided last week to seek out the new kayak rental business they'd gotten their boat from, to see for myself if it really was renting kayaks in the center of the city to all-comers, regardless of inexperience and with no guidance.

I knew the business's rough location from the map its two overwhelmed customers had shown me, and when I arrived in the vicinity I asked a gondolier whose route ran through that area for help. I found it in a courtyard a short distance from the Coin department store, but tucked away from the area's main thoroughfares. The business occupied a dark low-ceilinged warren of ground floor magazzini (or storage rooms) in an otherwise residential building. The kayaks were arrayed on various racks a short distance from the magazzini's water door. One of the storage rooms with decent light coming in from its windows served as an office, and a friendly man greeted me there from behind the table where he sat.

I asked him in English, "What are the qualifications I need in order to rent a kayak here?"

"Qualifications?" he asked pleasantly.

"I mean, do I have to know how to use a kayak a little bit?" I said. "I've never used one. I know nothing about them. Can I still rent a kayak and take it around the city?"

Absolutely, he assured me, my ignorance and inexperience was no problem. "We show you how to get started, how to use it," he said.

"Do you provide a guide?" I asked. "Do you go out with a new kayaker?"
 
No, he said, they'd show me how to use the kayak, then I'd be on my own. They would give me a detailed water-proof map of the canals. Though he suggested, rather uncertainly (as if he'd never been asked the question before), that perhaps it would be possible to hire one of the staff to go along with me as guide if I wanted.

I looked at the stacks of glossy flyers and pamphlets (in Italian and English) laid out neatly on the table before me. Then, from another stack, I picked up a multi-page text-heavy legal-looking document: the insurance waiver all renters are required to sign. I started to put this into my bag along with the other promotional materials, but the man behind the desk kindly told me that that was for customers who were renting a boat. The first few pages I'd flipped through were all in Italian. Perhaps the last pages were in English, or they kept an English translation behind the desk. I don't know. I returned the document to its stack.

Taped to the surface of the desk were 10 rules for renters, each one a sentence in English (with a smaller Italian translation beneath it) stating things such as: "Cross the Grand Canal when it is clear and do not stop in the middle", and advising that kayakers make a noise before rounding blind turns.

"You just opened?" I asked him.

"Yes. We've been here two weeks," he told me.

I thought of telling him about his two scared helpless customers I'd met a short time before that I'd written about in a blog post. But what good would that do? My own opinion might be that it's a bad idea to send kayakers of whatever skill level (or absence of skill) into the canals in the center of the city, but I suspected his would be that he was offering visitors a once-in-a-lifetime experience of ancient waterways in environmentally-friendly boats. 

I'd counter that that might indeed be a beautiful thing to do, if it weren't for all the large motorized boats everywhere. A historic center in which all boats were powered only by oar would be a marvelous sight, as well as the best possible thing for the well-being of the old canals and buildings. But until that time comes, I find the thought of increasing numbers of potentially rather clueless kayakers amid all the motor-driven chaos to be worrisome.

On my way home on a vaporetto I noticed ads for the kayak rental place amid the other advertising placards above its passenger windows.

Then, looking over the business's pamphlet and flyers, I noticed that each features the same two images of kayakers paddling happily in the Grand Canal. There is not a vaporetto, water taxi, nor even a gondola in sight.

Upon closer inspection of each image's background it's obvious that both were taken on the same holiday, when the Grand Canal was closed to everything but rowed boats: There are crowds lining the canal's edge, and rowing clubs in their distinctive colors rowing, for example, a six-person caorlina.

Another image (only on the pamphlet), shows a woman paddling in flat glassy water right past the Doge's Palace, the ancient twin columns of the molo, and the campanile of San Marco. I imagine this photo was taken on the same holiday as the others, for typically that same area is quite wavy with the wakes from all the passing water traffic. The number 1 and 2 vaporetti lines, in fact, run right about where she is pictured.

In other words, the company's advertising gives no hint of the actual conditions a renter is going to encounter in the Grand Canal. Judging from the images on the pamphlet and brochure, water conditions in the actual city of Venice are exactly like those in the replica "Grand Canal" of the Las Vegas hotel The Venetian--which is, of course, nothing but a very large swimming pool.

And why should any particular skill or knowledge be required to row a kayak in a large swimming pool? Especially when the kayaks, the pamphlet assures us, are completely equipped "for your safety": being, as they are, "stable and easy to handle" and fitted with "a third seat for a child." 

Indeed, an image in the pamphlet shows what appears to be, at most, a ten-year-old boy alone in his own small kayak in a Venetian canal near his parents in a two-person kayak.

Reading over last week's Corriere del Veneto's news story on the German family's suit for nearly 6 million euros in damages in the wrongful death of their father aboard a gondola near the Rialto, I was reminded that among the five drivers of various boats implicated in the accident the lone gondolier was not, as one might expect, the gondolier who piloted the gondola containing the family. That gondolier, according to the wife of the deceased, was not at fault.

Rather it was another gondolier, entering the Grand Canal abruptly from a small side canal, who is charged with instigating what the Corriere called a "domino effect" of reactions among various vaporetti operators and a water taxi driver that resulted in the fatal collision (http://corrieredelveneto.corriere.it/veneziamestre/notizie/cronaca/2014/16-ottobre-2014/).

In other words, what one does on the waters of Venice--as on a road--can have very real consequences for others as well as oneself. And if a gondolier, who knows at the very least how to handle his boat and knows the canals, can set off a fatal chain of events, what might a kayaker who knows neither of the above set into motion? 

Perhaps the owners of the kayak rental place near the Rialto have a firm belief in what's popularly called "Beginner's Luck." But that's no reason that the rest of us, nor their renters, should be forced to depend on it.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

After Babel: Language As a Source of Embarrassment

A typical Venetian scene of two first-graders walking home from school, though these two are perusing a Des Moines, Iowa Used Automotive & Recreational Vehicle Marketplace free newspaper
The night before Sandro's first day of first grade last month, Jen suggested she and he quickly run through (in Italian) a few of the questions he might be asked the next day. Simple ones like nome (name), cognome (last name)... So simple that Sandro rolled his eyes as he answered.

Then she asked, "Dove sei nato?" ("Where were you born?")

Sandro replied, "Err, I don't think I'll answer that one..."

"Parli tu Inglese?" Jen asked next.

"I don't think I'll answer that one either," Sandro said.

And thus was confirmed what Jen and I had been noticing for the previous few months: that the carefree cloudless days of Sandro's bilingualism really were over. 

In truth, he'd spoiled us rotten as parents with his inclination as a toddler to charge intrepidly into pretty much any new context we introduced him to. Shortly after turning two years old, he adapted without a hitch not only to his first preschool, but in a place (Piemonte, Italy) in which none of us had ever been before, and in a language (Italian) he'd never heard.

He was our first and only child so Jen and I could easily have taken this adaptability for granted, but we knew enough other kids his age who, understandably enough, weren't so cavalier about such things. In fact, neither of us had been anywhere near so cavalier at his age.

Yes, "spoiled" is the right word for it. Sandro indulged us shamefully in his willingness to interact with toddlers everywhere, regardless of language: Asheville, North Carolina, Piemonte, Brooklyn, Florence or Venice.

Here in Venice, he became friends with two American boys from different ex-pat families who'd been going to Italian schools here longer than he had but still refused to utter a single word of Italian, though they understood what was said to them. Playing with Sandro was a welcome and rare respite for them from the foreign language and culture that otherwise oppressed them. He was as American as they were.

Except, of course, when he was playing with other of his friends with whom he happily spoke only Italian.

I marveled at his ability at the age of four to switch, sentence by sentence, from speaking Italian to his friend who spoke only Italian at that time, to speaking English to his friend's American mother beside him.

I noticed this particularly because his friend's mother, a long-time resident of Venice, is actually fluent in Italian and Sandro could easily have spoken Italian to her regardless of what she spoke to him. But Sandro, by four, automatically--stubbornly, even--spoke to bilingual adults in whatever was their native tongue. Thus, he would also reply to the Italian father of another friend in Italian, even when the Italian father (also fluent in English) made it a point to speak to Sandro in English.

With the clear, direct and slightly merciless logic of a young child, he hewed to what he knew about these bilingual adults, and what the accent of the second tongue revealed to him, and he responded--for the sake of sociability or to show he wasn't fooled?--in their native tongue.

Yes, he spoiled Jen and I horribly. It was all so easy. Sure, there was a brief period after about a year of living here that he claimed he preferred to speak Italian. And, around the same time, the night he told me (boasted, really) that I was only a "little bit Italian," while he was truly Italian. But these were blips in an otherwise smooth transit between tongues and cultures.

Those days are over. In America in August he kept his mouth clamped shut when his American grandfather, who's studied Italian for years (though he's not of Italian descent), spoke to him in Italian. And a brief exchange of Italian between the same grandfather, Jen and myself one afternoon in a diner in Wisconsin was enough to make him squirm uncomfortably in his seat, then threaten to actually flee the table if we didn't switch back to English.

Like all falls from Eden, this one, too, is marked by the sense that one has something to hide; and that to have it exposed is positively mortifying.

There are barriers now, or at least borderlines, that were hardly marked out before. In contrast to three or four years ago when any kid anywhere was a potential playmate, our nearby playground, though crowded with kids, can now be empty of anyone he's willing to play with. And it's not just between English and Italian language, American and Venetian culture that borders have formed, but within the Italian language itself and within Venetian culture itself. How Italian is spoken. How one plays and relates to one's parents.

Sometimes the barrier between Sandro and some kids in the neighborhood is that they are too much of the neighborhood and he not enough. There are cultural distinctions too various to lay out here, but any idea I had that our son could slip fairly easily into the local scene has been disproved.

One of the long-standing paradoxes of the Venetian Republic was how a place and people could be, on the one hand, so worldly and cosmopolitan--early visitors were astonished by the exotic variety of foreigners living here for the sake of business--and, on the other, so provincial. Writing in the early 1960s, Jan Morris noted how many Venetians still typically displayed in their daily life all the insularity one expects to find in an island people. And a native-born friend here told us that she and her two siblings often felt that many of the people they grew up among in Castello regarded them from a certain distance, if not with a certain suspicion. Though their father was (and is) what might be called an alpha-Venetian, their mother is Swiss, and even her slightest variations from the local norm of child-rearing were remarked upon and remembered. As I know our own are by certain of our neighbors.

But perhaps the old Venetian Republic thrived insofar as it was able to abide this paradox at the heart of its success. Abide it in a way that today's xenophobic Lega Nord can not. In a way that raving free marketeers, sacrificing all democratic integrity in the name of unbounded trade, can not. And in a way, too, that those multiculturalists who fantasize about a coexistence between cultures as comfortable as a warm bath can not.  

I'll admit that that night before Sandro's first day of first grade a part of me wondered what in the world I was doing to my son by raising him in a way that doomed him to never be entirely of his place here in Venice, and never be entirely American if we were to return there. But to think that way is, I realized, to lapse into the worst kind of insularity: as if to keep him as isolated as possible from challenging differences would be to keep him more "whole", rather than, in fact, reducing his opportunities in life to a fraction of what they might otherwise be.

He'll have to learn that his differences from others are nothing to be ashamed of--and nothing to shame others for. (Those two troubling sides of the same coin.)

Not that it will be easy for him. Or others.

At dinner the other night he enthusiastically recounted a dispute he had with a classmate. Proudly he told us he hadn't resorted to fighting--there'd been a couple days of scuffling with a group of three other boys that he seemed to rather enjoy during his first week--but responded "only with words: I said to him, Shut up, worm!"

He pronounced the command with relish, twice, obviously happy for the chance to use a phrase he'd recently learned from a British kids' show. 

"In English?" Jen asked, as surprised as I was that he'd used a language at school that he wouldn't even admit to knowing in the same context a month ago. "Does he understand English?"

"No," Sandro said. "So I said, 'Shut up, worm! O che vuol' dire, Chiudi il becco, verme!'" ("Or that is to say, Shut your beak, worm!") He beamed at us triumphantly.

I suppose this might be considered progress....


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Lost and in Danger in a Rented Kayak: Part 1

Venetian canals may look like something from a fairy tale, but rowing oneself thorough them involves some very real hazards (photo credit: Jen)
I was first struck by the thought that the increasing number of kayaks in the historical center of Venice might be developing into a problem when I was quite literally struck by a kayak while sitting in our small sandolo sanpierota boat, moored alongside a canal near the church of I Frari, waiting to pick up my son from first grade a little more than a week ago.

It was no big deal, really. The kayaker, a man in his 20s, was able to prevent impact with one of his hands and continue a bit unsteadily on his way. But because he ran into me while my boat was stationary on one side of a long straight stretch of a canal that had to be at least 22 feet (about 6 meters) wide, I marveled at how little control he must have had over his vessel. Perhaps the friend he was with knew more, but I, personally, couldn't imagine venturing out with so little skill into the mostly narrow tangle of canals in the center of the city on a weekday when they were likely to be frequented by Venetians with someplace to go or business to do.

I've lived here just short of four years and started to learn how to row in the Venetian style three years ago (almost to the day). But only in the last two months, after countless trips in the boats of other experienced residents, after asking many questions and reading things like the Manuale lagunante (http://www2.comune.venezia.it/motondoso/pdf/manuale_navigante.pdf), have I dared voyage through some of the canals of the historical center as the lone driver or rower myself. 

Perhaps I was overly cautious. But you can't live among and know Venetians--for whom the city's canals and their boats are defining features of their lives--and not feel that to bumble clumsily about in these intimate waterways is to make, at the very least, a brutta figura.

In any case, I thought nothing more of this first little incident with a kayak until a second one occurred a few days later. Jen and Sandro and I had just left the water door entrance of the tappezzerista (upholsterer) who'd made a rain cover for our boat (and whom I'd heartily recommend: http://www.tappezzeriagaggio.it/). From a narrow canal we approached at no more than idling speed Rio di San Felice in Cannaregio and Sandro, seated on the prow of our boat, hollered out with a deep hearty gusto belying his six years of age (and whose absence of self-consciousness is beyond me) the traditional ooh-eeeeiii used all over the city as a warning on blind corners (and famously inspirational to Richard Wagner).

In fact, he bellowed this out at least three times, as he loves to do it (and sometimes won't stop until I've asked him to).

There was no response from around the blind corner, so onward we crept--and encountered a pod of six kayakers. I was going so slowly that I had plenty of time to throw our engine into reverse, but I made a gesture toward the lead kayaker as if to ask, "Didn't you hear?" He blinked uncomprehendingly in response.

They straggled along, and then, at a distance of about 20 yards behind them, another pack of five splashed past. So I had a bit of time to idly ponder the possibility that, though these kayakers had generally seemed a little more comfortable in the water than the fellow who'd almost crashed into me a couple days earlier, they seemed not to know even the very first safety precaution of rowing in Venetian canals.

Did they not know, or had they not been told by whomever provided the kayaks, that a warning cry from around one of the many blind corners of the canal system necessitated a warning response? My god, they could have learned this from listening to Act II of Tristan und Isolde!

They may have had nothing to fear from my little boat, but what if the cry had come from a faster-moving water taxi? Or a large lumbering work boat? Or even a gondolier?

The one kayak rental company I'd heard of in Venice makes a point of saying that their customers venture out only in the company of a trained guide. But I was starting to suspect that there must be at least one other new kayak company in town that takes much less care of, and responsibility for, their clienetele.

Two days ago this suspicion was confirmed in a dismaying way. We were on our way once again to Tappezzeria Gaggio and I was waiting to make a left turn off of the busy Rio di San Felice that runs between Fondamenta Nove and the Grand Canal when Sandro remarked that two people in a kayak off to the right side of us were clinging to a work boat (mototopo) beneath the large hole where the engine-cooling water is belched out. The work boat was not running, though, and the kayak was not moving, and I had various water taxis coming toward me and going past me to watch carefully before making my turn so I didn't pay the kayak any mind.

We tied up at the water door of tappezzeria in a little canal and its proprietor stepped into our boat, and a few minutes later the same two-person kayak passed by. I was in the middle of an embarrassed explanation of how I'd managed to let one of the archetti (arched supports) of the cover slip into the water, where it immediately sank to the deep bottom, so, again, I paid the kayak little heed.

But a few minutes later the same two people in their kayak were back, large map unfolded and held out toward us, asking for help.

They had rented the kayak from a brand new kayak rental company in the center of town--"it's only been in business two weeks", said one of the kayakers--and had not the slightest idea of how to get back to where they'd started from.

They'd been trying for quite a while to find their way back, buoyed by their shared belief that they really couldn't possibly be far from their destination. One correct turn, then a second, and they'd arrive back at the rental place. And later, they'd have a distinctly Venetian story to recount to friends about how they'd floundered around lost for god knows how long just a few hundred yards from where they wanted to go.

But when we looked at the map of where they'd set out from we discovered that they were nowhere near where they wanted to go.

The pair had been doing a pretty good job of controlling their anxiety about being lost in a strange city amid an indecipherably complex maze of narrow canals, but this news, understandably enough--well, it kind of freaked them out.

A series of dots on the map decorated some of the canals in the center of the city: starting out from the largest blue dot marking the kayak rental place near the Rialto Bridge, and suggesting various supposedly simple looping (and rather far-ranging routes) that kayakers might take.

Now, if you've ever been to Venice you know how little help maps can be when you're on foot. So imagine how useful they are in a kayak, where there are no directional signs of any sort, no storefronts to use as markers, and just long stretches of what to a newcomer's eyes tend to appear as anonymous brick.

The proprietor of the tappezzeria, a Venetian, told them the simplest route back. It would require them to take the Grand Canal much of the way, from above Ca' D'Oro to just before the Rialto Bridge.

There's a certain type of stupidity--among the worst of all, as it's typically dangerous not only to oneself but to others--that presents itself as courage. But these two kayakers were not stupid. They knew they were in over their heads, or at least up to their chins in some very wavy water, and after their uncomfortable experience on a relatively less-traveled canal like the Rio di San Felice, they really wanted to avoid the traffic of the Grand Canal.

Jen and I looked at the map some more: maybe there was a less harrowing way back along the smaller canals they'd taken to get here. But it was impossible to figure out how to even begin to explain to them the route to take down small canals I hadn't ventured down myself. And that I wasn't even yet ready to try myself.

We had to agree that the Grand Canal was probably the only way: "Take your time, keep to the side."

And so off they went, while the tappezzerista continued to work on the supports for our boat's cover. "Maybe we should have gone with them," Jen said. 

I assume they made it back safely. There were no newspaper headlines the next day screaming out anything to the contrary, as there certainly would have been had they met with catastrophe.

But I can't help thinking that the more kayakers are simply turned loose in the historic center of the city, the more likely such a catastrophe is bound to happen in the future.

Much as certain vested interests like to pretend otherwise, Venice is not Disneyland. They can pack it with cruise ships and tour buses and lancioni, and stuff it to bursting with huge herds of day-tripping tour groups stumping blindly behind jaded guides, but the canals are not calm basins built only for pedal boats, requiring no more knowledge or skill or awareness than is required to pilot one of the swan boats in Boston's Public Gardens or a mini row boat in Villa Borghese's pond.

Even an experienced kayaker is likely to find that the workaday canals of historic Venice, especially on a weekday, bear little resemblance to the streams or seas or lakes he or she may be used to. 

A little more than a year ago a German tourist was killed in a collision between the gondola in which he was riding and a vaporetto near the Rialto Bridge. In the aftermath of the fatal accident new regulations on water traffic in the area were put into place, but I can tell you from first-hand experience in a small boat that the area remains a hazardous bottleneck. And this is for someone who knows very well what to expect there.

Is it really a good idea to allow a kayak rental business to open in the center of town within a stone's throw of the Rialto?

Here is yet another Venetian tourist business that trades on--and promotes--the illusion that every inch of the city is nothing more than a playground, a Magic Kingdom of make believe, where a tourist can pursue his or her every desire without obstacle or restraint. A virtual city, if you will, little more than an elaborate video game, whose residents are hardly more than simulcra providing bits of "local color".

But as the two kayakers we met the other day unfortunately found out, sometimes you believe this kind of sales pitch at your own very real peril.

A follow-up post on this topic can be found herehttp://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2014/10/lost-and-in-danger-in-rented-kayak-part.html

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Autumn Scene on Sant' Erasmo, This Afternoon


This weekend was the Festa del Mosto on Sant' Erasmo, an annual celebration of agriculture and the typical products of this island known as "l'orto di Venezia", or the city's garden. There were booths of various sorts, a very good turnout, and very long lines for food, but the most intensely seasonal display we happened upon was not part of the festa proper at all, but the farm stand pictured above located some distance down the road from the festivities and staffed by a nine or ten-year-old boy while his father and uncle worked nearby. The broccoli alone, imbued with something like the tender sensuous flush of an orchid--broccoli as inspiration for purple prose! yes, broccoli!--was worth the trip. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Table on Via Garibaldi with a View of Salute


I'm always pleasantly surprised to come upon this apparent proximity of two locations that seem so far apart.