floating relic: venice by gondola

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Venice by sandolo

I was content to keep exploring Venice on foot. While the idea of a gondola ride had its intrigue–is there anything more uniquely Venetian?–in reality the excursions looked less than romantic. From where I stood–on bridges, mostly, peering down into the polished boats–I saw sullen gondoliers wordlessly transporting families of six who videotaped the entire experience. I watched young couples who flicked through their phones and barely regarded each other or Venice as they were swept through the city’s canals.

Any charm seemed in danger of suffocation by the fierce overhead glare of the sun and the thick crowds on the Rialto Bridge. People were jostling, posing, and dripping gelato on the steps as one boat after another passed through the main waterways, nearly bumping up against one another as if this were Disney’s It’s a Small World instead of a private, 80-euro experience.

As I walked, though, with Victor, wandering far from the densest masses of crowd, I fell for the empty gondolas. Bobbing gently in quiet corners of the canals, their onyx-black hulls glittered in the sun, modest quests for attention. Their distinctive color, I later learned, dates back to 16th-century law: an attempt to halt gaudy competition between gondoliers.

Still, each gondola I saw was unique. Their interiors were scarlet and gold, or occasionally, cobalt blue. They held bright rugs and gold vases filled with sunflowers and glossy wooden chairs with floral upholstery and red cushions with white lions. Gold mermaids and winged horses and angels leapt from the sides.

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The gondolas were perfect objects, indisputably beautiful. The gleaming wood and elegant curves brought to mind musical instruments: the grand, glossy elegance of a cello or bass.

Italy is known to prize the aesthetic, with its concept of bella figura, its reverence for beauty and grace. This Cadillac of a boat, I thought, was a good example: moving at 3 miles an hour, walking pace, the gondola is a relic in the 21st century, wholly unnecessary and fully lovely. ACS_1031

It takes about two months to construct a gondola and costs upwards of 20,000 euros to purchase one. Eight types of wood–cherry, elm, fir, larch, lime, mahogany, oak, and walnut–are joined together in an ingenious, flat-bottomed design that allows the boat to navigate in water just centimeters deep.

There seemed no better way to directly experience Venice’s aquatic history than by getting into a boat. We decided to go for it, in our last full day in the city, as long as we could find one a bit off the beaten path.

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Gondola rides are price-controlled, currently eighty euros for a standard daytime ride and one hundred at night. But shopping around is worth it, as the experience differs greatly depending upon the starting point and the personality of the gondolier.

Victor and I walked until we found the neighborhood we remembered from a previous stroll. I don’t know how we found it, really. The endless tiny streets–some of them dead-ending into the canal–confounded my navigation apps, not to mention my nascent sense of direction.

We were in the quiet Campo del Ghetto, the Jewish neighborhood dating back to the 16th century. The English word ghetto originates from Venetian dialect geto, meaning ‘foundry,’ and this was the area’s purpose before Jews were isolated and forced to live there. Campo del Ghetto was cut off from the city until 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice and ended the neighborhood’s separation. Today, the Ghetto is a calm area with a Holocaust memorial and five synagogues.

We saw a boat coming in and waited by stone steps leading into the canal. The gondola was piloted by a woman– a sight rare enough to be striking, but I didn’t yet know how rare. Researching it, I learned there are so few women gondoliers that you can know them by name. Their names are Giorgia Boscolo and Chiara Curto: out of about 400 total gondoliers, there are two women.

Ms. Curto was the woman steering the boat up to the foot of the bridge, smiling and ruddy-cheeked. But she told us she was booked for the rest of the afternoon. It had been a day where we kept running into Closed signs; it seemed a fitting, disappointing end. But then she said she had availability for the sunset tour. She made a note and we hurried off into the maze of streets.  acs_0833

Freshly showered (and wearing distinctly clashing outfits), Victor and I returned a few hours later. The water and buildings shone soft pastel in the waning sun. Ms. Curto helped us into the boat, and then hopped up on the nearby bridge to take our picture. I didn’t have to fake my smile (and couldn’t have stopped it if I tried). If there’s ever a place to be a fool in love, it’s on a boat in Venice.

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Victor noticed the gondola didn’t have the distinctive iron ornament (the fèrro) that we’d spotted on the front of the other boats. That’s when we learned we weren’t in a gondola at all but a sandolo. Sandoli are wider and flatter than gondolas, used for rowing. They can access shallow spots in Venice most gondoliers wouldn’t go. They are also, Ms. Curto told us, even older and more traditional than the gondola.

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Chiara didn’t sing, but she was full of stories. In brief silences, the only sound was the oar moving through the water. We swept under bridges–Ms. Curto deftly ducking out of the way–and past churches, bars, and boats. We glided under laundry, the great equalizer, a cheerful reminder that behind these flung-open shutters and crumbling brick walls life churned on, messy and mundane. Whole duvets hung out to dry on the pulley systems spanning the canals.

As Chiara steered the boat back to the foot of the bridge, I stirred, dreamy-eyed, like I was waking from slumber. As in sleep, time had ticked by in secret, and the half-hour outing felt as if we should measure it in seconds.

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I wondered what would it be like to be any one of them. To work standing up in a boat, battling the cold and the sunburn. To bask in beginnings, to witness the unveiling of so many shining engagement rings. Might you be cynical, a poet, or some combination?

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Might you be proud: carrying on a centuries-old tradition that is in no way vital to the city’s operations…but surely vital to its heart.

first impressions of an upside-down forest: venice by vaporetto

Venice: the setting of sights that will haunt my daydreams for a long time.

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Not the city that never sleeps (it does), maybe it’s the city that’s never still. Built on the water, Venice sloshes, splashes, seems to breathe. Venice is sinking. Venice has always been improbable.

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The city was built by driving wooden piles, millions of them, deep down into the lagoon. It would be a moat of a city, safe from attackers. On top came a brick and stone base, the setting for the brilliant palaces and wide piazzas of the future. Entombed in mud from 1500 AD, the wood was safe from the deteriorating effects of oxygen and is solid still. This gives rise to the first fairy-tale metaphor: Venice is an upside-down forest.

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On the bottoms of buildings today there is a white crust of salt, souvenir of acqua alta, high water, reminder of the ever-present threat of flooding and the likelihood that Venice will one day be swallowed by the Adriatic Sea.

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When flooding arrives, certainly a matter of when, raised boards are laid down along walkways. Residents don rubber boots. Shopkeepers scramble to move items from low shelves.

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In Venice you must work with the water (and isn’t that always how it goes? Water, at once so innocent and furious. Can’t do without it if we wanted to; hard to change its mind). The casual visitor takes a vaporetto, or water bus, to navigate the Grand Canal. Attendants work quickly, throwing heavy ropes into thick knots on the dock. Attenzione ! Attenzione ! 

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Like a bus or metro, this is a purposeful ride, a no-nonsense means of transport, but I’d like to stay on this boat all day. Everywhere I look is something unusual, impossible, unlikely.

There are two carved hands rising out of the canal. Giant, elegant, they reach for a nearby building. They birth thoughts about what might be lurking under the teal water.

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Small boats dodge each other to make the morning deliveries. One is packed full with potted white lilies. Another holds orange soda and bottled water. In another–perhaps destined for a market somewhere–delicate green herbs.

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I glimpse a rose garden overlooking the water, walls of crumbling brick, just space enough for the two wrought iron chairs filled by two friends having breakfast.

There is a couple, elegantly dressed, stepping gingerly from their hotel directly into a boat. He extends his hand, she brushes off her pantsuit, they are off somewhere.

There is the sudden spectacle–could this ever be prosaic?–of an isolated church rising from the lagoon, its own island.

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less-than-thrilled: when you don’t want your dream

“How do you find Montluçon?” When I arrived here, I was asked this quite a few times, always with a wince on the part of the inquirer.

C’est un peu triste, non? But no, no I didn’t find it sad. Blue skies and tropical flowers, temps in the low eighties, a new city and a new life to explore. AOP cheese inexpensive at the grocery store. Life now conducted in my second language, lending a sense of challenge and excitement to the simplest interaction.

Even without all that, I was just glad to have a job and a place to lay my head at night. It had been a long, tumultuous summer, one in which I wasn’t at all sure I was going to come to France. Money worries. Trepidation. I hadn’t found a place to sleep.

Things worked themselves out, improbably. I was here. My French future stood in front of me, bright and sweet as a macaron.

There was no time to be bored, listless, uncertain.

And then there was.

November was a rough month in which I understood exactly why people might complain about this place. C’est un peu triste? Ben oui.

It was dark, cold, and bleak. I missed the warmth and vitality and fun of my college town. I did get into a routine, but it looked something like this:

wake up very early (usually from nightmares about failing to sufficiently prepare for classes), go to work, ride the bus home with a killer headache, unwittingly fall asleep, and wake up as the sky turned black and it was time to think about the next day’s lessons.

November was one problem and annoyance after another in realms of: health, relationships, work, transportation, social life…

It was hard not to think: am I wasting my time? struggling to learn Spanish and going on solitary runs in the cold. Trying to make the bus thing work. Trying to make the bike thing work. Trying to make the work thing work, with less support than I’m due. Scrabbling for entertainment in a tiny town. Where was the big group of expat friends, the cultural events, the hole-in-the-wall restaurants with incredible food?

I spent Thanksgiving with Mary, eating pizza in the cité médiévale and feeling less than thankful. Optimism is all well and good, but sometimes you’ve gotta vent.

How easy it would have been to misrepresent the day. A picture of me and a glass of wine, captioned Thanksgiving 2016 in France: best Thanksgiving ever! But it wasn’t. What it was: the culmination of a month of feeling maddeningly frustrated, of trying to adapt to a lifestyle that can feel so stagnant, a month of trying to find friends and fun in a place where the over-18 and under-35 demographic is pretty lacking.

By the next day, I was beginning to feel a sort of begrudging thankfulness. I wrote:

…ultimately, though, I am thankful, that this year isn’t easy. It’s many things, at times very lovely, but not easy. So I will learn resilience (even when I’d rather not). I’m thankful for all this time: to figure things out, grow up, get in shape (even though I’d prefer to be busier). I’m thankful for a wonderful roommate and friend who understands the necessary balance between venting and staying positive. I’m thankful for the kids I get to teach, friends and family near and far, the chance to write about my adventures, and most of all, a God who provides.

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It’s all true. Gain resilience? Patience? If given the choice, I’d rather just be happy. It’s natural to choose pleasure over pain. But growth and maturity don’t come cheap. That’s something I think about during the struggles: if I keep making good choices and fighting through it, what kind of person could I be at the end of this? I want to find out. A day (or week) (or month) that doesn’t go as planned doesn’t have to crush me.

And for better or worse, problems give me something to write about. I’m not someone who pretends that life in France is all rosé. I want to create an honest account of my time here, neither ignoring the bad times nor wallowing in them.

Mary says she thinks that in travel and in living abroad, the highs are higher and the lows are lower. I agree. It sounds really romantic to live somewhere new, but it’s still going to be real life, wherever you are. Real life in Italy. Real life in France. Real life is hard sometimes.

And here’s a real life lesson I’m learning: dreams are not always dreamy. You don’t always want them. It was my dream to live here. My dream to speak French fluently, my dream to become bilingual. To travel alone, to learn to teach, to become independent and solve my own problems.

It still is, as I sometimes have to remind myself.