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.

bowling with the homies

My first week in Montluçon, I received a letter inviting me to the next meeting of a Club Anglais. An English club in Montluçon! Surely I’d meet some friends there, young worldly types who had spent time in England or the States…

The letter explained that the club meets the first and third Friday of every month. We showed up early, me and a few of the other English teachers, and had a drink outside of the aptly-chosen London Bar.

We didn’t know quite who we were looking for, and a bit later, a lady with an English accent came out from the bar. “Excuse me,” she said, “sorry to bother you, but are you perhaps here for the Club Anglais?”

We followed her inside. The bar was dark and cozy with people packed in around little wooden tables, drinking tea or beer as they saw fit. English greetings and French cheek kisses existed in cheerful symbiosis.

It was a high-spirited, lively group…and everybody in the room was over fifty. Oh.

We were warmly welcomed and offered drinks. I didn’t know which language to use. Some in the room spoke only French, like the lady who sat across from me–but I was misled by her cup of tea and P.D. James novel. Others were French but proficient in English, and still others were English but have lived in France for decades. I didn’t want to assume, which is how I found myself overly-enunciating: “yes, I am American. I am from the state of Missouri,” to Roger, who was actually English (and probably wondered if I was indeed speaking my first language).

Everyone was friendly and kind. At first I had trouble thinking of conversation topics, but my new Anglophone friends were eager to ask about my teaching job. And then I realized that this was exactly the place to ask some of the questions I’d had, like where was the best place to buy produce. You can bet they had opinions.

One man took a liking to Mary (well, so did the whole table) and made her plans for the next Saturday, non-negotiable in his view: she was to go to the St. Pierre market, early, and watch the vendors set up their wares. This, while enjoying a glass of white wine and a plate of oysters. At ten in the morning.

I believe he was explaining to her the history of Montluçon over the last two-hundred years when I dragged her away so we could go to dinner.

We’ve since joined the French septuagenarians several times. My expectations for nightlife contained a lot more electronic dance music and a lot less English breakfast tea, but this will almost certainly lead to better stories.

Friday night we joined the club for a soirée : bowling and dinner. Over thirty members showed up for a bit of friendly competition.

We saw transformations worthy of a good sports movie. Jean-Luc, one of the older members, who shuffled laboriously to take his turns and always lofted the bowling ball, had a sympathetic competitor take pity and help him adjust his technique. He then went, in a thrilling upset, from constant gutter balls to a series of strikes. The crowd went wild.

I talked with the president of the club, an English guy who told me Club Anglais has been a thriving social club for 45 years. Some of the members are even traveling to Greece together this year.

The afore mentioned Roger and his French wife Françoise drove us to dinner, where everyone regrouped in the back room. As I looked for a place to put my coat, a jolly Englishman who reminded me of Scrooge’s boss, Fezziwig, from A Christmas Carol, told me: “I always try to leave with a better coat then the one I came with! That’s the secret.” It was this man, later in the evening, who I saw engage in a sort of subtle food fight, flinging pieces of bread across the room with a spoon as a catapult. Though it seemed he was aiming for one particular woman, whole rows of people had to duck to avoid getting beaned in the head with a bit of baguette. In fairness I think his friend started the battle.

Dinner was over three hours long, and frankly, unimpressive. Still, it was fun to talk to the people around me, in particular to a Finnish woman who speaks something like five languages. 10:30 pm came and went, the room alive with noise (and breadcrumbs), and we had just finished our main course. I started to feel a bit feverish, overtired, and am still wondering if some of it really happened.

think a drunk guy from the local gendarmerie school ran in the room and sang a song to one of the women at my table. I think everyone around Mary and I started comparing tattoos, and we were the only two without any. The English man sitting across from me explained the subtle tattoo on his wrist. Interested, the French man next to him asked if he had any more, and, probably relieved to contribute to the conversation since most of the party was speaking French at that point, he pulled the hem of his shirt up to his neck, exposing a huge tattoo that covered his chest and stomach. Definitely not something I ever expected to see while eating crème brûlée.

Then again, I also didn’t expect to be the new youngest member of a cross-cultural social club in rural France.