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.

the city of islands: death by tourism?

Venezia is a city composed of tiny islands. 120 of them, spanned by 400 bridges. Wooden or stone, humble or showy, everywhere bridges. Every time you cross a bridge you step onto a new island. 

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Long ago, these borders determined micro-communities, islands like tribes. People didn’t know their neighbors across the water. The communities were self-sufficient, each served by its own church. This explains why Venice is absolutely frothing with churches–from modest works of brick to candy-cane-striped Venetian gothic facades to the grand onion domes of the basilica–quite literally sinking under the weight of all that glory. 

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In addition to heaviness and high water, it seems Venice faces another, more insidious threat: death by tourism. 

Today, when you cross a bridge, you step foot upon layers of history and human invention. Your shoes touch the worn-smooth stone of another cobbled island atop layers of foundation atop sturdy wooden piles shoved into the cold mud of a lagoon in the Adriatic sea. Improbable. And it fascinates. Surrounded by teal water and nautical chaos–daily deliveries made by worn motor boats, the glide of gondolas under canal bridges–I feel fairy-tale free. Venice feels like a place of no rules–new rules–a place where animals could talk, time could stop. A stooped man plays the viola on a corner overlooking the frenzy of the Grand Canal, music so beautiful it sounds like a gift. Many times I abandon my plan in favor of sitting to savor a scene, a sound. 

Yet. Competing with this beauty is the kind of tourism that drowns a place. Cross a bridge today and there is more of the same: not just the aperol spritzes and jewel-toned gelato, but more junk. There are vendors selling cheap plastic selfie sticks, cheap plastic everything, mass-produced “paintings,” “designer” bags…whole categories that must be put in quotation marks. There are aprons with pictures of Leonardo’s David (who does not reside in Venice, last time I checked); there are tee-shirts with the Mona Lisa. There are restaurants whose menus read like a list of obligatory “Italian” specialties. There are aggressive salesmen and signs in ten languages.

On some streets, it doesn’t feel much like Venice, or Italy, or anywhere. It feels like a whole new world: the land of globalization. You could be in Paris or New York. You could be in an aggressively-peopled dollar store. You know it’s Venice, though, because these stores and stands and hats and handbags and posters and magnets and towels and water bottles and keychains tell you so: VENICE, no beating around the bush. Look a little closer, though, and ah, there it is: made in China. 

Nothing revolutionary: this is the price to pay, you may argue, for popularity. This is 21st-century travel.

Venice, though, is no New York or Paris. It is infinitely smaller and much more delicate. The majority of Venice’s 30 million yearly visitors flood the city for less than twenty-four hours.  

This approach to Venice–a whirlwind tour like a day at Disney–hurts Venetian businesses, culture, and citizens: of whom there are only 50,000. Venice sees about that many visitors every day. The exponential growth of tourism in the area means that everyday businesses like grocers and bookstores are closing, priced out by more and more souvenir shops. It’s an expensive city to visit–and to live. But the city is working towards a solution, promoting detourism: a campaign aimed at teaching visitors how to “go beyond the usual tourist sights, stumble upon unique experiences and see Venice with new eyes.”

Victor and I took a free walking tour that is part of the campaign to #enjoyrespectvenezia.

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The website explains: Venice Free Walking Tour is for those who want to see and know more than the 90% of people visiting Venice will see. Venice Free Walking Tour is for Travellers, not for tourists

Our guide was Elena, Italian, in her late twenties with red hair and glasses, all charm and energy. She introduced herself, telling us she studied literature and history and languages. Victor nudged me: I think you found a new friend. I was thinking the same thing. Her passion about Venice, both its past and its unknowable future, had me intrigued, leaning forward and writing down most of what she said. She had moved to Venice temporarily, she told us–for studies–but plans changed when she fell in love (with the city and one of its residents). 

She told us many dreamy details of Venice. There were stories of Venice’s cemetery island (hosting the graves of Ezra Pound and Stravinsky). We passed a grand old building with frescos on the walls that now holds a basketball court, because the city didn’t know what else to do with the space. She told us about a small grocery store in a marble-floored theater. We talked St. Mark and chiaroscuro and what those symbols on the ground meant– little letters everywhere; codes for city engineers.

I am saddened by the touristic tendency to consume a place: to bury it under cheap knickknacks, to aggressively photograph it, to patronize only that which is obvious, to leave none the wiser.

But, if this initiative is any indication: there is hope.

At the end of the tour, we were given a map marked with recommendations for bars, restaurants, shops, and more, so even the most casual tourist-traveler could get a real taste of Venice. Elena told us what to look for, what to order.

We left hungry and found one of the restaurants on the list, where we shared a plate of nero di seppie: cuttlefish cooked in its ink. The dish had a delicate, complex umami flavor and was a deep black that stained our mouths. Accompanied by bright-orange aperol and a caprese salad, the spread was a visual treat, and the meal marks one of my favorite moments in Venice with my chéri: happy with a cold cocktail after a day of sun, alight with new perspectives and ideas.

getting to know you…sunshine blogger award

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed over my year in Cannes has been gradually building up a blog readership. I sat down one day full of ideas and wrote about how speaking a second language opened my eyes to the greater absurdities of life itself. Many of you seemed to relate, sharing humorous stories and memorable experiences from all around the world. This was the post that really kicked off a community.

Thank you, truly, for reading what I have to say and leaving your thoughts and ideas and encouragement.

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Today I’ll be answering some questions about me! (In case you’re interested in learning more about The Blogger). Thanks to My Library and other Mischief for nominating me for the Sunshine Blogger Award– given, doth say the Internet, to bloggers who are creative, positive, and inspiring. I appreciate it!

SUNSHINE BLOGGER AWARD RULES:
-Thank the blogger who nominated you.

-Answer the 11 questions asked.
-Nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 new questions.
-List the rules and include the Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post.

What inspired you to start blogging?

My mother. Before I left for France for the first year, Mom encouraged me to share my experiences in writing. I already had a blog, but it was a mishmash of music I liked, some free-verse, some trips I’d taken… My mom thought I should start a new one. Knowing what a perfectionist I can be, she emphasized that it didn’t always have to be something edited and profound. “Just so we can know what you’re up to!” Little did she know (I think) the hours I would toil away on this project, striving to produce pieces that are edited and are profound (or at the very least, thoughtful and true).

My blog has kept me afloat during some challenging times. When things are hard (or funny or ridiculous), thinking about the story I’ll be able to tell makes it better. And the fact that a few people might read it and respond is a bonus: very motivating for me.

What are you most proud of?

A friend gave me a cool compliment last year. She said I was more committed to self-improvement than anyone she knew. When she said that, I realized that it is a sort of skill. When I perceive a personal flaw or weakness, I work hard to change it. “That’s just the way I am” is never something you’ll hear from me. I am proud of transforming from a fearful, miserably self-conscious teenager into the person I am today. I worked for that; it didn’t happen by accident. I am proud of the (hundreds of) times I’ve challenged myself to do things that scared me. This used to mean approaching a stranger on campus (I was cripplingly shy). More recently, that means living abroad by myself, arranging job interviews in my second language, picking myself up after rejection.

If you could meet anyone from any time period who would it be?

I like to ask people “who’s your favorite Missourian?” (If I only had a dollar for every baffled “I don’t have a favorite Missourian…”) I then inform them they could choose T.S. Eliot or Josephine Baker or Walt Disney. But I mostly bring it up as a non-sequitur so I can talk about Mark Twain. Mark Twain had humor, style, soul and wit. He toured Europe and wrote a diatribe about how bad the food was. He wrote a novel that changed the course of American literature. He provided withering and hilarious social commentary, spoke out against slavery, and had this to say about travel: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth.”

Here is a hardcore Missourian who did anything but vegetate in his little corner of the earth. He saw the world, he unlearned the racist views he’d been brought up with in a slave state, and he used his skill with the written word for good.

(Other answers would probably skew literary as well! I would love to talk to Virginia Woolf regarding “A Room of One’s Own,” just for starters. Or artistic weirdos like Salvador Dalí).

What would you like your older self to remember when you look back on this period of your life?

I would like to remember the actual and emotional challenges of being in one’s early twenties so I am able to provide empathy and encouragement to others in the future. I am helped enormously by older women that remember what it is to be 22 or 24, adrift. Wanting everything, sure of nothing. In a few years, the problems I have now might seem laughable to me. I hope they won’t, though. Each age has its burdens, all of them valid.

Where is the last place you travelled to? Would you like to revisit it in the future?

Venice. And yes, very much so. Venice captured my imagination and won’t let it go. A city of music and water and color and drama.

What is the silliest thing you have ever seen or heard on public transport?

After two years in France, I am begrudgingly well-practiced in the art of public transit. I have occasionally been the silliest thing on public transport, I’m afraid. There is a story involving a very large, very obtrusive swan-shaped pool float on a regional train.

What book do you think everyone should read?

It’s tough to choose a single book. I’ll go with genre. I think everyone should read dystopian novels. The Handmaid’s TaleThe RoadThe Girl with All the Gifts, Fahrenheit 451… Besides being impressive and entertaining works of imagination, these books are warnings. They remind us to ask questions and retain a healthy dose of skepticism. They are parables about greed, power, ignorance, fear.

What film would you recommend watching on a rainy day?

My Best Friend’s Wedding. It is no secret I have a massive girl-crush on Julia Roberts. Since I don’t expect to run into her anytime soon, unfortunately, I have to console myself with the thought that perhaps one day I will be as cool. As charming and funny and real, even and especially when things aren’t going my way. In My Best Friend’s Wedding, our dear Julia is a hot mess, a food writer pining after the one who got away. She’ll do anything to get him back. However, her happy ending doesn’t exactly come to pass. In the world of romantic comedies, this is almost revolutionary. A story that’s funny and true, a balm for anyone who has ever been unlucky in love. Laughter helps.

What is your beverage of choice when writing?

It has to be hot. My preference is a cappuccino or really good black coffee.

Have you ever studied a foreign language? If yes which one and what are your study tips?

French, clearly. And much more recently, Italian! What works well for me: creating a personal immersion environment to foster creativity and motivation. I read books about Italy (culture, language, food). I watch Italian movies. I use Duolingo to learn new vocabulary. I listen to opera. I have speaking lessons 2-3 times a week. I have been able to take a few trips to Italy and thus have a real reason to speak the language. All of this keeps my motivation strong.

I guess my advice, condensed, is to make the language/culture a real hobby. If you sit down thinking just, “hooray. Prepositions,” there’s a good chance you’ll let it fall by the wayside. Instead, let it capture your imagination. Learn about (or meet) the people. Taste the food (recreate it at home). Dream of the places you could go and enjoy if you keep studying.

Do you prefer large or small marshmallows in your hot chocolate? 😉

This brings back sweet memories of snow days spent playing outside. Any marshmallows are just fine by me.


Now, here are my 11 questions for some other bloggers/generally cool people. (I hope this could inspire a post if you’re feeling stumped!)

What inspired you to start blogging?

What do you hope to accomplish with your blog/writing?

Have you ever experienced culture shock? 

Describe the most memorable meal you’ve ever had OR the worst date. Or both.

What is something you wish you were better at? 

What cities/countries have you lived in, and do you have a favorite? 

Where do you find inspiration? 

What is your travel philosophy?

What is something you think is completely overrated? 

What’s your drink? 

Describe a piece of art (in any medium) that changed the way you saw the world. 


Heide at HeideBlog

Haley at A World Full of Scribbles

Anne at Present Perfect

Ruth at Talk Foreign to Me

Boomer’s Baby Steps

Girls on a Train

Bola at Flâner

Arielle at Whiskey Sour Wayfarer

Diane at Oui in France

Jess at Ordinary Girl, Extraordinary Dreamer

Persephonetically

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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