Venice The Improbable
How can a city of such renown be improbable? There’s no place like Rome. There’s no place like Paris. There’s no place like New York City. That refrain rings out constantly from travelers or residents. Of course it is true, but it is also false. False given the reality of Venice. Those fine metropolises share inescapable commonality with each other, with Venice, and with most every other major city – museums, cuisine, architecture, ethnicity. But Venice lacks a commonality that is an ever present diminishment of the delight of other cities. Venice is improbable precisely because there truly is no place like her, period.
The reasons are geography and geography. The most important consequence is a social culture unparalleled anywhere. Venice is actually comprised of approximately 118 small dry spots separated by canals – “the silver trails of water up between all that gorgeous colour and carving” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) – and interlaced with bridges. Those dry spots and canals, when observed in toto from the air, comprise what looks exactly like a jig saw puzzle fish. Everything that is needed for daily life for the 60,000 people of Venezia and the 60,000 daily tourists who descend upon her enters through the mouth of the fish by truck across a nearly 3 mile causeway or by boats across the Venezia Lagoon. The fish’s mouth contains parking garages for car commuters, a Bus Plaza (no terminal), and a Train terminal. Also contained in that ingress point are the facilities for LARGE cruise ships, each disgorging their 4-6000 passengers. From that hustle and bustle point is the transition from typical to improbable, the escape from the commonality of any city anywhere except Venice. As an interesting side note concerning the cruise ships, tax records show that in about 1575 around 700 ships berthed in Venice in one year. In 2012 there were around 700 cruise ships that berthed in Venice. The difference in cargoes and impacts are worthy of many an installment. Suffice it to say however that, even in 1575, pilgrims to the Holy Land and those first journeyers on the Grand Tour comprised a touristic component to Venetian daily life not much different than now.
So, Venetian geography is the point of departure from commonality. Absent from the common is the incessant demand of city life, the drone of auto and truck and bus and brakes and horns, the exhaust, the motorcycles and bicycles, and the instinctive watchfulness to keep from being run over, except by gawking tourists. Well, that is not precisely true. In July a Vaporato (water bus) backed into and over a gondola killing a tourist. Ah, the hazards of modern city life.
Every person and every last thing arriving in Venice is distributed by boat along the canals. When the people land they walk. When the goods are landed upon the quays hand cart guys take over and deliver to shop, restaurant, hotel or home. Everything left over, the detritus of daily life, the garbage, must exit by hand cart and then again by boat. Imagine for a minute the breadth of those words “every last thing” taken in their broadest possible connotation. Whether it’s the apples, wine, postcards, material for the famous Venice Carnival masks (or even the masks themselves, if from the now ubiquitous Chinese shops), flour for the fantastic bakeries, butter or Perrier water bottles, fish, vegetables, flowers, hotel laundry, everything transits by boat and hand cart. No pickups, no vans, no trucks, trolleys, only boat and hand cart. Hand carts: some are the simple two wheel trolleys ubiquitous in the world. Those of the package haulers, the shop or hotel suppliers, the garbage men, and etc. are larger, of course, but inventive in clever ways with an extended set of front wheels to make the transit over the steps on the innumerable bridges less of a pain in the ass.
This whole methodology of supply is fascinating for several reasons. First, as described in an earlier posting here, Alberto and Deborah were forced to move apartments – four times eventually. That was an education in the unique hand cart trade that brought me to the level of journeyman status at least. Second, while traveling on a Vaporatto I noticed men at a dock area slinging boxes and sacks from boat to shore. On the boat were the words “Poste Italiane”. Something as fundamental and as simple as the mail service must be accomplished by boat and then hand cart. There are refuse boats – every old plank, every bag of old plaster taken out from palazzos in renovation – recycling boats, funeral boats, wedding boats, ambulance boats, fire “truck” boats, police boats, (even prisoner transport boats), taxi boats, bus boats, and, of course, gondolas. One walks or boats.
Third, I watched an empty Perrier bottle float by in the canal one day – cast aside by the thoughtless. It recalled to mind that the hand cart fellows are very much like the water carriers in Paris in the late 1700’s. The brothers Perrier in 1792 implemented the first system for bottling water. At that instant in time there were upwards of 20,000 Parisians whose daily employment was to carry water to every apartment, every loft, every habitation, no matter how many stories up – at a cost of something like 20 cents. The result of Perrier progress was the near immediate unemployment of 20,000 people that left even Parisians aghast.
Fourth, there is the eternal question of why Venice is so expensive. Beyond the usual premium that any heavy tourist destination exacts from the pocketbook, the transit of goods is the answer. There is one saving, inexpensive grace however – Wine. Which is good! There is to be seen on many a boat transporting materiale significant numbers of very large, 5-7 gallon glass bottles ensconced in either plastic or real wicker – Demijohns they were called at one point in history. Well, I am pleased to report I discovered a shop where those demijohns are used. The only description that seems adequate is “a bulk wine store”. Arranged on flour and shelf are perhaps two dozen such demijohns filled with wine and from which proceed tubes with attached valves. One brings in an empty container or three of what ever sort – most bring in left over, large, one litre water bottles – which the proprietress then proceeds to fill with your choice of 8-10 different wines! There have been little old ladies who have filled a left over, quarter liter water bottle which they then tuck into their purse and walk merrily away. Heck the store even has a box of the larger, liter water bottles ready for free use by customers. What results is a fine take home supply of wine costing about $1.5 US for the liter bottle. A “refill” in such an environment is a memorable, memorable experience. The following days also possess a certain quality to them admittedly.
Continued . . .