Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dirty Truth About Venice's Canals: A Reminder

Waiting for the vaporetto on Mazzorbo, Sunday evening, like birds on a wire
In the photo above I'd like to point out that not a single person's feet were dangling into the water. Feet in the water might not even be such a bad an idea on the lightly populated island of Mazzorbo, but I'd like to remind anyone who might be tempted to cool off by dangling his or her feet into the Grand Canal--as I often see people doing these days--that the vast majority of raw sewage produced by Venetians is flushed directly into the canals.

Last week I spoke to a Venetian architect about why the canals seemed to smell so much stronger (ie, worse) the first time I visited here in July 1982 than they do now, and he told me that at the time of my first visit the canals had not been cleaned for some 30 or 40 years. After so long a time without cleaning they were thickly coated with accumulated matter, so that even the natural flushing mechanism of the changing tides was not as effective as it is now, when the canals are cleaned at more frequent intervals.

I also asked about a city ordinance which requires that human waste from apartments no longer be routed directly into the canals but into a three-part filtration system within each building prior to entering the canals.

I know at least a couple of people who installed such systems at considerable expense There is one in our own building. My interlocutor, however, was having none of it. For one thing, the system is not only expensive to install, it is a recurrent expense, as the solid waste that accumulates in one of its three reservoirs must of course be removed periodically. And one can easily imagine what that involves in a city like Venice.

He thought it was outrageous that the city would force upon him such an ongoing expense and insisted that the pollution problem in the canals and lagoons is not because of the merda, which has always been flushed into it, but the chemicals that have been released into it during the modern era. Studies have shown that such chemicals--from industry as well as from detergents used in the home--interfere with the normal breakdown of organic waste.

But, I asked hopefully, there must be far fewer buildings now flushing their raw sewage into the canals than there used to be, right?

Oh, no, he answered, probably 90% of the raw sewage in the city still goes right into the canals. But, he repeated, la merda is not the problem!

Well, be that as it may, I'd still suggest you keep your bare feet out of the canals. And I'm sure my Venetian architect friend would too.

40 comments:

  1. You do keep us on our toes, Siggie! One day, we're in the cultural zone, finding out about the Baroque music scene in Venice, next day we're in la merde!

    Thanks for this illuminating and somewhat disturbing discourse on the topic, you can be sure that at least one visitor will not be seen with her feet in the waters of the canals.

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    1. Well, perhaps that should be my blog motto: Venice, from the heights to the--depths.

      I actually thought the sewage system had been changed & was surprised to hear it is pretty much just as in the old days.

      I'll aim a bit higher on the next post.

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  2. Look what happened to Katherine Hepburn when filming Summertime! Thanks for the reminder.

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    1. You heard that story too! My wife told me about the lifelong eye infection KH got after going into a canal, is that what you heard?

      Yet, my wife has still entertained the thought of getting her feet wet in them...

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  3. Yes it was the eye infection I read about.

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    1. That sounded so awful. But I guess if one only has one's feet in the water it isn't a danger.

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  4. Oh dear, just returned from a wonderful break and HAD fond memories of sitting on the side of the Giudecca canal eating pizza with our feet in the water!!! Whoops too late now but will keep them out next time!

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    1. I tend to suspect that in a canal as wide and deep and busy as the Giudecca that the concentration of what we don't want to think about must not be so bad, so I don't think you have any reason to recalibrate your fond memories--and I'd hate to be responsible for ruining them! But in the smaller canals in the heart of the city, and even the Grand Canal, it doesn't seem like such a good idea.

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  5. I will bear that in mind when back over in September and keep my feet out of the small canals!!!

    Love reading your blog - keeps me in touch whilst away.

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    1. Thanks for your kind remark, so nice of you to find time to read it!

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  6. So we can eat the lettuce and not worry about peeling fruit, just don't get your feet WET ;D

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    1. Well, even if your feet do get wet you'll survive--but at least you should know what (quite literally) you're getting into!

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  7. It's not killing you instantly though...
    http://venedig-ebb.blogspot.de/2011/12/i-nua.html

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    1. What a great little film! Older Venetians will often tell you about where they used to swim (for example, off of Sant' Elena, and there was always raw sewage going into the water--and from a much larger population. But when schools of dead fish started turning up on the surface of the lagoon in, I think the '60s, from the chemicals from Marghera, that really seemed to put an end to swimming in such areas for Venetians.

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  8. Wow, I have been blissfully ignorant for a long time. I knew there was some raw sewage in the canals, but that much??? Ugh.

    However, I would never, ever dream of putting my feet in a canal. Not only is it unhygienic, (I heard about the Hepburn story), it really makes a brutta figura.

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    1. Exactly! And sporca is nothing compared to brutta!

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  9. Hmmm, sporca vs brutta; if you are ever at a loss for blog topics...

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    1. That's a very good idea. Probably one I'm destined to get around to eventually--though sporca AND brutta may be more likely.

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  10. I hear they clean or drain the canals every summer. Is that true? I'm thinking of visiting Venice late August/early September this year and am worried that this will be going on. Any insight on that?

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    1. I don't think you have any reason to worry, Andrea. We've been here nearly 2 years, year-round, and have yet to come across a canal that was drained for any reason. Nor have we noticed them dredging them with a boat.

      I'm also pretty certain that the cleaning schedule is not annual; that would be impossible to maintain, as well as probably unnecessary.

      And if they ever do decide to drain the canals once a year, I'm pretty certain they wouldn't do it in August or Sept; which would still be right in the thick of the tourist season. Venice tries its best not to disappoint tourists if it can help it.

      So whether you come in August or September the canals should all be full--and if you hit an early aqua alta day (which seems unlikely) overflowing.

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  11. Thanks for your reassurance! I feel much better now :)

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  12. Thanks for the 'lovely'news on la merda. Though I've been to Venice several times, such earthliness did not cross my mind. I'll surely keep an eye on my steps at my next visit.
    Anyway thanks for the blog, what a pity I didn't bump into it earlier! Brings back nice memories while giving me so many new info, but I think Venice is a never ending story.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the blog, Livia, and find it interesting. The tides still do such a good job, in spite of contemporary challenges, we don't really have so much to fear. For those of us who don't swim in them, I think the sidewalks present many more hazards due to negligent dog owners.

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  13. Ok, I have to ask - why did I not see any, hrm...floaties?

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    1. Consider yourself lucky, Erin, I have--but only rarely. I don't know the answer to your question, and, actually, I now realize I'd rather not think too much about it! I can imagine the looks I might receive from some locals if I investigated your question...

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  14. Was appalled by how dirty the streets were with cigarette butts, trash, dog poop and graffiti. We also visited Florence and Tuscany which were so clean you could eat off the streets. Why can't Venice compare?

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    1. I'm not sure how I missed this comment in July--by months I missed it!--but I'm not sure what the answer is. I can't speak of Tuscany in general, but while certain parts of Florence may be as clean as you say, I remember others, for example in Oltrarno that were much like Venice--actually, worse, as there was a drug scene in one of the major piazze there and folks using the hedges as a toilet. One answer may be, though, the sheer quantity of people that pass through Venice each day--and I do mean pass through, as about 80% of the 60,000 or more who visit each day stay for only a few hours. They don't spend much money here, but they do leave plenty of traces of themselves behind. The graffiti? There's an entire world-wide culture of graffiti--or at least Western culture of it. I could suggest that the bleak outlook for youth in Italy--40% can't find jobs--and particularly in the tourist monoculture of Venice, in which civic life is often sacrificed to tourism, doesn't help.

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    2. I have to agree. Just looking at the videos of Venice with everybody praising its beauty and elegant decay while a bunch of garbage is floating in the background and the walls are tagged. It really takes away from the attractiveness of the city and makes me want to look at other places like Valletta or Gibraltar that look far cleaner. What a shame that such an ancient and elegant city such as Venice could start looking like a typical ghetto.

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    3. I generally don't see too much actual garbage floating in the canals, Yeoman Droid, and I don't know what can be done about the graffiti--it only seems to be cleaned off by citizen groups, as the city claims to have no funds to do so. Here's my question: Will the city have less garbage outside of proper containers and less graffiti when it has finally been wiped clean of almost all actual residents or more? Many mass tourists seem to have no regard for the city whatsoever.... But Venice is hardly a "ghetto" (that Venetian word!) in the way that term is typically used: it is quite safe. Indeed, much safer than, for example, many ostensibly "cleaner" US towns I know of.

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  15. I always love looking at Venice in pictures and wondered about the water. . .it seemed logical to me that it might have issues. Still thonk it is beautiful. Some day I might get to go!

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    1. Considering how well the system has worked for centuries--and the fact that back when every other major capitol of Europe had raw sewage running down the middle of their streets Venice's own streets (or calli) were considered a model of cleanliness--I'd still say the system is working pretty well. Its major issues are due to 20th-century developments of and in and around the
      lagoon and considering they now keep up with the dredging of the canals you have no reason to worry that they might take away from the beauty of the city when you do get to visit. I'm afraid this post might have given you the wrong impression--but while I wouldn't recommend swimming in them, they certainly pose no danger to visitors.

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  16. Katherine Hepburns chronic conjuctivitis was not caused by the water in the canal she was filmed falling into. From Wikipedia : "In one scene, the character of Jane Hudson falls into a canal when she steps backward while photographing Di Rossi's shop in San Barnaba di Venezia. Leading lady Katharine Hepburn, concerned about her health, was disinclined to do the stunt herself, but Lean felt it would be obvious if he replaced her with a double. He filled the water with a disinfectant that caused it to foam, which added to Hepburn's reluctance, then required her to film the scene four times until he was satisfied with the results. That night, Hepburn's eyes began to itch and tear. She eventually was diagnosed with a rare form of conjunctivitis that plagued her for the remainder of her life.[6]"

    I think it was the chemicals, not the water, that caused her problems.... at least that's the sense I get from reading this paragraph.

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    1. Thank you, Anonymous, for that information, as I'd also heard of Hepburn's life-long eye problems after the Venice canal interlude but never heard about the chemicals. Depending on the time of day, and where you are, I'm sure there are things in the canal you certainly wouldn't want to get in your eyes--especially when one recalls that at the time that movie was made they hadn't been keeping up with dredging the canals--but maybe it was the chemicals. Either way, that's not a souvenir of Venice I'd wish on anyone.

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  17. i was in Venice last year for a few days, and actually never notice any bad smell coming out from the canals... maybe just pure luck with tides and winds probably. Nice posting interesting to know. greetings from Rio de Janeiro!

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    1. As a more regular schedule of upkeep has been maintained in recent years, João, the canals are much less likely to smell then they were when they weren't cleaned for 4 decades, but some people still complain. But you're right, it still has a lot to do with the tides, and wind, too. Thanks for you comment, and it's nice to think of Rio...

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  18. I did notice the smell but never knew it hadn't been cleaned in so many years. I am shocked reading this! what an eye opener, thank u!

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    1. Well, they've been keeping up with the cleaning much better in recent years, I.S. Though who knows what is now going on with all of the city's budget problems?

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  19. Me and three friends crossed the Big Canal when we where 18, from what is called "Punta della Dogana" to the other side. Now I'm going again to Venice and I will see if they want to do it haha! Was a funny and scary experience.

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    1. There's so much boat traffic on the Grand Canal these days (and nights), Mateo, that swimming across it near the Punta della Dogana doesn't seem like a good idea to me. In fact, it seems that the traffic has increased noticeably in just a couple of years--and it was bad enough two years ago.

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