Monday, December 9, 2013

On Practical Beauty in Venice and Christmas Trees


When it came time to buy our Christmas tree this past weekend we once again had to do so without the use of a boat, which Sandro, who seems to have a native Venetian's strict sense of life's essential proprieties, found to be a galling (if not downright humiliating) lack last December. You see, like many good Venetians, Sandro fervently believes that anything one needs to do should be done in one's own boat, and that for every job or errand there is an appropriate boat.

Last Christmas season he declared that nothing less than a mototopo--one of the long workboats you see transporting pallets of groceries or a mountain of hotel laundry bags or a ton of construction materials--would serve to carry home our five-foot-high tree. Of course, as we didn't (and don't) even have a small outboard motorboat, there really wasn't much chance we'd spring for a mototopo to perform this annual errand, no matter how many other tasks Sandro assured us it would be extremely useful for.

This year, however, in spite of our continuing lack of any boat at all, he didn't complain. For while we still didn't have a mototopo, we did have a brand-new bright red heavy-duty carrello, or hand truck, which is the primary accessory of every mototopo--and at least as important as a pair of shoes for anyone determined to really get things done in this car-free walkaday world of Venice.

For hardly less picturesque to most visitors than the fact that the "streets" here are canals and the "cars" and "buses" are boats, is the sight of grocery store inventory and garbage collection being delivered and picked up, respectively, with hand carts. It's something that even the hurrying hordes of day-trippers to the city can't help but notice in their few hours here, but none with the detailed observation Sandro has devoted to such human-powered trolleys for the last year. He notes (and comments on) not just general differences in size, shape and color, but variations in the circumference and number and position of wheels, between rounded tubular construction and solid steel frames, and between the different lengths and styles of nose plates and how they're mounted.

Visitors have long made pilgrimages to Venice as a realm of Art, looking to leave behind the ordinary and everyday and earth-bound, but most Venetians I've met are far more practical-minded. Sure, you can wax rhapsodic about Tintoretto or Monteverdi with them if that's what floats your own boat, but Sandro seems to have bonded far more genuinely with most Venetian men we know because of his profound interest in every single step in the process of getting real solid objects from one place to another.

I see, for example, a neighbor in the street, the grandfather of one of Sandro's closest friends and the owner of a trasporti (freight moving) company, and ask him how he's doing. "Bene," he replies, "sempre bene." I see him another time and remark upon the extreme weather of recent days. He replies simply that he takes things as they come. On yet another day I encounter him as I'm walking with Sandro and then, finally, we actually have some common interests to discuss: mototopi and carrelli and the like. Or, rather, he and Sandro do.

It's a marvelous life here for Sandro: physical and material in a way that no other city I know could, on a regular matter-of-fact un-fetishized basis, offer a child his age. At this time of year when we're supposed to reflect on our blessings, I consider this one of mine: that in this ever-more virtual and disembodied world my son has the chance to grow up in this odd car-less city, where a 5-year-old boy can make a convincing argument that a real hand-truck is exactly what he needs, not just as a toy, but as a necessity. As he did argue for the last year.

Posing with his new hand-truck in front of SS Giovanni e Paolo
True, the helpful man at the hardware store near the basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo where we bought it last week suggested a slightly lighter tubular-framed one, with a load capacity still far greater than any Sandro would be able to manage for a good dozen years. But Sandro insisted on the solid steel-framed one he'd settled upon weeks before as being solely adequate to the demands--many of them make-believe--that he'd place upon it.

Of course he struggled to pull it up the steps of the large Ponte Cavallo in front of the basilica and ospedale civile just after we bought it, for it weighed not much less than he did. And there were some challenges getting it down the other side as well, as the weight of it threatened to get away from him and pull him flapping behind it like a flag tied to its hand grips. But once this first substantial obstacle had been bested and we paused for a rest, he leaned against his hand truck and sighed, "This is a dream come true."


So the dreamy red heavy-duty hand truck we used to pick up our potted Christmas tree and transport it the long distance home from the seasonal tree market beside the church of San Felice in Cannaregio was the one he'd just gotten for his sixth birthday and it did, indeed, prove to be quite useful. I pulled the tree-laden hand truck up and down the bridges we crossed, but Sandro managed it the rest of the time, pulling it behind him down Strada Nova and then through Sant' Elena after we got off the vaporetto as though he were a cart horse. A very happy cart horse.

He was happy, too, to be seen laboring in this way by the guys at our neighborhood fruit and vegetable stand. Guys for whom, like him, hand trucks are a daily part of their lives. Practical hard-working Venetian guys, like him. But who, unlike him, probably don't sleep with their hand trucks standing snugly against the side of their beds.


24 comments:

  1. Without a doubt, this is the most delightful thing I have read in 2013. Sandro is such a boy, and such a Venetian boy. Thank you for sharing this with us!

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    1. I'm very happy to hear you enjoyed it, Susie, as it's the kind of post that actually worries me that no one will find it interesting or entertaining except, perhaps, Sandro's grandparents. I never want to write something that has nothing to offer to readers besides, Oh, golly, look at me, or look at my son!

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  2. I can relate to Sandro, and I'm sixty... In addition to art and history, Venice is fascinating to me simply for what it takes to make it work, and it seems your boy gets it as well. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks for your kind comment, Tom. The first time I spent more than a couple days here I was still so wrapped up in the art and architecture that, unlike you and Sandro, I missed the remarkable daily facts of the city's continued existence, and the work of those who make it possible. It's nice to know that you also find them worth noticing.

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  3. Congratulations to Sandro on his lovely new hand truck!
    I read your blog post this morning on the train to work and attracted some strange looks as I could barely stop myself from laughing aloud.
    When I used to work on the Venice Biennale, one of my first tasks on arrival was always to get my hand truck out of the storage room at our Pavilion so that I was ready and able to move marketing materials, catalogues and the like around Venice.
    People always think it must be very glamorous to go and work in Venice...it really ain't...but golly it's given me some good memories!

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    1. Ah, so you, too, know first-hand the importance of the hand-truck in contemporary Venetian life! I love the image of you starting off your Biennale work days wheeling things around. I guess it's not glamorous in the way that all those pre-opening Biennale parties are or the new David Bowie Venetian-set commercial for whatever the luxury item it's selling (I've forgotten), but it strikes me as the pinnacle of good fortune and, yes, maybe even glamour, to be able to get a sense of Venice with one's whole body, as you did with that hand-truck. Glamour can be simulated anywhere, but nothing can duplicate your real material experiences in Venice!

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  4. What a lovely post and what a fantastic childhood Sandro is having - this is what childhood is all about not the latest computer games - congratulations

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    1. I touch wood (or knock on it) as I write that at present Sandro still prefers working in the actual world with his hands (and feet) to playing in simulated versions of it; the real world seems to be a better match for his particular energy. I hope this can continue for quite some time, and I thank you for taking the time to make your encouraging comment.

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  5. So cute! I still remember sitting on the same spot Sandro is sitting in the vaporetto, again another of those unique experiences you can have in Venice as a child. It was so exciting to see the space empty and then being lifted up there. Another fond memory of mine was walking on the muretti of the fondamente. It was with great pride and a little trepidation that I was walking on them holding someones hand so I wouldn't fall in the water.

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    1. So that's always been a favorite spot for kids, Laura? Probably made all the more desirable by the fact that it's not left unoccupied very often; even adults like to lean on it, if not sit on it. Earlier on our ride, because the top was occupied by a bag, Sandro actually positioned himself on the bottom-most shelf! You may have had better sense than to do that, but he enjoyed being hidden away.

      Now walking on the muretti would be real fun! And I've never heard of any Venetian child falling in. Tourists, on the other hand, aren't always so lucky--perhaps because they try to do without a helping hand.

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  6. We'll employ him to move our luggage next time we're in Venice! BTW have you seen the beautiful Christmas tree ornaments in the shop next to San Pantalon? Lovely, but priced beyond anything we can afford.

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    1. I think he'd be willing to give you a much lower price than any other facchino you could find, Andrew. Actually, he'd be happy to do it for free. Then you could indeed afford to splurge on at least one of those ornaments near San Pantalon. I think I know the place you mean, but you provide a good reminder that I should go check it out this year.

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  7. I see a brilliant career for Sandro when he leaves school. He'll be so adept (and strong) by then, using his wonderful red hand-truck. You are giving this young lad such a broad education in life.

    Yvonne

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    1. "Giving," Yvonne? He just seem to be taking it! There are various art workshops for kids periodically held in this or that museum around town, but I'm always more interested in them than Sandro. Not physical enough for him. But this Saturday is an African drumming workshop for kids at Laboratorio Morion that may fit the bill.

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    2. I so enjoyed watching your son with his hand truck and tree on the vaporetto and now with your post it makes it even more special. I was the silver haired American lady in the purple coat who asked to take the picture of the two of you with your camera. And thanks to my friend Yvonne who identified you in my picture...I found your blog.
      Michelle

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    3. You're very kind, Michelle, to leave a comment--and to have offered to take our pic with my camera. I'm glad that reading this post didn't ruin your observations on the vaporetto by revealing us as natives of the US, not Venice! I will now have to look up your blog, which Albert mentioned to me.

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  8. Another 'Venetophile' here, who just has to say 'Bravo Sandro', next time I'm stuck on an overcrowded tube train thinking "There must be a better way to live' I'll think of you!

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    1. And while you're on that crowded train, Rob, just be thankful that you don't have such a hand-truck with you; they can be awkward enough on even a sparsely-crowded vaporetto. Of course, Sandro would like to take it to school with him every day... Thanks for your kind comment.

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  9. The way to go is folding aluminum handtrucks. They fit anywhere.

    http://www.globalindustrial.com/g/material-handling/hand-trucks-dollies/hand-trucks-folding/fold-down-aluminum-hand-truck

    Living in a car-free place is ideal, how lucky you are!

    :)

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    1. Well, Steve, folding aluminum would definitely be more practical--but probably too practical as far as my son is concerned. I think the sheer mass of the hand truck is one of the things he finds most appealing about it; it's more (literally) like "heavy machinery."

      I do indeed think we're very lucky to live in a car-free place, but I've heard some visitors and even a few locals complain about how inconvenient it is. I guess such people are lucky in that there's no lack of other car-based places, whereas those who'd rather avoid cars have a much narrower selection.

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  10. Great post. One question which keeps playing through my mind; how do Venetians dispose of a potted Christmas tree?

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    1. Thanks very much, Lindsay. I think the vast majority of Venetians opt for artificial trees, and I can only tel you what we've done with ours in the past: either put it out in a designated place beside a canal where one can leave things to be picked by garbage boats & recycling boats in Sant'Elena, where it was picked up instead by the city's group of gardeners who planted it in the little campo of Sant' Alvise at the other end of the city. (Alas, it didn't thrive.) Or we've given it to our son's old preschool, which has a very large garden around it in which they've planted it.

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