Monday, December 2, 2013

V is for Vandal on the Accademia Bridge

A visitor to Venice stands proudly beside her own small contribution to the city's culture
Last Saturday I was walking across the Accademia Bridge when I saw a young woman squatting beside one of its stainless steel hand rails, small brass lock in hand, preparing to attach it. Two other women stood beside her, one with a dslr camera around her neck, and they were all speaking English. I hesitated, then paused beside them and said, "You know what you're about to do is illegal, and it's something that Venetians really hate."

They all looked at me, as if not quite sure I was talking to them--as I had, after all, just interrupted their conversation out of nowhere--so I basically repeated what I'd just said, with a little additional elaboration on the fact that Venetians really didn't appreciate all these locks.

The two dark-haired standing women didn't respond in any way, but the blond woman squatting beside the railing turned to look up at me and said with an expression of obvious annoyance, "You know, I'm just trying to have a nice experience here and you're really ruining it for me."

I was a bit stunned, almost pleasantly stunned, though not surprised. On the contrary, the odd sense of what I'd call something like pleasure, along with a certain disgust, came precisely because of her honesty in admitting to exactly the kind of self-absorption I always imagined motivated those who attached locks to the bridge. In that moment I was filled with a certain perverse admiration for this woman for being so forthright. In fact, I could write a post simply about the astonishing level of entitled self-absorption that characterizes the worst visitors to Venice--or any other place--but Robert C Davis and Garry R Marshall examine this tendency and its socio-historical background so well in their book The Tourist Maze: A Cultural Critique of the World's Most Touristed City that I'd only be repeating (dully) what they've already done much better and with well-documented support.

As they write on the first pages of their book:
" is enough to remember that for most of the world Venice is not a real city, with a real city's inhabitants and contraints, but a backdrop and a stage for one's gaze, emotions, and passions. Moreover, it is a place seemingly made for intrigue and romance, a labyrinth of narrow streets and waterways that positively invites transgression on the assumption that nobody is watching, or at least nobody that matters."
Indeed, whether I "mattered" or not was the next topic that came up in this little discussion between the blond woman with the lock and myself. For after I said something along the lines that while I might be "ruining her experience" she was ruining the bridge for Venetians, she asked, "Are you a Venetian?"

Now, if someone had asked me this question after I'd lived for 3 years in New York City I would have had no trouble simply replying "Yes." But it's different here, and so I said, "I'm an Italian citizen and I've lived in Venice for three years but, no, my grandparents came from other parts of Italy."

She looked like she'd just proved an important point, so I added, "But what does that matter? What you're doing is against the law, it's ugly, not to mention tacky and unoriginal, and it's something that everyone who lives here hates. It's a stupid act of vandalism. It costs money to remove all these locks, which the city doesn't have, so private individuals have to come along and cut them off. Which they will do, you know, probably in about a month. Your lock will be gone in a month."

"That's okay," she said, "I don't care if it's cut off. But I might have listened to you if you were really a Venetian, but since you're not..."

"I've lived here for three years," I replied. "What difference does that make?" But she, still squatting with the open lock in her hand, still itching to have her marvelous "Venetian experience" documented by her friend with the camera, had hit upon what she considered irrefutable justification for doing what she would have done anyway.

"Okay," I said, "next time I'll be sure to bring a Count along with me."

"Yes," she replied, "you do that."

I walked off, but I'd barely started my descent down the Campo San Vio side of the bridge when I realized I had to take photograph of this woman, if she'd allow me.

I returned and said, "Sorry to interrupt again, but I have a blog and I've done a couple of posts about the problem of all the locks on this bridge, and wondered about what kind of person does it, so I'd love to take a photo of you for my blog, as an example of a person who commits this kind of vandalism."

She agreed readily, heartily. Part of me wondered if she didn't dare do otherwise, so as not to ruin the effect she was trying to make upon her two observing and (ideally) admiring friends, who hadn't opened their mouths during the whole discussion. Perhaps it was her role to be the "wild one" of the trio, to wow her two silent dark-haired friends with her verve and brashness. But I was probably over-psychologizing, and it wasn't my business to figure her out anyway. I just wanted to be sure she knew that I would post this photo online as an illustration of someone who did something that no Venetian, nor most lovers of Venice, admired. I repeated this to her.

"Fine," she replied, "go ahead," and struck the pose you see above, making the V sign with her fingers, not as a sign of peace (certainly not that), but to signify--as she laughed with her friends--"vandal."

I took the photo, then displayed it on the camera's screen to show her. "Look at it," I told her, "make sure you like it, 'cause I really am going to use it. Is it acceptable?"

Yes, yes, it was just fine, she said, laughing, seemingly happy with the prospect of potentially broader exposure--or amused by the ridiculousness of being hassled in Venice by, as Davis and Marshall write above, "nobody that matters."

Who knows?

"Great," I said. "You should be very proud. You make a great vandal. Next time don't forget your can of spray paint."

"I won't!" she cheerily replied, that flower of tourism.

For previous posts on this same topic:

And for the solution to this problem, instituted in November 2104:


  1. Reading this made me livid. May all the pigeons of Venice conspire to relieve themselves on her vacuous bottle-blonde head.

    I commend your civility, Sig. Nonloso. I'd have laid into her like a cobra.

    1. I think I may have gotten more positive results if I'd had the charm of, say, Francesco Da Mosto--not to mention his long family history here, and his publishing & BBC history. Or at least his nice accent. I didn't think calling someone a "vandal" was civil at all, but then I guess there are many famous people these days whose celebrity stems from even more ignoble acts performed before cameras.

    2. If calling her a "vandal" wasn't the absolute pinnacle of civility, I'd have said worse, so it's all relative. I think you showed admirable restraint.

      This blog entry has spurred a discussion on TripAdvisor:

      Our Lady of the Padlock would undoubtedly be thrilled with her fifteen minutes of infamy.

      Funny you should mention Da Mosto. I've been Googling media processing labs that can convert his BBC Venice to a format that will play on North American DVD players.

    3. It was an interesting discussion on TripAdvisor, thanks for letting me know about it (and perhaps you even began it?). I was wondering if anyone would express even a mere hint that he or she found it romantic or cute in any way, as I seem to recall reading about a German council's plan to cut off such locks from a local bridge that was met with such public disapproval that the plan was abandoned and the locks remained, but the opinion on TripAdvisor was unanimously opposed. As one commenter mentioned, the fellas selling the locks (always the same ones) arouse an ire in me I don't feel towards vendors of other junk-- yet I wouldn't want to encourage civilians to harass them for fear that that could easily be turned into something quite ugly (and racist) by certain groups or people. I do wish they'd devote themselves to a different inventory though--or the cops would find an effective way to encourage them to do so.

      Otherwise, really, why not simply sell cans of spray paint on the Zattere, for example? A large audience passes by, there's plenty of wall space to work with, and the graffiti already there is never ever cleaned off. And, alas, I fear there's no shortage of tourists who'd do it without a second thought.

      I'm still shocked by what an awful job the BBC did at getting Da Mosto's programs seen in the US; they seem not to have even tried, though the audience of Americans who visit Venice is huge and I think he'd play quite well there. There's such a ready audience for someone like him--the North American Italian consulates, for one thing, would be an easy means of arranging a series of large events. If only someone had given me the US franchise...

  2. I had to take a d e e p breath and talk myself out of wanting to become a vandal like her (and the countless others) and head off with a spray can and graffiti - or do something else offensive - in her neighbourhood!

    I'm with Brooks - let's hope a pigeon got her.

    1. We can hope, Mary, but you know what they say: There's never a pigeon around when you need one (nor, obviously, on the Accademia Bridge, any carabinieri to discourage the sale of the locks--which would be more straight-forward than counting on those annoying birds).

  3. This is so infuriating. I would have gotten so upset with her. This sense of entitlement and self absorption is so pervasive (have you seen the Juliet's house in Verona lately?). Interestingly when you call people on something they know is wrong they try to steer the guilt from them to something else. In this person's case she tried to justify her stupid act with the fact that you are not Venetian. I get into these discussions with people who let their dogs enter the soccer fields in the town I live, knowing it is wrong they either make it my fault for being rude or they start a diatribe on the fact the nobody respects the rules. The blaming game never makes the perpetrator a better person.

    Thanks for speaking up!

    BTW, I am planning to be in Venice in a month, I can't wait to roam the calli again.

    1. We seem to measure our "freedom" these days by our ability to do the stupidest, most self-absorbed, anti-social and destructive acts with complete impunity--while our phone calls are monitored in violation of the US Constitution and int'l law, etc. I don't get it.

      I'm happy to hear you have a chance to come back for a while, Laura--and at a time of year when you may even be able to roam the calli without fighting your way through crowds!

  4. At least a dialogue was possible there. In San Zaccaria a Chinese girl was posing for a camera of her boyfriend - right in front of the John The Baptist father's sarcophagus, striking poses and making noises just like some participant of a karaoke contest back home.

    The whole group made no effort at all to adapt to the church as an environment that calls for some restraint, they were enjoying themselves, giggling, chirping, making "cute and funny" poses for the ones among them who were entrusted with handling the cameras and make these moments last as long as the pixels do.

    The sacristan asked them to behave - You are not in the piazza, that's a church. Please. -

    And I saw by their reaction they don't care, they don't want to try to understand - they are entitled to the good time and to hell with all the downers.

    Chinese I met traveling the world are a distinctly different breed. Just a few years ago Japanese groups were omnipresent, but Japanese have a culture of shame, of embarrassment, they were ready to step aside, to consider. Looking at Chinese I'm totally sure it's no use trying to reason with them, all you'll get are blank stares and maybe a dismissive gesture.

    1. I could repeat my own anecdote about the inappropriate behavior in S Zaccaria that I recently witnessed by tourists from a country a good distance from China, but I don't know what that would prove except that no nationality has a monopoly on rudeness and self-absorption.

      I don't of course doubt the veracity of your accounts, Sasha, but I have a problem singling out an entire country as a bunch of heels--not even a country with as small a population as Liechtenstein's 36,000, much less China's 1.35 billion!

      In fact, as far as San Zaccaria goes, I've noticed that that particular sacristan is kept very busy indeed by all kinds of badly behaved tourists from all over the world.

    2. One tends to generalize - since it's impossible to assess every one of 1.35 billion Chinese individually. But no tourist group that was loud, pushing, totally uncaring for the other people's interest has never - in my experience - failed to be Chinese. Maybe it's a nice thing to disregard the obvious for the sake of some abstract objectivity, I can even envy the urge to do that but it just doesn't work for me.

  5. I hope, oh I really do hope that she sees this. Perhaps a little shame may be felt. She wasn't apparently with a paramour for whom the lock may have had some significance. Meh!

    1. You know, Andrew, for all I know one or both of her friends with her may have been her sweetheart(s)--though they seemed rather more sensible than she. (But they say opposites attract.) Or perhaps the lock was intended as a sign of undying self-love. I don't know.

      In any case, as that old saying "There's no such thing as bad press" seems to have been elevated to the First Commandment of our culture, I suspect she might very well be as pleased with the attention as she acted like she would be on the bridge.

    2. It has been my experience, after living here for fifteen years, that Brits and Americans often behave badly simply because they do not have the character to leave a positive mark on Venice, so they resort to negative behavior. They want to leave SOMETHING, some proof that they have been here. So they resort to putting a lock on a bridge, something that any moron can do. It is the state of humanity today. Everyone is so desperate for recognition.... Not only did the blonde get her lock, but you put her photo on the internet! It is her dream come true. (I don't think we will find Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie doing such a thing:) Suggestion: why not make it an art project? Take EVERYBODY'S photos clicking on the locks and turn it into a collage. You can title it: "DESPERATE FOR RECOGNITION." That way it is not something glorious they are doing, but something very sad.

    3. Ah, I don't think I have the stomach for such an art project, Venetian Cat--either to make it or see it. I consider the single image of this woman alone sad enough, or unappealing enough, or distasteful enough that adding innumerably more images to it--documenting innumerably more foolish unoriginal acts of vandalism--couldn't possibly make it any less glorious to me nor, alas, on the other hand, alter the opinion of anyone who thinks such an act is something to be proud of. As you say, people are so extremely desperate for attention that even entitling their acts DESPERATE FOR ATTENTION (or worse) seems unlikely to me to inspire any sense of shame. After all, there are some celebrities these days whose entire fame rests upon acts of self-promotion that are much more dishonorable and cynical than the woman with the lock.

      I don't know what to say. I can only shake my head. But I would hope that other people who might hear how much these locks are hated by Venice's residents, aw ell as many of its visitors, would refrain from becoming, as the saying goes, part of the problem. Of course a sign on the bridge announcing the illegality of the act might be a good place to start, as the authorities seem incapable of keeping the lock sellers away.

  6. Dear Steve, one of your best post ever. But the post raises indeed also the question of what is Venice "citizenship": ius sanguinis? Ius soli? How is that historically a city so projected outside still create this sense of "respect" that couldn't allow you to affirm that you are a Venetian, which indeed you finally probably are more than so many others claiming citizenship because they were born in the city or because of their ancestors.

    At the same time, I understand why it is so difficult for me, who have been living abroad for twenty years now, to move my official residence (still in Venice). It makes me feel some kind of more "official" right to be considered as part of the town.

    We may discuss long about what make people feeling emotionally linked to a place that is creating their own identity and how this feeling can be so important to keep all pieces in our complex psychological balance in some ways "right".

    What is sure is that reading your posts makes me feel closer to my own hometown (and y own identity).

    Thank you for that.

    1. It means a lot to me, Francesco, that you liked this post; thank you for letting me know. The question you pose about who is and is not a Venetian is an interesting and difficult one, and I wonder if in some ways the survival of the city depends upon how it is answered. We've all heard the predictions that in the not-too-distant future Venice may be a city without any Venetians living in it. My first reaction is of course, How awful! But I wonder: what if through some miracle the city actually began to regain population and diversify its economic base away from the monoculture of tourism, and what if the influx of new full-time productive citizens were not people with Venetians roots? What if--just as there used to be, say, a massive Venetian quarter in Constantinople, a Genovese quarter in Alexandria--there developed, say, a thriving Sengalese "quarter" in Venice? Or Bengladeshi or Genovese or German (as there used to be) or Turkish (as there used to be) or whoever else? Of craftspeople or merchants or web designers or whatever it might be that would allow them to live and work and raise a family in Venice? Allow them to be real citizens, rather than 2nd or 3rd home owners. Would such a development still be cause for mourning the diminishing number of Venetians? I don't know. It's complicated, but traditional culture in a designated locale is disappearing everywhere, so at a certain point doesn't it become a matter of the quality of human life in a place rather than any notion of cultural purity?

      Of course, ironically, the most outspoken demand for glimpses of "authentic Venetian culture" are made by the tourists who want to consume it and the travel professionals who want to pimp it out to them. Living here one can't help but feel sometimes that much of what is commonly desired by the tourism industry as "traditional Venetian culture" was tied to a level of poverty that most Venetians wouldn't really like to go back to.

      Of course, having said all that, I remain interested in learning all about Venetian culture.

  7. Far out! Well, you certainly have the sassiness of a New Yorker, Sig. Nonloso, and I am shaking my head in wonder at you! From someone who loves the Accademia bridge, and Venice, thank you caring enough to have that conversation.
    We took a trip to Venice and Paris in October, and were saddened that people don't seem to understand the obvious - throwing metal keys in a river (the Seine) or a canal is environmentally wasteful and destructive, let alone the ugliness of the locks on the bridge and the cost of their removal.
    Writing this comment, I've just had an idea that we could all write to the likes of Lonely Planet and other 'youth' oriented travel publications and encourage the travel publications to encourage their readers to think before they do it...much like many travel publications advise their readers that Ayers Rock is considered sacred to our indigenous people, who much prefer that tourists not climb it.
    PS I'm female and I too wish I had the charm, accent and panache of Mr da Mosto!

    1. Thank you for your very kind words, Capturing Venice, but my lack of success in preventing yet another lock from being attached to the bridge makes doubtful that I deserve them. Your idea that travel publications be encouraged to state that locks shouldn't be attached to, say, the Accademia is an interesting one: I wonder if they'd bother to do it? I wonder if it would work? Do people NOT climb Ayers Rock because its sacredness is mentioned? But, then, a designated sacred place might (and certainly should) carry more weight with even the most obnoxious tourists than a bridge which is important to locals but can't really be said to be "sacred." Desecrating a sacred place might very well be believed to invite divine retribution of some sort, while desecrating a popular place...? I guess if you're unlucky in some places it might get you beat up by angry locals.

      Anyway it is an interesting idea Though I do think a couple of signs at either end of the bridge with a red diagonal line across the image of a lock might be an even more immediate place to start.

      And, well, considering how tourists regularly behave in places in Venice that actually are sacred, and blatantly so (such as churches)... It might be an uphill battle even if guidebooks did try to dissuade visitors.

  8. A lively post and dead-on comments about the scourge of those hideous "locks of love," a blight everywhere (I hated them in Prague!).

    I traveled when I was a youth, living in South America, where we were always cautioned by our parents not to be "Ugly Americans." I haven't heard that phrase for years now, but it always put the fear of God into us, and we worried about being seen by others as being rude and offensive to the country we were traveling in. Obviously "ugliness" is not confined to one nationality (although you politely didn't tell us which country she appeared to be from). But it would be nice to bring back that idea--that you were either a good tourist, or a bad one. I've traveled much more since marrying, and my husband also lived overseas as a child. I'm lucky, as he is a "good" tourist, if there can be such a thing, and on our fourth trip to Venice last year, were appalled by what we saw from all the visitors (it was on All Saints Day--what a crush!).

    So, thank you for putting up with us. I love reading your blog. Keep it up--

    1. Thank you for your kind words and for your thoughts on the subject, Elizabeth, and though perhaps it's not as common as it once was (and I suspect no one reads the 1958 novel whose title popularized the term, nor sees the film made a few year later with Marlon Brando--I never have), I still sometimes come across the phrase "ugly Americans," though of course in fact it really can't be limited to one nationality. It seems the recent disaster on New Year's Even in Piazza San Marco--vandalism, obscene amounts of waste material left behind (some of them bodily), etc--was an international effort, perhaps much of it made by young Italian men (or "boys" may be the more accurate term, regardless of age).

      Of course respectful tourists from any country have nothing to be ashamed of (and are often recognizable at a glance), but sometimes I wonder if the very nature of mass tourism and even Venice's shameless appeals to it don't encourage the ugliness. I often feel like an unofficial motto of many of those making money from tourism in Venice (and those city officials who aid and abet them) is "Aim Low." And, unfortunately, as the New Year's Eve fiasco demonstrates, they usually get what they're shooting for.

      As for me, I feel that Venetians put up with me and my faulty Italian etc as much as with any tourists.

  9. Was she British? In the UK, that gesture (peace sign, but with the palm of the hand inward) is considered vulgar, roughly equivalent to the middle finger.

    1. Hm, Kyle, yes, I'll admit that she was British, and, yes, I suppose I'm not surprised by the vulgarity of the gesture. But thanks for confirming it.

  10. This is why, after 3 1/2 years I finally had to get out of Venice (I actually used to live in Santa Margherita, just to the right of that stupid, vapid, self-entitled trailer/caravan park cow).

    I am European by birth but grew up in America - however, Europe is where I've always wanted to be.

    If there where just some way to keep the astonishingly ignorant, maleducati cafoni turisti out of the place....

    For the love of God people, just go back to Walmart and/or Tesco already and leave the cultured places to the cultured people.

    You're not wanted.

    You make our stomachs hurt and vomit rise up into our throats. It isn't any more complicated than that.

    1. Yes, Campo Santa Margherita is much changed since I first visited it 20 years ago, as is the entire city. I can understand your frustration, and wish that rather than doing everything in their power to shoe-horn as many tourists into the city on any given day, the city would turn its attention to making the tourist experience better and more pleasant for fewer visitors (as well as residents!). But fewer tourists could actually translate into more money (and less costs). But the people who control such things are the people who make their riches transporting people in and out of the city: what happens when those people are here is of no interest to them.

  11. What is the worst possible type of tourist Venice can have? One like this. A selfish airhead who should be fined for her beyond selfish attempt at leaving her entirely unwanted and illegal mark on the city

    1. Yep, this visitor falls a good deal short of the ideal--or, well, even the acceptable. But the good news is that since this post was published the local authorities have cleverly put up new railings that leave virtually no space for locks to be attached. It's a shame that they should be driven to such ingenuity (not to mention expense), but their solution has worked.

  12. As I assume she was a Brit, I would like to apologise on behalf of my country woman.

    1. Oh dear, redcelia, if one must apologize for the behavior of one's fellow citizens I'm in real trouble! But as far as you go, I think the lady above can take the fall for this behavior entirely herself.