Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Boating Home a Christmas Tree: Tradition or Folly?

The view from behind the tree on our way home down the Grand Canal
It was not a mototopo (large work boat). It was not even a patana, or snub-nosed medium-sized work boat common to Venetian canals. Nor did it contain a gru, or hydraulic crane, as Sandro used to insist was absolutely necessary for the task. 

But after more than two full years of our son's tireless advocacy, exhortations, and frequent kvetching, we did actually transport the Christmas tree we purchased last weekend home in a boat. And, just as he'd insisted it would be since he was no more than four years of age (,, it really was the most enjoyable experience we've had getting the tree home.

At the helm on the Grand Canal: all business and sober vigilance--in spite of the Pimpa cartoon character life vest
There was nothing to argue about this year. We had the boat, and we were all united in our plan to drive it to pick our tree from among the small potted forest of them in the seasonal lot beside the church of San Felice in Cannaregio. Then Saturday morning Sandro announced, just as we were about to leave the apartment, that our plan was "stupid."

"Stupid?" I asked, completely thrown.

"I don't think that" Sandro quickly replied. "It's what Tomaso said. That using a boat to get a Christmas tree is stupid."

"Who is this Tomaso?" I demanded.

"A kid in my class."

"Well, do you agree?"

"No," Sandro said. Then he added, "And he said you were stupid."

"I'm stupid? How does he know I'm stupid, this kid I've never even seen?"

"Because you thought of getting the Christmas tree with the boat."

"But you were the one who always wanted to use a boat to get the tree!" I reminded him. "Do you not want to now?"

"No, I do. Let's go! Tomaso is stupid!"

I include the above exchange not to suggest anything about "how sharper than a serpent's tooth is the ingratitude of a child" (or not much, anyway), but to illustrate that getting a Christmas tree in one's own boat may not exactly be a venerated and widely-practiced Venetian tradition.

Of course, given the fact that Sandro, like many kids, has been known to boast in the most annoying way, Tomaso may simply have labeled the whole enterprise "stupido" as a means of cutting him down to size. Though I don't know how I got dragged into it.

But the fact is that, as picturesque as the practice might potentially be, I don't recall seeing people transporting Christmas trees in their boats. The simple reason for this may be because of how many Venetians seem to favor artificial trees.

Or it may be that for some reason unknown to me, many Venetians really do consider such an idea to be as foolish as Tomaso said it was. (Though I'd give the kid's opinion more weight if he bore the distinctly Venetian name of Alvise or Iacopo.) 

In any case, one of the great benefits of being a foreigner of no standing whatsoever is the freedom from the worry that plagues those locals who are known, and who (as an Italian man once lamented to me) grow up with a heavy sense of the gossip likely to bubble up among their neighbors in the wake of being seen, for example, dashing off to the local green grocer in a shoddy outfit.

Or to put it another way, those video cameras one sees around the city are superfluous (and often non-functioning) shams compared to the system of surveillance already long- and securely-established here.

But I come from an entirely different tradition....

When I was a child, infected with popular images of what was supposed to be a distinctly American Christmas, I fantasized feverishly about going to get a tree in a station wagon. According to everything I'd seen, there was supposed to be snow on the ground, and, whether the tree itself was to be purchased from a charming seasonal lot warmed by an outdoor fire and the good cheer of its proprietor or chopped out of some friendly forest, it would be transported home all prettily atop the station wagon's roof rack.

Of course, as I grew up in the middle of the flat, temperate, agricultural San Joaquin Valley in California, snow was out of the question. As were forests.

We also lacked the station wagon.

It never occurred to me to think of going to get a tree in a boat. And, back then, even world-famous Venice itself was an undiscovered and entirely unsuspected country well beyond the constricted horizon of my family's near-sighted world. I could never have foreseen getting up on a cold gray morning and taking a vaporetto to the island of Certosa where we keep our little boat. I never had any childhood experience even remotely resembling that of heading out into the lagoon last Saturday as the sun squinted between clouds, casting a silvery sheen over a hazy fantastical silhouettescape of towers and cupolas, roof-line statuary and abundant ornamentation.

All of which is to say something like: That as much as we may long to be secure in our sense of the world and our place in it, knowing what we think we want and what's expected of us by those around us, I often find that the best experiences of my life are those I never knew enough about to even desire. That if we are lucky, some of the best gifts we get are those it never even occurs to us to ask for: those experiences, and those people, we stumble into quite stupidly, as Tomaso might put it.


  1. I would like to know how you will dispose of it after Christmas. Is there somewhere to recycle it?

    1. The plan is to plant it in the large giardino of Sandro's old asilo, Andrew, as it is a potted tree.

  2. (Glad you seem to be feeling better!) I'm thoroughly loving your blog. I put aside whatever I'm working on, when I see your post come through! "...the best experiences in life are those I never knew enough to even desire." Magnificent.

    1. Thanks very much, HBK, you're very kind to take the time to read it, and to let me know you like it.

  3. I've been wanting to use this quote for ages, and since I totally agree with what Helen said, here goes: "It would be like licking the spoon that someone else used to put the icing on the cake."

    1. Hm, I have to think about that, Yvonne, but it doesn't sound so bad to me.

  4. Sandro is quite a character, and you are the best dad to go with his crazy plans. He will forever remember this, and the stupid Tommaso who clearly doesn't understand the fun there is in getting a real tree by boat.

    Buon Natale!

    1. I was wondering if you got trees when you were growing up here, Laura. Buon Natale!

    2. We used to buy them when I was little, the flower shop in Campo Santa Margherita used to selll them, but it is long gone, another victim of the rent spikes, now we have a bar instead. My mom decided at one point that she couldn't deal with the dead needles so we switched to fake. It didn't require a boat ride though, just " un ponte e na cae" away. I don't know anyone who has a live tree in Venice nowadays, most people feel weird about cutting the trees.

    3. Interesting that you used to have one growing up, Laura. If only Venetians felt as weird about creating moto ondoso these days as they do about cutting trees!