Saturday, May 28, 2016

Welcome, More or Less, to Venice

If you're renting an apartment in Venice for a few days (or longer) and happen upon one of the above posters that began showing up around the city a couple of weeks ago you might have good cause to be surprised. After all, you might ask (or at least think), "Aren't I one of the good tourists?!"

"Unlike 75% of the more than 20 million visitors who invade the city each year," you might say, "I'm not here for just a few hours, requiring much more in city expenditures (in terms of garbage collection, policing, etc) than I spend. I'm here for a span of days, buying food, perhaps going to restaurants, paying to go to cultural sites, putting money into the local economy. I'm one of the good guys!"

And you'd be right, for you are the type of tourist that Venice needs and should appreciate. But...

But nothing is simple in Venice, and that "but" which includes you also includes a lot of other people who are not only more culpable, but, even worse, knowingly and intentionally culpable.

Here's a quick bit of background, courtesy of last Wednesday's Il Gazzettino. In 1999 there were 12,000 beds available in the hotels of Venice. By last year that number had increased 50% to 18,000.

But the number of ex-alberghi letti, the number of beds provided someplace outside of hotels, went from 0 to (at least) 20,000.

Now this great increase was not due only to the rise of the internet and sites such as AirBnB, but, initially to a change in the laws which allowed people to start legally turning private homes into B&Bs. For in a city in which jobs were (and are) hard to come by, and where families tend to hold onto property, this change opened up an income source for residents who, upon the death of an elderly relative, for example, could convert that apartment that had once housed a local into tourist lodging--and thereby get a better rate of return than if they had rented it long-term to a city resident.

I know people who rent out part of their own home in this way as a source of income.

In some ways this change in law, one could argue, gave well-established Venetians who might otherwise have had to leave the city for lack of work new career opportunities: they could become tourist hosts.

But, unlike the family we know which rents out part of their own lodgings, not every Venetian who decided to do this did so legally: doing all the paperwork required (needless to say, it's a lot) and reporting their earnings and paying taxes. And as the growth of the internet made renting out tourist flats easier, the number of landlords doing so illegally only increased. 

So, if the official figure of "ex-alberghi letti" aimed exclusively at tourist traffic is placed at 20,000, the actual number could very be well twice that.

In last Monday's Gazzettino the head of the Guardia di Finanzia promised more tax audits to address this problem, and announced a renewed commitment to collecting funds owed to the city. One might be excused for asking, "What took you so long?"

(An account of some of their recent successes in uncovering dozens of illegal B&Bs right around Piazza San Marco is here: ).

But aside from unreported income and illegal lodgings, the law that allowed landlords to legally change their properties from residences to tourist lodgings has had a profound effect on the housing market. Speculators who would not have bothered buying up properties to rent to Venetians residents at less-than-inspiring rates were excited by the much higher returns promised by tourist-only flats. So that it was not merely a matter of a local family renting out their late grandma's old place for income, but of "entrepreneurs" (local and otherwise) buying up vast quantities of apartments that once would have been rented to residents and orienting them exclusively to tourists.

Not surprisingly in such a context--especially when added to the already-existing market for little-used second or vacation homes--the price of apartments has steadily gone up.

(Of course this kind of situation is not, unfortunately, limited to Venice. A line in small print at the bottom of the poster above acknowledges that its form and content is derived from one created in New Orleans, Louisiana--which explains the distinctly un-Venetian-sounding phrase "damn shame" that appears in it. And a recent live discussion on the Guardian UK website on the question "Should the government ban second home ownership?" [] considers the matter in British and northern European contexts.)

Additionally, as the price of Venetian apartments for sale has moved beyond the reach of most Venetians, the number of apartments for rent to residents has dwindled. You see, apartments here are designated either as transitorio (only to be rented to non-residents for no longer than a year) or for residents (usually in a contract of 4 years). As I've discovered first-hand, not only are the pickings quite slim for residents looking for an apartment, and quite pricey, but generally only the worst apartments are designated for residents. (see:

So that distinctly Venetian apartment you may find yourself day-dreaming about renting--with the view of the little canal and all the charming touches--will most likely be available to you (no matter how much you might be willing to spend) only if you are not Venetian and don't have Venetian residency and don't plan on really making a life here. 

As is the case with too much about the city, the housing market, too, is oriented toward idle, barren and unsustainable fantasy, profitable to a few, rather than to actual, generative living.

To loosely paraphrase George Carlin about another place, the "Dream of Venice" is too often predicated upon being fast asleep, with eyes shut tight.   

Now, if those who control Venice actually cared about preserving what little actual life remains in it, they might do things such as create tax incentives that would reward landlords for renting to residents rather than tourists, and change any tendency in the current regulations on renting to residents that make landlords fear that they will never be able to rid themselves of even non-paying resident tenants.

And they might also immediately place a moratorium on all transformations of residential apartments into tourist ones (called "i cambi d'uso" in Italian).

This is exactly what is called for in a petition which you--yes, you Dear Reader--can sign, whether you are a resident or not:

And if you are planning to rent an apartment in Venice--which really does put you among the best visitors to Venice (which also includes people who stay in hotels)--you might ask your potential landlord if the apartment you're interested in is "un'affitacamera regolare" (a legal rental rather than a black market one). Then you'll not only be doing your part to contribute to the continuing existence of the city, but you'll know that your landlord is doing his or hers, too. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

San Marco Between Storms, This Evening

Fifteen minutes passed between the image above and the last one below. At the time I took the one above I thought I was capturing the clearing skies, just around 6 pm, after a prior late afternoon storm. But as the third image below indicates, it was just an intermission between storms: the next one--at least the third of the day--rolled in so emphatically with such a black sky and heavy rain and thunder that it seemed sure to last well into the night. But it, too, was gone in well less than an hour, and now the day is drawing to a close with tranquil blue skies. 

Hurrying toward port, and not a minute too soon

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Rainfall in the Sunshine, Late This Afternoon

The dogs seem to know what's on its way, even if the people are too busy talking to notice

It's marzo that's supposed to be pazzo here, but this year March was really quite restrained, while it's been April and May that have been rather erratic, bounding in a single day from deep showery gloom to sunny high spirits and then back to black skies and hard rain; from temperate placidity to gales to dead calm.

Today looked sure to be a long gray washout this morning, but the sun mounted an attack, was overrun by clouds, re-emerged convincingly, was once more outflanked on all sides, battled free of the darkness once more, looking to have established a stronghold at last, only to be utterly routed by a lightning brigade and chased from the field.

The image above was taken at the start of the final battle, when it seemed that sunshine had won the day, in spite of the rain beginning to fall.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Colors, and Some Curiosities, of the 42nd Vogalonga

This being Italy, it's not surprising that more than a few participants in the Vogolonga should concern themselves with making an impression, or cutting a bella figura--or, often enough, in truth, a gaudy or intentionally humorous one. But this year no one pulled it off quite so well as the crew of six rowers from the Canottieri Treporti (seen above and below), with their all white outfits, pale yellow scarves, beautiful flower-laden boat, and onboard pianist.

If you look closely at the image above, though, you'll see that their boat also carried fresh strawberries and artichokes just behind its prow, and on the upright above them, a bunch of radishes (all representative, I suspect, of Treporti's agricultural abundance).

But one of my favorite details of this boat overflowing with panache can be seen in the image below: that cigar in the mouth of the rower just in front of the piano.  

Otherwise, this year's Vogalonga featured its usual variety of oar-powered watercraft of both Venetian and foreign origins, as you can see in the three images below.

Though you don't often see the large old work boat--half the size of a contemporary mototopo--being rowed in the third image below by the Associazione Culturale Galleggiante "Il Caicio" (a local group devoted to promoting and reinvigorating water-borne local traditions, as well as restoring the boats traditionally used in them:

Along with never having seen a piano and its player in a traditional Venetian-style boat setting out on the 32-km-long route, I'd also never seen a participants' boat without oars, like the one below. The Vogalonga is often described as a "celebration of the oar"--and, in fact, the regulations state that "rowing crafts of any weight and size can take part in the race." But the two guys in the peddle boat seem not to have gotten that message.

Nor had I ever before seen a--well, whatever it is that appears in the images below. But there were three of them in the Vogalonga this year so it must be great fun if you know how to do it.

It did not, however, look like great fun. It looked about as pleasant as going for a hike in the Sahara wearing snow skis. Or trying to escape from an expanse of quicksand with each of your feet stuck in a large plastic bucket. It was as if all the pleasant, graceful rhythmic glide of nordic skiing and kayaking, all the deft, swift sweep of water- and snow-skiing were utterly removed, and you were left--for 32 very long km--to the clumsy ineffectual effort common to the rank beginner in any one of those four sports, but all rolled into one cruel form of mockery.

And, finally, a few more images of some boats not native to the lagoon but, in at least a couple of cases, common enough here year round.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

And So It Begins: Preparing to Take to the Lagoon for the 42nd Vogalonga, This Morning

I'll post images of the festive start of this year's Vogalonga tomorrow. Among them, at least a couple of things I've never seen before: like the local crew of rowers whose tempo was set not by the shouts of a coxswain or the beat of a drum, but by the upright piano and its player situated among them on board.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Often Forgotten Oasis, and Picnic Site, Just Behind Piazza San Marco

If you're a visitor to Venice who really wants to be featured in the local papers all you need to do is spread out a picnic blanket in Piazza San Marco--either in the shade of a colonnade or the open sunlight--and settle down to enjoy a meal.

You won't be getting good press, as this really infuriates locals, but perhaps like certain celebrities you're one of those people who roll beneath the banner of "there's no such thing as bad publicity." If you really want to distinguish yourself as the ugliest of tourists you can even bring along a portable barbecue and grill up one of your favorite hometown dishes.

You won't be the first to do this kind of thing, but the locals react with fresh indignation to each new instance. 

If you're not that kind of visitor, however--and as that kind of visitor is not the sort to do much research into a place before visiting you almost certainly are not if you're reading this or any similar site--then the only option you really have if you want to eat in Piazza San Marco is to plump for a seat at one of the various cafes there.

Indeed, the number of spots in which you can simply sit down gratis are extremely few--on the benches and ledges at the base of the campanile, for instance--and if the city has come up with any funds to pay the guardians of the Piazza you'll be shooed like pigeons from the low stairs surrounding the Piazza if you try to sit down on them.

However, a very, very short distance from the Piazza is a green, sometimes flowering space with no lack of actual benches, where you can sit down to a picnic without being bothered in the least. I mention it here because in a historic center almost entirely lacking in just benches--much less greenery--I'm always a bit surprised by how few people take advantage of this space, I Giardini Reali, or the Royal Gardens, created during Napoleon's rule over the city.

In those days it was the private garden for the foreign rulers of the city--first French, then Austrian:  inaccessible except across a drawbridge from the palace (now the Mueso Correr) that borders it, and cut off from the populace by water on every other side.

Everyone can now reach it easily by foot from two directions, but it's still rather little used.*

Perhaps it's the long row of small stalls generally selling the gaudiest of trinkets and Chinese-made masks that stretch on either side of its entrance that put people off. Rolling your eyes at the crush of so much of what you've probably already seen elsewhere in the city center you could very well miss that there's a park behind those stalls.  

To reach the park's entrance from the Piazza, you simply walk to the two massive columns looking out over the Bacino di San Marco, then turn and walk along the water front in the direction of the mouth of the Grand Canal. You cross a hardly-noticeable bridge and a short distance on your right is the entrance. If you come to the vaporetto stop for the number 2 line, you've missed it and gone too far.

Now, this is hardly a secret destination, and I hope all those who know it well already will forgive me for belaboring it, but I'm surprised by how little used it typically is. On the one hand, this is a pleasant thing for anyone who lives here and is looking for a break from the crowds of the centro storico. But on the other, it seems a real shame that those visitors looking only for a place to sit down and eat seem to know nothing about it and so, instead, try to settle down somewhere in Piazza San Marco and find themselves chased off--or the objects of local scorn.

The grounds aren't always kept as nicely as they could be--there's a dense arbor in its center whose entrances are blocked off as if it's a construction site--but whether you've been to Venice a number of times, or are here for the first time, it can provide a welcome respite.

*Though I can't recall at the moment the book from which I learned this fact--perhaps Jan Morris?--at one time in the 20th century it was a popular cruising site. I don't think it still is. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Tiepolo, Father and Son, at Villa Valmarana ai Nani, Vicenza

It will cost you just 6 euro (if you take the regionale veloce, or fast local train), a pleasant 45 minute rail trip, and either a short bus ride or walk up Monte Bèrico south of Vicenza to find yourself surrounded by Tiepolos. There are lot of other things to see in Vicenza, as well--for one thing, Palladio's famous and influential Villa La Rotonda is just a five minute walk away from Villa Valmarana--but on a pleasant spring day the latter, with its paintings and the view from its garden, can seem all by itself to be worth the trip.

There is no photography allowed in the main house, frescoed with scenes from myth and romance entirely by Giambattista Tiepolo, but the Foresteria, or guest house, is nearly as interesting, and an excellent chance to see more of the work of his son Giandomenico Tiepolo, whose cinemascope-ish Il Mondo Nuovo is a highlight of Ca' Rezzonico on the Grand Canal.

The first three images of this post are from the one room in the guest house painted by Giambattista, the last four images from another room, painted by Giandomenico. As you can see, one of Giandomencio's images is a much smaller prefiguration of Il Nuovo Mondo in which--as is the case with the latter--we viewers can see both less and more than the figures in the painting. Whatever it is within the small structure that the crowd finds so diverting is entirely lost to us, but, unlike the captivated crowd, we see the larger horizon beyond.

These three small genre scenes by Giandomenico are set in trompe l'oeil frames within a larger trompe l'oeil architectural context, complete with its own richly-arrayed tray-bearer on the illusory stairs. That figure himself, and the Blackamoor tradition he represents--and which is still popular in Venice (you can see a wood carver still producing them just off Campo San Tomà--is worth a post all himself, but at present I'll refer anyone interested to the following piece on a recent New York University exhibition and conference in Florence: (One of the interesting facts in this piece: The United States is the number one importer in the world of Blackamoors, with Texas and Connecticut having the greatest appetite for them.)

For an excellent virtual tour of the main house (in which you can virtually move from one room to the next), and for all the information needed to plan a visit, go to:

The Foresteria at right, the main house in the distance

Friday, May 6, 2016

Hauling Up the Net, This Afternoon

For centuries before massive cruise ships and oil tankers began to use it as their deep-dredged highway, the lagoon was plied by fishermen--and sometimes it still is.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Italy in a Ball of Cheese

At left: provola affumicata or scamorza affumicata? (The pale cheeses on the right are unsmoked.) The website from which this image comes ( makes a distinction, but nothing is clear at our neighborhood market 

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that most Americans have a pretty low tolerance for ambiguity. It's particularly noticeable during the political campaign season, but it's evident all the time in Hollywood blockbusters, public policy, educational methods, religious beliefs, and 10,000 little everyday ways. There's an abiding urge in the American mind--if you'll pardon such a gross generalization--to assert that reality is inherently simple and clear, truth is singular and eternal, and only the misguided activities of clueless human beings cloud up what would otherwise be everyone's unanimous crystal-clear perception of what's really real.

Which is why Italy can be such a challenge for us. But let me give you an example of what I mean, which has nothing to do with the country's infamous bureaucracy.

A few weeks ago I was in our neighborhood pane e salame (a small market that sells bread and meats) to buy my son's favorite cheese, which he calls, and we've always called, scamorza. The kind he likes is smoked, with a thin but tough dark-yellow skin, and a cinched torso still belted by part of the ribbon from which it had been suspended to dry.

There were three or four mis-shaped blobs of them stacked in a bowl in the front right-hand corner of the glass display case, and I asked for one of them: "una scamorza." The dark-haired woman behind the counter, however, took a large cylindrical loaf of cheese out of the back of the other end of the case.

I quickly said, "No, this scamorza, a ball of it, here."

"That?" she replied to my pointing, "That's not scamorza. That's provola affumicata. This," she said, holding up the cylindrical loaf, "is scamorza affumicata."

That was news to me, but, then, a lot of my experiences here are, and she was so emphatic about it I had no doubt she was telling me the truth. In fact, I appreciated her emphasis, as it made me certain that this was one important distinction that would never slip my mind.

The next time I went into the same pane e salami I decided to put my new knowledge to use. As we'd been eating those blobs of provola affumicata while mistakenly believing them to be scamorza affumicata, I decided it was time to try the real thing cut from the cylindrical loaf.

There was a different woman behind the counter this time, another of what I assume are the three co-owners, a blond woman. I asked for some scamorza affumicata, planning to decide just how many etti I should ask for as she removed it from the back of the display case.

But, instead, she walked around to the front of the display case, to the corner where those mis-shapen blobs we mistakenly thought were scamorza affumicata were. "No," I said, "I'd like some scamorza affumicata."

"Sì, scamorza affumicata," she said, lifting the glass to get at the bowl of blobs. "How many do you want?"

I told her I thought those were provola affumicata

She assured me that they were scamorza affumicata.

I pointed to the cylindrical loaf of cheese in the back part of the other half of the display case and said that I thought that that was scamorza affumicata.

It is, she replied. "Sono uguali," she said, they were both the same.

"They taste the same?" I asked.

She assured me they did. The only difference, she said, was that the blobs had a slightly thicker skin created in the smoke house process, which made up more of their total mass and therefore gave them a smokier flavor.

This was actually much more explanation as to why they were basically the same cheese than the dark-haired woman had given me about why they were different--she'd given me no explanation at all. So I said, "Ah, va bene," but I told her I wanted to try that other form of scamorza affumicata this time, from the cylindrical loaf. 

The distinction made by the dark-haired woman lasted one week. I no longer knew what to think.

By the time I next went into the pane e salame to buy Sandro's favorite cheese--he still preferred the blob type, even after trying the cylindrical, though they did taste quite similar--I'd decided the term I would use to ask for it would depend upon which woman helped me. I'd ask for provola affumicata from the dark-haired woman and una pallina di scamorza affumicata from the blond woman.    

As it turned out, both of them were behind the counter when I entered this time. But there were a lot of other customers before me and as I waited my turn I reminded myself which term to use with which woman and hoped, if only for the sake of simplicity and speed, that whichever woman assisted me would do so out of earshot of the other. I just wanted a little cheese, not a debate.

It fell to the blond woman to help me and I framed my request accordingly. But as she came around the front of the glass case to take out my pallina di scamorza affumicata the dark-haired woman told her that the scamorza affumicata was back in the other half of case (that is, the cylindrical loaf).

In spite of the fact that she was helping another customer at the time, the dark-haired woman was compelled to make a point of this--and especially for my sake, it seemed. As if having taken the time less than two weeks ago to educate me in the proper terminology she wasn't at all pleased that her colleague would so cavalierly corrupt her pupil.

In truth, the dark-haired woman has more than a little of the stern, grade-school-teaching nun in her manner.

However, her blond colleague--who has much more of the truant about her than school teacher--paid her no mind and continued doing just as she'd begun.

And then, from the back room off to one side of deli counter, appeared the third partner in the pane e salame.

Now, if I were writing fiction I'd consider the following description of this third partner to be far too tidy to be credible--for fiction, after all, is all about credibility, not truth--and I'd go out of my way to make up something else. But the truth is that in hair color and bearing this third partner really does fall neatly between the other two. Her hair is a light-ish brown, and she has neither the rather punitive seriousness of the dark-haired one nor the rather more rock-n-roll vibe of the blonde. In her very air of sober moderation there is authority.    

In other words, here was the perfect tie-breaker, the ideal deciding vote in this deadlock over cheese terminology. And as it turned out she'd be compelled to weigh in on the matter, as neither the dark-haired woman nor the blonde--in spite of their busy-ness tending to customers--was ready to give up the matter. 

On the contrary, as the blonde weighed my blob of cheese the dark-haired woman, waiting for her own turn with the electronic scale, repeated again that that (on the scale) was provola affumicata. The blonde disagreed with her, and the dark-haired woman explicitly appealed to the judgement of the third partner in this matter--from which third partner, in that instant before she could respond, I somehow expected a judgement as insightful as anything Ruth Bader Ginsberg could come up with on the bench of the US Supreme Court.

But what she responded with, while busy helping her own customer, was nothing but a distinct and incontrovertible shrug. She was completely non-committal. And so authoritatively non-committal, at that, so fully resigned to irresolution, that I couldn't help but feel that the whole issue had for all time been concluded inconclusively--at least in that particular pane e salame, the one we go to most often.

Now I ask you, as I ask myself at times, How can they live this way, these Italians?

As prone as I myself may be to get lost in mitigating circumstances, in ambiguity and ambivalence, when it comes to certain minor matters--matters involving, for example, the name of cheese, if not matters of faith or politics or history or ethics--there must be some definitive answer possible, some simple distinction to hang onto, if only as a paltry compensation for all our great, insoluble, existential muddles.

But no, not even when it comes to cheese, not here.

This was really brought home to me in full force just a couple of days ago, when I returned to the same pane e salame to buy that same cheese in question. The dark-haired woman was alone behind the counter--there wasn't even another customer in the small market--so I knew exactly where I stood. No pointing required, no extra specification needed: one distinct term for each distinct cheese. Perfect. It was really so easy with her, with her insistence on a rigid difference.

I confidently asked her for one provola affumicata and, just as I knew she would, she walked around to the front right-hand corner of the glass case and removed one of the blobs, returned to her usual place behind the counter, and placed it on the scale. Then, her finger poised just above the keypad on which she was supposed to punch in the price per kg, she paused, obviously having forgotten what it was.

My eyes automatically went to the front right corner of the display case where the remaining cheese blobs were, and I prepared myself to read off their price from the little sign stuck into the top one. But she--because this is Italy and ambiguity must always be reasserted, even by those who'd seemed most committed to clear distinctions--she reached into the back of the glass case, pulled the price sign out of the cylindrical sphere of scamorza affumicata, which she'd insisted had nothing to do with the blobs of provola affumicata, and punched in the price from it.