Wednesday, April 29, 2020

A Final Flourish, This Evening

On the subject of weather Venetians talk about marzo pazzo (mad March), but today could have been called martedì mutevole (mercurial Wednesday), as it alternated all day between rain showers and sunshine, then took its leave with the above bit of drama

Monday, April 20, 2020

"Chiudere" (Keep Closed)

Venice has relaxed its lock down just a little--a few more shops have been allowed to re-open (eg, makers of bread, and, curiously enough, sellers of chocolate), one can go outside to exercise by oneself while wearing a mask--but any more changes are not due to come until May 4. I continue to appreciate the caution exercised by Italian authorities.

The above image was actually taken over a week ago, before the recent (and very limited) loosening went into effect. The small brass plaque on the gate which reads "Chiudere" ("to close") means, in its particular and usual context: "Keep this gate closed." But it seems to suggest a bit more these days....

Friday, April 17, 2020

A Piazza of One's Own, Today, 1 pm

Actually, not just a piazza, but the piazza: the only space so named in Venice, and one of the most famously crowded in the world--but not these days.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Abuse of "Heroes" and "Heroism" in the Age of Coronavirus (with 8 Images)

Death (or the threat of it) never takes a holiday: on Pasquetta day emergency responders in full hazmat suits transport a coronavirus patient to the hospital

I find it hard to title these images and hard to write about them without falling into clichés which, worse than being merely trite, seem not only misguided but misleading. 

Seeing medical professionals dressed like this, the inclination is to speak of them as working on the "front lines" of the coronavirus and praise them for their extraordinary bravery. But as true as such statements may be, I find that they're often used to forestall exactly the kind of discussion that really needs to occur among citizens and politicians of each country (or at least those countries which possess a functioning democracy) about the way that their own nation prepared for and is dealing with the crisis.

The personal bravery of medical professionals in this context is undeniable, but to focus only on that aspect of what they are doing is all too often to not talk about the important question of why even the wealthiest countries in the world should leave such medical professionals so ill-equipped to deal with a crisis about which epidemiologists have warned for at least two full decades (as a Washington Post columnist notes, a legendary epidemiologist told him in 1999 that in regards to such catastrophic global pandemics it was not a matter of "if" but of "when").

If one chooses to call this a pandemic a "war," it was not one which began with anything like a surprise attack. And in a country such as my native one of America, which has defined itself for decades by its massive (and massively expensive) military might and constant readiness (we are told) to simultaneously wage any number of anticipated or even purely imaginary wars, it would seem of the utmost importance to discuss why funding and resources for this particular "war," inevitable as it was warned to be by epidemiologists, were, in fact, cut.

Metaphors matter, and when used by politicians and repeated by citizens they deserve to be examined carefully--not just for "what they express" but for how they are supposed to function: the actions they aim to bring about, or, as the case may be, the discussions and investigations they aim to prevent.

The coronavirus is fundamentally a public health issue of the greatest importance, not a war, which should draw a nation's attention to its public health system. In every country the effects of the coronavirus have laid bare the nation's past priorities--as well as raising the possibility that such priorities might be altered for the future.

It is not enough to lionize those medical professionals who have been put in the position of sacrificing themselves to care for the ill in this crisis. In fact, in some cases this kind of talk strikes me as shamefully cynical.

Perhaps in our Hollywood-influenced world it has become automatic to cast reality in terms of wonder boys and superheroes, of the exceptional individual who steps up to save the day (Hurrah!) or perish in the attempt (Sniff, sniff: the pleasure of sweet idle sadness).  (Thrills or sentimentality are too fugitive to carry one too far in the unglamorous process of developing and implementing public policy.)

But it seems to me to be a moronic way not only to conceive of reality but to structure a society.

Unless, that is, the priorities of a given society is to unquestioningly preserve a status quo of debilitating inequality and profoundly unequal access to opportunity. In that case, the myth of the exceptional individual, and the fiction that each and every one of us is potentially such an exceptional individual ("You can do ANYTHING!!!"), is a necessary bit of flattery put forth in the service of a larger confidence scheme. And a society in which those who fail to prove themselves to be exceptional are unworthy of any consideration--certainly in the crafting of policy.

Never mind the fact that most of us, indeed, are simply human, not the stuff of legends or heroic tales--nor should we have to be in order to survive.

Nor should our health care professionals--or, for that matter, grocery store clerks, or any other people now called upon to keep economies going--be called upon to heroically risk their lives because, despite all the warnings in the world, our country finally decided that preparing for an inevitable threat to the public well-being mattered very little or nothing at all compared to private enrichment.

In such countries health care professionals, equipped with nothing more than the vacant flattery of those well out of harm's way, have been treated as sacrificial lambs (and their deaths not even accurately recorded, much less reported), while those responsible for these massive public health failures elude all accountability (and reap windfalls).

The question now is which countries will try to honor all those who have given or lost their lives by crafting policies and setting priorities that aim to diminish so much preventable loss in the future. And which ones will continue to demonstrate that they consider the lives of the vast majority of their citizens to be beneath consideration.  

On the same afternoon, emergency responders wear full protective gear to pick up a non-coronavirus patient

Monday, April 13, 2020

Pasquetta As It Would Usually Look Today--But Not This Year

Today, the day after Easter, is the holiday of Pasquetta in Italy, when one would typically try to get out into nature. If you lived in Milan you'd head out to the countryside or maybe Lago Como for a picnic (or at least to eat lunch at a restaurant in a more natural setting). If you live in Venice you head out into the lagoon.

And in the years before we had our own boat, I used to like to spend the late afternoon of Pasquetta on some fondamenta overlooking a major waterway--such as the Riva dei Sette Martiri--watching the boatloads of families or friends returning home after their day in the lagoon, which was always a pleasant sight, as (to repeat what I've written in this blog before) Venetians never look so content as when they're in their own boat, no matter how modest or weather-beaten that boat may be.

But it's not something you'll see this year, as the restrictions on movement in the city apply even to Pasquetta excursions.

So the image at the top of this post was captured on March 8, in the Giudecca Canal, in that strange, sweet period when all the tourists had fled the city but no lock down had yet been announced, and no one fully understood how long the city would be emptied out and how serious that emptiness would be for people and businesses, or, really, how deadly the virus would become in Italy.

In those few days before all non-essential movement was forbidden and being out in a boat on the abruptly vacant canals still seemed like a holiday--a temporary respite, not some new reality--something like Pasquetta.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

City of Masks, Yesterday Afternoon on the Grand Canal

If you pronounce the name of Venice's public transportation service (ACTV) quickly in Italian--"ah-chee-tee-vu--as people usually do here, it can sound like a sneeze.

Which is why it's not something you want to pronounce quickly these days when in public.

Monday, April 6, 2020

My Own Private Grand Canal--or, Oops, Maybe Not

An unidentified kayaker enjoys the calm waters of the Grand Canal yesterday evening

In my post of March 28, featuring an image of an almost completely empty number 1 vaporetto going down the Grand Canal on a mild Saturday evening, I mentioned that a couple of hours before the photo was taken I'd passed by a kayaker deep in conversation with a police boat on the Grand Canal, and that it looked like he was on the verge of successfully avoiding what could have been a 4,000 euro ticket for violating Italy's remain at home rules.

That kayak was the only rowed (or paddled) boat I'd seen on any of the canals since about March 12, when Venice (following Italy's lead) put tight restrictions on all manner of movement through the city.

When I told my wife, Jen, and son, Sandro, about what I'd seen we were all surprised that the kayaker had dared venture out after everyone else (ourselves included) had resigned themselves to a boat-less existence.

But we were even more surprised to see him out in the Grand Canal again the next day. And the day after that. And that day after that. In fact, every day since his first run-in with the Polizia Locale boat.

It's not that we couldn't understand the impulse to go out in a boat: beautiful weather along with the once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) stillness and quiet of the canals were a constant temptation. But not one that we or--so we thought--anyone else would give in to.

Perhaps, we marveled, he'd been granted the exclusive privilege of paddling on the Grand Canal when all other boats, aside from vaporetti, delivery boats, law enforcement, and ambulances (one particularly bad day I'd counted the sound of five of them wailing past) had been forbidden.

Given the reduced schedule on which the vaporetti now run, for all intents and purposes he had his own private Grand Canal!

Down which he'd paddle each day, usually when the early evening light was at its most achingly sweet, taking photos.

Of course not everyone was happy to see him enjoying his privilege. More than once we saw some masked passenger on a passing vaporetto express their displeasure (directly to the kayaker) that he should be blithely paddling along while everyone else in the city was compelled to stay at home except for the most necessary of outings. 

Some variation of Che vergogna! (How shameful!) was the message most people directed toward him.

But shame seemed to be the last thing he felt in such instances. In reply to the fierce gesticulations of one older man on the fantail of a vaporetto, for example, the kayaker simply blew a sarcastic kiss. And he appeared to be similarly cheeky with the captains and marinai of passing vaporetti as well.

He would let no one infringe in any way upon his liberty, it seemed, nor did there seem any limit to it. The images at the top of this post and directly below were taken just last night. 

The kayaker captures once-in-a-lifetime images of a deserted Grand Canal yesterday evening

But this morning I went out to do our shopping and found Polizia Locale everywhere (in boats and on foot) and, as you can see in the two images below, they'd even set up barriers to restrict the traffic flow at the Rialto market to a single entrance and exit, controlled by two officers.

Two police officers control the lone entrance/exit into the Rialto market this morning, limiting the number of people allowed into the space at any one time and enforcing adequate physical distancing

Barriers at the Rialto market this morning

Just after mid-day today the sound of a helicopter persisted so long above our apartment that finally I stopped the work I was doing and went to look out the window for it. The helicopter, despite how close it sounded, was nowhere in sight, but police boats of all sorts were patrolling the Grand Canal, in loose groups of three or five.

Fearing that Venetians were succumbing to spring fever and heading outside, it seems local authorities decided to send a clear message today that the lock down is still in effect and is still being strictly enforced. Indeed, is being even more strictly enforced.

But what about the kayaker? Jen and Sandro and I all wondered. Will he alone still be allowed his exclusive rights?

Apparently not, Jen soon discovered while looking at a local paper online. It reported that just yesterday the kayaker had finally received the ticket he'd evaded when I first saw him on March 28. There was photo of him and his kayak in the paper. His fine had been 500 euro.

Well, we agreed, at least it wasn't 4,000!

Maybe, Jen suggested, it had even been worth it to have the canals of Venice almost all to himself for at least 10 days. It would work out to, at most, 50 euro a day, which some people wouldn't consider too bad for a price for the opportunity. In fact, there was probably no shortage of people who'd readily have paid much more per day.

And so, we thought, with the police out in full force today, and with 500 euro less in his bank account, the kayaker would abruptly find himself having to follow the same rules as everyone else in the city.

But we were wrong.

A kayaker receives a ticket on the Grand Canal this evening for violating--for the second time in less than 24 hours--restrictions on movement in Venice

Or, maybe more accurately, he was wrong.

For tonight, just after dinner, Sandro went to look outside and shouted to us, "The kayaker's out there again--and with police!"

And, as you can see in the image above, unbelievably, less than 24 hours after receiving a 500 euro fine; just a few hours after having a rather unflattering image of himself in the local papers; and in spite of the unmistakable display of law enforcement to be seen and heard everywhere in the city today--literally on land, water, and in the sky!--the kayaker had decided to make another outing.

It appears that after attracting the attention of no less than three police boats, he was given another ticket. One can only imagine at present how much this one was for--though the papers are likely to reveal the amount tomorrow.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Friday Rush Hour, 5 pm, On the World's Worst Bridge

The red pod on the side of the bridge, attached after-the-fact at considerable expense to make up for Calatrava's failure to provide access for the mobility-impaired in his original design, has never functioned and, after many failed attempts to get it to do so, has finally been consigned to eternal uselessness.

Okay, I can't claim with anything close to certainty that the perpetually costly, self-indulgent, poorly-engineered  abortion designed by architect Santiago Calatrava is in fact the world's worst bridge, but that is indeed the phrase I find looping through my mind every time I have to cross the damn thing, diligently surveying the broad, low, and partly slippery steps just ahead of me to make sure I don't stumble when their width abruptly doubles before returning to their regular spacing.

But, in any case, the above image was taken on Friday, March 13, at the beginning of the city's shutdown, at a time when this bridge spanning the end of the Grand Canal between Piazzale Roma and the train station normally would have been packed with people leaving the city after work or coming into the city for a Friday evening.

With the order to stay indoors I won't be able to see the bridge this evening at this time, but with the continuing shutdown it's not likely to be any more crowded than it is above.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Setting without Subject: Rio San Salvador, Today at Noon

In the familiar post card image this canal is the setting for one perfectly positioned gondola, redolent of romantic Venice; in actuality, it's usually the setting for a long line of them, rather less romantic in their multiplicity. But today the sight of the canal completely empty and still in the middle of the day stopped me in my tracks on the equally empty Calle del Lovo.