Monday, December 21, 2020

Boat Dogs

A boat dog on a foggy morning, October 11, 2017

It was a cold Sunday afternoon about one month ago during our first convincing cold snap of the season, and an unspoken commiseration was in the air among residents (freshly reminded of what winter had in store for us), when I thought to ask one of the regular gondoliers on the Santa Sofia traghetto across the Grand Canal how his dog was. Both his eyes and mine (the only things visible above our Covid masks and below our wool hats) watered in the Bora wind from the north, and I imagined his dog, usually his loyal companion on the traghetto, warm and snug at home, the recipient of a well-deserved day off.

È morta, he replied. She's dead.  

I was shocked. When did it happen? I asked. 

Thursday, he said. 

Dogs die, of course, and though I had no idea of her age I knew she was no pup... And people were falling sick and dying all around the world... And maybe the latter fact was what made the former fact so jarring on this afternoon. At a time like this, when so many human lives and livelihoods were being stricken and lost, it was nice to think that some forms of companionship were immune. Out of his concern for her, I'd imagined, the gondolier had let his dog stay home that day, safely out of the cold, and she'd be waiting for him when he finished work.

How old was she? I asked.

She was old, he answered. Thirteen.

Our short trip across the canal was done. I went off on my errands in Cannaregio, realizing I was never sure of the dog's name.

It was dark, and even colder, when I arrived at the traghetto station to make the return trip back across the canal. No one was there; it was not yet closing time (5:30 pm), and the gondola still had its two oars lying in it. I waited a few minutes and the gondoliers returned from the direction of a bar on Strada Nova; I'd be their last fare of the night and they were glad of it.

Cinque euro, the rower in front of the boat joked to me as they returned--that is, this last trip would cost me five euros instead of the usual 70 centesimi. They muttered in Venetian about the cold...

What was the name of your dog? I asked the poppiere, the rower in the back.

Mia, he said.

So, here's to Mia, whom you see below, braving the cold in a blanket in November 2018.

And to another loyal boat dog whose death I just learned about, and who inspired my children's picture book, Ciao, Sandro!, which Abrams will publish in June 2021

Sandro the dog died around this time last year, about a month before he would have celebrated his 19th birthday. You can see an image of him at bottom, and him in action, in a short video, here


  1. Maybe it's just the end of an emotional year -- or the onions I just chopped -- but this post made me cry. Here's to the boat dogs, living and lost, past and future.

    Looking forward to your book's release!

    1. There's so much going on these days, so much to be dismayed about, it's funny what breaks through, rpg--and it's not always the biggest world-historical things... Venice needs all its boat dogs these days. Buone feste e auguri!

  2. I'm totally a cat person, but it really got to me, too. Loyalty and companionship from one creature to another.

    1. It's a long time since I've had so much as a goldfish, Ella, and am rather allergic to most dogs and cats, alas, but as you suggest, there's something admirable about such relationships no matter which species are involved.