Durable Growth

Venice 2007: Finding my new front door and bumping my head

View from Apartment

View from Apartment

For a holiday respite, some posts through December and into January will tell of a trip I took to Venice in 2007.  I’ll use photos from the trip and notes that I took at the time.  I’ll highlight the urbanist issues of day-to-day living in perhaps the most famous car-free city in the world.

In my first two posts, I managed to reach Marco Polo Airport and then Piazza San Marco.  (I promise that the pace of the narrative arc will soon improve, although not today.)  When the last post ended, I was about to embark on the first vaporetto voyage of my trip.  Now that I was on the ground in Venice, I thought I was nearly home, but a few more missteps awaited me.

Vaporetti: A quick explanation on the vaporetti system.  A vaporetto is a water bus, with a capacity of more than a hundred people.  Other than walking, a vaporetto is the only way around Venice for people who don’t own their own boats or don’t want to spend 60 euros on a water taxi.   The vaporetti are noisy and clumsy, cutting a wide swath through the major waterways, but Venice can’t function without them.

There are also gondolas in Venice, but they’re a clichéd tourist device.  Gondolas are to Venetian transit what the hansom cabs of Central Park are to New York City transit.

During my time in Venice, I likely took more than a hundred vaporetto trips.

The 82 vaporetto runs up and down the Grand Canal and is the backbone of the vaporetti system.  With two week’s worth of luggage still slung over my shoulders, I found the stop for the 82, only a short distance from Piazza San Marco.

The 82 soon appeared and I climbed aboard, pleased to have found my way this far.  The attendant asked for my ticket and I proudly offered one of the Venice Cards.  He impatiently explained that I was supposed to have it time-stamped before using it for the first time.  Oops.  I’d missed that point, although it was clearly stated.

The attendant looked at my luggage, sighed deeply, and noted the time on the back of the ticket.  Oddly, during my two-week stay, it was the only time I was asked for my card.  My luggage must have made me look like a newbie.

Wayfinding: I had no problem finding the right stop at which to leave the vaporetto, but stumbled in my first effort at street navigation.  Most Venetian maps are quite good.  The problem is that minds trained in American wayfinding rebel against some of the information.  Secondo Calle de Sangre Cristo can’t be a three-foot passage past the service door of a restaurant, but it is.  Plaza de Santa Maria de Visitazione can’t be a ten-foot square of pavement on the bank of a canal, but it is.

Once I learned to take the map literally and to quit applying an American sense of values to places and names, I was fine.  But that learning took several days.  For now, I was wandering with luggage on increasing weary shoulders thinking that Calle dei Saoneri couldn’t possibly be that tight alley packed with shoppers, but it was.

Making an Introduction: Arriving finally at the front door of the building that housed my apartment, having taken twenty minutes for a journey that I would soon learn to do in five, I pressed the bell.  My landlord had told me that his 82-year-old mother would be waiting for me in my apartment on the fourth floor.  (Quick note on counting floors: Venice is consistent with the European convention that the first floor is the one above the ground floor.  So, my fourth floor walkup apartment in Venice would be a fifth floor walkup apartment in the U. S.)

No answer came to the first press of the bell, so I pressed again, this time for both Signora Manera’s apartment and my own.  Still nothing.  I looked for a way to squeeze myself into the doorway to avoid the growing crush of shoppers around me.  I also considered the possibility that Signora Manera was away, forcing me to while away time on the streets, luggage still in hand.

Author in apartment

Author in apartment

But then I looked up.  An elderly woman was looking down from a window high up on the building.  “Ah, Signora Manera.  My name is Dave Alden.  I am renting the apartment from your son Bruno.”  No response.  No shake of the head, no returning questions.  Nothing, but a look of total indifference.

I tried again, varying my text to include my few words of Italian. “Prego.”  “Grazie.”  “Scusi.”  Still nothing.  Then I remembered that I was wearing a ballcap.  Being outside, it wasn’t inappropriate, but perhaps I was dealing with a woman of old world sensibilities, so I removed it.  With a curt nod, Signora Manera pulled her head in.  A moment later the buzzer sounded.

I met Signora Manera at her third floor apartment.  We tried to exchange pleasantries, but found the language barrier insurmountable.  Nonetheless, I clearly understood that she wanted me to watch my head as we climbed to my apartment.

Settling In and Stooping Over:  The apartment was a lovely space.  Hardware floors.  Exposed beams that I later learned were more than five centuries old, a fact that still astounds me.  Modern and stylish Italian plumbing.  Granite countertops and bathroom walls.  Old world structural details.  And plenty of room.  For a family of midgets.

Living room

Living room

The apartment exceeded a thousand square of floor space.  Of which less than two hundred had headroom of six feet or more.  There was the kitchen.  There was a small area in the bathroom, but not the tub.  And there was the dressing area of the bedroom.  Otherwise, I spent my apartment time scuttling like a crab.

I didn’t always wear a ballcap when on the streets of Venice, but it is de rigueur within the apartment.  I found it easier to pluck 500-year-old wood fibers from the cap than from my forehead.  I removed the cap to sleep, but when I looked at the beam only twelve inches above my head, I questioned even that decision.

Structural detail

Structural detail

But for all the height restrictions, the apartment has two great points in its favor.  First, the price was right.  Second, and more importantly, it was in Venice.  I awoke every day, once I arose from my mattress on the floor, to a view of red-tile Venetian roofs.  Six years later, the memory still brings forth goose bumps.

Next time, I finally begin exploring.  And quickly take my favorite photo of the trip.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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