Durable Growth

Venice 2007: Finding my way from the airport to Piazza San Marco

Venetian Canal at dusk

Venetian Canal at dusk

To give myself a holiday respite, my I will do a series of posts through December and into the New Year telling the story of a two-week trip I took to Venice in 2007, using photos from the trip and notes that I took at the time.  I’m editing the material to highlight the urbanist issues of day-to-day life in perhaps the most famous car-free city in the world.

Last week, I offered the backstory to the trip, from initial planning through passport control at Marco Polo Airport.  As I ended, I was striding toward a grand adventure in a city that fascinated me, but which used a language of which I knew only a few words.  What could possibly go wrong?

Getting Away from Airport, Slowly: It took about five minutes for me to run afoul of my cultural naiveté.

I had ordered Venice Cards on-line before leaving home.  The cards were essential to my trip.  Mostly, they’re for free vaporetto travel, although they also include use of public restrooms and some museum discounts.  Without the vaporetto, which I’ll discuss in a later post, my travels would have been much different.

The Venice Cards were so integral to my memories of the trip that I still carry one of them in my wallet, more than six years after my return home.  I can’t throw it away.

Standing in line to collect the Venice Cards, I looked at the confirmation email.  Uh-oh.  I’d ordered three cards for my fifteen days in Venice, two weekly cards and a single three-day card.  But the receipt only showed one weekly card and one three-day card.  The total cost was consistent with three cards, but the tally showed only two cards.  I sensed a problem.

My fears were quickly justified.  I pointed out the discrepancy to the clerk.  Discerning that my negligible Italian was useless, she tried to communicate with me in my language.  Her English wasn’t great, but it was far better than my Italian.

She looked up my record on-line and found the same discrepancy.  I had apparently paid for three cards, but the receipt only showed two.  I pointed out the charges added up to the cost of the three cards.  She punched the numbers into her calculator and showed me that the charges for the two cards didn’t add up to the total that I was charged.  Which was exactly the point I was trying to make.

This was beyond her authority to correct, so she placed a call.  Several minutes of animated conversation followed, in Italian, interspersed with significant looks at me, my passport, my receipt, and the calculator.  Finally, a decision was apparently reached because the conversation became lighter, perhaps something about boyfriends and weekend plans.  It was Friday after all.

After closing the call with a friendly “Ciao!”, the clerk called another number and repeated the exact same conversation, including the skeptical looks at me, my passport, etc., and the friendly exchange at the end.  And then there was a third call along the same lines.  By now, I’ve been standing at her counter for over twenty minutes.  Everyone in line behind me had moved to other lines and been helped.  The entire terminal was emptying.

Finally, the clerk finished her last call and looked at me dolefully.  “We’ll give you another weekly card at no charge.”  In the U.S., I might have been querulous and make the point that I’d paid for the card.  It certainly wasn’t “at no charge”.  In Venice, I said “Grazie” and moved on.

Urbanism lesson: Speaking the language is always a good idea.  But even better is learning when to shut up, adapt to the local culture, and just get along.

I had booked myself onto the Alilaguna, a water bus from Marco Polo to Piazza San Marco.  I was told to go out the door and turn left.

Here’s the thing about Venetian distances.  When marketing is involved, they become magically shorter, much shorter.  I later saw a sign indicating 20 meters to an internet café where there were no business entrances for at least a block.

The distance to the Alilaguna was like that.  At a U.S. airport (not that Americans have a particularly high level of marketing veracity), a direction to go out the door and turn left might mean a walk of a hundred yards.  At Marco Polo, it meant close to a kilometer.   Furthermore, sleep-deprived after an overnight flight and still turning over the interaction with the clerk, I stepped outside into the warmest and most humid day of the trip.  I still recall the fatigue and sweat of the 15-minute trudge toward the dock with two weeks of luggage on my shoulders.

I’d like to say my first Venetian impression from the deck of Alilaguna was magical, but it wasn’t.  It was disappointing.  After a trip through the Venetian lagoon, we entered a canal surrounded by housing that dated from the mid-20th century and only a step above public housing.  No magnificence anywhere.  I was beginning to wonder about the photographers who had make Venice look magical.

I peered down the canal looking for the Rialto Bridge, hoping that the surroundings would improve.  But I only saw more bland and unimpressive structures.  We made a stop to unload passengers and moved on down the canal and back into the open lagoon.  No Rialto Bridge.  Hmmm.  I opened my map and discovered my error.  We hadn’t been in Venice after all.  We had passed down the canal of Murano, the glass blowing island north of Venice.  It’s a lovely little island that I would later enjoy, but it’s not Venice.

Urbanism lesson: A good map, or a good app, is essential.  And it’s better not to be too deflated, or elated, when initial glimpses don’t meet expectations.  There may be further insights still to come.

St. Marks Basilica

St. Marks Basilica

My bearings re-established and my expectations re-inflated, I watched with anticipation as we circled the tip of Venice and landed near the Doge’s Palace.  It was teeming with people on a Friday, but still enchanting.  So much history in such a little space.

But exploration would have to wait.  I had an apartment to find and luggage to get off my shoulder.  The vaporetto station was only a few feet away, on the other side of my first Venetian canal bridge.  Within minutes, the vaporetto, the wayfinding, the greeting at the apartment, and even the size of the apartment would provide further lessons in Venetian life.

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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