Durable Growth

Venice 2007: Locating the everyday stuff

Campo San Polo at dawn

Campo San Polo at dawn

For a holiday respite, my Friday posts through December and into January will tell of a trip I took to Venice in 2007. Using photos and notes that I took at the time, I’ll highlight the urbanist issues of day-to-day life in what may be the most famous car-free city in the world.

In my first four posts, I finished my first day in Venice, having survived a trans-Atlantic redeye, wrangled with a clerk at Marco Polo Airport, inadvertently crossed my landlord’s aging mother, bumped my head into the beams of the converted attic I’ll call home for two weeks, and still found my way to take the favorite photo of my two weeks in Serenissima.

Having used four posts to complete a single day, I need to take a different approach to the remainder of my two weeks.  Beginning today, I’ll write about individual aspects of Venetian life, at least as experienced by an American visitor.  This post will be about the challenges of finding the necessities of apartment life in a city that where the familiar organization and visual clues of U.S. city planning are missing.

The Test: A couple of years ago, I attended a birthday where I dined at the same table with a Nobel Prize winner.  He said something during the meal that stayed with me.  At the time an octogenarian (he has since passed away), he said, “Aging isn’t hard once you realize that the systems that once worked on automatic now require manual operation.”

It was insightful advice.  And it has a parallel in being an American in Venice.  The acts of daily life, such as getting on the internet, buying breakfast, or doing laundry, that seem automatic in the U.S. require a higher level of manual operation in Venice.

Campo San Giacomo at dawn

Campo San Giacomo at dawn

Internet Access: To be fair to my Venetian landlord, he truthfully advised me that there was no internet access in the apartment he was renting to me.  It may have been the last time that he told me the truth.

He also told me that there were multiple internet cafés in the adjoining plaza of Campo San Polo.  I believed him.  I shouldn’t have.  Not only is there no Internet café in Campo San Polo, I never found an internet café anywhere in the San Polo sestiere.

And I looked at length, taking several long walks in the San Polo and Santa Croce sestieres, shown in these photos.  Lovely places, but without tourist amenities.

(Quick political lesson: Venice has been divided into the same six administrative districts, or sestieres, since the 14th century.  There’s no gerrymandering in Venice.  In addition to San Polo, there are San Marco, Castello, Cannareggio, Santa Croce, and Dorsodoro.  San Marco is the tourist center of town, with the Doge’s Palace, St. Mark’s Basilica, Piazza San Marco, and much of the lodging and tourist retail.  In tourist guides, my sestiere of San Polo is often combined with Santa Croce.  However, there are no Internet cafes in Santa Croce either.)

Campo te Nuovo

Campo te Nuovo

Admittedly, much of that problem lay in my gullibility.  As a character early in The City of Falling Angels says, “All Venetians lie, including me when I tell you this.”  Venetian landlords weren’t an exception.

It took several days, but I finally found an internet café in the San Marco sestiere, only a single vaporetto stop from my apartment.  (More proof of the essential role of the vaporetto to my stay.)

Furthermore, I loved the location of the internet café.  Its windows looked out upon a canal that was frequented by tourist gondolas.  There was nothing more fun than emailing an acquaintance in the Midwest while a gondola glided past only a few feet away.

Computer Recharging: Next, I realized that that my outlet adapter was only for use in Britain.  The camera store about forty feet from my front door sold me a voltage converter that connected to the outlet and the computer, but had too little capacity for my laptop and promptly burned up.  My fault, not theirs.  It was clearly labeled.

It took another couple of days and two trips to the only Venetian hardware store before I had found the correct adaptor.  It was a marvelous urban hardware store, much like Tomasini’s in Petaluma, only with all merchandise delivered by canal barges to a dock at the back door and products that looked almost familiar, but not quite.

Cash: Remember how my landlord duped me about Internet cafes?  Same thing on ATMs.  His emails to me said that there were several ATMs in Campo San Polo and that he did all his banking there.  I don’t know with whom he banked, but it was like no banking I know.  By actual count, the non-residential uses on the plaza were a 700-year old church, two restaurants, a deli, and a store that sold Beatle memorabilia (I just report it, I don’t explain it).  No ATMs in sight.

The absence of an ATM wasn’t much of a problem, as I found one within a few blocks.  But wouldn’t you think that “I do all my banking there” might be hard to write when there are no banks there?

Groceries: But rising above the other searches for ATMs, internet cafes, etc. was the hunt for food.  I didn’t choose to eat all my meals in restaurants.  But coming from a place where food generally comes from either 50,000 square-foot supermarkets or 15,000 square-foot specialty grocers, finding groceries in Venice was a challenge.  Simply put, it was a land of convenience stores tucked into unlikely places.  (Think unmarked 7-11s on narrow pedestrian byways.)

My first two grocery stops where across the lagoon in Lido.   I stumbled across a store while exploring and returned because I still hadn’t found a store in Venice proper.  Eventually I came across a few stores closer to my apartment, plus I made several purchases in the Rialto Market.

But I was still surprised to find a grocery store only a few hundred feet from my front door on the day before I was to depart.  It was down a small walkway off a bridge that I had crossed many times.  But it was only open for a few hours a day perhaps five days a week.  Had I spotted it earlier, I could have made good use of it.  But I survived regardless.

If the primary thrust of my trip had been culture or photography, I might have been frustrated by the time required to solve the puzzle of everyday life.  But as my goal instead was to see how to adjust to local life, I found the effort fascinating.  Urban problem-solving as a daily puzzle.

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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