High Water in Low Season
by Paul French
Venice is an otherworldly place as it is, a floating mirage of noble palaces and grand churches that seem to defy the soggy footings on which they rest. When acqua alta comes, this precarious existence between land and water takes on a threatening dimension. The locals seem resigned; it’s just another hardship to bear, like the first autumn snow for Canadians. One barista snorts that as soon as the flood of tourists subsides, “povera Venezia” – an oft-hear lament in this city – must suffer the onslaught of another kind of flood. But he suggests it’s a small price to pay – to have to splash through his business from time to time – to live here. What he doesn’t realize, what many Venetians can’t fathom, is that for the outsider, acqua alta is a supreme encounter. Given the choice between the vast Tintoretto canvases in the Scuola di San Rocco and the fascinating, almost time-lapse effect of watching the city submerge, I suspect most visitors would head out of doors. I did.
This wasn’t my first trip to Venice. More than a decade earlier I washed up on its shores one foggy winter night not really knowing what to expect besides water. It happened to be the first night of carnival and I stood in Piazza San Marco and watched a wonderful parade like nothing I had ever seen: scores of elaborately costumed revellers waltzed to the music, paraded and preened before one another as if it were some fantastic al fresco masquerade ball, which in fact is what it was. Carnevale returned in the early 1980s after centuries of absence when Napoleon put a stop to all the lusty debauchery and carnival lasted for six months of the year. Venetians preferred to don masks and party rather than face the fact la serenissima’s one thousand-year reign as Queen of the Adriatic was coming to an end.
I stood there with my maple leaf-emblazoned backpack feeling decidedly under dressed for the occasion and thought about getting a night train back to Milan, when I felt a tug at my bag. I was surrounded by mask-wearing youth who singled me out for, well, whatever was to come next. I really didn’t know. They beckoned me to follow them out of the square into the darkened alleys that lace the city like a maze. This shadowy world of dead ends and lapping water, of echoes of footsteps and voices where no one can be seen, took hold of me. I was transfixed by the spell Venice cast and gave in to the moment.
Eventually we came to a large door and climbed up more flights of stairs than I can remember and entered an apartment where the scene resembled the backstage action at a fashion show. Locals were undressing and getting into costume, frantically applying makeup and donning wigs. The gregarious woman orchestrating the mayhem – known to all as “la mamma” – sized me up.
“Spogliate,” she commanded.
“Strip. She wants to you to strip,” my new friends explained.
Not an hour after being led away from the wild scene in the piazza, I was back, this time dressed in chiffon from head to toe and with mamma on my arm. They dubbed me the “virgin princess of Canada” and I thought how would I ever explain this to my buddies back in Toronto if they could only see me now. We stayed out the whole night.
Rolling waves from the harbour rush into the piazzetta beside the Doge’s Palace and bring me back from that moment of nostalgia to the reality that Venice is sinking before my eyes. Acqua alta is flooding fast and will continue to rise for more than an hour, bringing with it the corrosive, saline seawater that ruins fine Italian leather shoes and over time has warped the great tiled floor of the Basilica di San Marco.
To keep Venice’s foot soldiers’ feet dry, a jigsaw pattern of raised gangplanks is laid in the sections that are most vulnerable. Navigating the narrow streets, or calle, means walking along tight footbridges that carry two-way traffic and requires acrobatic dexterity. Call it Venice on parade, a fashion show down countless catwalks against an incomparable setting.
American writer Mary McCarthy commented in her book, Venice Observed: “The things of this world reveal their essential absurdity when they are put in the Venetian context.” Evidence abounds to support her theory. Spontaneous laughter erupts from tourists gathered on the Rialto Bridge when a police boat with lights flashing speeds along the Grand Canal. It seems so comical and yet it’s just part of the improbable setting of this place. Acqua alta makes Venice even more surreal when its illusory character is redoubled in countless shimmering surfaces and reflections.
Coping with high water has always been a fact of life here; records date back to 589, when Venice was a foundling community emerging from the mud flats as a safe haven from the barbarians who were ransacking terra firma. The water brought its own peril, carrying with it pestilence and disease. The challenges that confront Venice from the beginning are written in the history of its water.
On November 4, 1966, a rare combination of climatic conditions caused the highest acqua alta ever to pour into Venice – 1.9 metres above average tide. The event captured the world’s attention with the threat that this Adriatic jewel was in jeopardy of becoming a new Atlantis. Today, you just have to ask “Where were you in ‘66” to a local of a certain age and the response will be instant: they draw a line across their waist – or higher - indicating the height of the water. Markers can be seen on San Marco’s bell tower and on the Church of the Frari. For decades, efforts to save Venice have been the subject of countless and costly studies. Now a controversial system of dikes appropriately called the “Moses Project” is rising at the entrance channels to the inner harbour. Many fear that controlling water levels this way will choke off and stagnate the lagoon and that it will die without the benefit of regular cleansing by the tide.
In a city steered by winds and the ebb and flow of water, Venetians have developed a fatalistic sense about things watery. The day before this high tide, my Italian language instructor said with resignation that it was coming; he could smell it. The gondoliers looked glum; acqua alta is bad for business. An expensive boat ride seems redundant when there’s water flowing in the streets. Still, locals will say high tides are less damaging than the flash floods that come without warning and leave tonnes of debris in their wake. This occasionally happens in Florence when the Arno River rebels against the Renaissance capital’s claim to have perfected nature.
I have an appointment to keep with some Venetians who will show me what acqua alta is all about. There they are standing by the statue in Campo San Bartolomeo. La mamma – she still wants me to call her that after all these years, her husband, Franco, and two of their children, Barbara and Enrico – the ones who rescued me from carnival long ago and who are now adults, wave as I approach. We’ve stayed in touch all these years; I am their adopted Canadian son and they are my Venetian family.
Barbara and her husband, Fabio, came to visit soon after they were married. Hosting native Venetians in Canada can be an alarming experience. They are genuinely uneasy about riding in cars, and they complain of the smell of exhaust, to which I remind them of the rank odour that sometimes rises from below Venetian footbridges. They shrug as if they have no idea what I’m talking about. They point to the tall buildings and call them “palazzi.” If only we had the likes of Tiziano, Guardi and Giorgione adorning our grand buildings with their masterful paintings. And to give these wet-footed Venetians a taste of what water is all about Canadian-style, I take them to Niagara Falls.
Franco guides us to a small campo that has no canal access and he says here we will wait. Acqua alta is silent and insidious. It’s not just the canals that overflow; water comes up from beneath the pavement, seeping and spreading as it surges. Then it bubbles up like a geothermal hot spring and fills the squares, the churches, the stores and the houses in low-lying districts. It looks, at first, as if Venice is doomed. We’re forced to the edge of the campo as it fills, and then retreat down a calle to the sound of rushing water behind us.
To counter the shock of watching Venice submerge in this unrelenting tide, the city offers up unforgettable scenes played out as it struggles to get through the routine of the day. Locals down their espressos, salute one another and slosh out of a bar whose floor is under twenty centimetres of water. A man pushes a delivery cart loaded down with bottles of spring water through swirling floods. A waiter carries a tray of cappuccini and brioche to a couple encamped at a table, which rises like a tiny tropical island from the sea. Stores loaded with umbrellas and boots are bailing out. The faithful negotiate a makeshift bridge in the cavernous darkness of a flooded church to attend mass. People piggyback those who came out without boots, while one man is content to lean against a wall and read the morning paper at water’s edge – and wait.
Then, without a sound, the current stills. The tide has crested and begins to recede. The reason for the nonchalance with which Venetians endure what seems like near disaster becomes clear: acqua alta does not last. Little tornado-like funnels form over the sewer grates as the high waters of Venice slide back into the piles and mud below and eventually, out to sea. Bridges are no longer isolated chunks of raised stone without a dry means to cross them. But evidence of the flood remains; a dead pigeon drifts down a deserted canal alongside the garbage bags and the flotsam and jetsam liberated by the now-yielding waters.
My Venetian family and I splash through Piazza San Marco and talk about carnival. It’s not like it was back then, they say. Now it’s overrun with drunken youth who sleep in the streets and not as many people dress up anymore. Venetians get out of town if they can. We have a long lunch at a favourite place, Ristorante Corte Sconta, and eat our way through countless dishes from the all-seafood menu. Frittura mista all'Adriatico, spaghetti alle vongole, and plump fillets of branzino, washed down with the house wine, a still prosecco from the Veneto.
By mid-afternoon, the streets in this slippery city are dry once again. Venetians return to their loafers and pumps, but our group hasn’t yet had the chance to change out of our rubber boots. The reaction is extreme. Everywhere, we encounter disapproving stares. “Why are they wearing boots?” they seem to be asking themselves. Maybe the Venetians are in denial or perhaps they just want to enjoy the dry hours of the evening when the wind has died down and the second tide of the day is not as extreme. I bid my farewell to my Venetian family: alla prossima! And that night I go to bed with one ear cocked for the siren song to come once again, and smile when it does.
“High Water in Low Season” won First Prize in the Accenti Magazine Writing Contest, and was read at the Accenti Magazine Awards during the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in May 2008. Paul French is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
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