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You know about the museums and galleries. You've been surfing off the lido. And, the secret gardens of Venice are no longer a secret from you. But, did you know about the rice paddies of Verona? That pink flamingos migrate through the northern lagoon? That living souls were bought and sold in exchange for Murano glass?
Many people who read this blog are seasoned visitors to Venice. You know a lot about her history, her treasures and her environment. And, above all you know that no matter how much we learn there's always more to know. On this short list, there may be something you did not yet know about Venice...
Venice is, largely, for the birds!
More than 20,000 birds visit Venice, and the almost 70,000 hectars of nature preserves in the Venetian lagoon, every year. These preserves include the barene – the muds flats within the lagoon – as well as the sand dunes at Alberoni and San Nicolo on the Lido, Ca'Roman on Pellestrina, and a swath of coastline near Chioggia.
For the past two years, a flock of flamingos – Yes, pink ones! - has migrated through the northern lagoon each spring. There are sandpipers on the barene whose curved beaks are longer than the birds are tall. There are infinite varieties of ducks. On Sant'Erasmo, in addition to the expected farm birds, I have spotted wild ring-necked red pheasants, and colorful wild parakeets, while on the southern end of the Lido lives a flock of gregarious peacocks who don't seam to feel any need to limit themselves to staying on the farm.
Of course birds such as sea gulls and pigeons can be hard to ignore in the center of Venice, especially when they engage in shenanigans like stealing sandwiches right out of people's hands. But, on the brighter side, it is not at all unusual to catch sight of a yellow-footed egret posing gracefully on the corner of an embarcadero. And, low-flying cormorants make a silly spectacle when they stand around airing their feathers atop the pilings in the lagoon. One day last summer a bird even flew into my living room, had a peck at the potted plants and, gratefully, flitted just as easily back out again.
Though I do not yet know of a bird-watching excursion in the lagoon, I think it's a great idea and will let you know as soon as I hear anything. Meanwhile, this post by Tour Guide Luisella Romeo is a good place to start learning more about the birds and nature preserves of the lagoon.
The historical significance of Murano glass beads:
"Trade beads" are probably the most globally seen Murano glass beads. Yet, very few people realize that they're Venetian. Even fewer truly grasp the historical and cultural significance of these particular beads. These days, they seem to be associated with virtually every culture except European cultures. Nevertheless, they originally came from Murano where, for hundreds of years, they were produced by the ton and shipped off on long voyages throughout the world.
From the 16th to the 20th centuries Murano glass beads were traded as currency between the merchants of the Venetian republic and, particularly, the people's of West Africa who placed a much higher value on decorative objects than they did on European currency. So highly valued were these beads that they were used to pay for the purchase of human beings, earning them the ominous name "slave beads".
While there certainly can not be a larger human impact of beads beyond their use as currency in the purchase of slaves, there were other significant impacts of the popularity of Murano glass beads that bear mentioning. For example, when the merchant sailors sailed off to parts unknown with their ships laden down with beads, their hard currency remained in Venice contributing significantly to the wealth of the Republic. Meanwhile, the impiraresse of Venice – the women workers whose job it was to string the billions of tiny seed beads produced on Murano for the luxury market – are known to have formed a labor union and gone on strike for better pay in the late 1800's, long before the labor movement began in Europe.
Rice has been cultivated in the Veneto, Lombardy and Piedmont since the mid-1400's. Today, Italy is the largest rice cultivator in Europe. The vast majority of rice cultivated in the humid valleys of northern Italy is short grain rice – including the famous Arborio and the Vialone Nano IGP rice cultivated near Verona.
The photograph on the right was sent to me courtesy of Venice Bites Food Tours, who happened to be treating their guests to a risotto just as I was writing this article. The photo on the right is my goopy attempt to replicate it. Definitely go out for a well-made risotto while in Venice!
Long considered a precious commodity, dishes made with rice, risottos, have a special place in both Venetian history and the Venetian diet. The beloved risi e bisi, a risotto of rice and peas, was historically served to the Doge in celebration of the feast day of San Marco, the patron saint of Venice. Risotto with eel is a traditional part of a Venetian Christmas Eve dinner. And, risotto di go is a gourmet specialty risotto, local to the Venetian island of Burano, made with “giozzo” - tiny fish caught in the lagoon - and the Veneto's Vialone Nano rice. Naturally, risottos change with the season as local chefs pair the rice with seasonal vegetables and freshly caught fish. This week, it seems we're all having asparagus risotto!
Well prepared pasta is delicious of course, but you won't have tasted Venice before you've tasted a carefully prepared risotto.
The cultural, social and political impact of the Republic of Venice goes well beyond the visual arts.
Whenever I see that a door to one of the document archives of Venice has been left open, I can't resist peeking my head in. The Republic of Venice was the home to the first trade union in Europe. It was the birthplace of modern accounting. And, of particular interest to me, and perhaps to all of us who can never seem to find the right charger for our mobile phones, somewhere inside those archives lies the first ever patent statute along with the records of the 2,000 patents that were issued by the Republic of Venice in the first 14 years that the statute went into effect. Those were the years from 1474 until 1488. Could the Venetian Senate have imagined, when they enacted that law hundreds of years ago that it would come to be adopted almost globally - Almost verbatim too! - and impact the daily lives of billions of people?
The big job of digitizing the documents within the archives, Project Venice Time Machine, is ongoing. It is possible to visit the state archives. Learn more HERE.
Venice is (still) bigger than the historic center.
The lion of San Marco in the old town of Kotor, Montenegro.
At it's peak, the Republic of Venice encompassed not only the Veneto coast and a large swath of the mainland, but also nearly the entire eastern Adriatic shore – the Dalmatian coast where one now finds the countries of Croatia, Montenegro & Albania – plus Corfu, Crete and, infamously, Constantinople. During it's peek as a trading empire, many more coastal territories, from Northern Africa to Asia, fell under the effective control of the Republic.
The lion of San Marco in the historic center of Marostica, Veneto.
Though, these days the territory of Venice and the Veneto are more limited to the lagoon and a portion of mainland Italy, there is still plenty of Venetian territory to explore beyond the city center. The lagoon itself covers an area of 550 kilometers, while the Veneto mainland stretches from Cortina to the north, Verona to the west and Chioggia and the Po Delta to the South. As you can imagine, recreational, educational and culinary experience opportunities abound in this territory.
Why, one could even go hiking in the morning, have a risotto for lunch, do a little shopping for Murano glass beads and pop into a document archive in the afternoon before gliding off on a sunset bird-watching cruise of the lagoon. Now that sounds like an amazing day in Venice!
What image comes to mind when you picture a “dying city”? If it's not a group of scantily- clad people eating pizza in the street, nor a noisy bunch of joyful travelers disembarking from a boat, nor a rowdy group of teenagers trotting through the town with open beers sloshing in their hands, then you must not be picturing Venice. I'm sure no one thinks of “degradation” while admiring the paintings of Titian and Tintoretto. And, I agree that dangerously decaying stucco does, in fact, look beautiful here. So why would any visitor to Venice think of this as a degraded and dying city? How would they know?
What does a dying city look like?
Here in Venice, death looks like candy, multi-colored pasta, and dried lavender. It looks like both designer and discount clothing, with absolutely nothing in between. It looks like a brand new five star hotel, plus five or six new bed and breakfasts. It looks like take-away pasta and, also cocktails to take-away. It looks like souvenir, schotsky and t-shirt shops whose windows strangely do not change with the seasons. It looks like signs announcing “limited time” sales that mysteriously never end. It looks like the fish mongers must actually be models for all the cameras pointing at them. And, it looks like we shall have to go to mainland to get XYZ.
All of which is to say that the death of Venice looks like an on-going Carnevale which sucks up and discards everything relevant to a living community and replaces it with trinkets that are really only appealing to people on holiday as it rolls on its deep-fried and sugar-coated way to the next “historical” festival to which locals are only invited as performers.
Death is adorned with identical window boxes, or spindly succulents, or shutters with the paint peeling off, and it never needs to hang its laundry out to dry. There are lots of ways to identify a house where no one really lives.
Death wears no uniform and answers no telephone. As the number of residents in Venice dwindles, so do public services. And while there may be some vacationing fools out there who gleefully jump off of bridges knowing that no one is coming to stop them, they would do well to remember that, should they fall off of bridges instead, no would come to save them either.
The Many Faces of "Degradation"
There is something enchantingly beautiful about the crumbling stucco walls and wave-worn stones that adorn Venice. But, make no mistake, Venice is experiencing both physical and moral degradation. Both the supports and foundations of Venice are degrading. Meanwhile, Venetians are responsible for the disposal of the massive amounts of unsightly and unsanitary waste produced by visitors to the city. This is a very visible degradation, particularly as this waste so often finds it's way to the steps of monuments and into the doorways and windowsills of private homes; A stinking insult to the dignity of both Venetian history and living Venetians.
But, don't think that degradation always looks like filth and rot. It also looks like glittery plastic carnival masks, faux Murano glass, and, now also “gastronomic souvenirs” which are actually mass-produced imitations of Italian specialty foods. It is terribly emotionally, culturally and financially degrading to helplessly observe the spread of this mockery of traditional Venetian products right here where the original products were created.
Degradation is also a picnic, a picnic to which Venetians are not invited. While thousands of tourists settle themselves in the streets, on the bridges, along the canals, on vaporetto docks, and in the squares for lunch “al fresco” every day, a Venetian family was recently fined for “illegal occupation of public space” for making so bold as to throw a child's birthday party outdoors in a public square. Is it not degrading to be told that there is just no room for you and your children in the public spaces which your taxes pay to keep clean?
Degradation is a hiss, a long sigh and a shove, intended for the millions who don't speak your language nor care about your manners, but very often also landing on one of your few remaining neighbors as a slight that will prevent you from forming a polite relationship with them either.
It was one thing, to analyze the Venetian reality from the distance. The lack of housing and lack of skilled jobs are easy enough statistics to verify online. It is something else to live the day-to-day death and degradation of this city that I continue to love and admire so much even as I too slowly become one of those who issues the long-sigh.
Someone among you has made a New Year's resolution to make the big move to Venice! Congratulations! What do you need to know before you take the plunge? Surely, you already know that you absolutely can not ever actually take a plunge into the canals. And, if you're really considering moving to Venice, surely you can deal with a some unpredictability in the little things in life such as how, when and whether-or-not your mail is delivered. You probably get a little kick out of unpredictability, you have the patience to work through petty annoyances, and you enjoy a little challenge in your everyday life. So, lets not talk about the flexibility, patience and pivotability needed in order to survive the mysterious twists and turns of life in Italy. Lets focus instead, as OG Venice often does, on those aspects of everyday life in Venice that are so obvious that many people neglect to mention them.
Did I mention that I'm waiting for the locksmith to come back? I am. He left to go get something.... More than two months ago! A few weeks back, he called and said that work had interfered with his ability to return to working. He didn't know why he hadn't called until just then. I said I didn't know why either. He promised to come back soon. He didn't. But, I still like him better than the other locksmith who left over a year ago, with half a set of keys, never to be heard from again.
8 Painfully Obvious, Yet Profoundly Impactful, Things to Consider When Moving to Venice 1. Make sure that you like the climate of the lagoon.
“Humid” is far to weak a word to describe Venice' weather. We don't live “by the water”, “near the water”, nor “on the water”. We live in the lagoon. Here in the World Heritage Site of “Venice and The Lagoon”, water comes from everywhere. When it rains, it comes from above. When a winter high tide coincides with a full moon, it comes from below. When it's windy, it comes from the sides. When there's a storm, it comes from everywhere all at once. And, it comes for all of us. When the stucco walls in your stairway have become over-saturated by humidity, they will crumble at a thunder clap. I've seen it happen.
A couple of years ago, I locked myself out of the house. Late at night. With my roommate's two dogs. During acqua alta! The only option was wake to up the landlord and splash on over to his house, where he tossed the spare keys down the stairs to where I stood in his foyer, knee-deep in freezing cold lagoon water. The dogs, who couldn't fairly be expected to do their business without a patch of dry ground to crouch on, waited on the bridge with the guy who was then my boyfriend and is now my husband. In Venice, a guy who'll wade across town for you in the middle of the night is a keeper!
During the hottest days of summer, you will feel as though you've been locked inside of a sauna from which only God can release you. During the coldest days of winter, it will feel as though the fog is actually composed of an army bearing trillions of minuscule ice-spades capable of penetrating whatever armor you choose to don against them.
However, if you can manage the Venetian climate on its extremes, and you like a humid climate otherwise, Venice will reward you with some truly unique and beautiful lagoon weather phenomena. My favorite is “fog-from-the-sun”, when the blanket of fog sits so low over the city that, though one sees the surrounding buildings shrouded in fog, one also sees blue sky overhead and feels the warmth of the sun. Venice' fast moving summer storms can also be spectacularly beautiful when dark clouds race across the sky and their reflections chase them across the water. When such storms approach the city, the facebook pages of local people always abound with dramatic photos and warnings that we all need to run home and close our windows.
2. Venetian basic equipment, are you ready to own it?
No matter what your origins, age, socio-economic status, personal interests, or opinion about your own sense of style, there are two pieces of basic equipment that absolutely everyone in Venice has: A wheeling cart and a pair of rubber boots. Sound unglamorous? They are! But, they are absolutely essential to comfortable living in Venice.
A few days ago, a friend and I took a trip out to a shopping in center in Marghera. Only after we arrived did I realize that we were not holiday shopping. No. We were bargain hunting for hand trolleys. She picked one with a water-resistant fabric bag and hooks suspended from the back of the frame while I ogled a collapsible model almost small enough to fit in my purse. Unfortunately, my friend was right to point out that the wheels on the one I liked were entirely too flimsy for the bumpy roads of Venice. Bummer.
Why the wheeling cart? Well, how much can you comfortably carry and how far can you carry it? The main island of Venice is the largest pedestrian-only urban center in Europe. The only interruptions to pedestrian streets, aside from canals, are the more than 400 bridges that we pedestrians must walk over in order to proceed with our walking. On a day-to-day basis, this means that transporting supplies from place to place can be rather physically demanding. A small wheeling cart takes a lot of weight off of the shoulders and, if you're super organized and very lucky, it might even help you get all your groceries home in one trip!
Now, about those rubber boots...
When I tell you that we all have a pair of rubber boots, that's not actually true. The truth is that we all have at least two pairs of rubber boots. We have the ones we like, and the ones that we bought because we got caught outside during acqua alta without the ones we like.
Before you scoff at these, remember that in some parts of the world they are considered fashionable foot ware. They are practical shoes popular with hunters, fishermen, Queen Elizabeth of England, and lots of other people who like to keep their feet dry. The difference here in Venice is that the need for wellies is not limited to sportsmen. The phenomenon of acqua alta – the high tides which occasionally rise up above street level in Venice – dictates that we all need rubber boots if we expect to go about our daily lives with dry feet. This is especially true during the winter months when the levels of the tide tend to be more extreme.
This is what the high water alarm sounds like:
This is what happens if one ignores the high water alarm:
One day last winter, two friends and I stepped out of a building on Murano only to discover that the rising tide had swallowed the street. It didn't matter that the bridge was only about five feet away. The street on our side of the bridge was flooded, as was the street on the other side. Our choices were to either stay put until the tide went out, find a way to cover our feet, or wear soggy and cold shoes all day. We adjourned to a supermarket upstairs where we each bought a “pair” of plastic shopping bags to wrap our feet in. Had we planned ahead, we would certainly have already been wearing our wellies.
So there you have your two, unglamorous, pieces of essential equipment for life in Venice. I will only add that it is highly inadvisable to place yourself in a situation where you need both of these things at the same time. It doesn't work that way. You can imagine why.
3. This is "slow living", like it or not.
Moving to Venice? Congratulations! Your carbon footprint is about to virtually disappear!
“Slow living”, in Venice, is not a personal socio-environmental choice any more than it is a label on a plastic bag full of quinoa that's been shipped half-way around the world. Nor is it something that we here in town ever really discuss. It is far too obvious to mention. Choosing to live in the historic center of Venice means that you are choosing to live without regular access to a car. You are choosing to physically carry anything that you purchase for yourself. You are choosing to rely on your own two feet and public transportation for 90% of your transportation needs. And, you are choosing to consume primarily that which is made available to you locally, which will be largely locally and domestically produced. Meanwhile, any tendencies that you may have towards over-consumption of energy, shopping or even just collecting of anything will likely be curtailed by the simple fact that it takes a major commitment of time, energy and space to do such things in Venice.
Did I mention that the mailman yelled at me? He did. Apparently my inconsiderateness at allowing someone to send me a parcel that did not fit comfortably into a wheeling cart is unendurable. I've gotten nine packages this year. Nine! That's it. And, I promised him that I wouldn't do it again. So, really, I guess that's it. No more shopping online, or receiving gifts, for me.
And, please also forget that saying you've heard about having a boat in Venice being the equivalent of having a car elsewhere in the world. I have yet to meet the Venetian who uses her/his boat to take the kids to school, stop bye the market, drop off the dry-cleaning and then run to the hardware store. There are no docks at the school, the market, the dry-cleaner or the hardware store. Here in Venice, boats are used for work and recreation.
Welcome to slow living! Grab your wheeling cart. Start walking.
4. Venice really is a small town.
Moving to Venice on your own? Don't worry! Venice may be a labyrinth, but none of us is invisible within it. It may sound contradictory to the sophisticated image of the city that hosts the International Biennale D'Arte, but Venice is a very small town by number of residents and the community is highly interactive. Through the sea of tourists, even regular visitors who come once or twice per year are remembered. If you move here, everyone in your neighborhood will quickly come to recognize you.
When you leave the house in the morning, everyone who happens to be out at the time will greet you and expect a greeting in return. Everyone. The ladies in the bakery, the neighbor out walking dog, the guy who begs on the bridge, the workmen restoring the house on the corner, the guy who rents the storeroom downstairs, the lady who sells vintage Murano glass, even the neighbors' kids will mumble “Ciao” as they scurry past on their way to school.
It was two weeks after I moved into my apartment, when I first started planting flowers out the kitchen window, that my neighbor across the way called out her window to me: "Rimani un po'?" (“Are you staying for a while?”) I responded that I was moving in. A few days after that, all of the neighbors, even those whom I hadn't met in the windows, began greeting me by name. A year later, it takes me half an hour to buy a loaf of bread from the bakery downstairs. There's just always so much to catch up on, someone passing bye, something to know about someone else who regularly passes bye...
This does not mean that you'll become bosom-buddies with everyone in town. Venetian's are human people who form friendships on the same basis as other human people. (Things like shared interests and experiences help a lot.) Nevertheless, because your newly adopted pedestrian lifestyle and the unique topography of Venice mean that you will encounter your neighbors often, and because as a new-comer you really never know with whom you might strike up a friendship, and because your neighbors know the answers to all of the questions that you will eventually have about Venice, it certainly behooves you to be pleasant in your interactions. Don't worry too much if you do not yet speak Venetian. In my experience, that will not stop anyone from trying to speak to you.
5. Make sure that you like the food.
The only people who do not like Italian food are people who've never had any. Right?! The food is, or at least it should be, one of the main reasons that you want to move here in the first place!
I could so happily eat a plate of seafood antipasta every day.
Venice is perfect for you because you just can't get enough baccala mantecato, gelato, spaghetti with clams, steamed squid, paper thin slices of prosciutto and artichokes so fresh and sweet that one can even eat them raw. Right? Let's hope so! Because, like every region of Italy, the Veneto has a deeply engrained and highly pervasive food culture.
In every day life, you will run into chefs at the fish market, see the vegetable boats from Sant'Erasmo dropping off crates for your neighbors and your neighborhood trattoria, and smell the scent of fresh bread as a baker wheels bye with a cart full of deliveries for the bars and restaurants. There really isn't much not to like.
It's true...I like crostini better than "real" food.
There is only one real challenge when it comes to adapting to the Venetian food world of sea-foody-with-four-seasons-of-vegetables freshness and that is this: If you're moving to Venice from another urban center, you will have to say goodbye to having easy access to all other kinds of international cuisine. Here, you go out for Venetian, or you cook for yourself. We have a few decent international restaurants - the Middle Eastern and the Japanese are very good - but absolutely nothing approaching the variety you'd find in a big city overseas. As an expat, you will begin experimenting with cooking your favorite ethnic dishes, and comfort foods from home, in your own kitchen. (Fortunately, you'll be blessed with exceptional Italian produce to use as your base ingredients.) Meanwhile, like the rest of us, you will shop the back corner of Giacomo Rizzo, and you will treasure any international condiments that anyone is kind enough to smuggle into the country for you.
My own guilty culinary not-so-secret is that I hoard Szechuan peppercorns and prepare Szechuan stir-fries and stews when my husband is not home.
6. Expats are always foreigners.
I get it! You're trying to fit in and you'll never learn Italian if no one ever lets you practice! Nevertheless, and this should probably be expat-in-Venice survival rule number one: Do not take it as an insult when people in Venice speak to you in foreign languages. Keep in mind that the very vast majority of their clients and visitors are, in fact, foreigners. Venetian's are constantly making an effort to communicate with people in foreign languages. It might even be as nerve-wracking for them to speak English to you as it is for you to speak Venetian with them. So, please consider that before feeling insulted that someone (correctly) assumed that you are from out of town. As an expat in Venice, you will certainly find more complicated issues to contend with.
The hardware store is the first and final frontier!
A few weeks after I moved in to my apartment, I stopped into a local hardware store to buy some spackle. The checkout line was rather long and populated with grouchy people who dislike waiting in lines. When my turn came, I plopped my little tub of spackle and a putty knife down on the counter and was waiting expectantly for the total when out of nowhere the store clerk began speaking to me, quite a lot, in German! Though my first reaction was to listen and try to understand his words, I couldn't even understand why in the world this clerk in a hardware store in Venice was speaking to me, an American, in German. Eventually, I blurted out, “Si, ma io non parlo Tedesco!” (Yes, but I don't speak German!) The long line of grouches all burst out laughing and we finished the transaction in Italian. I went home to spackle my wall and spent the rest of the day wondering how many German tourists go to the hardware store in Venice and buy spackle.
Integrating into a foreign society will be challenging wherever you go. But, Venetian society, unique in all ways, may be especially challenging because it is a culturally, socially and environmentally endangered society whose woes are largely due to the city's unique appeal to foreigners. You are moving in, but the foreigners who bought the apartment upstairs, the one downstairs, the one on the corner and the one across the street did not. They did a quick renovation and immediately handed the house keys over to a rental agent. You care about the condition of the school, the maintenance of the bridges, the accessibility of the market, the cleanliness of the streets, the erosion of the mudflats in the lagoon, the over-crowding of the public boats etc... But, the other millions upon millions of foreigners who flood the city, however much they may admire Venice, do not care about those things at all. They strut around in the streets half-naked, act haughty and entitled, never try to speak Italian, and leave garbage behind everywhere they go. You're fed up with them too!
Once you break through that frustrating language barrier, you, as an expat and a new friend, will become a sounding board for all of the wrongs done against Venice by other foreigners. By far your biggest social and emotional challenge as an expat in Venice is to figure out how to listen attentively and act sensitively without internalizing all of the guilt for all of the wrongs that all of these other foreigners have done to your adopted home. I'm not going to lie, this is difficult. There are even frequent visitors who begin to wonder if they need to make the ultimate sacrifice, staying away, in order to avoid harming their beloved Venice.
Some encouraging things to remember when these emotional crises strike: 1. Venetians will only discuss these things with you if they believe that you are receptive and helpful. They are not blaming you. They are inviting you to empathize. 2. Frequent visitors are recognized, welcomed back and, incidentally, have the most positive impact on the street-level economy of any of the millions who visit each year. 3. Becoming "Venetian-by-choice" by moving to, and actually living in, Venice is a huge positive investment in the City.
7. Are you ready to be famous?!
OK, “famous” may be too strong of a word. But, there is something about the fascination of Venice that makes even the dullest among us here fascinating as well. You, filling your water bottle at a public fountain, are so enchanting that someone will make a video of it. You carrying a shopping bag with some celery sticking out? Enthralling! You sitting alone reading the..