Soggy Venice

Talk to my ass my ears are busy!  Not a very kind thing to say but this is something my Italian grandfather often shouted at my grandmother when he wanted her to as they say in Italian va bene SHUT THE MOUTH!  Don’t hold it against him, he also use to sing, “Beautiful Brown Eyes” to her all the time also. Italians are credited with creating some of the most beautiful art and architecture in the world. They are passionate people, which makes them creative.  Unfortunately, Italians are horrible listeners. They are passionate talkers and horrible listeners. I know this first hand since I am Italian. My family of Italians love to talk all at the same time while increasing the volume. My husband usually observes the madness by practicing the lesson of the wise old owl. There was an old owl who sat in the oak the more he heard the less he spoke the more he heard why can’t we be like that wise old bird.

This inability to listen is the reason soggy Venice has not been able to solve its problems with flooding. For centuries, the city has been sinking while the Adriatic Sea has been rising causing frequent flooding. From the months of October through January, Venetians deal with what they call aqua alta or high tide. Many blame global warming for the frequent high tides.  A century ago it only happened 7 times a year, now it is a 100. Last December Venice suffered its worst flood in 22 years.  The worst flood on record was in 1966 when the water was at the 4 foot level. It destroyed precious art and architecture. Since the flood of 1966, the debate about how to save Venice has been fierce. If something isn’t done, Venice may become a modern-day Atlantis. As the sun sets on Venice the water comes bubbling up into the streets in St. Mark’s Square every day. In 2007 when I was there, rather than ruin my Italian shoes, I walked through the square in my bare feet back to my hotel. It wasn’t even high tide season just an everyday occurrence.

The location of Venice is precarious because the city is built on a sinking lagoon.  Fear of attack by barbarian invaders drove the early inhabitants into the lagoon centuries ago.  The canals were a refuge from horse riding barbarians who didn’t know how to navigate the narrow channels. Eventually Venice grew to become wealthy because of its dominance as a trading and shipping port.  The sea that once made Venice safe, prosperous and powerful is now its greatest enemy.

The romance of Venice brings over 18 million tourists there annually. The way the Venetians deal with the flooding is by setting up elevated wooden walkways throughout the city that look like banquet tables.  Thousands of tourists who are normally in the squares suddenly have to walk single file along the walkways. The stores have gates at the front door ready to hold off the water.  Every Venetian owns a pair of rubber boots or hip waders. They all know the water is coming when the sirens start going off. Currently the only thing that is high and dry is the laundry that hangs from the second story windows.

The picture of Venice today is of gigantic cruise ships unloading thousands of Chinese, Japanese, German and American tourists onto its streets, leather soled shoes have been replaced by rubber soles; historic art has been replaced by street peddler’s hocking imitation Gucci bags and cheap glass trinkets. Black gondolas bob and up down next to a pacing gondolier on a cell phone smoking a cigarette impatiently waiting for his next tourist. At sunrise hundreds of Italians flock in on the vaparettos (water buses) to work at the many hotels, restaurants and shops.  Most of them cannot afford to live in Venice.

While the seabed is sinking, brick walls of the buildings crumble. All along the Grand Canal, windows of palaces are boarded up and left vacant. No Venetian lives on the ground floor any more. Even though the tourist population is growing, the population of the historic city is shrinking and is now under 60,000 residents from a peak of 200,000.  Venice is difficult and expensive. They need a new occupation besides tourism. Too bad Venice isn’t in Germany or Switzerland. The problem would have been solved years ago.

In spite of decades of repeated flooding, the Italians have not been able to agree on an actual solution to the problem. It doesn’t help that there is mass political corruption and instability of power. The Italians have been bickering and bickering, for more than 40 years over this. Their answer to protecting Venice is a project that began in 1987 called MOSE Modulo SperimentaleElettromeccanico or Experimental Electromechanical Module, which is a series of inflatable gates that will block the water off the Adriatic Sea from entering Venice during high tides. MOSE is the Italian word for Moses, the biblical figure who parted the Red Sea. The gates have been opposed by environmentalists who think it will harm the eco system of the lagoon and because of it hefty price tag which is now up to $4 billion. One of the opponents is even the Mayor of Venice. As long as the political disagreement continues nothing is being done. The more they talk, talk, talk and come to indecision the more expensive it becomes.

Those who love Venice and its beauty are hoping a city that has withstood time and the elements for so many centuries will somehow manage to endure. There is no reason other than lack of political will and discipline why Venice can’t save itself. While the dispute continues, the Adriatic Sea water rises, Venice sinks, bricks walls deteriorate, costs increase and the Venetians and those who love Venice anxiously await the next big flood.

by cmc


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