Campiella della Pazienza, Venice, May 26, 2011—THERE'S A LOT of stuff in this town: bricks, stones, tiles, glass, more trees than you'd think, jewelry, clothes, fish, wine, fancy papers, feathers, watches, hats, books, musical instruments, sandwiches, cameras, churches, and pasta, among other things; and none of it arrives in trucks. Freight trains, perhaps; maybe a few small vans too, though I haven't noticed them. And even then those things will be off-loaded, as today's ugly English has it, at the depot at the west end of the city, and distributed throughout Venice, like every other portable commodity, by boat or hand-truck.
I first thought about this in 1980, when we first visited Venice. Today in our walkabout we ran across the hotel we stayed in then, the Hotel Dalla Mora, and we looked in at the lobby to see if it had changed. No, signor, sempre lo stesso, it's always the same, the man at the desk said. Ancora le bottiglie, le mattine? I asked, smiling. He glanced at some guests who had just checked in, then smiled at me, Yes, you hear the bottles in the morning.
It's a very nice little hotel: but across the canal there's a loading dock where bottles of soft drinks are loaded into boats early every morning, to be shipped off to little shops, I suppose, and restaurants; and the workers don't take pains to do this silently.
There are many reasons to appreciate the lack of motor vehicles here, and one of the subtlest is the result that you're frequently reminded of work that's otherwise too often invisible, therefore taken for granted. There's no separation of pedestrians and freight: Tourists in their finery (or more often their astounding negligée) rub elbows with workers hand-trucking commodities along narrow pedestrian streets and over bridges.
And everything is nearby, or at least immediate. On the morning walkabout we passed three men repairing pavement: a three-foot hole had been dug, probably to repair or check on some plumbing or conduit, and had been refilled with sand, and a few paving-stones were lying about, two men turning them over, this way and that, a third looking on (the foreman, not doubt, it's the same everywhere). When we went by again, an hour or two later, they were just finishing resetting the stones and sweeping in the sand; you'd hardly know the job was recent.
Yesterday in a very narrow street — you can easily touch the walls on either side without stretching your arms — we noticed a good many such stones stacked alongside the temporary boards on which we were walking: perfectly flat and squared on one side, the side you always see; rounded and rough on the other, which would be set into the sand when the job was done. Each of these stones was numbered, but the numbers only ran from 1 to 5: I don't know what the numbers represented. They all looked the same to me, and I worked on paving crews, fifty years ago.
Of course this would require more workers, and why not? Why shouldn't healthy strong young men and women do such work after college, say, or even during college, and then move into some sinecure like journalism or brain surgery later, when they want more money and less muscle? And why shouldn't we pay just a little more for unnecessary commodities when we buy them in places like Venice where the stress of exhaust fumes, noisy trucks, and vehicular traffic has given way to a gentler pace?
We came here directly from London, where you're constantly threatened by trucks and buses, often coming at you from the wrong direction, incredibly close to the vulnerable pedestrian: traffic lanes right by the sidewalks, with no parking lane to protect the passerby. The lessened stress here is quite noticeable: you can walk for hours — and do — without feeling the strain of constant alertness to impending death. (Unless it be by drowning, of course: we've gone down a number of streets that ended abruptly at a drop into a quiet back canal.)
We did ride our first vehicle today, our fifth day here in Venice: a traghetto, a gondola rowed by one boatsman, carrying no more than ten or twelve pedestrians at a time (five of us, in this case) from one bank of the Grand Canal to the other. This saves a lot of time and walking, as there are only four bridges across the Grand Canal, and they are far between. It only takes a minute or so to cross, though you may have to wait three or four for a traghetto to arrive; you stand all the way, feet slightly spread and facing front to brace against the wake of passing vaporetti and water-taxis. It's a real pleasure, of course: you're close to the water; you feel the breeze; you're away from crowds and hard surfaces. The price has doubled these last ten years, but it's worth a euro to save twenty minutes' walking, if you want to get somewhere soon.
Of course we rarely feel the need to get somewhere soon. Lunchtime runs from noon to four, these days; dinner from eight to eleven, unless we simply feel like snacking. It's hot; it's always hot in Venice this time of year. We have plenty of time, and there'll be no final exam. And to me, almost anything here is as interesting, as absorbing, as anything else.
• Online photos from Venice this month