Monday, August 3, 2009

The Serene City, part 1

Just returned last week from an impromptu vacation. My friend childhood friend Tianna was recently and unexpectedly passing through Berlin following several months constructing ships made of trash on the coast of Slovenia, sailing them across the Adriatic to Venice, and crashing the Venice Biennale pirate-style, with grappling hooks, then dismantling the ships again in the Lagoon of Death. All true: see it at

Anyway, she asked me if I wanted to go along with her as she drove her Citroen van from Venice back to Slovenia to give to a fisherman who had helped the trash-boat crew out with a boat and given them fish, which they had forgotten about, and had then caused the craft to be re-christened Stinky. He also didn't mind when they attached one of the van's seats to the top of the boat and fixed up a rope allowing them to drive the thing from the cooler and more ventilated roof area. Clearly, he deserved this van, which can double as sleeping quarters in a pinch.

So I said, what the heck? And I flew to Italy.

I arrived in Venice late, well past dark, and sorted out the vaporettos only with confusion.But it was a beautiful time to ride down the Grand Canal, which I hardly remember from my last time in Venice nearly 20 years ago (principal memory: being lost). The architecture is really something, as you can see the time when Venice was a world trading center and one of the spots where East habitually met West - if principally, and sadly, through the Venetians' sacking of Constantinople. Still, it was also astonishing how often grandeur was met with decay: a number of those grand old mansions opening onto the city's central waterway are apparently uninhabited, even uninhabitable, and while work appeared to be going on in some, others were simply boarded up. I'd certianly like to take one, but doubt I could afford the upkeep, especially with the rising water levels...

Anyway, some boat confusion led to me getting off at a different stop than planned, but no worries. Tianna and her friend Christoph soon turned up in a boat and, quite illegally, pulled up at the vaporetto stop long enough for me to drop my luggage and myself onboard. With Tianna serving as figurehead, holding a big battery-powered lamp as our headlight, we made our way across the lagoon with the lights of Lido in the distance, pulling into a side canal at Zattere and ducking under the low-hanging bridges. The parking situation in Venice is no better than in other crowded cities, only sloshier: wherever there are poles sticking out of the water, there are private parking spots you can't use, so you with your tiny skiff are stuck searching for any spot with something to tie up to. Christoph thus let us out near his door, since it was here we were to spend the night, and left again.

Air conditioning here means leaving your window to the street open, which unfortunately also lets mosquitos and noise in. Unaccustomed to the sounds of drunken tourists laughing and seagulls pecking at trash, I didn't sleep well my first night, but I was nonetheless excited to reacquaint myself with the city. The first thing to be done was clearly to drink coffee and, if possible, have gelato, and these tasks were quickly accomplished. After that, we headed for Certosa, a small undeveloped island where vaporettos often only stop when requested. It was here that Tianna had spent much of her time, as had the boats made of trash, during their unauthorized visit to the Biennale. The city owns the island but it is run by a group of former Olympic sailors, all born and raised on nearby Lido. Its main feature is a complex consisting of a boat-building workshop, offices, a hotel and cafe, and a bunch of large modern sculptures scattered about. You reach all this just as soon as you come off the long pier. Just behind this is a compound where art school is sometimes held, along with a very handy bathroom, shower, and laundry building. Off to one side is a marina, where numerous fancy sailboats are moored, with all the comforts of home for (as far as I could tell) a bunch of Germans.

We had lunch with one of these: a well-off German with a sailboat who had kindly loaned it to Tianna's gang for much-needed sleeping and cooking quarters, providing them with a rather cozy home away from home. He also proposed to one of the project's carpenters, and she had provisionally accepted, and they were due to sail off into the sunset - quite literally - the next day, on their way across the Adriatic to the Dalmation islands.

We also stopped by the boat-building workshops, where hand-made gondolas are being produced for the city of Venice, also by Germans, including our host. These things are quite impressive and gorgeous, but those guys looked busy so we went on our way.

Our way next took us to the uninhabited part of the island, technically off-limits as it is more or less under construction. What's there at the moment is mostly the ruins of a lot of bunkers from WWII, now generally roofless and under the control of creeping greenery. There was also a larger building, apparently a monastery from long before, with a big tree growing right in the middle. A little further on was an enormous woodpile consisting of the trees that have been done away with during construction, and these logs were covered with goats. Live goats. Wild goats. Someone had apparently brought a few over a couple of generations ago, and those few have now grown into a gang of perhaps 50. Apparently, they now live permanently next to this woodpile, on a mound covering an old foundation and now home to some shady tress, and in two old bunkers, one of which was full of stale rolls. Maybe the restaurant dumps its leftovers here? Goats are supposed to eat anything, but these ones wouldn't touch the bread. Perhaps they, like Tianna, have a gluten allergy. At any rate, Tianna was able to get close enough to pick up the smallest baby in the group, and few things are cuter than a tiny baby goat.

Returning to the German sailboat, now populated by a couple of German fashion designers who were dressed the part, we decided for some reason all to pile into Christoph's little skiff to hitch a ride back into the city proper. With the fashion designers, the boat builders, someone's girlfriend who couldn't swim, Christoph's friend from Hamburg, and us two Americans, we totalled 12. The boat was riding low in the water and really we should have known we were asking for trouble, since Christoph had revealed to us that his boat motor had earlier stopped working and then mysteriously started again. (It was a free boat, anyhow.) So we were not really too surprised when, in fact, the boat did break down in the middle of the lagoon, when we were about equally far from any possible land. We had come prepared with oars, but before we had any chance to use them, Mateo, one of the Olympians, sped by and we flagged him down, then tossed him a rope for a tow back to Certosa. It was a little bit hilarious to have all these people packed into a tiny boat, towed back to civilization... a little bit rub-a-dub-dub, 12 folks in a tub...

At any rate, the rest of the evening was pleasant enough if longer-lasting than expected. Back on Certosa there was a little going-away get-together going on, consisting of an international assortment of people sitting around a picnic table eating chips and drinking beer. We joined in, and couldn't stop joining in, because Christoph had forgotten we needed to go back to his apartment to pick up my stuff. It was after midnight before we made it to that night's lodging on Lido, and where once again sleep was in short supply. "I'm so tired, I'm going right to bed," said Tianna's colleague, with whom we'd be sharing a living room. reat! I thought - no staying up all night talking, and I can get some sleep too. Unfortunately, I hadn't known he was a snorer. Even with earplugs AND my iPod playing relaxing music I couldn't block out the sound, and I was in dire need of coffee in the morning, as it was going to be a long drive to Slovenia.

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