Last week, we spent some time in Venice. It wasn’t my first time there but, as with places you visit more than once, it was the first time that I noticed the more subtle inner workings of the city. Namely, that everything – and I mean everything – happens by boat.
Hel-lo, I hear you saying, it’s Venice, one of the only cities in the world without roads and therefore cars, trucks, mopeds, even bicycles… of course everything happens by boat! But I don’t just mean travel. I mean garbage pick-up, beverage distribution (which is a fancy way of saying “boats supplying the entire city and its 50 000 daily tourists with water, juice, wine, beer, pop, etc”),
delivery of everything from gas, couches, cement, renovation materials, scaffolding, mattresses, fruit and vegetables, cheese, ice cream (in special freezer boats), balustrades, dirt, and newspapers, as well as hotel laundry pick-up and drop-off.
If you need to have some work done on your house that involves a crane or a bulldozer, chances are those things will do their work from a boat.
Even police, fire and ambulance services are provided by boat.
And because Venice is a densely populated city with no room for factories that can make these things, anything and everything to be consumed, bought and sold by residents and tourists alike, has to come from somewhere else. Which is, if you think about it, not all that different from any other city these days, except that it has to come over water instead by 18-wheeler. And these are not big boats doing these things. The canals in Venice can be quite narrow, and most of the delivery boats are not much bigger than a gondola.
That having been said, the process is pretty much invisible, or at least very much in the background: things seem to just magically appear and disappear in Venice, and the tourists don’t much notice. Take garbage pick up for example. It occurs daily in Venice. Residents hang their little garbage bags outside their door or building,
and someone comes to pick it up in a cart.
The contents of the cart get dumped into a boat in the nearest canal
and taken to a depot on the island of Giudecca, opposite the port of Venice, where, I’m assuming, it gets taken by another boat to be disposed of.
For a place that has 50 000 tourists a day, a place that is so heavily visited and strained with people, there was nary a candy wrapper tossed aside, nor a pop can set on the stair of a bridge. This despite the fact that there were hardly any garbage cans in Venice. The place was spotless. Even the water was garbage-free. In its alleys there was not a single corner where bits of leaves and paper and hair and plastic cups had gathered, nor a ubiquitous plastic bag being tossed up and down in the air by the sea breeze.
All of which makes me wonder if Venetians have a special relationship with stuff because they live in a place where that relationship is more complex because of the lack of space and difficulty getting it there. I wonder if they ask more often do I really need this? before they buy it.
The other upside to the lack of motorized infrastructure is a delicious silence to the place: while the Grand Canal can be quite noisy if it’s busy, it’s different in the back alleys. The sounds that get drowned out by cars, trucks, mopeds and trains in any other city can be clearly heard: footsteps on stone, water lapping, the paddles of gondoliers dipping… and the voices of people who live there, soft and gentle. It’s a city that’s magical not only for its palazzos, churches, canals and art – classic and contemporary – but also for the mundane details and infrastructure that make it work.