18 July, 2006

54. Gondola parking

During the official 'low season' – which in Venice is really only the beginning of December and most of January, shorter than almost any other tourist destination in the world –most of the gondoliers take a vacation, leaving their gondolas tied up abreast beside a jetty with their traditional blue covers over them to protect them from the worst of the weather.

Just after I took this picture, a gondolier walked down the jetty carrying his single oar and its complicated twisty carved wooden rowlock known as the 'forcola', and jumped down onto the gondola nearest to the jetty. When he had unwrapped his boat, folded the covers, and inserted the forcola in its hole in the right side of the boat, he cast off the gondola, pushed out from the wooden post it was moored to, and rowed off up the Grand Canal to our right.

Something about what I had seen bothered me, and it was this: If the gondolier's boat had been the third or fifth boat away from the jetty, clearly he could easily walk over the ones in between to get to his own boat, but if another gondolier now came down to get his gondola from this row of boats, intending to do just what the first gondolier had done, how would he get to it? There was now a gap next to the jetty that was too wide to jump over onto something as narrow and laterally unstable as a gondola, and there was no dinghy tied up to the jetty that could be used as a ferry.

I tried to think of alternate possibilities. Could he use his oar like a bridge and walk along it? Not if there was a two-boat gap, or a three-boat gap, that could never be practical. Could the boatmen somehow swing or jump from pole to pole until they could stand down on a boat? No, the poles were too flimsy and unstable, and some of the gondoliers I had seen looked nowhere near agile enough, anyway. Besides, if that was how it was done, surely there would be footholds in the poles or short cross-pieces to stand on, they wouldn't be smooth all the way to the waterline.

I waited on the jetty for quite a while, hoping that my question would be answered in the best way – by watching someone do it. But it was low season, and the owners of the other boats were probably sunning themselves on a beach in Bali.

I decided that there must be some general courtesy rule for gondoliers so that if you found yourself unable to get out to your moored gondola you could simply hail the next gondolier who rows by, knowing he would always stop to give you a lift, passenger or no passenger, because you would do the same for him.

To me, that was in the end the only explanation that was plausible, reliable, and safe, but I don't know if I'm right or not. One day I'll remember to ask.


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