My wet clothes are slowly drying on the side of the Grand Canal while I sit in dripping underwear nearby. I have a burning blister on my thumb, algae stains on my pants and a mouthful of Venetian canal water, which I believe is melting my stomach’s lining. To top things off, I’m pretty sure a passing tourist caught my accidental plunge into the canal on video and will soon be getting thousands of hits on YouTube at my expense. How I ended up in the Grand Canal should come as no surprise. i was taking gondola-driving lessons.
It’s hardly a “must-do” in Venice. Learning to drive a gondola on the Grand Canal is like learning to ride a bike on the long island Expressway. Whizzing up and down the canals are boat-buses, water taxis, private cruising boats, supply boats taking food and merchandise to the stores, plus all the other gondolas — more than 400 of them. There are no driving lanes. You can drive on the left side or the right or straight down the middle if you please. The only rule I saw observed is that the biggest boat has the right of way. Does this method work? Well, during my three days in Venice, there were three separate boating fatalities.
I figured, there was only one oar, gondolas are slow — what could be easier? As I learned from luca, a 40-something gondolier who offered to teach me, it’d be easier to learn to pilot an oil tanker through the strait of Magellan.
There aren’t any gondola-driving schools. Most gondoliers learn from their fathers or uncles and then inherit the boats from them. The world is familiar with the image of these 32-foot oversize canoes. What many may not know is how they actually move. The remi, or oar, rests in a wooden fork that protrudes from the rear right of the gondola. Unlike in a row boat, you don’t lift the paddle out of the water to bring it back into position for the next stroke. nor do you push off the bottom of the canal, as i once suspected. instead, you push forward, then feather the remi back underwater. and unlike in a canoe, you can’t start paddling on the other side to compensate for a turn. Everything has to be done from the fork.
Luca gave me a short demonstration and then handed over the remi. The oar kept popping out of the fork, and the waves, current and substantial weight of the remi made it hard to pop it back into position. luca began issuing a seemingly impossible set of instructions. “Use your legs,” then “get your whole body into the rowing motion.” as i did this, the oar popped out of the fork and i struggled to put it back in, nearly falling overboard in the process. With no forward momentum, we began drifting out of control. “look forward,” he said, oblivious to the fact that i couldn’t get the remi back into the fork while looking forward, and simply looking forward wouldn’t accomplish much except tell me which side of the gondola to jump from before we were rammed by a much larger boat.
Fortunately, the other drivers guessed that a moron was piloting this gondola and managed to get out of our way. It helped that luca was standing at the front of the boat, making the “get the hell out of the way” signal. Forty minutes in, my arms felt as if I had been doing 40 minutes of push-ups. so luca took over while i rested. i used this as an opportunity to ask luca about the singing. “i don’t sing,” he said. “But i thought that all of you guys had to at least sing ‘O Sole Mio’?”
“No,” he said. “That’s a myth. There are a handful of gondoliers who sing, but you almost always have to pay extra for a singer to come along.”
“Customers pay $100 for 45 minutes in the gondola and don’t get a singer included?” I asked incredulously.
“No, all of that costs extra, of course. Didn’t I just now tell you that?”
When I began to get some feeling back in my arms, we started the next lesson. With considerably more traffic and bigger waves, the water looked twice as intimidating. My oar slipped out of the fork again. And this time I fi nally lost complete balance and tumbled dramatically (twirling arms and all) into the drink. Which, unfortunately, is what I inadvertently did as I came up for air. The water was murky brown and tasted like month-old dishwater mixed with ammonia and a touch of diesel oil.
Luca couldn’t stop laughing. Neither could the boat of video-taping tourists.
Something brushed my leg. I tried not to think what it could be, but my mind was already racing. A lone trout that had innocently mistaken the water for cappuccino? A dead body?
I swam hurriedly to the edge of the canal and pulled myself up onto the algae-covered wooden steps. Luca managed to control his hysterics long enough to broadcast my spill to every passing gondola driver. “Into the water,” he yelled to anyone willing to listen, “like Baywatch Pamela Anderson.”
I soon buy some beers for Luca and the other gondola drivers at the station, while Luca, the human instant replay, begins his series of dry-run re-enactments of my fall.
“In a hundred years,” he jokes, “come back and we’ll be singing about the American who fell into the canal.”
“You will?” I ask wide-eyed, of course falling right into his trap.
“No, the singers will. And you’ll have to pay extra to hear it.”