I Won’t Go Back Again

On the day I visited Venice, the city was flooding—a precursor, I fear, of what is to come.  Some of the streets alongside the canals were underwater, deep enough that I couldn’t venture into them without rubber boots.

In the Piazza San Marco, the main square of the city, raised boardwalks had been erected to allow tourists to pass from one side to the other.  Outdoor cafes, their tables waiting for customers, were untended because they sat in several inches of water.  A few children romped and splashed in the accidental lake that covered much of the square, their squeals of delight piercing the general hubbub.

 

I wondered, sadly, how much longer tourists would be allowed to visit the legendary city.

I made a point of visiting the famed Rialto Bridge spanning the Grand Canal—to say I’d been there, of course, but also because my youngest daughter accepted a marriage proposal on that very spot several years ago.  I found it quite romantic, despite the crowds.

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Until, all of a sudden, it wasn’t!

I had stopped to take pictures at the top of a staircase from the bridge to the street below, when I was roughly jostled from behind.  I almost dropped my cellphone.

“Outta the way!” a voice growled.  “You’re blocking the way!”

The speaker, about my age, held the hand of a little girl, perhaps six or seven, and they started down the steps past me.

More out of surprise than belligerence, I said, “Yeah, I guess I am.  Too bad!”

The man stopped, turned, and came back towards me, the little girl drawn along.  Standing one or two stairs below, he had to look up as he spoke to me.  He appeared to be somewhat younger than I, but old enough that I assumed the child was his granddaughter.

“What did you say?” he demanded, his English accented but fluent.  And angry.

“I’m taking pictures,” I said.  “You should watch where you’re going.”

“You shouldn’t even be allowed to come here!” he exclaimed.  “You’re spoiling our city, all you people!”  He was quite excited by then.

“Why don’t you calm down?” I said, wondering where this was headed.  “Before you frighten your granddaughter.”  The little girl was clutching his hand tightly.

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“I’ll calm down when I punch you in the nose,” he said, still looking up at me.

“You won’t do that,” I said, slipping my phone into my pocket, bracing, wondering if he would.

There was a momentary pause.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

I say momentary because an awful lot of thoughts were flashing through my mind at that precise moment.

Who is this guy?

Why’s he so mad?

What if he takes a swing?

If he does, I’ll push him, and he’ll fall down the stairs.

Yeah, but what about the little girl?  What if she gets hurt?

And what if the police come?

How do I get into these messes?

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

The man apparently thought twice about it.  Turning away abruptly, he started down the stairs, the little girl in tow.  “We can’t even walk around our own city anymore,” he complained loudly, one arm gesticulating.  “All you people, you come here, you block the streets, you ruin everything.  You should stay home, stay wherever you come from…”

His voice faded away, and within seconds he and the little girl were swallowed up in the crowded street, lost to sight.  No one else seemed to have noticed the altercation.

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I was shaken, of course, although convinced I had done nothing wrong.  After a few minutes, I resumed my walking tour of the remarkable city.

Later that evening, reflecting over a glass of wine, I wondered if the man’s anger was not so much with me, as with the fact that I was but one of hordes of tourists overrunning his city, even as the marshy land it sits on sinks into the sea.  In fact, more than 30 million people visit Venice each year, a city with a population of approximately 50,000 souls.

In his anger, I heard echoes of complaints from people in nations all over the world—people opposed to the influx of immigrants and asylum-seekers to their countries, people afraid their jobs will be taken, their culture destroyed, their language lost.  Their fear is real and their resentment palpable.  Politicians cater to it.

And I wondered if those same fears had been voiced, in vain, by the indigenous peoples whose homelands had been invaded by the rapacious colonizers who appeared on their shores four centuries ago.  

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

I’m awfully glad I visited Venice when I did, and I’m happy I stood where my daughter did almost twenty years ago when her beau proposed to her.  It is an indelible memory for us both.

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But I won’t go back again.

Cruisin’ Down the River

Cruisin’ down the river/On a Sunday afternoon…

That old song has been running through my mind this past week as my wife and I, in the company of good friends, have been cruising the rivers of Belgium and The Netherlands. Aboard a luxurious riverboat, we’ve visited several ports—Amsterdam, Hoorn, Arnhem, Antwerp, Rotterdam—all of which have offered up their unique charms.

History is everywhere around us, in town squares dating back to the 15th century, in cathedrals still calling the faithful to worship, in castles forlornly standing watch over long-lost fiefdoms. Even the cemeteries have their tales to tell to any who care to stroll their grounds, reading epitaphs on crumbling headstones.

More recent history is in evidence at Arnhem, site of a failed offensive against Nazi forces by the Allies in 1944 (and subsequently portrayed in the 1977 film, A Bridge Too Far). The famous John Frost bridge, destroyed by the Germans to disrupt the Allies’ supply lines, once more spans the Nederrijn River, testament to the resilience of the Dutch people who welcomed the liberating forces in 1945.

It is Kinderdijk, however, that has proven the most fascinating. Nineteen windmills, most constructed during the 1700’s, one in the 1400’s, still perform their essential function of pumping water from canals draining the countryside into sluices that take it over the dikes and into the Lek River. The land here is four metres below sea level.

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Each windmill is inhabited and operated by a family selected from a waiting list of more than two hundred. Someone must be on site to monitor the operation whenever the vanes are turning, but many of the residents have day-jobs in addition to their windmill duties. Accessibility to each structure is by boat, or via narrow footpaths, so cars are left in a communal parking lot when people come home.

Quarters are cramped inside, with very steep, narrow stairs leading up from level to level. Were I to live there, I’d need a hard hat to protect my head from the many protrusions and low sills. Windows are small, so much of the interior is dark, although electric lighting has improved the situation. In the olden days, before the installation of running water and sewage capabilities, residents shared their accommodation with rats, and shaved their children’s hair to counter lice.

Each of the four vanes, or wings, is a latticework structure, with fabric sails attached. When the wind is slight, the operator must climb the wings to unfurl the sails, in order to increase the velocity of the spinning wings; when the wind increases, the sails must be furled again. Each wing is stopped when it’s pointing to the ground, in order that it may be climbed. It is not a quick process.

The wings must also be rotated around the windmill to take advantage of the direction of the wind. A complicated construct of chains and pulleys allows the operator to do that, turning the thatched-roof cap of the windmill through 360 degrees until the optimal position is found. The procedure is virtually the same as that performed in the 18th century.

Up close, the structures look ungainly, ridiculous even. If function matched form, they’d have been abandoned long ago. But they’re still here, and still doing the job of keeping the sea at bay, as they’ve done for almost 300 years.

Even so renowned a warrior as Don Quixote could not shut them down.