If you could think of one dog not to own in a city that floods about a dozen times a year, and consists of steep, stepped bridges and narrow-walled canals, it would be the dachshund. With a ground clearance of about 10 centimetres and a maximum snorkelling depth of about three times that, it is designed for Bavarian badger holes and Kensington parks, not the canals and bridges of Venice, and yet everyone who lives here seems to own one. Venice’s spirit animal has changed. The lion has become a dachshund.
It will matter one day.
All those things that made us smile during the weekend floods were simply signposts to a day when we won’t have it around any more. That cormorant fishing off the boardwalk in St Mark’s Square, and the Chinese tourist absent-mindedly trying to take a photo with his umbrella whilst keeping the rain off his head with a selfie stick. The shop with a foot of water of it lapping up to the serried ranks of unsaleable glass baubles that they would like you to think got made in Murano. The priest hurrying for mass in his vestments and wellie boots, and the deadened sound of wheeled suitcases being dragged over cobbles, through water; the shifty looking east Africans selling overboots for 15 euros, and the ends of the pashminas (3 for €20) drooping into the salt water of the Adriatic. The cafe chairs up to their arses in the sea water, and the dark people in dark jackets snaking slowly round the boardwalk. The pissed off pigeons out in the suburbs and the funereal gondolas with their damp gondoliers, bereft of business in the rain. Here, in the most painted and written about city on earth, where there are really no more words or images to add that haven’t been seen, said or implied before, something is going badly wrong.
Here, where we all like to think that we are one better than tourists, we bemoan the tourism that is dragging this place down. People like you. People like me. People who would rather not think of themselves as tourists. Something like 80% of us don’t actually stop overnight in Venice: we just clamber off our vast cruise liners, wander round the bits that the book tells us to wander around, and return to our vessel having managed to spend only €20 in the local economy while we were there, on a tiny sparkly gondola that will go up and down on our Beijing windowsill until the battery runs out and we realise we hate it. For memories are dirt-cheap in our digital age, and it is so much easier to film things than to have to look at them or, worse still, learn something about them. Rialto Bridge, check. Basilica, check. Doge’s palace, check. Can we go and have some supper, now? Am I making accusations by unsubtle implication here? You bet I am. Is this a rant? Yes, it is.
Those mysterious fingers of tidal water sweeping into, and up to, the city streets do so more and more these days and, whoever else benefits from the 12 million people who come here each year, it is not the 55,000 Venetians who live here, a number that dwindles each year as they get forced out by rising property prices, crowded streets and the sheer difficulty of running daily life here. Not long ago, it was three times that. The Italian government benefit, as do the city fathers. The shareholders and directors of the cruise companies benefit, just like the museums and the Catholic Church. The jewel in the crown of the Mose project of a tidal defence for the city has not been that it actually works, (which it doesn’t), but that it has been drained by corruption on a scale long thought forgotten in Europe. Every year people talk about the city that is sinking into the Adriatic, but not about the rising sea levels that will probably wash it all away within our children’s lifetimes. So long as the papers go on talking about ‘2070, 2080 or 2090’, we won’t have to think about it other than as a disconnected project that we feel strongly about but which doesn’t really affect us directly. Because for Venice, add another ten thousand vulnerable coastal communities.
I have no claim to this place. I have been here three times in my lifetime. I am moved by its sense of history and effort more than I am by its views, stunning though these are. I have no right to come here any more than anyone else on earth does. I am an imperfect citizen spreading his carbon footprint around the globe on my travels, just like everyone else is. I’m not a scientist, and I can’t tell you for sure that global warming is a man-made thing; but I try to make my opinions evidence-based, and the weight of what I have read and heard is good enough for me. Frankly, I don’t give a toss if it is man-made or not, as changing our behaviour carries no risk at all if the climate change scientists are wrong, whereas not changing it does if they are right. But it’s not about me, anyway. It’s about a million people reading and writing stuff like this, and the juggernaut slowly turning. It’s about plastic bags and a determination not to use them. It’s about cars, and journeys and convenience; about double-glazing and a million tiny bits of commitment that day by day start to turn the tide; about following the leaders who are out there already, and being prepared to be shouted down from time to time. And it’s about a list of a hundred behaviours that we, by which I think I mean I, can implement without any government directive. And by the people who are further down the road on all this than the rest of us being patient with us.
Travel is supposed to change people, and too often we don’t let it. We see a new place through the prism of the one we are used to, and we are conscious only of the differences we note, not the lessons they can teach us.
But there was something about that comical dachshund fighting its way through the flood water yesterday morning that said all I needed to hear for the time being.
Spectating doesn’t work any more.