So it has begun. The Carnival of Venice, Il Carnevale di Venezia. This year’s theme is The Moon, our friend in the darkness. Like a school kid of a friend of mine, who is a teacher, said…
– The Moon is much friendlier than the sun. The Moon lights the way for us when it’s dark.
We expect between 2 and 3 million people here for the two and a half weeks of partying. It’s a lot for a relatively small town like Venice. Most people will come on Saturday and Sunday the 2nd and 3rd of March. Tuesday the 5th is the last day and from the 6th you should start fasting.
So what’s it all about? Why are they all coming here? Why is it so fascinating?
In the old days, it was a wonderful period of non-recognition. The medieval society was extremely segregated. The nobles lived a noble life, the burghers did their business in every corner of the city, but maybe they engaged socially only with people in their own sphere, the farmers grew crops and vegetables outside the city. And then there were all kinds of other outcasts from the community… Thieves, prostitutes, foreigners from all over the world who didn’t have bonds to anybody. The carnival was a time when everybody was equal. A theater where everyone was playing his role but nobody knew who the actor was behind the mask.
And it started out as such. The religious content was little or none. It was the good times that were the main attraction. And the fact that you treated everybody the same. For the citizens on the lower end of the social scale, that was something extraordinary. The period was from December 26 until Shrove Tuesday, but sometimes they started out several months before that.
So what do you do?
You dress up. And as what? Well, that depends on your budget, but even more so on what you intend to do.
First, there are the thousands and thousands who party in the streets, go from one bar to another, dance in Piazza San Marco and eat a few Cicchetti in between. They often have very funny homemade costumes. Colorful and extravagant. At the end of a weekend in Venice, they can be quite worn out, both the costume and the person wearing it.
If you want to go the more sophisticated way, then you might want to go to some dinner and ball event in an old palace with the facade towards Canal Grande. Maybe arriving in gondola and land on the Canalside, walk up between lit candles and end up at a huge dinner table. And after that, dancing to the sound of a live orchestra… If that’s your dish, then you probably need a rented outfit. Many of those events require a costume. You can’t come in tuxedo and ball dress.
Then there are private parties. But they’re all secret and hidden, and you need an invitation… I’ll tell you about them when it’s all over.
So if you walk away from the city center. Just stroll along towards Arsenale. No, not on the quay where the Vaporettos are, where you can see San Giorgio with its rounded dome. Not where you still can see The Bell Tower at Saint Marks square. But inside and cutting through the small alleys, maybe ending up on a dead end. Your nose close to a high brick wall with no openings, doors or windows. That’s Arsenale and behind the wall is the main basin where once hundreds of ships were built to maintain the Venetian domination of the Mediterranean.
Continue walking and maybe you’ll end up at Via Garibaldi. The one and only Via in Venice, named after the big hero who brought together Italy and created the Nation… At least that’s what they teach us.
You follow the Via Garibaldi to the end and there is the canal, that used to continue all the way down to the Riva dei Sette Martiri before they covered it up and made a stone pavement on top. Like many other Calli in Venice, it became a street from being the sea.
Continue alongside the canal and end up at a very long bridge over to San Pietro.
Here you should visit the Basilica di San Pietro di Castello. This is where the first bishop was installed in the 8th century and it’s the first church ever built in Venice.
Here you can get lost without running into any problem. It’s a very small island and the canal around it is wide. Besides, there are only two bridges, one to come and the other to go away again.
Now, if you get hungry you have two options. Walk back to Via Garibaldi, where you have a choice of places to eat, from very local cheap eateries to exclusive gourmet restaurants. Or you could continue walking, admiring the absolute absence of the touristic city we’re used to. Here everything is authentic.
If you’re lucky you suddenly find yourself in a small Campo. Actually, it’s not even a Campo but just a wider street; Calle Volto Ruga Vecchia. There you can admire the little boys playing football or the little girls also playing football. In the summer every kid in Venice plays football, it seems.
Look to your right and you’ll see a few tables in the square. And behind them, two windows and a door. That’s the Trattoria alla Nuova Speranza, New Hope. Just walk in and sit down and immediately the waiter will ask you what you want. maybe without even giving you the menu. If you come in winter they’ll have few things to chose from… Pasta al ragu, Pasta al Nero di seppia, Bigoli in salsa and you choose one of those. Then you ask for a carafe of white and some water.
After that, you look around and notice that the tourists are gone. Here you are among the locals. And the English is gone, just like the Italian. Because this is the real Venice, where the real people live. And they speak the Venetian dialect which is very different from Italian. When the waiter comes with your wine and later with your food, you notice that the olive oil is in an old beer bottle. Then you relax. Listening to the sturdy sound of the strange language and enjoying the peace of mind that you get from a simple pasta dish and something to drink.
And you start to wonder about the name… A new hope, like the Star Wars film. Or like maybe there could be a chance for Venice to live on. Despite the millions of visitors, she could continue to be a healthy and functional city, where people actually live, love, work, grow and every now and then eat a plate of Bigoli with a glass of white wine.
Without entering a political discussion, but acknowledging the delicacy of the matter, I just want to put some light on one single aspect of what is happening right now outside the Italian peninsula. One thing that has a close connection to Venice. The Malta Incident.
And I don’t want to enter a discussion about immigrants, right or wrong, who should accept them, how many and if they’re an asset to western countries or just a nuisance. That is not the aim of this website. But there is something else, a brand new side of the argument… And it has changed dramatically in just a few years.
The 22nd of December 2018 the ship Sea Watch 3, run by the nonprofit organization with the same name, picked up 32 refugees off the Libyan coast following a distress call. They then headed for Malta being the closest safe port. There they were not allowed to go into Valletta but had to anchor in international waters, 24 nautical miles off the coast.
On January the 2nd a storm was approaching the Maltese waters and the ship’s safety was at danger. And this is the point… Sea Watch 3 was allowed to come closer to the island to take shelter but was still not allowed to enter the harbor.
On January the 9th the ship was finally allowed to approach the Maltese land to disembark the migrants after a deal was struck with other European countries about where to send them.
Another German ship the Professor Albrecht Penk, run by another NGO the See-eye, picked up 17 migrants on December 29th also off the Libyan coast. They also were left outside Malta until the 9th of January. And they too were not allowed to enter Valletta during the storm at the beginning of the month.
I’m not taking a stand for or against Malta accepting migrants from Libya saved from small inflatable boats. Malta cannot accept all the victims of the lucrative trafficking business. It’s not about that.
There are international laws, declarations, treaties, and the UNCLOS, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. And they all state the same thing more or less. At sea, you are obligated to help others in distress. You have to do what you can to assist other ships if they call you. This is not an option, it’s not something that can be decided by the captain. It’s a duty.
The sea is a hostile environment. As beautiful and welcoming it can be on a summers day at the beach with the sun and the breeze and the cute little waves… As frightening and terrifying it turns when the waves are so high that you can’t see the horizon anymore, the sky is dark as if it was night and the rain hits you like nails in your face. This is why we have all those rules about behavior at sea. To help each other and save lives.
Then the UNCLOS together with all the other sea laws are nothing more than rewritings of an ancient code, a way to survive in a habitat for which we are not adapted. Because we are not meant to be out on the oceans. Man is an animal of the Savannah, the Jungle, the Mountains and maybe even the Ice and Snow… But not the sea. In the water, we die.
First, we drown. Then if we survive the first minutes we still die after a while from the cold. In 40° F, you live less than 30 minutes, and even if you fall overboard in the summer, you will freeze to death in less than 8 hours. Then there is the storm, the high waves, the darkness, and the shark attacks.
No, the survival on the high seas is a matter not to be taken lightly.
And that’s the reason why we help each other.
Like we have always done. A sailor knows about the threats and he knows that without the solidarity on the sea, be it in times of peace or war, the oceans cannot be conquered. It’s the basis on which all is built.
But now all that is changing. In the Mediterranean, these ancient rules are now being dismissed. Not by the sailors, because they still know what it would mean. No, the change in direction is made by politicians and…. their voters. The ones that do not rely on the big waters for their livelihood. I claim that if what happened outside Malta would have happened 20 or even 10 years ago, there would have been a storm of protests, an uprising. But now… Now it makes sense to most people.
And what happened at Malta are just two examples of many.
Saving people at sea now isn’t obvious anymore, but subject to negotiations between politicians in various European countries near and far.
What has all this got to do with Venice?
Well, until the latter half of the 20th century, swimming was not a knowledge of every man and woman. In the middle ages, almost nobody knew how to swim, not even the sailors. And he knew that if he fell into the water he had to be saved by the others. And normally he was. Because the code told them so.
If the Venetian trade ship hit a storm outside Crete, the captain knew that he could seek shelter in the nearest harbor, because the code told him that no one would refuse a boat in distress. And if he picked up a castaway on the way he could leave him at the closest safe port. Maybe there he would then be prosecuted or thrown to the lions… But a ship in need couldn’t be left offshore, and a man saved from the sharks couldn’t be refused to enter the town from the sea. That was the law.
Without these contracts, I personally doubt Venice would ever have become Venice. Nobody would have gone far from home on adventurous journeys if the danger for life and property had been that great.
And I doubt even America would ever have become America if the insecurity about the trip over the Atlantic had been that great. I don’t think many people from Europe would have sold everything they had, invested all their money in a ticket for the crossing if they weren’t confident that the harbor on the other side would accept them. If they couldn’t count on help from other ships and distant ports if weather condition changed, or if some other disaster occurred.
If the abortion of international rules of conduct in marine environments happened a thousand years ago, we here would still be a very small village on the sandbanks in the Venetian lagoon, and the US would perhaps still write invitations to the European farmers offering them free land and a new perspective to populate the vast emptiness.