22 February 2008

Il traghetto

On the other hand…

When I can think of any excuse to do it, I like very much to ride the traghetto across the Grand Canal. This is a ferry, an unadorned gondola oared by two men instead of one, that makes countless bank-to-bank trips in places not convenient to one of the three (soon to be four) bridges connecting Venice’s two sides.

Currently there are eight traghetto stations in operation on the Grand Canal. For my money, the best traghetto run is this one, from Santa Sofia in Cannaregio over to the Pescaria at Rialto. Or the reverse, if one has just bought fish, but still must fare la spesa (buy groceries) at the supermarket, coffee vendor, wine shop, butcher, produce stands, and pastry shops on the other side.

For a mere 50 centesimi (about 75 cents), I get to wait in line on the dock and chat with my fellow passengers, Venetian or foreign, although very few tourists ever use this convenient system. The wait is never long because the crossing takes less than a minute. After the traghetto arrives and its passengers disembark, I accept the tanned, strong hand of the gondoliere at the bow and I gingerly step aboard the low, bobbing boat. Local etiquette requires that the first ones on move to the aft, and local custom strongly suggests that we stand for this crossing, however unsteady it may be. (Why? I don’t know, but I’ve seen how Venetians look at a first-timer who sits down or complains that there are too few seats. I do not wish to evoke that particular sneer.) Now the passengers adjust and steady themselves and the two gondolieri push off from the wooden mooring poles. The traghetto glides out into the Grand Canal, amid the vaporetti and motoscafi and gondole and the occasional rowing crew on a practice run. It is a giddy feeling indeed to be gently rocking so close to the deep-aqua murk for these few moments and to see my adopted city from this odd viewpoint. And always I am impressed by the economy of the oarsmen's efforts in maneuvering their delicate craft. No matter how choppy the waters, we arrive safely on the other bank. That same hand that helped me aboard is now offered again to see me safely ashore, accompanied by a soft, “Buonagiornata, Signora.”

This lovely pause in my day reminds me I am fortunate to be living in a place like no other, rich in colorful history and brimming over with Old World tradition. There is nowhere else on Earth I can do this small, special thing. Each time I ride, I know it is a privilege.