I've spent and entire day learning to drive a gondola in Venice and all I have to show for it is a burning blister on my thumb, algae stains coating my pants, and a mouthful of Venetian canal water, which is probably melting the lining of my stomach. To top it off, I'm pretty sure some passing tourist caught my accidental plunge into the Grand Canal on film, and will soon be making thousands of dollars on "America's Funniest Home Videos." On the bright side, at least I wasn't attempting to sing "O Sole Mio."
A gondola only has one oar and it moves at the speed of driftwood, so how hard could it be to drive one? As I learned from Luca, a forty-something gondolier, learning to drive a gondola on the Grand Canal is like learning to ride a bike on the Long Island Expressway. Water taxis, supply boats, and joy riders whiz up and down the canal without designated driving or floating lanes, and the only observed rule is that the biggest boat has the right of way.
Most gondoliers learn from their fathers or uncles, then inherit their boats. But Luca agreed to try his patience on me. I'm afraid with only some canoe experience, I wasn't an ideal student. You see, the oar rests in a wooden arm that protrudes from the rear right of the gondola. You can't lift the oar out of the water. Instead, you push forward, then feather it back underwater. And unlike in a canoe, you can't paddle on the other side to compensate for a turn. I probably looked something like a drunk driver with the left two tires missing.
After a short break to rest my aching arms, we headed out again, this time with considerably more traffic and bigger waves. After a few near spills, my oar slipped off the wooden arm and I lost my balance and tumbled with flailing arms right into the drink, which, unfortunately, is what I inadvertently did as came up for air. The water was murky brown, and tasted something like month-old dishwater mixed with ammonia and a touch of diesel oil.
As I swam to the edge of the canal and pulled myself up onto the algae-covered wooden steps, Luca managed to control his hysterics just enough to broadcast my spill to every gondola driver who had missed it. "Into the water," he yelled to anyone willing to listen, "just like Baywatch person Pamela Anderson." In a hundred years, he joked, we'll still be singing about the American who fell into the canal.
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