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If your mother ever told you that you could become anything you wanted when you grew up, she lied. You cannot be a Gondolier. It is impossible for a stranger to enter the elite ranks of these crème de la crème oarsmen.
So how does one become a Gondolier?
You need to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth and the hereditary gondolier license, which is carefully passed down from generation to generation, is handed to you on a silver platter. Or, you might be lucky enough to be born a “racolto” – lifted up, or “nova” – found by another gondolier.
Oh yes, of course, needless to say: you must be a man.
If you are like me, you always ask those ‘what if’ questions: what if a gondolier has no male heirs? Well, his license can be sold. Ah, great! Not so fast…the license is only available to the gondolier caste – the relatives, the lifted ones, and the found ones.
There is a gondolier school – The Institute for Protecting the Gondola and the Rights of the Gondoliers where the chosen ones polish their rowing skills to perfection, learn navigation, memorizing the history of Venice, and mastering the English language. The successful graduates’ names are published in the local newspaper, and each name is followed by a notation: ‘son of’ or ‘brother of,’ making it very clear that the group is tight.
There are 425 licensed gondoliers who own this craft and 150 licensed ‘shift relief’ workers who stand by. They all belong to La Categoria – the 1000-year-old Gondolier Guild.
When I heard the news that a female became a gondolier my heart literally stopped. There is a light at the end of the tunnel!,I thought. Giorgia Boscolo, the only descendant of the Boscolo clan, was admitted to the gondolier school, passed the exams and got her father’s license. Finally, a woman broke the glass gondola ceiling.
However, she was shift relief worker only—she couldn’t be a gondolier. But, it is a start!
Okay, so how do I fit in all of this? I was not born into it; I am not a racolto like Giorgia, or a nova for that matter. So how do I get on the gondola? I have two choices: I can ride a gondola or I can row a gondola. Obviously, I selected the first choice. I am a realist and know that there is absolutely no way that I could ever balance a gondola on the canal.
We all have the romantic visions of Venetian gondoliers in dark blue or red and white striped shirts, and cute hats with ribbons flowing in the wind as they row couples snuggled up together through the canals and under the bridges. That’s amore! Exactly! A gondola ride needs to be shared only with your anima gemella (soul mate). During the ride, you kiss each other as you pass under each bridge.
Scratch out that option for me. I do not have a soul mate to smooch under the bridges. I could be on a mission to find a soul mate, but it is impossible and I blame it on Venice that casts a spell on me. I blame it on the water that plays tricks on me. The reflections of the sky and scenery change in the water and distort my wisdom. Like a lagoon in the early morning my mind is in the fog when I am in Venice.
I am left with my last option: row, row, row your gondola.
My teacher is a cool cat. He rows along with one arm and pushes the gondola away from scraping the buildings with his foot. I sit across from him and just smile. My mind is forming millions of questions that I want to ask him. But, as they say: “don’t rock the boat.”
Have you ever wondered what’s it like to stand up on the back of the gondola and row one?
How does it feel?
Well, it feels like seductress Venice is working her spell.
The voga alla veneta rowing style is used to navigate the iconic gondola: standing up and facing forward. This style was developed to fit the demands of the canals and local commerce. In the narrow, busy waterways, the vagatore had to see where they were going – they needed to stand and face forward. The space in the middle of the boat was needed for either cargo or passengers – so the vagatore ended up in the back.
My cool cat tells me not too crouch, to stand proud, to put my chest out. The gondola is 35 feet 6 inches long. That brings some comfort to me. It’s the oar that is unwieldy and heavy. It is 13 feet long. The oar needs to stay in its forcole. It is the boat’s elbow like rowlock or “cradle.” It is carved from a solid piece of walnut or cherry wood. There are many strokes at the disposal of an accomplished vagatore, but it is the shape of the forcola that facilitates their execution.
I try to keep my balance, legs apart. I push the water. I miss the water. I cannot keep the oar in its forcole. We have not moved yet. He tells me to feel the tide using the oar. I dip the oar in the water trying to feel the tide and I close my eyes. I imagine a vagatore who, with balletic grace and precision, navigates the narrow channels, ducks under the bridges, dodges other gondolas and motor boats propelling up to six tourists at the same time.
So I puff my chest out and put my shoulders back. I dip the oar in the water, my stroke is firmer and the oar stays in its place. We are moving!
And the words of “O Sole Mio” are coming back to me.