The late Robert Benchley, a 20th century American humorist and Hollywood actor, was sent packing to Europe one summer by good friends and fellow film stars David Niven and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. His itinerary included a stop in Venice. Immediately upon arriving in La Serenissima, Benchley sent a five-worded cable to Niven: Streets full of water. Advise.
His brief funnygram was obviously sent tongue-in-cheek, but if dearly departed Benchley had arrived in wintertime, that note to Niven would’ve been alarmingly true. I know, because I was here recently, in St. Mark’s Square, watching Europe’s “drawing room” tread water as the seasonal phenomena known as ACQUA ALTA (high water) had arrived.
Either shocking or somewhat entertaining to tourists, Venetians just take the extra splashes in stride, with feet tucked inside colorful rubber boots, whenever the level of the Adriatic Sea crests and starts flowing into the calle (streets) of the City of Canals.
With centuries of experience under their belts, Venetians pretty much know when acqua alta will arrive and when it’ll recede. It’s as if the onslaught — +110 cm or higher — is an accepted routine, just part of everyday life for the anonimo veneziano.
While folks are being forewarned — via sirens and text messages — of the imminent arrival of saltwater delivered to their front doors and shops courtesy of Mare Adriatico, city workers fly into action erecting passerelle — elevated wooden platforms that serve as temporary walkways for pedestrians to get around the affected areas and remain dry.
According to the city administration’s online bulletin, during periods of acqua alta everyone should just be patient and wait a few hours for the next ebb tide to carry the excess water back out to sea.
No longer fearing a deluge of Biblical proportions, I hopped atop the nearest passerella and joined the masses for a walk on water, knowing that I was in good hands with these maritime-minded veneziani.
After the “boardwalk” stroll, I popped into a bar for a quick, late lunch. In between bites and sips, I chatted it up with the barista, born and raised in Venice, and asked her how she deals with the inconvenience of acqua alta every year.
She paused for a moment, giving the question some serious thought, then smiled and said, “It’s a part of who we Venetians are. We accept it almost as if it’s our duty, because if weren’t for water, calm or otherwise, there simply wouldn’t be La Serenissima.”
I paid the tab, left the change on the counter and walked out the door thinking, Good answer.