Saturday, September 1, 2007

So what's it like to row a gondola?

photo by Cindy Meadors

When she’s not being rowed down the Hudson for a great cause, our gondola takes passengers out for relaxing cruises in Newport Beach, California.
I am one of the lucky guys who gets to row her. Most of the time we take out couples; many of them are celebrating something, but we do get a lot of “just because” cruises and marriage proposals.
The proposals are my favorite. The guy usually tries to surprise his lady with the cruise, and most of the time he succeeds. This is no small feat – in my experience, women are much harder to surprise than men. Often they will have dinner at a restaurant on the waterfront and take a walk afterward , miraculously happening by right about cruise time. Sometimes they’ll pretend to try and “strike up a deal” to take out the boat, but usually they will gracefully “fess up” to having arranged the cruise ahead of time and enjoy the hugs and kisses that follow.

I get them on the gondola, bundle them up in blankets if the weather requires, add some romantic music from the stereo, open and pour the champagne. We cast off and with champagne flute in hand she settles in with a smile on her face and her head on his shoulder. At this point it really doesn’t matter if she suspects a proposal; he’s already gone beyond what most guys can pull off. After the safety speech and a few songs from the stereo,
I’ll bring them under the first bridge. Tradition states that couples must kiss under bridges in a gondola. I tell them “you don’t need the bridges to kiss – they’re only there to remind you. When you start needing the bridges, well that’s when you need to come back and see us”. I’ll sing to the couple several times during their cruise, mostly in Italian but there are songs in Latin and English that get thrown in there as well. The first song is always sung beneath a bridge; my thinking is that the first impression is key, and it doesn’t hurt to have some nice acoustics for that first song. Our gondoliers have a number of guidelines we try to follow, one of them is “beyond the safety speech and points of interest, don’t speak unless spoken to”.
A good gondolier learns to read his passengers and determine whether they want to have conversations with the guy on the back of the boat. Some want very little – the classic case is the insecure tough-guy who wants all of her attention. Then there are the grandmas and grandpas who want to pick your brain about every little thing to find out “what the young people are into today”. I love people, they fascinate me, and being a gondolier is a terrific job if you like people.

You can tell a lot about a guy by the way he pops the question. Does he go down on one knee or just turn in his seat? Does he “ask” or just deliver a demanding “marry me”? There are so many variations. Many of our proposal cruises involve a message in a bottle. The gentleman can spend a little more time thinking about just what he wants to say and how, he e-mails it to our office, they print it out on parchment paper and place it, rolled up in a corked bottle. The bottle message is then hidden on the back of the gondola until the right moment. Bottle messages are fun and challenging for a gondolier; you have to place it in the water discreetly and double-back on it (not always easy in the wind or on a night with no moon). A little bad acting about how it got there is sometimes in order. By the time the lady is reaching for the bottle, she realizes that it’s not the “trash” you asked her to fish out of the water so it can be recycled. She opens the bottle, pulls out the wrapped message, and unfurls it – usually the first thing she reads as she is unrolling the message, is her name. Everyone loves to receive a message in a bottle, it’s so timeless and makes for great stories later. As she gets to the bottom of the message, things get even more exciting because this is when the gentleman speaks up and delivers his proposal. Any guy who has gone to this much trouble to make the proposal perfect is likely to pop the question with just as much class. Whichever way he chooses to do so, it always ends well. I have yet to take out a marriage proposal cruise where the lady didn’t say yes. Maybe it’s because guys think it through a bit more these days, or maybe as a gondolier, I see the best of the best. Heck, maybe it’s because she’s trapped on a boat, a captive audience, afraid of having to swim back if she says no. As we cruise the canals of Newport, other gondolas pass by, and if I know they are not on their way to their own proposal,
I’ll announce “she said yes!”

Usually there are some people they need to call on the cell phone to share the news with. We cruise under a few more bridges, I sing a couple more songs, and the evening ends with the couple both relaxed and excited, with much to look forward to as I bring the gondola back to dock. I escort the couple out of the boat and encourage them to return and cruise with us again.
Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to take them out again years later, sometimes with friends who are visiting them from out-of-town, sometimes with new children. At the end of the day, a gondolier knows that he has been privileged to play a small but positive roll in many people’s lives. Rowing a gondola is fun, challenging and memorable.

Wanna go for a cruise?

1 comment:

DG Beat said...

In 9 1/2 years I've had one "no." That made for an uncomfortable row back to the dock!

Yeah, Greg. I'm re-reading your blog! :)