Friday, July 25, 2008

The Controversy of Alexandra Hai

Recently I traded e-mails with a lady in France who has an interest in becoming a gondolier.

I tried to answer her questions about the requirements to do so, although they vary widely depending on where you want to operate gondolas and a number of other factors.

On the subject of female gondoliers, I gave her the websites of both Ina Mierig in Hamburg, Germany (http://www.gondel.de/)

and Tirza Mol in Amsterdam (http://www.gondel.nl/).
Then I told her a little bit about Alexandra Hai.

I must admit that over the years I have been fascinated by her story, but hesitant to tell it.
I don't like to weigh-in on things unless I have all the facts, and having never spoken with Alexandra, I felt it might be unfair to tell a story based on rumors.

It's been about a year now, since her story hit almost every newspaper in the western world, and I feel more comfortable conveying what the news-sources (who have spoken with her) have deemed to be the facts.

Alexandra is a controversial and polarizing figure on the gondola scene.
She's even got her own brief page on Wikipedia.

She's been bold enough to move her life to Venice, Italy, even though she's from Germany, and was living in San Francisco prior to Venice. She's been skilled enough to learn the craft of rowing and brave enough to take the test. Up to that point, I believe she had friends who were gondoliers, and was viewed simply as a novelty by some other gondoliers, and tolerated (as much as you might expect in a Venetian traghetto),

but after that first test,

everything changed.

Alexandra failed the test and it became a real-life "he said, she said".

Alexandra claimed that the judges had chosen a course which was more difficult than usual - they denied it.

She cited previous gondoliers who's test venues had been easier or who had been allowed more grace - the judges questioned her claims.

She cried discrimination - they denied that too.

And then, after seemingly exhausting all other options, Alexandra sued.

As a result, she was allowed to take the test again, with a similar result and even more angry accusations and deflections to follow.

A third go-round, with the same result proved to everyone that things could get even more whipped-up.

Reports exist of a fourth test being administered and failed, but I'm not sure whether it's true.

Through it all, things got pretty heated, and Alexandra found herself at odds with hundreds of gondoliers. Opinions ranged from strong encouragement to alleged threats of violence.

After rowing in Venice for over ten years, in apprentice, traghetto, and other capacities, and after trying numerous times to be recognized as a gondolier by the governing body, Alexandra did something very clever:
she revived an ancient vocation known as "gondoliere de la casa" ( I may have the spelling wrong on that),
which essentially means house gondolier.

With a renewed spirit, and a new title, Alexandra rowed her own gondola in private service for guests of three hotels in Venice.

As expected, she was pulled over and cited by a police patrol boat for breaking the law, it went to court, and the court sided with Alexandra.
There are some who believe the ruling will be overturned, but for the past year, Venice has had at least one lady gondolier taking paying passengers through the picturesque canals.


Here are links to the hotels she rows for:

Locanda Art Deco
http://www.locandaartdeco.com/venice/venicegondola.htm
Hotel Albergo San Samuele
http://www.hotelsansamuele.com/VENICE/venicegondola.htm
Hotel Locanda Salieri

http://www.hotelsalieri.com/venicehotels/venicegondola.htm

I have tried to stay neutral on this one.

I understand the points on both sides of the "argument"; sympathizing with some moves and questioning others - once again, on both sides.

As for lady gondoliers here in the United States, I have no problem with it, and have had female gondoliers in two of my three locations.
Our first lady gondoliers were here in Newport Beach, California, where we have had at least a half-dozen by now.
Our Lake Las Vegas location is currently managed by a woman and at times, is staffed by more women than men...and I have been quite happy with them all. The only reason we haven't had any lady gondoliers in Irving, Texas, is because none have yet to apply...until just today. The resume crossed my desk just this afternoon (an impressive one, I might add) and I fully intend to give this female applicant a good interview process and will hire her if she has what it takes.
I expect she will.

I've heard of several lady gondoliers rowing in Naples, California.
It's no secret that the boats at The Venetian are heavily staffed at times by "gondolieras".
And then there's Gondola di Venezia in Boston, under the ownership of Megan Sliger - whom I've heard great things about from many people. She owns, manages, and rows there.

As for Alexandra, I understand she is still rowing in Venice, and "living the dream", these days preferring the private gondolier approach over the original position she so coveted in the past.

I'm not looking for rumors here, but if you know more about the story, or believe that I've missed a detail - please let me know, either by commenting to this post, or e-mailing me (greg@gondola.com).

I've made attempts to contact Alexandra by e-mail and have received no reply thus far. Although, I know the internet isn't always as important to folks in Italy.

Below are some of the news articles available online. Keep in mind that they are all at least a year old.
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/14/world/europe/14venice.html


http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,273758,00.html


http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1547402/Female-gondolier-turns-tide-of-Venice's-history.html


http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article1596766.ece


This one is from an inflight magazine, and was published in December of '07:
http://www.wizzmagazine.com/features/2007/dec/profile-venice.html

6 comments:

maria-vt said...

Thanks Greg for your fair report on Alexandra Hai.
She would have never met this kind of resistance in any other city.
But this was her dream and she stuck with it despite all the obstacles.
Here her website:
www.incantesimoveneziano.com/

and the video on youtube:
http://it.youtube.com/watch?v=JAZ-WtWo7DQ

It's good to have a dream!
Maria

René Seindal said...

Alexandra was still around in September. I met her repeatedly while kayaking around the city.

She seemed cheerful enough and had clients in the boat.

We just say Hi! since we're working the same waters, just in different ways.

Anonymous said...

http://www.ansa.it/site/notizie/awnplus/english/news/2009-06-26_126369254.html

Sabrina said...

In the summer issue of the La Vie Claire magazine, there is a feature about Alexandra Hai.

http://www.clairemurray.com/article_50.cfm

Did you see now that there's a woman who is 'officially' the first gondoliera? A 23 y/o mother of two named Giorgia Boscolo. I saw the article today in the L.A. times.

Ann said...

We stayed at the Hotel Locanda Salieri in early sept 2010. we looked at prices of rides from othewr gondoliers but eventually booked Alex from our hotel 980euro for 50mins). The advertising leaflet mentioned a champagne gondola ride, and I was surprised, when we met up with Alex at her base hotel, when she picked up a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket. I thought my husband had got all romantic and paid extra for the champagne. but, no, the champagne was included in the price. We had nearly an hour cruising round the canals (including some time on the grand Canal). We found Alex friendly, informative and skilled. We still don't know how she navigated the 10metre gondola round the 90 degree turns. I'm still trying to find out if she has been admitted to the brotherhood of Gondoliers.

Ann said...

Typo - It was 90 euro not 980