Sunday, June 29, 2014

June Gloom in Newport

A few miles inland from Newport you might think it was overcast along the coast, but the "marine layer" was with us here today.
A lot of people call it the "June Gloom", with a negative tone in their voice,
but ask most locals and they'll tell you - we like it.

The marine layer gives us the perfect combination of temperature and humidity, and it is so serene.
There were lots of gondolas out on the water and I was able to greet and catch up a bit with some of my brothers in stripes.

Mike Ruffino emerges from beneath the Newport Blvd. bridge.

Steve Elkins waves and smiles with happy passengers.

Konner, at "the elbow" - that spot where so many of our
bottle messages and marriage proposals take place.

The Battle on the Bridge

As gondoliers and fans of Venetian rowing, we are blessed with different regatas and other rowing events to follow and in some cases even row in.

Some friends from Gondola Getaway just got back from the Vogalonga - an amazing thing to be part of. 

I can tell you from experience that witnessing the Regata Storica from a boat in the Grand Canal is simply indescribable.

But there are many other remarkable traditional events in other cities in Italy.
Some of you may have seen the horse race known as Il Palio, where traditionally dressed riders chase each other right through a piazza in Sienna. 
Il Palio was first run in the year 1701.

Recently I discovered another noteworthy event that takes place in Pisa.
This event also has centuries-old roots.
Sure, everyone knows Pisa for a certain leaning tower, but once a year, two teams of men do some leaning of their own - trying as hard as possible to push each other off a bridge.
This event is known in Italy as Il Gioco del Ponte, and it happened today.

No, they don't try to shove each other in the water. 
This is a sort of reverse tug-of-war where the two teams push against each other, using a central frame that travels back and forth on a platform with a central track. 
Whoever pushes the frame, and the other team,
all the way to the end of the bridge wins.

I've done my best to describe Il Gioco del Ponte - sometimes also called The Battle on the Bride.
Now go check it out for yourself.

First, here's their official website:
Il Gioco del Ponte

A concise look at what happens:

Some interesting views into the training and pride of the event:

Here's a nice capsule of the event:

Those were all from last year, but one of the best video captures I've seen comes from the 2010 contest:

The Gioco del Ponte just took place today, and as I write this it's getting late in Pisa.  Knowing a bit about the Italian way of living, I'm not surprised that we haven't seen a flood of new video clips up on the internet - There's a lot of celebrating going on right now in Pisa.  I just can't see a bunch of Pisani scurrying home to edit something together so they can upload it right now.

But I was able to find this news piece which has a video with some moments captured.
Tramontana vince il Gioco del Ponte alla "bella"

And here's the defining moment when the flag dropped in Pisa this year:

This reminds me a bit of the Regata Storica in Venice:
It's a huge event, one of the biggest spectacles of the year,
but it's not very well known beyond the borders of the country.
And yet there were 30,000 people watching this unique test of strength and endurance on a bridge in Pisa this year.

Watching the videos, I noticed many things.
I enjoyed the costumes, the pomp, the processions.
I noticed the strange paddle-like objects the athletes carried, which reminded me of our striped oars on the gondola.
The clever wedges under the toes of their shoes must help a lot.
I took it all in, thinking that maybe I'd like to be in Pisa next year in June.

And I also thought:
if you ran out of gas somewhere near Pisa, I'll bet one of these guys would be really handy in getting the car to the next petrol station.

Saturday, June 28, 2014


photo by Steve Elkins

I got this image texted to me this afternoon from one of my gondoliers,
with the simple phrase "Good times".

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Hand in the Water

photo  by Chris Clarke

It happens all the time - sooner or later, someone on the gondola gets the urge to put a hand in the water.

Not everyone does it, and in some places it's not the best idea,
but it still happens.

Positive buoyancy is a remarkable thing. 
It seems almost magical to people riding in the boat.
The concept that something so big and heavy can stay on top of the water really gets them thinking.

Some reach down just because they're curious about the water temperature,
but others do so in an effort to better understand the fluid surface the boat is floating on.

Sometimes I'll take the time to explain the priciples of buoyancy and displacement, but most of the time I just let them marvel in the magic.
They seem to enjoy it more that way.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Just the Photo - Dinner for Two

photo by Kierlyn Densham

My gondoliers and I like to call this "the ultimate waterfront table".

After enjoying their salads dockside, Mike's passengers stepped off the gondola to freshen up while he set out the main course and desserts.

Moments after this photo was taken, the passengers stepped aboard and Mike rowed them off into the sunset as they enjoyed hot food,
fresh from the kitchen.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Just the Photo - Pre-cruise Conversation

Steve briefs his passengers on life jacket location, beverage protocol,
and who get to eat the chocolates. 

All in a day's work in the life of a gondolier.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Bikinis in Egypt

This little gem was brought to my attention by a friend recently.
The photo was new to me, but not the boat design.

What we are looking at is one of the "gondolas" at a resort in Egypt called Aqua Blu Sharm.

These boats appear to be punted around with poles in a very controlled waterway on the property of the resort.

As you can see; the Egyptian gondolier is giving lessons to some resort-goers who haven't yet deiscovered how stylish striped shirts and black pants can be.

To see more photos of the boats at Aqua Blu Sharm, check out my post "Gondolas" - Egyptian-Style

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Wind was Listening

This morning I woke to the familiar sound...
the sound of the wind beating the living daylights out of our windchimes.

I thought about how nice it would be for our cruise clients if the wind were to just chill a bit.
I said something about it to my wife, and then thought nothing of it.

Later, on the water, my wish came true.
It was perfect; just a bit of a fresh breeze coming off the Pacific,
but nothing to fight with.

The sunset was gorgeous, and my passengers had a wonderful time.

I started to think that maybe the wind had heard my complaint,
and adjusted accordingly.
Tomorrow, I'll try it again and see what happens.
If this continues, I might just start taking requests.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

What's in a Name?

What's in a name?
In ancient days, many cultures encouraged parents to name their children based on traits they'd observed.
Some would assign a name based on their hopes for the individual
(to become a great warrior, hunter, or person of wisdom).
Still other societies include naming protocols that identify where someone comes from or who their parents or ancestors were.

Then there's the nickname.
A name given to someone later on.
Nicknames are a universal phenomenon.
We give them to our sports heroes and everyday workmates,
our friends...and our enemies.

It seems like everyone's got a few nicknames - some they like,
some they'd like to get rid of.

Among gondoliers, nicknames are practically a requirement.
In every American servizio I know or have known, if there's more than one guy working there, there are nicknames.

In Venice, like in the US, rowers couldn't avoid getting a nickname if they wanted to.
In her book "Free Gondola Ride", Kathleen Ann Gonzalez mentions many clever, descriptive, or funny names assigned to the various gondoliers she meets in Venice.
Names like "Campagna" (because he lives on the mainland - which to a Venetian is like living in "the country"),
or "Diavolo" (because his eyebrows tip up at the ends - giving him a devilish look),
"Pes/Pisciolino" (known as the "little fish" or "goldfish"),
"Condom" - hmm, I think I'll just leave that one alone.

Some gondoliers in the US have real names that are easily modified to sound more Italian:
Steve becomes "Stefano",
Larry is "Lorenzo",
Joe can be "Giuseppe".
John - "Gianni", Bob - "Roberto", George - "Giorgio", Mark - "Marco", Jack - "Giacomo", Paul - "Paolo".
You get the idea.

Some gondoliers don't have it so easy, if a guy has a name like Darrell or Scott or Brian, he might want to help himself to one of the more fun names, like "Massimo", "Bepi" (short for Giuseppe), or "Giovanni". It seems like there's a "Giovanni" in every gondola operation out there.

Some operations have hierarchies, complete with fraternity-like hazing.
More established ones have senior gondoliers who have been known from time to time to assign nicknames to newer gondoliers.
I thought about including some of the more humorous ones I've heard in other places, but it occurred to me that some of those guys might be working to shake those names, even as I write this.

Do something amazing or stupid, have a noticeable feature, or make an ass out of yourself in a memorable way, and you're likely to end up with a new name to either embrace or try and get rid of.

Without identifying who they are, here are some of the nicknames I've heard in my own operations.
We've had our fair share of luigis, Paolos, and even a Guido or two. 
We had a Gepetto, a Don Giovanni, and even a "Tommy the Garlic Boy".
A few have earned the prefix "Crash" before their names, one guy got branded with "Crash Test" before his name.  believe me, he earned it.

Anybody want to share their favorite gondolier nicknames?

My favorite one lately?
The "Oar Snapper!"

All of the images in this post were taken during the 2013 US Gondola Nationals.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Off-Center On-Purpose

photo by Cassandra Mohr
With a good photo from the right bridge,
we can see the asymmetry of the gondola.
Over 150 years ago, Domenico Tramontin gave the gondola her unique asymmetry. He was a creative guy with an inventive spirit,
and he's the one who made the boat so much easier to row with one oar.

I've told passengers for years:
"The world is full of crooked boats,
but these ones are built that way on purpose."

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Your Fortune is...

I'm a real sucker for a good sci-fi film, especially if it takes place in the future. Throw in time travel and it could be a lousy movie...I'll still love it.

In the Bruce Willis film "Looper" there's a scene where a young man is talkiing to an older man from the future.
The young man mentions that he's learning French.  With no hesitation, the guy from the future tells him that he'd be better off learning Chinese.  
The message continues to build in other scenes, in short - China is the future.  I'm not sure if it's true, but I have been hearing it lately. 
The Chinese have been coming to California a lot lately, and experts believe that the wave of tourism from China that we are just seeing the beginnings of, is going to make the Japanese wave we saw years ago, look like a warm-up.
If you operate gondolas in a place that hosts international tourists,
it wouldn't hurt to learn a little about serving Chinese clientele.

While the Chinese are learning to love travel, and exploring cultures in other places, they are also bringing pieces of those cultures home.
Offshore, there's Macau - a sort of "Las Vegas of the Orient". 
There's another Venetian Casino there; much bigger than it's counterpart in southern Nevada.

Maybe it's the Marco Polo connection which has prompted the interest in Venetian things.  The Chinese have incorporated Venetian buildings and canals in some of their redevelopment efforts. In this article "Faking it in China", we see that Austrian, Dutch, and English architecture have also been added to the unique mix. 

The gondolas in the main photo of that article appear to be of the same design used at both of the above mentioned casinos.
Strangely, some of those same design boats were recently spotted in a shopping mall in Shijiazhuang.
"Venice Comes to China"

If there aren't already Venice-built gondolas in China,
I'm sure there will be soon.

Visa requirements have changed drastically for Chinese tourists coming to America.  It used to take over a month to get a travel visa, now it takes less than a week.

The future of China isn't any more predictable than that of the US,
but they do seem to be prosperous these days.

I wonder if there are any romantic songs in Mandarin that I could learn.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Just the Photo - Steve Smiles

photo by Cassandra Mohr

Steve Elkins, my right-hand-man in Newport, and definitely one of the most interesting gondoliers in the world, smiles as he pulls away from the dock.

A few wide turns later, he quietly placed a message-in-a-bottle in the water and doubled back for the lady to curiously retrieve.

She said "yes", of course.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Remo in Motion

photo by Cassandra Mohr

This was snapped on board one of our cruises this evening in Newport.
I'm not really sure what settings my daughter used to capture it,
but rest assured that I'll be trying to copy her accomplishment soon.

Remo: Saverio Pastor
Gondolier: Steve Elkins

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Video from Bacino Orseolo

Right about now some gondoliers from California are probably
drinking Campari spritzes and looking over the boat they'll be
rowing soon in the Vogalonga.

Am I jealous? Nah!
(ok, maybe just a little bit)

Among their many stops, I'm sure they won't be able to resist loitering a bit along the rail at Bacino Orseolo.

Here's a link to a video clip some of these guys shot last year at that remarkable spot that's aptly known by the name "the gondola garage".

In case the video give you trouble, here's a link to the same video elsewhere:

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Where I Want to Be

On board the gondola this evening, one of my passengers asked me:
"If you could live anywhere, where would it be?"

I thought about it for a while, and as we approached the 38th Street bridge,
I told her that I'd love to live in Venice for a time - rowing and taking it all in,  and I'd jump at the chance to take over for Andres - the gondolier who rows the gondola in Central Park, NYC (I've told him that I'll gladly cover his cruises for a week if he needs some time away).
But at the end of our discussion, I realized that really,
there's nowhere else I'd rather be than where I am.

I can't take credit for it, call it divine providence or just dumb luck,
but I love where I live and I never take it for granted.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Sweep and a Reach

photo by Cassandra Mohr

Lining things up for a message-in-a-bottle can sometimes be challenging.
Last night I observed an unexpected phenomenon:
the wind was blowing me and the gondola away from the bottle,
and blowing against boat and reversing - pushing the bottle away from the boat!

Dropping the bottle is easy,
It's the approach and retrieval that tests a gondolier.
In the above photo, I was quickly bringing the remo back into position
to perform an aggressive variation of the sweeping tirare acqua stroke
and one of our staff photographers caught the action at a key point - as the lady was reaching for the bottle
(and I was working hard to bring her into range).