In this book, I set out to discover what life is like for the gondoliers of Venice: the best days and the worst, the good customers and the bad, and the day-to-day adventures. Haven’t people romanticized these men beyond reason? Turned them into clichés? Or ignored them like a taxi driver? Besides the guidebook description or brief article, I found that no one had examined the gondolier and his craft. I had intended to interview them as a proper journalist would, notepad and tape recorder by my side, but I found that interviewing a group of casanovas was easier said than done. In typical Italian fashion, things were rarely straight to the point; conversations were as circuitous as Venetian canals, and details were haggled over like a crate of tomatoes. Generally, what I intended to be an interview with a single gondolier degenerated into a collection of comments from all present, flying from English to Italian to Venetian dialect to Spanish. Jokes flowed freely, sometimes at my expense.
The resulting chapters are not always separate interviews with individual gondoliers but instead may be my days spent in the company of their groups or my being propositioned by a lone wolf. Sometimes I gleaned specific facts from the whole, while other encounters showed more about a gondolier’s character than about his profession.
Paul Theroux once wrote, “...travel was flight and pursuit in equal parts.” While trying to interview these men, I pursued a goal yet to my surprise found that I was engaged in a personal dance of flight and pursuit. This colored my encounters with the gondoliers more than I would have imagined.
If you wish to start with the facts, read the chapter “A Short History of the Gondola” at the back of this book. Or simply dive into the canal headfirst and fill in those blanks later.
Legend, mystery, and intrigue have encircled the gondoliers and their vessels for ages. This book aims to uncover the men behind the mystique: their personalities and peculiarities, their virtues and vices, their features and foibles. I invite you to get to know the gondoliers of Venice, and as the old barcarolle goes, “Come with me, we shall get into the gondola and go forth on the sea.”