THE VENICE THAT WILL NEVER SINK


March 16, 2003

VENICE -- Like most true Venetians, my friend Flavia is a spriz-and-sunset addict,
a habitue of the tables at the far end of Via Garibaldi, the point where the road
ends, the water canal begins, and the vegetable and fruit barges are moored.

She sits there, surrounded by shopping bags, sipping her spriz from a tall glass,
waiting for friends to join her for the daily chatter that is as much a part of the
sunset ritual in Venice as the clatter of closing shutters.

It's here, among open-air tables with uneven legs and cats lurking in wait for the
day's castoffs, that the old city, La Serenissima, remains as she used to be
before mass tourism was invented, bartenders catered to whisky and bourbon,
and Neapolitan pizza parlors mushroomed--elsewhere in the city.

It's the hour when the sun turns into a red balloon behind San Giorgio, and the
sky becomes a transparent Venetian blue, streaked with the kind of red the artist
Titian immortalized in his paintings at the Church of La Salud.

It's the time when the butcher next door lugs unsold meat back into the
deep-freeze, when the wine seller siphons the last orders for new wine into empty
plastic mineral water bottles and the fish vendors on Garibaldi desperately slash
the price of the last pound of shrimps--before the critters turn green and are fit
only for stray cats.

It's the time when loquacious customers, for lack of other company for the
moment, hold long talks with their canine friends, blabbering to them as if they
were human.

It's spriz time on Garibaldi.

For the uninitiated--people Flavia generously labels "our guests" after she had
two spriz and "morons" before she had one--the beverage known as spriz is
concocted with a dash of Campari in white wine and a slice of lemon tossed in.

The huge rooftop neon ad for Campari dominating the Lido and visible from all
over the city is the only neon-sign advertisement tolerated in Venice, perhaps in
deference to popular taste.

If the waiter likes his guest he will add a green olive, spiked on a toothpick, to
your drink. If he doesn't add the olive, he thinks you're a novice-moron. It's
advisable then to ask him, politely of course: "Excusi! You forgot the olive." He
then respects you.

Spriz-time conversation is always loud, animated and spiced with phrases in the
Venetian vernacular that would make the ears of puritans burn with pious
indignation.

Fortunately no one but the Venetians understand, and they have abused each
other like that for centuries, all in good fun. Take no notice. Simply raise your
own voice.

Flavia usually sits with her back to the railing that ends the road and starts the
canal, a broad waterway that used to run the full length of Garibaldi before the
city of Venice covered two thirds of it with cement and quarter stones.

When she is in her nasty mood, before she had her first spriz, Flavia says she is
waiting for the pedestrians who are walking on water--because the canal still
flows below them--to fall in one day.

But we all know she sits that way because she wants to watch the mega-cruise
ships sail by at the lagoon end of Garibaldi and gloat at the way the tourists on
the five stacked decks madly wave goodbye to beautiful Venice and the friendly
Venetians below.

Like Flavia the Venetians never wave back. In their hearts they have come to
loathe the tourists who descend on La Serenissima, locust-like, every day.

But in their minds the people of Venice know the city would have died years ago
without tourism. So they smile during the day and gloat when they see another
batch sail away at spriz time.

Oh, by the way, the five formidable ladies at the next table come from nearby
Campo Ruga, probably the only ones still stringing Venetian glass pearls, an
ancient craft. The merchants of Venice took the glass-pearl strings on their
adventurous voyages to exchange them for the spices and artifacts that made
Venice once the world's wealthiest city.

Even the most bumptious locals do not tangle with these ladies, the children and
grandchildren of the Campo Ruga women who fought in Italy's frontline for
women's rights at the beginning of the 20th Century. Ardor for gender equality
remains in their blood, and it is highly inadvisable to stare or banter with them.
Their tongues are like whiplashes and always elicit ribald laughter.

Spriz time comes to an end abruptly once the sun has set. Suddenly the waiters
start removing chairs with impolite haste, glance at their watches, furrow their
eyebrows, all signals it's time to go home. Spriz time is intended only as a short
relax ritual from the day's labors.

On the way home my friend Flavia tends to drag you around the corner for a last
snort at the headquarters of the Communist Party, easily identified by the red flag
with the hammer and sickle, a flag drooping sadly but gamely on a wall pole
outside.

Officially the Communist Party of Italy, once the largest in Europe, disbanded and
reinvented itself under a new name. But the old faithful of Garibaldi, a
dyed-in-the-wool Red Zone, refused to abandon their beloved headquarters to
the new mob. So they built a dividing wall to separate the true believers from the
renegades.

The true believers still serve the best Stuzzichino and the best and cheapest
wine in town to any visitor. The portraits of Karl Marx and Comrade Lenin still
adorn the walls.

But today the "teasers" and the wine are consumed without ideological lectures.

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Schmetzer, former bureau chief in Rome, Beijing and New Delhi, is a special
correspondent who spends half the year in South East Asia and Australia and
half the year in Europe. He is based in Venice.