“Here, you come sit while we go across,” Bebo offered, and I didn’t have to be asked twice.
For those of you who read my first book, Free Gondola Ride, you know that I like to hang out with gondoliers. The best perk–cadging a free ride now and then! When I was recently in Venice in January, I got my free gondola ride in the form of traghetto crossings.
The traghetto is the sort of ferry that crosses the Grand Canal in the absence of bridges at eight points around the city. My main hangout is Traghetto Santa Sofia, across from the Rialto fish market. I stopped by to drop off a book for a friend who works there and found Bebo, another gondolier friend whom I hadn’t been able to reach.
“It is a minor miracle,” he said once we had kissed on the cheek. “I haven’t worked here in many weeks,” he said. His dad had purchased some property on the mainland, and Bebo was there most days chopping trees, a lumberjack instead of a gondolier. “Maybe I will become Farmer Bebo,” he added.
Bebo, a tall, thin guy most often with a scrum of beard, has an animated face and round eyes, unless they’re twinkling over some joke. His English isn’t perfect, but boy, can he joke in this language! When I first walked up, it was still drizzling out, and all the gondoliers were huddled inside the casotto, the little house where they store their things. But after chatting for a bit, the drizzle stopped, and Bebo and Marco began ferrying passengers across the Grand Canal. I came along.
The traghetto prices had changed since I had been in Venice. Instead of fifty euro cents to cross, it now cost locals seventy cents. But for tourists, the price had climbed to two euros. Locals had to show identification, and many were not happy about it. Bebo believed that the furor would die down. He said, “Now everyone is unhappy about this, but it will be better in a few months. Then it will become normal to pay this price and to show the I.D.”
I asked Bebo about the film he was supposed to be in. The previous summer, I had been contacted by a Singapore travel agency that was looking for a gondolier to film for a series on interesting jobs. They were going to use Bebo, last I had heard, but no one had stayed in contact with me as the project progressed. “I did not do this filming,” Bebo told me. “I talked to Amanda, and then it was confusion because another woman also called me. We could not work out the schedule.” He arranged for another gondolier to be in the film, which was subsequently made. (Later when I tried to find it, I found the series but not that episode. I also found a link to Cat Bauer’s Venice blog where she described her involvement with the project. Here’s her link: http://venetiancat.blogspot.com/2012/07/venice-gondoliers-on-tv-in-singapore.html)
In the summer of 1997 I spent a lot of time hanging out with the Santa Sofia gondoliers, and on successive trips, it became a regular haunt. I had first met Bebo during a winter Carnevale trip, but summertime was the best time to hang out. Bebo contended that times had changed. “Back then, it was play and also work,” he said, “but now it is work and maybe have fun.” The younger set of guys (were we not still young, I thought with dismay?) just wanted to make a lot of money. They didn’t play cards or stop to eat watermelon in the afternoon. They didn’t hang out off duty for soccer games or chase each other around the campo. I was lucky to have been there during that golden era.
But this winter day, back and forth we went, making that traghetto swirl across the Grand Canal, feeling the tilt of the boat under me as passengers got on or off or when the waves of the passing vaporetto swooshed under us. The skies remained gray and dimmed with the approaching January dusk, but the drizzle wasn’t even half-hearted, fortunately. While my other gondolier friends were gone–Stefano on holiday, Max working fewer hours, Paolo at a different station now–at least I got some Bebo time and a free gondola ride.
Here’s Bebo in his gondola, from a previous trip.