Italy Journal: The Ladies by the Water

IMG_4887There are young women dressed in fancy but obviously fake medieval dresses and masks who stand around the fondamente near San Marco, on San Zaccaria. They make their living taking photographs with tourists. Every time I pass by, they sing out “Hello” and, seeing my race, “Ni Hao.” One of the women, who stand closest to the dock where I board the vaporetto, has a surprisingly high voice. Sometimes men seem to linger nearby, possibly for security or perhaps to discipline them. It’s difficult to interpret what their relationship to each other is. I never approached close enough, but someone I was talking to (another professor at the school) said many of the women are South Asian.

The other day, I saw them scatter and flee in multiple directions all at once. I think the local authorities were cracking down on them. Probably they have no formal approval from the city.

Their dresses are so large and colorful, the women have to stand on milk crates so the fabric doesn’t drag on the ground. These crates were left stranded on the pavement, near the lapping water, as the women fled. I saw three of them run off together in the same direction over a bridge, the bottoms of their brightly color dresses pulled up so their legs were free to move. Their hems fluttered in the breeze. They looked like birds, a flock suddenly taking flight.

The next day, a Wednesday, I had to come to school for a late afternoon/early evening meeting.  I saw the women were back in their places. I felt relief for them, and also regret. What must it feel like to stand there all day, exposed to the wind and sun and all the other elements (including the incessant gaze of the throngs of tourists who roam through this space)? Their primary purpose is to be photographed. The only thing they have to sell is their image. And even then the image they are selling is not of themselves, for no one really cares to look too closely at who they are. They are taking photographs of their fake costumes, something everyone who takes their pictures must understand are fake, and the spirit of a moment in time when they were in Venice. The beauty of the old buildings and the sparkle of the sunlight on the water in the lagoon can be mesmerizing, enough so that even these women seem somehow magical as a result.

That evening, on that same Wednesday, we returned together from San Servolo on the same boat after our meeting. We stopped along the way for a drink. The others I was with were going to have dinner, but I needed to be off because I had a train to catch. It was almost 8 PM, and by the time I caught my train it was already past 9. This was the latest I’d been by myself in Venice, once I departed the jovial company and the local wine that came recommended to me.

The only people left in San Marco Square were the venders and a few straggling tourists. The vendors are all from South Asia and Africa. They seem to be always about, selling a limited set of things: selfie sticks, fake designer bags, some kind of rubbery toy that goes splat when it’s thrown on the ground, and in the evening glowing projectiles that shoot into the air. The air was thick with the projectiles. The diminished crowded made them seem more numerous and, if anything, more cheap and disposable. I could imagine someone buying one and then throwing it out in a day or two.

The projectiles were fireflies who lighted the night sky momentarily and then disappeared. The people who sold them would, in contrast, endure. The next day, they would be back, hoping to make a sale, and would linger late into the night again.