I was taking gondola-driving lessons. This is hardly a "must-do" in Venice. Most people simply come for the romance: arm-in-arm strolls along the canals to the sound of distant church bells, waves gently lapping against ancient canal facades, and, of course, the enchanting footsteps of the 25 million tourists who annually trample this slowly sinking city of 75,000.
Learning to drive a gondola on the Grand Canal is like learning to ride a bike on the Schuylkill Expressway. Whizzing up and down the canal are boat-buses, water taxis, private cruising boats, supply boats taking food and merchandise to local stores, plus all the other gondolas - more than 400 of them.
There are no driving lanes on this busy road. You can drive on the left side or the right or straight down the middle if you please. The only observed rule is that the biggest boat has the right of way. Does this work? Well, during my three days in Venice, there were three separate boating fatalities in the lagoon at the end of the Grand Canal.
The way I figured, there was only one oar in a gondola, and the vessels move slowly, so what could be easier? As I learned from Luca, a gondolier in his 40s who offered to show me the ropes, it would be much easier to learn to pilot an oil tanker through the Straits of Magellan.
There are no gondola driving schools as such. Most gondoliers learn from their fathers or uncles, then inherit the boats from them. Luca's father, however, was a Venetian glassblower, and Luca was a dental hygienist. Eight years ago, he decided he wanted to spend less time fighting plaque and more time at peace with the outdoors, so he put down $20,000, bought a gondola, and taught himself how to drive it.
The world is quite familiar with the famous image of these 37-foot oversize black canoes. What many may not know is how they actually move. The rame, or oar, rests in a curved wooden forklike arm that protrudes from the rear right of the gondola. Unlike in a rowboat, you don't lift the paddle out of the water to bring it back into position for the next stroke. Nor do you push off the bottom, as I once suspected. Instead, you push forward, then feather the rame back under the water. And unlike in a canoe, you can't start paddling on the other side to compensate for a turn. Everything has to be done from the curved arm.
After a short demonstration, Luca held onto a pole on the side of the canal to keep the boat in place while I gave it a try. My first problem was the oar kept popping out of the fork, and the waves, the tidal current and the substantial weight of the rame made it hard to pop it back into position. After I managed a few strokes, Luca let go and we were off.
Immediately, Luca began reciting a seemingly impossible set of instructions. The first was "use your legs," then "get your whole body into the rowing motion." As I did this, the oar popped out of the fork, and I struggled to put it back, nearly falling overboard in the process. With no forward momentum, we began drifting out of control toward several boats.
"Look forward," Luca commanded, oblivious to the fact that I couldn't get the oar into position while looking forward, and simply looking forward wouldn't accomplish much except tell me which side of the gondola to jump from before we were rammed by a much larger boat.
Signe, my girlfriend, who'd come along for the ride, looked almost as nervous as I did, speculating on how to abandon ship without getting the camera wet.
Fortunately, the other boat drivers had guessed that an absolute moron was piloting our gondola, and managed to get out of the way. It probably helped that Luca was standing at the front of the boat, giving the "get out of the way" signal.
Next, Luca wanted me to turn the boat around. He took the oar and demonstrated. It looked simple, and, surprisingly, wasn't too hard. Although this only applied to turning the boat to the left. Turning it to the right was nearly impossible. The only way I could make a 90-degree right turn was to turn the boat to the left 270 degrees.
About 40 minutes into the lesson, my arms felt as if I'd been doing 40 hours of push-ups. I didn't have enough strength left to shake hands. Luca took over, demonstrated a few more moves, then guided the boat back to the gondola station for a break. Back on land, he taught me the gondolier's time-honored method of discreetly urinating into the canal: You stand on the dock, take a large board and lean it against a pole to form a little . . . well, teepee, then do your business under that.
I asked Luca about the singing. After all, all gondoliers sing, don't they?
"I don't sing," he said.
"But I thought you all had to do 'O Sole Mio.'"
"No," Luca said. "That's a myth. There are a handful of gondoliers who sing, but you almost always have to pay extra for a singer to come along."
"Customers pay $85 to $120 for 50 minutes in the gondola and don't get a singer included?" I asked, incredulous.
"No, that costs extra. Didn't I just tell you that?"
When the feeling began to come back in my arms, we pushed off again. With considerably more traffic and bigger waves, the route looked twice as intimidating. After a few near spills, my oar slipped out of the fork and I finally lost my balance completely and tumbled rather dramatically (twirling my arms trying to fight to stay on deck) into the drink. The water was murky brown, more biologically aggressive than anything in Iraq's arsenal, and tasted like month-old dishwater mixed with ammonia and a touch of diesel oil. I tried to forget that Luca and I had urinated into the water less than an hour before.
Luca couldn't stop laughing. Neither could Signe, who managed to capture the entire event on film. So did a water taxi full of tourists with video cameras.
As I swam to the edge of the canal and pulled myself up on the algae-covered wooden steps, Luca managed to control his hysterics just enough to broadcast my spill to every passing gondola driver.
"Into the water," he yelled to anyone willing to listen, "just like Baywatch person Pamela Anderson."
Signe bought some beers for Luca and the other gondola drivers at the station, while Luca, the human instant replay man, began a series of dry-run reenactments of my fall. He continued his act as I sat there drying off and scribbling away on my notepad, much to the amusement of the other gondoliers and a newlywed couple standing nearby.
"In a hundred years," he joked, "come back and we'll be singing about the American who fell into the canal."
"You will?" I asked, not realizing I had been set up.
"No, the singers will. And you'll have to pay extra to hear it."