Tourists Hate Venice

There’s an implication that tourists hate Venice, and the Venetians hate the tourists. There are of course two sides to every story. But frankly I am siding with the Venetians on this one – and it has nothing to do with my Patriotism towards the city. This article popped up on my Facebook not so long ago and that is what inspired this post.

You could take out all the Venice implications and insert most places with a large tourism trade.  London, Barcelona, Dublin – it doesn’t really matter. The difference is that Venice is defensive of its home in a way you don’t often see. I suppose it’s the close knit nature of the streets and canals that draws such loyalty. Its compact nature means that any problems are keenly felt by everyone. And its dwindling native population has got people a little jumpy. I imagine it has a lot to do with the sense of history and tradition. Of the ancient names that have been peddling their wares here for centuries. At least, that is probably part of it.

I’ve always taken the time to research my holiday destinations. But I’ve never been interested in beach holidays. I go for history, culture and local cuisine. And I’ve been to enough foreign climes and seen enough pig ignorance from tourists to know they largely leave themselves open to exploitation.

I’ve been in restaurants where English speaking tourists have got up and left because their waiter doesn’t speak English. And plenty where burger and chips are still the required meal. And I’ve seen far too many badly behaved hen parties and stag dos to feel able to defend my English counterparts. Excessive drunkeness is an almost uniquely British problem.

Educating yourself about your destination is not difficult. Going armed with a few basic polite phrases will at least mean you give a s*** about the country you’re visiting. In Venice (as in many mainland European countries) a basic respect for culture is at least a kindly nod towards your hosts.

But walking around the city with your top off (men only I hasten to add) or dressed in a bikini (girls I presume) will earn you a firm ticking off from the locals (I’ve seen it). If you’re going to be a tourist in a church at least have the decency to carry something to cover your head or shoulders as required. I am an atheist but even I can manage that one.

All around you businesses will be looking to screw you over. This is not a Venice problem, any business which thrives on tourism sees its victims as gullible money bags and yes we have all fallen for it. That’s what it’s all about surely? You buy souvenirs made half way across the world because you won’t pay more than a fiver and you only eat food which costs less than 15 Euros and took less than 20 minutes to prepare. So what on earth did you expect in return?

So tourists, stop whinging about your treatment by your desitination of choice and start treating it with a little respect. You will get a much better experience.


Hashtag (#) Made In Venice

If there is one thing I really dislike about going on holiday abroad, it’s chain brands ruining the foreign street line. I go abroad to escape everything that is a part of my English routine. But it’s easy to forget how global and faceless branding is. In Malta I was mortified to find a ‘Claire’s Accessories’. And every time I see a McDonalds I rage. I don’t know what else I should expect.

And now Venice has a ‘Spar’ in the Cannaregio district – called a ‘Despar‘. It’s been housed in a beautiful theatre. I was particularly disappointed because Spar isn’t even a great supermarket here in the UK. It certainly isn’t in keeping with the beauty of its surroundings.

I make a point of avoiding anything which doesn’t appear to me to be ‘Venice local’. I am not a tourist who wants the familiarity of home. I don’t even want to be a tourist. And now, being acutely aware of the fragility of Venice’s homegrown artisan economy, it makes me want to dig my heels in even more.

I understand it because here in the UK we have the same problem (doesn’t anywhere?) and I am a part of the ‘Made in the UK’ and ‘Made in Manchester’ movement. I run my own business. I have everything to play for.

It’s something I am very proud of – standing up for locally produced and ethical and sustainable. Venice is only trying to do what we already do here. And I don’t doubt it’s been fighting it as long as we have too. These are some of the parallels between Venice and Manchester. They both have lots of homegrown talent. They both have strong identities. And they both want to protect them. Equally they are both fighting ever expansive erosion by big brands.

So for me, it’s not just about my tenuous links to Venice (I don’t yet feel I have the right to be passionately defensive from a native standpoint) but I do get it. I am not Manchester born or bred either. I come from the South of England originally. I’ve been in Manchester for two years. But I am fiercely protective of what it represents. I may not live in Venice (yet) but I don’t see the harm in being protective of and supporting somewhere I feel emotionally connected to and something I believe in and something I think is worth defending and supporting.



Venice, the BBC and a Gondolier named Roberto

I remember my first trip to Venice very clearly. It was 2003. I was recording a segment of ’50 Places to See Before You Die’ for the BBC. It was a whirlwind trip. 3 days, one Italian camera crew and one English born Venetian guide – Patricia Weston Liani.

Filming in San Marco Piazza – where else?

Most of what I wanted to see was kept at arms length due to a tight schedule and I knew next to nothing about Venice except the basics of my ancestral roots there. Ironically we were here for the BBC not for me, but it was a precious first trip and I still remember it clearly.

It included just what you would expect for a tourism heavy programme. We landed at the Basilica. Filmed in the San Marco Piazza and went on a gondola ride right up the Palazzo Mocenigo where Byron had lived and Tita had worked with his family.

They recorded my every reaction. I’m sure they wanted tears, but I didn’t give it to them. Inside though there were a hundred emotions raging through me that only I really understood. Really my first trip should have been alone. I was here for very personal reasons. Everything about the place spoke to me and I had no time to answer back.

But I can’t complain. We arrived from Marco Polo on a private motorboat, were put up at a very nice hotel and everything was expenses paid. I was in heaven.We even bumped into my English cousins who happened to be staying in the same hotel as me. Which was very odd.

Do you see that smug look – that’s me about to get into my first ever gondola – Roberto at the helm

I went back every year after that – another four visits of a week each. It was never enough. And I never went alone. Always with people who yearned for the tourist traps. Then circumstances changed and I stopped being able to afford the trips.

This year I am going back twice. It’s been 10 years. And I am going alone for the first one. This will be the first time I can genuinely just wander to my hearts content, avoid the hotspots and spend hours just gazing at the water as it laps the traghetto.



The Trouble With Tourism

I am going to let you into a little secret. I have a dream. The dream is to live in Venice. But how is that possible in a place where everyone is leaving, where tourism has all but eaten away at the fabric of the city?

Tourism is a double edged sword. It can bring income to places which have lost their industry or their community. It can work alongside existing companies or bring in new trade. It can attract tourists who otherwise may have come but not spent money.

Equally it can take over.

Venice is an incredible city with several problems – a dwindling population, it is separated by water (its most striking feature and also its worst enemy), a lack of solid industry to support its 54,000 strong native population, and an incredible history that attracts people from all over the world.

It’s been on the circuit of the Grand Tour for centuries but tourism was very different back then. These days, floating worlds – giant cruise ships – spill out hundreds of people who only hang around for 5 hours, buy junk from tourist shops, eat their packed lunches and then go back to their luxury liners, safe in their bubble. One Venetian local, speaking to Citilab for the article that inspired me to write this, described them as ‘smash and grab tourists’. And they are. They come to Venice, they photograph the Rialto, marvel at St Marks Square. And then they leave. They don’t SEE Venice. They see postcard images. And they don’t give anything back.

True, tourism is supporting some businesses. But only the ones that sprung up as a direct reaction to the influx of visitors, not the established centuries old businesses, or the local shops, or the things you need in day to day life if you live there. Tourist income eats away at infrustrature, community, ecology. The income is negligable compared to what is here and the businesses that really need the support – the indigenous ones, the centuries old businesses, the local production that isn’t £5 for 5.

I’ve been reading articles from those on the ground. Not big companies that are protected from Venice’s financial problems, but real people who have to live it and witness it day to day and deal with the problems of living and working in Venice. And I wonder if any of my skills could be of any use out there. Could I survive in Venice?

And then I read this article and one line jumped out at me:

‘…finding someone to sew buttons on to a shirt that’s lost them, are becoming impossible’

My background is in costume design. I did it for 20 years or more. Although I write, my job now is as a fashion designer and photoshoot stylist. But alterations, repairs and costume (think the Carnevale di Venezia) are still a part of what I do. I was also a professional PA for 15 years. And now that I am learning Italian, is this a possibility?

I am not Venetian. I don’t live there. Parlo un poco Italiano. Sto migliorando. I have visited as a reluctant tourist many times, as someone who wants to melt into the local neighbourhood but can’t because I’m not Venetian and I don’t live there. But my DNA is. And to me that’s really important. I am looking at my ancestry, and at my heritage and I see a place that I love that is still at arms length and yet I worry for it and I want to be a part of it. It is almost a duty, a labour of love. But one I want to embrace.


How Do You Say…

I have been trying to find the Italian word for great-great-great-grandfather. The closest I can get is bisnonno which is great grandfather. Someone suggested that ‘bis-bisnonno’ was great great grandfather and therefore it would be ‘bis-bis-bisnonno’ but I’m not sure that sounds right.  I’ve resorted to ‘antenati’ – ancestors.

In most of my ‘scritto Italiano’ I have reverted to more obvious phrases such as ‘storia famiglia’ and ‘genealogico’. I’m sure that Italian genealogists have a whole raft of words that fit far better. You are welcome to enlighten me anytime you see fit.

As I work my way through my Italian lessons, it is becoming obvious that the use of language is more generalised. In English words are very specific. It’s a difficult mindset to get out of. Some sentences can only be truly understood in context, so in the confines of an online lesson they are open to conjecture causing endless confusion amongst ‘early learners’, myself included. The very helpful Duolingo discussion sections are testament to this.

In English there is a word for everything and sentence construction is always in the order in which it is said. ‘The’ means ‘the’. In Italian I so far have 7 words for ‘the’. We don’t bother with masculine or feminine. So it’s not simply about learning words, it’s about an entirely new structure and in fact a whole new way of communicating. I find it very difficult but I am very very English with no foreign language exposure and I have a relatively large vocabulary so I am used to specifics.

So, for instance, in Italian ‘proprio’, ‘veramente’ and ‘davvero’ all mean ‘really’ depending on the context. But ‘proprio’ also means ‘own’. ‘Particolamente’ seems fairly obvious except that it also means ‘especially’. And whilst there are many words that are very similar to their English counterparts – ‘perfetto’, ‘momento’, ‘generosità’ – ‘caldo’ means ‘hot’ not ‘cold’, ‘aggiunge’ means ‘add’ (which took me forever to remember) and ‘meraviglioso’ means ‘wonderful’ and has its variations such as meglio – best.

Add to this mish-mash that sentences are not constructed as they are in English and that there are lots of things you say in English (particularly idioms) which just can’t be said in Italian (because they don’t exist) and for someone like me it adds to an already confusing pot of learning problems. And don’t get me started on rolling my r’s (which I cannot do) to sound authentic, or shortened words like don’t, can’t or won’t.

My online counterparts, who are French and Spanish, get it. Because English seems to be the only language that doesn’t work like the rest of Europe. If I ever get to over 30% on Duolingo it will be a miracle. And this despite my 57 day streak.

However there are some quite advanced sections I find really easy. I’ve grasped ‘mente’ as a word appendage from day 1. And I THINK I have good pronunciation. But I won’t know that until I have to inflict it on someone else. At the moment I am too scared to try. I roll endless Youtube videos and Radio24 programmes to make sure I’m getting it. I can read whole passages of text that I might not understand but with an Italian accent because once you know how letters sound you can say pretty much anything even if you don’t know what it means.

Add to this that my preferred dialect will be Venetian (for obvious reasons and because I largely translate old Venetian in my family history research) and I’m almost back to square one. Did you know Venice is trying to get Venetian recognised as its own language? There are many spelling variations. Now try doing that in 200 year old documents and you’ll see how much I love challenges. All I can say is ‘thanks Tita’ – I blame this entirely on you.

To wrap up here are my tips for learning a language when you aren’t ‘living it’ and when you have no language experience:

Convert all your electronics to your chosen language
Stream current news and radio stations (listen to Radio24 if Italian is your thing)
Get tv and films with the subtitles
Join learning pages on Facebook for people learning your language
Subscribe to social media feeds in your chosen country
Join Duolingo

Learning The Language Of My Ancestors

By the time learning the language of my ancestors became a serious bucket list contender for me, I had already mastered a few basics. I knew my 1 to 10, my greetings and a handful of terms that related to genealogy, predominantly through trying to decipher 150 year old Venetian baptism, marriage and death records.

I wanted to learn Italian as it was used, not as it was taught. ‘A presto’ was one of my favourites in the early days. And simple phrases like ‘Come stai?’ are not unfamiliar to non Italian ears. If you want to find out how it’s really spoken there are some great Youtube channels out there. I recommend Tom Weila. It makes sense and you learn great pronounciation as you go.

Essentially it isn’t just about learning for nostalgic reasons. My genetic connection to Venice is 4 generations removed. Unless I’m planning to move there, how will I use it? It’s about understanding the culture, which helps me realise not only where I come from, but what made them tick.

In my work on Tita Falcieri, everything I see of him in the early days is Italian or in Italy or is based on his culture. Understanding why he does certain things, or says things in a certain way is rooted in his upbringing and his language. If you want to understand your past, why would you not try to understand life from their point of view?

The thing is, I am rubbish at learning things. The reason, I cannot do anything by rote or by sitting in a classroom. I learn by living and breathing the skills. I am a doer, not an academic. I learn by trying out, making mistakes, by correcting those mistakes and by trying again. The reason? I am impatient. I want to implement my new skills from the start and make them productive, not theoretical. I don’t do anything unless it has an immediate practical implication. That’s just the way I am.

I became a designer not by going to university or evening classes, but by buying the tools, getting the books and doing it. 20 years later I decided to refine my skills at university. By then, design was a way of life and learning new skills was simply honing my already clear methods.

I always wanted to be good at music. I’ve learned piano and drums. I was rubbish at both of them because I was never able to use it in day to day life and because by sitting and practicing in a classroom setting, it went in one ear and out the other. Drilling simply does not work for me. The reason, boredom sets in and my mind, which is always thinking of at least four or five things at once anyway, goes off in search of pastures new. If the new skills cannot be applied to something, I simply lose interest.

I have always wanted to learn a language and have always admired anyone who is bilingual. School put me off languages very early on. French was my worst nightmare and I had no interest in France anyway. It was a pointless exercise for me. For me to learn a language I have to live in it. Live with it. Be amongst its culture, its people. Be in the country. To have a reason for wanting to know it. So why it has taken Italian so long to become my focus is beyond me although I have to confess to thinking it for a while. I suppose confidence was an issue and finding the right learning strategy.

This last 6 months or so, transcribing old Venetian documents written by and about my Venetian ancestors has galvanised me into action. I’d always asked for help before. Now I wanted to transcribe them for myself. And now that Venice is back on my list of places I am going to visit every year, I don’t want to be a clueless tourist when I get there, especially since I am going alone. I want to be connected to the city by more than distant DNA. I have to understand it and I can’t unless I know the language.

In an ideal world I would move to Italy, maybe for 6 months and take my business and my writing there and see how I get on. But the practical problems with this are numerous. Instead I have an app on my phone, I have subscribed myself to as many Venice Twitter accounts as I can manage in a day, and I am learning it for myself thanks to Duolingo which fortunately happens to be the learning tool that works best for me.

I downloaded some tapes for the car, but it just goes in one ear and out the other. I need to see the words, to understand the structure, not learn to copy phonetically. Instead I make myself read as much in Italian as I can and look up the rest. Informal word usage is better learned than formal ones. There are nights I go to sleep mentally building sentences in my head.

There’s not much use for Italian here in Manchester which is why I surround myself with it on social media. Thankfully one of the guides at Newstead Abbey is fluent. This will give me a sounding board to bounce my attempts off. Pronounciation is important. Understanding the written word is important. Being able to understand someone talking back to you is very important!

And so between Christmas and New Year it began. So far it is going well. Watch this space. Italian sentences are starting to appear on my Twitter. Ciao!


My History Begins In Venice

Mention Venice as a holiday destination and the first response is generally, ‘isn’t it really expensive?’ Well if you want to be a victim of the tourist trap, any city is expensive. And I am always bemused and disappointed by the lack of foresight on the part of visitors who can’t be bothered to research any destination properly before they go.

I am not your average tourist. I plan holidays like a military assault. And it’s simply because I prefer to avoid the throngs of visitors to any destination. I have no desire for beach holidays. I like to explore, to feel the history, to see a place as it is from a local point of view. To make the effort to learn a little language and respect customs.

And I shop around. I get my flights from one place, my rooms in another, my airport parking in yet another. I’ve got flights, parking and self catering accommodation for less than £420 for a week in San Polo in May. I just need spending money and I’m ready to go.

For me Venezia is a step back to my roots. I am proud that it and Murano are a part of my ancestry and my DNA. It is where my story begins. I won’t go there for anything other than that. I want to be immersed in it for what it really is.

If I had the money, if I had the means, if I had the knowledge, I would buy an apartment, live there and nurture my business there. It is after all only one bridge away from mainland Italy. Venice is not a bubble. It is a haven.

Of course it has its tourist ‘problems’. Doesn’t everywhere? But it doesn’t require much effort to see the city at its best. Forget the Piazza San Marco, Harry’s Bar and the Rialto after the tourists have emerged and the cruise ships have spilled out their residents on the canal sides. Go to these places before everyone has filtered through the hotel receptions after breakfast. Go out late at night when you can listen to the cicadas. Go at dawn as the sun rises on the Grand Canal. That is when you feel the history of Venice at its best. And go to the extremes, down the small alleys, to the canal sides, to the local shops, to the Campi as the sun comes up.

This is a city with no modern building, with no roads, no cars. They restore and preserve everything. Which costs huge amounts of money. Venice does battle with the acqua alta on a daily basis. It is its greatest asset and its worst adversary. But that is what makes it so unique and beautiful. So it is ironic that they need the tourists and investment to keep Venice functioning, sometimes at the expense of the local population. It is also a shame that they can’t live side by side. Venice has a multitude of economic problems magnified by its location. But they are the same problems as everywhere else. And everything has an answer.

I am warmed by sites like Venezia Autentica who promote Venice’s way of life. I am excited by the local crafts, the clothing designers, the marginal existence of the gondola builders and the artisan remer. That you can eat like a local if only you can be bothered to learn a few words of Italian and stick your neck out of the safety of ‘Parla Inglese?’

Tourists complain about the expensive hotels (hire an apartment or go AirBNB), the expensive restaurants (find where the locals go – cichetti is how you eat) and the huge price of a ride on a gondola (go and ride one somewhere else then – you can’t btw) but all these complaints don’t take into consideration what you are paying for. Because we never think that far anymore. We are always about the bottom line.

Western society is used to getting things for nothing or less. I am tired of the constant haggle over the price of experiences and handmade products. If you don’t like it, don’t go. Don’t complain and moan about the cost. If you can find Venice somewhere else, somewhere cheaper, then go there. In the meantime, I have two trips this year. And they will both come and go far too fast for me.


You can read my book ‘A Most Faithful Attendant – The Life of Giovanni Battista Falcieri‘ by purchasing it here.