|Bryan Wong & Lorenzo Brunello with Mediacorp crew|
Conversations with a Gondolier
Mediacorp thought that a gondolier would be an interesting job to highlight, and I agreed. The problem was to persuade the gondoliers to do the show. There are only 425 gondoliers on the entire planet, and they only exist in Venice, Italy. These days, the only way to become a gondolier is to be born into the family. To me, they are one of the few remaining natural Venetian resources, as well as being the most recognizable image of Venice throughout the world. Even though their job has morphed into transporting tourists, the skills they need to navigate in the waters of Venice have remained the same over the centuries, as have their hand-crafted gondolas.
The gondoliers were very wary about doing a television show about themselves, especially one in Chinese, a language they did not understand. In addition, they had to speak in English, the only common language, which would then be translated. The gondoliers do not speak Italian amongst themselves, but their own version of Venetian, and to find a gondolier who was willing to go on television and could speak English -- let alone train someone from Singapore how to row -- was not easy.
Venetians are kind of like American Indians; the gondoliers in particular are a unique sect. Nobody knows exactly how the gondoliers operate, not even the other Venetians. They even speak a different form of the Venetian language, and have evolved their own rules and ways for self-preservation. Venetians themselves are secretive, and the gondoliers are secretive to the extreme. The gondoliers have been in movies and television shows before, but usually as part of the background scenery of Venice. They have never revealed themselves on a personal level, nor spoken about the particulars of their job. They don't speak on camera unless they are playing a role, and are very protective of their image. Plus, you just can't find them! Every day they change their location, so a gondolier will be at one place one day, and in an entirely different location the next. You can't always get them on the phone, and they have no real office. So doing business with gondoliers -- if they will even agree to do so in the first place -- is an experience like no other.
|Cat & Lili - gals behind the scene|
I saw it as an opportunity to present their work to the world in an honest and respectful way so that others would appreciate how difficult their job was, and acknowledge their special place in the Venetian infrastructure. The gondola is an ancient method of transportation, a unique boat designed particularly to navigate the Venetian canals and lagoon. Venice itself is a city that defies the imagination, and plying the tricky waters is no easy task. And personally, as an American, I found the challenge of working with the Chinese and Venetians very exciting, a chance to bring these two vastly different cultures together to create a television show. It required a huge amount of diplomacy, but I thought that as long as everyone approached the project with the highest integrity, it would work. We spent more than a month and a half just negotiating, laying the foundation and the tone the program would take. I met over and over with the gondoliers, and transmitted their thoughts and concerns back to the Chinese. The gondoliers were strong and clear about what they would and wouldn't do, but very reasonable. And you know what? It worked beautifully!
On Wednesday, July 25, two gondoliers and I met with the crew from Singapore, together with a local Venetian guide named Giovanna Puppin, who, amazingly, spoke Mandarin Chinese, Venetian, Italian and English. It turned out that Giovanna knew one of the gondoliers, which put them immediately at ease. Together we discussed the story board, the form the program would take. In my prior life, I had been married to a television director in Hollywood, and would accompany him on nearly every aspect of his job, so I knew a bit about shooting a television show.
|Lorenzo Brunello & Bryan Wong|
The crew was respectful and enthusiastic, and we all felt comfortable in their presence. They would phrase their requests, "If you would do us the honor..." It was refreshing to communicate in such a civilized fashion. Bryan Wong, the host, was charming and charismatic, with a vibrant energy that translates well on camera. And, Lorenzo Brunello, the gondolier who was chosen to represent the gondoliers of Venice, was a natural. He was comfortable in front of the camera, and graceful behind the oar. Lorenzo is a seventh-generation gondolier, which means that his great-great-great-great-grandfather was a gondolier!
|Marco Polo's House|
We started shooting on Thursday, July 26, bright and early. Lorenzo showed Bryan how to clean the gondola and get it ready for the day. Then it was off to scout the area where the actual gondola rowing instruction would take place, down by Santi Giovanni e Paolo. We followed the crew in a boat taxi, the Rialto Bridge majestic in the background, past the Malibran Theatre where the house of Marco Polo -- the great Venetian traveler who visited Kublai Khan in China -- once was. Just navigating down there in the morning, with the canals clogged by transport boats, ambulances and boat taxis, made me appreciate the gondolier's work more.
Then it was down to San Pietro di Castello to visit a squero where gondolas are still constructed by hand out of wood to this very day. It was a great privilege to be allowed to take a peek inside. For the first time I was able to look the front of a gondola square in the eye, and notice how it is built asymmetrically to balance the use of one man and one oar.
|Gondolas under construction|
Next it was lunch at Taverna del Campiello Remer, where the owner, Angela Cook, had graciously allowed the crew to shoot inside. Gondoliers often eat together, but again, it was difficult to find anyone willing to actually be filmed doing such a thing. That Stefano and Marco arrived and made the scene work better than expectations was much appreciated.
|Stefano, Lorenzo, Bryan & Marco at Taverna del Campiello Remer|
By that time, the Venetian gondoliers had bonded with the crew from Singapore. I have been on enough television sets to know that either happens or it doesn't, and if it does, that energy transports to the screen. The Singapore crew was professional and friendly, with a relaxed attitude that made everyone feel comfortable and at ease. And Bryan Wong had the unique capacity to create interesting conversations spontaneously and naturally, always with a sense of humor.
Next, it was time for the rowing lesson! Back down to Santi Giovanni we went. Lorenzo taught Bryan how to balance on the back of the gondola, watch out for boat traffic in front and behind, all the while rowing the sleek, black boat with one oar. It was very difficult to do, but Bryan was game, and he soon managed to row without assistance.
After all that work, everyone agreed to call it a day, and I went back by gondola with Lorenzo to the Santa Sofia Traghetto, the co-op that we had been working with. I noticed a particular gondola docked there that I had seen before, embellished with astrological symbols, and asked whose it was. Lorenzo said it belonged to Simone. I said, "Simone! He's the one who started it all when I interviewed him two years ago." I found Simone, and reminded him of how we had spoken in July, 2010, and how that conversation had now progressed to a television show in July, 2012. It was the perfect end to the first day of shooting.
The next day, July 27, was my birthday, which started off with me bumping into three of my favorite Carabinieri in Venice, right at the Rialto Bridge. I told them they were a regalo di Dio, a gift from God, and they laughed. Then, over by Santi Apostoli, Giovanna and I were interviewed by Bryan as we got off the gondola with Giovanna speaking in fluent Chinese! To hear a Venetian woman chattering in Chinese was a real delight. Not only does Giovanna have a strong scholarly background in the Chinese language and culture, she specializes in Chinese advertising, communication, branding and marketing, and actually lived in Beijing for more than four years. When he found out it was my birthday, Bryan sang Happy Birthday in Chinese!
We had lunch at Trattoria da Rino, a family-run eatery that can be found just before you cross the bridge to Santi Apostoli. I must confess that after 14 years of living in Venice, I had never eaten there before, even though it has been right in front of my eyes. It was fantastic, simple, home-cooked Venetian food. Lorenzo ordered the gnocci and gave us all a sample, and I have to say it was one of the best gnocci I have ever tasted. Bryan said it was like eating a pillow, it was so soft and fresh. After lunch, we all whizzed off to the islands of Burano and Torcello, with Lorenzo driving Bryan in his small motorboat while the rest of us followed in the boat taxi driven by Davide, who's got to be one of the most simpatico boat taxi drivers in town.
Burano is famous for its brightly colored houses and its lace-making, while Torcello once held the largest population of the Republic of Venice, but these days has a population of around 20 or so people. The main attraction on Torcello is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, which was founded in 639 and has a spectacular Madonna over the altar, as well as a rather frightening mosaic depiction of the Last Judgment on the wall.
|Lili & Lorenzo|
It was on Torcello that we said good-bye to Lorenzo and Lili, who zoomed off in Lorenzo's motorboat to Piazza San Marco, while the crew filmed some more shots of Torcello. Then we, too, sped back to Piazza San Marco, across the lagoon of Venice, the rays of the sun turning the tips of the waves into sparkling gems.
It truly was a La Serenissima experience, a peaceful exchange of cultures, a give and take, ebb and flow. I learned so much from both the gondoliers and the Sinapore crew -- it was the perfect way to start a new solar year!
|Cat Bauer - Venice Lagoon|
UPDATE: HERE IS THE LINK TO THE FOLLOW-UP OF THIS STORY:
Ciao from Venezia,