An ode to the delivery men of Venice, the hardest working in the business
An ode to Venetian delivery men, the hardestworking labourers in the business
One sunny August morning outside the Trattoria Ali D’Oro along the Fondamenta de l’Osmarin on the island of Venice, as tourists and locals alike drink espressos and ash cheap cigarettes on terracotta patio tables, two muscular gentlemen in the brown shorts and button-downs — the universal uniform of UPS — rest momentarily against the tower of packages they are portering across the city by handcart. Already drenched in sweat — Italy, like the rest of Europe, is in the midst of a freak heatwave — they breathe deep, collect themselves, and then continue with their labour. They strain to maneuver the unwieldy cart up an alley. They heave it up mightily over the stone steps of the bridge that crosses the Rio di S. Provolo canal to Calle de la Madonna, another narrow alley packed densely with sightseers and café patrons puzzled as they watch them wearily pass.
These are the delivery men of Venice.
Safe to say they are the hardestworking delivery men anywhere in the world — because in Venice there is no alternative than to deliver goods by boat and by foot. There are of course no cars or trucks or vans in the city; there are no roads, only an endless procession of tiny canals and the labyrinthine alleyways that line and cross them. A mere 50,000 men and women reside on the island full-time. But Venice is overwhelmed with visitors year-round, and their demands on the local economy are enormous. An empire of bustling shops and cafés and trattorias must be equipped to serve the more than seven-million guests of the island annually, and the great many foods and beverages and scintillant souvenirs they require.
Businesses need goods replenished. Locals need mail. Even someone crashing overnight in an Airbnb might want to order something on Amazon while in town and, impossible though it is to imagine logistically, it can be done, and reliably. It works, as so much in Venice does, through a combination of implacable tradition maintained over centuries and a tenaciousness of character than must be in the national blood. Most of the men who deliver packages for a living in Venice — in common with most of the men who captain gondolas — are dyed-in-the-wool Venetians. Also like gondoliers, Venetian delivery men must know the landscape of the city like the backs of their hands, navigating the shortest route at a glance, without stopping to think about it or map it out. If you have walked at all through Venice, you know how bewildering its geography can be. They’ve memorized it.
The extremely labour-intensive portering process — in which two men wheel the deliveries through alleys and drag them up innumerable bridges — represents only one step in the complicated undertaking. First the delivery men unload the day’s goods from larger shipment vessels when they arrive from the mainland at Tronchetto terminal on the westernmost tip of the island. Loaded on the smaller boats required to squeeze through Venice’s slender canals, packages make their slow and steady way toward moorings more proximate to their final destinations. Lagoon traffic can be a nightmare of jams and bottlenecks, an aqueous gridlock as vexing as it is unpredictable. It’s the same pain for anything delivered: pizza dough and pharmaceuticals, Italian-flag keychains and bottles of red wine. IKEA delivers furniture to Venice — the same way, by the same people. The cost of transportation on the island is 40 per cent higher than on the mainland.
It must be unimaginably difficult to be a delivery man in Venice, needless to say. Catch one struggling with a refrigerator one afternoon and you have an instinct to lunge over and lend a hand: it seems a madness that there is no better way than for this poor soul to lug the thing around like that. It’s also part of the old, almost suspended-in-time allure of the city itself, modernized in many respects but owing to its geographic makeup at the same time inveterately ancient. Plus there remains for the delivery men an aura of esteem that is unique among their colleagues and peers elsewhere in the trade.
Delivery men in Venice take their vocation very seriously indeed, and they are accorded respect commensurate to the work demanded by the role. We can take comfort, sipping espresso and idly observing, that they are beloved for what makes them strange and remarkable.
THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE THAN TO DELIVER GOODS BY BOAT AND BY FOOT.