An ode to Vene­tian de­liv­ery men, the hard­est­work­ing labour­ers in the busi­ness

National Post (National Edition) - - THECHATTER - Calum Marsh

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 year­round, 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.



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