Strange Geographies: Searching for the "Real" Venice

It's been said that Venice is not just a city of museums, but a museum city, a place to be visited and appreciated but not lived in, where on a sunny summer day tourists can outnumber locals two-to-one. When I announced my trip to Venice a few weeks ago and asked our readers what they'd like me to look into while there, several people voiced the same question: what's the real Venice like? How do the locals live? What goes on beyond the crowds and behind the touristy facade?

What I discovered was an endangered species: the native Venetian. The shrinking but still vital population hovers around 60,000, which is just half of what it was 40 years ago, when the city began flooding regularly. And it's not just millionaire playboys in vacation homes, either: there are working class people, kids, college students, and old folks, and to find out more about how they live, I did two things that most visitors to Venice don't do: I stayed the night -- most tourists are day-trippers who come and go with the sun, only a few hours to "see Venice" before their train or cruise ship shoves off -- and I got as far away from the Piazza San Marco, Venice's tourist-thronged version of Disneyland, as I could. This is what I found.

The signs for Piazza San Marco are everywhere, and they take every conceivable form, from official-looking placards to handwritten signs taped in windows to graffiti spray-painted by locals, undoubtedly sick of being asked, in halting, guide-book Italian, Scusi, dov'e Piazza San Marco? My strategy was simple: whenever I saw one of these signs, I turned on my heel and headed in the opposite direction. This resulted in my getting hopelessly, desperately lost over and over -- truly accurate maps of Venice do not seem to exist -- but I would argue that the only way to begin to find Venice is to get lost in it.

I started out early in the morning, and discovered the city in its native state, before most tourists had arrived or emerged yawning from their hotels. Around the tourist hotspots, it was almost like going backstage at the opera before a performance and watching the actors warm up -- Venice puts on a mask for its visitors, with singing gondoliers and dueling orchestras playing across piazzas from one another -- and I saw vendors pushing souvenir-laden carts down narrow alleys, waiters walking with starched white jackets slung over their shoulders, and gondoliers who hadn't yet donned their signature stripey shirts, reading the paper in their boats while waiting for just-bolted espressos to kick in.

There were regular people walking to work, who you could easily tell were regular people because they weren't armed with cameras or standing in the middle of a crowded bridge, poring over maps. Also, the Venetians seem to be universally stylish: even the vaporetto (waterbus) drivers wore trendy sunglasses and combed their hair like male models.

And there is the sunrise, when the city is at its most sublime and photogenic.

It was when I stopped seeing signs for San Marco -- or any signs in English -- that I found some of the regular, "working class" neighborhoods, if you can call them that. The eastern parts of Castello and northern parts of Canareggio are where ostentatious palaces are replaced by modest blocks of houses, leaning toward one another over narrow courtyards, and where you only hear Italian being spoken (or, if you can recognize it, the Venetian dialect), and where no one seems to be in a hurry. I spent a lot of time wandering these streets, trying to get a sense of how people lived.

The houses are small, and made even smaller because many people don't use the ground floors, which can flood several times a year. They're also dark, with windows that get sun only a few hours a day. Perhaps as a result -- and also because they live in one of the world's most beautiful and atmospheric cities -- the city itself becomes an extension of their living space. The first signal of a neighborhood street are lines of colorful laundry strung between buildings.

On warm days -- this is northern Italy, remember, and it can be cold and rainy six months out of the year -- people congregate outside, soaking up the sun and hanging out with friends. (Hey there, sailor.)

Old folks watch the world go by in parks and in sunny spots in campos. The native population of Venice is aging rapidly -- 25% are over age 65.

But there are plenty of kids around, too, who you can hear playing from blocks away when school lets out in the afternoon. These little girls came tearing around the corner so fast that they almost knocked this lady over -- and without even a permesso, signora!

The anachronistic insanity of texting atop an ancient wellcap kinda blew my mind.

It's not uncommon to find people -- not homeless! -- sleeping on park benches. Or making out on them; canoodling was rampant.

Venetian-style rowing is a huge deal, and something a lot of kids learn to do from an early age. They compete in regattas like American kids compete in tennis tournaments and go out for little league.

One thing that all visitors to Italy obsess about is the food, so I wanted to know how the locals eat and drink. While tourists tend to indulge in two-hour, five-course meals -- I saw more than one person stumbling along holding their gut, saying "I'll die if I keep eating this way!" -- many locals eat much more informally, at unpretentious osterie (pub-restaurants) and bacari (neighborhood bars, AKA "houses of bacchus") where you order at the bar and eat either standing up or at improvised tables. (This dude is so over it.)

Lunch often consists of chicchetti, which are essentially Venetian tapas -- something I'd never encountered in any other part of Italy, and one of my favorite new foods (not that I can find them in the states). They're cheap, fresh and fast, and range from basic bar snacks like spicy meatballs and sardine-wrapped olives to mind-blowing local specialties like squid in ink and lagoon shrimp wrapped in pancetta. You can also get sandwiches (panini and regular) and crostini, and if you don't order a glass of wine or prosecco (a regional specialty) to wash it all down, you'll earn a suspicious glare from whoever's manning the bar.

Speaking of wine and prosecco, it was all amazing: abundant, fresh and inexpensive. While tourists lug home bottles of the relatively expensive stuff, locals buy table wine by the liter at BYOB wine shops, their walls lined with a dozen or more varieties in barrels, dispensed by hose into whatever container you like (empty water bottles are popular), for as little as 3 euro per liter. I went to one with some friends, and the owner happily poured us five or six sample glasses for free to help us decide which kind to buy a few liters of. I'm telling you, if they had this where I live, I'd be an alcoholic.

It may be no coincidence, then, that the Veneto region has one of the highest concentrations of alcoholics in Italy. Venice seems to be a city built for drinking: its streets lined with charming little bars dispensing good, cheap wine; it's also the city that invented the Bellini, and if that weren't enough, and there are very few ways to get a DUI in Venice, where most wheeled conveyances are outlawed. (You can't even ride a bike.) Venice may have pioneered the pub crawl -- its version is called the giro d'ombra, which means, roughly translated, wheel of shade, a tradition that stretches back 600 years to the days when merchants from the fish and vegetable market would take a break from the heat of the day to rest in the shade -- the ombra -- a term which eventually became synonymous with wine. (So when you're asking for a glass of wine in Venice, you're literally asking for a glass of shade. I like that.)

One bar I went into a few times had its ceiling lined with little jugs, each one with a name painted on it. When I asked the bartender what this was about, she told me they belonged to her regulars -- folks over 60 who came in for glasses of wine throughout the day. Some of them, she said, would stop in 20 or 30 times a day, having just one glass each time, bolted while standing at the bar. Some of Venice's retirees, it seems, are living a perpetual gire d'ombra.

When they're not snacking on world-class seafood tapas in osterie, locals get their food from neighborhood markets, butchers and corner grocery stores. You never have to buy food more than a day or two before you use it, because the store is often downstairs, or just around the corner.

The markets are eye-popping, especially the famous fish and vegetable markets of the Rialto, which have been arrayed along the banks of the Grand Canal for nearly a thousand years, and rated mention in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. It's like the craziest farmer's market you've ever seen, with seasonal specialties like white asparagus and baby artichokes.

At least half of it is fish -- cuttlefish, octopus, live crabs, and plenty of things I can't name, most of which is delivered fresh from the lagoon and the nearby Adriatic via fleets of fishermen whose families have worked those waters for generations.

The city begins to quiet down when the cruise ships leave, obscene floating cities that dominate the horizon of the Guidecca Canal on their way back to the Adriatic, their decks lined with regretful passengers who only got a few hours to explore a city that would take years to fully grasp.

Tired and hungry on the first night, I head to a spot famed for its nightlife in the Dorsoduro, the Campo Santa Margherita, which unlike most of the city is thronged till all hours with students from local universities and art schools (of which there are several). I find a butcher-turned-bar whose platters of cured meats Lonely Planet raved about, and which is atmospheric as all get-out, with dim chandeliers illuminating exposed brick walls from the 12th century. The place is jammed and the seating is informal and communal, and the hostess seats me at the end of a wooden table full of Italian college girls. After a glass of wine or two, I find the courage to strike up a conversation in my crappy, broken Italian, only to discover that several of them speak English, and in fact one had been in my hometown, LA, just weeks prior. (I asked her what she thought of her visit to America, and after enthusing about her trip for awhile, she turned to me with a question: "Why in America do you have so many flags?")

I told them why I'd come to Venice, and they told me that if I wanted to find the "real" city, all I had to do was walk around at night. So I took them at their word, and did just that. A gire d'camera. What I found was a dark, silent place that seemed almost deserted; a completely different city once the tourists had been stripped away. Sure, there were a few restaurants and bars open, but they were like little islands of life in an ocean of quiet.

The only restaurants with business were the local ones; all the touristy places were empty. It was a little eerie, all those tables and chairs and no people.

Gondolas covered up for the night.

Down a dark alley, the sound of running water -- not a canal, but one of Venice's ancient and perpetually-running public fountains, under which people place containers so the stream doesn't eat through the stonework. The water's clean: I saw children filling up water bottles with it, and even tried some myself. Look, Ma: no dysentery!

The question I kept coming back to was: where is everyone? Except in a few neighborhoods, block after block of houses were shuttered and quiet, with no lights on. The streets were empty. And on Sunday, many of the churches were empty, save tourists who wandered in to gawk at painted masterworks on walls and ceilings. Yes, there were still locals living in Venice, but my night walks suggested that they were few and far between.

I looked into it, and learned that people started moving out in droves after the city began flooding in 1966. There was a lot of industrial activity going on at the time, and they dug too many deep wells, which drained the aquifer below the sand and clay and wood pylon foundations of Venice enough to lower the city itself, making it vulnerable to high tides and heavy rains. The ground floors of 16,000 houses became unusable. And over the years, real estate prices have gone through the roof. I lingered in front of a real estate agent's window display, as I always do when exploring new cities, and the prices were comparable to apartments in New York. Want a third-floor walkup with great views of the Grand Canal? You're looking at a million-plus Euros. As a result, a lot of the people who work in Venice live elsewhere, commuting from towns on the mainland or via waterbus from nearby places like the Lido.

But let's say you're in a daring mood, and you've got a million Euros to blow on a house in Venice. Chances are it's old, and it's going to need fixing up at some point, like this place, whose balcony is being held up by planks and bars:

The logistics of repairing these places are nightmarish. You can't just go to Home Depot. Everything has to be hand-delivered by boat. Really heavy stuff might require a crane, which has to be delivered on another boat. One thing you'll see early in the morning are boat deliveries, which drive home what the added cost of doing business here must be like. Here's one, complete with Venetian plumber's crack!

Once you get whatever it is you're shipping near its destination, you've got to unload, which is a two- or three-person job, with one guy standing on the boat and tossing the goods to someone on the street.

Then you've got to cart it through the city over rampless stair bridges, arched like a cat's back and often swarming with distracted tourists. It's endless, back-breaking labor.

Taken together, what it means is that Venice is on a course to become a city devoid of actual residents -- sometime in the next thirty years, says the city's housing chief, if the current trend isn't reversed. If that happens, it really will become Disneyland, and the "real" Venice will disappear forever. And that would be a great loss both to Venice and its visitors.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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