Travel: Venice for the happy paddler

Anyone who has ever heard of the romantic city of Venice knows about the popular gondola rides.

But who are the talented drivers who navigate the narrow canals on these slim boats?

Gabriele Foccardi is certainly a man of the world. He speaks Chinese, has had a book published on Eastern ships, has travelled the globe and tells it like it is.

The 56-year-old Venetian also manages to keep an eye on the All Blacks, favourites of his since he played fly-half for his local rugby team.

So how did he come to be balancing hoards of tourists through the "streets" of Venice on his sleek, black gondola? The answer is a simple case of "it's in the blood".

"My father and grandfather were both gondola drivers and I took the place of my father when he retired," Gabriele explains.

The Italian name for someone steering a gondola is a gondoliere, and the position is a revered one.

"When I began it was possible to do my job only if your father or uncle were already gondolieri," Gabriele recalls.

"In some way was a tradition. Now there is a school for young practising."

So will his own children take up the noble art? Gabriele laughs.

"I have a daughter and she has another job. She never been interested in gondolas!"

When I ask if he ever considered anything else, Gabriele is quick to point out that an office job is not for him.

"People in Italy usually think to become astronaut, doctor, teacher, football player, singer.

"Most of them are reduced to working in a bank or in a public office with boring colleagues and bloody directors or chairmen.

"I decided to be free to choose and arrange my life by myself, free to decide if today I want to work or to play tennis, if I am tired I can choose to listen to the Rolling Stones or Vivaldi.

I hate offices or any other restricted area, open air with sun and water is my natural place and here I meet good and interesting people.

"Teacher, doctor, officer? No - non - no thanks."

But don't let Gabriele's love of freedom fool you into thinking he doesn't work hard. His average day involves strenuous physical activity (pushing a gondola is no easy ride), and he usually works nine-hour days with breaks. He admits that sometimes it's hard-going.

"It's terribly hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and sometimes I am too kind to unkind clients."

This kind of work can be kept up only a few days a week, normally three days a week in summer and only two in winter.

Though Gabriele says he earns enough for a high standard of living, he believes money isn't everything.

"I have had the chance to live the life in the way I want."

He does, however, draw the line at singing.

"I don't understand why people want us to sing.

"This happened in some movie of the 60s, featuring Alberto Sordi.

"There was a chorus of real gondola drivers 40 to 45 years ago when I was a young guy. I knew them, but none of them are still in existence, they are now probably drinking and singing in heaven.

"I never sang, I am not able to do and I will never sing ... in gondola at least."

So what does a gondoliere do on his own holidays?

You might have guessed: he gets as far away from tourists as possible.

"We live in a town that has 14 million tourists a year," Gabriele emphasises, saying he and his wife prefer to holiday on remote tropical islands.

"Travelling is learning," he explains. "It's enjoying places, food, people, music."

So next time you hop on board in Venice, take note of the person pushing the pole - they probably have a tale to tell ... and whatever you do, don't ask them to sing for you.

- Hamilton News

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