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Monday, June 28, 2004

Family vacation notes: the business of gondoliering (via email) 

In recognition of our last night in Venice, the TigerHawk family took an
evening ride on a gondola. The gondolier was a very pleasant fellow in his
mid-thirties who gave a very nice tour - we saw houses where, he alleged,
Marco Polo and Cassanova lived - and answered all my questions about the
business of gondoliering, a subject that first struck my fancy at the age of
14, when my family spent the summer of America's bicentennial in Europe.

There are presently 405 licensed gondoliers in Venice, although the number
will increase to 425 next year when the Venetian authorities issue more
licenses. The trade of gondalier used to be passed down through families
who owned boats, and even today only native Venetians may gondle (if that
isn't a word it should be, in that the gondolier neither rows nor paddles,
to my eye - he gondles).

Today, gondaliers generally work for one of ten different companies. I did
not get into the details of the employment arrangement, but my sense is that
the companies finance the purchase of the boats (a new one costs 27,000
Euros, which is a lot for an ornate canoe) and provide some benefits in
return for a piece of the action.

And what is the action? Our fellow charged us 80 Euros for a ride of 30 or
40 minutes. He said that he does 2 - 5 rides per day, spread out over a 12
hour work day. Accordingly, there must be a lot of hanging out in the
striped shirt and straw boater charming the ladies, and it seems to work - a
strange percentage of the gondolas one sees are filled with women. The work
does look strenuous, though. These guys are all in good shape, with big
forearms and callouses on their palms (our gondoleer showed us his).

Surprisingly, they do good business all year. According to the TigerHawk
gondolier, they are slow in January, get busy for three weeks during
Carnival, and then March is pretty slow, but other than two months in the
first quarter they work pretty regularly all year.

So let's do a little math: If a gondolier works 200 days per year, which is
about normal for a European, and averages three 80 Euro trips per day,
that's 48,000 Euros per year. If he gives up half to his employer (just a
guess), he is pulling down 24,000 Euros a year, which is probably better
than, say, a good manufacturing job pays in Italy. Remember that the fares
are taken in as cash, so I'm guessing their income is - shall we say - less
heavily taxed than the typical wage. And don't forget tips - our fellow
sufficiently impressed Mrs. TigerHawk that she insisted that we give a 20
Euro tip on top of the 80 Euro fare. And who knows what in-kind benefits
might be available to the charming, smooth-talking gondolier about town?

So maybe if you grow up in Venice and you don't want to work in a restaurant
or a retail shop or sweat your fanny off blowing glass on Murano, it isn't
at all a bad deal to be a gondolier.

UPDATED: To correct the repeated misspelling of "gondolier."

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