Stirring up the waters

Venice's first female gondolier is making waves -- and not everyone likes it.

Published May 15, 2007 1:33PM (EDT)

Ah, Venice. City of water, city of light and city, apparently, of sexist gondoliers. Monday's New York Times reports that Alexandra Hai has become the first woman to be allowed to paddle around the Italian city's canals. Or, as the Times puts it, "sort of."

Hai got permission to carry passengers from a specific hotel, but isn't allowed to take anyone else. In fact, she claims that police often pull her over to make sure that she hasn't picked up any illegal guests.

Why is Hai such a big deal? She claims it's because she's a woman. Other gondoliers say it's because she's a crappy gondola driver.

"She needs to look in the mirror and accept that she cannot drive," said Roberto Luppi, the charming president of the gondoliers association, reports the Times. He points out that she failed her gondolier driving test four times. She claims three of the four tests were rigged.

OK, maybe she's a crappy gondolier. (You'd think her guests would complain if she rammed a 35-foot-long boat into the Rialto Bridge, but whatever.) That doesn't excuse this quote: When Luppi was asked about Hai's accusations that she'd been physically threatened by other gondoliers, he said, "After a person accuses gondoliers of being racists and sexists, what does she expect? ... That they are supposed to give her kisses?"

Uh, no. Actually, if you accuse people of being racist and sexist (Hai is originally from Germany), you'd expect them to act pretty much the same way Luppi is acting: as if they're racist and sexist. (Also, the "kisses" remark would probably get you sued for sexual harassment, but that's another matter.) And I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that if you were trying to defend yourself against Hai's claims, you might want to try denying that there were threats to begin with. Instead, Luppi basically acknowledged that Hai was being threatened because she's a woman -- and said that she deserves it.

Don't get me wrong -- I like Venice. I mean, how can a city with so many canals and cappuccinos be entirely wrong? But it doesn't have such a great history of gender equality; until eight years ago, no women were allowed to wait on customers in St. Mark's Square. And as the Times points out, it's an exceptionally fragile city, with a population that's one-third of what it was in 1950, and should be working on retaining people, not pushing them away. Maybe the gondoliers should just be thankful that they're not in America: If we had canals, not only would there be female gondoliers, but in Vegas, they'd be topless. That'd be sure to cause some stiff competition.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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