In Defense of the Smell

Since I started the school year again, and thus, started work again, I’ve had a lot of questions about my summer vacation. What, you don’t think teachers do that as much as students do? Naturally one of the questions that comes up is a common one for any long term traveller: “What was your favorite X that you went to?” In my case, that question has turned into “What was your favorite city that you went to in Italy?”

Tough question. Its one that I can answer four or five different ways. Favorite for the art? Favorite for the food? Favorite for the experience I had there? Favorite overall?

When that question rolls around, the answer is pretty easy: Venice. I’ve gotten mixed reactions from others when I’ve said that. For me, hands down, I fell in love with this city. It’s one of those moments where you click with a place, even if it’s radically different from what you know. There’s some quality, what ever it is, that sparks an experience that says, with all your faults, and with all your charms, I’ll love you like family or a lover. It happens to many, and not necessarily about traveling. But you know when you jive with something.

Jiving without other tourists sometimes only involves walking a bridge or two away. Took this during Redentore.

My mixed return responses have included everything for confirmation on the beauty of the city, the charm, the gorgeousness, and the laguna to, on the other hand, some questions about it’s not so savory qualities:

Didn’t you think it was too touristy? Wasn’t it crowded? Hot? Humid? What about the smell? What, you didn’t like Florence better?!

No actually, I didn’t like Florence better, but I did get an awesome leather jacket there and saw some awesome art. I didn’t like Florence’s character that much, but I’d go again to see more of the art. For Pete’s sake, it’s not like I’m comparing it to Napoli.

And the tourists? Hey… I went to school and lived in Santa Cruz, California. Beach town. Boardwalk. Tourist season so high in summer going over Highway 17 to leave the area in the evening becomes a task of Herculean proportions. I could hear the screams from the Giant Dipper roller coaster in my kitchen. I walk through the throngs of visiting parents in fall and spring, the mass of tourists in summer, and laugh at the ones who come into our favorite watering hole to try to pick up local girls. It never works.

This was taken July 4th, 1946. The tourists have still not dissipated.

We rolled with it. Got season passes to the boardwalk. Went to the beach in winter or at night (the water’s warmer then anyways). Avoid some of the big spots in peak hours and lived our lives in an apartment right off downtown just fine. No, not nearly the same amount of tourists as little Venice gets in a year, but having to wade through touristy throngs on the weekend of a festival is like, whatever to me. It’s just something you deal with, and thankfully winter rolls along and it’s beautiful.

Same for bustling around San Francisco really, although I think the quality of tourism is, shall we say, distilled when you’re dealing with beaches, inappropriate clothing for beach goers, too much imbibement, and vacationers in a very small radius that includes one’s own domicile. It’s easier in the city because it’s bigger and you know tracts to avoid if you don’t want to deal with tourists or, if you want to “be touristy” and go to, say, Pier 39 or Coit Tower, you know what you’re dealing with.

A statue of that damn Genovese, Christoforo Columbus, and Coit Tower.

On that note, why is it that if you live somewhere you rarely go to enjoy those spots until visiting relatives come in and propriety demands you go see them? My fiancé still has not gone to Coit Tower, but I did when my father came for a visit. Go figure.

Anyways, that nixes the question about tourists. I am not phased by them or crowded streets from time to time. As for the heat, well it was summer. It was a Mediterranean climate. We’ve got one of those in most of California too. In the Köppern climate classification system, which rates climates according to temperature, precipitation, and then seasonality of precipitation, we in the Bay differ from the Laguna only in seasonality. We get our water in winter, they all year. San Francisco is Csa (dry summer subtropical, or Mediterranean). Venice is Cfa, Humid subtropical – too much summer rain to be included as Mediterranean. In the scheme of things, it’s pretty similar. For comparison, San Jose is Csb, meaning something along the lines of “no fog and annoyingly hotter.”

A View of the Riverwalk, not my photo.

Most of the Southern U.S. is categorized as Cfa as well and really typifies the hot and humid summer in the American mindset. I was born and spent my early childhood in San Antonio, Texas, Cfa, which has the cute nickname of “Venice of the West” for its Riverwalk. I will admit to having a major flashback of watching the boat tour full of tourists go under one of the bridges as a child while I was watching the vaporetto full of tourists go under the Rialto. I was never quite able, as a kid, to get anyone to believe me that the water goes right up to the top of the sidewalks, and I hadn’t seen it for years spent away from my birth city. A comrade with family in San Antonio said simply, “Venice will do that to you. It will make you think of San Antonio.”

A stock photo of the Riverwalk. It has one of the touristy boats going under a bridge. My childhood, right there.

Homeyness away from home, the ability to find the familiarity in the foreign, to see us all as humans in the same place and not solely as “different” is I think something that leads to feeling a place of belonging as a nomad and quite possibly is something that could unite us as human beings. We should try to think this way more often. But I digress- again.

So triggered childhood memories, being okay with tourists, comfortability with the weather patterns, an explanation for Florence, and I’m left with, drumroll, the smell.

The smell.

I’ve gotten this one from a few people. People on the internet and on TV and in Rick Steve’s describe it too. It’s a smell that many describe as “sewage” or “waste” or “like a toilet.” It’s a smell, that while not everywhere, occasionally raises a monstrous hand up to slap you in the face. It has something to do with the water. For American city dwellers, its like walking over a sewer in summer. It gets hot and humid down there and the smell wafts up to annoy stock traders on their way to work. For more suburban folk, it must be a sewage leak. Now in some places in the U.S., storm drains and sewers are connected, so some make a case for the water or tide effecting or bringing out the sewage smell. Either way you spell it our, to tourists the smell must be something bad. And sewage related.

When I was in Venice I caught a whiff once or twice of this smell. It was infrequent and not very strong for the most part. But, here’s the thing, I recognized it. That’s not sewage… thats water.

Here’s a little by way of explanation. I live almost directly on the Bay. I can see it from my windows, I know when the tide is from cues in the air. I can walk down to the mud flats in low tide, or watch the birds settle on the surface in higher tide. There is a creek that runs directly in front of our house and flows into the bay. Just a block in the other direction is a pond. To the south of us is a tidal flow area that has “seepage” up from the Bay. The development to the north of us is separated by another creek. Water – both creek and Bay – is around us on most sides. We are in a perfect spot to witness the formation of marsh when a watershed hits the brine. We’ve got one just up the way.

Some days, especially in summer, when the water’s right and the heat is high, the mud begins to smell. It sort of follows the tide, but not always. There are other factors unknown to us. There was one summer where it was so bad, the neighborhood complained to the city that something must be leaking from the water treatment plant. There wasn’t, and it often smells fine there and bad here, or fine here and bad there. The smell occurred on such a regular basis that we joked each time that the mafia must have dumped another body again. The smell you see wasn’t sewage per se. It doesn’t smell like a toilet, or a garbage can or landfill. It doesn’t smell like a sewage treatment plant. It smells like a compost bin. It smells of rot. It smells like decay. If you’ve ever done a necropsy in bio class, it smells rather like a dead body. Perhaps a dead body in a compost bin.

That’s our smell. Venice was not nearly as bad as that.

But our smell comes and goes. It is clearly of natural origin and has nothing (we think) to do with the mafia. It is not usually at “dead body” level of stink and usually the fresh Bay breeze and smell of salt, fresh water, and living plants is enough to kill the smell. It was like that in Venice too. Take a strong whiff of the fresh Laguna air and your troubles melt.

Smell It.

Both San Franciscans and Venetians knew this when it came to their prisons. Compare the torturous placement of Alcatraz, where you could hear the parties and smell the food in San Francisco, treated to a perfect view of freedom, to the chap who gets the paradiso room up in the leads, the VIP wing of the prisons in the Doge’s Palace. That chap gets a room with a view of the laguna and the ristorante below. Imagine the sweet smell of clean salty air, the smell of someone cooking up some shrimp scampi, the shouts of workers at the dock, music from some performance. Which place am I describing? You decide.

Smell it Part II: Decker Island pic from the Examiner. Decker is in the Delta, surrounded by a slough. It has a lovely beach... when the tide is right that is..

To make a long story short, don’t smack on the smell. Venice was built on islands in a lagoon in a delta where rivers meet the sea. If you think the smell is a unique Venetian property, I invite you to go on a boating trip in the Sacramento delta here just up the bay from us, go up to the intertidal flats of Suisun, or perhaps go for a stroll along the Bay Trail in the South Bay where the salt flats are. I invite you to get to know your water system. The San Francisco Bay, an interconnected group of several bays where the Sacramento meets the ocean is a large part of our lives and yet, for many of us, we are unfamiliar with it’s life. Like Venetians, we too live on a beautiful, shallow estuary that we’ve modified or protected to fit our needs over the centuries. Go get in touch with it. Get in a boat, or go for a swim. look at the color of water. Feel the fog. Smell the air. It’s good for you.

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~ by glasslajora on October 2, 2010.

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