I was in Venice to look at manuscripts in the Biblioteca Marciana. Venice was crazy expensive, and the grocery stores in the center of the city are all but completely unmarked to keep tourists out. Not that I'd been carrying on with my habit of picking up some groceries to keep in my room when I was going to be in a city for a week or more. I'd learned the day before that the rats of Venice are the size of cats, and are familiar with the operation of hotel room shutters. I'd learned this the hard way, when some of them managed to rattle open the shutter and enter the room while I was sleeping.
The hotel I was staying in wasn't bad, it looked OK (until you hit the breakfast room in the morning, anyway) but Venice is a very old city which is populated by venerable lines of rattus rattus who are huge, will start fights with anything dog-sized or smaller, and know it better than most of the humans, given that much of it is underwater.
I wasn't sleeping heavily as a consequence of the Twilight Zoney experience of knowing that hyper-intelligent rats were plotting ways to get into my room to eat anything they could find. My first clue as to what the morning would hold should have been the mysterious cessation of their pluckings at my window. Any good Kansas girl knows that when the beasties go still and silent, something is afoot. Something might even be two feet.
When I woke up to the sound of tornado sirens (I thought) I was half-awake, half-dreaming. Tornado, I mumbled to myself. Get up.
You're in Venice, said the part of my brain that doesn't require coffee to function. So probably not. Maybe? Who knows.
I called down to the front desk, and the kid who picked up the phone didn't speak English, which was a problem because my knowledge of Italian basically involves a dictionary (and it was too early for that) and/or speaking a mashup of Italian and Latin with a New Jersey housewife accent and hoping for the best (and it's never too early for that).
Me: Che est sonitus molto magnus?!
Him: Sonitus molto magnus? (That's not Italian, but I tried)
Me: WAAOOOUUUHHH WAOOOOHHHHH, il sonitus!
Him: LA SIRENA.
Him: Acqua alta! *click*
He had hung up.
Literally, "high water" in Italian. This is the term used in Venice to signify that tidal waters will rise throughout the city. Extremely high waters are signalled by a citywide network of civil alert sirens.
Life continues more or less as normal during periods of high water. Jewelers stand in their shops (in knee-high galoshes) and greet well-heeled tourists who are there for a week, come hell or high water (and the high waters are most common in November). White-jacketed bellboys in boots sweep the deep water with wide brooms to push back debris. Maitre d's smoke their unfiltered cigarettes and scowl at the diminished foot traffic in the piazza. Tourists shriek and giggle and splash each other with water. Citizens glide through the water in skiffs and fashionable wellies.
In times of high water, the piazza San Marco is criss-crossed by a network of high platforms, enabling tourists to continue their sightseeing even if they didn't pack boots. There are ungainly disposable galoshes for sale in souvenir shops, made out of a hard sole glued into the base of a large, heavy plastic bag kind of dealie. Rubber bands to secure the bag below your knee. Many people just opt for getting wet.
I found a shoe store that had just closed - boxes strewn everywhere, frazzled sales people deciding to just close up and go get a coffee, and it was only around 10 in the morning. One had just locked the door. I knocked on it anyway. The clerk turned around to see me pantomiming every gesture of supplication I could think of, from all the religions.
Me: Pioggia, signora, per favore!
I clasped my hands in prayer and made an El Greco martyr face at her, all pleading eyes and profound abjection. She sighed. I thought I might have a chance.
Me: Trente nova, per favore!
On hearing this, she looked skeptically at my feet. Now she was kind of interested. I probably looked too tall to have trente nova feet.
Yes, fine, I have enormous clodhopper feet, thank you, bless you, and may all the saints smile on you.
She pushed a box of rubber boots through the half open door at me and took my credit card while making a shoo-shoo gesture to keep me outside, not risking the possibility that I might actually come into the store and prove myself to be a problem customer who wanted to try on many boots, or complain, or ask if they came in a higher heel, or suddenly manifest any other signs of touristic entitlement.
It was glorious. My new rubber boots! I slorped and sloshed back to the hotel in my saturated hikers, changed into the wellies and tucked in my jeans, threw on a sweater and hat, and spent the rest of the day taking pictures of the city in deep water, including many fine photos of those suckers on the platforms.
So that is what you need to know:
- Acqua alta = high water
- Sirens = very high water
- Pioggia, per favore! = the difference between a good day and a soggy one.