When one first steps into Venice, it seems like a fairy-tale world of its own. It appears glossily delicate as though it has been preserved intact from the damages of time. But is this as much a perfect facade as that of cities like Los Angeles?
LA is the home of the most beautiful celebrities and yet is the most unequal city in the second most unequal country in the world (topped only by Portugal). There are the hugely rich and the stunningly poor, but the reality is hidden under a veneer of perfection. The same seems to be true of Venice. Whilst some of the restaurants are owned by hugely wealthy businessmen, most of the people who work in Venice live further out. The tourists, including myself, see only a limited reality. I talked to a man living in Venice about the facade of perfection and it has made me consider the other types of privilege I have noticed while travelling in Venice.
1- Wealth privilege
Venice is full of tourists. I heard many American accents talking about how much expensive mobile data they had used and people eating at pricey water restaurants. People wander around the streets loosely dangling their selfie-sticks. Venice has always been ornate, even ostentatious. Historically, it has enjoyed its imperial prowess and is still today a city that allows people to casually flaunt their wealth.
Whilst travelling, we have been trying to save money by getting cheaper tickets and using supermarkets rather than eating out all the time. And I have worked and saved in order to be able to come here. But I cannot pretend that there aren’t certain things in my life that have made travel more accessible to me, not least of which is having a job that allows me to take three consecutive weeks off.
This type of holiday is still not possible for a lot of people. For many, the relative strength of the euro currency or the cost of visas to the Schengen area mean that travel is not a reality. While travelling and working in hostels, I have noticed that more tourists travel from certain parts of the world. Our Venetian hostel even had a map for travellers to pin their hometowns on to and it clearly highlighted this inequality; Africa and South America were noticeably empty in comparison with Europe and Asia.
Sitting on the steps of San Maria Di Salute and admiring this view, it would be pretty hard to argue that I am not extremely fortunate to be able to be here.
When we boarded the sleeper train from Paris to Venice, the conductor walked around to check everyone’s documents. Since we were due to to cross into Switzerland and then Italy in the middle of the night, he asked to take my passport for the authorities so that I would not have to wake up. Although this was routine, it was my only form of identification so I didn’t want to risk it getting lost. I would wake up, I said. As it turns out, we crossed two borders and were not woken up at all. The conductor had promised to describe us and, true to his word, he had probably described the people who had suspiciously not given up their passports as white, British citizens. Not so suspicious after all. And the officials had not thought twice about checking. An Athenian woman we met on the train who regularly travelled that route, recounted that border control had lost no time banging down the cabin doors for an African girl in a similar situation. Once again, our privilege benefited us in travel, where it would hold back others.
I also know that the description of us as young women aided us in crossing the border. In this case, however, it is not so much privilege as benevolent sexism.
Whenever I tell people that I travel alone, an intense expression of worry passes over their face. Whilst I dismiss a lot of people’s fears as needless, there is certainly truth in the idea of concern for lone female travellers. I have certainly felt vulnerable in some situations entirely because of my gender. When I started this trip, I thought that I would feel largely safe in Europe and that sexism would not be significantly worse than in Britain. And, true enough, I have not experienced anything truly terrible. But the same basic level of street harassment, stares (Italians have an extremely unnerving, sexually aggressive way of stating) and benevolent sexism has combined to make me feel vulnerable as a female traveller. Whereas in the UK, I might challenge these things, here I feel unable.
I notice these things largely from a traveller’s perspective, but I can also see that Venice seemingly has no female gondoliers, only one female Vaporetto conductor, no female street souvenir sellers, no female water police and no female water postmen. It made me wonder what it is like to live as a woman in Venice.
I noticed that several bridges in Venice had ramps across part of them. I considered that this might be to allow reconstruction of part of it, since the Rialto and others were in a sad state of repair. When l declared them ugly, my sister suggested they might be an attempt to make Venice more wheelchair accessible. It was not until then that I realised how stunningly oblivious to this privilege I had been. Not being directly affected by it and no longer having close family members who are, I had been climbing bridges and jumping onto boats in blissful ignorance.
When wandering the streets of Venice, I heard more English being spoken than Italian. English is the universal language. It is taught from the age of six is many countries and whenever we have got stuck in Europe, there has always been a helpful English speaker nearby. Sometimes travelling to other cities does not even feel like you are abroad. But I can’t complain. I am hugely privileged to be able to speak English without any effort. For people without this privilege, it must be so much harder to travel. Hence the number of multi-lingual Europeans I have met in the last week.
So what am I trying to say? That I am immensely lucky? Well, yes and I am very grateful. That privilege is bad? Well, yes but what can we do about it?
When I first arrived in Venice, I spent a significant amount of time feeling guilty for my English speaking privilege. But, ultimately, I realised that this was not changing the situation of privilege. So I decided that the best I could do was to notice and check my privilege. By attempting to speak and improve my Italian, I felt that I was at least not mistaking my privilege for entitlement. And that, really, is all you can do.
This is another article I later found that comments on similar issues surrounding privilege and travel and it is well worth a read.
(Also, follow Gloria’s blog because she is a lady who has her head on her shoulders right).