With their straw hats and their stripy shirts, the gondoliers lining the canals of Venice are proud members of one of Italy’s oldest and most impenetrable clubs. Each holds the coveted gondolier licence, the prize reward for lengthy training and exams, and many were born into gondolier families.
Not so for Alex Hai. Born in 1960s Hamburg, she studied film in San Francisco before a research trip to Venice led to a dramatic career shift.
“It was not really my plan...it was like destiny,” she told The Local at Venice’s Jarach Gallery, which is currently exhibiting a series of photographs of Hai at work.
“A film production offered me some research work and sent me here, then everything turned in a different direction,” she says of her trip to Venice 18 years ago.
“I wanted to see the gondolier’s perspective of the city...while I was doing that, the gondolier offered for me to become one,” Hai remembers.
A strong rapport with a progressive gondolier will only go so far, however.
Hai took up his offer and began training at one of Venice’s gondolier stations, but failed the exam to gain a license.
“Those people who were positive about the idea of having a woman doing the job all got kicked out just before I did my first exams,” she says.
“At first, I thought it was maybe my fault, but then I realized it had nothing to do with the skills.”
Hai repeated the exam unsuccessfully and the gondolier’s association has understandably contested her suggestion of prejudice.
Despite not gaining a licence she began working privately for a hotel, touring guests around Venice, which she says was allowed legally but had not been tried before.
Hai’s new-found employment caused waves in the city’s waterways, leading to a court battle over her right to work privately. She won the case in 2007 and has been paddling tourists through the city ever since.
'It’s like playing the violin'
Despite describing the life of a gondolier as “magical” and “like poetry”, Hai admits to having “good days and bad days” on the water.
“One of the most difficult things to learn is your physical capability for the day...At the beginning you can get exhausted very quickly without understanding where it’s coming from,” she says.
It takes about an hour to bail out a rain-filled gondola and high winds can make for a stressful journey, according to Hai.
“It’s a very technical affair...you can compare it to playing the violin,” she says. “It’s something very precise which you need to do over and over again in order to get fluid.”
Even after years in the job, Hai says concentration is essential, especially in the crowded canals; in August, a German tourist died after the gondola he was on collided with a waterbus.
But despite such worries, Hai says she still loves her job. “The most enjoyable part is being constantly reminded by my clients how beautiful this city is; they always find something new to ask me or see something I haven’t seen before,” she says.
After early setbacks, she says she has now been accepted by many of the Venetians in the trade and predicts more women will soon be picking up gondola oars.
“Venice is always against change, but the change [in terms of more women becoming gondoliers] is coming,” she says.
Giorgia Boscolo was the first Venetian woman to gain the coveted gondola licence in 2010, while Hai says she has heard “gossip” of other women coming up through the ranks.
As immigration to Italy continues, Hai muses that the canals of Venice could soon be opening up not only to women but a wealth of other nationalities. “For sure, we’re going to have some Asian people doing it in the future, because they’re living here now,” she says.
According to Hai, to suceed they will need “a lot of training - and determination”.