Alex, first gondoliera in Venice
To ride a Gondola in Venice has been, for centuries, only a masculine profession. When I met the first women Gondoliera under the form of a photo exhibition in an art gallery beside La Fenice theatre, I discovered who is Alex Hai and which has been the importance of her challenge to the millenary rules of La Serenissima Republic. The show offers a syncopated movie and a stunning collection of wider-view colour pictures with, in the middle of the room, a sculpture depicting a dolfin (the gondola’s metal prow) mirrored in the water of the lagoon in a full moon night.
Alex Hai is a stateless who is choosing Venice for accident; she has been a filmmaker and a director based in California.
La Gondoliera, the show, is a collection of vivid frames in which Alex is the subject and, together, the half deux ex machina because the author of the pictures is a 27 years old very talented Italian artist, Claudia Rossini aka Yamaha Hanako.
Hai is the masculine woman torso pictured from the back while looking, night-time, at the Venice fascinating rooftops, or is an underwater half naked body and the one full dressed laid down on the gondola in a very dark nigh: all these life partitions are offered to sacrifice, almost burn on the skin and in a wider sense also concluded, protected from the on-going pain of the defeat.
The gondolier I met for this live interview is the opposite of an evanescent subject: she is a woman with the weight of her choices, a grouchy and sweet girl at the same time having a crazy shock of air and always wearing her professional suite as a standard.
Alex still works as gondolier but in a private way (the definition is gondolier de casada): she does not have a gondola licence and is not being protected by the rules of the ancient profession. You can find her moored closed to the gallery and to Teatro La Fenice.
Both, Yamada and Alex, are concentrated on the take because the sequence of horizontal pictures telling about work/life places and moments under the full moon are a prequel for a full-length feature. A collection of lives and of Alex’s life framed in the form of a cinematic storyboard.
Nobody can fully understand how big is the power the full moon exercising on those silently rowing or riding the canals under the cold stars of the winter or under the hot and humid ones of the summers in Venice: I know this and all the time it happens, I take my boat and go for a ride, I cannot resist to it.
The show at Jarach Gallery has been on until March 29. What will last to it is a catalogue in limited edition plus small pockets containing a collection of postcard/photos. The dream to make a movie will last too.
Let’s properly start from when Alex’s life crossed up with Venice and her next fate.
She saw some kitsch 1960 cufflinks with a gondola, in a small shop in Frisco where she was based at that time, the Nineties. The owner told they’re not for sale but at the end he gifted to her so she interpreted the happening as a sign of the destiny. Then she arrives in Venice, learns to row without applying to one of the city schools but directly on a gondola mooring (at that time at Santa Maria Del Giglio). She is out of the Gondola association given that she never passed the admission examination (she tried it eight times and failed eight times). The last time she applied has been on 2010 when already privately working since four years: she got the same note when she started. She only did again it to show the world that there is something wrong but she will not do it again, it is hurting her soul a lot.
Is it very expensive to keep, repair and restore a gondola?
It is and this is becoming a problem now, one of the main I have today. My gondola is too old to go on and I cannot afford a new one. I am trying to find solutions and I have to solve it this year.
Your story in a few lines
Do I need to find ten lines now or are you gonna go to ask me that step by step?
Does not matter, it is your life, go as you like…
I really hate biographies, can we work this question after? I hate the whole thing about where are you from, you know I am not one of those people who have a family, not one of those people born in the place where they’re, it is very complicated and always freaks me out. Usually people want to have a very quick answer and simply I can’t do it and, also, I am really allergic to how they try immediately to put you in one box given where you’re coming from, you know? It’s very embarrassing. And exactly what I hate: Where are you from, where are you born?
I appreciate the viewpoint anyway…
Ok, let’s make it quicker: my family from my father side is originally from Algeri. I studied cinema in Hamburg and then I wanted to make movies in San Francisco but it didn’t work out and so I came here because of that. I did not want to come here, it is not a dream to become a gondoliera, it was just destiny – it was nothing I wanted to do but something which I needed to do, very different!
I have been in the most beautiful jail of the world from 1996 to 2006, 10 years when I never left the water to go on Terraferma (mainland).
I like the definition “beautiful jail”, I jailed myself too, since two years. I know the story and know what happens here. Which are the troubles do you face everyday to make your business?
Well, this is a very ancient handcraft (the gondola) and so, of course you can meet lots of problems. One is the tides change, one is the cold, the weather, one can be represented by the guests on board sometimes. And one is the ambience.
What has the society done for you?
Mhhh, well, you know, is uneasy to answer. Do you mean right now or in the past?
You can combine both the answers in a continuum, I will appreciate it very much.
Due to your biography, you’re a person coming from another place, from another history…
Well, you know, journalists did a lot for me in first years by telling my story (she shows a big wall with lots of clippings coming from all over the world). That’s one example of society.
Otherwise I think just the mankind is doing a lot for me, so my clients who are giving me much more of what I’m giving them because they remind me everyday that I live in the most beautiful city of the world.
And the Venetians?
There were some exceptional people helping me in the past (you cannot do this alone, obviously) and I got a lot of support and learnt many things from my enemies, more from them than from the friends. And I learnt from my teachers.
And what have you offered to society, given that it means people, institutions, friends and enemies or whatever?
My best gift…I am trying to give dreams, unique experiences, but it is not always working out because is a hard work. My interpretation of my job is to understand what my clients need. I try to give them the right dreams in the one or two hour break we are together.
Is there a (recent or not) happy moment in your life you remember with great pleasure?
The nice happening has for sure been the opening of this show which we have right here, a collection of my whole life to 1996 to nowadays: I have been able to put all I had in a catalogue; it is really as a therapy: I feel free now. There is an Irish sentence, I cannot quote it rightly, it sounds more or less ‘is all here now, is gone’.
Which are the encounters you have in the daily work routine?
I meet the world: any kind of people, from all over the countries. From Arabs to Asian, from Europeans to Australians. No limits to that.
What is your favourite dish? And what is your favourite drink? Do you like to cook?
I am more the one who likes to eat. Venice has some beautiful restaurant, but my secret passions are the nouvelle cuisine and the Californian one. A mix of French and American recipes: something like steaks with complicated sauces.
In Italy everybody is a good cook at home, so unbeatable. In Venice, especially, you can enter any kind of home – does not matter if rich or poor – and eat like a king, because cooking is helped by beautiful ingredients. My cooking matrix is French, indeed.
Drinks: I like Nino Franco’s prosecco or I go also for Veuve Cliquot champagne. I like red wine, nearly all kinds. Italian, French, some Californian also.
A talent (or a quality) you have and one you don’t have.
I would have to have a degree in International diplomacy but I don’t, I can say I am not diplomatic at all: I am too direct. I wanted to do movies and is still something I am very passionate about even if it did not work out. Otherwise I am talented to take life as it comes, easy. Go on!
– – –
Once you’ve read this interview, I can quote for you the entire biography of Ms Alex Hai, this will stun you a lot!
Countless articles have been written about her, with the theme taken up in books, movies and documentaries.
Born in Hamburg in 1967, she has been a child prodigy and penned several plays at the tender age of ten. At 22, her short film, dealing with domestic sexual abuse, caused a stir in her native Germany. The movie won her admission to the Communication Arts course at the Hamburg University – despite Alex not having finished high school. In 1992, Alex moved to San Francisco and worked for prominent film directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Kaufmann and Monica Treut. In 1996 Alex arrived in Venice with a potential movie in mind, only to be seduced by the captivating world of the gondolier and dragged the profession of gondolier into the 21st century.
2 Responses to “Alex, gondoliera”
Alex is transgender and identifies as a male. You should consider editing your story with these facts. http://www.radiolab.org/story/gondo/
Dear Molly, thanks for your kind comment.
This interview has been issued in a different Alex’s lifetime (it was 2014 as you can see from the date of the piece) and I will surely ask Alex if he will like now to change it. I met him everyday in our common city as I was meeting her in the past. I will keep you posted!