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Ode to Acqua Alta: How Venice’s Resilient Residents Cope When Their City is Flooded

Venice when the water rises

The siren goes off.

Once, twice, three times. 



Here comes the fourth one.


A screen lights up. “It’s the mayor.” “They’ve switched on the Mose.” “Does it work?” “They say it does.” In the cafes, locals glance skeptically at each other, it isn’t their first “acqua alta”. They have witnessed many tides come and go. Twice, the water stayed.

San Marco is underwater. The bulkheads of the Mose have risen, but a tide of just 83 centimetres is needed to turn “il salotto d’Italia” into a mirror. Soon enough, pictures of the square will pour into the front pages of newspapers worldwide. The headlines will resonate with echoes of destruction. Echoes of an extraordinary tide that, in 2019, swept over Venice with unprecedented intensity. A premonition of the tragedy that would soon befall the world. Bewildered tourists will cautiously wander around the calli, Venice’s narrow streets, trying to understand whether the city will be drowned, again. Venetians carry on undeterred. Some look more annoyed than others, as they hastily put up the bulkhead on their doors. Some simply look like they are having a moment of nostalgia, staring at a distance as a little girl, chased by her mother, runs past them in her wellies. In Venice, they are called acqua alta boots.


The siren goes off.

Once, twice, three times. 



My mother enters the room, slamming the door. “Come on, there are 130 centimetres, the vaporettos won’t go under the Rialto bridge. Quick, you have to get out.”

For once, I jump out of bed. My brother is already in the kitchen, perched on a stool, two cookies in each hand. 

“Mom, what if we get locked in the school?”

“At worst they won’t let you in, don’t worry.”

“Yes, but what if it happens later” 

“Haven’t you learned anything? Can’t you hear the sirens? The tide will reach its apex in a couple of hours. When you get out of school you won’t even need your boots anymore.” 

Dad chips in, looking for coffee. “I don’t remember us going to school in high water.”  Mum glares at him.

“Go and ask Grandpa how he made it to work when the tide was 197 centimetres high, in ’66.” 

I stuff two cookies in my pocket and run to get my acqua alta boots. The risk of the school being closed does not even occur to me. I instantly exile the thought into the realm of absurdity. In my personal hierarchy of the year, acqua alta days vie for first place with the last day of school. And my birthday. They simply can’t be taken away from me.”Run, Calle della Mandola must be underwater, it will take you at least twice as long to pass through it”. 

I am already under the house of Enrico, my classmate with whom I make my way to school every morning. We run from one submerged calle to another, blissfully ignoring the footbridges and our mothers’ advice, echoing in our minds to the point of exhaustion. “You have to drag those feet, drag-them!”

“Where are you running? Do you wish to get all the water inside your boots? Do you realise it is not rain?!” 

But our mothers aren’t there, and we arrive dripping wet at the bridge in front of our school. The fondamenta that leads to the school gate is completely under water, but the tide of feverish kids jumps right out at us. There are those who laugh at other people’s boots, those who try to throw others into the water, those who press themselves against the wall to avoid getting wet. 

In class, the teacher sends us to get the shoes we keep at school for gym. Twenty-four pairs of boots are waiting for us under the radiators. We exchange hopeful glances. With a little luck, the tide will still be high at one o’clock.