OAR POWER TO HER

After almost a thousand years, Venice has its first female gondolier. But some aren't happy about it, reports Sarah Marshall

It's 8am and a heavy mist has settled on the Grand Canal. A fleet of gondolas elegantly glides along the waterways. One oarsperson, dressed in a white sailor's outfit with a black trimmed straw hat, stands out from the rest.

"Buongiorno gondoliera!" calls an old man encouragingly from the shoreline, raising his hand in a salute. As the figure approaches it becomes obvious this gondolier isn't just dressed differently. She's also a woman.

Ever since gondoliering was declared a profession in 1094, entrance to the trade has been restricted to Venetian males. Traditionally a license was passed from father to son. So when German-born Alexandra Hai started working on the Venetian waterways, a mini tidal wave followed in her wake.

Yet 40-year-old Hai isn't the bra-burning feminist you might imagine. "I never set out to be the first female gondolier," she shrugs matter-of-factly. "I just wanted to be a gondolier."

Hai's love affair with the 35-foot jet-black boat began 12 years ago in San Francisco when she was given a pair of cufflinks. "They had pictures of gondolas on them," she recalls. Hai had never been to Italy, let alone Venice, but a year later she set about fulfilling a dream.

Centuries ago new recruits would sign up at one of the city's many gondola stations. A committee would then decide whether they were worth training. Every individual was taught differently according to personality, but key areas of study included navigation, etiquette and the history of Venice. Taking a less formal approach, Hai contacted her mentors directly.

"I befriended several of the old guard gondoliers," she says, relaxing in the lobby of the Locanda Art Deco hotel. "They taught me everything I know and I'll always be grateful for that. You can learn how to navigate the waterways in a rowing club, but not how to be a proper gondolier. That's something you can only learn first-hand."

Over the next 11 years Hai spent eight hours a day honing her craft, mastering a 90-degree curve in a narrow canal and learning to differentiate a Canaletto from a Tintoretto. Although it raised a few eyebrows, initially her gender was never a problem.. Her strength and determination easily proved she was one of the boys. But changes in the local government hierarchy threatened to smash Alexandra's dreams.

"They decided the tradition should be kept between men and Venetians," she says. "But that was never obvious in the beginning. But by that point it was too late because I'd already learned the craft. I wasn't about to give up just because a handful of people didn't like the idea."

Undeterred, she registered for the basic gondola-steering exam. After a 150-hour training course, candidates are required to complete a written test on technical aspects of the boat and a practical test. Hai failed her practical exam four times and was ridiculed in the press. She claims she was treated unfairly, but these days prefers not to dwell on it. "Intelligent people know there is something wrong. It's very simple. If they don't want you to pass the exam you won't pass it. It's very easy to make somebody fail on the test. You just have to stand up move around on the gondola."

Eventually a court ruling allowed Alexandra to ferry private passengers from four hotels. "I'm not a public gondolier, I'm a private gondolier," she says pointing to her dress, a replica of the 18th-century private gondolier's uniform. Alexandra is extremely grateful to the hotels who took a chance on employing her and risked upsetting the authorities. "In the beginning several four-star hotels were attracted by the novelty value, but they didn't have the courage to go ahead with it."

These days Hai is a local celebrity, but not everyone is pleased with her success. Her boat has been stolen on occasion. The 425-strong Association of Gondoliers still refuses to acknowledge her professionally. "She's not a proper gondolier!" they told us. Disgruntled peers argue she's used her gender to gain exposure.

Two more women are said to be training to become gondoliers with the association, but Hai is cynical. "I'm rowing every day and I don't see them. It's all just a front to demonstrate the association isn't discriminating against women."

Hai slams the gondoliers' old boy network. "Venice is a city with a lot of problems. At one time the gondolier was an honoured ambassador. Now they are more interesting in cramming as many tourists as possible into the boat."

Ironically Hai, the breaker of an almost 1,000 year-long tradition of male gondoliers, prefers to quietly carry smaller groups on a selective tour of the Grand Canal, eschewing corny love songs. She has no wish to enter the history books. "A gondola tour should be romantic, magic and unforgettable. In the end, people remember the gondola ride, they don't remember the gondolier. And that's the way it should be."

Alexandra Hai works exclusively for Locanda Art Deco hotel, Hotel Albergo San Samuele and Hotel Locanda Salieri

Od kiedy w 1094 r. oficjalnie wprowadzono zawód gondoliera, zawsze wykonywali go weneccy mężczyzni. Aż do tego roku nikt nie podważał tej tradycji. Kiedy więc pochodząca z Niemiec Alexandra Hai rozpoczęła pracę na weneckich kanałach, pojawiły się głosy niezadowolenia. Co ciekawe, Hai wcale nie jest walczącą feministką, jak można by się spodziewać. "Nigdy nie myślałam o tym, żeby zostać pierwszą na świecie kobietą-gondolierem," wzrusza ramionami. "Ja po prostu chciałam być gondolierem."

Przygoda z gondolą zaczęła się dla niej 12 lat temu w San Francisco, kiedy dostała w prezencie spinki do koszuli. "Były na nich namalowane gondole," wspomina z rozrzewnieniem. Rok później była już w Wenecji.

"Zaprzyjaźniłam się z kilkoma gondolierami ze starej gwardii," mówi. "Nauczyli mnie, jak być prawdziwym gondolierem."

Przez następne 11 lat Hai spędzała 8 godzin dziennie na szlifowaniu rzemiosła. Początkowo jej płeć nie stanowiła żadnego problemu. Jednak po zmianach w lokalnych władzach spełnienie jej marzenia stanęło pod znakiem zapytania.

W końcu zezwolono jej na przewożenie gondolą prywatnych pasażerów, gości czterech weneckich hoteli. "Nie jestem oficjalnym gondolierem, tylko prywatnym," podkreśla.

Aleksandra nie myśli o wpisywaniu się w historię weneckiego gondolierstwa. "Przejażdżka gondolą powinna być romantyczna, magiczna i niezapomniana. Ostatecznie ludzie i tak pamiętają przejażdżkę, a nie gondoliera. I tak właśnie powinno być."