Berlin with cousins

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A parked Trabi limousine we saw on our tour.

Two of my cousins that I haven’t seen in years, Sarah and Daniel, have flown in from England to meet me in Berlin! Their sister Mary would probably be happy to join, but she just wrapped up celebrating her birthday and got engaged so she has work and wedding planning. (Is it just me, or suddenly is everyone you know getting married too?) We buy tickets for a hop-on hop-off sightseeing bus around the city and spend the day as tourists. It’s probably good for me, since I haven’t actually seen much of Berlin beyond our Airbnb, some flea markets, and a nearby grocery store.

We catch one of the buses and spend the day exploring, listening to the bus’s pre-recorded tour information and disembarking when we please.

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So it’s not a glorious royal coach. But it’ll do!

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Walking around.

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There are trampolines with awesome bounce built into the sidewalk near Potsdamer Platz!

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Another tourist figures out where we are on an old aerial photograph of the Berlin Wall.

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Trabi world, where you can get all of your Trabant-related merchandise. For those who don’t know what a Trabant is, it’s a “famous” East German car brand.

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Sibling hug!

At the end of the day we say goodbye over glasses of wine. Sarah and Daniel will return home tomorrow, after less than 48 hours in Berlin. I’m so lucky they came to visit, since I won’t get a chance to visit them in England before heading back. Speaking of, there is less than 72 hours before I board a plane as well, bound back to the U.S.

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Berlin Flea

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The Berliners are thrifty folk and their flea markets are awesome, brimming with everything from antique toys and art deco jewelry to boxes full of secondhand kitchen goods and clothes of prior decades. Though websites online offer curated lists of Flohmarkt, or flea markets (here, and here, and here), some of the info might be out of date, so always go prepared to ask for locations and times of the markets should you show up at a location and find it empty.

Here is the Berliner Trödelmarkt, which had an excellent selection of both cheap and antique jewelry and toys:

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And yes, the flea markets happen even when it rains like crazy, like it did when we visited the Mauerpark Flohmarkt. This market had way more handmade goods, clothes, and boxes of odds and ends:

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Sights and friends in Paris

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One of the best things about Paris (for me) is that a few of my good friends from college happen to live there. We were extremely lucky to stay at their apartment right in the heart of the city, and to have them with us as guides to the city.

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There are of course the monuments we found on our own, and the city is well equipped to handle english speaking tourists. There’s no issue getting around to see all the famous sights, but it’s really for the hidden shortcuts and small alleys that you need a local with you.

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None of these are hidden or secret, though I’m sure there are those as well. For the most part, all the interesting things are right on display, you just have to know where to look. Given how many tiny shops – cheese, pastry, antique, meat, tea, everything – and how many sculptures, beautiful buildings, and above all cafes there are, a friend who has a few favorite spots is extremely helpful.

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Dinner is the other important topic. In college we gathered for “family dinner” nights, and it was a blast to do it again. Despite being in the middle of a move, my friends hosted us for a wine and food filled evening, ending in a short and happy walk back to the apartment.

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On a different night we went out and wandered into a late-night cafe/restaurant. On order were salmon pancakes – a savory shortstack in true American French fusion cuisine.

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Outside of the monuments, Paris is still a living breathing city. It’s far from perfect, and is constantly under construction.

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There’s delicious, perfectly decorated food around every corner. There really does seem to be a pastry shop on nearly every street, often more.

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Giant sculptures dot the city, and in many places they act as playgrounds, especially for tourists, but also for locals.

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Other works of art are much less interactive but no less grand.

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We’re not sure if these dancers were filming a commercial, doing a photoshoot, or putting on a show. Either way, it was one of the many interesting things going on in Paris, on a weekday at that!

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Street-long indoor galleries dot the city. Some are famous and have tours going through them, some are out of the way and filled with unknown treasures. In one of the heavily trafficked ones, a wine shop window filled our eyes with these massive wine bottles. I’ve seen comically oversized champagne bottles for events before, but I’ve never seen so many at once, and given the price tag these are no joke.

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That same gallery, and many like it, have indoor cafes! They’re cozy and in inclement weather a delightful way to spend an hour or three. While we were visiting it never really got cold or wet outside for too long, so we never saw too many people at them.

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There’s all sorts of surprises around the city. In a somewhat lonely corner near a very popular Eiffel tower vista point, we found a statue of Benjamin Franklin.

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There’s lots to see and do, the city is beautiful, and the food is great. I was thrilled to see my old friends again, and with any luck we’ll have another chance to meet in Paris! Thank you Chloé, Antoine, and Axel, for being such wonderful hosts!

 

Paris (it’s pretty nice)

 

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Visiting the Louvre at dusk.

 

We said goodbye to my uncle and his wife, dropped the car in Limoges, and hopped on a train bound for Paris. And Paris is, as far as cities go, pretty nice.

 

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The Eiffel Tower. We’re such terrible tourists that this was as close as we got to it; we didn’t even bother walking across the bridge to the actual park.

 

I’m speaking objectively. I’ve never really been under the sway of the French obsession. Haute couture fashion and makeup? Don’t follow it.

French food? I can agree with them that butter = better.

Romance language? I prefer Italian, or non-romance languages Russian or Japanese.

Paris as a dream destination? The closest I’ve come to learning about sightseeing in the city is listening to David Sedaris’ interview with This American Life.

 

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We came upon these columns on a road along the Seine; they’re strangely attractive for industrial grade metal pylons.

 

So with no expectations for Paris, here’s what I came away with:

1. The food is actually better than the U.S. Like in Italy, even the base quality food is better. You can still find places that are meh (especially bakeries), but the grocery goods are way tastier and there’s a fresh market stall for everything from produce and bread to meet and seafood.

 

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A kouign amann, which is basically just thin sheets of dough held together with butter and caramelized sugar.

 

2. Not everyone is dressed better, but the better-dressed are noticeably more stylish

 

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Look at this random guy. A thousand times more stylish than a random guy in the U.S.

 

3. Everything IS pretty. Forms of function have decoration and embellishment by default. Presentation matters. In this sense, being here reminds me of Japan.

 

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This is a random Metro entrance, apparently in the style of Art Nouveau because of course.

 

Oh, and someone told me that Paris Syndrome is actually a thing. Guess it was good I came without expectations.

Grenoble

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We really enjoyed visiting Grenoble. It’s a great mix of industrial, college, tourist, and residential. There’s a bustling downtown shopping area, a massive visitors’ center with maps and advice for hiking and skiing. It’s close to a trio of mountains and has a fairly extensive public transit system, but is also small enough that crossing the city is a half hour affair on foot.

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Its streets hold tiny cafes, repair shops, board game stores, and lots and lots of street art. Almost every area had at least something on the walls, usually fairly pointed at politics or the human condition, but often just plain colorful and weird.

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The city itself is clean with wide streets and beautiful walks.  Much of it is entirely pedestrian, night or day.

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There’s also a delicious array of food. We’re not sure if it’s particularly varied for a town this size because of the college scene, or if this is normal in France, but we were able to find cheap, delicious food at all hours. A Turkish kebab and pita shop filled us right up one night, when the fancy but apparently affordable french cuisine restaurant was booked full. Since there are so many people out and about, the smaller places tend to fill up. France continues the Italian custom of eating and talking for hours.

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Another great place we went to was a pasta shop on the main drag. A definite french twist on the Italian staple, we tried a variety of their sauces – the bolete and almond was our favorite!

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Just around the corner from our hotel was a lovely pastry shop. Not only were the desserts and drinks amazing, the staff was also super friendly. When it became clear we spoke barely a word of French they were happy to chat in English, and even let us practice our pronunciation! French coffee is not as good as the Italian, but they more than make up for it with their tea and pastries.

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The people around town were genial. This gentleman waved me down to come help him carry his cart down from the truck. Smiles and waves later, I figured out he was a knife sharpener. We could have really used that, but by the time I ran back with out little kitchen knife, he was gone into town.

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We’re not sure if most French cities are as nice as Grenoble, but we really want to go back. It was just the right size to explore, and full of friendly people. There were lots of trails around town, and the food was always good and often affordable. We couldn’t find a hostel, but the hotels we saw were neat and not overly priced. It was a great first stop in our journey through France.

Sunrise and Sunset at Grenoble’s Bastille

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Dawn over Grenoble, as seen from the Bastille.

Located on a hill in the north, the Bastille affords some of the best views of Grenoble and is an ideal place to watch the sun rise and set over the city. Though the entrances through the parks at the Bastille’s base are locked and inaccessible outside of business hours (rendering them unusable for hikes up to see sunrise and sunset), there are several routes and trails up the hill to the Bastille. You just have to know where to look.

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The winding multitude of paths down the Bastille to the Isere River (top).

 

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The Bastille at dawn.

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A view of Grenoble just below the Bastille.

Should you plan on doing a sunset or sunrise hike, bring a light, since there are few lights along the Bastille trails. Second, bring water. The Bastille hill isn’t that tall but some of the trails up can be steep, and the only source of water I saw were fountains at the top where the “bubble” gondolas depart. Third, bring a windproof jacket. Even when the air in the city below is still, it whips and chills at the top of the Bastille walls.

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There are no lights along the trail to the Bastille, so bring your own.

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Some of the stairs and paths are pretty steep, so bring water.

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The wind can be pretty rough at the top, so bring a jacket to stay warm.

If you’re coming from the part of the city just south of the Isere River, the easiest route up to the Bastille is at the southwest end of Rue Saint Laurent. Look for the Fontaine du Lion, a massive fountain depicting a lion battling a snake; there are stairs just south or a bit north of this fountain that will take you to a trail that leads up to the Bastille.

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The Fontaine du Lion; there are entrances up the hill to the Bastille to the right and left of this statue.

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One of the entrances up to the Bastille. Just keep heading up.

I’ll try to get an actual trail route up here later, but for now the best instructions I can give are to stay to the left to avoid the road, and keep looking for stairs or switchback trails leading up. After 10-20 minutes you should reach the first Bastille walls with stairs leading up into the ruins. Walk up the stairs and continue climbing, but any tree-free outlook after this point should provide a good view of the city.

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One of the many stairs up/down.

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The gravel paths around the Bastille are favored by walkers and joggers in the morning, so once the sun rises you’re unlikely to be alone.

At the top of the Bastille you’ll find a lookout point and the “bubble” gondola that can take you back down to the city (11 AM – 6 PM). Enjoy the views, and then climb or take the gondola back into town.

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A view of Grenoble at night.

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Spare gondolas in storage.

Gondolas come into the station at the top of the Bastille, overlooking Grenoble.

Sunrise over Grenoble

IMG_6246 I’m not much of an alcohol drinker and I’ve never mixed a drink in my life (unless you count a rare shot of Bailey’s into hot cocoa), but if there was ever a name for a drink, it would be Sunrise over Grenoble. And you would make it with layered peach juice and grenadine and whatever alcohol goes well with those two things, maybe a dark spiced rum. It’s true I don’t know what I’m doing behind the bar here in my mind but it’s my hypothetical drink. Get your own.

Anyway, the point of all of this is if you ever find yourself in Grenoble, wake up predawn and hike up to the Bastille for sunrise. It’s picture (and mixed drink) worthy: IMG_6193

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After sunrise, head back down to the city just in time for breakfast at a local café. Maybe even get a shot of Bailey’s in your coffee.

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Less than 24 hours in Milan

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The grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

We have arrived later than we hoped in Milan thanks to the Phantom Train fiasco, with our train on to France departing in ~20 hours. Which is a shame, because it turns out Milan is gorgeous and everything I wanted in a city: walkable and beautiful.

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The plaza of the Duomo Cathedral

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The Disco di Arnaldo Pomodoro

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The grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

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Evening commute at dusk

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Milan bokeh!

Milan also has a Chinatown! With some actually good Chinese food!

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Ravioleria Sarpi in Milan’s Chinatown.

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Ravioleria Sarpi in Milan’s Chinatown.

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Bubble Tea in Milan

It really is too bad the new EMA HQ didn’t end up here.

Verona

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Like many other Italian cities, Verona’s architecture is fantastic. The historic center sits in the middle of a peninsula, where ancient cathedrals, churches, and even a Roman coliseum sit side by side with old residences converted to shops, restaurants, and markets. It’s also a very popular tourist spot – close to Austria and Switzerland, it gets a large number of visitors from both countries and the rest of Europe, especially young school and college groups. In the most popular spots it can feel a bit crowded, but for the most part it’s

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The famed sight in this city is supposed to be Juliet’s Balcony. It might have some literary interest, but overall it wasn’t worth the stop. It can be very crowded, the building is not particularly interesting.

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On one of the walls, people leave tokens of affection. Bandaids seem to be the thing to put up. There’s a little shop that sells pink themed everything, and while we were there a couple went through a proposal up on the balcony as the crowd watched.

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The house of Romeo is also in Verona, and is much, much less popular.

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Nearby Romeo’s house is a real gem of architecture and sculpture – the Scaliger Tombs. Once a ruling family, now a mausoleum. The style is gothic and stands out with its pinnacles and spikes among the straight lines of the rest of the city.

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The arena in the south of the city is still used for holding events. On the rainy day we visited, it was closed except for a fairly pricy tour. For me the real beauty is from the outside, how the arches have held up over the centuries.

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We also got a peek into the repairs going on inside!

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All around the peninsula are bridges connecting it to the mainland. We crossed on the north east side, only to find a traveling piano player playing from the middle of the bridge.

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The restaurants and houses crowd the water’s edge on the old-city side of the bridge.

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Across the other side there’s more room to expand. A wide street runs along the river, bordering the many churches.

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The bridge itself is of lovely old Roman construction – unfortunately not original. The Ponte Pietra was destroyed during WWII and later rebuilt.

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We tried climbing up into the hills, but wound up lost in a series of small alleys.

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We crossed back across to the old town, passing one of the many churches in the city. This one is Cathedral Duomo, one of the largest in the city.

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Our last stop was the castle on the southern edge of the old town. The Castelvecchio is part castle, part bridge, and all medieval. The name means, literally, old castle, and it was built by the same family that’s entombed in the gothic tombs – the Scaligers.

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There’s no shortage of beautiful buildings in Verona. It’s easy to imagine it was an inspiration to painters of old, and it remains a great subject for sketching today. A day is well spent walking around and marveling at the construction. There’s even more to see, inside the various museums and churches in the city. Done with the city, we headed home by train. Between the frequent local buses and the rapid trains, Italy’s transportation system served us amazingly well once again.

Venice, Scenes of Everyday Life

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It’s easy to imagine Venice as some sort of Renaissance wonderland. From many of the pictures people take and the art done of the city, it’s very easy to miss that this is as much a vibrant commercial and residential city as it is a a beautiful historic site. In paintings hanging in the museum, the merchants, sailors, craftsmen, and tradesman filling the canvas are, to our modern eyes, part of the decor of the time. They were in fact vital to the growth of the city, just as they are vital to its life today.

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The canals are the life blood of the city. Everything comes in by boat, and travels to the correct destination via increasingly small canals. During the day it’s mostly moving people and tourists around, but in the morning it’s moving everything else.

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Until about noon, you can find these market boats pulled up along the canal, usually near clusters of restaurants or grocery stores. They stock the local vendors and it looked like they were doing brisk business. Cramped quarters leads to minimal storage space, so everyone gets a daily shipment of most food goods.

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There are some dry markets that sell to normal customers who walk through the stall lined aisles. These markets are, unsurprisingly, also supplied by boat.

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One of the semi-enclosed areas near the water is reserved for an incredibly pungent fish market. The stone tiles around there are treacherous.

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In addition to keeping everyone supplied with food and other wares, someone has to maintain the city itself. A lot of buildings rely on piers and supports that are jammed in the water. Building new ones or replacing old ones is a pretty delicate affair that the tradesman handle with ease. I know I’d fall into the water if I tried walking the planks the way they do.

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The effort it takes to keep such a city in good repair is incredible. We were utterly fascinated by the way boats were customized for their particular jobs. Just like construction crews on land, these long, wide, and flat boats carried cranes. Unlike land based cranes, these swing low and are relatively light weight, and the crane boats carry their own building supplies with them.

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For moving boxed cargo, there are very similar flat boats that run around dropping off boxes, which are shuttled to their destination by a runner with a dolly. The early morning bustle is full of people taking things to and fro, getting ready for the day.

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It’s not just on land – the early morning fog falls on a seemingly endless stream of boats zipping up and down the canals.

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One of the major things that (probably) no one thinks about when they think of Venice is hauling out the trash. We sure didn’t, so when we saw these garbage boats roaming around in the morning hours, we were amazed. They’re a lot like the crane boats, but their cranes have only one job – to lift and empty the garbage carts.

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The carts are slim and on wheels. Workers run them along alleys and across plazas to the various businesses and residences, collecting trash. When the cart is full, they run back and drop it off at the boat, which lifts the cart and through a door in the bottom, empties it. In part because they don’t have a lot of time to cover the island, and because their carrying capacity is relatively small, garbage day is every day. Like the fresh food, the fresh garbage needs to be carted regularly – there’s no place for storage like there is on the mainland.

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It’s not just on the water that the city gets repaired. These workers are installing phone and internet cables – it’s very cool to see Venice wiring up for the future.

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