Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
British visitors were overcharged for lunch, the U.K. press pounced, and now everyone is mad.
The possibility of tourists ruining Venice has been widely discussed. But what if Venice is exacting its revenge?
Over the past few weeks, news of scams against visitors to the city have been ricocheting around the European press, with complaints that tourists’ naïveté and limited language skills have led to them being parted from their money in dishonest if not openly illegal ways. Exhibit A: a recent lunch for four British tourists at a place called Trattoria Casanova, near St. Mark’s Square. After the table was piled with dishes the group claims they didn’t order, the bill ended up coming to €525 ($612). This is taking a liberty, but for a tourist town, it’s sadly a case of so far, so normal. The spin in this familiar tale takes place a little higher up: Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has waded into the bill dispute—and he’s on the restaurant’s side.
Last week, Brugnaro responded to the spat by calling the unhappy patrons “beggars” (“pezzenti”), pointing out that they’d received a large meal and could have refused to eat it if they had decided in advance that they were being overcharged. The real problem, he suggests, is that visitors come to Venice without speaking or understanding any Italian. Indeed, a few words of the Venetian dialect wouldn’t do any harm, either.
When it comes to general tourist manners, he has a point. You can’t arrive in a city without a single word of the local language and expect everything to run smoothly. You can, nonetheless, hope that your lack of language skills do not make you the target of a scam—and that looks like what we’re discussing here.
Indeed, the mayor’s side is weakened by the most cursory of glances at the restaurant’s Yelp page, which boasts a mesmerizing collection of distraught ALL-CAPS warnings from former patrons who were served pizza that was “the equivalent of a public school lunch” and fish that “tastes like poop.” On several occasions, people seem to have ordered fish without realizing that the price they’re being quoted is per kilo rather than per fish, ending up paying way more than they’d envisaged. The number of times this practice is referenced on a page with just 23 reviews suggests that such confusion may be a feature of the business.
(Reached for comment by newspaper Corriere Del Veneto, a restaurant staffer noted that the table put away three-and-a-half-kilos of fish, and that the recently renovated restaurant had “high standards of cleanliness” and a plasma TV.)
Despite the fact that the $600-lunch story looked like it was part of an established bait-and-switch pattern, Mayor Brugnaro has escalated the controversy by pointing out that such high prices are ubiquitous and not restricted to Venice. Yesterday he tweeted a bill from Vienna airport charging €11.60 for four espressos, asking if he should write in protest to the city’s mayor?
..e per questo scontrino in piedi al bar dell’aeroporto di Vienna a chi dovrei scrivere!? Ai giornali o al povero sindaco di quella Città !? Ai “sempre contro nostrani”, a quelli della serie “so tutto mi” che gioiscono se Venezia viene attaccata, a loro invece rispondo ciao👋 😀 pic.twitter.com/Dzr264x2UQ—Luigi Brugnaro (@LuigiBrugnaro) November 12, 2017
Now €2.90 a coffee is steep but not that far off average: A really good deal in a European airport would probably be around €2 and the average is a little higher. Vienna Airport’s prices are certainly less outrageous than being misled into paying hundred of dollars for seafood you never ordered, and I suspect Brugnaro knows it.
To lunge abruptly towards seriousness, there’s arguably something a bit more concerning going on when a city’s mayor is defending what seem to be less-than-ethical hospitality practices. Local pressure group Gruppo 25 Aprile, who also campaign against over-exploitation of the city by the tourism industry, have released a statement strongly criticizing the mayor’s response.
Firstly, there’s the bad PR for the city. Implying that language non-proficiency makes you a viable target for price gouging in Venice is a bad message for a city that relies almost entirely on tourism—and it’s also offensive to the vast majority of Venetian traders. The group says that the attitude is a symptom of a wider problem.
“Incidentally, the City mayor who labels as “pezzente” the British citizen who paid more than 500 euro in a local restaurant is the same who is selling Venice by the pound: selling public buildings such as the headquarter of the local Police…, the Court of Appeal…and the only building hosting social services in Venice … while neither the economic circumstances nor the state of the City budget justify this systemic spoliation of common goods, which are likely to be turned into Hotels for the profit of the few.”
If the group’s analysis is correct, then the restaurant bill comments are just a small suggestion of a wider problem in which the city’s authorities are allowing commercial exploitation without any checks or quality controls. That analysis requires a tableful of un-ordered fish to carry a lot of weight, of course. Venice is in fact still a stunningly beautiful city full of many trattorie that cheerfully serve good food at non-extortionate prices, even to tourists who can’t speak a word of Italian. Sure enough, those visitors might enjoy these places even more if they learned the language a bit better. But when a tourist city’s mayor is defending traders who are at the very least short-changing visitors for decent service, the fish isn’t the only thing that stinks.
H/T: The Local, Italy