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Casinos And Small Changes In Venice

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I'm in Venice preparing for our TV shoot. I'll be meeting my crew soon to make two new shows so I've shaved the beard and had a haircut. I'm excited to switch from guidebook-research mode into TV-production mode.

Venice feels wonderful. The city is packed, there's very little scaffolding to frustrate our filming, and I'm learning lots from great local guides.

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Checking in on one of the local guides recommended in my Venice guidebook, I meet my friend Alessandro and his tour. Nearly every night, he meets a gang of my readers at the top of the Rialto Bridge for a pub-crawl dinner. Eating ugly things on toothpicks in a series of characteristic bars, all seemed to be having a blast.

Enjoying a walk, I decided that when you pass over a bridge, you should look both ways -- as you may be hit with a lovely view. At a restaurant, I was offered wine sparkling or flat and water with or without bubbles. I like my water with bubbles and my wine without. It's fun watching people in a restaurant carefully look like they are not enjoying the music when a wandering accordionist plays for tips.

Things are changing in Venice. I passed a characteristic old man with a cane...whistling "Yellow Submarine." There were once four McDonald's in town, but now there's only one. Most of the glass trinkets that are sold are Chinese, and it's undercutting the economy of the local glassmakers to the degree that there's a strong push to encourage people to buy genuine Venetian glass with the Murano seal. The population continues to drop. An electric readerboard in a pharmacy window ticks down with each person who moves out or dies. Today's population: 58,756. Yesterday, it was 58,759. Immigrants are taking the places of those moving out. Sometimes it seems that restaurants and market stalls are run by as many Sri Lankans and Chinese as Italians.

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There's a huge increase in Russian tourists, and when a menu appears in several languages, one of them is often Russian. If you see a wedding party posing in front of a famous sight, it's most likely a big shot from Eastern Europe or China, not a Venetian.

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As nearly everyone (tourists and locals alike) has a cell phone these days, public phone booths -- which used to be a much-appreciated blessing -- are now a worthless eyesore.

Enjoying a six-hour tour with Michael Broderick (Venicescapes.org) on Venice's Age of Decadence, I learned that the notion of "Exceptionalism" is not unique to Tea Party Americans. Venetians believed that God led their forefathers across the lagoon to found a "New Jerusalem." Unlike any other great Italian city, Venice was Christian from the start. When the Enlightenment challenged the whole notion of Christianity, it undermined the Venetians' self-image, and the ever-conservative government wanted nothing to do with it. With the establishment of trade routes outside the Mediterranean and the ideas and spirit of the Enlightenment bringing on the modern world, Venice chose denial, and -- like the string quartet on the Titanic (or climate change deniers today) -- they just kept playing.

I also learned that every big shot with a palace needed a den of iniquity in the town center -- a "little house," literally a casino. That term originated here, although gambling was among the tamest of the activities that took place in many of those original casinos. Husbands and wives generally each had their own. Men did the business-networking thing. Women hosted entertainers, writers, and artists. While there were about a hundred casinos in Venice in the 18th century, almost none survive.

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Tour guide Michael Broderick took me to the best-preserved casino in Venice...but there was nothing going on.