Nov
26

bring on the laurels

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Let’s see…1,124 graduates were allowed at least two people (let’s say their parents) — that means 3,372 people in the Guests enclosure. There was still room outside the barriers for plenty of unofficially invited friends, relatives, and the curious to mill around, which was pleasant until the sun began to go down. Then a chilly breeze began to make the event feel more like waiting for an overdue bus in Buffalo.

Two wonderful young women who have rowed with us over the past three years (when their studies would permit) graduated from Ca’ Foscari, the University of Venice, last Friday: The middle of the Piazza San Marco was awash in diplomas, theirs along with 1,122 other exuberant “doctors” of whatever their subject was.

This was the 20th year that a mass graduation ceremony has been held here for students from Venice and Treviso.  The typical procedure, as we have seen in the case of some other friends, is that the candidate confronts a panel of professors and is interrogated on the subject of their thesis, nerve-wracking for the candidate and just wracking for the friends and family sitting behind him/her because there are no microphones.  It’s like watching a closed-circuit television with the sound off, except you’re right there.

But for whatever administrative reason there may be, the November group was rounded up and given the graduation ceremony all’ americana, complete with mortarboards crowning their heads (though some received their more traditional laurel wreath afterwards).  Clearly one reason why it was held in the piazza was because there isn’t anywhere else, except maybe the soccer stadium, that would hold three thousand people.

Anyone getting their degree is said to have received their laurea (LAOW-rey-ah).  Or, as Toto’, the immortal Neapolitan comic, earnestly termed it in a film, their laura (LOW-ra), which cracks me up because that’s just Laura.

Apart from the amazing setting, the experience was Classic Graduation: There was confusion, emotion, and the boilerplate commencement address(es) focusing on their future and the need to continue to nurture their dreams and not to ever let the world beat them down.  “Yours is not a point of arrival, but of departure,” said Paola Mar, councilor for Tourism representing the city administration.  “Be passionately curious and ask yourselves every day the ‘why’ of things.  Curiosity can guide you into new paths.”  There was praise for their perseverance and their talents and collective hopes for whatever comes next in their lives.  I have no idea how a graduation can be considered official without the majestic soundtrack of “Pomp and Circumstance,” or at least the Triumphal March from Aida, but graduate they did.

I have no pictures of our friends together because I never saw them, being on the outside of the sacred enclosure where parents and close relatives were huddled, shivering as the sun slid behind the Ala Napoleonica.  Everyone was listening to the names as they were called — the list was so long that the university divided it into half at the letter “M,” and called out the names in pairs.  Happily for me, Marta and Camilla’s last names begin with “C” and “D,” so I went home (by now I was shivering too) as soon as I heard them called.  I missed seeing the jubilant thousand fling their mortarboards into the air, so no photo of the peak moment.  I’m happy enough just to be warm and imagine it.

The entrance for guests was on the east side of the Piazza, facing the basilica of San Marco.  The sun and anticipation made everybody happy.

Security was definitely checking tickets at the entrance. No “I’m with the band” dodges here.

Speaking of security, there was a certain amount around.

Family festivizing at the Caffe Lavena.

And there was plenty of this, of course.

The crush and confusion was even greater on the “Entrance Students” side, because each graduate seemed to come with an entourage of friends and admirers.

But why so many in black? Isn’t this supposed to be a happy occasion?

Though black was clearly not always to be taken seriously. I think.

Not black at all! Who is this free spirit who has burst his way into the spectrum?

And this personage in a suit and tie. This ensemble is shocking in its perfection, not to mention originality. I hope he wasn’t being ironic.

Bouquets were everywhere.

I’d consider going back to school if this guy would bring me a bouquet.

I could have dedicated this entire post to bouquets, now that I think of it.

One family said it with balloons. As each name was announced there would be scattered bursts of cheers from the reaches of the piazza, like little fireworks of happiness.

As the names dragged on, and the air got cooler and people got more tired, the edges of the piazza began to take on a “Just get it over with” atmosphere.

Still, if you were to need two official witnesses, who better than the Venetian Republic represented as Justice, and the archangel Gabriel covered with gold leaf?  They’ve got your back, graduates, at least for today.

 

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Nov
18

pitching in

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“Tarring the Boat,” 1873, by Edouard Manet (Barnes Foundation, Lower Merion, PA).  Lino was born in time to see this seemingly simple procedure before it went the way of the dodo.  One man gripped a large handful of blazing reeds, and the second man spread the scalding tar by means of a stick which was tightly wrapped at the end with pieces of sheepskin.  The burning reeds kept the pitch at a higher and therefore more spreadable temperature as Man 2 laboriously applied it to the boat’s hull.  I have seen a gondola-builder use these burning reeds, passing them slowly across the hull to gradually remove the varnish; he told me that the lagoon reeds emitted a flame that was more humid than that of many other potential tools, and was thus less traumatic to the boat.  You see?  People don’t use a technique just because there isn’t any other — there is almost always a reason.

Here is a new warp (or weft) to the fabric of life in LinoLand, otherwise known as the place where he has known just about everybody still left in Venice.  Or in this case, not still left.

The case in point: A death notice we came across for a certain Gastone Nardo.  Strangely, this is someone I also knew (a little, and very late. Like, I met him twice.)  He was the gondola-maker at the Squero San Trovaso when I came to Venice, and I was invited to a boat-launching there one freezing February day.  That’s the most I can say about him on my own account.  But of course Lino knows more.

“Well,” Lino said, “he wasn’t always a squerariol (boatbuilder) He came from a family of pegoloti.”  “Pegola” is Venetian for “pitch,” not as in baseballs but as in scorching hot tar, which was the immemorial way to water- and shipworm-proof boats until the middle of the last century.  Knowing how to handle, and apply, boiling pitch to the hull of a boat is probably not something you’d learn as a weekend hobby; it was certainly an important craft.  But you can understand that a pegoloto was several hundred rungs below squerariol, so I admire him intensely for having undertaken to learn how to build gondolas.  Working your way up from chopping lettuce at Quiznos to chef at the Restaurant Le Meurice is one thing, but it isn’t much easier working up from a searing cauldron of pine-derived hydrocarbons to constructing one of the great boats of the world. But he did it.

A friend walks past a recent harvest of reeds by the lagoon of Caorle. They were also useful, not to say ideal, for many uses other than boat-scorching, often woven together in various ways by fishermen and sailors to form latticework known as “grisiole” in Venetian.

But just because nobody uses pitch anymore doesn’t mean it has left Venice altogether — it lives on in a very common daily phrase which is almost as useful as the stuff itself.  It’s a verb, actually: “impegolar” (im-pegh-o-YAR), to metaphorically cover with pitch, to cleverly entrap somebody in a way that a tiptoeing saber-toothed tiger at La Brea would perfectly understand.

I’ve never heard it used by someone admitting to having committed this act on someone else — it’s always been the person who has been deviously empitched who will say it.  Life in Venice, and anywhere else, still offers far too many opportunities to use this expression. Generous, well-meaning, let-there-be-peace-and-let-it-begin-with-me people are fated to walk right into somebody’s loaded tarbrush.

A perfect example of this phenomenon happened to Lino years ago at the hands of his late brother-in-law, Sergio; they were two guys who have rarely, if ever, been known to block out a cry for help.  Sergio, especially, was famed across campi and campielli as one of the best-natured men ever to walk the earth, so of course he was exploited.  But he didn’t go alone.

One day he agreed to help some neighbor carry “a table and four chairs” downstairs and transport them to an apartment on what was virtually the street next door.  Keep “four chairs” and “street next door” firmly in mind.

A boat was needed.  Lino had a small boat.  Would Lino help him fulfill this modest and glowing-with-goodness little project?  Of course Lino would.

And of course Lino and Sergio found themselves “impegolai” in a gigantic moving project that lasted two whole days, schlepping chairs, tables, huge plants in massive clay pots, a divan, credenza, and all the kitchen furnishings including the stove down four, or maybe it was five, flights of stairs. Moving Day! Meanwhile, the beneficiary of this effort, the man of the house, lay peacefully sleeping in bed, and they were even cautioned to work quietly so as not to disturb him.  Naturally this apartment was on the top floor of the building.

And all of this cargo had to carried into the new apartment, naturally, including the bed which was available after the man of the house had awakened (not because of any random noise by the trio of movers), and gone out to do something else, thoughtfully getting out of their way.

From Point A to Point B in Lino’s little boat. The inconvenience of the water route is matched only by the inconvenience there would have been by land. In this case, Lino and Sergio had some help from Bruno, but Bruno was about the size of Willie Shoemaker, so I’m not sure how much he could carry per trip. Still, help is never to be sneered at.

Do not think that finding yourself impegola‘ once means it will never happen again, because  the trick is that these projects always start small (“four chairs”).  So one time the parish asked Sergio if he’d carry away “a few packages” of old newspapers to be recycled.  Yes, even in those long-ago days paper was usefully disposed of at a macero (a pulping mill) in Campo San Silvestro where a trendy little bar-cafe is now lounging around.  Boat needed, with Lino, though only for half of the project.

In this case the cargo — mountains of newspapers — was merely to be unloaded at Lino’s family’s waterside storeroom. Sergio figured out how to get them to the pulping place on his own. Maybe Lino told him that his boat couldn’t take it anymore.

By now I don’t have to say that the “few packages” turned out to be towers of stacked newspapers requiring many roundtrips.  But these things never happen on a boring Saturday afternoon when you literally have nothing to do.  In this case, it was the Saturday of the Redentore, which sort of a summertime version of Christmas Eve, if you want some comparison between the importance of what you’re doing and what the family expects you to be doing.

So instead of preparing his boat for the evening’s festivities (eating, drinking, hanging out with other boat-borne friends, watching fireworks), Lino was rowing his boat around half of Venice again and again to help out Sergio because Sergio said he’d help out the parish.  Why that particular day and not the following Monday?  Because otherwise it would have been convenient, and if you find yourself impegola‘ it’s precisely  because the activity involved cannot be postponed and it must be at the least convenient moment and because only you can accomplish it.

To be fair, Sergio’s Redentore was also twisted out of shape, because that’s the world that people with hearts of gold inhabit.  Beautiful, true, but  completely tacky with pitch.

A few steps from the Arsenal is the “First Sidestreet of the Pitch.” Must have smelled amazing. Everybody with headaches all day and insomnia by night.  Perhaps not much different from the people living next to the pulping mill.

Categories : Venetian-ness
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One of the best things about Venice is how, the minute you walk outside, you are surrounded by curious and beautiful and surprising and amusing things.  It used to be that most people would notice at least some of them; now that 98 percent of humans spend all their time staring at or listening to electronic devices, I suppose most of the aforementioned curious, etc. things could just move away and live somewhere else, like Turkmenistan, and nobody would notice.  “Hey! Where’d Venice go?  I was just checking my email/Twitter feed/Facebook quagmire/WhatsApp” (by the way, nothing is app), and the city’s just gone.”  Of course, for the same reason they probably wouldn’t notice in Turkmenistan that a World Heritage Site d/b/a “the most beautiful city in the world” had suddenly sprung up in their midst.

But I still wander around looking at things, and here are a few I came across recently:

A highly superior dog exploiting his master’s feet on the 5.1 vaporetto.

You thought he couldn’t be any cooler? How about this?

And speaking of vaporettos, I don’t know if the doll gets a special rate, but she certainly has been given a great seat. I’m not sure I’d have had the liver, as they say here, to ask to sit there.

I finally noticed, after years of passing the church of San Trovaso, that above the door to the belltower a guardian being was long ago installed to ward off evil spirits.  He’s not the only one in Venice, but he does have a certain charisma.

However, if I were an evil spirit this face would more probably cause me to ask “Do you feel like talking about it?”

There are many other canines to be found around Venice, in a variety of breeds and material. If this pooch is supposed to be scaring away evil spirits, he’s got a funny way of doing it. Maybe he plans on wagging and licking them to death.

A bit of worldly wisdom in a shop window, expressed perfectly in Venetian: “When I talk, they don’t listen. When they listen, they don’t understand.  When they understand, they forget.”

And while we’re on the subject of understanding, there is something so complicated about three dimensions in a small space that it defeats people’s comprehension. This image needs no further comment from me, though I had several ready at the time.  When you and many other people need to disembark, they have to squeeze through the backpacks here like hot pig iron through rollers.  (One point, though, to the man on the right for color-coordinating his pack and jacket.  Point deducted for the vileness of the color.)

Two stuffed toy rats in a training potty. The world is a great and imponderable place and Venice is doing its best to keep up.

 

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Oct
24

Is Venice that way?

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The Venice Marathon finishes in the most beautiful city in the world. Or maybe not.

The classic foot race known as a marathon is generally predictable, from the distance (26 miles/385 yards or 42 km/195 meters) to the winner (so often an athlete from Kenya or Ethiopia or Eritrea).  And why should the 32nd Venice Marathon, which was run last Sunday, October 22, have been any different?

Why indeed?  That’s what people would really like to know.

Because in 31 years here no competitors in the lead have ever somehow taken the wrong road at the 16-mile point.  And yet on Sunday there was a little peloton of East Africans who were some distance ahead of the 5,962 other runners.  Abdulahl Dawud, Gilbert Kipleting Chumba, Kipkemei Mutai and David Kiprono Metto were following the motorcycle at the head of the race, as per normal, and when it turned right, going up the ramp onto the overpass leading to Venice, naturally they followed.  Except that they were supposed to be on the highway below the overpass.

The drone — or helicopter — showed this scene in real time. Unbelievable. (itv.com)

Of course there’s nothing strange about seeing the front runners on an empty road.  It just turned out to be the wrong empty road. (Sports Illustrated)

As two precious minutes ticked by, somebody else on a motorcycle caught up with them, yelling (I imagine) “What the hell, you guys?  You’re supposed to be down there!”  I imagine this because Lino and I were watching the live broadcast and you could easily see the men begin to turn around and trot back the way they came, no longer in the lead although still all by themselves, race essentially over. In fact, it was literally over; they withdrew immediately.  One doesn’t run 26 miles/385 yards, or at that point one hour and 15 minutes, for the sheer euphoric joy of it.  Who was responsible for that wrong turn?  If you know, the world would like to hear from you.  And so would the four runners.

As if we needed another problem, here it is: The winner, Eyob Faniel — who finished with an amazing two-minute lead over the rest of the pack — was born in Eritrea but is a naturalized Italian citizen and runs for the Venicemarathon Club.  Fun fact:  It has been 22 years since an Italian won the Venice Marathon.  About time, you say?  Somebody else might have been thinking the same thought.  I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories, but the optics here, as the current expression has it, are not attractive.

Here is what Lorenzo Cortesi, general secretary of the Venice Marathon, has said (translated by me): “We need to evaluate if this was an error by the vigili urbani (a sort of local police), or by us.  The service autos exited the barriers and the local police didn’t close the street.  The motorcycles, then, weren’t able to transit the underpass.” (I totally do not understand this last bit.  You want the people to run on a road that the motorcycle is forbidden to take?)  “But I wouldn’t want the significance of this race to be limited only to this.”  Of course you wouldn’t.  Neither would I, if I were in charge.

But enough unpleasantness!  Backpats generously administered by Signor Cortesi to the 2,000 volunteers involved, not to mention to everyone involved in the successful completion of all the unusual elements which the Venice Marathon requires: “Just think of the fact that we have to transport from the mainland to the arrival area, with 12 big trucks and 12 boats, the sacks of all the personal effects of the athletes.”

I can confirm that the organization was impressive as seen from ground level, from the chemical toilets to the bags of snacks to the massage tables with massagers waiting for massaggees.

But although the scaffolding and some bridges and the bleachers have all been removed, the questions refuse to go away.  It used to be that everybody would be talking about how people ran.  Now the only thing they’re talking about is where.

On Thursday, things began to be done on the Riva dei Sette Martiri. Unusual things for the Riva, normal things for the marathon, which is held on the fourth (and usually also the last) Sunday in October.

This spacious area in the Giardini Pubblici was soon to be revised to accommodate the immediate needs of thousands of exhausted and sweaty people.

The accommodation was, first of all, big tents for changing your clothes. Smaller tents were for medical attention of various sorts.

Masses of runners downshifting after the 10K race, which preceded the main event by a few hours. The brown-paper bags contained cartons of fruit juice, cookies, fruit and something else — I only got a glimpse inside one. The broad plastic wrappers were temporary blankets doing double duty as large posters for the main sponsor, Huawei Technologies. I should have mentioned that the official name of the event, as announced by the speaker in virtually every sentence, is “Huawei Venice Marathon.”

Yes, there will be garbage. Let’s see…thousands of plastic blankets and paper bags of food and busted shoelaces and fistfuls of used tissues, or whatever runners throw away when the party’s over, all have to be collected and carried off by the hardy trashmen and women of Veritas.

 

Three of the 12 enormous boats loaded with bags which contain the bags of runners’ personal effects trundled toward the Giardini to wherever the pickup point was organized.  If you’ve ever had any reason to inquire about the cost of renting one of these boats, you won’t have to ask why there are so many sponsors for this event.

As you see: Sponsors. Job lots of them, which is the only way these affairs can exist.

We sat in the bleachers watching the overjoyed 10K runners cross the finish line. The sky threw down some gobbets of rain but it didn’t last long.

The jumbotron was a great way to watch the big race as the runners coasted along the Brenta river. It all seemed so peaceful and normal…

A few sections of the temporary bridge used for the feast of the Redentore bring the runners from the Zattere across the Grand Canal to San Marco.

There was a little soupcon of acqua alta in the Piazza, but the higher stretch in the center of the square meant the runners kept their feet dry (which was not the case on one memorable day some years ago when “sloshing” entered the event’s description).

The fabulous finish by Eyob Faniel was pretty exciting. I don’t want the backstory to discolor what was a great moment for the spectators anyway.  Nobody had truly grasped the whole situation at this point, and a guy running with nobody to be seen behind him is irresistibly thrilling.

And of course, crossing the finish line was a huge experience for the myriad unsung runners racing against themselves.

And after the glory come the showers. Follow the helpful hand-drawn arrows to hot water and soap, the happy ending after the happy ending.

 

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