I must go down to the blog again, to the lonely blog and the sky…..
More time has passed than I intended between my last post and this, though as usual many of the reasons had to do with putting down slave revolts in the technological departments of my life. (Apologies to anyone offended by the word “slave.”) My computer seized up. The espresso machine has had a nervous breakdown. Transferring my cell phone number from one company to another was an adventure within an adventure. My cloud backup service has gone into a semi-permanent stall. My photos stopped uploading to Flickr. We’re still waiting for the boiler-repair company to come repair the repair of April 16. The kitchen clock died.
But all this is no more preposterous or tiresome than what’s been going on all around the most-beautiful-booby-hatch in the world. The past two weeks have seen the return of many well-worn themes. If they were music, they would be familiar tunes — perhaps transposed into another key, or performed by different instruments, or converted from pieces usually played on a lone kazoo into swelling symphonic creations. But the same tunes, nevertheless. They practically qualify as folk songs.
The ACTV is always prime territory for the absurd.
An annoying number of the turnstiles keep breaking at the docks on the Lido, causing commuters to miss their boats to work. Sebastiano Costalonga, a city councilor who has made squaring away the ACTV part of his mission on earth, has pointed out that there are seven turnstiles at a typical London Underground stop, through which millions of people pass each day, while on the Lido there are 48 turnstiles, through which, on a really big day, perhaps 20,000 people will pass.
The ferryboats connecting the Lido to the rest of the world continue to fall apart and be taken out of service for repairs (one boat has been in the shop for nearly a year. Are they plating it with rhodium?).
The personnel of the ticket booths went on strike for two days, April 30 and May 1, when storm surges of tourists were naturally expected to overwhelm the city, which meant that tickets were sold only by the individual on each vaporetto who ties up the boat at each stop. You can imagine how many he/she managed to sell. Or even tried to sell.
The company is 17 million euros in the red, but the ACTV drivers are the highest-paid in the entire Veneto region. The ACTV is like the Energizer Bunny — it just keeps going.
Then there are the Illegal Vendors: Whatever they’re selling, they’re everywhere, and there are more of them every day.
First (and still) were the West Africans, who sell counterfeit designer handbags from bedsheets spread on the pavement. While this squad continues to proliferate, it has been joined by Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan vendors of gimcracks such as fluorescent darts which gleam when flung skyward and balls of gelatinous rubber which flatten when hurled to the ground, then re-form themselves before your eyes.
A sub-division of these ethnic entities has taken over the wandering sale of long-stemmed red roses, which used to be offered mainly from table to table in restaurants, but which are now available all day long in the Piazza San Marco, and environs. Illegal corn for the pigeons: After years of struggle, the city finally convinced the vendors with their little trolleys in the Piazza to switch from grain to gewgaws — this being the only effective way to limit, or even reduce, the plague of feathered rats which had passed the 100,000 mark and was still growing. So now corn is being sold surreptitiously by the handful from the pockets of the red-rose vendors. Still, on April 25, a blitz by the police in the Piazza San Marco netted plenty of swag abandoned by the fleeing vendors, leading off with 1,408 roses. The day before that, the police got hold of 22 kilos (48 pounds) of illegal corn.
But these are temporary events. Stashes of illegal pigeon-corn have been found hidden in the garbage around San Marco. Intermittent reports of these discoveries and confiscations, whether of goods or of people, imply progress, but they would be the intermittent reports of emptying the ocean with a teaspoon. Uncollected fines have reached some three million euros; one illegal rose seller was reported to have laughed and shown some employees of a shop near Rialto his collection of tickets — five so far, one of them for 5,000 euros. ”Stupid police,” he said, “I don’t have anything and I’m not paying anything.”
The complaints of exasperated merchants and citizens have finally caused the city to increase surveillance by putting officers on patrol, from police in plainclothes to carabinieri in full battle gear. But only on the weekend! Still, there was plenty to do: Twenty-eight illegal vendors spread across the Bridge of the Scalzi were nabbed with their bags and sunglasses and camera mini-tripods! (I know from personal examination that the bridge is 40 steps on each side, so that comes to one vendor every 3 steps. But somehow it must be hard to see, because citizen outcry was needed in order to focus the city fathers’ eyes on it.)
Sometimes there are violent altercations between vendors, based on subtleties of territory and rights thereto — though the concept of someone claiming the right to something illegal is kind of special. Many are often without papers, so they’re already in tricky territory where the concept of rights is concerned. One recent nabbee, from Senegal, was discovered to already have been sentenced to five months in prison, by the court of Florence.
The city council dusted off a year-old proposal to issue residence permits (permesso di soggiorno) with points, like a driver’s license. It didn’t pass, for various reasons, some of which verged on silly: “What are supposed to do,” asked one councilor — “expel the women caretakers because they get a fine for illegal parking?” But another summed up what everybody has long since recognized: “Even the police can’t manage to do much if there isn’t collaboration from the local politicians. The message which has been sent out is that here there isn’t the kind of determination there might be in other cities because of a misunderstood sense of solidarity.” (Translation: We feel sorry for the poor foreigners.)
Speaking of illegal vendors, the mendicants from Rome who dress up as Roman centurions and pose for pictures near the Colosseum attempted to set themselves up here. Some of you might wonder at the congruence of fake Roman soldiers with fake swords and breastplates in Venice, but the tourist-guide association didn’t need to wonder. It managed to drive them decisively out of the city in a matter of a few days. Instead of police and carabinieri, why don’t we just pay the tourist-guide association something extra to clear out the illegal vendors of everything? Or better yet, send them roses?
As Roberto Gervaso noted in his satirical column in the Gazzettino not long ago, “Our generals manage to lose even the wars they’re not fighting.”
The only antidote I know to all this is to go places and do things which only give pleasure. And there are plenty of them, in spite of all the weirdity. All you have to do is pull the plug on that part of your brain that concerns other human beings. Here are some views of what we’ve done or seen that have made the past few days more than usually pleasant.
The diluvian spring seems to finally have wrung itself out and today we had sun. We’ve had intermittent sun recently but it didn’t give the impression that it was sincere.
But suddenly, the sun was out. Therefore the laundry was out — I mean, out rejoicing, not out wailing and repenting, and begging to be let back in, as it has been for quite a while. Small but delectable milestone today: Bringing in the laundry and smelling that sun-and-fresh-air aroma in its folds for the first time in 2013. (Someone will tell me it’s nothing more than the detergent I’m inhaling, but they would be wrong.)
And more to the truly cosmic point, the seppie are out. ”Out” in the way that a solar flare could be called “out.” A few years ago there were only one or two forlorn little seppie in the entire lagoon, and there were scarcely any to be had in the market, not even for ready money. It was a veritable drought of seppie. Now we’re making up for lost time.
The past few days have seen what must be an underwater stampede of the little nimnods, swarming in from the Adriatic to spawn, because out on the water that stretches from San Nicolo’ on the Lido up the wide canal that goes to Murano there has been a daily conglomeration of boats the like of which I’ve never seen, boats full of men fishing for seppie. I have it on several good authorities that virtually every boat has been going home with something like ten kilos (20 pounds) of cuttlefish.
Then there are the insatiable seagulls, who are out there with the rest of the city, looking for chow. You’ll see the gulls pulling their prey to some nearby surface in order to pierce the seppia’s body sufficiently with their beak to allow the extraction of the very hard-to-chew inner bone. These pale-white ovals of various sizes can frequently be seen floating in the canals, and out in the lagoon, the marine version of the ox-bones flung aside by Viking gorgers.
For the many boatless anglers, there’s plenty of room along the fondamente to strew murder and mayhem in the depths. It’s a virtual chorus line of men and children with fishing rods and buckets, and the stones are wildly bespattered with black stains, the parting shots from the truculent creatures unwilling to admit defeat, but whose sac of ink is impotent against the hooks and nets. Of course, they themselves make no effort to resist the lure of whatever’s on the end of the hook, so no use crying afterward. Lino once attracted scores of seppie merely by snagging a piece of white plastic onto his hook and pulling it through the water. They thought it was a seppia, and they were coming to eat it too. Little cannibals.
So spring doesn’t just mean peach blossoms and the dawn trilling of the blackbirds. This year, at least, it means hecatombs of eight-armed mollusks (technically, that’s what they are). I’ll be kind of glad when it’s over. It’s like the tulip craze or something, and only God knows who’s going to eat them all. Nobody can consume everything that’s being hauled out of the water these days, and eventually all the freezers are going to be full.
Just one more thing to worry about.
This is too good to keep to myself.
A reader in New York occasionally sends me some reminiscences, observations, and corrections, when necessary. We’ve long since abandoned limiting ourselves to the subject of Venice; his life, by now in its eighth decade, is far too interesting to be crammed into the “V” cubbyhole alone.
He recently wrote me this, apropos of nothing whatever:
A letter came from a grand niece of my uncle (by marriage) Morris and was followed by a long call from CA in which I learned that he had won a couple of years at the Ecole des Beaux Arts after leaving the U of PA. He had never mentioned it. He was an architect for the chief of engineers and built hospitals all over the world during WWII, member of the Cosmos Club, the equivalent of the Century in NY and one of the founders of the Arts Club of Washington. My other architect uncle went to E des BA too and wore the little red ribbon (I presume he’s referring to the Legion of Honor) for having instituted a memorial for one of his teachers. The first was a real gentleman. The other once used the first’s name to use the Cosmos and had great airs. I call him my “let them eat cake” uncle.
My uncle came from Lutherville MD and one time was talking to an old colored family retainer who asked, “Mr. Morris, is it true that Miss Wally is going to marry the King of England?”
“It looks that way.”
“Is it true that he has to give up the throne to do it?”
“Yes, Jim, that seems to be so.”
There was a long pause, and Jim said, “I wouldn’t.”
He knew Miss Wally.
The silence from my end has been too long and also not explained. I can’t do anything about the length (except to break the silence now and stop the clock), but I can explain.
I’ve been in a car — how un-Venetian — with some friends for a week, stravaging around northern Italy from Milan to Pordenone and down to Venice. They were here from Virginia to watch their son play some soccer matches against their Italian counterparts.
This trip gave me a chance to visit, if only briefly, plenty of places I’d never been, several I’d never even heard of, only one of which I’d ever really wanted to see (see photo above), and also the chance to stand interminably in the rain on the muddy sidelines of even muddier soccer fields.
The Veneto has just been through the rainiest March in 20 years — three times more water fell everywhere than is usual. The vintners can’t prune their vineyards, the artichokes are a month behind, and the boys who ran and slid around drenched by the frigid deluge can tell you that they discovered a degree of wetness which nobody, not even skindivers, has ever experienced.
As for our itinerary, “We past through some of the damdes plases ever saw by mortel eyes,” as a Confederate soldier put it in a letter home. At the top of the list is the Hotel Antares in Villafranca di Verona. If you’ve ever wondered where the occupants of UFO’s go when their intergalactic aircraft run out of fuel, I can give you the address.
Now that I’m back and most of the laundry has been done, I confess that I feel very little urge to write anything about Venice at the moment. Catching up with the news here over the past few days has subjected me to a downpour, so to speak, of non-news even more monotonous than the record rain (see above).
What’s been happening in the most-beautiful-city-in-the-world is what has always happened, and what, apparently, ever will happen. By now it appears that there’s hardly any point in mentioning current events, because the same stories will keep turning up every week till Jesus comes back.
The procession of news by now is so repetitive, and so demoralizing, that the 1.20 euros we spend for the daily Gazzettino have become a sort of charity contribution to keep it in business. The national chronicle is stuck in an endless loop of the same names and the same chicanery, and the local reports form one interminable droning chorus about as interesting as singing “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall.”
Classic themes: The constant deterioration of the city — palaces, churches, and bridges are falling to pieces, sometimes near or even on the heads of passersby, and the snaggly paving stones are so untrustworthy in some places that they trip as many people as they can each day and then snicker because they know they’re not going to be punished. There is the phenomenal inefficiency of the public health service. The occasional little old person found dead in his/her home after days/weeks/months. The closing of generations-old stores that can’t pay the insane rent increase, which has typically been raised in order to install yet another glass/mask/pizza-by-the-slice business. These shops sell glass and masks as being made in Venice, which in a sense they are; not by Venetians, though, but by swelling numbers of Chinese immigrants who toil in sweatshops and live in little mainland hellholes.
If you tire of those stories, you can always read about the spectacular mismanagement, in myriad and ever-more-imaginative forms, of the public transport system. It’s amazing how many ways the ACTV finds to throw away money it insists it doesn’t have. And tomorrow there will be yet another transit strike: no buses, no vaporettos, a 24-hour dislocation of life which will produce no results. So there will have to be another one.
Speaking of money, it continues to gush, like water from a busted pipe, out of the Venice Casino, which once was one of the top three contributors to the entire city budget. Then there are the pitiful protests, as tiring and pointless as the wailing of a baby with colic, against the big cruise ships — “pitiful” not because I agree or don’t, but because cruise ships are now such a crucial part of the municipal economy that driving them away would kick the last leg out from under the tottering financial stool of the city’s economy. And “pitiful” because all the schemes which have been proposed to solve this so-called problem will create real, tangible, measurable problems for all eternity.
To sum up, the news from here is a ceaseless litany of the same issues, the same excuses, the same inertia, the same blithe, extravagant, “who, me?” waste of everything including now even my patience and my curiosity.
Oh: And the “Boy with the Frog,” claimed to be scheduled for removal on March 18? It’s still standing there. I let myself get excited by what sounded like a real decision, and now I’m embarrassed. I evidently had more hope than good sense, even after all this time.
If I were a reporter for the Gazzettino, I’d write my stories sitting at home in my underwear listening to old Janis Joplin tracks. I’m not saying anybody actually does that. But they could.
The only interesting thing I’ve heard in a week was about the ten-year-old boy who snuck out of his house in the middle of the night in his pajamas to go smash the window of a toy store with a brick in order to get his hands on the thing he wanted that his parents had refused to buy for him. That was different! But it wasn’t in Venice — it was in Vicenza.