One of those Venetian MomentsBy
Lino told me something that happened on the vaporetto yesterday which falls into my personal category of events I term “Venetian moments.” Actually, they could more generally be called “small-town moments,” but we’re here and besides, I still sometimes marvel at how many connections form the web that hold this city together. Kind of like a truss.
Venetian moments either need to involve a Venetian, or occur in Venice. They can happen to foreigners but only after they’ve been here for a while. And of course they’re usually fleeting little experiences (sometimes only glimpses, not even verbal). I love it when they happen to me and I think that Lino was secretly pleased about this one, though he didn’t make a big thing out of it.
So he was on the #1 vaporetto, the trusty local, headed uptown, and a little old couple got on at the stop nearest a nursing home called the Ca’ di Dio. He glances at them out of the corner of his eye, like you do on public transportation.
Then the little old lady addresses him in a tiny, bent-over voice:
“Lu no xe da la parochia dei Carmini?” (“Aren’t you from the parish of the Carmini?”) They continued in Venetian, but I’ll spare you and keep the thing going.
“Because I’m from the Carmini too,” she continued.
“I’m Leda’s little brother,” he said. He didn’t need to bother adding a last name, or a street name, or any other clue. And putting it this way meant that he already knew that in her day (when he was a tyke) there was only one Leda in the parish.
“I thought I recognized you,” she said.
They exchanged a few little generic comments, and then he got off.
It isn’t surprising is that she recognized him; parishes were very tightly knit and usually were composed of plenty of large families. And people of her vintage have phenomenal memories for faces and names — they’re like anonymous little griots wandering through the supermarket, comparing the cost of tuna while brimming with memories of people, events, places, who knew/did/said what and where and also why. And with whom. Stretching back unto the fourth and fifth generation. They’re completely overgrown with the shrubbery of family histories, each one of which is a complete saga.
When neighborhoods were still intact, these little old ladies were plentiful, and they weren’t usually endearing — they were to be feared and placated with offerings because they knew everything about you. They knew things about you that literally nobody knew, nobody could know. Things not even you knew about yourself. This amount of knowledge and diabolical skill at using it is one of those primal forces, like the atom, capable of life or death. Or, as Lino puts it whenever he might be tempted to drift into something like nostalgia for the old days, “Those little old ladies knew how many hairs you had on your ass.”
In this case, it didn’t matter that he’s now 71 and probably hasn’t been seen by her since he was 22 and moved to another neighborhood — he was imprinted on her memory and will be there for eternity.
Speaking of eternity, don’t think that this knowledge will disappear when she dies; she’s going to take it with her so she can find her friends up there and sit around all afternoon talking about people who aren’t there to defend themselves. It’s true that they acted as a steady underpinning to the life in the courtyard, a sort of 24-hour neighborhood watch. But as Lino also says, “Their gossip destroyed whole families,” and he’s not joking.
The bow that tied up this moment was the fact that he remembered her too, though by name, instead of face. “She’s gotten really old,” he remarked. Still, they were landsmen, that’s the point of it all.
If there were a code word or a secret handshake for the people of the Carmini, they’d have used it. He was struck by the fact that she identified herself according to parish, in the old way. Back then, people didn’t identify themselves so much according to their sestiere, or district, the way they do now since everything’s gotten all stretched out of shape. They went by parish. If somebody asked where you lived, you’d say “I’m from the Carmini,” or “Anzolo Rafael,” or “San Cassan.” That’s the way it was.
End of moment.