Running across friends (again and again)


These ladies evidently don’t just “run into” each other — they look like these canal-side confabs are just the latest episodes in an endless series. “Game of Mops and Grandchildren,” perhaps?  They could well have been in adjoining bassinets in the hospital — it wouldn’t surprise me. People here are linked for life.

This morning we were walking home under the trees lining viale Garibaldi and, as more or less usual, we ran into someone Lino knows; a small, trim, grey-haired man with a pleasant smile and the most benevolent eyes.  We have encountered him at various moments over the years here and there, and he never changes, except I think he’s lost a little weight.

“Ciao, Federico,” Lino said, giving him several warm pats on the cheek, as if he were a little boy.  These pats are valid for anybody, at any age, and it’s almost unheard-of for someone to consider them strange, much less objectionable.  Children grow up being patted and I, for one, am glad to see there’s no expiration date. In this case Lino has a lifetime pass, because they’ve known each other forever.  In fact, they used to work together.

So, they exchange a few random comments about nothing, the sort of conversation that has no calories, sugar, sodium, trans-fats, and only the tiniest amount of carbohydrates, just to keep it going.

Lino made some remark about the atrocious condition of the world, and this was Federico’s opening: “Why do we not do what God tells us to do?” he asked, which is an excellent question.  “You could read your Bible sometime,” he continued amiably.  “It’s free.”

This suggestion didn’t surprise Lino or me — in fact, I was waiting for it, and so was Lino. Lino likes to needle him because Federico is a Jehovah’s Witness, and this morning he was even accompanied by a tall young man who just listened.

“Is this your apprentice?”, or “assistant,” or “disciple,” or “trainee,” or whatever Lino asked, even though it was obvious.  They were both wearing neckties, an object which is so rarely seen in this neighborhood as to be almost an archaeological artifact, but is an admirable part of the uniform.  I think they’d go without shoes before they’d leave off the necktie.

After a few more brief sallies — how old are you now (72) and where do you live (Giudecca), we all resumed our paths, we toward home, Federico toward whatever fields cried out for cultivation.  So to speak.

“Ah, Federico,” Lino said affectionately.  “He and his mother used to live in Cannaregio, but in the acqua alta of 1966 they lost everything.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses helped them out, and so here he is, this is what he does.”  I make a mental note that he would have been 21 at the time, an age when a major good deed coupled with some urgent explanations can have an effect. Not judging, just saying.

“So he keeps at it,” Lino continued, who is always a bit bemused by the man’s constancy and imperturbability, though if you’re not constant and imperturbable you’ll never make it as a proselytizer.  Just ask Saint Paul.

Anyway, “He’ll be out ringing doorbells, any time — Christmas Day, New Year’s morning at 9:00 AM.”  Lino stops to mimic a sleep-addled man going to a window and shouting down, “What?  Who?”  A pause to indicate Federico’s inaudible salutation.

“Just wait a minute,” the sleep-addled man says, then Lino mimics upending a full container out the window.

“He got everything — people would pour buckets of water on him.  Even chamberpots full of piss.”

Excuse me?

“Ha!  Just ask him about Murano that time.”  Which I won’t.  But I note that while Saint Paul was beaten and stoned, the record doesn’t show that that little joke was ever played on him, though it probably totally was.

“How do you know him?”

“We worked together at the Aeronavali.  Me, Conte, the other guys, we’d all rag him all the time.”  And what work did he do?

“He was the uomo di fatica,” the man of toil and exhaustion, the menial drudge which every company has, the guy whose job is the heavy lifting, shlepping, the hewer of wood and drawer of water.

Which means that Federico long ago made his peace with his modest place in the world, in and out of Kingdom Hall, and as we walked off I found myself dwelling more than usual on his embarrassingly simple question.  Why don’t we do what God says?  (That’s a rhetorical question, so hold off on the comments.  I know the answer.)

They probably grew up with the bear, as well.

While we’re on the subject of ex-colleagues from the Aeronavali, a while back we were hanging around the Arsenale vaporetto stop (I can’t remember why).  It was early evening and the light and the air were calming down.  A very nicely dressed older couple got off and were walking towards us.  They appeared to be going to some sort of party, or special gathering.  “Ciao, Marco” (not his real name). “Ciao, Lino.”

And that was…..? “That was Marco.  He started as an apprentice at the Aeronavali the same day I did,” Lino recalled. By the number of colleagues he keeps running into, it would seem there had been thousands.

“We were working on T-6 Harvard planes” — of course Lino would remember that; I throw it in for any aviation fans who might be reading.  He likes to set the scene and I respect that.

After a few years of this, Marco began to go to night school.  “He was studying to become a surveyor.  We all knew this, and we knew he would sometimes go off somewhere to study during working hours.  Maybe everybody knew it, anyway, somebody might come looking for him and we’d be all ‘Gosh, I don’t know, he was here a minute ago, any of you guys seen Marco?’…..”

Eventually he went to take his final exams, but cleverly went to an institute somewhere in Italy’s Deep South, where the grading was known to be much — make that MUCH — easier.  He passed.  But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Sebastiano Venier and the lion of the Republic he defended so brilliantly. I’ve seen two humans in line at the supermarket strike almost these exact poses and expressions, even though they may be the best friends ever.  And not have wings and swords.

He registered at the University of Venice to take courses leading to a degree in business administration.  Armed with that diploma, he returned to the Aeronavali as the amministratore delegato, or chief executive. Eventually he married a woman who owned some factory, Lino says, and he became director of the factory.  I’m supposing that was the lady who accompanied him.

“I remember the day I gave my notice,” Lino recalled.  “Marco said to me, ‘Come up to my office a minute.’  And we talked about my reasons for leaving, and then he opened his desk drawer and took out a small pin shaped like a swallow.  That was the emblem of the Aeronavali, and it was made of gold.  One day I lost it, somewhere out on the street.  You have no idea how sorry I am not to have it anymore.”

I must have five or six single earrings, their mates lost forever, which annoys the hoo out of me.  But that doesn’t make me anywhere near as sorry as he is.

Tomorrow, no telling what unforeseen encounter awaits.

Friends come in all shapes and sizes, as we know. Too bad they aren’t as easy to adjust as this tailor’s mannequin.



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Categories : Venetian-ness


  1. Victoria says:

    Erla, I just want to tell you what a pleasure it is to read your blog. You write with such quiet wit and your photos are interesting and non-generic.

  2. Andreas says:

    But, Erla, wouldn’t that be rather awful? With friends as adjustable as mannequins, I mean. One of the most beautiful things about having friends of all shapes, sizes, creeds and nationalities is that it broadens the mind. I guess friends, like pasta, should be al dente. Without a bit of resistance it’s not as enjoyable.
    Love the story. Give my best to Lino too!

  3. Caterina B says:

    I certainly agree with Victoria’s post! You explain so well and include engaging little asides. I would love to live in a place (but not Venice, it’s too wet for me) where people are friends for life. I have five friends who have been my friends for 30 to 40 years but, most of the time, only talk to one of them. They are all mostly too busy “doing things” to spend much time on our friendship. It’s OK, I have come to accept it. Anyway, I live with my best friend, my constant and kind hubby. I consider myself lucky!