Nov
18

pitching in

By

“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.

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Categories : Venetian-ness

Comments

  1. This was such an interesting post to read, thank you! And your Lino sounds absolutely delightful, Erla. 🙂

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      He certainly suits me. Don’t take this the wrong way, but as my sister says to me, “Well you like TRIPE.”

  2. Andreas says:

    Thanks for another mental vacation to LinoLand. 😀
    Here in the north of Sweden the thought of tar and the smell thereof instead reminds me of the old sleighs and other horse-drawn contraptions at my grandparents’ farm. They were tarred as well as protection from the rough climate. My paternal grandfather used, ever once in a while, make tar for various uses on the farm and I loved it. The smell of the pine tar was all over and I loved it.
    The snow has just come to Stockholm now and I’m just relaxing with some mulled wine watching it fall. I like the winter in a way. The snow makes everything look better, brighter and the air becomes drier. I just hope the snow won’t melt away.
    All the best to you and Lino.

    • Andreas says:

      I almost forgot… 😋
      How was the castradina, fritelle and furs this year?
      Cheers!
      Andreas

      • Erla Zwingle says:

        The castradina was rock-star quality this year — we went to eat it with some friends, one of whom used a recipe I’d never encountered which involved cinnamon and cloves, among other things. It was amazing! Saw no furs at all — not only was it not at all cold (nippy, but that’s not the same thing), but I think the fur-ladies are beginning to move on to the next chapter in their lives where fur is not practical, WHEREVER that may be. In the past few years I’ve seen very little fur around the city; it seems that everybody’s wearing down jackets. Fine for the mink, but several steps down on the glamor scale. Frittelle are only to be seen in Carnival, so we’ve got to wait a few more months for them.

  3. Rob says:

    Loved the reference to La Brea. You must have a connection to LA. Are you from there? Myself, I went to school there. I’m glad to visit LA, but even happier to live far far away in Seattle. Thank you for your posts. My wife and I will be in Venice next Christmas. We’re dialing in this year to sort of take its temperature. We appreciate your insights.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      How interesting that you might think I was from Los Angeles because I mentioned La Brea. I thought everybody knew about them, they’re pretty famous. I was in Los Angeles once for work, but didn’t see the pits because I was too busy. Some other time, I hope.(And I grew up in Ithaca, New York.) Thanks for writing to me!