Feb
17

Ash Wednesday

By
Carnival was definitely over early for the family who owns this tobacco shop; the sign on the door says they're closed for mourning.  The blind left askew on the door emphasizes the point.  And all that cheerful confetti has been swept up by the trash squad and left right here.  Still feel like partying?

Carnival was definitely over early for the family who owns this tobacco shop; the sign on the door says they're closed for mourning. The blind left askew on the door emphasizes the point. And all that cheerful confetti has been swept up by the trash squad and left right here. Still feel like partying?

It’s not as if the city goes into mourning when Carnival is over (the merchants are too busy with their calculators to feel sad), but if you had gone  out with me for a walk this morning, you wouldn’t just feel that something was missing (like, say 100,000 people).   You would have the distinct sensation that you were at the bedside of a patient whose fever had finally broken and was sleeping peacfully.  

A tranquillity comes over the city that is nothing less than miraculous.   All that’s left to do  is to clean the room and change the sweat-drenched sheets.  So to speak. (I do hear some desultory sweeping going on outside.)   And now we can see the simple, austere, monochromatic 40 days of Lent stretching before us.

Here’s what I won’t miss:   The mighty force of the touristic masses being sucked into the city’s gullet as if  through some colossal straw.   The wall of humanity blocking entire streets, a good number of which had to be organized as strictly one-way.   The incessant rumble of the launches hauling and re-hauling loads of countless people from the mainland to San Marco, not to mention the choking poison of their engines’ exhaust as they idle by the Fondamenta degli Schiavoni waiting for the next batch.

Here’s what I will miss:   The neighborhood in full frivolity, the kids of all sizes in all sorts of costumes, their entourages of relatives, doting or beleaguered as they may be.     And — you know what I’m going to say — the fritole and galani.

Lent personified during Carnival; detail from "The Battle between Carnival and Lent (Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1559).

Lent personified during Carnival; detail from "The Battle between Carnival and Lent (Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1559).

Food seems to be the standard by which every human experience is measured here, and now we’re supposed to get serious.   The list of (technically) forbidden goodies for the next month and ten days is well known and can be fairly detailed.   But I narrow the “forbidden” list to two items: Fat and sugar, which means no  more fritole or galani (sob). And you are expected (technically) to pretty much give up on meat, at least on Ash Wednesday and Fridays.

In this officially Catholic country where hardly anybody (it is said) goes to church anymore, today the butcher shops are closed.   You’re supposed to eat fish.   Or nothing, I suppose — maybe you get extra points for fasting, which wouldn’t hurt anybody after the gorge-fest we’ve been through.

We stopped by Marcello the butcher yesterday, looking for a cheap steak to eat before the culinary window slams shut on our fingers.   He was busy doing brain surgery on a batch of chicken breasts so we watched his deft slittings and peelings and trimming while waiting our turn.   Now that I think of it, it’s not so much brain surgery as couture tailoring.

Lino said, “I’ve always loved watching butchers work on meat.   It’s a real art.”

“All the work that artisans used to do were arts,” Marcello replied.  “I used to love watching the baker making bread.   He could twist and tie and arrange it in all sorts of shapes.     You don’t see that anymore — now it’s all stamped out by some kind of form.   I’d stand there for hours to watch him.”

“You going to be closed tomorrow?” Lino asked, not having noticed the handwritten sign in the window saying “Closed Tomorrow.”

“Yes,” said Marcello.   “It used to be that on Ash Wednesday all the butchers would be closed.   The butchers, and the salumieri [butchers who work only with pork], and the pastry-makers.   Those were the only ones to close, and we still respect that.”

No need to have mentioned the pastry-makers: it’s obvious.   They are the CENTCOM of fat and sugar.   They also must be worn out by now.

Even if  nowadays anybody can go to the supermarket on Ash Wednesday and buy chops and ground beef and veal brains and so on, it wouldn’t  really be in the spirit of the day.   We’re hanging tough with vegetables, mostly.   So healthy, so spiritually fortifying.

While we’re thinking of food, have you ever noticed that fasting, instead of clearing the mental decks for you to contemplate matters of the soul, usually has the opposite effect?   That’s something to meditate on when you run out of repentance.

Meanwhile, we ate seppie in their ink tonight with polenta made the old-fashioned way (40 minutes of constant stirring).   The seppie were so fresh that they practically smiled at us from their plastic bag — Nardo the fisherman had struck again, and we scored his last two.   Technically  the menu was  well within the Ash Wednesday rules, but we totally violated their spirit — it was outrageously good.  

I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to repent of that too.

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