August: May I have this trance?By
August in Venice is remarkably similar to August in many other cities — European ones, anyway. The urb seems to go into a sort of trance. There aren’t any major festivals, though modest local events continue to be scattered around, the kind that you can mostly take or leave alone. It’s a desultory sort of month just lollygagging along the line, if there is one, between languor and lethargy.
Yes, there is still heat, sometimes too much of it, but the heat doesn’t quite match that hellish torridity of July. For us city-dwellers (as opposed to farmers, or families on beach vacations), the occasional thunder- or hailstorm serves mainly as entertainment, a little break in the estival monotony. I love watching the hail crashing into the canal outside, cosmic handfuls of ice hurled earthward making the water jump and bounce and froth. I wish it would happen more often. And then, after the storm passes, the limitless space of sky over the lagoon can be covered with enormous, dense clouds that look as if they must have been squeezed out of some colossal can of Cloud-Whip.
Fine — I hear you thinking — but what about All Those Tourists? No need to ask; tourists, like the poor, shall never cease from the earth. Of course there are tourists. And while there are always more visitors than residents, most Venetians, few as there may be anymore, are even fewer now. They’re on vacation, and that means they’ve mostly gone to the mountains. If you want to see some Venetians, you’re going to have to head for Baselga di Pine’ or San Martino di Castrozza.
But what’s different in August is that the tourists seem to fade, in a curious way, and crowded onto the vaporettos, many of them look as if they’ve been thwacked by a two by four. In fact, the whole city seems as if it has faded. Shops shut. Restaurants close. Pharmacies are reduced to a skeleton supply, thoughtfully displaying a sign on their barred doors with the name and address of the nearest open drugstore, which will not be near. The market at Rialto retains only a few, seemingly symbolic, vendors. The sea may be teeming with fish, but the fishmongers don’t care. Pastry-makers go hiking in the Alps, I guess, because they’re not interested in making delicacies containing cream and butter in this heat, nor are there any customers interested in buying them. The only dairy product anybody cares about is ice cream.
So a sensation of scarcity and torpor suffuses the city. If you need some object or service (the lab report on your biopsy, a replacement door to your front-loading washing machine) you can just make up your mind to wait, because factories or warehouses will close. Delivery people will disappear, and that includes letter-carriers. (Not made up.) The post office hardly even hires substitutes. Everything just gets left where you dropped it until September.
Tourists will continue to find what they need. Ice-cream shops (I did mention ice cream, didn’t I?), souvenir vendors, and museums will all be lolling in the shade, waiting for you. But many places that you would assume would be panting for floods of customers just pull the grate across the door and a tape hand-lettered sign to it. There.
There are only two events that make the smallest indentation in the rich layer of silence that has been smoothed over the city. The first is August 15, or Ferragosto. It dates from antiquity to mark, among other things, the end of the harvest, and was recognized officially by the emperor Augustus in the year 18 A.D. Many Catholic countries, since Pope Pius XII’s edict of November 1, 1950, observe it as a religious festival as well as a picnic-at-the-beach festival. (It’s especially beloved in the years when it falls outside a weekend, thereby requiring you to extend your vacation.)
Even after all this time, Ferragosto still doesn’t make much of an impression on me. It’s kind of like observing your second cousin’s mother-in-law’s wedding anniversary. But once you’ve experienced the desolation of most big cities on this day, you can really get how funny the moment is in a little movie whose name escapes me, in which the only son’s elderly mother, living in the center of Rome, begs him to get her fresh fish for lunch on Ferragosto. It would be like asking someone to go out and bring you a fresh piece of moon rock on New Year’s Day.
The only other noticeable August event — for me, at least — are the time trials to winnow out the racers for the Regata Storica (Historic Regatta), which is always held on the first Sunday in September. Not that anybody notices or cares about the eliminations except for the 126 aspiring racers, who have to stay here to continue training up to and, if they pass, after. And of course the judges, such as Lino, care, because they have to organize their hanging-out time around eliminatorie duty, spending endless hours out on the lagoon by Malamocco watching the boats go by at two-minute intervals for what feels like five forevers.
You wouldn’t think anybody had the energy to be strange, but still I’ve noticed little slivers of slightly puzzling behavior. Such as the man sitting on the bench at Malamocco one meaningless afternoon, looking out at the water. Well, the bench itself is odd enough, even without the man, because someone decided to place a lamppost right in front of it, so close that it seems to be a direct challenge to you to decide which is really more important, rest or light. But this man had decided he wanted rest and shade, of all things, and even though there were ample dark patches under the trees where he could have been slightly cooler, he had sat down in the center of the bench in such a way as to benefit from the one narrow strip of shadow it cast. He was sprawled there, straddling the shadow, sun baking him on each side, with a strip of shade going straight up his middle.
Or there was another man (sorry, so far I’ve only noticed the XY chromosome category) who was sitting on the vaporetto in front of us one morning, heading toward the Lido. He looked like a local, well into retirement age, with a hefty little paunch. It was a rare cool morning with little spits of rain and breeze. I was wearing a sweater.
He, on the other hand, was wearing beach flipflops, denim shorts, and a tank top — three-quarters of him was skin. But the rain hadn’t caught him by surprise, because he was wearing a rain hat, a neat little classic made of some form of plastic, and it looked very new. Almost as if he had just bought it.
I sat there looking at him, trying to grasp what instinct could have prompted him to protect his head when the rest of him was destined to be drenched. Let’s assume he was taken by surprise by the sudden turn of meteorological events. Wouldn’t a cheap umbrella have made slightly more sense?
I can’t explain how I find the strength to dwell on these things. Me, I’ve been trying for four days now to decide if I want to polish my toenails and I still can’t make up my mind. It’s just too much to think about.