Nov
01

Raffling the Vogalonga

By

It all seems (in fact, it all is) very long ago now, but last May 23 was the 36th edition of the annual rowing marathon called the Vogalonga.

The 2009  edition was fairly appalling, and if I were to feel like writing a full account I’d need a strip of paper five Babylonian cubits long, or whatever the electronic equivalent might be.

This year everything was perfect, so I didn’t have anything to write about. You know how they say bad news is more interesting than good news?  (I guess somebody says that.) Same thing here.  How many different ways can you say “It was great”?

But great or ghastly as the “Long Row” may be, each year the organizing committee gives each rower a numbered stub when he or she registers, then a few months later puts on a raffle and holds a drawing for the prizes.

As the drawing commences, it looks as if the boats themselves are waiting, like puppies in the pound, to find out who their new masters will be.

As the drawing commences, it looks as if the boats themselves are waiting, like puppies in the pound, to find out who their new masters will be.

I dimly recall this event as occurring closer to the date of the Vogalonga itself, but for the past several years this convocation has been scheduled for late fall, when one’s memories of the equatorial heat and humidity, or whatever other weather dominated your spring morning in the lagoon, have been replaced by the sepulchral chill of an autumn twilight.

Thus we gathered last Friday night, in the waterside pavilion of the fish market at the Rialto, as usual,  for the official thanking-of-many-brave-and-tireless collaborators, and for the drawing.

Venetian oars, like the forcolas, vary according to size and type of boat.  These slender constructions suit the mascareta but would be too light and short for a gondola.

Venetian oars, like the forcolas, vary according to size and type of boat. These slender constructions suit the mascareta but would be too light and short for a gondola.

The prizes are pretty simple: Nine pairs of forcolas and nine pairs of oars, either pair suitable for rowing a Venetian mascareta.  And two gleaming, brand-new mascaretas in the flesh.

One was financed by the Casino, a bittersweet reminder of the days not so long ago when the Casino had money to lavish on sponsorships all over the city, before their guy in the green eyeshade hit “total” and discovered they were 45 million euros ($52,356,493) in the red. And the other vessel was offered by the Assessorato al Turismo, or Tourism Department, similarly reduced, or so the reports have it, to eating shoe leather and tree bark to stay alive.  I remember when there were three boats to be raffled off, but times are hard even in mascaretaland.

Here is how the event feels:  I smile at an assortment of boating friends, (good); I feel the cold and damp seeping from the wet granite paving stones up through my shoes as the darkening air forms moisture everywhere around me (less good, but tolerable).  And I metaphorically clamp an inverted facelock around the head of that inevitable craving that always lunges at  me from when I see a boat that might, perhaps, in my dreams, be mine — that Christmas-morning suspense, but without any of the pleasure of knowing you’ll actually get to open the presents (not good at all.)

These forcolas may look merely like blunt instruments but they are works of exceptional engineering, traditionally made of a single piece of walnut.

These forcolas may look merely like blunt instruments but they are works of exceptional engineering, traditionally made of a single piece of walnut.

So we walked around the boats, like everybody else was doing.  We stood and listened to the various pronouncements made by Lalo Rosa Salva, chief organizer and tutelary deity of the Vogalonga.  We watched the winners walking away with their prizes.  I stifled my urge to wail.

And then there was the buffet.  No event can ever be said to have occurred in life here if food is not in some way attached to it.  Attached at the end of said event, naturally, otherwise people would just skip it and head directly to the noshfest, however modest it might be.

Because the Rosa Salva family runs one of the city’s oldest and best-known pastry-making and catering operations, there were sandwiches and cookies and wine and sodas and water galore.

The refreshments may not look like much to fight over, but you'd be surprised how strongly some people feel about getting as much as they want.

The refreshments may not look like much to fight over, but you'd be surprised how strongly some people feel about getting as much as they want.

I remember when the buffet was somewhat more sumptuous — not that I’m complaining.  But let the record show that I remember a generous assortment of sandwiches, and tiny finger-pizzas, and pastries as well as cookies, and also fruit.   Those were buffets that had a certain allure, as attested by the variety of matrons who, in their instinctive, ruthless way, would appear from nowhere and always get to the table first, claiming their spot with more conviction than Columbus claiming North America, and not budging.

They’d stand there eating, elbows half-cocked to ward off any possible intruders, and I have even seen these dowagers stuff extra snacks into their conveniently large handbags. Or even shopping bags, brought for the occasion.  Yes, I have seen that with these very eyes.  The buffet has always, at least up to the other night, provided more drama than the drawing, because some ignorant or foolhardy person would occasionally try to displace one of these dreadnoughts. This year, though, the dowagers didn’t even show up. A sign more vivid than the shrinking prizes that times have indeed become hard.  Pretty soon we’ll have to start stockpiling canned goods.

Oh, about the boats: I didn’t win one.  But as I watched members of the two lucky clubs carry the mascaretas bodily to the Grand Canal, some perplexing thoughts seeped into my mind.

Such as: If Venetian rowers (by which I mean people, of whatever provenance, who row in the Venetian way) form the smallest possible percentage of participants, which they do (something like a quarter of the total) why are the prizes only suitable for Venetian rowing?  Me, I think it’s just fine, and a brilliant way to stand firm for whatever can still be maintained of Venetian-ness.  I merely note that for someone from Lithuania who rows a kayak, a forcola and an 11-foot [3.30 meters] wooden oar might not be exactly what they’d consider a prize. Of course they could sell it, but that would be crass.

It takes only a few strong and willing people to get this mascareta off the ground and into the water, where she belongs.

Off and into the water, where she belongs.

And this: Why would either of the entities who paid for the two boats feel any particular need or desire to do so?  Of course it’s a very handsome gesture, but if the main purpose is self-publicity — and I may have misinterpreted the reasoning — there must be items with more advertising throw-weight than two little boats which will only ever be seen here where everybody already knows about the Casino and the Tourism Department.

And this: I know raffles are intended to be, or to appear to be, composed of free gifts (i.e., gifts paid for by somebody other than the participants). But considering that each person pays a registration fee, technically you could say that the winner of oars or forcolas had already paid for them. But there I go, being crass.

Anyway, I didn’t win anything, so I don’t care.  Now I think I’ll go buy a lottery ticket.  Maybe my odds will improve and then I’ll be able to buy an entire boatyard all for myself.

 Maybe I wouldn't choose exactly this model, which is the racing mascareta, for everyday tooling around town. But would never turn it down.

This is the racing mascareta, maybe not my first choice for everyday tooling around town. But I would never turn it down.

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Comments

  1. Yvonne says:

    Your posts always make me smile! Thank you.

    I do wish you had won something, maybe next time?

    And, how I can relate to ” variety of matrons who, in their instinctive, ruthless way “, they are quite incredible, aren’t they! We’ll never in a lifetime gain their skill at reaching the head of the queue (not that they exist, as such, in Italy.)

  2. Otolini says:

    Has anyone outside of Venice ever one one of those boats?
    I need one for our rowing club!!!

  3. Erla says:

    Me, I think it would be beyond cool for you to win one. And yes, over the years, a boat has gone to a club in Cremona, in Vienna, and in France (near Nantes). Other than that, though, I don’t think they’ve gone anywhere non-Venetian. But before you start dreaming (though I am certainly not denigrating dreams), consider the cost of transporting a boat from Venice to Long Beach. Not anywhere close to cheap.

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