The “First Row of the Year”By
So we have all somehow managed to hack our way out of the calorie-entangled canebrake of the holidays, and you might suppose that now we would all return to our lairs for three months of hibernation before thinking about going out and rowing around.
Maybe some people hibernate, but for the past 33 years, the rowing club “Voga Veneta Mestre” has rousted everyone who is roustable to come out on the earliest possible Sunday in January to form a boat procession, or corteo, in the Grand Canal. This undertaking is known by the homespun title of the Prima Vogada dell’Anno, or the first row of the year.
Of course people already have been rowing this year, your correspondent included. But the motivation for this event isn’t merely rowing, but rowing with the purpose of Doing a Good Deed. The corteo ends at the nursing home at San Lorenzo, behind the church of San Giorgio dei Greci, where the Mestre club prepares a festive sort of party/lunch/scrum, cooking a vat of pasta e fagioli, bringing useful gifts, and providing plenty of loud and cheerful talking and singing to entertain the inmates — sorry, I meant residents.
I have only gone once to this climactic phase of the morning. We usually just keep rowing in order to make it home at a decent hour, so I can’t tell you much about the denouement.
But I can tell you that I think the Prima Vogada dell’Anno is one of the best little boating exploits in the whole year because it has absolutely no public relations value whatever, no touristic or fancy-poster or let’s-find-a-sponsor or we-have-no-money or who-shot-John or any other of the aspects that often begrime waterborne events here. There are just too dang many situations in which floating Venetians are used as decoration to provide some kind of folkloristic color to somebody else’s hoedown. And God forbid that the event should be televised — then they tell you where you have to go and how long to stay there, even if you had come with the quaint notion of being a participant and not merely some kind of anonymous oar-carrier.
So the great thing here is that it’s Just Us Folks, and if the weather is raw and foggy, which it was on Sunday and still is today (the foghorns are blowing as I write), all the better. There are fewer people out to snap pictures, and the fog makes all the colors of the boats and their rowers’ track suits really come alive.
So the boats gather, in the usual disorderly way, between the train station and Piazzale Roma. Rowers wave to each other, call out mildly rude comments, check their cell phones for messages, and so on till the caravan moves out at 10:00.
There is relatively little traffic at that time on a fuzzy winter Sunday morning, so we have the Grand Canal pretty much to ourselves.
Wherever we are at the beginning is not usually where we are at the end. Lino likes to be near the front of any corteo, and rarely resists the temptation to perform all kinds of tiny, deft and seemingly impossible maneuvers to sneak past the other boats one by one and get ahead.
I’ll never forget how vastly he entertained himself one night a few years ago in a corteo for Carnival. The boats were all kind of mashed together in the semi-dark and we found ourselves wedged in behind a gondola of the Francescana club, rowed by four men. Giorgio Fasan was standing on the stern; he, like Lino on our 8-oar gondola, was the captain and steersman of the boat. At that time he was already very old but he was still as irrepressible as, I gather, he had always been, and still just as capable.
Lino, as always, was so perfectly in control of our boat, and so alert to everything and everyone around him (it’s long since become instinctive), that he decided to break the monotony by annoying Giorgio. So we inched up behind Giorgio’s gondola, and with an imperceptible push on his oar Lino gave his gondola a little nudge against the stern.
Normally everybody tries to avoid touching, knocking against, running into, or otherwise coming into contact with other boats. Which means Giorgio wasn’t expecting his boat to move for any reason other than whatever he or his crew were doing. Lino’s little push, however, made his gondola unexpectedly begin to veer off-course, to the right.
Therefore Giorgio’s natural reaction was to start yelling at the man rowing in the prow, who he assumed was to blame for this deviation by having given a stroke that was just a little too hard.
“Why are you rowing?” he shouted. “Can’t you see we don’t want to go right? Tira acqua!” (A counter-stroke that would have corrected the situation.)
I bet Lino nudged that gondola at least five times, just to watch Giorgio get more flustered and more mad — and of course, to listen to the exchanges between Giorgio and his supposedly incompetent but completely innocent crew member, which became increasingly warm.
Lino thought it was hilarious and I did too, I have to admit. Childish? Sure. But I also thought it was pretty cool that he was able to pull it off, and it was so much the sort of thing I could imagine them all doing when they were all canal-rats together that I knew it wasn’t malicious. Giorgio never did figure out what had happened. He’s been rowing angels around the heavenly canals for several years now, but I bet he’s still blaming that guy in the bow.
Nothing like that happened on Sunday, though. People stuck to the business at hand, Lino included, though after we passed under the Rialto Bridge, Gianni Bullo, in the bow of a caorlina from the Canottieri Mestre, suffered some sort of attack of euphoria (“rapture of the Rialto”?), and began singing snatches of a song, or maybe several. Maybe he thought other people would join in — it happens sometimes, which is really nice. He was happy, though, and that’s something that always sounds good, though in his case it sounded better from a distance.
Me, I was savoring the boat-music, the sound of us swooshing along, and the boats around us also swooshing, each producing its own special swoosh-notes according to the size and shape and weight of the boat, not to mention the size, shape and weight of its rowers. For once the main sound in the Grand Canal was not the snarling of taxi and barge and vaporetto motors, but just the water and the oars and the air combining in their own rhythmic, convivial, completely unorchestrated a cappella chorus.
I don’t think these guys, including Gianni Bullo, could possibly sing any song at the nursing home that would be more wonderful than that.