We had the radio on very low this afternoon — a makeshift substitute for the soothing sound of an imaginary Alpine brook — when I realized I was hearing an extremely beautiful aria that I hadn’t heard in ages. (For the record: “Mi par d’udir ancora” from Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” though I don’t know who was singing. I’ll gladly settle for Beniamino Gigli, though, just to keep it in mind.) Here is the link: https://youtu.be/8B_Vhth7nis
Lino also hadn’t heard it in ages, but it immediately brought back some happy, and very specific, memories of a hot summer evening when he was a little boy. I want you to be listening to this seductive barcarole — though perhaps it was more lovely at a slightly less funereal tempo — as you imagine this scene:
“I was standing by the Rialto Bridge with my sisters on the evening of Ferragosto (August 15),” he told me.” (If you’ve never been in Venice on August 15, it means “hot.”) “And the galleggiante was coming slowly up the Grand Canal and there were the chorus and musicians from La Fenice playing, and this is what they were singing. And there were hundreds of boats following along behind, rowed by just everybody.”
The galleggiante (literally “floating”) was a platform made of two peatas lashed together, perhaps towed, perhaps rowed, he doesn’t remember. Here is a picture of a peata, which was used for everyday work of massive dimensions till the Fifties, at least.
A gazebo-like dome had been constructed on which little lights were shining — I’ll pause while you adjust your mind to the very idea — and the summer-night music was wafting up along the canal as the boats drifted by.
The mere thought of such an event brings a “knot to my throat,” as they say here. Evening promenades were nothing new in Venice — over the centuries they were often indulged in by Venetians of all ranks and stations seeking a breath of cooler air in the sultry summer nights. There were even boats designed for these nocturnal perambulations, such as the gondola da fresco, the mussin (there is one still to be seen occasionally), and the pupparino. Even today, if someone asks me how I stand the summer heat here, I say “We go out on the water, that’s how.”
If music in the Grand Canal seems like the best idea ever, I would concur. A group of women have organized a somewhat similar event over the past few years, but although I haven’t participated, I have the impression that it wasn’t very much like the evening Lino remembers. For one thing, Venetians (few as they are nowadays) tend to go to the mountains in August. But I can tell you that if I’d been there with him, I’d never have forgotten it either.
We went shopping this morning. Nothing dramatic, nothing involving jewels or cashmere or lambskin. Just checking out the fish at the Pescheria this morning, and we struck paydirt twice.
One, we nabbed the first seppie of the season, a moment we’d been waiting for. They cost more than I’d have wanted to spend (as almost everything does), but we brought them home and Lino is dealing with their destiny as I write.
Two, we ran into two friends of his, which is always what one hopes when wandering the market. M and C used to work at the Aeronavali with Lino, beginning as boys together (16 years old, more or less). They did a little catching-up, mainly about wildfowl hunting (M’s passion since boyhood, but he has relinquished his weapons due to increasing bureaucracy), fishing (still at it, like Lino), and some random remarks about nothing. Nothing is a very large and rich subject, and people can talk about it for quite some time.
I already knew M by name and by occasional sightings; I knew that he had been Lino’s favorite partner when they used to compete on pupparinos in the “interaziendali” races organized between different working groups (a team from the Gazzettino, say, and the ACTV, and other happy bands of working brothers). “He was a wonderful proviere” (rowing in the bow) — “he had a beautiful stroke, it just lifted the boat up and then I’d carry it forward.” Perhaps this makes more sense in Italian. Anyway, the perfect pair.
They also ran into each other out fishing, or at work with whatever catch they brought in to give away. “I’d have sole,” Lino said, “but M didn’t fish for sole, he went out for shrimp. So he’d ask me how much I wanted for my sole, and I’d say ‘You’re kidding, right?’ So we’d just trade. He loved sole.” Today M bought some sole, but it wasn’t for him. “It’s for my cat,” he said. “I also got some sardoni for me.” (Engraulis encrasicolus, or European anchovy).
Lino thought that was funny. “Give the sardoni to the cat, and you eat the sole!” he said.
“Nah…the cat won’t eat sardoni….”
M worked “inside” at the airport on the Lido, where construction was going on; Lino worked outside, on repairs and maintenance. A young widow with a son set her sights on the even younger M, and the two married and have lived peacefully ever after, with the addition of a few daughters. She was happy for M to be training and racing, which many wives are not. Many a modest racer has been forced to give it up because the wife wants him at home. “At home,” if I understand Lino’s tone of voice, means something like “chained to the wall.”
C, however, was another case. No fishing, no hunting; always to be seen with his father for company. When his father died he latched onto M, and it may not need to be said that he never married. “But he always said ugly things about M’s wife,” Lino recalled with some distaste. M is a good guy and there was no known reason for anyone to say anything bad about her, either. Except maybe (I hypothesized) he might have made a move on her which was rebuffed. “I’ve thought that for years,” Lino replied.
When Lino left the company after some 37 years of service, C became head of the squad, a promotion that would have gone to Lino, but never mind, there it is.
I’m sure Lino could have told me more, but one can’t be writing Russian novels every day. It’s enough to get the highlights, which when they concern people you’ve known since you were 16 can be plenty high enough.
…in the chain, if you will, connecting Venetians to each other. Or to Lino, anyway.
In my post about going to the movies in the old days here, I mentioned Lino’s recollection of the man who stood at the entrance to the cinema Santa Margherita making and selling taffy.
In today’s episode, we were on the 5.1 vaporetto this morning traveling from the “Guglie” to the “Giardini.” Boarding behind us, and sitting in front of us, was a tall, unkempt man in that unmappable region between 70 years old and expiration. He was talking continually to the elderly lady with him in that peculiarly annoying voice that can’t be called LOUD but which everybody on the boat can hear. Or rather, cannot avoid hearing.
After a few stops, they get off. Lino says, “You know who that was?” I don’t bother replying, but wait.
“That was the son of the man who sold the taffy in front of the cinema Santa Margherita.”
The story never ends, it just keeps adding chapters.
Just kidding. Lamentations seem no longer to apply to the spiritual life; if you feel a lamentation coming on, it’s usually related to politics or family members, certainly not to yourself.
But Ash Wednesday (“le ceneri“) is still a crucial day in the Christian calendar, and even though people have become very lax about denying themselves meat today, the day remains a vestigial holiday for the butchers. Those few that remain. Those even fewer who maintain the Old Ways. Of course, the public can still buy all the meat it wants at the supermarkets, so closing the butcher shop is by now just a symbol. But a good one, if you have turned your thoughts toward penance, even for just a minute.
Of course, there’s that famous gap between the letter and the spirit of the law, and I’d like to share an amazing menu for your consideration. It was displayed in an expensive restaurant in Udine right across the street from the Patriarchal Palace and adjoining church, and I supposed that the proprietors might be wanting to look good for the patriarch even though the rank of patriarch is no more, and the archbishop lives a 15-minute walk away.
I have never seen a menu created and advertised as being for Ash Wednesday (I thought bread and water pretty much covered the nutritional options, or at least week-old beans and a frightening lettuce from the back of the fridge). The idea of promoting a day of renunciation with items as listed — EVEN THOUGH THEY DO NOT BREAK ANY RULES (except in spirit) — seems totally in keeping with the zeitgeist, and times being what they are. I mean, there isn’t any clause saying you’re only allowed to eat horrible food. I THINK the notion is that you shouldn’t be wallowing in your food fixations for one little 24-hour cycle in the entire year. But then I think: If the owners were inclined to give such a gracious nod to contrition, they might at least have lowered the prices. Why should the customer always be the one to repent when the bill comes?